The Book Thread - July 2014

The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks. This is about a rich English family who invented a board game called Empire, and eventually took it to computer gaming, riding it to a fortune. Along the way, they sold a share to an American company and the storyline is the lead up to their family meeting where they are voting whether to sell more or all of the remainder. There is an attached storyline for the main character.

I liked it and easily finished it, but I don’t think it was that special. Mostly it reminded me of The Crow Road in that it was basically a long tale about a morose self-obsessed character becoming less so. I think Banks’ non-scifi books were better when he was trying something different.

Some title I can’t recall by Nick Harkaway. This has been discussed in previous threads, it’s about some clockwork engineer who isn’t making much money, and gets involved in repairing a clockwork doomsday device. I read the first page and realised I was going to find it a struggle. The author suffers from padding out the text with too many words that don’t really add anything, and a writing style that seemed to be to be a little self important. Shit is pulled out of nowhere to tie up loose ends, and what not. I read all of it, but I felt more tired than satisfied at the end. Not for me.

I recently read through most of Peter Clines’ Ex-Heroes series (I read the first long ago) and was pleasantly impressed. It’s basically a genre mashup - zombies + superheroes - but it’s played very much straight and respectful to the characters and the situation. The main characters tend to have more plot armor than in most zombie books, but on the other hand, they -are- superheroes, and that tends to make you harder to take out. The first book deals with the origins of the zombie threat, problems with a rival gang, and some zombie supers, among other things. The second introduces the local surviving military (there are secrets, but for once it’s not about the military going crazy and power hungry, so that’s nice). Book three deals with a more blatantly supernatural threat, and book four takes a very different turn which is, on the one hand, its own trope, but on the other is genuinely mysterious and the eventual reveals are handled nicely. I’ll definitely read more if he writes more. In the meantime, he’s got a couple of other books I’ll have to investigate.

But first, I’m going to finish the Mindspace Investigations books to date, written by Alex Hughes. Future police procedural/thriller stuff, but with some interesting quirks, not the least of which is the main character. He’s a strong telepath and a very successful interrogator and crime scene investigator, but, well, he’s also an addict. He’s working with the cops because his drug habit destroyed his life and got him dumped from the Guild that controls all telepaths and various other psi talents. He’s been on the wagon for a few years as of the start of the first book, but the craving’s still a real problem, he’s both self-loathing and prickly at perceived disrespect, and he’s dually distrusted because he’s a felon and former junkie; and because he’s a telepath among normals. Only a few relationships keep him going - his NA sponsor Swartz (an aging teacher), Cherabino, the attractive, cranky policewoman who got him his job, Bellury, the semi-retired cop who’s his minder at the department, and his boss, Paulsen, who appreciates the work he does but has little time for his self-pitying bullshit. He’s not the most likeable protagonist ever, but you get the sense that the person behind the damage is a genuinely worthwhile one.

Reading Sentimental Education by Flaubert. My god, this Frederic Moreau is a dull character. I get that Flaubert was chronicling the shortcomings of the bourgeois of his generation, but even so, reading about this self-involved virtueless character’s life is painful.

I agree with Henry James:

I imagine that in the original French one can appreciate the sentences and indeed the individual words for their own sake, because Flaubert is famous for striving for the mot juste. But in English it’s just dull, unlike say Proust whose prose in translation is still profound and intricate.

That would be Angelmaker. I started it last night and my impression so far is that in some ways it’s tighter than Gone Away World and in other ways it’s messier. I like the other better, but I still like this one.

Gone Away World is (as everyone on Qt3 seems to agree) fantastic and delicious. Planning to comment more on it at some point in the other thread.

Before that, I read the latest Dresden (Skin Game), which was not the best but not the worst Dresden book, and before that the latest Lost Fleet novel (Steadfast) which was pretty much par for the course in that series.

Most of the way through M.R. (aka Mike) Carey’s The Girl With All The Gifts, about a young girl named Melanie and the unusual circumstances under which she is being taught. (It’s essentially a zombie novel, but like Last of Us it taps mutant cordyceps instead of zombies, per se.) I’m not sure it’s saying anything dramatically new in the genre, but Carey’s an amazing writer and I’m enjoying spending time with the characters and their world.

