12.16.2012

The Raven's Seal, by Andrei Baltakmens

The Raven's Seal
Andrei Baltakmens' The Raven's Seal is an amazing work of historical mystery set in fictional city of Airenchester, England in 1776. Baltakmens has an incredible gift for writing in period English without bogging it down with either unnecessary Dickensian bluster or anachronisms. Even if the plot weren't great (which it is), it would be a treat to read this book just for the language Baltakmens uses. 

We meet out protagonist, Thaddeus Grainger, just as he is about to make his exit from a society dance and head for his favorite pub. At this point in the novel, Grainger is not a very nice person. He is not quite as awful as the other people in his social circle, but he's still a bit of a rake and he certainly doesn't take things as seriously as he should. Shortly after the book opens, Grainger challenges another gentleman (not in the literal sense of the word) to a duel over Cassandra Redruth, a poor girl who was pawed while trying to look for her brother in the pub where Grainger and Massingham were (separately) whiling away an evening. The duel doesn't go well for Grainger, though he isn't fatally wounded. Massingham goes off to celebrate. The next thing anyone knows, Grainger is arrested for Massingham's murder.

Nothing goes Grainger's way, as witnesses come forward to condemn him. He barely escapes the noose and is sentenced to Bellstrom Prison, a "gaol [that] provided a college for villainy, wherein its doctors in crime graduated to that most thorough and relentless examiner, the noose" (202*) You'd expect such a naive and unworldly man as Grainger to shortly get the dog snot beaten out of him, but he manages to make some allies among the older prisoners who tutor him in how to get along. Grainger, along with his friend William Quillby and Cassie Redruth, strive to gather evidence showing the Grainger was framed. As time passes, it becomes clear that Grainger's imprisonment is but a small part of a colossal conspiracy that takes in pretty much all crime and fraud in and around Airenchester. All signs point back to a mysterious figure known by his sign, a raven's foot in a seal of black wax, and Bellstrom Prison.

Baltakmens did mountains of research about this period in England's history, especially regarding the penal system of the time. But he has a remarkably light touch with exposition. You get a clear sense of the wretched conditions of the prisoners who could not afford the prison warden's "garnish"--fees for better rooms, food, etc. You also get a close look at the sharp divide between the "respectable" wealthy and the poor. If you have money, it seems like you can get away with just about anything. But if you're poor or don't play by the rules set up by the wealthy, well, you're in for a world of injustice.

I very much look forward to more from Baltakmens. This is easily my favorite book of the year.

* Quote is from the 2012 kindle edition, published by Top Five Books, LLC.

The Damnation Affair, by Lilith Saintcrow

I received an ebook copy of Saintcrow's The Damnation Affair as a prepub from Netgalley.com

The Damnation Affair
Lilith Saintcrow's The Damnation Affair is a standalone entry in the author's alternate history/steampunk Bannon and Clare series. You really don't need to read the first book, though you might want to in order to get a better handle on the curious world Saintcrow created.

Our heroine is Catherine Barrowe-Browne, a Boston society girl who takes up a post as schoolmarm in a town called Damnation in order to tack down her wayward brother. As soon as she arrives in the desolate town, she strikes the fancy of good guy Jack Gabriel, the town's sheriff. So far, the story is pretty much par for the course. But then the zombies turn up. As Catherine tries to find her brother, Gabriel keeps the town safe from zombie incursions and investigates a curious occurrence in the mountains around Damnation. It seems that someone (it doesn't take much of an effort to work out who) woke up something evil and hungry while trying to find gold. As the town's positions gets more and more dicey, the plot works up to a very interesting plot twist near the end that changes how you see Catherine and Jack.

Even though the setting remains a little vague and the characters a little shallow, this is a fun read. I really enjoyed the twist; I really was not expecting what happened. And I am very curious to see what happens to these characters next, if Saintcrow works them into the main series as I expect she will.

Cinder, by Marissa Meyer

This book--more specifically, the ending of this book--is going to piss off a lot of readers. I just wanted to get that out there before I carry on with the rest of my review of Marissa Meyer's Cinder.

Cinder
Cinder is, as expected, a retelling of the Cinderella story. In Meyer's version, the retelling includes magical people who live on the moon, androids and cyborgs, a deadly plague, references to a World War IV, and an evil alien queen. It's amazing what Meyer crams into a surprisingly small amount of exposition. In this version, our putative Cinderella is a mechanic living in New Beijing. She's also a cyborg. She has an uncaring stepmother and one stereotypical stepsister. (The other stepsister is a very nice person.) Because she has a reputation as a very good mechanic, she gets a commission to repair an android by the incognito prince. And, of course, there's a ball.

But in including all those fantastical and science fiction elements, getting Cinder to the ball is a lot more complicated than it was in the original fairy tale. First, Cinder gets drafted into the search for a cure to the aforementioned deadly plague. Then she and the prince start to fall in love with each other. Then the stepmother steals Cinder's biomechanical foot...and there's no fairy godmother to help Cinder out of her predicaments.

It's a fascinating read. And I really enjoyed it...right up until the end. Well, I say ending. This book ends, I'll be blunt about it, with a cliffhanger. And now I have to wait for the next book in the series to come out in February to find out what happens to our plucky heroine. Readers, if the above description of the book sounded good to you, wait for the next entry in the series to come out.

12.09.2012

Under Western Eyes, by Joseph Conrad

Under Western Eyes
Joseph Conrad's Under Western Eyes is a deeply cynical look at revolution in the early twentieth century. Hardly a chapter passes without one narrators of this book making a pointed observation about dilettantes or poseurs or the naive. And since this book was published in 1911, a lot of these remarks about revolution seem strangely prescient in light of what happened in Russia only a few years later. For example, Conrad writes:
The last thing I want to tell you is this: in a real revolution...the best characters do not come to the front. A violent revolution falls into the hands of narrow-minded fanatics and tyrannical hypocrites at first. Afterwards comes the turn of all the pretentious intellectual failures of the time...The scrupulous and the just, the noble, humane, and devoted natures; the unselfish and the intelligent may begin a movement--but it passes away from them. They are not the leaders of a revolution. They are its victims. (Part Second, Chapter III*)
The novel revolves around the unfortunate protagonist, Kirylo Razumov, who finds himself tangled up with would be revolutionaries after a bomb-wielding murderer decides that Razumov would be the perfect person to shelter him after blowing up a judge.

Just the fact that Haldin chose Razumov to provide a refuge implicates Razumov in the eyes of the authorities, even though Razumov never involved himself in revolutionary activities. He's an average student. His greatest ambition is to win an essay competition and, hopefully, a government post. He has no family to help advance him, so he's pretty much up a creek when Haldin shows up. There's something about Razumov that invites people to share their secrets and ideas. It drives Razumov nuts, to be frank. Haldin asks Razumov to help him escape the city. Razumov tries, but the man Haldin hoped would drive him away turns out to be a fall down drunk. Anxiety drives Razumov to his only option: turning Haldin in. It's the right thing to do, but Razumov tortures himself with feelings of guilt and worries to distraction about being arrested in spite of everything.

Instead of being arrested, however, the police draw Razumov into their plots and send him abroad to spy on revolutionaries in Germany and Switzerland. Razumov fetches up in Geneva, where Haldin's sister and mother now live. He has extraordinary luck in his new job. Because he is reserved and remains silent while the revolutionaries rant and bluster, his targets think that Razumov is a man of action, not words. They fill in the blanks with what they want to believe about him. As I read, it occurred to me that Razumov wouldn't last five minutes trying to infiltrate a terrorist organization in our time.

