12.20.2009

Forever Flowing, by Vasily Grossman

Everything Flows
Forever Flowing
Forever Flowing (also translated as Everything Flows), by Vasily Grossman is not a novel as we normally think of it. There are characters and some things that resemble a plot are in there. But most of the book feels like Grossman ranting, like it's a cathartic release for the author. Grossman, who died of stomach cancer in 1964, was one of those Soviet writers who wouldn't kowtow to the government's idea of what authors should be writing. His books, including the monumental Life and Fate, were banned during his lifetime or forbidden from being printed during his lifetime. During World War II, Grossman was a reporter for Krasnaya Zvezda and followed the Red Army all the way from Stalingrad to Berlin. But Stalin's policies and the twisted regime that grew up around him really bothered Grossman. Considering Grossman's views, he was lucky not to have ended up in Siberia.

So, the book. The novel begins with Ivan Grigoryevich returns from almost thirty years of imprisonment in Siberia. Each chapter sets up a short episode in Ivan's life or in the life of a person he knows. The episodes evolve into extended stream of consciousness (sometimes) explorations in different aspects of life in the post-Stalin Soviet Union. Mostly, these episodes deal with what a psychiatrist might identify as survivor's guilt. One of the first shows Ivan's cousin realizing that, by saying nothing when fellow scientists were denounced and not denouncing anyone else, it doesn't mean that he was guiltless. Instead, he learns the lesson that Edmund Burke wrote about after the French Revolution: "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."

Later in the book, Grossman stages a mock trial of different kinds of informers. One is a person who actually believed that the denunciations were necessary. Another did it for personal gain. The third was afraid not to and named names during an interrogation. The judge and the prosecutor in this Kafka-esque chapter hurl accusations at the three Judases, as Grossman terms them, accusations similar to the ones that Ivan's cousin asked himself. The questions they ask are a lot like the ones we ask now in hindsight. The informers reply:
Your question, for all its seeming surface simplicity, is by no means simple...In actuality, why seek out now those guilty of crimes committed in the Stalinist era? That is like emigrating from the earth to the moon, and then bringing suit over a question of land boundaries on earth...Why are you so determined to expose those like us who are weak? Begin with the state. Try it! After all, our sin is its sin. (80)*
This conversation (or whatever the proper term for these episodes is) is repeated in variations for the course of the book. Almost everyone you meet in Forever Flowing is like that. Before Stalin died in 1953, they all did something that they regret, even if it was just not speaking up when the authorities came for a friend or a relative. The only innocents Grossman introduces us to are the ones that were sent out to the camps, like Ivan Grigoryevich.

Another psychological tangle that Grossman attempts to tease apart is the belief among some of these guilty people that some of them believed that the people they denounced really were criminals, that they were helping the state by spying on their friends and family and reporting anything that could possibly be construed as a violation of the rules of the regime. Grossman reports a short conversation between Ivan and another prisoner who still excused the actions of the government:
"When they chop down the forest, the chops fly, but the Party truth remains the truth and it is superior to my misfortune. And," he went on, pointing to himself, "I myself was one of the chips that flew when the forest was cut down."

And he was nonplussed when Ivan Grigoryevich said to him: "That's where the misfortune lies--in the fact that they're cutting down the forest. Why cut it down?" (105)
It's a question that I don't think I've seen asked in fiction before. All of the other books I've read that are set during Stalin's reign or immediately after his death just accept the Terror. Sure, Stalin and the psychopaths who set it up and ran the show get the blame. And the people who went along with it get some of the blame for not speaking up and stopping their government. But like I said, none of them ask the question about how it got started in the first place. Grossman does try to answer the question of why Soviet Russia happened, mostly by pointing out that there was no time in Russian history when the majority of people were really free. For centuries, most Russians were serfs. Unlike Europe, Russia didn't have a real middle class develop. They skipped whole stages of political development in their rush to communism. Or, as Grossman phrases it, "It is time for those who would understand Russia to understand that a thousand years of slavery have alone created the mystique of the Russian soul" (217).

The entire experience of reading Forever Flowing is utterly depressing. Even during the thaw after Stalin's death, it was still possible to get shipped across the continent to Kolyma for saying the wrong thing. The most heartbreaking thing in this book is probably when Anna, Ivan's love interest, tells Ivan about what happened during the Holodomor** in the early 1930s. The Holodomor was a state engineered famine in Ukraine that killed millions. Grossman reminds us that the camps and the prisons were not the worst of Stalin's crimes.

In all, I suppose, that this book accomplishes two things. First, I firmly believe that this book is a way for Grossman to take all the angry, guilty, and stressful emotions that were no doubt swirling around in his head and get them down on paper where he could start to deal with them. Second, it's a reminder of a time and a place and a people that are incomprehensible here and now. It is probably one of the best books I've reading about the 1950s in Russia and, yes, I have read A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

* All quotations from the 1972 hardcover Harper & Row edition.

** I didn't want to link directly to the Wikipedia article on the Holodomor without putting a warning in front of it. Be warned that this famine was a crime against humanity and reading about the victims breaks my heart. Anyway, here's the link for the curious: Holodomor.

12.13.2009

The Art of Detection, by Laurie R. King

Art of Detection
The Art of Detection
I spent most of today reading Laurie R. King's The Art of Detection, the fifth novel in her Kate Martinelli series. I've been a fan of her Holmes and Russell series for years and, to a lesser extent, of her Martinelli series. Unlike the historical mysteries of Holmes and Russell, the Martinelli series is set in modern day San Francisco. While they are not the best contemporary mysteries I've read, I do enjoy spending time with the character.

Because the reviews and the back of the book mentioned Holmes obliquely, I had high hopes for this novel. I always enjoy when authors link their series together. The highlight of this book definitely was the short story the murder victim that portrays a detective suspiciously like the Holmes of King's other series. It was so interesting, however, that it threatened to overshadow the mystery at the heart of the rest of the book. Well, not so much threatened in my case. It actually was more interesting to me.

The victim of the novel, is a Holmes nut, to the extent that the lowest two floors of his house are a reproduction of a Victorian gentleman's house, even down to having gaslights reinstalled in the building. All the suspects are part of a Sherlockian club. There are clues that turn out to be red herrings or not actually clues at all. The Maltese Falcon was a nice touch, as well as the parallels in the short story to what happened to Martinelli's victim. But when you actually get to the solution, the whodunit, it turns out to be a lot less interesting than it could have been.

I was glad to see the happy ending for Martinelli and her partner Lee at the end, but the end of the mystery felt like a cop out. I read all day, hoping to find out that the criminal behind the murder would be fiendishly clever and that what happened would have been worthy of one of Conan Doyle's stories. It wasn't, and what could have been a fantastic mystery storied turned into more of a ho-hum cozy. In the future, I'm probably going to stick to the Holmes/Russell novels. If another Martinelli novel comes out, I'll just get it from the library if it piques my interest.

Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Fallada

I'm back. What with the non-stop writing in November sucking up most of my free time, I got a little behind on my reading. And then I chose to read a huge book right after, hence the delay in posting. Anyway, I'm back on track with my reading.

Every Man Dies Alone
Every Man Dies Alone
I'd read about Every Man Dies Alone*, by Hans Fallada, in one of the many book review magazines I read for work. Unlike the two rediscovered novels by Irene Nemirovsky, this one sounded like there was some action in it. This book is based on the lives of Otto and Elise Hempel, who started a campaign of sending out letters and postcards with anti-fascist messages on them. They got away with it for almost three years before they were caught. After the war, Fallada was recruited by a German author who'd spent most of the war in Russia. He actually had his hands on the actual Gestapo file for the couple. According to the rather brilliant afterword, Fallada wasn't really interested in writing the story, because the Hempels never really accomplished much with their campaign--just like their fictional counterparts (520**).

