The Book Thread - April 2014

Finished up the third book in the “Breakers” series by Edward Robertson, Knifepoint.

The series is basically a bunch of largely stand-alone stories set in a post-apocalyptic LA region. The structure seems to be two nearly-unrelated stories featuring two different protagonists; the stories converge at the end of the books even if the protagonists might not meet. This one is the first book to re-use a protagonist from a previous book.

It was OK, though I think it was the weakest of the three I’ve read. I reckon I’ll take a break from the series for a bit, though Robertson’s writing style is good enough that I may come back later. The theme to this one seemed to be “personal freedom vs. security for the group”, though it wasn’t that clear-cut. If I had a criticism of these books, it would be that while the protagonists are nuanced and flawed, the main villains tend to end up as mustache-twirling cads: this book presented a villain that looked like he might present a compelling “ends vs. means” conundrum, but in the end he was just a typical bad guy.

Just got done listening to the first book in Stieg Larsson’s Milennium Series, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. My main reason for choosing it as an audio book selection was that it is read by Simon Vance who is, once again, simply superb. He’s absolutely ruined me for audiobooks now.

But I’ll tell you something else, maybe you thought as I did, you already knew all you needed to know about this book and that series. Maybe if you’re like me, middle aged guy, you found out about it’s existence some years ago when it was making Best Seller noise and you probably saw it on the shelf of a female friend, family member, co-worker or the like. I know I initially thought, back then, “meh”. Not for me, some flavor-of-the-month to amuse the unwashed masses. Or perhaps most tenably - a ‘chick lit’ novelty. (I’m not half as hip as I think I am… can ‘chick lit’ mean novels directed toward a female audience or only such novels also written by women?)

Well I’m happy to report that it really is wonderfully written and worthy of a read by an audience of both sexes. Simply put it’s a sort of murder mystery, suspenseful, and all like that. The author employs a split narrative and much of the time we’re with the dude tasked with solving the crime which happened many years ago. But we also get the POV of a young, enigmatic woman - aka the girl with the dragon tattoo. The book is smart and modern as I like to imagine all of Sweden is.

Reading American Gods by Neil Gaiman. One of the fantasy sub-genre of pagan-gods-get-off-the-streets. First example I can think of is Thorne Smith’s Night Life of the Gods (1931) but there have been many since then.

This is a good book, but it takes the hero, who is astonishingly educated and well-read for an ex-con – he talks about the fractal shapes of snowflakes – 133 pages to realize that his employer Mr. Wednesday is Odin, though I imagine most readers will figure it out in the first couple of pages. The main plot isn’t bad so far (halfway through) but the best writing is reserved for the vignettes, little episodes that describe random people’s encounters with gods and various fairy creatures.

Part of my problem with American Gods is that you didn’t realize they were vignettes until you were near the end, and if I recall correctly they have no bearing on really anything.

— Alan

Nothing to do with the plot, anyway. I suppose they’re there to amplify the context and setting. Perhaps he wrote them separately while the book was in progress and decided to insert them rather than finding them independent homes in magazines. I do think it would have been nice if they connected to something in the story, however distantly.

Just finished Honor Among Thieves, a Han Solo novel by James S.A. Corey (the authors of the excellent Expanse series), and it was a lot of fun. Now I’m finally continuing the Lost Fleet series.

Got caught up on Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black books. I’m always a little reluctant to read these because they’re pretty relentlessly…grimy. Lots of focus on the disgusting and grotesque and Miriam herself is cranky, abrasive, and thoroughly foul-mouthed. But they’re still good stories and there’s usually some degree of hard-won redemption by the very end. Fleeting, perhaps, but some. It sounds like the hints at a wider mythology -may- come to full fruition in the next book, but we’ll see.

Then I figured what the hell and launched into Wendig’s The Blue Blazes, a sort of urban fantasy about a thuggish made man named Mookie Pearl who is an enthusiast of charcuterie, loyal to a fault, and kind of a fuck up as a father and husband. The idea here is that the union of workers who dig out the tunnels below New York City managed to crack open an entrance into the underworld - and it’s a pretty Hellish place. This is not a sexy underworld. It has goblins that reproduce by laying eggs in still living humans, half-breeds created by rape, tentacle-limbed snake-people full of poison, and magical pigments that are addictive. Insanity, rotting undead people, worm gods… etc etc. A single mafia-esque Organization has managed to keep a lid on Underworld infiltration of the topside and profit off running the Blue, aka the Blue Blazes, which gives you the ability to see through magic and amps your pain tolerance, strength and speed, but the Boss is sick and things begin to fall apart. It’s grim, but very memorable.