Razumov manages to pull his mission mostly because of the idiocy of his targets. In the end, he is undone by his own sense of guilt once he meets Haldin's sister. She's a forthright young woman, easily one of the best people in this book. He can't bear to lie to her. In the end, he confesses everything--not just to Miss Haldin--but also to the revolutionaries he was spying on. This goes about as well as you'd expect, and Razumov ends up a deaf cripple.

Under Western Eyes ends in an emotional tangle. There are no winners or losers. There's a clear sense of life--and the revolution--carrying on after Razumov is injured and Miss Haldin returns to Russia. It's really the only way that this book could end, after all the cynicism and observations that that revolutionaries don't accomplish much for all their talking. In the end, Razumov and all the other characters are just pawns on the board.

* I read the Project Gutenberg edition, so the page numbers change depending on font size, screen orientation, etc.

11/22/63, by Stephen King

11/22/63
Time travel novels always bring up fascinating questions. Can one person change history? Can history be changed at all? Should you meddle if you have the opportunity? Are there multiple timelines out there? Stephen King's 11/22/63 asks all of these questions. For some inexplicable reason, a hole in time has appeared in the pantry of a diner in Lisbon Falls, Maine. The owner of that diner, Al, has been taking trips back to 1958 to get cheap food to sell (at such low prices that the locals make jokes about catburgers). Eventually, Al decides that he's going to use the portal to do something more worthwhile than buy supplies. Since the portal always takes him to September of 1958, he decides that he's going to stay until 1963 and stop Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating John Kennedy.

But when Al develops terminal cancer, he drafts his friend Jake into taking on the mission in his stead. This book is huge, but a lot of it spent--not on Oswald--but actually on Jake's life in the past. Once he's proved to himself that changes in the past can actually alter the future (Jake's present), he believes Al in that it might be possible to save Kennedy. Al figures that Kennedy, if he had lived, would have kept the Vietnam War from becoming a war in the first place. Al thinks that November 22, 1963 is a turning point. By saving Kennedy, the world would be a better place and they would be saving millions of lives. Jake also signs on to save one of his adult education students from a horrific attack on the student's family by their father.

Once Jake stops the father from murdering his family and giving the survivor a traumatic brain injury, he heads for Texas. Al did a lot of the research and Jake is able to keep fairly close tabs on Oswald as the assassin returns from Russia, wanders around Texas and Louisiana, and plots to murder the president. Now, if this had been the main plot, I think this would have been a better book. Instead, we get Jake's story as he makes a life in Jodie, Texas and falls in love with a divorcee with a psycho ex-husband. In fairness, this would have been an interesting story, too. But when you stack it up against the Oswald plot, it falls short. It reads as though Jake is wasting his time. With all of the research Al did and all of the forensic investigations after the fact, there's little doubt that Oswald did it. So it's curious that Jake gives him the benefit of the doubt for so long. Jake does a little snooping around the people in Oswald's life to see if anyone put him up to it, perhaps because of the long standing conspiracies about the Grassy Knoll and a possible second shooter.

But then the narrative heads back to Jodie and Jake saves his girlfriend from the aforementioned psycho, and Jake spends a few pages working out how to bring Sadie to the future to help fix the scar she received from her ex-husband. Finally, Jake manages to focus on what he actually set out to do. After missing an early opportunity to take out Oswald, it all comes down to stopping him on November 22. This part of the book is just as tense as one could wish and comes off fantastically. The rest of the book, except for the early parts where Jake prevents local tragedies in Maine, is a slog in comparison. After becoming a national hero, Jake returns to his own time to discover that things actually got much, much worse.

And thus, the questions. Even though this book could use some serious editing, it does make you think about not only whether it's a good idea to meddle if you have the opportunity. But that leads to the other question, is what happened what was meant to happen? Of course, whatever timeline you're in is the "real" one to you. If nothing else, 11/22/63 shows that our world could always be worse. It's not possible for Jake to keep fixing things, because he'd have to keep reliving the 1960s over and over again until he died as he dealt with the consequences of his changes. There would always be the risk of making things worse. Since he's mucking around in the cold war, worse includes nuclear annihilation.

While this isn't the best example of alternate history (I wasn't kidding about the editing thing), this is still a very interesting read.

12.02.2012

Albert of Adelaide, by Howard L. Anderson

Albert of Adelaide
Howard L. Anderson's Albert of Adelaide is a highly entertaining Australian Western, with animals as characters (sort of like Rango or Brian Jacques' series, but not G-rated). The main character, Albert, a platypus on the lam from the Adelaide zoo, escapes and sets out north in search of Old Australia.

We meet Albert in the great Australian desert, out of water and sunburnt. Luckily, he runs into Jack (a wombat) who has been wandering the desert for years. Jack takes Albert under his wing and starts to show him how to live in the outback. Jack takes him to Ponsby Station, a rough and tumble mining town run by kangaroos and populated by bandicoots and wallabies. It quickly becomes clear that Albert is the sort of character that things just happen to. Once in Ponsby, Albert finds himself accused of cheating, fighting, and suspect in an arson.

As if that weren't bad enough, Jack decides to part ways with Albert. Without a mentor, Albert falls in with a bandit raccoon named TJ (an American transplant). Before he knows it, Albert is named the leader of the notorious Platypus Gang though no fault of his own. Albert and his allies end up facing a small army lead by the villainous Bertram (a wallaby) and Theodore (an opossum).

This book runs the gamut from Western to comedy to tragedy to farce to epic in a surprisingly short span. It's told in deceptively simple language and flies by. I really enjoyed reading this book. It was a delight.

The Twelve, by Justin Cronin

The Twelve
I'd read the mix reviews of Justin Cronin's The Twelve, but when I read the book myself, I though the critics had been a little too harsh to this continuation of The Passage. Sure, it has it's problems, but I was completely hooked.

First, the good: Cronin seems to have shaken off some of the overly literary modes of writing that made parts of The Passage drag the story to a near halt. There is a lot more action in this book, a lot less maundering about this brave new world and what was lost. The Twelve is closer to a horror novel than its predecessor and there are several parts that were downright terrifying to read. We also get to see more of the vampire/zombie apocalypse that was mostly skipped over in The Passage. 

Aside from the lengthy flashback to year zero, the bulk of the book concerns Amy, Peter, and Alicia's continued hunt for the twelve--the original vampires. As they learned in the last book, killing one of the twelve means killing all of the millions of other vampires of their line. Unfortunately, the remaining eleven are scattered across the country, in hiding. Getting to one and managing to kill it takes a lot of luck and a lot of munitions. It all builds to a rather spectacular explosion at the end of the book.

We also get more than a few hints that there is something supernatural going on. You might ask, aren't vampires supernatural? In Cronin's version, they're the result of a virus. But characters like Amy start to hear the voices of the other vampires in their heads. There's one mysterious voice that starts moving the characters around like chess pieces. But on top of this, there's a strange force of serendipity at work in this novel. It's almost Dickens grade. Characters run into just the right people at the right time. Plans fall apart only to benefit other schemes. 

And now for the bad. The extensive flashback, though very interesting to read, is not well integrated into the rest of the book. It stops abruptly and isn't alluded to until much later in the book. Cronin is a better writer than this, I feel. So I was a little puzzled at how sloppily the flashback was put in.

I meant what I said when this book was better than the last book. The Passage was plagued by very long, very slow passages that killed all sense of narrative tension. This book doesn't have that. The only spanners in the work are that abrupt flashback and the conclusion. 

SPOILERS FOLLOW.