Be warned. Spoilers follow.

Geoff Wilkes, who wrote that afterword, goes on to draw the parallel that Fallada is writing about the "banality of good," like Arendt did for evil in Eichmann in Jerusalem (527). But even though the characters lead small lives, Fallada does a lot to show the moral dilemma of the average German. Do you support Hitler? Or do you not? If you do not, what can you go about it. This novel is set in 1940 and 1942-43. By that time, according to the author, Germany had reached a fever pitch of paranoia and denounciations, almost comparable to Russia during the Great Terror. You couldn't talk politics with anyone but trusted family members (if then). You couldn't talk about the war to anyone. Ending up in a rehab clinic or mental institution was often as dangerous as been sent to prison or the concentration camps. If you weren't the Party (the National Social Party, because all other political parties were illegal), you had few opportunities and faced suspicion from the police and other Party members. Von Stauffenberg's and the White Rose's plans was a spectacular exception to the norm. Because everyday Germans were be spied on by other everyday Germans all the time, and because no one wanted to be implicated in anything, it was extremely hard to start anything without getting caught right away. It was so much easier to just keep your head down and pay at least lip service to the regime.

What starts Anna and Otto Quangel (the fictional version of the Hempels) on their small campaign is a letter delivered by local postwoman Eva Kluge informing them that their only son has died in battle in France. Otto, a very quiet man, get the idea first. Oddly, it's not so much that his son has died as that Otto has realized that he can't sit by and say nothing anymore. His idea is to write a postcard a week, sometimes two, and leave them in office and apartment buildings all over Berlin. He imagines that people will pick them up and, out of fear of being caught with them, pass them on to new buildings to start the cycle all over. He believes that he is saying out loud what the majority of people are thinking.

Along the way, we meet a bunch of other characters by chance: Eva's estranged husband and perennial wastrel Enno; the bitter, failed criminal in the basement of the Quangel's building, Borkhausen; the apparatchiks downstairs, the Persickes; and the Quangel's erstwhile daughter-in-law, Trudel. Between an incident involving an elderly Jewish woman upstairs and the postcards, everyone gets swept into the Gestapo's net over the course of the book. Fallada has everyone play a role, no matter how small, and we stay with those characters until the end of the book or their deaths (whichever comes first). Even though, in the scheme of things, no one seems to accomplish much that anyone outside of their small circles of aquaintance notices, it feels like a big story. As events played out, I got more and more worried about the Quangels and Eva Kluge and Trudel. And when they are eventually caught, it's just heartbreaking.

The way that Fallada chose to write this story is pretty damn close to genius. Not only do the characters--in a very natural and believable way--show how ordinary Germans dealt with the ethics and morals of living in an evil regime, but they also show how--given enough scrutiny in this environment--everyone is guilty of something. Once the Gestapo starts looking, they find whatever it is that you want to hide. They can arrest just about anyone on any pretense (again, Party members are protected, as the Persicke plot line illustrates), even being "politically unreliable." In a sense, suspicion is like a virus. Everyone who is even remotely involved gets infected. People who were unlucky enough to be in the building where a card was found are infected. Once the characters are pulled in by the Gestapo, there's no way to get rid of the virus either. In fact, once they get a character in their clutches, they force them to name names and even more people are drawn into the conspiracy, whether they actually knew about it or not.

Books like this one inevitable lead you to wondering what you would have done if you'd lived in German under the Reich. It's easy to condemn ordinary Germans now, almost seventy years after the start of World War II, because we know what Hitler was really up to. What we don't know is what life was like for the people who actually lived it. Fallada's book helps fill that gap and, like any real ethical question, it makes the situation a muddy gray rather than black and white. According to the afterword, showing ordinary people dealing with major events in the world and trying to "stay decent" is a major theme in Fallada's work (513, 523-524). How do you stick to what you know is right and wrong when everything is being twisted, when the world is changing those definitions to fit its own ends? And this is why Fallada wrote about ordinary people who got sick of staying quiet, who spoke their minds, who tried to carry on their lives like they had before, and failed.

While the novel does end with the capture, trial, and deaths of the Quangels, Trudel, and her husband, Fallada did make an attempt to end the book with a note of hope:
But we don't want to end this book with death, dedicated as it is to life, invincible life, life always triumphing over humiliation and tears, over misery and death. (506)
The last chapter takes place in 1946, with a family starting to build a life as Germany gets back on its feet. A boy named Kuno is driving home in a wagon when a figure from his past--Borkhausen, who might be his biological father and who drew the boy into a scheme to track down Enno Kluge during the hunt for the postcard writer--begs him for a ride. When Borkhausen finds out who the kid is, he begs and threatens until Kuno throws him out of the wagon and threatens him to the point where Borkhausen slinks off into the woods. It's not an overly hopeful scene, but it is sympolic of Germany's attempts to move on from its terrible, terrible past.

__

* Granted I don't know all that much about translating German idioms, but the full German title Jeder stirbt fuer sich allein I would translate as Everyone dies for themselves alone. Given the death row conversations the characters have, I think this translation fits better.

** From the hardback edition by Melville House. All citations come from this edition of the book.

11.16.2009

The Girl Who Played With Fire, by Steig Larsson

Girl Who Played With Fire
The Girl Who Played
With Fire
Just like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson takes a while to whip itself into a frenzy. The first 100 pages or so are used to catch the readers up with Mikael Blomkvist and the always fascinating Lisbeth Salander. After the events of Dragon Tattoo, Blomkvist goes back to his magazine and his new status as a celebrity journalist. Salandar takes her stolen rewards and travels around the world. But almost as soon as she gets back to Sweden, the plot takes off.

Three people are killed in one night in Stockholm, and Salander's prints are on the murder weapon. Plus, on the victims was Salandar's bastard of an advokat. Almost immediately, the police latch on to her as a prime suspect. As the incriminating evidence starts to roll in, things start to look more dire for Salander. Blomkvist, Armansky, and the rest of her friends know that she didn't do it and start their own investigations to find the real killer or killers. Larsson made a genius move her by taking Salander out of the story for this section. You don't get her side of the story until later and things start to look really dire for a while. And since everyone is heading in a different direction, following up on different leads, you as the reader are not sure what really happened on the night of the murder.

The truth seems to get further away until some key information from Salander's past comes to light. The mystery turns into a conspiracy that involves the government and the GRU. I'm not going to give anything else away. But I will say that the first 100 pages are a small price to pay for the almost non-stop action of the last 300. The climax of the book is shatteringly exciting and I have to admire Larrson's guts for what he puts his characters through.

What amazes me still is how much I like Lisbeth. I probably shouldn't but I do. She's difficult. She's untrusting. She has almost no social skills. But I still feel protective of her, just like her allies in the book do. Even as she's going out to get revenge, you're rooting for her and hoping like hell she doesn't get caught. Most of all, I hoped that she wouldn't got through with it. I've only known her for two books, I know that it's a line she really shouldn't cross.

And now I have to wait until next year to see what happens next. Argh.

Ghost Ocean, by S.M. Peters

Ghost Ocean
Ghost Ocean
I finished this book last week and actually wrote a post about it, but Wordpress ate it. So, here I go again.

