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.

8.24.2009

The City and the City, by China Mieville

The City & the City
The City and the City
China Mieville's The City & the City is a wonderful blend of two genres: fantasy and mystery. The mystery is in the plot. The fantasy is in the setting. Though, with Mieville, the fantasy is of a particularly weird variety. This novel takes place in two cities that overlap each other, Beszel and Ul Qoma. When I first read about this book, I wasn't sure how the two cities were put together. But it sounded so original that I wanted to read the novel to see how it worked.

Turns out that the cities are intermingled with each other. The citizens of one city just "unsee" the residents and the buildings of the other, and vice versa. Children and foreigners have to be taught what to ignore and what to pay attention to. It's a very odd premise, and without Mieville's care and details, it sounds a little stupid, like two people refusing to speak to each other and ignoring each other as hard as they can. The further you get into the book, the more absurd it seems. For example, the cities can blend together on the same street (which has two names depending on who you ask) and in one building, some rooms will be in one city and their neighbors in another. If you're wondering why the residents don't give up and merge the cities, it's because of an organization called Breach. If a citizen breaks the boundaries--by talking to some one in the other city or crashing their car into something in the other city--Breach takes them away and they are never heard of again. The fear of Breach keeps people in line.

The mystery starts out like any other, but it gets progressively weirder and more complicated as the novel goes on. Tyador Borlu, a Beszel detective, is called into a crime scene. A young, unknown woman has been found dead. As he and his team investigate, they find out that the girl was from the other city, Ul Qoma, and that she was into conspiracy theories. Like I said, the mystery gets more complicated as you go on. I don't think I can do it justice, since Mieville does a fantastic job of laying out the clues so that the plots becomes more clear and the setting becomes more rich.

When you think about it, there's really two mysteries for the reader. There's the ostensible plot of the book. And then there's the mystery of why the cities split in the first place. The academics who're working on an archaeological dig in Ul Qoma theorize that the cities either split or merged some time in the distant past. The reason is unknown. Personally, I think they split, because something about the way that the citizens ignore each other speaks of anger to me. It must have been something awful for them to still not being on speaking terms after an unknown number of centuries. That little puzzle is almost more compelling than the actual mystery. It makes me hope the Mieville writes another book about the cities so that I can figure out what the hell is going on. The ending in particular makes me wish I knew the origins of the cities and Breach.

SPOILERS AHEAD

You've been warned.

One of the things that I really liked about the book was its ending. When Borlu finally catches up with the guys who done it, a breach-riot breaks out. Unificationists in both cities start to acknowledge each other. Breach--which turns out to be smaller and less evil and bureaucratic than you'd think--has its hands full trying to restore order. For a few pages, I thought the cities were going to merge. But then Borlu joins up with them and helps separate the cities again. By the end of the book, he becomes a member of Breach.

I said before that the premise, until you warm up to it, sounds kind of stupid. It's so much work to keep the cities separate, with little to gain, that you have to wonder why people keep it up. I was happy when I saw that the cities might merge. Then I might get answers about what happened to split the cities. On the other hand, I've been along for the ride with Borlu and wanted to see him succeed, too. A very odd experience, rooting for two opposite things to happen.

'Course, I would have been disappointed if this book had had a conventional ending, and I would have thought that Mieville was losing his touch.

SPOILERS END

I seriously hope there's a sequel to this.

8.22.2009

Why I Gave Up on Drood

Earlier this week, I finally got around to starting Drood, by Dan Simmons. I'd read some very interesting reviews this past Spring that made me really want to read it. I've enjoyed Simmons before, because I love the way his books play with literature, and I'm not afraid of five pound books. But I only made it about a hundred pages in before I gave it up.

Drood has a great premise. It proposes that Drood was a character that was haunting Charles Dickins, and inspired the writer to draft The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a novel the author died before finishing. From that premise, apparently, Simmons spins out a disturbing meta-mystery. The novel is narrated by Wilkie Collins, another writer who actually was a friend of Dickins. Collins was a laudanum addict and, as such, becomes one of my favorite types of storytellers: an unreliable narrator.

What made me give the book up was Simmons choice to include flashbacks to events that I couldn't see the relevance of and didn't have the patience to wait and have it revealed to me. These flashbacks distracted and detracted from the part of the book I found really interesting, the Drood plot. Every time things started to move forward on that front, Collins would stop talking about it and go back to talking about his collaboration with Dickins on a play, hiking up mountains with Dickins, etc. etc. Frankly, I didn't care. I just wanted to yell at Collins to focus on the matter at hand. I have to trust Simmons that there was a purpose, but it was just boring.

I've read other reviews of Drood that said similar things, so I have to wonder if this narrative style continues through the whole book. So, I gave up and have moved on to another book. I don't often give up on books, but I don't want to spend my free time reading books I don't like. Not when there are so many other wonderful books out there waiting for me to get my hands on them.

Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson

Three Cups of Tea
Three Cups of Tea
I would not have read this book if it hadn't been chosen as our campus read. I don't go for inspirational books because they tend to irritate me something awful. Three Cups of Tea was not bad. It's a report about Mortenson's project, the Central Asia Institute, that builds schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan in villages that wouldn't have had schools otherwise.

The first chapters were everything I feared. The narrator, Relin, sounded like he had a serious case of hero worship. And if the saying about the three cups of tea got repeated one more time, I probably would have had to chuck the book across the room and fake it during the book discussion last Thursday. But once Relin got to the genesis of the project, the book improved a lot. Mortenson--whose name is down as an author but who I think was more of a source of information rather than a writer on this one--attempted to climb K2. He got lost on night after evacuating another climber and ended up in a village named Korphe. In gratitude to the Baltis who lived there, Mortenson promised to build them a school. The Pakistani government has little control or influence in this part of the country, and there are no schools or services in northern Pakistan.

