Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Books Read in 2011 - Part 2

And the list goes on.


The Crooked Letter (Sean Williams)

A delirium of a book and one of my all-time favorites, though one I hesitate to recommend to people unless I know they are fans of dense, well-thought-out cosmologies. Mirror twins Seth and Hadrian are touring Europe with their new friend Ellis when Seth is murdered on a Stockholm train. At that, the book divides into two narratives – Seth’s journey through the Second Realm, where humans go after death, and Hadrian’s increasingly desperate attempts to survive in the utterly transformed world left in the wake of Seth’s death, as the First and Second Realms collide and vast, malevolent and hungry forces are unleashed in the chaos. Not for nothing is this series called “The Books of the Cataclysm.” This is not an easy read, but it is well worth it.

The Stone Mage and the Sea (Sean Williams)

The Books of the Cataclysm are both prequel and sequel to another series by Sean Williams, The Books of the Change, which fit in between the first two Cataclysm books. This is the first of the Books of the Change. Sal and his father, on the run in the world created by Seth and Hadrian’s long ago actions, find themselves stranded in the town of Fundelry, on the shore. They are not very welcome there, as strangers, and they are pursued by the Sky Wardens who rule the Strand. On their side are the old mage Lodo and his assistant, Shilly. Politics, coming of age and magic swirl together as events unfold, and soon nothing is what it was at the beginning.

The Sky Warden and the Sun (Sean Williams)

The second volume of The Books of the Change finds Sal and Shilly on the run in the Interior, finding new friends and enemies along the way as they explore the forbidding world of Williams’ imagination. Where the Cataclysm books – and especially The Crooked Letter – are aimed at adult readers, the Change books are more of a YA series and thus focus heavily on the coming of age struggles of their young protagonists. They are interesting stories, and Williams is a writer who knows his way around a cliffhanger.

The Storm Weaver and the Sand (Sean Williams)

The final volume of The Books of the Change centers on Sal, Shilly and Skender’s time at the Haunted City, where they find allies and enemies in places where they expected neither, and where they discover at least the outlines of the story told in The Crooked Letter – a story that happened so long before this one as to be nearly lost in time.

The Blood Debt (Sean Williams)

Five years after the Books of the Change and a millennium after the first Book of the Cataclysm, the story of Sal, Shilly and Skender – now joined by Chu – continues. For various reasons, they converge on the desiccated city of Laure, which sits on the Divide – the wide canyon separating the Interior from the Strand, in which things unknown and unfathomable move. Seth and Hadrian’s return to a world changed beyond recognition starts all sorts of balls rolling, and as the series shifts back to adult writing rather than YA the focus of the story likewise shifts from the coming of age of its protagonists to the implications of the cosmology developed in The Crooked Letter. The world of the Change is about to collide with its Cataclysmic past.

The Hanging Mountains (Sean Williams)

In a process very reminiscent of the relationship between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the characters from the Change books find themselves more and more drawn out of their smaller problems and into the deeper cosmological issues of the Cataclysm books as they follow Seth and Hadrian’s journey toward its conclusion. In this volume more and more of the creatures from The Crooked Letter return to plague Sal and Shilly’s existence, and you get the overall sensation of worlds colliding in front of you, of deeper mysteries forcing themselves out into the open, and of small characters being forced to grow into large roles in order to survive. That Williams manages to do this with grace and adventure is a testament to his writing skills – the development of the character Marmion is particularly well done.

The Devoured Earth (Sean Williams)

It is surprising how a series that is so utterly unlike The Lord of the Rings in tone, style, plot and substance can feel so much like The Lord of the Rings. This is absolutely not some shallow rip-off of Tolkien’s world, the way so many bad fantasy series are, but it taps into some of the same storytelling roots that Tolkien drew on, shaping them into an original and compelling narrative even while holding true to those sources. This is an astonishing achievement, and one that deserves to be celebrated. The final volume of the Cataclysm books brings the story to a close that manages to be both frenetic and thoughtful, as the final battle approaches, passes, and turns out not to be the main event at all. Characters grow, mature, get hurt and pass on, and the same central question remains – what do you want the world to look like when you’re done with it? It’s a powerful question to hang a series on.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Richard Rhodes)

The best single-volume history of the atomic bomb from inception to use that’s out there in print, and the one we use in the interdisciplinary class on the subject that I teach, Rhodes’ book combines an extensive overview of the subject with enough science to make it comprehensible, enough history to put everything into context, and enough ethics to make that part of the debate clear as well. What’s interesting is that the book was published in 1986, while the Cold War still raged, and this definitely influenced the way Rhodes presented things, especially in the rather discursive Epilogue.

Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story (Christopher Moore)

Jody is a newly-minted vampire trying to figure out how to survive in San Francisco. Tommy, her new boyfriend, wants to be a writer but spends his nights stocking shelves down at the Marina Safeway with the night crew – the Animals. Throw in the Emperor (a homeless man with two canine foot soldiers and a strong sense of noblesse oblige toward his city), two detectives trying to solve a string of murders, the 800-year-old vampire behind all of this, and Moore’s fast-paced, often laugh-out-loud funny writing style, and you have the beginnings of what a vampire series ought to be. And nobody sparkles.

You Suck: A Love Story (Christopher Moore)

Jody and Tommy’s world got a whole lot more complicated at the end of Bloodsucking Fiends, and in You Suck it continues to get even more so. The Animals have gotten themselves in too deep with a blue hooker from Las Vegas, the original 800-year-old vampire is angry with them, and Tommy has recruited a new minion – a 16-year-old drama queen Goth chick – whose private fantasy world may have come to life in the process, much to the dismay of the two detectives, who had hoped to retire and open a rare book store. Not even the Emperor can save them now.

Bite Me: A Love Story (Christopher Moore)

The city of San Francisco is being stalked by vampire cats. Jody is searching for Tommy, who has gone “barking at the moon mad.” The Emperor is beset. All depends on Abby Normal, nee Allison, would-be minion and teenage drama queen. In the final go-round of Moore’s vampire series, all of the characters are back and the writing is Moore’s trademark screwball comedy even if – for reasons of narrative necessity – much of it is in Abby’s deliberately irritating voice. As with most of his books, the loose ends get tied up into a relatively happy bow at the end, though not perhaps in the way the reader would expect.

A Dirty Job (Christopher Moore)

Jody’s San Francisco intersects with Charlie Asher’s only once, when she barges into his second-hand store and hands him an object, but since this is one of Moore’s best it’s worth reading. The same day that Charlie’s daughter Sophie is born and his wife Rachel unexpectedly dies, Charlie becomes a Death Merchant – a collector of souls. Because it takes him a while to figure that out, the dark forces of the Underworld gather strength and attempt to take over. With the help of the other Death Merchants (notably a 7-foot-tall black man in a pastel green linen suit, named Minty Fresh), his family, his dysfunctional employees, a pair of slobbering hellhounds, and his daughter, Charlie must rise above his Beta Male personality and save the world.

The Eyre Affair (Jasper Fforde)

When the boundary between fiction and reality is porous, somebody has to police the border. That somebody is agent Thursday Next, SpecOp-27 (LiteraTec). In a version of 1980s England where the Crimean War has been going on for over 130 years, Wales is an independent Socialist republic, regenerated dodos are household pets and the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays is a political hot-button issue, Thursday Next must navigate her past as a Crimean vet, her unresolved issues with her near-fiancee Landen Park-Laine, her ChronoGuard father’s rogue status – popping in and out of time to say hi now and then – and the challenges of two villains: Archeron Hades and his nefarious interests in original manuscripts, and Jack Schitt, representative of the powerful Goliath Corporation. Fforde is a writer who never met a pun or allusion he didn’t like and this book is a lot of fun to read, especially for those of us who love books to begin with. It also has one of my favorite bits of dialogue of all time: “We’d like your opinion on this. It was taken yesterday.” I looked at the photo. I knew the face well enough. “Jack Schitt.” “And what do you know about him?” “Not much.”