S.M. Peters' Ghost Ocean is a contemporary fantasy that's closer to the fantasy end of the genre than the contemporary part. It's set in a city named St. Ives that could be anywhere in America, but might not be either. There are three plots that weave in and out of each other, but by the final third of the book, things get a little abstract. They could be taking place in St. Ives, the underworld, or in the main characters' heads and it gets really hard to tell what's real and what's just a metaphor.

The first plot centers on Te Evangeline, a young girl who comes to discover that she's at the center of a massive conspiracy. What most people don't know about St. Ives is that it's a prison for supernatural creatures. Te might be the key needed to let them loose again, and there are a number of characters who want her to do just that. Towards the end of the book, she has to decide if it's really humane to keep those creatures locked up or whether its' worth the price of letting them all free.

The second plot follows Evangeline's erstwhile boss, Babu Cherian. Cherian used to be a cop before he ran into something that couldn't be explained by rational science. After that, he becomes a part of a group of people who have the ability to capture and lock up supernatural things. Because of what happened to his brother, Cherian has a deep hatred of supernatural creatures--which causes a rift when Evangeline starts to manifest abilities that aren't strictly human.

The third plot was a little hard to nail down at first, because it's narrated by an 'I.' After a chapter or two, it becomes clear that I is Angreal, a fortune teller who turns out to be a lot more than human by the end of the novel. She's in on the conspiracy, which makes her sections interesting reading. Most of the time, in any book that involves a mystery, the reader doesn't get to see what's happening on the criminal's end of things. You get the investigator's side and you get the pleasure of figuring out what happened along with them.

Ghost Ocean is a very interesting read, but I'm not sure I'm entirely satisfied with it. I really enjoyed the first two thirds, when the plots were pretty grounded in reality and folklore. But when things start to go abstract, it gets hard to determine what's really happening and what's just a vague metaphor for something really, really weird. It's been a week and I still haven't made up my mind. I have another book by Peters, so we'll see if I can make up my mind after that one.

11.08.2009

Darker Angels, by M.L.N. Hanover

Darker Angels
Darker Angels
This sequel to Unclean Spirits is, I think, even better than the first book in the series. In Darker Angels, we meet up with our heroine, Jayne Heller, and her gang about six months after the events of Unclean Spirits. Jayne gets a call from a former colleague of her mysterious uncle asking for help in New Orleans. What follows is one of the best plots I've seen in contemporary fantasy lately. Not only is there a great mystery to be solved, but there's some fascinating incorporation of Louisiana voodoo that had me on Wikipedia for hours after I'd finished the book.

Almost immediately after getting off the plane in New Orleans, Jayne is attacked by an incarnation of Papa Legba and the plot kicks off with a bang (or, more accurately, with a big serpent). Jayne and her crew are swept up in what remains of the voodoo aristocracy with a former FBI agent and plot trips along so fast that there's almost no time for anyone (even the reader) to get their bearings and figure out what's going on. Readers who are more familiar with mysteries might suspect that something is fishy about the situation, but the big plot twist about two thirds of the way into the book is a magnificent shocker.

This book was so good that I wished it would have gone on longer. I look forward to more from M.L.N. Hanover and Jayne Heller. I'd write more about this book, but I don't want to give any thing else away.

On a side note, I apologize for not posting recently. For a week or so, I was rereading old Terry Pratchett novels, which always happens to me after I read his latest. Then I read some fluff that, while entertaining, doesn't really lend itself to posting. And then NaNoWriMo started. I expect the reviewing to be pretty light until the end of November.

10.18.2009

Unseen Academicals, by Terry Pratchett

Unseen Academicals
Unseen Academicals
I always look forward to book by Terry Pratchett, especially the Discworld books, because I know I'm going to have a good time. The books are not only entertaining satires in and of themselves, but I also get to try and chase down the references. In Unseen Academicals, not only is Pratchett lampooning soccer and soccer fans, but he also takes shots at psychoanalysis, Romeo and Juliet, and fashion. It's kind of a messy book, because these lesser targets sometimes steal the stage.

The book starts when the wizards of Unseen University (nunc id vides, nunc non vides*) find out that their funding is in trouble if they don't field a soccer team. One of their bequests had that annoying clause stuck into it. But by this time, soccer has devolved into a street fighting matches between nearly tribal groups in the city. Fans of one team don't mix with the other. And this is where the sadly underused allusion to Romeo and Juliet comes in, when a Dimwell fan falls in love with a Dolly Sisters fan (and vice versa). Parts of the book has the characters trying to come up with rules that mean that they don't have to worry about keeping their teeth or, possibly, death, on the field. This was so well done that I'm closer to understanding the off-side rule than I've ever been. Now if only Pratchett would go after cricket.

The psychology comes into play with another character, an over-educated orc from the hinterlands who has the uncomfortable ability to instantly psychoanalyse people or speculate on the philosophical dimensions of soccer. (The best part of this plot, I think, is when he is forced to analyse himself, complete with Dr. Ruth accent.) I speak some German, but unfortunately not enough to understand the jokes that I know are embedded in the names of the books Nutt cites. The English ones, like The Doors of Deception, is good enough it itself. The fashion satire really just seems tacked on to the whole. It's a little distracting, even though it turned out to be necessary.

Other reviews of this book have pointed out that Pratchett also goes after racism. He does, but he's gone after that in all the rest of his recent books. Some reviewers have seen it as an interruption, but I thought it was incidental. Anytime you get a new "race" in Ankh-Morpork, there's some stereotyping, but people get over it. And the population has been getting over it so much in their recent history that's not such a big deal anymore. One of Pratchett's other books, Thud!, is much more about racism than this one. I read the reviews before I read the book, but as I read, I just didn't see what the critics are making such a fuss about. I just wish that Pratchett had played around more with the Romeo and Juliet motif.

Still, I really enjoyed this books. Everyone is precious, given the author's condition. It will be an unutterably sad day when Pratchett retires his pen (or keyboard or whatever).

* Now you see it, now you don't.

The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell

The Wordy Shipmates
The Wordy Shipmates
I wish I could have experienced this as an audio book. Not just because Sarah Vowell is a very entertaining and erudite speaker, but because the book is written in such a way that it feels like you're having a long conversation with the author. The Wordy Shipmates is an informal history of the Puritans who arrived in Massachusetts in the 1630s and 1640s, after the Pilgrims and the Jamestown colonists. Vowell's history revolves around John Winthrop, on the first governors of the Massachusetts colony, and his struggles with trying to create a "city on a hill" while dealing with rightfully angry natives, fanatical and not so fanatical Puritans, and the harshness of the climate.

Vowell makes repeated allusions to how little we Americans know about our history and how erroneous our view of the Puritans is. Years of movies and books about the Salem Witch Trials would give anyone a dim view of that bunch of immigrants. What surprised me was the evidence that the Puritans were highly educated (about Christianity and its theology) and that one of the first things they did after their got their farms and towns up and running was to found a university, Harvard, in 1636. They weren't a grim bunch of nutters living in the paranoid fear that someone, somewhere, was having a good time. Sure, they probably wouldn't have been the funnest bunch of people to hang out with, but they weren't superstitious morons either.

