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April 10, 2014

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

Digital Bookshelf: No Intro Edition

Hild, by Nicola Griffith

This book is a weird beast. Set in Britain around the year 600AD, around the time that the island was converting to Christianity, it follows a woman who would eventually become St. Hilda of Whitby (no, I don't know who she is either). Hild is a seer from an early age, not really because she has any mystical powers but more because she's been raised by her mother to be a highly-trained political operator, surrounded by people who aren't looking much past their own self-interest. Caught between the Catholic church, Irish war parties, and her own hostile king, Hild spends much of the book trying to figure out how to keep herself and her family safe by predicting events before anyone else realizes what's going on.

The elevator pitch for this — Dune if Paul Atreides was a woman in the middle ages — is so good, it's all the more annoying that Hild herself comes across as one-dimensional and unrealistic. She's setting policy by the age of ten, and running large chunks of the country by 16. It's not really a Mary Sue — Hild has plenty of flaws, and regularly makes mistakes — so much as it's merely undramatic. The narration tends to tell, rather than show, with little in the way of suspense or surprise. Griffith's goal, at least in part, seems to be to use Hild as a critique of passive female characters in fantasy literature, which is a fine goal. It's frustrating that she seems to have forgotten to make her very interesting in the process.

Precision Journalism, by Philip Meyer

This book is often cited on the NICAR discussion list as the go-to textbook for data journalists, but I'd never read it. The Kindle version is the 2002 4th edition, which seems to be the newest copy. As a result, parts of it are dated or a little "quaint," but for the most part I think it actually holds up to its reputation. Meyer keeps a light touch throughout the book, walking reporters through standard statistical tests, surveys and polling, and databases without getting bogged down into too much operational detail. There's a lot of "here's the formula, and here's where to go to learn more," which seems reasonable.

Inadvertently, being a textbook for an undergraduate audience, Precision Journalism is revealing as much for what it thinks students won't know as it is for what it explicitly teaches. For example, there's an early chapter that covers probability, which makes sense: probability is confusing, and many people get it wrong even after a statistics class. I'm a little snobbier about the following chapter, in which Meyer details how to figure percentage change and change in percentage (subtly different concepts). Part of me wants is glad that it's being covered. Another part is annoyed that students don't know it already.

That said, Meyer's enthusiasm and practical outlook on what we now call "data journalism" really resonated with me. I'd like to have seen more emphasis on SQL instead of SAS, but that's nitpicking. For the most part, Precision Journalism does a great job of covering the strengths and weaknesses of computer-assisted reporting, with lots of examples and wry humor. I guess there's a reason it's a classic.

Debt, by David Graeber

Everything in Debt is kind of a letdown after its second chapter. That would be section where Graeber disembowels the common economic myth of a "barter economy" — the idea that in some mythical village, one person had chickens but wanted shoes, and the other person had shoes but didn't want chickens, and so to enable them both to trade despite their conflicting desires, we invented money. How convenient!

Turns out it's also a complete fabrication, despite the efforts of decades of anthropologists trying to find such a barter society. Instead, the historical record shows that people in non-money societies are linked by an interwoven network of casual debts and favors, not strict one-for-one exchanges. We invented money not to supplant barter, but when we needed a method of exchange that didn't involve trust — usually to give soldiers a way to pay for things when they camped somewhere, given that they were only temporary occupiers and not accountable for the same kind of debts as a neighbor.

This is not new research, apparently — Graeber complains that anthropologists have been trying to convince economists to find a new origin story for years — but it was new to me. The realization that the foundational mythology of economics is a fairy tale doesn't disprove its validity as a field, but it does raise a lot of really interesting questions. Graeber, a former leader within the Occupy movement, certainly pulls no punches in his criticisms.

The rest of the book is good and similarly thought-provoking, but it can't help but seem a bit underwhelming. Graeber works his way forward methodically through all the ways that we conceptualize obligations, then through the history of debt and payment up through the modern age. At times, this is fascinating, especially when he discusses "reversions" from a monetary economy to an informal debt economy. Ultimately, the book builds to a theory of international politics that ties debt to "tribute." Is it convincing? For my part, not entirely, no. But it's a fascinating and deeply-researched argument.

Halo: Kilo-Five trilogy, by Karen Traviss

Karen Traviss is one of those writers who makes me resent the licensed-property industry a little bit. A talented genre writer — her Wess'har books are a sharp and unsettling rumination on politics and veganism — Traviss gets tapped a lot to write tie-in novels for movies and games. She's good enough that the result sometimes transcends its origin, so every now and then I'll give one a shot. The Kilo-Five books are basically what you get if you cross Halo's backstory with a spy yarn.

Set between the third and fourth games, the Kilo Five books bear little resemblance to the action of the source material. There aren't a lot of firefights on offer: instead, the plot bears more resemblance to Operation Mincemeat, the WWII counterintelligence operation that disguised the fact that the Allies had broken Nazi codes. Having won a war against hostile aliens, the books' human protagonists are working covertly to keep them destabilized by creating civil unrest and sabotaging infrastructure. It's also a subversive take on the macho warrior spirit of the Halo franchise, which makes the Amazon reviews from wounded fans almost worth the price of admission. I'm still glad Traviss is getting back to original fiction, though.

Girl Sleuth, by Melanie Rehak

When I was a kid, my dad went to a second-hand bookstore and bought ten or fifteen of the Tom Swift Jr. pulp novels for me. Even though at that point they were probably thirty years old, dated with golly-gee-whiz references to the wonders of atomic power (oh, to have lived in the uncomplicated world before Three Mile Island), I read them cover to cover multiple times. Tom Swift, of course, was a product of the Stratemeyer Syndicate and its potboiler formula — the same one that powered the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, neither of which I read but which I'm sure I would have found equally compelling.

Girl Sleuth is nominally a history of Nancy Drew, but it also serves as a look at the Stratemeyer dynasty: started by an enterprising writer named Edward Stratemeyer, then carried on by his daughter Harriet when he passed away. It's also the story of Mildred Wirt, the woman who wrote almost all the original Nancy Drew, but was for years hidden behind the syndicate's pen name, Carolyn Keene. Rehak traces the evolution of the character, as well as the parallel tension between the younger Stratemeyer, who wrote many of the series outlines, and Wirt, an adventurous newspaper journalist who churned out an unthinkable number of pages for the series. Both women believed, not without reason, that they were the real author of Nancy Drew.

As much as anything else, Rehak's re-telling is a fascinating look at the lifecycle of pop culture. Nancy Drew began as a semi-disreputable pulp sensation: hated by librarians, but a hot commodity among kids. For whatever reason, the series took off, and was beloved enough that (like my Tom Swifts) it was passed on to a new generation, who took the old stories and found new contemporary values in them. In a way, it could be argued that she was as much a creation of the readers as of either of her "authors." Transformed by the changing youth culture of the 20th century, Nancy Drew became a proto-feminist icon, then an American tradition, and is now an article of nostalgia. Rehak seems optimistic that she can adapt even further, but I wonder if that's not belaboring the point. Sometimes a good story should just end.

August 23, 2012

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

Digital Bookshelf: Seattle Sunburn Edition

This summer I've started abusing the e-book lending program from the Seattle Public Library. The process itself is kind of stupid (why do I need to be on a waiting list for a digital file? Why can't I download it over the cell network?) but it's cheap and the selection's not bad. Unfortunately, the library doesn't keep a separate list of what you've borrowed, and I went and cleaned up my Amazon list, so I'm having to write part of this from memory. Truly, these are awful times.