Lost in a Good Book (Jasper Fforde)

When Thursday Next’s husband, Landen Parke-Laine, is eradicated by a rogue Chronoguard agent, she finds herself in a world where Landen died at the age of two, where a newly discovered Shakespeare play may determine the outcome of the upcoming national elections, and where she must test herself against a whole new range of villains (notably Jack Schitt’s half brother, Brik Schitt-Hawse). Eventually she finds herself part of Jurisfiction – the agency charged with policing fiction from within (thus the title of the book). Apprenticed to Miss Havisham from Dickens’ Great Expectations, Thursday Next’s adventures are just beginning. This book is full of puns, allusions, absurdities and ideas – my favorite being the “grammacites,” odd creatures who live in fiction and eat grammar like termites in a log cabin (“I’ve seen grammacites strip a library to nothing but indigestible nouns and page numbers. Ever read Sterne’s Tristram Shandy?” “Yes.” “Grammacites.”)

The Well of Lost Plots (Jasper Fforde)

On the run in the real world, Thursday Next finds refuge in fiction, spending this entire novel working as a Jurisfiction agent and living in an unpublished novel entitled Caversham Heights. But trouble follows her even there. Her flatmates – two Generics she christens ibb and obb – develop personalities and with them personality differences. She still hasn’t un-eradicated Landen. A murderer is stalking Jurisfiction agents. And the upcoming release of UltraWord has everyone on edge. Once again Fforde’s wild imagination provides a bibliophile’s delight full of action, allusions, bizarre yet weirdly sensible situations, and puns of every description.

Something Rotten (Jasper Fforde)

The final installment of the first Thursday Next series finds her back in the real world, where she spends her time trying re-actualize Landen, avert the end of the world, avoid being assassinated and save Danish literature from being burned in Chancellor Yorick Kaine’s England. Croquet – now a violent team sport – features heavily, and the Goliath Corporation is in the process of converting itself into a religion. With the assistance of a group of Neanderthals, a 13th-century saint named St. Zvlkx whose Revealments display a surprising accuracy, Hamlet Prince of Denmark, and her designated stalker (Millon de Floss, who has the license to prove it), Thursday faces her challenges head on. Jasper Fforde’s mind must be a fascinating place to live.

Thursday Next: First Among Sequels (Jasper Fforde)

Fifteen years after the first series ends, SpecOps has been officially disbanded but Thursday Next and her colleagues still do their old jobs unofficially behind the cover of Acme Carpets (which also does fine carpet work). She also continues to work for Jurisfiction, though she hasn’t managed to tell her family. In the real world, her son Friday has turned into a typical teenager and if he doesn’t shape up and join the Chronoguard three years ago all of history might come to an end. In the Bookworld, the Thursday Next from the first series of books written about her (Thursday1-4) is violent, amoral, and bent on revenge – not only on the real Thursday, but on the more gentle Thursday from the fifth book (Thursday5) as well. Every book in this series gets more “meta” than the last one, but Fforde’s bizarre imagination and sense of humor make them worthwhile.

One of Our Thursdays is Missing (Jasper Fforde)

BookWorld has been remade into a geographic rather than conceptual place, and with territory comes territorial disputes. Thrust into the middle of these is Thursday5, investigator for the Jurisfiction Accident Investigation Division and central character in the newly rebuilt Thursday Next books. When the real Thursday goes missing and the peace talks between Racy Novel, Women’s Fiction and Outdated Dogma threaten to break down, Thursday5 must figure out a solution. Even more “meta” than the ones before, but still a fun time.

The H-Bomb Girl (Stephen Baxter)

It’s 1962 in Liverpool and all 14-year-old Laura wants to do is fit into her new school, survive her parents’ separation and maybe go see some of the new musical groups that seem to have sprouted up everywhere. But in the background is the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Laura is the key to how it all turns out. This is a YA book, with a strong emphasis on the coming of age of the heroine – she gets to see several different versions of events as the book moves along – and it wraps up a bit too neatly, but there are moments where it does capture some of the heady rush of events and the grisly possibilities that might have come from them.

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