Elliot Allagash by Simon Rich

Published: May 25, 2010
Publisher: Random House
Genre(s): Literary Fiction, Humor
Format: Hardcover
Length: 240 pages

I read Elliot Allagash in one three-hour sitting. It was mildly entertaining, and I remember laughing once or twice, but ultimately it’s a remarkably slight novel that felt like a padded novella with pretensions of bigger things. On the other hand, its slightness does work in its favor, making it a quick, easy read, and I finished it before it could lose my interest or outstay its welcome.

The book charts the transformation of one Seymour Herson from chubby high school outcast to aloof popular kid cheating his way through life. His ascendancy comes thanks to a sociopathic billionaire teenager named Elliot Allagash, who appoints himself Seymour’s personal svengali and immediately begins stage-managing his life down to the finest detail.

The characters are fairly one-dimensional. Elliot is always scheming, Seymour is always nervous, and they’re surrounded by cardboard cut-out archetypes. The overall trajectory of their story isn’t particularly surprising, but the author does get a few points for absurd details thrown in along the way. Elliot’s convoluted revenges against his “enemies” do help keep things interesting now and then.

To be honest, I really only started reading it because it was due back to the library in a few days, and I finished it because it didn’t take that much effort once I started. Overall, it was an inoffensive way to spend a few hours, but nothing I’d go out of my way to recommend.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

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My Kindle (Almost) One Year Later

When the Kindle 3 came out last August, I decided to take the leap into the digital future and pick one up. I’d recently moved across town to another new apartment, and after moving several dozen extremely heavy boxes of books, it occurred to me that it might be worth my time to stop owning so damn many shelves full of books. It also helped that the Kindle 3’s price point and features hit a particularly attractive sweet spot.

Now, I knew going in that the Kindle would probably never fully replace my desire for physical books. I can’t resist a used book store, especially when they have a sale, and I’m never far from a library here in Austin. However, after almost a year of living with the Kindle, I’m surprised at how few ebooks I finished on the device. Off the top of my head, I’d say I finished no more than a dozen digital books, whereas I read several dozen physical books.

The most likely explanation? I have a huge backlog of  unread physical books in my personal collection, more than 300(!) at last count. I’ve also always had at least one library book checked out at all times. I think there’s just something about actually seeing books sitting on a physical shelf that still has power over me. It’s much easier to forget I even own the books in my Kindle collection. They don’t loom on my bedroom bookshelves, demanding to be read. I can’t quite decide if that’s a good or bad thing.

I was also disappointed to discover that Kindle book gifting isn’t quite ready for prime time. When I filled my Christmas wishlist with Kindle books last year, my parents were hesitant to purchase them. They were told that delivery would be instant and I’d get an email, ruining any possibility of a Christmas surprise. When my birthday rolled around I only listed physical books to keep things simple, which just seems like an oxymoron. You’d assume that digital gifting would be the simpler option, but the technology hasn’t quite caught up with common sense yet.

However, the Kindle store isn’t the only viable digital option out there. I actually ended up listening to a lot of audiobooks this year. I’ve been an occasional audiobook listener over the years, but the combination of my iPhone and the extremely well-made Audible app turned me into a dedicated listener. I ended up spending way too much money on a lot of audiobooks this year. It turns out that audiobooks really help me focus at work when I’m doing data entry, so I pulled up the Audible app whenever I needed to buckle down and be productive.

On the whole, I’m glad I bought the Kindle. It’s definitely not my primary source of reading material yet, but I like having the option available if I want to read an ebook. I’ve started buying all of the big new release books as ebooks, which is especially nice for thousand-page epics, but it’ll take years (maybe decades) before I run out of books to read from my existing collection. I think my transition to a full-time digital reader is going to be a gradual thing, happening over the next 5-10 years, rather than something that happens over night.

Sadist or Romantic?

A few weeks ago io9 posted a list of series that put their characters through the wringer, and half of it is made up of series that are some of my all-time favorites. The other half sound like something I should check out at some point.

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.

My New Reading List: The 2011 Hugo Nominees

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!

Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser

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.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

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A Selection of Books I Started But Never Finished

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…

Warren Ellis: Crime and Science Fiction are the Same Thing

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.

As part of the announcement of his book deal, Ellis wrote a blog for the Mulholland Books website, wherein he discusses the similarities between the crime and science fiction genres, and why he writes both:

[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.

Across The Universe by Beth Revis

Published: January 11, 2011
Publisher: Razorbill
Genre(s): Young Adult, Science Fiction, Romance
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 416

Across the Universe is a mash-up of scifi, mystery, and young-adult fiction, with a bit of romance thrown in for good measure. In a nutshell, it tells the story of a colony seed-ship on a journey towards a distant planet and the teenage girl who wakes up early – 50 years before the trip is over – only to find herself stuck in a strange, dystopian society where someone may be trying to kill her. All of this sounds fascinating, but the end result is a mystery that is telegraphed far too early and scifi that doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny.

When the main character, Amy, wakes up from cryogenic sleep – nearly dying in the process – she quickly meets the leader of the society, Eldest, and his protege, Elder, who will assume the reigns of leadership when Eldest retires. The book alternates viewpoints between Amy and Elder, which is a nice way of giving us both the insider and the outsider perspectives.

The more Amy finds out about the ship society, the stranger it seems. Racial and class distinctions are gone because all of the people are genetically uniform. Rather than reproducing normally, the people on the ship go into heat during “the time”, which Amy is told is coming soon. Everyone in the working class is strangely emotionless and distant, as though they are running purely on autopilot. The only people who seem to show any spark of intelligence or normality are all considered “crazy” and given a regimen of pills to keep them under control.