Charlie Stross has a new Laundry novel out, The Rhesus Chart. If you’ve read any of the earlier Laundry novels, rest assured this one is more of the same, and that’s a good thing. If you haven’t, I highly recommend grabbing the earlier novels first; they make a lot more sense in terms of character growth when read in order, and there’s enough references to earlier stuff to be confusing if you come in cold. Anyone who has ever worked in corporate or government IT should definitely read the whole series, as you’ll get plenty of amusement out of Bob’s descriptions of the inner workings of the bureaucracy he works in. Without such background you may not get some of the references, but there’s still a good techno-occult near-future protecting-the-realm-from-evil-things story in these pages.

I’ve been reading some short stories recently, first in Space Opera edited by Rich Horton, and the last couple of issues (May and July) of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Space Opera was pretty terrible, and I blame the editor. There are a lot of stories in the anthology that aren’t remotely SF, let alone a classic space opera, and it’s fairly clearly a matter of Horton’s taste. There are a couple of decent stories such as Glory by Greg Egan in there, but most of it is fuzzy-headed crap.

In contrast, the last couple of issues of F&SF have been unusually good. Normally I don’t comment on magazine content because they’re often a place for new authors to learn how to write. I’m accustomed to seeing a lot of iffy material there, particularly stories that abruptly cut off just when it’s starting to get interesting. There are exceptions, of course, lots of really classic stories appear in magazines - I saw things like Enemy Mine and The Postman when they first saw print, both in Asimov’s. Both of which had really terrible film adaptations, but the reason they got film adaptations is that the original stories are excellent.

Anyway, there are a lot of stories in the last couple of issues that I’m really glad I read. Belly starts with a little girl swallowed whole by a witch, and goes interesting places. The Day of the Nuptial Flight is about an antlike alien baffled by human colonists. A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i examines life in a concentration camp under a vampire dictatorship. Containment Zone is another installment in a series about a Libertarian ship-nation, and why that’s such a bad, bad idea.

The stories that I didn’t consider exceptional were still fun to read. The End of the Silk Road has a pulp fiction PI investigating a case on a 30’s style swampy Venus. Rooksnight is another installment in a series about a bard traveling with a gargoyle and their misadventures, this time involving a rapacious band of mercenary knights and a trap-filled castle inhabited by birds. Presidential Crypotrivia is full of silly stories about past presidents. The Shadow in the Corner is a Miskatonic University story about the dangers of peering into adjacent dimensions. Palm Strike’s Last Case has a Batman analog becoming an interstellar colonist, and finding he needs his detective skills and he needs to let go of his past.

Reading The Rhesus Chart now. I like Stross’ Laundry stuff much better than his SF, which seems to me to be clever but not generally very well thought out.

While my exposure to Stross is limited, that was my feeling as well. The Laundry stuff isn’t necessarily all that logical either, but since it’s humor and/or baroque stuff, it doesn’t stand out so much. Both the grotesque Lovecraftian stories (i.e. the unicorn story) and the silly ones (i.e. the insane asylum one) work pretty well, so he’s good at both ends of the Laundry spectrum.

After plinking away at it a few pages at a time for well over a year now, I finally finished a WH40K novel by John French, Ahriman: Exile. It exists in that large nether-region between “not too bad” and “decent”, landing somewhere close to “not entirely worth your time”.

French seems like a decent writer, but this one just never quite clicked for me. It’s a story about a bunch of damaged people thrown together on a morally murky journey that could possibly be about redemption or betrayal or self-discovery or any number of other bullshit themes… kind of a “Heart of Darkness/Apocolypse Now” sort of thing, just not quite a good.

This is the kind of review score that makes me want a Like button.

I read Stross’ Laundry books a couple of weeks back and was mostly satisfied, but I kept wanting to see the series and ideas – and his writing – develop more. And they didn’t. Still, good stuff and worth the time. Thanks for the heads-up about his latest entry.

I take back what I said above about Angelmaker. It’s nowhere near as good as Harkaway’s first book and in fact it’s a bit of a mess. He may be a master of the English language but sadly not of story and plot. Still, he’s an author to keep an eye on and most authors end up putting out a crap novel at some point, after all.

On the advice of Harkaway himself via his blog, I started Josh Bazell’s Beat the Reaper yesterday and holy shit is that good. It’s about an ex-mob guy, Dr. “Bearclaw” Brnwna, who is now a doctor in Witness Protection and is visited by his past. No major complaints, highly recommended, and just moved on to book #2 in that series. Edit: Holy crap, #2 (Wild Thing) starts off with the protagonist getting sent off on a cryptozoological expedition. DOUBLE SOLD.

