Someone at Orbit must have read my post about the Hugo nominees and decided to make things easy on me. I now own 3 out of 5 of the best novel nominees, and I might actually pull off my reading goal.
It’s definitely worth subscribing to the Orbit newsletter. Most of the previous deals have at least been interesting, and some of them have been fantastic. The deals seem to alternate between newer books and archive titles, and I’ve ended up buying almost all of the ones they’ve listed just because $2.99 is a price point I can’t resist.
It seems especially appropriate to put The Dresden Files at the top of the list. I started reading it recently, and although I’m only three books in, Harry Dresden has gone through so much punishment that I shudder to think at what happens to him over the rest of the series.
The first book in the series, Storm Front, was decent but not great. It was entertaining enough that I wanted to keep reading, but nothing to write home about. It wasn’t until the third book, Grave Peril, that it felt like the series really hit its stride and started running on all cylinders.
The funny thing is that the quality of the books and/or my enjoyment of them seems almost to correlate directly with how thoroughly Harry Dresden gets the shit kicked out of him. Jim Butcher raises the stakes every time, and seems to enjoy throwing one horrible escalation after another at Dresden, usually just after he’s barely gotten back on his feet.
Although I absolutely enjoy series that occasionally punch you in the gut, there’s a flip-side to that darkness, too. The best series temper unrelenting punishment with an occasional moment of cathartic emotional release, usually of the romantic kind. Nine times out of ten, if they play that card right, it turns me into a blubbering mess. Butcher hasn’t quite pulled off this particular type of emotion yet; he’s great with mayhem and darkness, but romance doesn’t seem to be his strong suit. Awkward descriptions of sex scenes definitely do not work in his favor.
It doesn’t help matters that Harry Dresden is a self-admitted chauvinist, and the world of the books ends up being filtered through that lens. Women in the series are variously treacherous villains, one-dimensional crusaders for justice, or oversexed damsels in distress. I’m hoping that Butcher eventually works in a stronger female character, because I feel like the series can only have a real emotional moment if Dresden meets his match.
A friend of mine mentioned that she thought it was funny that I’m both extremely dark and very optimistic at the same time. I firmly believe in the power of love, but I also enjoy love stories that have incredibly tragic endings. At the time, I told her I wasn’t quite sure how to explain that, but after some consideration I don’t necessarily think they’re contradictory. I think I just love operatic storytelling, the kind with big emotions and dramatic twists.
I look forward to seeing what happens in the rest of the Dresden Files books. I’ve already heard one spoiler about the very ending of book twelve, but I have a feeling it’ll be a wild ride getting there, and I’m curious to see what Butcher is capable of as a storyteller.
If you happen to be a book nerd who likes fantasy, mystery, satire and a healthy dose of metafiction, the Thursday Next series will be right up your alley. It quickly became one of my favorite series after I read the first five books in a mad rush over the last year. However, after finishing the sixth installment, One of Our Thursdays is Missing, I’m unsure how I feel about the future of the Thursday Next books.
On one hand, One of Our Thursdays is Missing is a reboot with a different viewpoint character, but on the other hand it’s also the most self-referential of the entire series so far, and probably the worst possible place to jump into the series as a whole. Also, because it’s a Jasper Fforde book, telling you that there is a new viewpoint character is a huge oversimplification.
If you’re unfamiliar with the series, it’s about Thursday Next, a police detective in an alternate universe who is able to leap into fiction and uses her powers to solve mysteries both in the “RealWorld” and the “BookWorld”. That’s only scratching the surface, however; Fforde overstuffs the books with an insane number of alternate-world details and odd little touches. It makes the books almost impossible to accurately summarize.
The short version is that Thursday’s adventures were novelized by ghost writers in her world. What this means is that there is a “real” Thursday and a “fictional” Thursday. The fictional Thursday is sort of a cross between an actor and a clone of the real Thursday. Fictional Thursday only has to perform when someone in the RealWorld is reading one of her books. However, readership numbers are dropping and she finds herself with too much free time on her hands. When she hears rumors that the real Thursday may have disappeared, fictional Thursday begins a surreptitious investigation, and almost immediately finds herself in over her head.