I just recently finished reading Richard Price’s Clockers, which should be required reading for all fans of The Wire. I have to imagine that Clockers was one of the primary inspirations for The Wire. The chapters alternate between the life of a New Jersey crack dealer and a homicide cop. The book is remarkable for its lack of romanticism and the fact that every single character, no matter how minor, seems completely fleshed out and authentic. There’s not a single false note in the entire book which is just remarkable. Price eventually joined the writing staff of The Wire for seasons 3-5.

It’s really one of the most incredible books I’ve read in a long time and one I’m sure that will stick with me for years.

Just read Andy Weir’s The Martian. Excellent pretty hard science book about a guy that’s part of a six man mission to Mars, but the mission gets scrubbed and he gets left for dead on the planet on his own. I really enjoyed this, and it is so awesome, I can only imagine the author is frozen with the thought of having to follow it with another book. It’s like this dude’s Flowers for Algernon. It’s a story of man versus planet, and with a sense of humour. Great stuff.

Finished Words of Radiance. After 1100 pages it was good enough that I wanted more…

Started The Catch, a Joe Gunther mystery.

I’m out of books, so I browsed through my eBook shelf and picked up The Breach again. I re-read it and the sequel, Ghost Country.

It was like re-watching dumb action movies. These are SF books with interesting premises, but written by someone aggressively ignorant of technology. They’re full of things that routinely go into Sci-Fi movies, but which usually don’t fly in books. The writing style feels like the author was visualizing these as movies the entire time as well.

Both books feature the titular Breach, a portal into who-knows-where that regularly produces inscrutable artifacts. It’s a result of a particle accelerator experiment gone goes awry, because you know that giant particle accelerators always do that, and it allows for Clarke’s “technology as magic” items. The problem is that to the author, apparently some of today’s technology is also indistinguishable from magic. They’re generally fun along the way, but the idiocy stood out for more sharply this time.

The Breach is nearly a shaggy dog story. It’s about a sphere containing a mad AI that knows everything and which can control the mind of anyone touching it. No matter what the protagonist does, the AI is always a step ahead because it’s quite literally omniscient. He never outwits it, and yet it turns out the end goal of its 20 year plot involving the deaths of thousands is nearly trivial. I can imagine many, many simpler, less failure-prone schemes that would have the same end result. Most notable “eh, what?” moment along the way is disarming a nuclear warhead by detonating a grenade in the casing.

Ghost Country involves a device that allows very limited time travel : you can only travel exactly 80 years into the future and back. Only, in the future all of humanity is dead. “Why” involves orbital mind control lasers. Only, it’s worse than that: the orbital mind control devices use ELF, Extremely Low Frequency transmitters. Which is a “radio is magic” idea, since radio signals with wavelengths in the 100,000 meter plus range cannot convey information to objects as small as human heads. We also get things like being able to detect radiotracer isotopes in someone’s bloodstream from orbit. The ending is a painfully contrived race-against-time where a 9-hour deadline gets resolved with a less than one second margin of error. The narrative counts down the seconds, and they succeed with zero seconds left. They might as well have defused a bomb with 1 second left on the big, red, digital readout.

Man, I hate that. Usually in such cases it would only require a few hours online doing some research to fix the plot to be less stupid, but sometimes the author just can’t be bothered. In Ghost Country, though, it sounds like only half the annoyance comes from ignorance, the other half from deliberate stupidity with the timer plot.

Hah, that reminded me of a slip. There’s a small amount of gun porn in these books, with most weapons being identified rather specifically, like H&K MP7 rather than SMG. At one point he finds a loose “bullet cartridge” on the ground.

Peter Matthiessen died. He is well known for his non-fiction works of spirituality, environmentalism and nature, such as The Snow Leopard, The Tree Where Man Was Born, and somewhat recently, End of the Earth; his fiction includes At Play In the Fields of the Lord and the Shadow Country trilogy.