And boy, did they like to argue! A big chunk of the book has to do with the ongoing arguments between Roger Williams (who, after his big mouth got him banished, founded the colony of Rhode Island) and Winthrop.  For Williams, the colony wasn't radical enough. Williams was a separatist and so religious that, in Jon Stewart's words (more or less), the other Puritans thought he should cool it. But at the same time, Williams also believed in religious freedom and a strong division between the Church and the State. If he hadn't been such a jerk, I would probably have admired him for those ideas. Anne Hutchinson, for other reasons, got into similar trouble with the colony's leaders. Her problem, however, was that she believed that women ought to have the right to opine on religious matters and that, in a nutshell, people could have a personal relationship with God and that they could achieve salvation. This may not seem like a big deal unless you know about the Puritans' soul-gnawing belief in predestination (and maybe not even then). If you're not religious, it's hard to see what people get so worked up about. Hutchinson eventually got kicked out and headed to Rhode Island, as well.

Another thing that Vowell meditates on is what it really means to be a Puritan country. She rightly states that most people use that phrase to say that Americans are prudish or pigheaded about their opinions or think they are superior to other countries. Vowell traces the idea of American exceptionalism back to some of the things that the Puritans believed. First, Winthrop and others believed that they were headed over to "help" the native population. Second, Winthrop wanted to create a "city on a hill" that would be a beacon to other countries. Their colonies and, later, America, were special. They weren't about making money or politics (according to the Puritans if not the king who signed the charter or the merchants who no doubt bankrolled the project), but it was about creating a haven for fellow believers. It was a way to escape the dominion of Archbishop William Laud so that they could practice in their own way.

When I first learnt my American history, this was where I started to get the idea that the colonies (with the exceptions of Virginia and Georgia) were founded for religious freedom. When I got older and into the more advanced and nuanced interpretations of history, I learned that this meant religious freedom only for members of the original faith and no one else. Just like other nations, we look to our past (sometimes) to find inspiration and a mission. But unlike other nations, America was created on purpose and didn't just evolve on its own. We had blueprints that are filled with high-minded ideals that we strive to live up to. It's no small wonder that we think we're special. The Wordy Shipmates is a great lesson in history, but also an opportunity to examine the origin of those ideals.

10.10.2009

Sandman Slim, by Richard Kadrey

Sandman Slim
Sandman Slim
I think this book is what Jim Butcher's books are trying to be: urban fantasy noir. At least in my mind. I couldn't get through the first Harry Dresden book no matter what I tried. It's got more in common with Mike Carey's novels than anyone else I've seen it compared to so far. This book is dark in the ways that the best Raymond Chandler stories are, but with the added bonus of magic and angels and demons and other fantastical weirdness. And the dames are anything but helpless. Plus, it's set in Los Angeles. Sandman Slim, by Richard Kadrey, is about revenge. Our anti-hero escapes from Hell (yup, that Hell), and goes after the people who put him there.

Stark, our anti-hero, is the first human to survive Hell. Anytime anyone tries to kill him, Stark just gets harder to kill. Before he leaves Hell, Stark becomes Sandman Slim, "the monster the other monsters are afraid of." Back on Earth, Stark starts his quest for revenge by finding the weakest member of his old magic Circle and uses the guy's head as a source of information on the other members of the Circle and, for the readers, unintentional comic relief. But as Stark starts trying to pick off the members of the Circle, they start dying before he can get his hands on them. Before he realizes it, Stark is caught up in a war between the angels and a previously unknown (to Stark) race of supernatural beings who are addicted to chaos.

This twist in the plot is, as far as I know, original in fiction. It takes some of its inspiration from the idea of divine sparks (nitzotzot, if I'm being pedantic) and the Breaking of the Vessels out of Jewish mysticism, but goes somewhere I've never seen before. I love it when a plot does something that I can't work out in advance. Stark, like the anti-hero he is, pursues his revenge and his plans to rescue his few friends in spite of a conspiracy that could mean not only the end of the world as we know it, but also Heaven and Hell. Along the way, Kadrey introduces us to all sorts of fascinating characters: an immortal French alchemist, a vampire-like creature who's trying to stop eating humans, a branch of Homeland Security that's helping Heaven fight its seventy thousand year war against chaos. I am so looking forward to what Kadrey comes up with in his next endeavors.

Sandman Slim was a hell of a lot of fun to read. It kept surprising me and entertaining me, all at the same time. I had such a good time that I just kept reading it this morning until I finished it. I didn't even bother getting out of my PJs until I was done, it was that good. The only reason I stopped reading last night was because I couldn't keep my eyes open. The last two hundred pages just grabbed my attention and didn't let go until I was finished.

10.08.2009

The Devil's Food Dictionary, by Barry Foy

Devils Food Dictionary
The Devil's Food
Dictionary
This book is a must read for foodies with a sense of humor. Hell, if you're a foodie without a sense of humor, you need to read Barry Foy's The Devil's Food Dictionary anyway. It's a collection definitions of food and cooking terms with hilariously satirical definitions. Plus, there are great running gags about chick peas, barbecue, and crispy, fried things in a bag.

I enjoyed it so much that I read this book in three sittings, and was really tempted to stay up on Monday just to finish it. (But I learned my lesson on Sunday when I stayed up reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.) As I read, I was glad that I watched all those hours of the Food Network. A lot of the humor derives from what the terms actually mean or from culinary history. A few times, I admit, I had to go to Wikipedia to check things, because this book is subtitled A Pioneering Culinary Reference Work Consisting Entirely of Lies.

People who talked to me earlier this week got treated to recitations of some of my favorite definitions, like:
Beer...The ancient Egyptians, too, were fond of beer, and the beers of the Nile region were famous for their potency. A batch served at a going-away party for the Hebrews left that venerable people wandering helplessly around a smallish patch of desert for some forty years (20).

Marinade...Marinating can last anywhere from less than an hour, as in some Asian dishes, to decades, as was the case with the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (134).

Second Coming, The The sell-by date on a can of spam (195).
Oh, and there's a great health food to normal food conversion chart on page 87 that's just priceless.

This is one of the most entertaining books I've read this year.

10.05.2009

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Steig Larrson

Girl with the dragon Tattoo
The Girl with the
Dragon Tattoo
Well, now I understand what all the hubbub was about. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is, quite simply, amazing. There are no less than three endings in this book, and I was up until 1:00 in the morning reading until I found out how it all played out. This is a book that rewards patient readers. It did take a little bit of effort to get through the first hundred pages or so, and I had to trust that Larsson would eventually get around to the action. The wait was absolutely worth it, and I spent more than four hours glued to this book as I read the second two thirds of the book. It was amazing, and the tiredness this morning was worth it.

The novel opens with Mikael Blomqvist having his sentence for libel handed down: a fine and some jail time. His crime was to run a story without the sources to back it up, accusing a heap big CEO of using taxpayer money to run a scheme. In order to save his magazine, Millennium, Blomqvist quits (at least publicly). He is approached by a lawyer for a former CEO of a dying company to write a family biography but also to, secretly, find out what happened to the CEO's niece in the summer of 1966. On the promise of a couple million kroner and proof that the libeled CEO really was a crook are enough to persuade Blomqvist to stick around and investigate. As the evidence starts to play out and new evidence comes to light, the story really starts to get going.

In the meantime, Larsson introduces us to an utterly remarkable character: Lisbeth Salander. Reading through the first hundred pages of set up was worth it for the glimpses we got of Salander. In most mysteries, the main investigator is a law enforcement official, a cop, a PI, a lawyer. But Blomqvist is an investigative financial journalist. Salandar is a freelance investigator for a private security company and a hacker. Blomqvist has professional ethics guiding his actions. But Salander has her own rules of right and wrong. Watching her execute her brand of justice at the end of the book (twice!) was incredible. This book does not end like a regular mystery, and I relished the originality of it.

