Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Books Read in 2013, Part II

And the saga continues…


Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Susan Cain)

Not everyone wants to be the life of the party.  Some of us would rather stay home and read, or hang out with one or two close friends.  In the relentlessly extroverted culture of the United States this makes us odd and, as Susan Cain points out, is often seen as a diagnosable condition requiring a cure.  In this book, Cain portrays introversion as a natural personality type, one with benefits of its own, rather than as a pathology.  And I appreciate that.  She’s a lousy historian (her first chapter seems to indicate she has never heard of Benjamin Franklin or Herman Melville) but a fascinating psychologist and sociologist, and she makes a strong case that American society’s condescension toward introverts is both short-sighted and fundamentally flawed.  While some of her arguments are a bit on the thin side, her general point is sound.

Half Magic (Edward Eager)

When four siblings find an ancient talisman that grants wishes, they think they have found the answer to the problem of their dull summer days.  But quickly they discover two things.  First, that it only grants half of each wish, and which half can be rather tricky.  And second, that wishes have to be managed carefully or they will be more trouble than they’re worth.  This is a charming little story – written in 1954 and set sometime in the 1920s by all evidence – and aimed squarely at its audience of chapter book kids, but one that adults will enjoy for its cheerful writing and odd flashes of humor.  This was both a recommendation and a gift from a friend, and well worth the time on a grey rainy day.

Mercury Falls (Robert Kroese)

Christine is a reporter for the Christian newsmagazine The Banner, where she is the Apocalypse specialist, writing stories on whatever cult leader has prophesied the end of days most recently.  Mercury is a renegade angel – not a rebel, really, but not thrilled with his role in the grand scheme of things either.  Karl is the Anti-Christ – a 37-year-old loser who lives with his mother and was chosen for the role by the folks behind the Charlie Nyx series of books (a clear Harry Potter reference) as a way to profit from the religious opposition to those books.  When it turns out that Karl really is the Anti-Christ and that there is more afoot than even Mercury suspects, it becomes a frantic race to avert (or, perhaps, encourage) the Apocalypse.  Fast-paced, intelligent, and often laugh-out-loud funny, this self-published novel deserves to be widely known and appreciated.

Mercury Rises (Robert Kroese)

“The most highly anticipated sequel to Mercury Falls ever published!” says the blurb on the cover, and ‘tis true, ‘tis true.  It’s not long after the events in Mercury Falls.  Christine is trying to recover her life.  Mercury is trying to get out of trouble.  And Jason Slater, FBI explosion expert and self-described Asperger’s case, is trying to figure out what happened at the Anaheim stadium at the end of Mercury Falls.  Meanwhile Eddie Pratt is looking for the ghostwriter of the Charlie Nyx series so that he can deliver the seventh volume in order to complete the Apocalypse and also trying to keep up with a tough talking female private investigator named Cody.  Interspersed with flashbacks to Ancient Babylon and a long sidetrack with Noah and the Ark, the story eventually ends up in Africa, where an eccentric billionaire’s biodome project turns out to be more than it seems.  Like the first volume in this series, Mercury Rises is fast paced and funny, with bits of wisdom thrown in for good measure.  It’s not quite as good as the first one, but that is quite a high bar to be judged against.

Mercury Rests (Robert Kroese)

The concluding volume of the Mercury trilogy picks up with Mercury stranded on a plane of reality far in the distant future with only Job, Cain, and a handful of pessimistic angels for company, while Christine and Jason are headed back to the US.  Events quickly turn weird again, as Lucifer and Tiamat try for a third time to bring about the Apocalypse, this time by manipulating the United States into launching a direct military assault on Heaven itself.  Meanwhile Eddie Pratt finds that his writing is becoming more and more metafictional, to the point where he can no longer tell the difference between what has happened to him and what he creates in his writing, or if any such difference is meaningful at all.  Fast paced, somewhat more serious than the previous two installments, this is a fun and fitting conclusion to a series that deserves far more attention than it has gotten.

Wintersmith (Terry Pratchett)

Continuing our bedtime tour of Tiffany Aching’s corner of Discworld, this volume finds Tiffany getting entangled with the Wintersmith, an elemental who creates the winter.  No good can come from that.  Mostly, though, we read for Tiffany – a strong and sensible young woman – and for the Nac Mac Feegles, who are definitely strong and only sensible within narrowly defined contexts.  I’m glad we can share these stories, my daughters and I.