While the ending is a riot of action and suspense and ordinance, it seemed like a bit of a let down. For hundreds of pages, I'd been expecting a long, years' long slog tracking down the twelve. But then this start getting mystical and the twelve are called to a settlement in Iowa and then...it's all over in a big kaboom. There's one left, the original vampire, but all that wonderful drama and tension of these two books--the sense of danger that follows the characters everywhere--is gone. It seems like Cronin is clearing the board the for the last book, but I have no idea what he plans to do in it.

END SPOILERS

11.18.2012

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas
I freely admit that I read this book because of the movie trailer. I wanted to read the book just to figure out what the hell was going on. I'm glad I gave into my curiosity, because I found David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas hugely entertaining. Even though it was just over 500 pages, I was tempted to start reading it all over again to see the links and allusions I know I missed on the first run.

Cloud Atlas is a series of six stories, linked by a birthmark and themes of oppression and the cyclical nature of history. They're also linked through documents and images that pass down stories through time, sometimes across centuries. In the first story, we get a glimpse of the damage Europeans did to Polynesian cultures during the nineteenth century by colonizing the islands and enslaving the indigenous people through an American's journal. In the second story, we get the letters of an unscrupulous musician who is blessed with talent, but little consideration for his fellow human beings. He's also a big fan of Adam Ewing's journal. The musician's letters end up in the hands of a cub reporter working on a big story about an unsafe nuclear power plant. The reporter's story turns up as a novel in the hands of a vanity publisher who ends up incarcerated in an old folks' home in Britain. That story ends up a film that a clone enjoys in a dystopian future Korea. The clone's story of revolution ends up as a digital file that no one can understand the far, far future. Once we get to that future primitive Hawaii, Mitchel takes us back through time to Ewing, giving us the conclusions to the stories he started along the way but then left off in cliffhangers. In an interesting meta note, some of the characters make references to time as a series of Russian dolls or as ladders with people making their way constantly up and down.

On the surface, the stories are wildly different. They've got different tones, structures, and even vocabulary. But the theme of cycles runs through the whole thing. In the last chapter (set on a nineteenth century South Pacific island), a blithely racist preacher expounds on his ideas of civilization being like a ladder. Some civilizations are on their way up and others are on their way down. The racist preacher believes that it's because whites are destined to win out in the end because of God's favor. He is contradicted by a doctor who plainly states that civilizations rise and fall because the strong always devour the weak. The only reason whites seemed to be on the ascendant is because they are the most rapacious race on the planet at the time.
Of course everyone is shocked by this, but this very thing has played out over and over during the preceding 500 pages of the book. Sometimes the underdog wins, sometimes the favorite wins.

The stories also linked by documents and media, which made me question whether these stories were actually meant to be taken as history (fictional, but otherwise true) or if Mitchell was pulling a complicated variation on Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler and hinting that none of his narrators are reliable. The journal might have been edited for publication and the musician's letters only show his side of the story. The reporter's story might have just been a novel and the vanity publisher's just a movie. The clone's story is testimony recorded by a government that has a less than forthcoming attitude toward the truth (even to the point of pulling a Soylent Green). And the story set in Hawaii at the center of the book is told as a nascent legend to the younger members of the tribe. So, in addition to theories about the nature of history and civilization, we also get a sly commentary on historicity.

Cloud Atlas is masterful, skillfully written, and very profound. I can tell that every time one rereads it, one will get something new out of it. It's not brain candy; you're going to have to think about and question what you're reading. This book is good for the brain.

Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, by Thomas Harris

It's been a while since I read Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, so most of the details of what happened when and why were gone and I was able to be surprised at some of the twists. I mean, anyone who's heard of Hannibal Lector already knows who did it, but that doesn't mean the mysteries aren't intriguing reads.

The Silence of the Lambs
The Silence of the Lambs is the better of the two books, to be honest. It's brutal and original. A lot of the gristly mysteries I've read since then owe a lot to this book. It's got the twisted serial killer story layered with the chilling intellectual game between Lecter and Clarice Starling. With what I remembered of the plot, I ended up reading the book in a very different way from the first time through. (This book was published in 1988, so I'm not going to worry about spoiler alerts. The statute of limitations has expired.) This time, I could see hints of Lecter's big plan before Harris drew aside the curtain on what the doctor was up to at the end of the book.

On this read through, the twisted serial killer plot actually seemed a little flat compared to what was happening between Lecter and Starling. This time it was like I was reading Silence as part of the larger story about the two, continued in Hannibal. Because I knew that Lector was using prior knowledge to give Starling dribs and drabs of clues to catch "Buffalo Bill," I wasn't so impressed with his oh-so-profound insights. I supposed with enough preparation, anyone can seem like a psychological genius. (Not that I would say that to Lector's face. Even though he's fictional, he still gives me the willies.) This was just another piece on the chess board for Lector. It's still pretty impressive to watch him mostly improvise his escape by taking advantage of those small bits of preparation. Apart from his utter lack of morality, the thing that makes Lector such a terrifying opponent is that he can see the larger game board, he can see further than any of the other characters.

Hannibal
In Hannibal, we learn more about what makes Lector tick. I know that readers really wanted to know this. Everyone wants to know where evil comes from, especially if we can spot infallible warning signs. However, this is more than a little odd considering Lector's line from Silence, about the futility of trying to reduce him to influences. Part of what made Lector so terrifying in that book was his control. No matter what the situation, Lector was in control.

But in this book, horrific memories from his World War II childhood cause Lector to start slipping. He has flashes of his murdered and cannibalized sister at inopportune moments. Ultimately, he tries to brainwash Starling into someone like his sister. It's very surprising flight of fancy, I thought--almost out of character. And the very ending strikes me as out of character for Starling as well. Maybe it's because I read the books back to back this time, I noticed it more. In Silence, the overriding impression I got of Startling was that she would do right no matter what the cost to her career. I never in a million years though she would get so fed up with bureaucracy that she would go over to the other side.

I wouldn't say I was disappointed with Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. Lector stands head and shoulders above other villains in serial killer novels, who are usually so messed up by their own psychology that they seem more like animals than rational creatures. But Lector, who apart from his lapses in Hannibal, is highly rational and is just that much scarier for it. He's pragmatic. He'll flee to fight another day if things don't go to plan. Because he's not locked into a modus operandi (apart from his taste for the finer things), you never know quite what he's going to do next.

I'm kind of glad that Harris decided to stay away from writing the further adventures of Lector and Starling, especially considered what happened with Hannibal Rising. These characters work much between when they remain mysterious.

11.11.2012

Firmin, by Sam Savage

Firmin
Sam Savage's Firmin is an odd but interesting tale of a rat who grows up on a diet (literally) of classic fiction and a university's worth of nonfiction. Near the beginning of the book, Firmin says:
My devourings at first were crude, orgiastic, unfocused, piggy--a mouthful of Faulkner was a mouthful of Flaubert as far as I was concerned--though I soon began to notice subtle differences. I noticed first that each book had a different flavor--sweet, bitter, sour, bittersweet, rancid, salty, tart. (p. 27*)
His whole experience of the world is filtered through his reading. In fact, there are quotes from all kinds of books in Firmin. Thus, Firmin is a pedantic little booger, but his erudition elevates the story from being just an elegy for Boston's old Scollay Square and a dying bookstore.

Firmin's introduction reminds me a lot of the opening of Tristram Shandy. He even starts the book before his birth in the bottom of Norman Shine's used bookstore. Being the runt of the litter, Firmin makes do by eating the pages of an old copy of Moby Dick. From there, he actually learns to read and enjoy the books in the more usual way. He starts to explore the shop and read even more. He starts to feel a kinship with Norman, until Norman betrays Firmin by treating him like a rat. Shortly after recovering from his near poisoning, Firmin makes the acquaintance of Joe Moogan. Moogan is a strange hippie who fixes broken electronics and writes odd apocalyptic science fiction novels. Joe is a sweet old soul, though, and he and Firmin develop as much of a friendship as they can, given that Firmin can't speak.