Not only is this book a cracking read because of the action, the chases, the near escapes, and the twisted crimes that come to light, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is about ethics and justice and misogyny. The sections of the book are punctuated by statistics about crimes against women in Sweden. Salander's private dramas and revenges act like bold face and italics on that point. On the one hand, you're glad that Salandar's situation works out and that the wrongdoer was punished, but you also wish that the crime had never happened to her in the first place.

Meanwhile, Blomqvist has to wrestle with what he's going to do with the information that he and Salander uncovered. Publishing would destroy a family and a victim, but is it right to conceal what he knows? Was there justice for the victims? Was it enough? The ending to that plot thread is a little unsatisfying in that there is probably nothing that the legal system can do to make up for the crimes of the guilty parties. Maybe vigilante justice was the only way to go. This book will leave any reader with questions that are probably unanswerable for a long time. (My favorite kind of book.) As for ending number two, when both Salander and Blomqvist take their revenges on the libeled CEO, that was completely satisfying, even if big parts of it were illegal. And ending number three is heartbreakingly sad and made me wish that there was a 24 hour library or bookstore around, because I really want to read the next book the series.

9.26.2009

An Echo in the Bone, by Diana Gabaldon

An Echo in the Bone
An Echo in the Bone
An Echo in the Bone, by Diana Gabaldon, is the seventh novel in the continuing adventures of Jamie and Claire Fraser. This time, they are facing the start of the American Revolution, spies, warring armies, vengeful ex-wives, press gangs, and other eighteenth century dangers. I've been waiting for this book since 2005, when I finished the last entry in the series, A Breath of Snow and Ashes. I can tell you that this this book was worth the wait, in spite of some of its problems.

The draw of these books is--and always has been--the story of Jamie and Claire. Their love story is so amazing (and complicated) that it makes these books hard to classify into one genre or another. I've seen the books in Romance, Fiction, and Fantasy. But the characters are so interesting to watch that I frequently re-read the series just to see it all play out again. Since book four, though, other characters have started to take stage time away from the Frasers. And the problem is that I don't care about them as much. I'm not as invested in seeing what happens to them or watching their problems get worked out.

The first half of An Echo in the Bone is mostly about these peripheral characters, in particular William Ransom (Jamie's illegitimate son) and Lord John Grey (William's adoptive father). William is part of the British Army under General Burgoyne and Grey is involved in a scheme with French spies. As you read, you pick up clues as to what's really going on. But, being an American with some knowledge of my country's history, this tangential stuff is not as interesting to me as seeing my favorite characters at Fort Ticonderoga and the battles of Saratoga. Unfortunately, the story didn't get that far until about 400 pages in. I was very tempted to skip through the parts that didn't interest me. Really tempted. I stuck with it, though, because I know that every clue and bit of plot will come back to play later in the story. At least I got more page-time with my favorite characters after we crossed the halfway mark.

Though I have some mixed feeling about the book (it is not the best in the series), what I did enjoy was the level of historical detail. That's part of the reason these books take so long to write. I can't imagine how many books and articles Gabaldon has read since she started writing these books. The chapters are so backed with details about smells and customs and tastes and language and textures that you feel like you're there in the action. Claire's medical exploits in particular are fascinating. It's amazing what this character can do with limited resources, like remove adenoids and embedded bullets with homemade ether.

What really ticked me off about this book, though, was the ending. It's just a cliffhanger. Normally, these books wrap themselves up pretty neatly. Sure, there are events and concepts that will act as catalysts for the plot in the next book. But the books don't just stop in the middle of the action. I'm okay with cliffhanger chapters, but not at the friggin' end of an 800 page book. Oy. And now I have to wait another three years for the next installment. After this book, I have to wonder where Gabaldon is going with this series. There are more characters and more plots, and I can't help but think that she's starting to move away from the essence of the story.

9.20.2009

The Manual of Detection, by Jedidiah Barry

Manual of Detection
The Manual of Detection
Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection is, frankly, a weird book. It's complicated in that there are plots inside of conspiracies. There are multiple motives and the characters acting them out are hard to understand. It's set in a nameless city that's policed by an Agency of detectives. It's like being inside a Christie novel, one of those old-style mysteries where the characters' motives and methods are all a little outlandish and unreal and sometimes it seems like the mysteries happen for their own sake.

Charles Unwin, a clerk at the Agency, finds himself mysteriously prompted to detective with a dead watcher. Before he can get his feet under him, Unwin is investigating a case that gets weirder by the moment. The ending is hugely complicated, with all the mysteries coming together. It's actually a little hard to keep track of everyone at that point. And it doesn't help that Unwin has no idea how to be a detective. He's given the eponymous Manual, but he never has a chance to read it and learn its lessons. Moreover, for a good part of the beginning, Unwin tries to get his promotion reversed because he thinks that his promotion was the result of a clerical error somewhere in the Agency's chain of command.

At the end, it is revealed that the criminals and the detectives are playing out their roles as agents of anarchy and order (not evil and good). The Agency needs the criminals, or else they would be out of work. The criminals need their organization, the Carnival, to stay organized. I hate to give away the big secret, so I'll just say that the genesis of Unwin's mystery is the result of the big bad upsetting the balance between the two, with third and fourth parties trying to restore the balance and sneak in a little revenge. It's an interesting idea, but I still felt like I needed a spreadsheet to keep track of everyone.

9.16.2009

We Bought a Zoo, by Benjamin Mee

We Bought a Zoo
We Bought a Zoo
Last night I read a book I've been meaning to read since I read a review earlier this spring: We Bought a Zoo, by Benjamin Mee. As the title suggests, it's about a family who, finding themselves in possession of a spare 1.2 million pounds, decided to buy a declining zoo in Devon. Through a lot of hard work and a lot of worry, the Mee family managed to resurrect the Dartmoor Zoological Park and even become the subject of a reality TV series. It was a crazy idea, but they pulled it off.

The book starts with Mee reminiscing about his family's time in Languedoc in the south of France. One day, his sister sent him a realtor's ad for a zoo in Devon. Other offers came in, but most of them involved plans to sell off the animals and turn the land into something else. The Mees sold the family house and negotiated loans to get their hands on the property. (It's not that easy. The negotiations and the sale take up almost half of the book. Their first bid was actually rejected.) On top of all the legal and financial wrangling, they have to figure out how to take care of the more than 200 (mostly) exotic animals and turn the place into a successful business. Besides all the real estate stuff, the family also has to bring the exhibits and the zoo restaurant up to code. If anything had gone seriously wrong, this exercise could have turned into the Money Pit with monkeys in a hurry.

Even though Mee is an experienced author--he used to be a columnist--this book doesn't really read like a traditional, organized book. It's more like having a conversation with Mee. He meanders from topic to topic. I wished, though, that there were more animal stories. It's a zoo, for crying out loud. There are great stories about escaping jaguars and tranquilizer-proof tigers. The Day of the Dentist is an amazing little vignette in exotic veterinary medicine. And my favorite animal fact was when  Mee shared that, unlike other raptors, caracaras like to run down their prey like "mini T-rexes" (86). But, like I said, most of the book is about getting the zoo back on its feet financially and legally. Weird, really. As far as I'm concerned, zoos are all about the animals.