Good Omens (Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett)

After reading the Mercury series, it seemed only natural to reread this book.  Aziraphel is an angel.  Crowley is a demon.  They’ve been on earth for millennia, waiting for the Apocalypse, and like many field operatives from opposing sides of conflicts, they like and respect each other far more than they do their own superiors and they’ve come to a mutually agreeable arrangement regarding their conduct toward one another.  But when the prophecies of a 17th-century seer named Agnes Nutter start to come true – as they always do, since Agnes is the only prophet ever to have a 100% accuracy rating, which is why her book never sold very well – they are going to have to figure out how to avoid the end of their cushy assignments here on Earth.  Throw in the Anti-Christ (a boy named Adam who, through a mix-up at the hospital shortly after he is born ends up being raised as a perfectly normal English child even if you include the modestly confused Hellhound he inherits from Below), Anathema Device (a descendent of Agnes Nutter), the pathetic remains of the Witchfinder Army (now down to two rather dented souls), and the return of the Four Motorcyclists of the Apocalypse, and you’ve got yourself a party.  If you’ve ever read Gaiman or Pratchett, you’ll want to see them team up here.  And if you haven’t, well, you’ll want to read this even more.

The Last Dragonslayer (Jasper Fforde)

Jennifer Strange is a foundling – an orphan – in an odd alternate Britain where dragons still live, where magic is just another skilled craft, and where the multitudinous Ununited Kingdoms squabble unremittingly.  In this YA novel, Jennifer is just shy of 16 years old but nevertheless runs Kazam Mystical Arts Management, arranging for her wizards and sorcerers to do odd jobs to pay the bills and keep the roof over their heads in the prolonged and somewhat mysterious absence of their boss, the Great Zambini.  When word gets out that the last surviving dragon will die shortly, Jennifer’s world gets turned upside down.  She discovers that she will be the Last Dragonslayer, and that this position will get her more rewards, threats, challenges, and insight than she ever dreamed possible.  She will learn who she is, and what she (and the dragons) are made of.  A charming and thoughtful story with a strong heroine, with flashes of Fforde’s trademark wit and allusions, this is the first of a series.

The Song of the Quarkbeast (Jasper Fforde)

Some months after the events of The Last Dragonslayer, Jennifer Strange is still trying to get Kazam back onto sound financial footing and still trying to find the Great Zambini.  When she accepts a commission from a mysterious stranger to find a ring that does not want to be found and then keeps the ring, things start to get out of hand.  Eventually there will be a contest between Kazam and their rivals, iMagic, for the heart and soul of magic in the Ununited Kingdoms.  The secrets of the Once Magnificent Boo, the Transient Moose, and the Price Brothers (Full and Half) will be revealed, and Jennifer may or may not get to go on a date.  Fforde has created a nicely rounded character in Jennifer, one who makes it fun to tag along on her adventures.

In One Person (John Irving)

Bill Abbott is a young teen at the beginning of this novel – stuck in a private school in 1960 or so in a small town in Vermont, slowly coming to the realization that he is bisexual, and surrounded by a colorful cast of characters who all seem to have some secret relevant to that last fact.  His grandfather likes to play women onstage.  His father is long gone.  His best friend – a flat-chested girl named Elaine (all of the women in this book get described by the size of their breasts at least once) – is as much of a misfit as he is and quite possibly the most sympathetic character in the whole novel.  And everyone from Elaine to Bill to most of the rest of the boys at the school is entirely infatuated with Kittredge, a beautiful and casually cruel young man on the wrestling team.  Thus begins what poses as a memoir – Bill provides the voice of the story from the vantage of 2010, when he is nearly 70 – that eventually ends up as a powerful meditation on the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.  It takes a long time to get there however, as the first half of the novel is rambling, discursive, and often needlessly padded, while at the end it feels equally needlessly truncated as the story sort of stops rather than concludes.  Along the way we eventually meet of the usual suspects of Irving’s writing – prep schools, wrestling teams, Vienna, and (in an odd sort of way appropriate to the basic theme) bears.  John Irving is one of my favorite authors, but this is definitely one of his lesser books.  Even lesser Irving is better than most of the books out there, though.