In the background of all this is the destruction of Scollay Square. Once a thriving part of Boston, Scollay Square has become a seedy area. The city has decided to renovate the area, but they need to bulldoze the entire square to do it. The businesses fail, one by one. Norman's bookstore is one of the last to go.

Over the course of the novel, we go from picaresque to tragedy. Firmin, pessimistic though he is, is an excellent narrator. Getting the story from a rat's eye view is an interesting experience. Though it has more downs than ups, it's still a very entertaining read.

* From the kindle edition.

'Salem's Lot, by Stephen King

'Salem's Lot
For some reason, people keep asking me if I've read this book so I finally bit the bullet and read it. I rather like King's early work, Carrie being my favorite. 'Salem's Lot is not a bad read. I could see a clear influence from Dracula. I enjoyed that a lot, what with what's happened to the vampire in fiction recently. It was good to see a monster being a monster*.

After a short preface, this book begins with a long, long introduction to the small Maine town of 'Salem's Lot (short for Jerusalem's Lot). Not much happens in the town, and people still talk about the big fire of 1951. King spends whole chapters telling the small stories, good and bad, of the towns' people. The first time I tried to read this book, I got stuck and gave up. But this time, I managed to roll with it. I saw that 'Salem's Lot is more a character than a setting. With all the foreshadowing of the town's immanent doom, reading these little vignettes actually helped set the mood for the rest of the book. Reading about the protagonist, novelist Ben Mears, was almost an anticlimax compared to reading about the town.

About the same time that Ben moves into Eva's boarding house, two foreigners named Barlow and Straker set up shop in town selling antique furniture. Barlow and Straker also shock the town by buying the old Marsten mansion. The house has a bad reputation and kids in the town dare each other to go up and look in the windows or steal something from inside. Soon after the furniture store opens, people start to go missing or dying after suffering from "pernicious anemia" and flu-like symptoms. Within about a week, there aren't many people walking around in daylight in 'Salem's Lot.

Ben, a boy named Mark Petrie, a school teacher named Matt Burke, a priest, and a doctor figure out that--in spite of all reason--their town is infested with vampires and that Barlow is at the center of it. After the long introduction, King launches into Ben's campaign against Barlow. The second half of the book is addictive reading. Sure, there are a lot of parallels between Ben's campaign and the fight against Dracula in the eponymous novel. But I didn't mind so much. As I said before, I liked to see vampires as monsters. They're supposed to be mysterious and terrifying. Barlow hits the mark on both counts.

* And not, say, sparkling.

Walking Dead, Book 8, by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard

I haven't reviewed the Walking Dead series for a while. But the most recent collection, Book Eight, gave me a lot to think about. The idea behind this series is that it's not supposed to end. It's supposed to be about what happens after the big zombie apocalypse, after the survivors find a safe haven. That's what I really love about this series: seeing what happens after the credits roll in the movie and the safe haven turns out not to be so safe. For the last seven books, I've gotten to see Robert Kirkman torture his characters by taking away the safe zones, creating human monsters, and making his characters wrestle with their consciences after having to make very, very hard decisions.

The Walking Dead
In Book Eight, we get to see our protagonist, Rick, finally trying to think about the long term future. A few volumes ago, Rick and his fellow band of survivors found a place to call home for a while. After seeing the changes in Carl, who has been becoming a hard little man over the series, Rick realizes that living day to day is not enough any more. In order to try and give his son at least a little bit of a childhood, Rick forms a committee to start working on fortifications and farming and all the rest. Sure there are zombies running around waiting to take a bite out of them, but you start to see a ray of hope. It just might be possible to make a good life. At least until Kirkman turns the screws again and reveals the next big challenge Rick and the gang are going to face.

As I read this volume and watched the characters lurch back and forth between emotional states, I started to wonder about the interplay between the book series and the TV series. The TV series has been shadowing the books for a while, with a few major rewrites but the book series has been soldiering on ahead. In this latest volume in particular, though, is saw conversations and events that seemed to me like Kirkman was trying to wrench his narrative around to make book Carl more like TV Carl. I could be wrong about this, but I couldn't shake the thought.

11.04.2012

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's
24-Hour Bookstore
I adored this book. In fact, I loved Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore so much that I couldn't pick a book to follow it. I wanted to stay in that world for just a little bit longer. This book was billed as the ultimate book for bibliophiles in a lot of the reviews I read. While I agree with that to a certain extent, this book is really about the intersection between the book and technology. This book is very much about what's happening right now, to the point where it has references to xkcd and Hadoop and crowdsourcing. The action takes place on the Google campus almost as much as it does in bookstores and libraries.

Our narrator, Clay Jannon, finds himself out of work after the bagel shop he did web design and social marketing for goes out of business. After much searching, he lands a job at Mr. Penumbra's shop. The entire interview consists of one question, "Tell me about a book that you loved." Jannon shares his love for a trilogy of fantasy novels written some twenty plus years before the opening of this novel, the sort of pulpy adventure novels that a lot of us have fond memories of. Clay is hired on the spot and his training consists of learning odd rules like retrieving books for members, not peeking into those books, and doing everything exactly as he's been told.

Of course, Clay has the kind of personality that won't leave little mysteries uninvestigated. Clay uses his Ruby skills to model the book store. He starts to see patterns in how the members are working their way through what he calls the Waybacklist, books that appear to be entirely unique--no ISBNs, no records in the Library of Congress. The books are encoded, full of dense puzzles. Shortly after he starts at Mr. Penumbra's Clay meets a woman who works for Google, Kat Potente. Kat encourages him to use Google's book scanner to copy one of the mysterious log books that track the members progress through the Waybacklist.

When Mr. Penumbra finds out about this, he's not angry as Clay expected. Instead, Penumbra lets Clay and Kat into the bigger mystery. Mr. Penumbra and the members of his bookstore are using the coded books (similar to the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili and the Voynich manuscript, but with more math) to try and learn to decode the unsolvable codex vitae of the publisher Aldus Manutius. According to legend, Manutius discovered the secret of immortality and left behind an empty tomb. Since that time, members of the Unbroken Spine (the name of the organization) have been trying to crack the code. With Clay and Kat's help--and with the help of Google's supercomputers--Penumbra thinks they might have a chance to finally break Manutius' code.

As if the plot weren't enough for me, Sloan takes care to create rich settings. You can almost smell the dust and eau d'old book of Penumbra's shop and the Unbroken Spine library. I was torn between racing through the book to see what happened next and lingering over the descriptions of strange books, ancient libraries, and fiendish codes. I think the thing I really loved about this book was that it wasn't just an elegy for books. Instead, Sloan shows that nooks and kindles and Google aren't the end of the book. It might be the end of the codex, but it's certainly not the end of the novel or of writing. In fact, by embracing technology, we might see new possibilities and formats open up.

Of course, the irony of reading this book in kindle format was not lost on me.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Strange Case of
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Every year around Halloween, I try to read some classic scary novel or story. Having recently watched the BBC's excellent miniseries Jekyll, I settled on reading the original story by Robert Louis Stevenson. Like Frankenstein, the original Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is not nearly as scary as the its various adaptations have made it. And also like Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is more of a philosophical tale of man's true nature.