— Alan

I’m guessing that was a revision typo, either from the author or the copy editor. Perhaps he wrote either bullet or cartridge, then decided to change it, and didn’t delete the other word. I’m working on revisions for my first novel now, and it seems that for every two little things like that I fix, I introduce at least one new problem…

Wow, April is not a month of heavy reading, I take it. It’s not for me anyway: I’ve got a new Dan Abnett 40K novel sitting on the nightstand that I have yet to crack, and my second Audible credit expires tomorrow, so I need to grab something tonight… even though I really have no desire to be listening to an audiobook right now.

However, I will contribute something in a second-hand manner:

My Wife grabbed a 2000-piece puzzle the other week for reasons that elude me. Being something close to OCD, she threw herself into the effort and spend a few hours each night for the better part of a month putting it together. About three days into it she realized that she needed something to listen to while matching colors, so she downloaded an audiobook from iTunes. This was annoying because I DO have that Audible subscription, but whatever… I half listened to it while she puttered, and really ended up enjoying what I heard.

What she got was Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. It’s a pretty good true-life story about a WWII pilot whose plane crashes in the Pacific.

The story follows a number of people, but mostly Louie Zamperini, an Olympic runner in 1936 Games. It’s a harrowing tale of plane crashes, sharks, starvation, rescue, capture, more starvation, slave labor, abuse, and starvation. If you like reading about horrible things happening to resilient people, you’ll probably like this.

The book really makes you look sideways at the Japanese though – it’s written pretty matter-of-factly and tries hard to point out the (very, very few) acts of kindness by Japanese civilians and military personnel, as well as setting the stage for how POWs were treated by explaining the culture and warrior ethic of the islands… but wow.

Sometimes I’m more moved to write about what I’ve read than others.

I’m finishing Consider Phlebas by Banks. It’s my first Culture novel and it’s… alright. I understand it’s a weak opening to the series so I’m looking forward to the rest of them.

So, a few things of note that I have read recently (by no means comprehensive):

  1. I tried to start The Name of the Rose, the classic medieval mystery by Umberto Eco. This did not last very long. I enjoyed his Foucault’s Pendulum, although I found it more than a little obtuse and difficult itself, but The Name of the Rose opens in a way so laden with impenetrable digressions and archaic phrasing that I was quite unable to muster the will to go on.

  2. The Melancholy of Mechagirl a short fiction collection by Cathrynne Valente, all of it about Japan or the Japanese and much of it centering around Japan’s mythology, as well the experience of being an American naval bride in Japan, not speaking the language, not understanding the customs, and having neither husband nor friends to rely on. (Also, some poems.) Frankly, everything in this collection is gorgeous and fantastically well written. I was particularly taken with a tale of a post-apocalyptic America stuck in the 1950s but in a very very different way than Fallout, and a lengthy multi-part novella about an AI’s peculiar relationship with a multigenerational family, although another story that alternates between scientifically reimagined origin myths and autobiographical stuff about living in Japan, and a brief number about a mysterious fictional videogame are also pretty awesome in their own ways, and the titular poem is surprisingly moving while being kind of amusing at the same time and…man, just read it.

  3. Above by Leah Bobet. This is her first novel, though I ran across it because she’s contributed to the fantastic Shadow Unit series, and it’s a lovely, heartbreaking urban fantasy about a community of outsiders living underground, told by the one child to grow up there. There are a bunch of Amazon reviews complaining about the narrative style of said child being offputtingly difficult to read, apparently by people who must have difficulty with basic English comprehension because fuck if I know what they were talking about. This is not Riddley Walker or Alan Moore’s Voice of the Fire or any of those books whose narration is so thoroughly drifted from modern English as to present a serious comprehension barrier. The kid is not well educated because he was effectively homeschooled by people without access to a great deal of teaching materials, and there are certain elements of his speech that are ritualized because of the customs of their community, but it’s still pretty much regular English with some quirks. Just thought I’d point that out because I’ve already had one person to whom I recommended Above get put off by those reviews, which would be a mistake. I very much recommend Above.

That was my reaction as well. I really enjoyed the movie, but it turns out the movie was the “good parts” version. The book gets lost repeatedly.