The Folklore of Discworld (Terry Pratchett and Jacqueline Simpson)

The Discworld series is one of the most heavily allusive bodies of work in all of SF/F.  There is an entire file online dedicated to tracking down and explaining the references that Pratchett puts in these books.  It’s one of the things that makes that series work on so many levels – beyond the mere events of the story, there are allusions and references that operate as almost parallel stories, adding depth to the narrative.  In this book, Pratchett and Simpson – a professional folklorist – go through some of the folklore roots of many of the ideas and tropes in the Discworld, showing how the ideas Pratchett uses draw on legends, tales and ideas from all over Europe and, in some cases, the world.  If you are a dedicated Discworld fan, this is a fascinating read.  If you’re a historian on top of that, it’s even better.  If you are at best a casual fan or at worst have not really discovered or liked the Discworld books, you would be better served by taking the money you would have spent on it and buying popcorn.  I enjoyed it immensely, though.

REAMDE (Neal Stephenson)

This is a book that manages to be both sprawling (Neal Stephenson gives tremendous value in his books, on a “words per dollar” basis) and tightly focused (except for a brief prologue and epilogue, the whole thousand-page-plus story unfolds over the course of three weeks, with each chapter corresponding to a day).  Richard Forthrast is a megazillionaire, the brains behind the largest and most popular online multi-user game in the world.  His niece, Zula, has just come to work for him when the prologue ends, except that a) her boyfriend Peter has gotten her entangled in a bad bit of petty crime, and b) related to this, there is a virus (the “REAMDE” of the title) in Richard’s game that Chinese hackers are using to extort money from users.  These two plot lines converge with surprising suddenness as Zula and Peter find themselves unwillingly transported to Xiamen, China for the first half of the book – a city where nobody is quite who they seem and where every set of bad guys seems to get trumped by a bigger and badder set of bad guys.  Gradually the cast of characters widens to include a Hungarian hacker, a Chinese woman who only wanted to be a tour guide, Russian mafioso, a nest of jihadists, captive corporate authors, American survivalists, and a number of British intelligence agents, among others.  After some brutal (though well integrated) violence the surviving cast members wind their way out of China and converge on the Pacific Northwest, where the final epic battles play out.  There is no real way to do justice in a short space to the complex ins and outs of this Dickensian plot full of coincidence, interesting characters, and suspense played out across the high tech world of the 21st century, and I’m not even going to try.  It’s an intense story and generally up to Stephenson’s high standards, though the virus angle – and indeed much of the online game itself – does get sort of lost in the swell of events.

Disenchanted (Robert Kroese)

King Boric the Implacable has a problem.  Surprisingly, being dead isn’t it.  He knows he is supposed to be swept off to a Valhalla-like afterlife of mead and feasting with the spirits of other dead warriors, but his sword is cursed and he can’t let it go and nobody gets to the feast with their earthly sword.  So he – or, rather, his wraith – sets off on a quest to break the curse of his sword and enter the afterlife properly.  Kroese’s slight tale is clearly meant as both a parody of second-rate heroic fantasy (most of the characters, place names and races have titles – The Witch of This, the Wastes of That – and the fractured kingdom of Dis is full of the requisite dwarves, elves, gnomes, ogres and humans) and a gently sarcastic critique of the values of that genre, and at times it succeeds all too well.  There is a fine line between parodying something and becoming that same something.  But Kroese has a light touch and a good sense of humor, and the book never quite slides into the Pit of Despair.  It’s not up to his Mercury series, but it was a fun read.

Red Dwarf (Grant Naylor)

The thing about books that compare themselves to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on their back covers is that you spend most of the book comparing it to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and rarely positively.  It’s just such a high bar to set, really.  David Lister is an interstellar loser who went out for a pub crawl in England and woke up in a luggage locker in a mining colony on one of Saturn’s moons.  Eventually he finds his way onto the Red Dwarf – a giant of a spaceship whose destination, eventually, is Earth – but when things go wrong he ends up stranded with a hologram and a highly evolved cat three million years in the future.  And then it gets weird.  It’s not a bad book – there are a number of funny moments, and the ending is a weirdly unresolved feel about it that gives it at least a bit of depth – but it isn’t up to the grand claims on the back cover.