Most of the story is told second (and third hand) by a lawyer named Gabriel Utterson. Utterson hears a disturbing story about a man who callously knocked down a child in the street, but then made amends to the family with a check for £400. Utterson manages to track this man down. The unpleasant, dwarfish Mr. Hyde is not at all what I expected from all the other incarnations I've seen on TV and in movies, at least physically. Utterson is repulsed by Hyde, but doesn't worry overmuch about him until he learns that Hyde is the beneficiary of his good friend, Dr. Jekyll. Jekyll's will also covers Hyde should the good doctor go missing. Utterson visits his friend to try and talk Jekyll out of leaving everything to Hyde, but Jekyll won't budge.

Slowly, Utterson learns more about the tangled dealings of Jekyll and Hyde. But he doesn't discover the astonishing truth until he discovers Jekyll's papers late in the book. Jekyll finally reveals all about his potion and his transformations. What interested me was the reason Jekyll gave for inventing the potion in the first place. It seems that the good doctor was afflicted with more than the usual amount of guilt and remorse about the bad things he's done in his life (which are nothing compared to what Hyde gets up to later on). He muses that man must have a dualistic nature, as he is capable of both good and bad. If one could get rid of the evil tendencies, one could be entirely good. The potion was apparently designed to strengthen Jekyll's good side and minimize the evil.

I read Jekyll's conflict in a more Freudian light. (Interestingly, Freud works very well for literary analysis, if not for psychological analysis.) I saw Jekyll as ego and superego, and Hyde as id. Jekyll expends an awful lot of effort keeping his more animalistic tendencies under wraps, but Hyde gets to express and pursue all of them without care. Unfortunately, the potion basically wipes out the ego and superego's controlling influences. Eventually, Hyde comes out even without the potion. In this sense, the story is a great allegory for the struggle inside all of us, between what we want and what we're bound to by society or manners.

The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Hound of the Baskervilles
After falling in love with the reimagining of Sherlock Holmes in the BBC's Sherlock, I decided to finally read the original Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I've read a handful for the short stories, but never any of the longer ones.

The book begins, as so many of the Holmes stories, with a visitor stopping by 221B Baker Street with an unusual problem. In this cases, it's the somewhat mysterious death of Sir Charles Baskerville, an elderly man living in an ancestral estate on Dartmoor. The coroner rules that Baskerville died of a heart attack, but the visitor--Dr. Mortimer--to Baker Street also points out that Baskerville was living in terror of an old family story about a hellish hound that killed on of his more notorious ancestors. Mortimer also points out that he saw several large canine footprints near Sir Charles's body, though there were no marks on the body. Mortimer posits that Sir Charles died of fear. (Interestingly, there is a phenomena in medicine called the Baskerville effect, which states that heart attacks are more likely to be fatal if the victim is also under a lot of psychological stress.) The next day, Mortimer returns with Sir Charles's heir, Sir Henry Baskerville, who has been warned to stay away from Baskerville Hall if he values his life. Holmes agrees to take on the case, but from a distance, and dispatches Watson to Baskerville hall to serve as a bodyguard for Sir Henry.

Holmes actually spends a lot of time offstage in this book. Watson does a lot of the leg work, actually, traveling around the village and surrounding moor, questioning various parties. It becomes clear that there really is something going on after there are a couple of attempts on Sir Henry's life and the death of an escaped prisoner (who the murderer mistook for Sir Henry). Towards the end of the book, Watson tracks down a man he suspects might be the murderer or the recently escaped convict that's been roaming the moors. It turns out to be Holmes, who--of course--has pieced together a lot of the mystery already. The story ends with a rather thrilling trap, set by Holmes, almost ruined by the inopportune arrival of some extremely dense fog.

Even with Holmes out of the picture for most of the book, I rather enjoyed The Hound of the Baskervilles. Holmes, the original, works best in small doses. His sarcasm and ruthlessness would probably make any reader hate him if he was the narrator. But then, Holmes is one of those paradoxical characters that you know would drive you crazy if they actually existed yet still manage to inspire fierce loyalty around them. Thinking about it now, Lisbeth Salander reminds me a lot of Sherlock Holmes. Maybe its because, underneath layers of prickly psychological baggage, their friends know that Holmes and Salander would do anything for them if they got in trouble, so they return the favor. So even though Holmes abuses Watson's good nature in The Hound of the Baskervilles, it only takes a few pages before he's forgiven.

10.28.2012

The Shadowed Sun, by N.K. Jemisin

The Shadowed Sun
N.K. Jemisin's The Shadowed Sun picks up ten years after The Killing Moon. A few of the same characters have small roles to play, but the main action is carried out by Wanahomen--the son of the former Prince--and Hanani--a dream healer. Wanahomen wants to reclaim his princedom and Hanani wants to find a place for herself among the formerly all-male dream healers. Their journeys cross, leading to interesting revelations.

In the world that Jemisin created, dreams have the power to heal or kill. Only strictly observed religious rules keep the people of Gujaarah from abusing them. Or at least, the rules mostly keep this from happening. The plot of the last book was all about what happens when someone finds a way to abuse this power. For his crimes, the old Prince was killed and his city taken over by foreigners. Ten years later, the foreign occupation continues. Wanahomen lives in exile among the desert tribes, scheming to gain allies to retake Gujaareh. We meet Hanani as she attempts to pass her trial to become a full fledged healer. It takes a while for the plots to converge, but it was pretty entertaining to see the would be prince taken down a few pegs by the erstwhile healer.

I'll be honest and tell you that the whole "retaking the city" thing goes much more smoothly than it would in real life, so that part feels like a bit of a let down. The resolution of the magical plague subplot is much more interesting and much more complicated.

This story is a lot more emotional than The Killing Moon, though it explores some of the same themes such as pursuing justice and being pure of heart. This one also looks at the complications of love and duty. Wanahomen, in particular, grows more human as he starts to realize the costs of his schemes the people around him.

For now, these are the only books in this series. I read an interview in which Jemisin says she has more Gujaarah stories, but there's nothing in the works right now.

Libriomancer, by Jim C. Hines

Libriomancer
I'd be willing to bet that anyone who loves to read has wished that they could live inside some of their favorite books, or bring something back with them after they're done reading. Jim C. Hines's charming Libriomancer takes that wish and runs with it.

Our protagonist, Isaac Vainio, is a librarian in the upper peninsula of Michigan who has the remarkable ability to reach into books and pull out anything that can fit through the open pages. He used to be a field agent for a secret agency that policies mysterious manifestations and rogue magicians, but he couldn't control his magic. He is relegated to cataloging (with apologies to my cataloger friends) until one of the aforementioned rogue magicians manages to wipe out most of the agency's fighting force. With the help of his pet fire spider and a wood nymph, Isaac investigates, fights vampires and automatons, and finds Johannes Gutenberg.

The plot itself is a lot of fun and I'd recommend this as a great bit of brain candy. But what makes this book really shine is the detail that Hines packed into his reimagined world. There are book jokes all over the place (with a helpful list at the end of the book that lets you know which books were made up and which were real), enemies possessed by the worst villains from fiction, chupacabra halfbreeds, and more. Here's hoping that Hines can keep it up in the sequels.

10.21.2012

The Killing Moon, by N.K. Jemisin

The Killing Moon
N.K. Jemisin follows up her amazing Inheritance Trilogy with a new series, starting with The Killing Moon. Currently, there are only two books and I'm not sure if there are going to be more. It's a shame if Jemisin doesn't write anymore in this series, because the world she created in them is amazing.