For a long time, I didn't particularly have any feelings one way or the other about Connie Willis. She wrote that one depressing book about the black plague, is about all I could tell you. Then I read To Say Nothing of the Dog, which is probably the funniest time-travel book I've found (granted, not a terribly hilarious genre), and figured I'd give her another chance (the library has a ton of Willis available). Passage was probably the first title I picked up. A book about the science (and pseudo-science) of near-death experiences, it has all of the hallmarks of her work: sympathetic characters trapped in quagmire of bureaucracy, chaos, and cheerful incompetence--in this case, a hospital filled with quirky patients and ever-shifting construction. I don't think I reacted quite as strongly as Jo Walton to the twist ending, but I sympathize. It's a funny book, but (as is also often the case with Willis) maddeningly-paced. I would probably recommend it anyway.

Bellwether is also oddly-paced, but probably funnier and without the existential angst. It's about a scientist working for the HyTech corporation, trying to find out what causes fads, while fending off waves of trendy management policies and a disastrously bad office assistant. In a last-ditch effort to keep funding, she pairs up with a chaos theory mathematician using sheep for experimental subjects, even though neither of them knows the first thing about sheep. Willis has a gift for running jokes in dialog that she uses here, as every character has their own competing obsessions running roughshod over everyone else's. It's not an unpredictable book, which is funny for a story about chaos theory, but the enjoyment is in the journey.

Baratunde Thurston's How to be Black is ostensibly a satirical how-to guide, but really it's a memoir. In between chapters like "How to Be The (Next) Black President" and "How to Speak for All Black People", Thurston (a former web editor for The Onion) writes about what it was like to grow up in DC as a black kid in a militant vegetarian, pro-black household, attend private school with the politically-connected, and finally head off to Harvard. Honestly, I could have done with more of these stories, which are funny and glib in a self-deprecating way, more than a lot of the guidebook chapters, which start to feel like filler. At 272 pages, the book was a perfect library read: short enough to get through without endangering late fees on anything else, funny enough I didn't mind the length, cheap enough I didn't feel cheated that it was 272 pages with filler.

In addition to the library, I've also spent the summer reading through books that were downloaded to my Kindle literally years ago, but that I'd never gotten around to reading--mostly from book giveaways, before the publishers decided the real path to e-book success was to charge way too much for them. This means a number of terrible mystery novels and some decidedly mediocre fantasy. But one book stands out for being more bizarre than anything else in my backlog.

Flash, by L.E. Modesitt, is the simple story of a man named Jonat who consults on product placement in a not-quite-dystopian future, where ad jingles often include subliminal harmonics to create brand identification. Except he's also an ex-Special Ops soldier with a bunch of cybernetic enhancements that somehow the government just forgot to turn off. Hired to do some political consulting that goes vaguely wrong, Jonat finds himself on the wrong end of an enormous corporate conspiracy. This is the point where most protagonists would find some way to expose the malfeasance and cleverly put their enemies into a position of harmlessness. Jonat, on the other hand, embarks on a bizarre rampage of assassination and murder when confronted. Despite all evidence, the book seems convinced that Jonat is a fine, upstanding person--after a couple of bombings, shootings, and fatal traffic accidents, there's a moderately happy ending, in which he starts dating the emancipated clone body of a police AI.

To call it strange is perhaps not even the right word. It's as though Heinlein decided to start writing knockoffs of The Bourne Identity. I almost think you should read it.

March 1, 2012

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

Digital Bookshelf: Rainy Season Edition

Winter in Seattle seems to be a pretty good time to get some reading done. On the other hand, although I'm riding the bus a lot, my individual commutes are much shorter. I no longer find myself with three hours a day that I can devote to that week's book. As blessings go, that's definitely mixed, but on balance I'll take it.

Grant Morrison's Supergods is, like its author, a weird and rambling mess. Part autobiography, part examination of the cultural impact of superheroes, and part discourse on cyclical history, it ranges from brilliant to tedious (sometimes within a few pages). I bought this mainly on the strength of Morrison's reputation, having never really read his work. People who are actual fans may find it less uneven than I did.

The Cold Commands, by Richard K. Morgan, is a disappointing follow-up. Morgan is one of my favorite science fiction authors--he often writes a kind of hard-boiled, transhuman noir that's like putting The Maltese Falcon through Marvin Minsky's upload process--so I was a little nervous when he wrote The Steel Remains, but it turned out to be a dark, subversive take on the genre: a gay war hero in a homophobic society, a Lovecraftian view of the supernatural, and no small amount of contempt for the tropes of genre. The Cold Commands continues the setting and characters, which is fine, but then it squanders its entire plot on nothing much in particular. Too long and too little, it makes me hope that the buildup is worth whatever Morgan has planned.

Let's Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice reads like a clear case of fitting a hook to a topic rather than letting it flow naturally. Author Paul Butler, a former prosecutor, has good points to make about how the American justice system is broken in ways that unduly punish black men, and his comments on how jail culture has spread out into hip-hop are thoughtful and interesting. But his answer is less a "hip-hop" theory of justice than a "common sense" or "progressive" theory. I guess that's not quite as marketable. It's worth reading if you're interested in the subject for its own sake, and not if you're hoping for some kind of wild cultural blend. Maybe that's a problem of my own expectations.

If you're looking for good, old-fashioned science fiction, you could do worse than The Door into Elysium by Joan Slonczewski. It has aliens! Matriachy! Genetic engineering! Distant and oppressive empires! For all that, it is also partly a book about non-violent social protest, which puts it right up my alley. It reminded me in many ways of le Guin's work--a thoughtful, steadily-built character drama at a subversively large scale. It is also (vaguely) like Dune, at least plotwise: the plot pits one planet of near-feudal bureacrats against a group of environmentally-aware anarchists. Recommended if you like books about institutional politics (read: not more tedious court intrigues), or if you're a sucker for the book's ecological setting.

I didn't hate Jacqueline Cary's Santa Olivia--a goofy pulp title about genetically modified boxing-- but her follow-up, Saints Astray, is criminally bad. Somewhere between the two books, Carey appears to have forgotten to write dialog without relying on annoying verbal tics, and the book is virtually plotless. It reads like wish-fulfillment--not something genre fiction (and particularly science fiction) needs any more of. You cannot skip this book fast enough.

Having never played The Witcher, I didn't really know what to expect when I picked up The Last Wish and The Blood of Elves, which are two of the books by Andrzej Sapkowski on which the games are based. They turned out to be surprisingly good (particularly The Last Wish). Although they feature Sapkowski's mutated monster-hunter Geralt as a main character, half the stories seem to be parodic takes on various fairy tales, showing how they twist and turn when placed into more realistic circumstances. Although there are serious dramatic moments, there's also a thick slice of black humor running throughout, and Sapkowski has a gift for wry dialog that the excellent translation preserves. Blood of Elves is probably more skippable, since it's apparently an out-of-sequence middle book, but they're both easy to recommend.

Simon Morden's Equations of Life feels like a William Gibson novel that's trying too hard--and given Gibson's output lately, which has spiraled into a loop of tedious trendspotting, that's not a compliment. A noir-ish yarn about a Russian mathematician in post-disaster London tangling with Yakuza and killer nuns, it's too proud of its unoriginal ideas, and not willing to give its characters enough leash. For all that, Morden isn't a bad writer, so it's a quick read, but not a memorable one.

The Quantum Thief, by Hannu Rajaniemi, is one of those post-human "big idea" books that, for me, crosses the line from science fiction into tall tale. Yes, yes, sufficiently advanced technology indistinguishable from magic and all that, but when it all comes down to it, once you get far enough from the pre-Singularity here-and-now, your uploaded-consciousness yarn runs the risk of becoming either A) Mary Sue (i.e., John C. Wright) or B) unbearably twee. Rajaniemi's book, with its characters who manage their memories like social networking profiles, ends up closer to the latter, and it's to the author's credit that the best ideas don't get swamped under either exposition or deus ex machina. It's probably worth reading once it's out in paperback.