Much like her RealWorld counterpart, fictional Thursday is driven to solve this mystery at all costs. However, she isn’t exactly like the real version; in the book series, her husband, Landen, was killed off in the first book to “raise the stakes”, and she finds herself envious of the real Thursday’s family. She also doesn’t consider herself quite as talented a detective, especially since she flunked her entrance exam for the BookWorld police force.
The overall portrayal of fictional Thursday is my main problem with this book. When we were initially introduced to this fictional version of Thursday in the fifth book, she was portrayed as a hippie do-gooder who is too much of a pacifist for proper police work. However, in this book she mostly just behaves like a less confident version of the real Thursday. She tells us that she would probably solve problems by hugging everyone, but it felt like I never really saw the differences in her personality in action. Mostly she just seemed like a diminished version of the real thing. Fforde takes away a lot of the real Thursday’s defining characteristics and doesn’t give us anything truly compelling in their stead.
Also, a word of warning: Fforde really likes to throw in little metafictional jokes. Some of the stuff in this book relies on a fairly thorough knowledge of previous events in the series. It was definitely a huge help that I’d read all of the books in short succession. I’m not sure I would have caught all of the little details that Fforde throws in otherwise. However, even with all of that knowledge, I was occasionally a bit confused by events, and wondered if Fforde knew what he was doing. My best advice is just to try to relax and enjoy the ride.
Ultimately, I have to say that this is my least favorite of the Thursday Next books. A lot of what I love about Fforde’s books is present – his incisive touch for satire, madcap plotting, and crackpot world-building – but it just didn’t have the same heart as the previous installments. I never really warmed up to the fictional Thursday Next as a protagonist. In my opinion, she doesn’t rise above her status as a stand-in for the real deal.
As for the future of the series, I’m not quite sure where it will go from here. The first four books are a sort of loose quartet, and when I finished the fifth it seemed likely that he was setting up another trilogy or quartet. Instead, Fforde made a complete left turn and gave us this book, which doesn’t really follow up on the fifth book and mostly ends up being a bit of a standalone story and/or narrative cul-de-sac. My hope is that Fforde has further adventures planned for the real Thursday Next, or that he at least does more to make the fictional Thursday’s perspective distinct if she returns in future volumes.
I always look forward to the yearly announcement of the Hugo Award nominations. Unlike other awards (even the Oscars), the Hugos are almost always relevant to my reading interests, and for the past few years I’ve made an effort to read as many of the books nominated for best novel ahead of time so I can be well-informed when the winner is picked. One of these days I may even pay for a membership so I can vote for my favorites.
The 2011 nominations were released over the weekend, and the novel selections are an interesting bunch:
Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis (Ballantine Spectra) Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen) The Dervish House by Ian McDonald (Gollancz; Pyr) Feed by Mira Grant (Orbit) The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
Blackout/All Clear is a two-part novel about time-traveling historians who get stranded in WWII England. Cryoburn is the fourteenth novel in the Vorkosigan saga, a scifi/military/space opera series generally focused on the exploits of a diplomat named Miles Vorkosigan. The Dervish House is a kaleidoscopic story about the interconnected lives of six people in near-future Istanbul. Feed is (yet another?) zombie novel about bloggers following a political campaign in a future trying to recover from the undead apocalypse. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is an epic fantasy about politics, racism, and gender roles in a world where gods walk the earth.
Of the five, I already own The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, so it’ll probably be first in my reading queue. I’m especially intrigued by The Dervish House, so I might pick that up next, then Feed. After that, things get a little tougher. I’ve recently started reading the Vorkosigan saga, but I’m not sure which is a more daunting prospect – reading all fourteen books this year, or jumping a dozen books ahead and reading Cryoburn. As for Blackout/All Clear, it has gotten some fairly mixed reviews, but I’ve loved all of Willis’ books that I’ve read so far, so it’s possible I’d still enjoy it.
In any case, I’ve decided that I’m going to make it my personal goal to read as many of the nominated works as possible, including as much of the short fiction as I can get my hands on. It seems like the best possible way to keep current on the state of modern scifi is to read as many of the nominees as possible. Also, it sounds like a fun challenge. Watch this space for my reviews of the nominated works!