Just as she did in the Inheritance Trilogy, Jemisin has created a world deeply affected by religion. The people of Gujaareh (the primary setting of the book) have built their lives (or have had their lives built around, some would argue) around the worship of the goddess of dreams. Using narcomancy (dream magic), this goddess' priests can heal injury and madness, convey peace or ecstasy. They can also kill dreamers in their sleep. The story is told in turns by Ehiru, one of these priests; his apprentice, Nijiri; and an abassador, Sunandi. Ehiru and Nijiri are believers, deeply pious. But it becomes clear, especially to Sunandi, that the priesthood and Gujaareh's prince are deeply corrupt. They are misusing their gifts, and the prince is planning to use narcomancy to conquer the world.

Sunandi, Ehiru, and Nijiri take it upon themselves to stop the prince. Not only do they have to contend with political machinations, by Ehiru and Nijiri are also dealing with a serious crisis of faith. Having been taught all their lives that taking the lives of the terminally ill is a holy thing, finding out that this gift is being used almost breaks Ehiru. It also turns what would have already been an interesting story into a very profound one.

The world Jemisin created here is amazing. It's original and it feels real, given the thought that Jemisin put into the religion and culture and history. This is what makes or breaks a fantasy novel, for me.

If you'll excuse me, I need to get the second book in this series from the kindle store.

The Rook, by Daniel O'Malley

The Rook
Daniel O'Malley's The Rook is a fairly ambitious novel. It seeks to blend espionage and the supernatural together into a humorous adventure about life "on Her Majesty's Supernatural Secret Service." And apart from a certain unevenness, I'm happy to say that he's mostly succeeded. The good things about this book far outweigh the problems.

At the beginning of the book, we meet Myfanwy Thomas--except she's not really Myfanwy. The original Myfanwy had her memories and personality destroyed in a complex conspiracy. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Myfanwy II opens her eyes in the middle of a park, surrounded by dead people. Using letters written by Myfanwy I, Myfanwy II gets to safety and begins investigating what happened to her predecessor. But first, she--and we, the readers--have to get used to Myfanwy I's unusual occupation as Rook for a secret organization that polices Britain's weirdnesses. Myfanwy II gets a crash course in her job via the aforementioned letters and manages to settle in surprisingly well. She has more gumption than her previous incarnation, making her an entertaining narrator and heroine.

The plot meanders, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. By the end, what seemed like episodic scenes of Myfanwy II dealing with the outre cases that come her way actually turn out to be clues to the large conspiracy that took Myfanwy I's memories. Over the course of the book, Myfanwy II has to deal with overgrown, man eating fungus, skinless men in fish tanks, genetic manipulators, along with assorted villains. I have to hand it to O'Malley for handling all those different plot threads.

As I mentioned before, there are hints of unevenness, mostly in the dialog. The narrative wavers between taking itself seriously and then it all abruptly becomes a big lark, with characters bantering away while horrible things happen in the background. The banter is out of place. It's funny, sure, but the book works a lot better when it takes itself seriously. When it does, you end up taking the story more seriously. It's much more engrossing that way.

I daresay that this is the start of a series, and one I'm very looking forward to reading. There's a lot of originality here. O'Malley put a wealth of detail into it, created an entire alternate history for his Checque organization. The characters are well drawn (except when they're bantering too much). And the plot is marvelous.

10.14.2012

Talulla Rising, by Glen Duncan

Talulla Rising
You might be surprised, considering my reaction to the first book in this series, that I carried on and read Glen Duncan's Talulla Rising. I picked it up mostly because of the reviews. Surprisingly, I actually found myself in accord with the critics on this one. This book is better than its predecessor. A lot better. I actually have fewer misgiving in recommending this one to others. While Duncan still uses the c-word fairly liberally and there's some fairly gruesome violence in this book, there's a lot of plot, a lot of intriguing mystery, and, for me, a better narrator.

The Last Werewolf was narrated by the putative last werewolf, Jake Marlowe. Talulla Rising is narrated by his lover, the eponymous Talulla. We rejoin her in remote Alaska, just before she gives birth to their twins. But enemies from the previous book kidnap her son and leave Talulla helpless to follow. (It's not a spoiler if it happens in the first chapter.) Most of the book follows Talulla's attempts to get her son back and learn how to be a mother to her daughter. She worries a lot about being a good mother and bonding and what she should do and be--which humanizes her for all that she becomes murderous, hairy monster every month.

The Last Werewolf introduced us to WOCOP, a secret organization dedicated to controlling supernatural creatures. Talulla Rising brings in even more. There are all kinds of agendas and Talulla and her allies get attacked by representatives of just about everyone on of them. Duncan's a little overfond of the "Suddenly, guys burst in through the door/window" cliffhanger, to be honest. But it makes for a some fascinating complications when it comes time for our narrator to decide who she's going to trust. It also lays the groundwork for another book in the series, which looks to be even more complicated.

It doesn't take long for Talulla to find out that her son was kidnapped by a vampire cult. They're very well connected and very well hidden. And since they're well armed, too, Talulla has to gather allies. It's a little convenient the way that trustworthy people wander into her path. As I said, Duncan likes his coincidences. But there are enough moments of danger to keep things from seeming too easy. In fact, there's a part in the middle of the book where Talulla herself gets kidnapped and subjected to some gruesome tortures by doctors who take after the example of Dr. Mengele and his ilk--that is torture in the name of dubious "science." It all got pretty close to my limits for the amount of violence I can handle in fiction.

Talulla Rising is well plotted, well written, well paced, and has a great narrator. I like this kind of contemporary fantasy. It's not just standoffs in a big room like a lot of the other well known series seem to have degenerated into. It has a few problems, but not enough to totally derail things. While I enjoyed the philosophical ponderings of the last book, this book did a better job of blending action and thought together. It didn't bog down nearly as much as The Last Werewolf did. I'd still recommend the first book, because readers will get lost trying to pick up what's happening in this book.

What Language Is, by John McWhorter

I think my friends on Facebook are glad I'm done with this book, because for three days I kept posting quotes and language trivia on my page. (Honestly, guys, I couldn't help it!)

What Language Is
John McWhorter's What Language Is is like an extended conversation with the author, in which he sits down and just talks. The book starts out with the metaphor of language as an iceberg. What we can see above the water is what is spoken today. What we don't see, below the water, is all the history that came before, all the vowel shifts and slang and shortcuts, etc. Once the metaphor is established, McWhorter rambles through a series of examples of how wonderfully complex language can be if it's left alone. I don't mean ramble in a bad way. It's more like a conversation with a good friend, when you start our with topic one and end up at topic q.

And I enjoyed the hell out of it. Because I am a word nerd.

McWhorter makes several arguments in this book, coming down firmly on the side of language evolution. For centuries, grammarians, etc., have written about the deplorable state of the language among the young people. It's only in the last hundred years or so that linguists and other interested parties have started to point out how silly it is for people to insist that language stay static. One of McWhorter's primary points is that language is fundamentally oral. What's written on the page is just a reflection of how we really speak. That's not to say that we can use slang and curse words at work, it just means that it's futile for people to write letters to the editor ranting about text speak. It also means that people need to stop looking down on dialects like African American Vernacular. (After all, Dante wrote in the vernacular of his day and look what happened there.)

If left in isolation--that is, without many adults trying to learn the language--languages tend to become more complex. McWhorter points out more than a few languages (Archi, Navajo, etc.) that are so complex that they're almost impossible to learn once you leave childhood and lose the ability to pick up languages just by listening. The way McWhorter sees it, English is actually fairly unusual compared to other languages because of its simple (relatively) grammar. Other languages use grammar in the form of prefixes, suffixes, declensions, and conjugations to do things like indicate how far away something is relative not only to the speaker but to the listener or whether the speaker witnessed something or only heard about it after the fact. McWhorter never tries to explain what this tendency to complexity is for, but he does address the question briefly before moving on to more examples. I'd be kind of frustrated about this, but when I read it, I thought, "Well, what speaker would be able to say why they say things the way they do. They just do."

