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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.

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