Now here is one of those rare titles: historical fiction wrapped in sci-fi, and it's (intentionally) laugh-out-loud funny. To Say Nothing of the Dog is one of a loosely-related series by Connie Willis, in which historians at Oxford travel back in time and meet with various mishaps. In this case, the main character is sent back to the Victorian era to repair the timeline (somehow--the instructions get lost along the way) while recovering from a serious case of time-sickness (and while knowing absolutely nothing about Victorians, except that he once read Three Men in a Boat, which he then inadvertently inspires). If the denouement can't quite live up to the hilarious first two-thirds of the book, that's little enough to complain about.

Finally, after reading 5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth, which is a collection of Matthew Ingram's comics for The Oatmeal, I have an unfortunate confession: I don't think I actually like The Oatmeal very much. Ingram's comics are internet-famous, I just don't think they're actually that funny. Half of them are flat nerd humor straight out of Reddit, and of the rest, the charm wears thin across an entire book collection. Maybe they read better when they trickle out a little bit at a time. It's free from the Kindle Lending Library if you're an Amazon Prime member, but otherwise I wouldn't recommend it.

September 15, 2011

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

Digital Bookshelf: Medium and Message Edition

Before I get to the mini-reviews of my (mostly) Kindle reading recently, I want to talk about something that's undoubtably very stupid: books based on video games.

Crysis: Legion caught my eye, not because I care (or even know very much about) the game it's based on, but because it's written by Peter Watts. Watts wrote Blindsight, one of the most unnerving books about first contact, and the Rifters trilogy, the world's best underwater contagion disaster novel. He writes cerebral, hard science fiction that draws heavily on his background as a marine biologist. Watts is not, in other words, the guy you immediately imagine as the best candidate to write a book based on a game about robot-suited marines repeatedly shooting aliens in the head.

And sure enough, he can't entirely rescue it. Watts tries his best--a running subplot cognitive prostheses manages to be both creepy and darkly funny--but in the end, it's tied to the plot of the game, and that plot just isn't very good.

At least, it's not very good for a book. For all I know it's fine for a game. But Legion really illustrates how storytelling shifts between these mediums, and not always for the better on the interactive side of things. A game plot is subject to game mechanics: the verbs available to the player are the actions available to the character, and a satisfying experience comes from giving the player new ways to apply those verbs in increasingly complicated or involved circumstances.

So (I'm gathering from the book, granted) in Crysis 2, players can shoot things, they can flip switches, and they can assign energy to a set of suit abilities, such as defense or stealth. These actions are put to use in a series of firefights, directed by secondary characters who tell the player where to go, culminating in set-pieces where he or she has to fight through an alien mechanism to shut it down. For a game, that's plenty (as an FPS, in fact, it's already relying on a vast collection of behavior that players have learned). But it's a frustratingly passive, tedious experience for long-form print fiction, no matter how it's dressed up in an internal monologue and a series of interstitial reports from other points of view.

It doesn't have to be, of course. Just as a movie adaptation of a book has differences due to the change in medium, it's not unreasonable to expect that you could novelize a game. Nor is it intrinsically shameful: people draw their inspiration from all kinds of places (see also: Pirates of the Caribbean, Wicked, or the first Myst novel, none of which are "fine art" but still manage to be perfectly competent entertainment). But you can't do it by narrating the action. Pick a new character, expand the plot, do something unpredictable for heaven's sake.

With that out of the way, here are some of the other books I've read since my last set of reviews.

The Heroes is typical Joe Abercrombie: dark, slightly nihilistic fantasy tinged with gallows humor. It's the kind of thing that undercuts Sady Doyle's recent critique of George R. R. Martin--particularly the part where she describes fantasy literature as an "impulse to revisit an airbrushed, dragon-infested Medieval Europe." Abercrombie, even more than Martin, is not offering any pretense of airbrushing or of a desire to revisit anything. His generic fantasy setting is a miserable place, and his characters know it, which is part of what makes The Heroes so good--it's a careful deconstruction of the kinds of chivalry porn that has, admittedly, made up a respectable chunk of genre fiction. As such, it's probably best appreciated by people who know something about the context, and who don't mind an unhappy ending or three.

Richard Kadrey's Kill the Dead is a perfect example of how not to write a sequel. I read the previous book, Sandman Slim about a year ago, and thought it was a competent (if not exceptional) urban fantasy. That means I've had a year to forget almost everything about Kadrey's universe, and yet Kill the Dead does absolutely nothing to remind the reader about any of the characters, creations, or events of its preceding volume. I spent the entire first 100 pages asked "who? what, again?" and then looking for spoilers online. Combine that with a so-so zombie plot, and this is eminently skippable stuff.

Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and their Fans is kind of interesting given that Milestone--the minority-owned studio launched in the 90's--was rolled into the larger DC universe as a part of their recent reboot. Jeffrey Brown's look at Milestone in the context of black comic book heroes and comic book fans ranges back to the blacksploitation era, and while it's probably not saying anything incredibly new, it is interesting to read a critical look on how the company was received, how it grew, and what that means for a more diverse media. Whether or not Milestone's values will be able to survive under DC's leadership, we'll have to wait and see.

Wait, did George R. R. Martin actually release A Dance with Dragons this year? Most of the reviews I've read were positive, but I think those were caused by relief that it was actually published, because I thought this was a noticeably mediocre installment into the series. Despite the high page count, almost nothing happens--most of it is taken up by travelling and below-average court intrigues. Maybe that's to be expected: it's a middle book, after all, and those are sometimes more about setup than resolution. But it's certainly made me a lot less interested in continuing when Martin finally finishes book #6.

Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History, by David Aaronovitch, is another book that never quite achieves liftoff. Aaronovitch sets out to find a grand unified theory of why we create conspiracy theories, and the role they play in culture. But to do so, he drags the reader through a long series of conspiracies-as-case-studies. The result is big on history, not terribly strong on argument. Perhaps it's ironic, but I want a little bit more point-of-view and personality from my academic study of conspiracy myths.

In Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing, Jane Margolis and Allen Fisher examine why, exactly, the gender imbalance in high-tech occupations emerged and persists. They trace it back along three lines: family treatment of technology, "imposter" syndrome, and a hostile male culture in computing. The last few chapters detail a program that the authors put together to try to address the problem. Since it was published in 2001, a lot of the information inside has seeped into more public awareness, but this is still a really good book on how women are turned away from tech trades, and what teachers and employers should do to reduce that effect. Speaking as someone working with a team of male and female data journalists, it's definitely a shame to lose 50% of our potential talent before the conversation even begins.

I've come to the conclusion that I'm just not really into Ian Macdonald, and The Dervish House is no exception. Macdonald's schtick is near-singularity cyberpunk set in developing countries, as if he's setting out to push Gibson's observation about the distribution of the future as far as he can. I'm glad someone's writing science fiction that's not set in the USA--this time it's Turkey--and I like the books well enough, but I don't love them. That said, Dervish House's combination of financial scams, mellified men, and virally-induced religion manages to be a fun read, jam-packed with ideas and intersecting plotlines. It's good stuff, it's just not my cup of tea.

I bought two books by South African writer Lauren Beukes recently. Zoo City is the better of the two: an urban fantasy in which criminals are inexplicably saddled with an animal familiar they have to care for. The main character, Zinzi, is a former journalist (with a sloth) who's hired for a missing persons case--a macguffin that doesn't last long. It's a noir-ish book, and an unromantic one, but I like how it edges up to Magical Realism without stepping into full-blown preciousness. Moxyland is more traditional dystopian science fiction, with the now-obligatory alternate reality game plot point. Although there are some clever touches in there--the strandbeest-like bio-art and the ebola variant used for crowd control--it's hard for me to get past the parts that borrow too heavily from contemporaneous fashions like gamification, without feeling like I'd rather just open up my RSS feeds.

