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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.

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