Published: October 28, 2010 Publisher: Orbit Genre(s): Science Fiction, Space Opera Format: Audiobook Length: 20:28
Surface Detail is the ninth book in Iain M. Banks’s Culture series, and the third I’ve read. As soon as I read the summary, I couldn’t wait to pick it up. Fortunately, the Culture books are generally standalone stories, so it was easy to skip ahead.
The book has a good half-dozen plot threads that run concurrently, all somehow touching on the effects of technologies that have made it possible to back up a person’s “mind-state”, essentially a digital recording of their soul. Once a mind-state is backed up, it can be “re-vented” into a new body, or consigned to a virtual afterlife, some of which are decidedly unpleasany. Naturally the disposition of digital souls has huge social, political, and religious implications. The issue of virtual hells is a controversial one, and a war has broken out in the galaxy between The Culture (among others) and societies who believe it is their right to send the digital dead to eternal damnation.
The main thread of the book focuses on Lededje Y’breq, a young woman who is an indentured servant of the most powerful man in her society, Joiler Veppers. She is more than just a slave, however; her society has a form of indenture that involves a full-body tattoo genetically etched onto every cell in her body. She is an “intagliate”, and is marked with both an exotic beauty and an ever-present reminder of her status as chattel.
When Lededje tries to run away from Veppers, he hunts her down and stabs her to death in a sudden rage. However, what neither Lededje or Veppers realize is that The Culture has taken an interest in her plight. After she is murdered, she awakens on a Culture ship light-years away and discovers that all of her memories are intact, along with a pressing need for revenge. Events in the book are set into motion when she begins the journey back to her home world to exact that revenge.
Some of the story takes place in the real world, some in virtual worlds simulating an endless war, and some in the virtual hell run by an alien society. The story jumps wildly from place to place and character to character. We are introduced to so many fascinating people and exotic places over the course of the book, it is sometimes hard to keep track of everything as it flies by. The book is basically impossible to summarize succinctly, and must be read to truly be experienced. The plot is twisty and full of misdirection, but rewards a patient and attentive reader.
I listened to the Audible audiobook version of Surface Detail, which is narrated by Peter Kenny, and I would highly recommend experiencing the book that way. Kenny does a fantastic job of giving each character a unique voice and temperament, and that made it a lot easier to keep the huge cast straight in my mind. Also, one of my absolute favorite parts of the book was only made possible by his narration. Near the end of the book, a normally sedate alien – who Kenny gives a cutesy high-pitched voice – starts becoming seriously pissed off when his plans start falling apart. The alien becomes so foul-mouthed and sarcastic that I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. I was pleased to find out that Kenny does the narration for all of Banks’ novels on Audible, so I’ll definitely be picking up another one sometime soon.
I think my only criticism of the book is that the ending falls a little flat. Although all of the disparate threads do end up connecting in some fashion, it still seems like an awful lot of fuss for something that feels a bit anticlimactic. However, I enjoyed the ride up until that point so very much that I wouldn’t necessarily discount the resolution for not quite adding up.
Surface Detail is a hell of a book. It manages to discuss incredibly complex moral and philosophical issues in an engaging and entertaining way, all while throwing in a bit of action, terror, and humor for seasoning. It’s another fine slice of Banks’ particular brand of space opera, and if you’ve enjoyed previous Culture books, I think you’ll definitely enjoy this one.
Published: February 12, 2008 Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf Genre(s): Fiction, Slipstream Format: Hardcover Pages: 244
I was drawn to this collection of short stories by two things; first off, the cover is gorgeously designed, evoking both the period setting of many of the stories – the 1950s and 1960s – and the unsettling, off-kilter themes that resonate throughout the collection. Secondly, I’d heard of Millhauser’s story “Eisenheim the Illusionist“, which was adapted into a film that was unfairly compared to The Prestige because they were both period stories about magicians. I liked the movie enough that I wanted to know more about the author, although I’ve read that the story is very different from the movie.
It’s rare to find a truly consistent short story collection; in my experience, even the best authors swings and misses in this kind of collection. I read Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things earlier this year, and those stories alternated between gorgeous, disturbing, and incredibly slight. Dangerous Laughter has a few stories that I felt miss the mark, but by and large Millhauser’s collection is one of the strongest I’ve read in a long time. The stories alternate between macro-level narratives that read more like entries in a history book, and more personal stories that focus on specific characters. In general, my favorite stories fell in the latter category, but all of the stories in this volume have something to recommend them.