Half-Made World? More like "half-written book," ba-dum-bum. Felix Gilman's bizarre pastiche reminds me a little bit of Mieville's Iron Council--it's a Western that's set... elsewhere, for lack of a better word--but in the end it just stops: either it's a setup for a sequel, or Gilman forgot how an ending is supposed to work. I like the idea of catching the ordinary people of his faux-Wild West between the Gun (representing the darkest parts of the gunslinger myth) and the Line (a malignant bureaucracy bent on manifest destiny via train), but the book is long on description and short on actual action, which I find incredible. It's like Gilman set out to write Weird Fiction in the least squeamish, visceral possible way, the point of which I can't possibly understand.

I don't know if Janet Reitman's Inside Scientology is the definitive account of L. Ron Hubbard's ponzi-scheme-turned-cult, but it's pretty good. Reitman briefly covers Hubbard's childhood, his biography (and his attempts at self-aggrandizement), and his role in the religion's founding and early growth. During the last half of the book, she turns to the modern Scientology organization, with special attention paid to Lisa McPherson, a member who died while under Scientology's care due to gross medical negligence and abuse. Reitman aims for plain-spoken objectivity throughout her telling of the organization's history, but even that is damning enough. She ends the book on an ambiguous note with a look at the next generation of Scientologists, which is something I found surprisingly refreshing. It provides a glimpse of the mundane humanity underneath one of the world's most bizarre dogmas.

March 9, 2011

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

Digital Bookshelf: End of History Edition

It occurs to me that it would be a lot easier to do these six-month roundups of whatever wanders across my Kindle--not to mention dig into the data of how much I'm reading and how quickly--if Amazon would open up the data to me. I'm sure they're collecting the information, since they have features like "Most Highlighted" for their whole Kindle userbase (invariably, it's something horrible like The Last Symbol). Just a big CSV or XML dump would be fine. Think of all the graphing I could do! Scatter plots! Histograms!

Anyway.

The Passage got a lot of good press, from both mainstream and speculative fiction outlets, and I'm entirely unclear why. Justin Theroux's book is basically The Stand with vampires, except it's not nearly as much fun. I forced my way through it, and what I remember now is that the concept was silly, the writing was clunky, and the attempt at psychological motivation dropped like a lead bar. It's bad enough that Stephen King often feels like rewriting his own books without other people trying and failing.

Joe Abercrombie has clearly staked a claim on a corner of grim fantasy, which helpful if you like that kind of thing, but in his most recent book it starts to verge on shtick. As opposed to his First Law trilogy and Best Served Cold, The Heroes covers a tight span of about a week on a single battlefield between his faux-British and faux-Norse nations. Past characters make an appearance, often in ways that redefine them or expand on them in interesting ways. It's a page-turner. But... seriously, Joe? A little non-locomotive light at the end of the tunnel wouldn't kill you.

I have been making some effort to try to read more science fiction by people of color lately, which led me to Racing the Dark by Alaya Dawn Johnson. It's okay, but not great. It's an entry into one of the new schools of fantasy--the anti-Weird fiction one, where the world-building becomes less rigorous and more fairy-tale like--which is not really my cup of tea anyway. Nice to read something that's not based on yet another Fantasy England/Fantasy Norway, though.

The first book in Ruth Downie's series of Anglo-roman medical mysteries, Medicus, was free on Kindle the other day, and the second (Terra Incognita) was only a buck. So it was easy to pick up those two and, after finishing the first, take a chance on the full-priced third book. Downie is honest about the varying degrees of (in)accuracy in her historical depiction, but that doesn't stop them from being entertaining little puzzlers, and a neat twist on the mystery genre. I really like the characterization, although the relationship between the protagonists is odd, to say the least (slave ownership is involved). I can't decide if Downie knows how discomfiting this is, and is exploiting the tension it raises for modern readers, or if it's just supposed to be a plot device.

N.K. Jemisin has followed up on last year's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms with The Broken Kingdoms. They're largely unrelated stories, although the second does follow on the events of the first. She's expanded on the cosmology in interesting ways (gods that sell their blood as a drug, churches that think they know better than their deities). That said, I think part of the difficulty with books like these is that they're vulnerable to a lot of deus ex machina (not that Jemisin does so, but you're constantly worried that she might), and it tends to rob the main characters of agency because the institutions above them are so omnipotent. But then, that's probably the point.

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer is really less of a novel than a collection of linked short stories. Author Jonathan L. Howard retells a variant on the old Faust story: Cabal sells his soul for the secrets of necromancy, and then, years later, tries to win it back in a bet: if he can persuade one hundred others to give up their own souls, Cabal will go free. And so, of course, he opens a traveling carnival. This is a surprisingly funny book, with the main character as a grimly humorless straight man struggling against his own bad nature. It's also easy to read in small bites, which makes it natural Metro fodder.

I'm just about done with both steampunk and zombies, personally, so I'm surprised that I enjoyed Cherie Priest's Dreadnought despite a heavy handful of both. I think it's better than her previous attempt at combining the two, Boneshaker, for what that's worth. The characterization is more interesting, it feels less frantic, and there's some interesting attempts to address the revisionism that pops up in some alternate history. That said, it's still a steampunk book with zombies in it. It's not subtle, is what I'm trying to get across here.

Chris Braak started off strong with the Weird Fiction novel The Translated Man. His follow-up, Mr. Stitch, has a lot of fine moments, but the central mystery is a let-down--I saw it coming from a mile away, and I'm pretty sure you will too. That said, Braak's books are (for some reason) relatively cheap on Kindle, clocking in $9 for the pair. At a time when most of the genre seems to be blending back into either urban fantasy or steampunk, it's good to see someone messing with the gothic without forgetting to write an actual story.

I read relatively little non-fiction over the past half-year, for some reason, but I did finally get around to Matt Taibbi's Griftopia, prompted by his fantastic reporting on the fallout of the economic crisis. It's got a lot of original material, particularly on the trend of public functions being sold to private companies at a ridiculous cost, and it does include his now-infamous "vampire squid blood funnel" piece on Goldman Sachs. But I can't help but feel like it should have hit harder. When I read something like his piece on Florida's bankruptcy courts, there's a rawness to it that I think is missing from the novel-length argument.

The other big non-fiction title I read was Jay-Z's biography-slash-guide to the art of writing rap, Decoded (ghost-written, apparently, with hip-hop critic dream hampton). It's a bit of a mess: rambling from topic to topic, repetitive in parts, aggressively designed (which does not play well in the Kindle version). In these things, it's not unlike Jay-Z's musical output. But Decoded is also sharp and readable, and when it's hitting on all cylinders (particularly in its footnoted lyric sections, which explain the hyper-compressed imagery of each line), it's a great entry point for learning to read and contextualize hip-hop.

Finally, for an online discussion group I read Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. As Sherlock Holmes fan-fiction goes, it's not bad. There were some very funny moments, some intriguing historical tidbits, and a number of reminders that I am very happy not to live in the Middle Ages.

So that's this year's first set of e-book notes. Lots of fantasy and alternate history, even though I could have sworn that's exactly what I wasn't in the mood to read. If my list of samples is any indication, the next six months will be much more non-fiction heavy, but that's before taking into consideration the new Mieville, Richard K. Morgan, and and Scott Lynch books due by the end of 2011. Either way, looks like a good year for reading.

June 16, 2010

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

Digital Bookshelf: Grim Edition

It's been a little over six months since the last time I looked over my Kindle reading list. During that time, Amazon and the publishing industry got into an enormous brawl, books were pulled, books were restored at higher prices, and as a result my reading habits may have slowed a little. I've glanced from time to time at other reading hardware, I've used my phone to run through a few titles from Feedbooks, but the e-ink and the selection on the Kindle are still a powerful combination. It's still, for now, my favorite way to read.