One of the major themes of the book, and one of the most enjoyable, is about how zoos went from a place where animals were exhibited for the entertainment of humans to a place where reintroduction efforts and breeding programs are launched. Mee writes that even as recently as the 1970s, zoo keepers and biologists didn't think that breeding programs were viable options. He writes about successful programs and important people, and I ended up spending an instructive half hour learning about Przewalski's horses and Mauritius kestrels. It's bittersweet reading. On the one hand, I feel glad that an animal that might have disappeared forever gets to survive. But then, I feel unutterably sad that the species' situation got to that point.

My verdict on this book is that it's a very enjoyable read. It could have been better, but it was a lot of fun to picture all the Mees running around with their staff putting the zoo back in order.

9.14.2009

The Walking Dead, Book I, by Robert Kirkman

The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead
And so I go from seeing worlds built up to watching them fall apart. Last night, I started reading the first collection of episodes in the Walking Dead series. The purpose of this series is not just to tell a kick-ass zombie story, but to tell one that doesn't end. Kirkman writes in his afterword that the thing he hates most about zombie movies is that they end. He always wanted to see what happens to the survivors after the credits rolled.

The beginning is a little derivative, as it starts pretty much the same way that 28 Days Later does, with the main character waking up in a deserted hospital after waking from a coma. Rick Grimes is a former small town cop who realizes that his family is missing, and that everyone left in the hospital and the town has turned into a zombie (Romero-style, not Boyle-style*). He find a pair of survivors who tell him that the last they heard, people were supposed to gather in the cities and that his family has probably headed to Atlanta to wait for a cure. When he arrives, as you'd expect if you've ever seen a zombie movie or read a zombie novel, that everyone in the city is dead. He meets a scavenger that leads him back to a camp where (surprise!), Rick finds his wife and young son. From that point on, Rick, his family, and the other survivors travel from place to place, trying to find a place to settle down and live in peace.

The art is a very stylish black and white, which I appreciate. There's zombies about every five pages or so, on average, so if they did it in color the book would be covered in red and gore. It also harkens back to the original Night of the Living Dead.

I'm looking forward to the next books in the series, but I need to wait for the publishers to print more copies because Amazon seems to have run out of copies for the time being.

----

* Romero-style zombies: slow-moving zombies, created by unknown causes but allegedly because "there's no more room in Hell for the dead." From the Night of the Living Dead series.

Boyle-style zombies: fast, aggressive zombies that were possible created by a virus or something. Still alive, but very hard to put down. From the 28 Days Later series.

The Sword of the Lady, by S.M. Stirling

Sword of the Lady
The Sword of the Lady
So, the continuing saga of characters in a world where electricity, steam powder, and explosive chemical reactions don't work. The Sword of the Lady is the sixth book in this series, and the third to feature the second generation of people living after the radical change in physics that resulted in the end of civilization as we know it. The first trilogy, about the first generation, was much more rooted in survival and politics. In the second trilogy, fantasy starts to creep in. Rudi and Co., the forces of Good, etc. are still chasing after a prophesied sword that will allegedly help them defeat an overwhelming and terrifying enemy. Like the previous book, though, most of this book describes Rudi and his companions trip across what used to be the United States. Which I think is the best part of the series, because you get to see the little nations that have sprung up in the twenty-odd years since the event.

We pick up the story in the former state of Iowa, now a provisional republic. After returning a cartload of salvaged artwork, Rudi and his group head northeast to Wisconsin. As they travel, they fend off attacks and plots by agents of a separatist cult that's set up show in Montana and eastern Idaho. I will say one thing for Stirling, he's great at creating monolithic and frightening enemies that you think would be unbeatable. When we get glimpses of what's happening back in Rudi's homeland, things just look bleaker and bleaker. The enemy outnumber Rudi's family and their allies, and they're using otherworldly weapons to cheat. On the one hand, you want Rudi to linger so that you can learn more about customs and things and on the other, you want him to get his pigsticker and hightail it back to Oregon to lend a hand.

I think my favorite part of this book is when Rudi and his gang stumble upon a tribe of Neo-Norse in what was formerly Maine. This tribe has another dose of founder's effect and has taken on the beliefs and ideas of the people who kept them from starving during the Change. (I'm pretty sure there's a term for this, but I've forgotten what it is.) And since a significant chunk of my own family comes from Scandinavia, it was good to see people going a-viking again.

There's another book planned for this, with a duology to follow (according to Wikipedia), but there's so much to get through that I don't know how Stirling is going to wrap it all up. I mean, it took two books to get from one coast to another. How is he going to get back and kick some bad guy tuchus in one book?

People who know my reading habits know that I like to watch things fall apart in fiction, but I also like to see how things put themselves back together again. In this installment of the series, a lot of the older characters remark that the younger generations think differently than they do. One of them put it well when he said that rather than trying to live up to legends, the younger generation are actually living them out again. (I can't find the exact quote, otherwise I'd put in a page number here.) But it is rather amazing to see people taking the trappings of ideas and beliefs and use them to cobble people together into communities and then to see the younger generation actually believing it all. The older generation remark that they're more reflective, that they think more about thinking (another phrase I can't source from the book), but they forget to mention that they're a lot more cynical than the younger people. They profess to believe, but they don't really. It's an interesting sociological experiment, to say the least.

The downside--apart from some typographical errors--is that I have to wait another year to see what happens next. Nuts.

9.12.2009

The Secret History of Moscow, by Ekaterina Sedia

Secret History of Moscow
The Secret History
of Moscow
The Secret History of Moscow, by Ekaterina Sedia, is just the sort of book that I love. It's got folklore. It's got an original plot. And, it's set in Russia. The story centers on two main characters: Galina, who is trying to find her disappeared sister, and Fyodor, a street artist with a terrible fear of gypsies. Galina's story starts first when she suspects that her sister has turned into a jackdaw. (Stay with me. I told you about the folklore, didn't I?) Fyodor's begins when he discovers a way into underground Moscow and shows Galina and her cop ally in to try and locate the erstwhile sister.

That's when the story gets really interesting.

It seems that for centuries, bits of Russia's history have been hiding out underneath Moscow. Old gods, refugees from the NKVD and its incarnations, characters out of folklore, soldiers who fought against Napoleon's troops in 1812, and even a former member of the Golden Horde. They're all there, mingling and reminiscing and living. It's a fascinating setting. Unlike a lot of books where I'm left wanting more detail, Sedia gives the minor characters a chance to tell their stories. So you get to learn how a Tatar gains refuge among Russians and a Decembrist's wife makes friends with rusalki. Fortunately, the plot lives up to the premise.

Galina & Co. travel across the underground seeking answers. It turns out that two malevolent mischief makers (One-Eyed Likho and Zlyden*) have been giving magic to thugs on the surface to cause trouble. The ending is a little chaotic, because the surface world and the underground start to overlap each other in a forest called Kolomenskoye. It gets hard to keep track of where people are and who is rescuing who.

The ending of the book is nothing short of magical. Even though most of the book is a remixing of Russian folklore, the end gets back to those roots. It comes down to magic and poetic sacrifice and it was a perfect ending to this fractured fairytale.

----

*Zlyden is not listed in Wikipedia or the Encyclopedia Mythica. I Googled him, but I didn't want to wade through links to people's MySpace pages to get to actual stories about the little gnome.

9.03.2009

I, Lucifer, by Glen Duncan

I, Lucifer
I, Lucifer
Glenn Duncan's I, Lucifer is the latest book to try and tell the Devil's story from his own perspective. The premise of this short novel is that God gives Lucifer another chance at forgiveness. If he can live as a mortal for a month without committing any hell-worthy sins, Lucifer can join the heavenly host. As you might expect, Lucifer decides to use his month to a) tell his side of the story and b) work his way through all the venal sins.