The first truly stunning one is “The Room in the Attic”, which tells the story of a young man who befriends a girl that lives in darkness. During his junior year at school, the narrator, David, befriends an odd, bookish new kid named Wolf. One day Wolf invites David over to his house and introduces him to his sister, Isabel, who lives in the attic room and keeps her lights turned off at all times. Wolf tells David that she is recovering from a nervous breakdown, but that she seems to like him, and David begins regularly visiting Isabel in her attic room.
They dance together in the dark, play games, and talk about anything and everything. Soon enough David is spending more and more time with Isabel, and can think of nothing else but his daily visit. Eventually the idea of Isabel looms in David’s mind, and her invisibility becomes an indelible part of her personality for him, until he is no longer sure he wants to see her face. I loved the way this story every-so-gently tweaked reality and played with symbolism; it manages to fill something seemingly mundane with incredible power.
The title story, “Dangerous Laughter”, also plays with something apparently normal that becomes twisted and strange. It focuses on one summer when a group of students start playing a game where they gather in secret and laugh as loud and long as they possibly can, until they are exhausted, spent. Eventually they form laughter salons, each with its own specialty, and the games start turning into a ritual.
The laughter salons seem both innocent and deeply, darkly personal; where other games like spin-the-bottle or seven minutes in heaven are naive or childish approaches to sexuality, the laughter games seem to tap into something more primal but similarly illicit. Things start getting even more intense when a formerly anti-social girl joins the laughter salons and starts laughing harder and longer than everyone else. This story perfectly captures the lyrical mysticism and strangeness inherent in those bygone teenage summers, and quickly became one of my most favorite in this collection.
Other stories in the collection deal with creativity (“In The Reign of Harad IV“), spirituality and belief (“The Tower”), identity (“The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman”), and more. Although at first they may seem gentle and understated, many of them are filled with a creeping tension or an impending sense of tragedy. Few of the stories wear their fantastic nature on their sleeves, but all of them are just a few steps to the left of reality, edging into more unsettling territory. More often than not, it was just enough to get me thoroughly hooked and keep me reading. I thoroughly enjoyed this collection, and look forward to reading more by Millhauser very soon.
It seems like the bane of any regular reader has to be all of the books they’ve started but never finished. I know some people who refuse to stop reading a book even if it’s the worst thing they’ve ever read in their life. I am not one of those readers – and I don’t think I ever have been – but I used to be a lot harder on myself about not finishing books.
A few years ago I forced myself to only read one book at a time, whether or not I was enjoying it. This is probably why The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle took me a good six months to read. Don’t get me wrong, I ended up loving it, but it’s an incredibly dense tome that I just so happened to be reading during one of my final semesters in college (instead of reading for class, naturally). After a while it seemed clear that all the guilt and recrimination I was laying onto myself was one of the main reasons I no longer read as much for fun. Even once I’d graduated and rediscovered free time, I didn’t seem to spend much time cracking open books. That had to change.
When I decided to rehabilitate my reading habits, one of the first things that had to go was this restrictive rule where I punished myself for not reading one specific book. I gave myself permission to only read books I was actually enjoying, and stopped stressing about reading multiple books at once. If I felt like putting down some heavy tome and picking up a goofy comedy instead, why not do it? It didn’t mean I couldn’t go back to the tome when I was in the right frame of mind.
However, even with this system, there are still books that I’ve started reading and then decided to officially put back on the shelf to try again at a later date. Whenever they’re library books, I send them right on back without a care in the world, but if it’s a book I own, they do tend to sit there on the shelf, staring at me accusingly with beady little eyes. I do my best to reassure them that just because I don’t finish a book doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. Then it occurs to me that I am personifying inanimate objects and check to make sure nobody is watching me.