So here's the highlights:

Joe Abercrombie gets shelved under "fantasy" but it's hard to imagine anything less like the pastel-colored glow of the typical genre entry. His influences are more in line with Fritz Leiber and Steven Brust, possibly crossed with Terry Pratchett's gift for writing characters who are both sympathetic and completely oblivious. I started with Best Served Cold, a Seven Samurai-like revenge plot that spirals unpredictably into darker territory with every step, and somewhat later worked my way through the First Law trilogy, which is somewhat more epic. These are not cheerful books--their main characters include a berzerker, a torturer, and a woman who swears vengeance after being thrown off a mountain--but they've got depth and humor, characters who can (and often do) choose badly with realistic consequences, and not an elf in sight. It's a refreshing combination.

At the other end of the meta-genre viciousness spectrum is Lev Grossman's The Magicians, a thinly-veiled critique of both Harry Potter and the Chronicles of Narnia. Grossman's protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, heads off to a secret magical academy, spurred by his love for a Narnia-like children's series named "Fillory and Further." Yet the magic turns out to be decidedly un-magical, graduation leaves him mired in ennui and boredom, and Quentin himself is not particularly talented or admirable. In many ways, it's a book about how badly the unexamined expectations of magical thinking have primed Grossman's characters for adult life, and the difficulty of learning to accept a difficult and ambiguous reality. And yet, while I appreciated the book's psychological perspective, something about it still rubbed me the wrong way--which is probably the point, honestly.

Ian MacDonald's River of Gods has come highly-recommended, and it's easy to see why: set in a near-future India where the new stars of Bollywood are entirely virtual and AI is illegal, it's a complicated mess of intertwining plotlines strongly reminiscent of early William Gibson. And if it's not completely coherent, or if it telegraphs its surprises a bit early, it does so with enough constant momentum that it's not completely jarring. I like MacDonald's globalized perspective, too--it's nice to read a sci-fi book where the protagonists aren't all white people from LA--and if I didn't rush out and download the rest of his catalog, I've certainly flagged it as promising.

I read Everyman, by Philip Roth, for the PEN/Faulkner book series this year (it was an award winner in 2006, I believe). I'd be very curious as to the other books up for the award that year, because this is awful. It's as if someone decided to write a terrible parody of a Philip Roth novel--in which a vain, sexually-obsessed, self-hating Jew obsesses over a list of endless sickness, both real and imagined--and then, to add insult to injury, got Roth himself to write it.

The problem with describing The Coyote Kings of the Space Age Bachelor Pad, by Minister Faust, is that it invariably sounds a lot more fun than it actually is. I mean, this is a book about a part-psychic graduate student and dishwasher who's swept up in an intergalactic drug operation with his mad scientist roommate, and in which each character gets introduced via a D&D-style character sheet. Shades of Buckaroo Banzai, it's certainly got style to spare, but some of the stylistic tics edge toward reader-hostile mania: several chapters (each of which is in first-person dialect) are nigh-unreadable, the plot is unclear, and parts of it meander interminably in between enormous dumps of exposition. You could charitably call it "uneven," but I have to say it didn't leave me feeling particularly charitable. Ian Tregillis's Bitter Seeds has a similar problem: psychic Nazi experiments vs. British occult blood magic? Sounds awesome, almost completely fails to deliver.

Horns is a kind of surreal detective novel, I guess. It's about a man who wakes up one day with devil horns growing out of his head, and anyone who sees them starts telling him their deepest secrets, a kind of ambiguous "gift" that he tries to use to uncover the truth behind his ex-girlfriend's murder. Author Joe Hill gradually lets the horns expose all kinds of queasy awfulness in the ways that people hide their real feelings from each other--and from themselves--in a small town. But does it work as a story? I'm not sure. At some point, earlier than expected, the murder gets resolved, and it becomes more of a slowly-paced thriller. Still, Hill wraps things up nicely without sugar-coating his characters, and if the horns aren't ever exactly explained... well, maybe we shouldn't want the secrets behind everything after all.

On the non-fiction front, Sarah Ellison's The War at the Wall Street Journal has garnered rave reviews from Slate and the Columbia Journalism Review, so my expectations may have been too high going in. I expected more details of how Newscorp's acquisition has changed one of the country's most prestigious papers for the worse. And I got some of that, eventually, after endless chapters of internal politics in the Journal's former owners, the Bancroft family. It takes 2/3 of the book to get to any details of the paper's changing newsroom, and then it proves disappointingly light on dirt (or, for that matter, outrage). This is, in other words, pretty much the book you'd expect from a former WSJ business reporter on the acquisition--but I don't think I'll be alone in saying I hoped for more.

Finally, N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: the child of an estranged royal heir is called back to the capitol, where the tyrannical rulers of, yes, a hundred thousand kingdoms hold onto power by keeping their ex-gods as slaves. In its focus on politics and control, not to mention the shackled djinn-like servants, Jemisin's debut reminds me of Daniel Abraham's "Long Price" books in the best possible way. It's also got a lovely use of narrative voice from an African-American author who doesn't shy away from racial diversity in her worldbuilding. Perhaps the ending is a bit deus ex machina, but I think it's earned. My understanding is that there's a follow-up on the way, and I'm eager to see where Jemisin will try to go from here.

November 17, 2009

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

Digital Bookshelf: Steam-Powered Edition

E-books are fantastic, but the ease of acquisition means that they can blur together a bit. Every few months, I try to take stock of what I've been reading via Kindle and share it here.

Tana French seems to have a talent for disturbing little detective books. Set in Ireland, In the Woods and The Likeness are both anxious, enjoyable potboilers willing to end badly. In the former, a murder cop investigates a crime that's weirdly similar to deaths from his own childhood. The latter sends a detective undercover into a tight-knit group of college students, impersonating one member of the household who was killed under suspicious circumstances (are there any other kind of circumstances?). Come for the crime, stay for French's gift with flawed, self-destructive characters.

Jamais Cascio's self-published Hacking the Earth is an attempt at advocating geo-engineering to fight climate change--but in a sane, manageable way. It's kind of an uphill battle, particularly since the Freakonomics crew seems to have come out for the most extreme, unusable forms of the practice, like creating giant hoses for pumping nitrogenous gases into the air (Elizabeth Kolbert neatly dissects these schemes in last week's New Yorker). But Cascio isn't claiming that we can fix the problem outright--just that we may need to buy time for sustainable policy changes to take effect. And he's upfront about the political, social, and technical problems that geoengineering faces. Even if you don't agree (and I'm skeptical), this is probably the most thoughtful pitch you're going to get.

In a similar note (recommendations from bloggers I read, in this case conflict mapping student Patrick Meier), I picked up WASP by Eric Frank Russell. Written in 1957, Russell's book is a futuristic take on non-violent system disruption and guerrilla tactics, sending a human "wasp" into an alien society to wreak havoc and prime the population for revolt. It's aged well, and I can see why Patrick was intrigued by its clever paper-war tactics. That said, there are elements to the story that begin to blur the lines between civil resistance and terrorism--or, perhaps, to show how permeable that line can be. A good thought-provoking read for activists.

At some point back in the past, I'd bought A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham, maybe as part of Tor's free offerings. Then I ignored it for a year and a half, probably because it starts very slowly. But once you get into it, this and its two sequels (A Betrayal in Winter and An Autumn War) are clever, character-driven epic fantasy. It's barely fantasy, in fact: the main supernatural elements are the andat, abstract concepts locked into genie-like human form by poets. The andat hate their captivity, scheme to escape it, and are increasingly difficult for the poets to capture--these are, in many ways, fantasy novels about the death of the fantastic, and the ways that concentrated power goes horribly wrong. Once the final book drops below that $10 mark, I'm looking forward to picking it up.

Tor ran a steampunk feature last month, which meant that I ended up buying much more of it than I normally would. Among the better titles were S.M. Peters' Ghost Ocean and Whitechapel Gods--neither being great literature, but both are certainly vivid pulp stories. Gods is the more steampunk of the two, set in a nightmarish town run by a giant clock and where a disease replaces your body parts with machinery. Ghost Ocean is more of an American Gods-lite, playing with old folktales and monsters, and was a bit more of a slog.