Reading Daylight War, 3rd in The Demon Cycle.

I’ve started reading Dreadnaught by Robert Massie, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the start of WWI. For a book with relatively narrow focus, it only really deals with the familial and political challenges between Britain and Germany leading to their conflict, it’s a heavy book. It’s enjoyable though, Massie has an almost conversational tone and a well organized method to his exploration.

Other than that I’ve finished Neuromancer, and hadn’t ever realized how fully Gibson informed cyberpunk. I knew that he laid out the style and concepts, but how fully some other works (namely games here) just straight up used his vision with almost no reworking. Netrunner in particular stands out for me. I guess sometimes the first time really just gets it right.

Dont know whether you guys know Milan Kundera’s recent new book-La Fete d’insignifiance? The problem is that i dont find the English version yet, and my french is now good enough to understand everything…if anyone of you find this in english version, plzzzz let me know!!

I recently completed Fall of Giants by Ken Follett. It is the first book in a three part series about several families. This book begins in about 1910 and ends in about 1924. I believe the series eventually takes the families through WW2 and beyond, but I am not sure.

I am unsure at this point as to whether I will continue on with the series. I didn’t hate it, but I just didn’t find anything really compelling about it either. The history in it is good, but it is one of those histories where the same people seem to be involved in major events all over Europe, and after a while that seems just to convenient. Also, while I didn’t hate any of the main characters I didn’t fall in love with any of them either.

The second book is due out in paperback in August, so I have until then to make up my mind, but this may be a used book store purchase instead.

I finished an interesting book this weekend, Eleanor Catton’s novel, the Luminaries. Set in 1865 during the New Zealand gold rush, it’s a neo-Victorian mystery of sorts with a large cast of characters, each of whom has a different perspective on the events in question. The truth, such as it is, slowly unfolds as the different perspectives are revealed and compared. The book starts slow and at times I resented how much of my precious reading time it consumed, (it took me six weeks to finish,) but the story and writing were just compelling enough to keep me interested. The second half of the novel is more compelling as the pace picks up and I tore through the last 20% of the book in two nights and ended up loving it in the end.

While I was reading I was aware that there was a whole astrological subtext that I was missing out on (which I was fine with) so after I finished I read some reviews and realized what an insane technical feat this novel was. First off, the reason for the odd pacing of the novel is that each of the novels twelve parts is exactly half the word count of the previous part so that the first part is half the novel and the last is only a couple of lines. The twelve parts represent the year over which the novel is set (though the story is not linear). Catton plotted out a full astrological chart for the year in question (1865) and each character in the novel is assigned either an astrological sign or a celestrial body and the various chapters involve convergences of these characters that correspond to the astrological chart. Again, none of this knowledge is critical to enjoyment of the book but it’s a fairly amazing technical achievement.

That said, it’s definitely not for everyone. My own feelings were pretty mixed and, while it won me over in the end, I would imagine that just as many people would be legitimately put off by the book. It’s definitely a slog at times but, for me at least, the pay off was worth it and I was pretty invested in these characters towards the end.

I’d be interested to hear what you have to say about that one.

Wild Thing may not be quite as tight as Beat the Reaper, but it’s still very readable, and fun. It also has the following going for it:


[li]Protagonist – a former mafia hitman turned medical doctor in Witness Protection who plays doctor on cruise ships – gets called out on random, strange jobs such as contracting with a multimillionaire to investigate claims about a cryptozoological lake reptile with a sexy paleontologist as a partner.[/li][li]He also happens to have a well-justified phobia of sharks.[/li][li]Two days into the job, Sarah Palin shows up, takes a weird interest in the protagonist’s tattoos, and becomes a semi-significant or at least interesting character. She even makes the paleontologist jealous for awhile.[/li][/ul]

And this:

super spoiler

We all come onto the rocks together like we’re evolving from the sea, water streaming from our heavy clothes. The cold is sharp. “Hey,” I shout. “Reggie gave us all LSD. If anybody didn’t drink the coffee, or just doesn’t feel fucked up, take charge of whoever you’re with. Everybody wet needs to get dry as soon as possible. If anybody’s got benzos, now’s the time to share them.”

I like this series, but it has the same faults of many fantasy series: I just don’t find some of the POVs very interesting.

And that is compounded by having the guy I thought was going to be the main series character minimized (as per about halfway through this one).