This novel features some turns of theology I've seen before in novels. (Most in Lamb and Good Omens, but still.) Examples: humans think up and perform most of the evil without so much as an infernal nudge and that everything is part of the ineffable plan. The parts of the book where Lucifer talks about his rebellion and the Garden of Eden are probably the best parts of the book. A lot of the rest, unfortunately, is  taken up with Lucifer's binging and whinging. This novel could have used a lot more plot, I think. A good idea can only sustain a novel so far. Towards the end, I admit that I had to skip a few pages just to get to the point of it all.

This book, I should note, is not a "Sympathy for the Devil" situation. (That would have been pretty interesting actually.) It's just a chance to look at the Fall from a different perspective. It's not so much pride that leads to the Fall so much as independent thought, taking time away from praising God to think about yourself. Personally, I don't think this is such a bad thing. The Old Testament God was not a fun entity to be around, what with the punitive Shake 'n' Bake every other Book. But that's free will for you. You have to take the bad with the good and have the guts to do what you think is right.

But this premise has been done better elsewhere. Milton, for example, in Paradise Lost, give Lucifer this speech in book one:
[Lucifer]: and till then who knew
The force of those dire Arms? yet not for those
Nor what the Potent Victor in his rage
Can else inflict do I repent or change,
Though chang'd in outward lustre; that fixt mind
And high disdain, from sence of injur'd merit,
That with the mightiest rais'd me to contend,
And to the fierce contention brought along
Innumerable force of Spirits arm'd
That durst dislike his reign, and me preferring,
His utmost power with adverse power oppos'd
In dubious Battel on the Plains of Heav'n,
And shook his throne. What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
That Glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deifie his power
Who from the terrour of this Arm so late
Doubted his Empire, that were low indeed,
That were an ignominy and shame beneath
This downfall; since by Fate the strength of Gods
And this Empyreal substance cannot fail,
Since through experience of this great event
In Arms not worse, in foresight much advanc't,
We may with more successful hope resolve
To wage by force or guile eternal Warr
Irreconcileable, to our grand Foe,
Who now triumphs, and in th' excess of joy
Sole reigning holds the Tyranny of Heav'n.
So spake th' Apostate Angel.
(Book One, I'd give you the lines, but I can't be bothered to count them).
Duncan's Lucifer can't compete with this, even discounting the language. Then end was pretty good, actually. But I think this story might have worked better as a short story or a novella, because the beginning was interesting and well done, and the ending was much better than the cop out it could have been. It was just all that stuff in the middle that didn't seem to serve a purpose. The problem was that the narrator kept digressing and wandering away from the point. The entire Declan Gunn plot just seemed superfluous. (And the name really made me wonder if the character was really an Anti Sue, as opposed to a Mary Sue.) I didn't care about the character at all, and the more I heard about him, the less I cared.

Coincidentally, I got a copy of Religulous today from Netflix, so I've been thinking about belief and religion for a few hours now (and probably will be for a while). All things considered, I would agree with the idea that there's no Devil and that Sartre was right when he said that hell was other people. We have free will, and we can't blame the Devil for the shit that we get up to. I don't know about the ineffable plan, though. (And if anyone thinks this is a cry for some proselytizing, I'll consider those comments to be spiritual spam. I am happy with my current afterlife plan, thank you.)

8.30.2009

The List, 2008-2009

So, here's what I've read since this time last year:
  1. The Devil You Know, by Mike Carey
  2. Christopher Durang Explains It All For You, by Christopher Durang
  3. The Scourge of God, by S.M. Stirling
  4. The Broken Window, by Jeffrey Deaver
  5. Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith
  6. Witch Fire, by Anya Bast
  7. Witch Blood, by Anya Bast
  8. The Living Dead, ed. By John Joseph Adams
  9. Vicious Circle, by Mike Carey
  10. The Reapers, byJohn Connolly
  11. Night Shift, by Lilith Saintcrow
  12. Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
  13. X-Rated Bloodsuckers, by Mario Avecedo
  14. Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin
  15. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
  16. Dead Until Dark, by Charlaine Harris
  17. Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood
  18. Mendoza in Hollywood, by Kage Baker
  19. Swallowing Darkness, Laurell K. Hamilton
  20. The Graveyard Game, by Kage Baker
  21. The Life of the World to Come, by Kage Baker
  22. Day by Day Armageddon, by J.L. Bourne
  23. Twilight, by Stephanie Meyer
  24. New Moon, by Stephanie Meyer
  25. Eclipse, by Stephanie Meyer
  26. Breaking Dawn, by Stephanie Meyer
  27. Pandemonium, by Daryl Gregory
  28. Hunter's Prayer, by Lilith Saintcrow
  29. The Hero of Ages, by Brandon Sanderson
  30. The White Guard, by Mikhail Bulgakov
  31. Kitty and the Midnight Hour, by Carrie Vaughn
  32. Kitty Goes to Washington, by Carrie Vaughn
  33. Kitty Takes a Holiday, by Carrie Vaughn
  34. Kitty and the Silver Bullet, by Carrie Vaughn
  35. Cell, by Stephen King
  36. The Accidental Time Machine, by Joe Haldeman
  37. The Nameless Day, by Sara Douglass
  38. The Wounded Hawk, by Sara Douglass
  39. Stolen, by Kelley Armstrong
  40. Dime Store Magic, by Kelley Armstrong
  41. Industrial Magic, by Kelley Armstrong
  42. The Crippled Angel, by Sara Douglass
  43. Broken, by Kelley Armstrong
  44. Hammer & Tickle, by Ben Lewis
  45. Darkly Dreaming Dexter, by Jeff Lindsay
  46. Fool, by Christopher Moore
  47. Service Included, by Phoebe Damrosch
  48. Plague of the Dead, by Z.A. Recht
  49. White Witch, Black Curse, by Kim Harrison
  50. Dead to the World, by Charlaine Harris
  51. Dead as a Doornail
  52. Definitely Dead
  53. Patient Zero, by Jonathan Maberry
  54. Bloodring by Faith Hunter
  55. Seraphs by Faith Hunter
  56. Gilgamesh by Joan London
  57. Host, by Faith Hunter
  58. It Sucked and Then I Cried, by Heather B. Armstrong
  59. Thank You for Smoking, by Christopher Buckley
  60. Pride and Predjudice and Zombies, by Seth Grahame-Smith
  61. Dead and Gone, by Charlaine Harris
  62. Blue Poppies, by Jonathan Falla
  63. The Skull Mantra, by Eliot Pattison
  64. Staying Dead, by Laura Anne Gilman
  65. Gone Tomorrow, by Lee Child
  66. Curse the Dark, by Laura Anne Gilman
  67. The Welsh Girl, by Peter Ho Davies
  68. The Secret Speech, by Tom Rob Smith
  69. Skin Trade, by Laurell K. Hamilton
  70. Warbreaker, by Brandon Sanderson
  71. Naamah's Kiss, by Jacqueline Carey
  72. Let the Right One In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist
  73. Finger Lickin' Fifteen, by Janet Evanovich
  74. The Forsaken: The American Emigration to Soviet Russia, by Tim Tzouliadis
  75. Language of Bees, by Laurie R. King
  76. Flood, by Stephen Baxter
  77. The Strain, by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan
  78. Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
  79. Elantris, by Brandon Sanderson
  80. Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, by Mary Roach
  81. The Defector, by Daniel Silva
  82. Santa Olivia, by Jacqueline Carey
  83. World War Z, by Max Brooks
  84. Harry Potter and the Socerer's Stone, by J.K. Rowling
  85. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J.K. Rowling
  86. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowling
  87. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J.K. Rowling
  88. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J.K. Rowling
  89. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling
  90. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling
  91. Dead Men's Boots, by Mike Carey
  92. Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
  93. The City & The City, by China Miéville
  94. Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, by Jonathan L. Howard
  95. The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

The Magicians
The Magicians
Lev Grossman's The Magicians is part Harry Potter and part Chronicles of Narnia with a liberal dose of melancholy poured over the top. Rather than having a friendly giant deliver the news on his eleventh birthday, Quentin Coldwater gets the news from the Dean of a magic college after missing an interview to get into Princeton. Quentin is a honors student who, in his words, never got over a fantasy series he read as a kid.