Another decent--if overstuffed--story is Boneshaker by Cherie Priest. Set in San Francisco fifteen years after a mad scientist destroys most of the town with a mining machine (releasing a zombifying gas from underground, to add insult to injury), his wife has to travel back into the walled-off disaster zone in search of her son. Priest's a good writer who deftly avoids most pulp plot cliches (there's no forced romance plotline to be found, thankfully), and she's clearly enjoying herself with the whole airship/zombie/wild west mashup, but I found myself preferring the sharp observation of her Southern ghost stories to Boneshaker's sometimes-frantic action.

On the other hand, it could have been worse, like George Mann's The Affinity Bridge, an entirely predictable, by-the-numbers steampunk yarn. Mann's prose rubs me the wrong way, preferring as it does to both show and tell, and there's not a single plot point that wasn't completely predictable. Save your cash.

Over to non-fiction again: Searching for Whitopia by Rich Benjamin takes a look at the increasing number of American "exurb" communities populated almost exclusively by white people, and speculates a bit on the reason for their growth. Benjamin, who is black, also lives in each location for several months, ranging from a planned community in Utah to an Idaho town that's home to a healthy white-power movement. He also spends some time in the wealthy, primarily white neighborhoods of New York City, partly to deflect the criticism that he's picking on the rubes, but also out of genuine curiosity. Ultimately, however, when I look back on it, I remember a few funny moments told by a pleasant writer (losing his keys at the white-power barbecue being one example, as everyone pitches in to find them, or when he and an African-American realtor surprise each other after meeting in person for the first time), but not a lot of great insights or productive suggestions. I kind of wish it had been written by someone who's a little more militant, a little less accepting. But perhaps Benjamin's goal was to write something less polemical and more a spur for conversation--as such, it may be more successful.

I don't actually enjoy programming for a living, but I will admit that I enjoy reading about it, and Peter Seibel's Coders at Work provides plenty of great interviews to pick over, including Brendan "I invented JavaScript" Eich, Ken "I invented Unix" Thompson, Jamie "I wrote Netscape and got into fights with Richard Stallman" Zawinski, and Douglas "I figured out how to write better JavaScript" Crockford. Taken all at once, the book is a bit of a brick, but as something to dip into it offers a lot of wisdom from a number of very smart, very experienced programmers.

In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent has a lot of ground to cover--all the way from the earliest attempts at "philosophical" languages to Klingon. Part of what makes the book fun to read, whether or not you're a conlang nerd, is her attempt to actually use each language she finds. The result is to undercut the more fanciful, high-minded creations (trying to find the word "shit" in the heirarchy-mad Victorian languages) and portray the geekier tongues (Loglan and, of course, Klingon) in a more sympathetic light via their linguistic communities (such as they are). So while Okrent is ostensibly giving a tour of invented languages, she's also painting a portrait of the people who are drawn to both create and then attempt to speak these stilted vocabularies.

Finally, as part of my suburban b-boy experience, I picked up Joseph Schloss's Foundation: B-Boys, B-Girls, and Hip-Hop Culture in New York, which is a very cool book. Schloss is an academic who's studied hip-hop and talks extensively about the way its practitioners perpetuate their values (as opposed to having academic frameworks imposed on them), but he's also assembled a wide collection of folklore and perspective from interviews with influential b-boys like Alien Ness and Ken Swift, as well as dancers from styles that developed into breaking as we know it. At parts, despite his aim to keep it grounded in the voices of the dancers themselves, Foundation may become a little jargonistic, but for the most part it's a fascinating read documenting the oral history of urban dance.

June 29, 2009

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

Digital Bookshelf: No Hero Edition

I'm not sure what the cause has been--lower margins on hardware, higher-than-expected bandwidth costs, simple greed--but Amazon has stealthily raised the prices at which they introduce books to the Kindle store. A lot of the new releases that I'd like to be reading (The Bloggers on the Bus, for example, or In the Land of Invented Languages) are priced at around $14. This still puts them at roughly $3 cheaper than Amazon's price for the printed version (plus shipping or Prime membership), but it's a $4 increase over the bestseller pricing at the device's introduction.

Although I should probably get over it--I didn't buy the Kindle for the discounts, after all--I have trouble bringing myself to pay the new, higher prices. As a result, it can be difficult sometimes to find new books to read. For all that Amazon's done, including the essential sample functionality, the Kindle store is still not always a great way to browse for new books--the recommendations are often titles that I've already read, or that I would never read (Laurell K. Hamilton, for example, less for the romance and more because vampires give me the willies). What I often end up doing is going to a physical bookstore, wandering the shelves, and taking pictures of books I want to download later. This is not exactly efficient.

In any case, here are some quick takes on my reading for the last couple months:

Charlie Huston's The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death wins the prize for longest title in this batch, I think. It falls neatly into the modern detective caper genre, where the protagonist is less a highly-capable PI solving a case and more a sad-sack just trying to extricate him- or herself from a series of unfortunate coincidences. Huston's book centers on Webster Goodhue, an ex-teacher who self-destructs after a bus accident, and gradually hauls himself out of depression via work in the field of crime-scene cleanup. As pulp goes, Mystic Arts is pretty good: the dialog is snappy, the plot wanders unpredictably, and everything is wrapped up neatly at the end. If I had to criticize, I'd say that the romantic plot thread seems a bit strained, but that's picking nits, really.

While Huston's book is a good example of modern pulp/noir, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a throwback to more classic thrillers. The last book written by Swedish author Stieg Larsson before his death, it follows a discredited journalist hired by a rich industry magnate to investigate the decades-old disappearance of his niece. The case unfolds with the help of a young, female computer hacker, who also serves as the hook for the novel's theme: a polemic against domestic violence in Sweden. As potboilers go, it's acceptable, and the Swedish setting makes a nice change of scenery for American readers, but ultimately it's a disposable piece of pop literature with slightly elevated aspirations.

Also planted firmly in its genre is Blood Engines by Tim Pratt. In this case, it's the new urban fantasy, in which various mythical figures are transplanted onto real-world locations. Pratt does a decent job with yet another Strong Female Wizard, but it's not going to knock anyone's socks off. For me, what was most distracting about it was the way it seemed like a book from the middle of a series while actually being the first, perhaps due to the way Pratt's clumsy expository style. I may pick up some of the other books if I'm bored, but I doubt I'll seek them out if I can find anything else. On the other hand, this one is free on Kindle as a promotional deal, so it wouldn't hurt other Kindle readers to check it out.

Here's an example of the poor recommendation system at work: I'd have never heard of Chris Braak's The Translated Man if John Rogers hadn't written it up, even though it fits neatly into my Weird Fiction niche. It's a murder mystery set in a kind of steampunk Victoriana mold, with forbidden math equations and Frankenstein wannabes--a little bit New Crobuzon, a little bit H.G. Wells. It's cheap, too.

Kevin Roose's The Unlikely Disciple is a better book than it deserves to be. As an undergraduate, he spent a semester undercover at Liberty University, just to see what it was like. The results are predictable ("Fundamentalists are people too!"), but Roose has a deft, casual voice that's generally enjoyable to read. He also writes honestly about the changes in his own habits as the Liberty culture influences him, which readers may find disturbing or comforting, depending on their perspective. Toward the middle, the book drags as he spends a bit too much time introspecting on the dilemmas of undergraduate psychology, but it picks up again at the end when Jerry Falwell, Liberty's founder, dies, and Roose turns out to have done the last public interview with the man.

If nothing else, Drood is a fine argument for the phsyical advantages of the Kindle--the original is a lengthy 784 pages. Written by Dan Simmons (author of the historical Arctic thriller The Terror), it poses as a secret diary by Wilkie Collins, writer and friend of Charles Dickens who has been overshadowed by his contemporaries. Collins tells a story about Charles Dickens and a creepy, corpse-like figure named Drood, who recruits the famous author to write his autobiography through a combination of blackmail and hypnosis. Of course, Collins is himself a highly-unreliable narrator, being an opium addict and highly jealous of Dickens' gifts. Simmons can write, that's for sure, but his examination of jealous and ego is desparately in need of editing: Drood drags on and on, and when it finally ends the force of the big reveal has been blunted by the sheer length of it all.