This book isn't for everyone, I know. But I did enjoy reading it. Most books about language tend to be deathly dull. McWhorter has the knack for making a good argument about linguistics and actually making his reader laugh while doing it. Here's one of my favorite quotes from the book:
The nearest equivalent for an English speaker [to highly complex verb conjugations for different tenses, i.e. lots of irregular verbs] would be if every verb were like be, where we have to know that it's I am but I was and I've been and, subjunctively, if I were--just imagine if English had it in addition that today I speak, yesterday I spoke, tomorrow I spock, repetitively I spack, and hypothetically I just might spoo. (68*)
The whole book is full of sentences like that. So, if you're a fellow word nerd, I highly recommend this book and McWhorter's previous one, a history of the English language, titled Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue.

* From the 2011 hardback edition.

10.07.2012

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants
The biggest question I'm left with after reading Sarah Gruen's Water for Elephants isn't about actual circus history or the path of true love. It's, "How can people be so cruel to animals?" I used to enjoy circuses, when I was young. But then I learned about the conditions the animals are kept in, and how they're abused during training and performances. I know not all circuses are like this, but even greats like the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus has been repeatedly fined for violations of the Animal Welfare Act. So while a lot of the attention given to this book was on the human characters, most of my sympathy and worry were for the animals in the fictitious Benzini Brothers Circus.

The novel flips back and forth in time as Jacob Jankowski remembers his summer with the Benzini Circus and endures his present in a nursing home. We meet Jacob when he's 90 (or 93, he's not sure which) and getting fed up with being treated like a child by the nursing home staff. His mind constantly drifts back to the summer his parents died and he ended up working as a veterinarian for the circus. Soon after he gets the job, he meets the star performers: Marlena the horseback rider and her husband, the dangerous and mercurial August, chief animal wrangler. Most of the cruelty I mentioned before comes from him. If things don't go his way, August responds with shocking violence.

The best parts of this book were when Gruen showed off her knowledge of American circus history. It was a joy for my trivia obsessed brain to learn about circus cant and the devious ways of circus directors and to see (through the text) the different acts. I can see why people flock to circuses (provided you don't know what's happening back stage). The Benzini Brothers show seems more dodgy than any other. Since it's the summer of 1931, the workers and performers are stuck with the show even though they don't get paid and sometimes go hungry.

Jacob learns to get by, mostly by laying low when the circus owner, Uncle Al, and August are in their moods. For a while, a lot of the other workers also seem to hate Jacob's guts, at least until they work out that he's pretty much a decent guy. A lot of the book flies by as the circus moves from town to town and Gruen maneuvers her characters into an all-hell-breaks-loose situation. It's pretty spectacular to see, and more than a little satisfying when you get to it.

You just know that Jacob and Marlena have to fall in love, and they do. And I rooted for Jacob in that respect. But I was frustrated with Jacob when it came to his care of the animals in the circus. For someone who professed to love animals, why did he let August beat and torment them? Jacob repeatedly castigates himself for failing his charges. So why doesn't he actually do something about it? He's willing to fight August when August threatens Marlena with violence. But Rosie the elephant suffers worse than Marlena does, and Jacob doesn't lift a finger.

So I'm pretty torn about how I feel about this book. I really, really hate to see animal cruelty. That bothered me so much that I had a hard time really liking Jacob. That Gruen showed Jacob to us as a crochety old man didn't really help either. The only thing that helped me along was the prologue. I wasn't sure that Gruen made a wise decision by revealing so much before you even get to the main story. But by the time Rosie the elephant joins the show, I understood why we had to see that peak at the end of the story. If I hadn't been reading the book on my iPad, I might have actually chucked it across the room in anger.

John Dies at the End, by David Wong

John Dies at the End
If anyone ever asks me in the future, "What's the most demented book you've ever read?" I won't have to think about it very hard. It's hard to imagine anything more bizarre than David Wong's John Dies in the End. The best that I can describe it is to say that it's a blend of horror and surrealism, with enough humor thrown in to spare your sanity.

It all starts at a party. David Wong (the narrator in this case, not the pseudonymous author) sees his friends taking off with another one of the guests. The next thing he knows, people are dead and anyone who took the drug starts to see really weird things, really weird things. The novel is framed by David telling his story to a reporter, and moves back and forth through time from the party and its aftermath to a massacre in Las Vegas to a horrific climax in another world.

After the party, David tells the reporter, he and his friend John (of the title) end up getting into the business of laying various weirdnesses to rest. They basically make it up as they go along. David is mostly clueless, but John seems to have a knack for figure out how to deal with things like floating giant Portuguese men o'war and giant scorpions wearing wigs. (After a while, you start to wonder what kind of drugs the author was one when he wrote this.)

Strangely enough, David Wong (the writer) manages to infuse this parade of bizarreness with enough heart to make you care for the characters just as much as you want to know what the hell is going on. David (the character) and John are obviously the kind of friends that will stick together through anything, and will take extraordinary risks to save each others' lives.

If you do pick this book up, try to read it in as few sittings as possible. This book is tricky enough to follow as it is, without having to remember what you read 24 hours or more ago. 

9.30.2012

Territory, by Emma Bull

Territory
I hate to say it, but Emma Bull's Territory is, ultimately, a pretty disappointing story. She could have done a lot more with this story, but the ending ruins the whole thing. If you don't want spoilers, you can stop reading here.

Territory is set in Tombstone, Arizona in 1881. Those who know their history will recognize that 1881 is when the Earp-Cowboy feud gets started. To this rich setting, Bull adds an interesting sort of magic to spice things up. The story is told in three parts, to build suspense as the different magicians marshal their forces. Mildred Benjamin, a widow who works for a newspaper, serves as a love interest for one of the other narrators and as an explication aid. She sets the scene, meets the major players, and helps piece together the story for the reader, in her role as a nascent reporter. Another part of the story is narrated by Jesse Fox, a mysterious stranger with magical abilities. He intended to stop through Tombstone to visit a friend before heading on to Mexico, but ends up getting tangled up in the Earp/Cowboy mess. The last narrator is Doc Holliday. Bull doesn't make the best use of him as a narrator, unfortunately. Holliday doesn't have much to do but be pushed around by Wyatt Earp.

The plot roughly follows the escalation of the Feud. But it stops well short of what I would have thought would be the natural climax of the story, the O.K. Corral shootout. That ending would have been spectacular with the addition of magic. I was really looking forward to it, but the book just ends with Fox hexing Wyatt Earp before moving on with Mildred. This book could have been really good if Bull had just gone that little bit more.

The Last Werewolf, by Glen Duncan

The Last Werewolf
In The Last Werewolf, Glen Duncan gives the furry a literary treatment. Our protagonist spends a lot of the first half of the book moody, feeling emotions that I'm pretty sure only the French have words for. Even though he spends every full moon as a raving monster that eats people. I kind of liked that. Not the cannibalism, of course, but that Duncan didn't try to pretty it up like some other authors have done to other supernatural creatures lately. The fact that the protagonist, Jake Marlowe, actually is a monster gives weight to the plot. On the one hand, Jake's enemies are pretty vile people. But then, Jake regularly eats people. Who the hell are you supposed to root for?

Of course, when he's not eating people, Jake is a fairly nice guy, except for his ennui. For the first half of the book, once Jake gets word that he is the last of his kind. There haven't been any new werewolves for over a century and the penultimate werewolf was shot by WOCOP, an organization that seeks to control the occult around the world--mostly be knocking off werewolves and keeping the vampires' numbers under a certain limit. Jake, still suffering his French depressions, decides to let WOCOP finish him off. After all, he's lived for over 150 years; he figures he's done.