Right away, Quentin has a pass an exam that he hasn't studied for. Every student has had that dream, when you have to take a massive exam for a class you haven't attended. I've asked around about this so I know it's true. The funny thing is that everyone has a different exam. Most people dream about some heinous mathematics class. I always had to write a paper about post-Marxist Feminist Deconstructive interpretations of a text I'd never read. See? Nightmare! Anyway, Quentin somehow manages to pass and embarks on four and a half years of intense magical education. Harry Potter does get mentioned in this novel, but Grossman deliberate takes the fun out it. He takes out the humor, the wands, and the joy. It's just a slog and only people with lots of intelligence and a certain detail-oriented personality can get through it.

For a while I was afraid that this book just going to be a catalog of a school experience. But once Quentin and his class graduates, the novel morphs into a dissolute modern piece. Quentin joins up with his friends who graduated the year before, squats in an apartment, and starts trying to drink himself to death. Since I've never been much into the spoiled depressed kids type of novel, I started to get really disappointed here.

Fortunately, that part doesn't last long. Another classmate shows up and informs Quentin's group that they could travel to another world. Specifically, they can travel to the world in Quentin's favorite childhood books. I kind of had to roll my eyes at that part, because it was really clear what the origins of these settings and ideas and plots was. Harry Potter and Narnia. Oy. But by this time, I was already halfway through the book and figured I might as well finish it. Yesterday was a slow day and I didn't have anything else to do. What the hell.

So, I read on. Quentin et al get to travel around in a Narnia-like world. They end up on a quest for four crowns, just like the Pevensie kids. Only one of them really takes it seriously, and Quentin is just along for the ride. On the plus side, the story does get more interesting because the characters are not children (in spite of some their behavior). By this point, it was also clear that I was not getting the story from the hero's perspective. You could read him as sort of an analogue of Edmund Pevensie, who's a bit of a brat until he sucks it up and grows up.

SPOILERS AHEAD

You've been warned.

After defeating the Big Bad, there's a denouement where Quentin swears off magic. He takes a job at some sort of corporation where he doesn't have to do anything except collecting pay checks. At the very end of the book, Quentin's friends come to collect him and drag him back into the magical world.

See what I mean about melancholy? And Quentin being a tagalong?

END SPOILERS

I read on a book blog (Omnivoracious, I think) that Grossman is starting a sequel to this. So the question for me is, should I read the next book? Do I care enough about Quentin to keep reading? I think I might. It would be really easy to dismiss this novel as purely derivative. It's not even ashamed of being derivative. Hermione Granger actually gets mentioned by name at one point. So, you have to chose not to read it as a purely original work. You have to have a working knowledge of the Harry Potter and Narnia series to understand it. The Magicians is a work of meta-fantasy, I think. I mentioned before that Grossman replaced the joy with melancholy. The thing about those source books is that they're for kids and about kids. They have innocence. The Magicians is about what would happen if magic was taught to people in their twenties rather than kids. And Grossman is probably right about what would happen. Most of the students would fritter their gifts away. Some would be altruistic, but not enough of them. Fortunately, there aren't that many of them and most of them aren't aggressive. Otherwise, it would be an entirely different world.

Also, it's hard to read a book about that tries to do all that plus be a coming of age novel. It's also about Quentin learning to be a real grown up. He's not a hero. He's a nerd who can do magic and who is waiting for happiness to arrive. So that's a bit irritating, but it's also the source of all the literary melancholy that elevates this book from pure genre fiction.

This doesn't really answer the question, though. Would I read the sequel? I might, but only out of curiosity, not because I especially care about the characters.

8.29.2009

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, by Jonathan L. Howard

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer
Johannes Cabal the
Necromancer

I've been waiting a while for a Faust character to pop back up in fiction. Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, I have to say, fit the bill nicely. Cabal bartered away his soul to the Devil for the powers of necromancy. Classic selling the soul for unknown knowledge and powers. He even gets followed around by a devil who tries to make life difficult for him. Eight years later, he goes tries to get it back. In the name of science, no less. Turns out that his powers are hit and miss and he thinks having his soul back will fix that little problem. The Devil agrees, but only if Cabal can get 100 souls in exchange for his own. Classic wager with the Devil stuff.

But what really struck me about this book was its sense of humor. I haven't checked, but I'm pretty sure the author is British because his has this hilarious run a metaphor into the ground style. For example, rather than encountering a pit of fire, this is what the damned encounter on arrival, according to Howard:
Lots of forms. Stacks of forms. An average of nine thousand, seven hundred, and forty-seven of them were required to gain entrance to Hell. The largest form ran to fifteen thousand, four hundred, and ninety-seven questions. The shortest to just five, but five of such subtle phraseology, labyrinthine grammar, and malicious ambiguity that, released into the mortal world, they would certainly have formed the basis of a new religion or, at least, a management course.

This, then, was the first torment of Hell, as engineered by the soul of a bank clerk. (3)
It gets even better from there. After Cabal makes his deal, he gets put in charge of a hellish carnival. (In the acknowledgements, Howard writes that he was partially inspired by Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes.) With the help of his vampire brother, Cabal's carnival travels all over the country-side (probably England) collecting souls. If he doesn't get his hundred before a year is up, his soul is forfeit and he goes straight to Hell. Thought you might be tempted to be sympathetic to Cabal--since you're hearing the story mostly from his perspective--he's just enough of a jerk to make that very difficult. It gets even more difficult as you read along because Howard doesn't reveal the reason the Cabal is so determined to beat death until the very end of the book. Until you get to the last three pages, Cabal swears up and down that he's only trying to beat death for its own sake, not to save anyone. Personally, I think the end of the book makes it clear the Howard has to write a sequel.

The best part of this book is its biting, whimsical humor. I know those terms together make an oxymoron, but I really think they're the best adjectives. There are very few people in this book that are purely good. Everyone's got a little bit of the Devil in them. Consequently, a lot of the humor comes from satire. But there's also the loopiness of the demons that pop up occasionally and the decaying zombies and the general whackiness of Cabals world to keep this book from getting too serious.

It would also have been easy for this book to have turned into a slog if Howard had not chosen to jump the plot forward in time towards Cabal's deadline. I was glued to the book for the last hundred or so pages because Cabal only had a few hours (and then minutes) to get his last soul. And then there's a plot twist and another trip to Hell and, for a comedy, this book was terribly dramatic.

I could criticize the book for having no, ahem, soul, but I don't think that's the point of this book. Perhaps later books would make me care more about Cabal or this soul-swapping business. But based on just this book, I rather think that it's mostly about entertaining and partly about ethics, like all good Faust stories are. Johannes Cabal the Necromancer will definitely make you think, but more than anything it'll make you laugh.