Simmons, of course, has a history of strong beginnings and disappointing extensions, a trait shared by Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn Trilogy: Mistborn, The Well of Ascension, and The Hero of Ages. The first book is a relatively fresh fantasy caper (with magic powered by ingested metals) that's fun as long as you don't think about it too closely. After that, Sanderson indulges in some serious world-building, none of which is nearly as interesting--or unexpected--as he thinks it is. I'm admittedly biased: Sanderson is yet another Mormon fantasy author, and as soon as I found that out, I found myself watching for telltale injections of doctrine. Worse, I found them. As with Simmons' Hyperion books, I'd recommend reading just the first title and then pretending that the rest don't exist.

At some point, post-Watchmen movie I'd guess, I downloaded Who Can Save Us Now?, an anthology of superhero short stories edited by Owen King. As with most short-story collections, it's pretty hit or miss. Part of the problem, honestly, is that I think superheroes are probably pretty much mined-out for subtext--indeed, part of the problem is that their subtext was shallow enough to be the text itself. As a result, there's a few "stupid superhero power" stories, a couple of "superpowers where you don't expect them" stories, and some straight superhero fiction, none of which is very compelling. The standout, in my opinion, is the opening piece by Stephanie Harrell titled "Girl Reporter." It's a compact meditation on public relations, power, and the unfortunate role of Lois Lane in the superhero fantasy.

I said, when doing a capsule review of Adam Troy-Castro's Emissaries from the Dead about a year back, that I'd happily pick up a sequel--and here it is. The Third Claw of God again centers on Andrea Cort, child war criminal and intersteller lawyer, for another murder mystery IN SPACE. What I find amusing about this book--indeed, about a lot of future noir, including Richard Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs books--is how conventional they are in many ways. By this I mean that if you got rid of the space-elevator setting, or the cybernetically-linked lovers, what you've got in The Third Claw is essentially an Agatha Christie one-room mystery. This book is strongest in the middle, when those elements are most present, and weakest at the beginning and end, when Troy-Castro lays the groundwork for the multi-book meta-plot. I wish he'd stick more with the one-shot storylines: the world doesn't particularly need another grand space opera, and I suspect it won't play to his strengths.

And finally, Jeff Chang's Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation finally showed up on Kindle this year. I highly recommend it, even to those who are not hip-hop fans (I'm not, really). Chang's gone back to primary sources in order to draw a line from the historical roots of the movement, its four pillars (rap, DJing, b-boying, and graffiti), and its shift from social consciousness to big business. Probably about as good an overview as anyone could hope for, clearly written by someone who has deep affection for the art form.

March 4, 2009

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

Digital Bookshelf: Long Now Edition

I need a few more days to gather my thoughts on the new Kindle, but in the meantime, here's what I've been reading since my last set of short reviews.

It's been a while since I did this last--in fact, it was right about when Anathem came out, in September--so I can barely remember a number of the books in my Amazon library list. One of those is Rob Walker's Buying In, about guerrilla marketing campaigns. Chances are, if I'm that vague on it now, it probably wasn't terribly interesting back then.

I'm never entirely sure where I stand on Joe Haldeman. His The Forever War is widely regarded as one of the great sci-fi war novels of the last thirty years, but I haven't read it. What I have read tends to be well-constructed but workman-like, a description that definitely holds for his The Accidental Time Machine. It has its amusing parts, the characters are sympathetic, and the futurism has no embarrassments, but it won't set anyone's world on fire. It's very old-fashioned sci-fi, in a lot of ways.

Karen Traviss's wess'har series is certainly not old-fashioned sci-fi, unless I missed the part where it was a depressing combination of veganism, radical environmentalism, and sexually-transmitted immortality. The books (City of Pearl, Crossing the Line, The World Before, Matriarch, Ally, and Judge) start out as a first-contact story that goes awry when the aliens decide to head to Earth and forcibly impose reforms that would make PETA weak in the knees--and they're (in the story) the good guys. Challenging reading, for me at least, although not in a bad way.

The Graveyard Book is quality, which you'd expect from Neil Gaiman, but it didn't strike me as his best work. Oh, it's better than American Gods, don't get me wrong, but in aping The Jungle Book in structure and tone, it loses a lot of the drive and wit that had marked Anansi Boys. It also strikes me as very much a children's book, even more than Coraline, which was much more disturbing. Still, that's just nitpicking--if you like Gaiman, you won't really have anything to complain about, and if you don't, it won't change your mind.

While watching The Wire a second time with Belle, I read several books by show writers like George Pelecanos and Richard Price. Lush Life by Price falls pretty squarely into the mold of the show, although it's set in Manhattan instead of Baltimore or DC. The book follows the investigation of a fatal shooting and the lives of those involved, as both a police procedural and a portrait of the neighborhood. It's good, and I highly recommend it, but I don't find that it stands out as vividly in my memory as Pelecanos' work. It wanders quite a bit.

Swinging back across genres (I'm just doing this chronologically), we end up at Scott Sigler's Infected. Probably the less said about this the better: it's a kind of gross-out alien invasion tale, strongly redolent of Stephen King. I like Stephen King, personally, but I don't see the need for more than one of him, and this book (which is most similar to Dreamcatcher) does not pick the best parts of King to imitate.

Soldiers of Reason, by Alex Abella, is the story of "the RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire." It's also not terribly interesting, mostly because Abella writes in a very dry, bloodless manner. Still, the subjects of the writing--nuclear strategists like the Wohlstetters and Herman "Dr. Strangelove" Kahn--manage to shine through, a fact which disturbs as often as it intrigues. Whether these people were monstrous or not is unclear. The picture that eventually emerges is more of intellect devoted to the most extreme, possibly inhuman pursuits. I also thought it was interesting that, while the name RAND certainly bears no relation to the Objectivist writer, no parallels were drawn between her emphasis on "objective philosophy" and the think tank's own fanatical devotion to modeling and "systems analysis."

When Donald Westlake died a few months ago, I decided to try one of his Dortmunder novels, starting with What's the Worst that Could Happen? This probably comes as old news to many, but it's really very good. Westlake has a way with comic dialogue that verges on slapstick: my favorite part of the book is a meandering argument between three barflies on barcodes ("'Why do it in code?' the second regular asked him. 'The Code War's over.'" which leads to a commentary on price wars, morse code, Senator Morse, Russia, Russian dressing, and on and on). I'll have to pick up another when I need something to cheer me up.

Because I'm such a fan of Richard K. Morgan's future noir, Amazon always recommended Chris Moriarty's Spin State and Spin Control. The first is a pretty good mystery book complicated by relativity. The second, which brings the characters over to an extrapolated Israeli-Palestinian conflict (seemingly the only population left on a ruined earth) suffers a bit from too many macguffins. I'll admit to being curious as to what she might go next, but I probably won't pick up her books at "hardcover" prices.

Speaking of Richard K. Morgan, he's apparently decided to try his hand at fantasy. The Steel Remains is not, unfortunately, quite as good as his Takeshi Kovacs novels, although it's still a solid read. One could say that all of fantasy is a reaction to Tolkien, but Morgan tries to be subversive instead of destructive (in contrast to Mieville, who attempts to smash the genre open). He also can't help being a little bit technical--there's certainly indications that this is by a SF writer, as opposed to the kinds of magical hand-waving that traditional fantasy writing entails. For people who are unnerved by the Cronenberg-like prose of the New Weird, Morgan's take is progressive without being completely disorienting.