Here are a few titles that stand out in my memory as notable books that remain unfinished, most of which I fully intend to finish some day:
Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delaney: I think I bought this book when I was a freshman in college 10+ years ago. I remember trying to read it one summer between semesters and only making it about 50 or so pages in. That isn’t too surprising, though; it’s a particularly intimidating 900 page tome full of all sorts of postmodern trickery. The first sentence is “to wound the autumnal city.” which is actually the second half of the book’s final sentence, and near the end of the book some pages have a second column of text off to one side. I’m sure it makes sense when you get there, but I didn’t quite have the attention span when I first gave it a try.
Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris: This one is a much more recent purchase. It’s a comedy about the employees at an advertising agency going down the tubes. It’s narrated in a collective voice by all of the employees at the agency, and told in a generally rambling anecdotal style. It is definitely funny, but I had a hard time sticking with it, probably because of its style. I’d still like to try again at some point, but I’m not in a huge hurry.
A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin: I may catch some flak for this one, I know. I read the first two books in this series back in 2008. Book two I remember finishing in a mad rush in about two weeks. I owned all four existing books back then, but I decided that I should hold off on reading books three and four until a firm date was announced for book five. Flash forward to three years later when a date is finally announced and it turns out I’ve forgotten everything about the series. I suffered serious narrative whiplash within the first few chapters and decided that it might be worth my time to go ahead and re-read all the earlier books. This one is probably my fault for waiting so long to finish the series, but I’d argue that GRRM doesn’t do the reader any favors, either. His books just throw you right in and assume you’ll keep your head above water.
Twilight by Stephanie Meyer: I actually listened to the audiobook of this one a few years ago just to try and figure out what all the fuss was about. I think I made it three-fourths of the way through before I decided that I couldn’t handle any more breathless descriptions of Edward Cullen’s beauty. Sometimes I wonder whatever happened to those crazy kids…
Duane Swierczynski is a name I’ve come across several times before. It’s a hard one to forget, even though I probably couldn’t spell it if my life depended on it. Amazon has been quite sure that I would enjoy his work, and has recommended him many times over. Swierczynski seems to write the kind of genre fiction I find myself enjoying lately, intense crime thrillers that occasionally edge into more speculative territories.
The first book I picked up by Swierczynski was his fourth, Severance Package… and I couldn’t get into it. Not sure why, it just didn’t click. I made it a few chapters in and took it back to the library. I wasn’t so sure that Amazon knew what it was talking about. Even still, every new book of his that I came across had an intriguing description. Sometimes I’m just not in the right mood to read a particular book, and I figured I might just need to give Swierczynski another shot.
And what a shot it was. The kind that picks you up off your feet and tosses you across the room. Little blue birdies dancing in your vision the whole way down. I don’t know what kept me from getting into Severance Package, but there was no such hesitation when I started reading Fun and Games today over my lunch break. Within 20 pages I knew I was going to finish it this evening, and within a few short hours I’d torn through the rest in a mad rush. In my considered opinion, Duane Swierczynski has arrived, and just careened right up my list of Must Read Authors.
Fun and Games is the first in a trilogy, which, thankfully, will be completed promptly over the next two years (book two this winter, book three in 2012). The main character, Charlie Hardie, is a former police consultant whose life was ruined in a tragedy three years earlier. Ever since then, he’s drifted through life in an alcoholic haze, making ends meet by house-sitting for the rich and absent. He wants nothing more than to drink himself into a stupor while watching old movies and forgetting that his life ever happened.
However, he gets more than he bargained for when he starts a job housesitting for a movie composer who lives in the Hollywood Hills. On his first day, Charlie is assaulted by a crazed woman who is squatting in the composer’s bathroom. The woman, Lane Madden, wallops him with a microphone stand and then starts babbling about a mysterious “them” who are trying to kill her and make it look like an accident. At first Charlie thinks she’s just a washed-up drug addict, but then he realizes that Lane is Somebody Famous, and that she may actually be telling the truth.
Charlie gets all the proof he needs when “they” – sometimes referred to as “The Guild” or “The Accident People” – try to kill him. Once The Accident People make their move, Fun and Games sets off at breakneck speed and only slows down long enough to let you catch your breath before the next white-knuckle action scene. Most of the action takes place in a very short amount of time, maybe 24 or 48 hours, as the protagonists are cornered, escape, and then get cornered again. The story is full of twists and turns, misdirections and reveals, all neatly doled out with masterful pacing that kept me glued to the page.