If I hadn't read a review of this book first, I probably would have given up reading it. Even when it's fictional, Jake's malaise was starting to become contagious. Fortunately, Jake gets some news at the halfway point that he's not the last werewolf. Even better, the other werewolf is female. So of course, the next bit of the book contains a lot of sex. Duncan's repeated use of the c word, though, made this part hard to get through. I'm normally okay with swearing, but that word really bothers me.

Duncan does rally towards the end and gets the plot back on track. WOCOP and vampires start to close in. Jake makes a deal with a renegade member of WOCOP to try and get himself and his lover out of trouble. It all comes to a head, in a pretty spectacular fight. I can't say the fight makes up for the ennui and the c word, but it was fun to read.

I don't know who I would recommend this book to. Sure, it's one of the better werewolf books out there. But to enjoy it, you'd have to be a fan of the literary spin on horror stories, not mind animalistic sex, copious swearing, and the aforementioned French depression.

9.22.2012

The Twelfth Enchantment, by David Liss

The Twelfth Enchantment
David Liss' The Twelfth Enchantment is an entertaining mix of magic and Pride and Prejudice romance. It's quite a change from the author of several serious works of historical fiction. When I picked it up, I wondered if the magic part would just be hinted at or explained away. But, no, this really is a work of fantasy. Not that that's a bad thing; it's actually a fun blend. I wonder (and I hope) that Liss turns this into a series.

Our heroine, Lucy Derrick, lives on sufferance at her uncle's house after losing her inheritance and almost ruining herself by running away with a man. (This is 1812.) But after encounters with strange people who disappear, Lucy learns that she has a natural talent for magic. She quickly harnesses that talent to try and improve her lot in life and avoid marriage to a particularly odious mill owner. It soon becomes clear that, for whatever reason, Lucy is a the center of a war between supernaturally backed Luddites and supernaturally backed industrialists for the future of England.

The story twists and turns as Lucy learns more about the conspiracy around her. This is a complex story, and Liss writes it in such a way that you feel betrayed or thwarted when Lucy does. I was surprised just as often as she was. And I very much enjoyed Liss' blending of magic and actual history. The Luddite movement was a very serious near revolution, not just a joking epithet for someone who doesn't like technology. The Industrial Revolution was hugely disruptive and this book takes place right in the middle of a paradigm shift in English society. I would have enjoyed this book even without the supernatural plot.  

Redshirts: A Novel With Three Codas, by John Scalzi

Redshirts
Some of my favorite books are meta. Since I discovered this genre-spanning fiction, I've been hunting for new ones. I love books that play around with the boundaries of perspective, framing devices, and narrative rules. John Scalzi's Redshirts does all of that, with what I'm coming to recognize as his trademark irreverent humor.

If you haven't seen that much Star Trek (original series), you might not recognize the red shirt plot device. Essentially, a red shirt character is designed to be cannon fodder. They're usually unnamed characters who get killed before the first commercial break for a bit of extra dramatic tension. In Scalzi's novel, the story is told from the perspective of these minor characters.

Shortly after being assigned to the Universal Union ship Intrepid, Andy Dahl realizes that there is something weird going on. Crew members go out of their way to avoid away missions, to the point of tracking the location of high ranking officers so that they can duck into closets or rush off on "urgent" errands. One of these officers has been shot, infected, and severely injured repeatedly, but still manages to be back on duty within a week or so. Physics and biology get impossibly bent to allow for things like time travel, lucky coincidences, and general bullshit. After a few weeks, Dahl meets Jenkins who has the bizarre theory that they are all in a bad science fiction show. Weirdly, it's the only theory that fits. And then the book gets really meta as Dahl and his friends, fellow cannon fodder, try to find the writers of the show to stop them from killing off crew members in ridiculous ways.

I loved reading this book. There are so many jokes about stock science fiction plots and characters that you'll be laughing every couple of pages. And on top of all that genre-bending stuff is a very poignant story. You might not think of this as the kind of book that invites deep analysis (other than to point out the flaws in bad science fiction), but it really is. Once the characters start to come to terms with the fact that they are fictional and real at the same time, they start to suffer from some very serious existential angst. If you know that you were created to die for a little dramatic tension, what's the point of carrying on? If you can't avoid your pathetic fate, why try to find a way out? I like to think that Camus would have enjoyed this book. (You know, if he wasn't fifty years dead.) By the time you hit the three amazing codas, this book gives you all kinds of dilemmas to ponder.

This book is simply amazing.

The Gods of Gotham, by Lindsay Faye

The Gods of Gotham
Lindsay Faye's The Gods of Gotham was a fascinating read of 1845 New York. Though the ending has some problems, the amount of detail and the stunning characters made this a very, very good read. Not only that, but reading this book was like experiencing a bit of time travel. While New York today is still an intimidating and, occasionally, frightening place, New York of 1845 was deadly. In 1845, the city police were just getting started, firefighter companies did battle in the streets, gangs controlled entire neighborhoods, nativist agitators, and various political machines taught new immigrants how to commit voter fraud. As I read Faye's skillful exposition, it was like I could almost smell New York (not pleasant).

We meet our protagonist, Timothy Wilde, just before a devastating fire robs him of his savings and causing him to despair of winning to love of his long time crush. His brother, a rake and political fixer for the Democrats, gets him a job on the newly formed police force*. Wilde reluctantly takes the job, but soon finds that his observational skills make the job a perfect fit for him. A couple of months after starting his beat in Five Points, a blood-covered girl runs into him (literally) in the street after escaping from a brothel. Be warned, there are some pretty shocking vices in this book. Wilde can't help but investigate and uncovers a grisly set of mutilated corpse of children. As it's the first big challenge to the abilities of the police force, the case attracts attention from all the players in the city.

Faye throws plenty of twists and complications at her protagonist, the the point where I couldn't work out who did it. I won't say the solution was a disappointment, because it was highly complicated an original. However, the way it plays out on paper did make me think that the solution was a cop out until Faye kept going to reveal the rest of what happened. The pacing didn't really work for me.But that was the only problem with the book. The rest of it is just fantastic--provided that you have a strong stomach.

* Interestingly, the big argument against having a police force came from people who considered it like having a standing army in New York. I have to wonder how many of these were criminals. Considering conditions in New York at the time, I should think that most people would welcome some peacekeeping.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, by Seth Grahame-Smith

Abraham Lincoln:
Vampire Hunter
Yes, I finally read it. When I've mentioned this to friends and family and they ask me how it was, I always end up replying, "Well, it was better than I expected." I've read a few of the mash up novels, enough to know that the quality is highly variable. I didn't have particularly high expectations for this one, but I did enjoy reading it. Seth Grahame-Smith's Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter writes a hidden history behind the actual Lincoln's life, complete with Photoshopped historic photographs (possibly my favorite parts of the book).

Most of the action takes place before Lincoln's election to the presidency. As I read Grahame-Smith's account, I had to keep checking Wikipedia to read the real biographies of Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln, John Seward, and a dozen others--which I always enjoy. The plot revolves around Lincoln's drive for revenge against vampires for murdering his mother. As he slashes his way across the midwest with his trusty ax, Lincoln discovers that vampires are exploiting slavery in a bid to eventually take over the entire country.

That's pretty much it for plot, actually. There are a lot of great fight scenes and plenty of dramatic tension (apart from knowing that Lincoln himself can't die until 1865). It wasn't a bad way to pass the time.