Finally, Bruce Sterling's new book was released for Kindle and hardcover just last week. The Caryatids is a near-future story of society split between venture capitalists and eco-hippies, crossed by six cloned sisters (the "caryatids" of the title). It's been acclaimed by tons of reviewers, including being called the best book of 2009 by Cory Doctorow. Frankly, it's not that great. Over the years, Sterling's characters have grown more and more sketchy, to the point where they're practically puppets moving his story along. The dialog has also suffered: Everyone shouts! Constantly! and uses phrases like "wow wow wow!" Perhaps, as with The Difference Engine, Sterling should always be paired with a more contemplative writer like William Gibson, where his plotting and gadgetry can complement someone with a better ear for speech and description.

...actually, one more note: The New Yorker is on Kindle now. There's no point in reviewing it, but I did want to commend the design of its electronic version. It's highly readable--a sensible menu at the start of the issue, and each article begins with a link that skips to the next, in case you don't want to read Sasha Frere-Jones salivating over Beyonce again. They even seem to have created a separate top menu design for the Kindle 2's joystick controller. This is how digital distribution should be done, and frankly some e-books might want to take notes from it as well. Bravo, New Yorker: it's never been easier to be a snooty East coast elitist.

September 9, 2008

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

Pros and Cons

Traveling to St. Paul was a great chance to clear out a bunch of the samples I'd been saving on my Kindle. As long as you're traveling in the US, where the EVDO connection has packets to grab, it's a handy device to have at the airport. Here are a few capsule reviews, including ones left over from the last set.

Bad Monkeys, by Matt Ruff, has been endorsed highly by Boing Boing on the strength of the writing and the cover art. The latter should be a warning sign. It's a book about a secret organization that assassinates evil people ("bad monkeys") in the name of justice, and one girl's induction into it. As secret conspiracies go, this one is kind of lame, honestly, and a lot of its gimmicks (like the "natural causes gun") have been handled better by other authors (see: Iain Banks). There's the eventual double-cross, and what the author no doubt considers a trick ending, but in the end it comes across as unsympathetic and random--like the Illuminatus trilogy but without the wit or the excuse of heavy drug use.

Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora (and its sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies) are basically crime caper novels set in a "new weirdist" city somewhat along the lines of China Mieville's Bas Lag. It's not quite so distant from reality, however: if it weren't for a few details that crop up, their plotlines could easily be dropped into renaissance Italy. Lynch has several more books planned in this setting, and I hope he keeps it grounded, since both efforts are tightly plotted and stuffed with fun characters and clever dialog.

I haven't seen Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational get nearly the attention it deserves, so allow me to praise it here. A book about the psychological externalities of behavioral economics, Ariely devotes each chapter to an experiment that explores market participants' odd and imperfect decisions. He also concludes each chapter with thoughtful suggestions on how this should affect public policy, particularly policy based on the fallacy of the "rational consumer." The result is a practical and ultimately humane look at structuring the world around human nature, instead of free market ideology.

The Man Who Loved China, by Simon Winchester, is the biographical story of Joseph Needham, who developed an interest in Chinese history late in life and began writing the Science and Civilization in China series about its early technological discoveries. Needham is a fascinating character: a would-be renaissance man, an exceptionally quick study at languages, and a communist blinded by his politics to the hard truths of Mao's revolution. But I suspect that this book, while competently written, is most engaging to people who are fans of Needham's work, or those who share a similarly glowing view of the Middle Kingdom.

Speaking of imports from Asia, Natsuo Kirino's Grotesque caught my eye because I kept seeing her previous novel, Out, in the mystery section of the bookstore--it's not available on Kindle, though. Which is too bad, because I hear it's got a number of virtues that Grotesque is entirely lacking. A kind of bizarre ugly-duck story, it's about two sisters, one of whom is beautiful but manipulative and oversexed while the other is unattractive (but still manipulative and unpleasant). I'm all for flawed characters, but there's not one person in the book with a real redeeming feature, and the narration is plodding and unreliable. It was work to finish, with little payout in the end.

John Scalzi's Old Man's War is an unapologetic homage to Heinlein's Starship Troopers with a few twists. Scalzi's a competent writer with a deft hand at sarcasm, but I guess I've outgrown the source material. What is it someone once said: the golden age for sci-fi is 10 or 11? Yeah. Also, while this is perhaps to be expected from a book that celebrates the Military Fascism of the Future, there's a truly loathsome strawman for pacifist liberal appeasers in there that left a bad taste in my mouth. Since I know Scalzi's a better writer (and, I had thought, a clearer thinker) than that, the venom of it frankly took me by surprise, and made it a little hard to enjoy the rest of the plot.

Four and Twenty Blackbirds is kind of an odd one. The first novel by Cherie Priest, it's a kind of Southern gothic ghost story that can't make up its mind which side of the fence it's on. When it restricts itself to the main character's navigation through her rotten family tree, it's on much more solid ground than the mystical tangents into voodoo, which overtake the ending and overwhelm what's otherwise a wry, well-written book with a clever--if noticably Mary Sue-ish--protagonist.

I don't read very much hard science fiction these days, but Robert Charles Wilson's Spin was offered free as part of a Tor promotion, and you can't beat that price. I tried a lot of the free books, and didn't make it past the first chapter on most, but I liked Spin. Wilson's big idea is that aliens surround the Earth in a time-dilation envelope, where a small amount of time inside is the equivalent of thousands of years outside. I liked the description of the worldwide reaction (or non-reaction, in many cases) and the relationship of the narrator to a pair of twin siblings who split off on very different courses as a result. If I had to compare Spin to its predecessors, I'd probably say it evokes classic A. C. Clarke as much as anyone, and that's not a bad thing at all.

As a huge fan of The Wire (finishing season five now), I picked up Felicia "Snoop" Pearson's autobiography Grace After Midnight. Eh. Onscreen, Snoop's strength is her laconic delivery and sense of businesslike menace, neither of which is present here, and the heavy hand of the ghostwriter manages to crush most of the remaining personality right out. The story of how a crack baby from Baltimore grew up on the streets and then ended up playing herself on HBO deserves a better telling than this. Too bad there's not an audiobook.

Maybe she should have teamed up with Wire writer George Pelecanos, who just came out with The Turnaround. Compared to The Night Gardener, it's less procedural, more concerned with inheritance and family. The book starts during the eighties, when three white kids in DC drive into a black neighborhood and start a racially-motivated fight, ending with one of them shot and another scarred. Moving to the present day, Pelecanos depicts how the participants on both sides of the color line have lived since the incident, how they react when it resurfaces, and the healing that takes place afterward. I don't think it's quite as evocative as The Night Gardener, and Pelecanos has a tendency to tell instead of showing. But I like what he's doing with crime fiction, and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to non-genre readers.

Finally, two books that everyone's probably already read from the literary fiction category: Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Ann Patchett's Bel Canto. The former is a kind of mystery story told by an autistic kid, which has gotten great reviews but I eventually found tiresome--particularly in the second half, when it switches genres into road trip territory. The latter is a good story hobbled by glacial pacing and a strong dose of melodrama--particularly in the second half, which has an almost Shakespearian view of romance-as-deus-ex-machina, and not in a good way. So: let's hear it for disappointing second halves!

As a side note, Neal Stephenson's Anathem was released today (it's ten dollars cheaper on Kindle, so you know which version I've ordered). I don't have high hopes. Stephenson started strong with the brilliant Snow Crash, as well as the underrated Big U and Zodiac. Then he seemed to get a bit muddled with The Diamond Age, began careening around libertarian conspiracy theories in Cryptonomicon, and finally stymied my reading efforts completely with the System of the World trilogy, in which he apparently eschewed any kind of editing in favor of page upon page of regurgitated background research. I'm also not optimistic when he describes the title of his new book in an interview as "one letter away from 'anthem' or 'anathema'." But you never know. Maybe this one will be the book that makes me care again.

Future - Present - Past