One of the great things about Fun and Games is that it’s very much a Hollywood thriller that could only be set in Hollywood. There’s a generous dose of satire layered over the proceedings; The Accident People are exactly the sort of assassins that someone would dream up for a movie, but they’re also the sort of the assassins that people who make movies might use to knock each other off. They are always concerned with the “narrative” of their kills, wanting to ensure that no hint of the true story peeks through. That Charlie Hardie will not die does not fit into their neat little storyline.
It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed a book this much, and it’s certainly been a few months since I’ve read something in one sitting. I’m definitely sold on Swierczynski now, and can’t wait to get my hands on the rest of this trilogy, not to mention his earlier books. Mulholland Books just added another one of my favorite authors to their roster.
First off, the good news is that Warren Ellis has a new two-book deal with Mulholland Books, who are also the new home of one of my all-time favorite authors, Charlie Huston. I read Crooked Little Vein last year and thoroughly enjoyed that vulgar little volume, which alternates between dark humor and varieties of sexual weirdness normally found only in the darkest corners of the web. I haven’t read anything else by Ellis yet, but I may start in on some of his graphic novel work soon.
[W]hen I write science fiction I’m a crime writer, and when I write crime fiction I’m an sf writer. I’m talking about our lives, and the way I see the world. I’m writing about the new thing, the disruptive event that enters that world, its repercussions and the attempts to deal with it. But I’m talking about where I think I am today, and what I think it looks like.
Ellis’ argument is that both genres, while nominally about strange worlds (either sfnal or criminal), are actually social fiction, wherein authors discuss the ills in our society, either real or potential. It’s a fascinating argument, and made me think about what draws me to both genres.
I’ve been a lifelong scifi/fantasy reader, but over time I’ve started reading more crime fiction as well. My first big exposure to the genre was in high school when I started reading Elmore Leonard after seeing Out of Sight. In more recent years, I’ve found myself voraciously reading the works of Huston, Gregory McDonald (Fletch), and others. I think I’m most drawn to crime fiction by the urgency and danger inherent in the form.
However, I think it’s what Ellis identifies that keeps me coming back to both forms. I love stories that hold up a mirror to society, that play with the nature of our world and reality. I think that works whether they’re discussing a multitude of alternate universes or a drug-ridden slum in New Jersey. I look forward to reading what comes next from Ellis and Mulholland.
Goo Book tells the story of a pickpocket and occasional driver for a mysterious man named Mishazzo. Mishazzo is a businessman of sorts, terse and intense. He has his driver take him all around London, sometimes for business deals, and sometimes for what seem to be intimidations or even assaults. The driver does not quite know what it is that Mishazzo does, he only knows that he may be dangerous.
When the story opens, the main character spends most of his time smoking pot with his girlfriend while sitting on the banks of a canal or stealing wallets from tourists. They have a strange, complex relationship; instead of talking about their feelings, they leave notes in a notebook back and forth. It lets them say the words they could never say aloud, and communicate the thoughts they might otherwise keep secret.
When he gets the chance to do more driving for Mishazzo, things seem to be going well until he is picked up by the police one day. The police tell the main character that they want information on Mishazzo – where he goes, who he talks to, dates, times, everything – and in return they won’t send him to prison for theft. He acquiesces because he has no other choice, and things slowly but surely start going bad.
Goo Book is told in spare, measured prose, almost entirely free of description. It is filled with a slow-burning intensity that builds as the main character’s situation becomes more dangerous. In a way it felt like a reversal of most crime stories I’ve read, which tend to have forceful main characters that fill every page with their personalities; here the main character and his girlfriend are practically ciphers, carefully hidden from view for most of the story. We only really get a peek into the main character’s feelings at the very end, when his paranoia reaches a fever-pitch and he makes a split-second decision whose repercussions hit him like a sledgehammer.
Overall I liked this story; it has a fairly simple plot, but the style drew me in, and the heart of the story is the character’s odd relationship with his girlfriend. It seems held together by the notebook where they write notes back and forth. It’s almost as though their feelings don’t truly exist if they aren’t written down in the book, and that writing them down is the only way that a man so compartmentalized could truly communicate.