Mortenson is not a good fundraiser. His first attempt to get funds involved typing 580 letters and sending them off to various famous and influential people. It was only the sheerest luck that one of those letters ended up in the hands of a philanthropic-minded wealthy scientist. Jean Hoerni, the scientist, gave Mortenson the money he needed to build the school and--after some mishaps and a request from the villagers--to build a bridge across the river that cut Korphe off from the rest of the region. When other local headmen found about the Korphe school, the Baltis requested that more schools be built. Thus, the Central Asia Institute was born. Since that time, almost two decades ago, Mortenson and the other members of the CAI have been raising and distributing money to build over a hundred schools in the region. Unlike other aid efforts, which just disperse money, the CAI's schools come with strings attached. For example, the members of the villages have to provide the labor to build the school, and the schools have to increase enrollment by girls 10% every year.

After September 11, Mortenson ran into another snag...from the United States government. During the general freak out, the CIA held Mortenson for questioning after his passport was damaged. As well as illustrating how ineffective the initial hunt for Al Qaeda was, the incident also shows just how little we knew (and still don't know) about this part of the world. We don't know the languages. We don't know the ethnic groups. And we definitely don't understand their world. Even more disturbing than the questioning, Mortenson also started receiving hate mail from Americans once people heard about his project. The ones who sent the mail had tarred all Muslims with the terrorist brush. It was an infuriating passage to read. But I remember those days, when our (Americans) ignorance about Islam was so extreme and when there was so much fear going around. I'm not all that surprised, to be honest. I still got the urge to try and track them down and educate them. But I've learned that you can't easily change people's minds when there's fear involved.

Beyond being an inspirational book, this is a good book for learning about what south central Asia is like, how people live, and where terrorists really come from. This book makes the excellent point that education is the silver bullet to stop terrorism. During the latter part of the book, Relin writes about men with suitcases full of money from Saudi Arabia came to set up faux-madrassas. A madrassa is supposed to be a religious school, like a yeshiva or seminary. But the madrassas being set up were just places to indoctrinate children. Mortenson's schools, were a secular curricula is taught, is an antidote to that. It gives children and their parents an alternative. Mortenson's schools specialize in teaching girls because, as the man himself points out, girls tend to stay put. The boys take jobs and leave their villages. The girls stay and marry and have children. If you teach the girls to take care of themselves and their families, they pass the benefits on to the next generation.

Not only is this book a good way to learn about south central Asia, but it's also a good way to learn about Islam. I think Americans have learned more about Islam in the last eight years, but Three Cups of Tea is a good reminder that there are as many varieties of Islam as there are Christianity. While there were two fatwas issued against Mortenson, they were both overturned. The local head imam, Syed Abbas, was a huge supporter and help in the project. He was one of the men who helped Mortenson get those fatwas overturned. In both cases, Syed Abbas and other pointed out that there's no reason in the Qu'ran or Muslim doctrine not to teach females. The mullahs who issued the fatwas were not "true Muslims." They were manipulating the religion for their own reasons. Not something unique to Islam, I daresay.

Three Cups of Tea is not a bad book. It content is very interesting and its flaws come from Relin, I think. A critic for Booksmark wrote that "Despite the important message, critics quibbled over the awkward prose and some melodrama. After all, a story as dramatic and satisfying as this should tell itself." It's true. Mortenson's story should have told itself. It didn't need any dressing up. I was pleased to learn that the man himself is writing a follow up, titled Stones into Schools, about building schools in Afghanistan. I wish him all the luck in the world.

8.14.2009

Dead Men's Boots, by Mike Carey

Dead Mens Boots
Dead Men's Boots
Last year, I discovered a blend of noir and fantasy featuring a London exorcist named Felix Castor. Dead Men's Boots is the third book to feature Fix, and it is a tense, intriguing read. Like a lot of mysteries, this one begins with two seemingly unrelated crimes. So unrelated in fact, that I had no clue how they were going to converge until Fix and I started putting the pieces together. The total mystery was so well thought out and original that I was very impressed by it. The only reason I knew the plots were going to come together in the end is because I know this genre. It's like the rule in drama that says if you bring a gun on stage, it has to get fired before the last act. In mysteries, if a detective gets two seemingly unrelated cases, they will always turn out to be two parts of the same crime.

Unlike a lot of contemporary fantasies--most of which are romance novels with fangs thrown in--the Felix Castor series is a lot more like the mystery genre. Though there are ghosts and demons and loups garou, Fix is a lot like the quintessential gumshoe. He lives in a council tower flat (like the projects for the Americans out there). He doesn't make a lot of money. He takes cases the regular police won't touch. He's not afraid to use force and fists if necessary. And he's got a way with words that I love. His descriptions of people are often sardonically hilarious.

So, the plot. One of Castor's fellow ghostbreakers commits suicide under unusual circumstances and leaves Castor with his notes. The widow pulls Castor into their business and the exorcist decides that he owes it to the dead man to finish his business for him. Later, Castor gets a referral from a woman who's husband committed a violent murder. But it's so out of character and bizarre that the wife thinks her husband was possessed. And as facts play out, it starts to look as though the wife was right. (Do you see why I thought these two mysteries would never converge?) Castor has to pull in all the favors he has with Nick Health, a zombie hacker, and Juliet Salazar, a retired succubus, in order to get to the bottom of what turns out to be a very grim business.

All in all, this was a great read and I really look forward to the next Felix Castor book. Dead Men's Boots also makes me wish that more contemporary fantasy writers would pull in more characteristics of mysteries. In particular, I wish more of them would feature the sort of tough intellectual and ethical puzzles that Carey creates in this series. Brain candy is great every now and then, but I love brain broccoli, too.