The mystery revolves around discovering who is unfreezing and (sometimes) killing the colonists. The author spends a lot of time early on talking about how nobody locks doors on the ship because privacy is so respected, but too much of the mystery relies on important doors remaining unlocked. This is a bit hard to swallow when Eldest spends most of the book jealously guarding his secrets, even from Elder. I didn’t have much trouble figuring out the culprit fairly early on. This is only disappointing because the book spends so much time focused on the murder mystery when it seems like the true mystery should be the nature of the ship itself. However, I will give the author credit for throwing in a few good surprises near the end of the book.

One other thing that didn’t seem entirely credible was the initial configuration of the ship, with frozen Earth colonists below and living lower-class workers doing the menial upkeep of the ship for centuries while the colonists sleep. It just seemed like a recipe for class warfare, as if the ship’s initial designers set out to cause as much social friction as possible. How do you reintegrate those two groups into a working colony, with one sleeping while the other toils away? I also questioned how sustainable the ship could be with the bulk of its passengers living and reproducing and using up resources. It seems like it would be far more practical to keep everyone frozen.

Although I wasn’t entirely satisfied with this book, I did check the author’s website to see if it was planned as the first in a series, and it is. The ending doesn’t exactly scream for a sequel, but it doesn’t necessarily tie everything up in a neat little bow, either. Amy finds out some hard truths after she wakes up on the ship, and those hard truths don’t just go away at the end of the book. I’d definitely be interested in reading future books set in this world, although I do hope that the author shifts her focus towards exploring some of the intricacies of the society she’s established, rather than spending so much time on a so-so murder mystery.

LIKED IT
LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a review copy of this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

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St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

Title story from St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell, published 2007.

I’ve recently been making a point of reading more short stories because I’m interested in trying my hand at writing some. As I’ve read more, I’ve discovered that there are certain genres that seem to excel in a shorter form. There’s a vaguely defined genre known as “slipstream” – sort of an odder cousin to magical realism, perhaps – that seems perfectly suited to short stories. To me, slipstream refers to stories that are just to the left of realism, ones with a slight surrealistic tilt, usually just enough to make you feel slightly uncomfortable.

Karen Russell seems to fit nicely into that category. I’d heard of her previously after reading some interesting blurbs about her first novel, Swamplandia! (exclamation point included), and both of her books have particularly eye-catching cover designs. I stopped at the library on my way home today to see if they had anything of hers on hand. They didn’t have the full collection, but I was able to find this story in a Best of 2007 collection edited by Stephen King.

At the start of the story, we discover that there are special schools for children born of werewolves. The condition skips a generation – alternating between wolfishness and humanity – and most werewolf parents feel it best that their more human children be taught the ways of humanity so that they can exist properly in both worlds. The story is narrated by a girl named Claudette as she experiences the different stages of becoming acclimated to human society.

The story works on several levels; when the girls are first brought to the school, they are given human names, much like missionaries gave “Christian” names to natives in Africa. A theme running throughout is what it really means to be “civilized” and how losing touch with nature changes someone. The youngest sister of the bunch never lets go of her animal nature, and she is shunned by the others for not conforming. The question of how to handle this ever-present reminder of their former wild nature is always at the front of the narrator’s mind.

On another level, the story works as a commentary on gender roles; there is a separate school for boys, and when the two groups are reintroduced to each other, they are told to speak in carefully prepared human dialogues. When one of the boys goes off script, Claudette snaps and lets her wolfish nature come through, and the boy is shocked and unable to respond. The girls are taught to control their emotions and behaviors very carefully, and the stress of that repression clearly wears thin.

Ultimately the story is a fascinating dissection of civilized society and the roles that are imposed on us as we grow up. The setting is evocative, the characters are nicely drawn, and it’s a brisk, easy read. I look forward to reading more stories by this author. Definitely recommended.

Hello and Welcome!

Hi there! I’m your host, Jeff, and I’ve started this blog as a place to discuss books and reading. I’ve been writing occasional reviews for the past year or so of books that I’ve received from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, and I thought it might be nice to put together someplace a bit more official to host those reviews. I’m planning on expanding my reviews to cover more of the books I’m reading, including new and older works, in physical, digital, and audiobook formats.

I’m constantly reading one or more books, and for the past few years I’ve had a goal to read at least 52 books in a year. It seems to keep me on my toes to have a goal and a deadline all combined in one, not to mention it’s one of the more enjoyable goals I’ve set for myself. I read a variety of things, although my taste tends generally towards science fiction and fantasy of a slightly surrealist or unsettling variety. I don’t limit myself to one genre, however, and happily read mysteries, thrillers, young adult, literary fiction, short stories, westerns, graphic novels, and even the occasional romance (as long as I can pretend it’s actually another genre).

I’m also especially fascinated with the book cover design process, and will fully admit to regularly and shamelessly judging books by their covers. After all, I’m much more likely to pick up a book and read the blurb on the back if it has a well-designed cover. I may occasionally point out or discuss book covers that I find particularly well designed or interesting, although I don’t begin to consider myself an expert.

Some of my favorite authors include: Jonathan Carroll, Iain M. Banks, Dan Simmons, Philip K. Dick, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, David Mitchell, Diana Wynne Jones, Haruki Murakami, Charlie Huston, Joe Abercrombie, and more.

I look forward to discussing my favorite habit/obsession in this space. Happy reading!