I Shall Wear Midnight (Terry Pratchett)

Once more, this time as a bedtime story.  It’s only when you read this out loud to your children that you realize how much Tiffany Aching has grown up over the course of this series, and how dark and mature the things she has to deal with are – Lauren, at 10, didn’t catch a few of the references, and that wasn’t entirely a bad thing.  But you also realize how strong of a character she is, and for that reason alone this is a good story to read to your daughters.

Utterly Me, Clarice Bean (Lauren Child)

Clarice Bean is a girl with a problem.  Her teacher hates her.  Her best friend is missing.  And she’s stuck with – gasp! – a boy as her partner on the big class project.  All she’d rather do is read her favorite books – the Ruby Redfort series, centered on a wealthy, independent detective who just happens to be a girl about Clarice’s age but without the annoying family to stop her from having adventures.  This book is really aimed at readers like Clarice – 10-year-old girls – but Lauren Child is a wonderful writer who gives Clarice a distinct and often funny voice that I just loved, and as you watch Clarice solve the various problems (as you know she will, although perhaps not quite as haphazardly as she actually does) it is mostly the voice that pulls you along.  We live in a golden age of YA fiction, even on the younger end of that genre, and perhaps I will read the other books in that series that we have about the house as well.

Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party (Geoffrey Kabaservice)

In this densely written and exhaustively documented account, Kabaservice traces the process by which the party of Eisenhower became the party of Bachmann – how a political party with diverse points of view and a proud history of being both conservative and Progressive, often at the same time, was forcibly transformed into a cesspool of screeching right-wing insanity.  It’s a process that began in the early 1960s with what amounted to a Bolshevik takeover of the party by right-wing extremists (who did, in fact, study the Bolsheviks to learn their tactics) willing to sacrifice both party and nation on the altar of ideological purity.  The vast majority of the book is focused on the 1960s, when the bulk of the transformation takes place – only the last two chapters deal with anything after 1971 – and Kabaservice’s portrait of the modern ideologically-driven, ever-narrowing, and frantically extremist Republican Party is all the more damning for its dispassionate tone and mountains of specific evidence.  Not that evidence means much to the troglydites now in charge of that party – people who have repeatedly and explicitly vowed not to pay attention to any facts that might contradict their precious worldview.  This is a book that needs to be read by people who would like a sane conservative alternative to the modern Republican Party, but which likely won’t make much of a difference as the screechers now control all of the levers of power and finance in that debauched organization.

A Blink of the Screen: Collected Shorter Fiction
(Terry Pratchett)

This is exactly what it says it is – a collection of the shorter works published by Pratchett over the course of his career, generally with a paragraph or two of introduction explaining some of his thinking regarding the piece.  It’s divided into two big chunks – Discworld stories and Non-Discworld stories – and they range from amusing to thought-provoking and back again.  I’d seen most of the Discworld stories before, online, but it is nice to have them all in one place.

American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (Chris Hedges)

This is a sobering look at one of the most important developments of recent American politics – the emergence of the radical Christian right wing, a movement that espouses a particularly blasphemous offshoot of Christianity known as Dominionism that preaches the sacred duty of these “Christians” to take over all the world and forcibly convert it to their blinkered version of faith.  Hedges has essentially two points in this book – that the Dominionist Christian right wing is a form of Fascism, and that they are winning.  The book opens with a long introduction describing Fascism as an ideology and its chapters are organized accordingly.  What emerges is a portrait of an ideology deeply and fundamentally at odds with democracy, with an open society, and with the American Constitution, a movement feverishly – and openly, if anyone bothers to pay attention – working to impose theocracy on the US and the world.  This is a worthwhile though disturbing book.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman)

In this crystalline novella, an unnamed grown man returns to his childhood village for a funeral.  The deceased is also unnamed, though clearly someone of importance to him.  Overwhelmed, he escapes to the Hempstock farm, his old neighbors, and there he remembers.  He remembers a miserable childhood and a friend, Lettie Hempstock, who redeemed it in part.  He remembers an adventure that spanned worlds and time, one grounded in that place and that stretched far beyond it.  It is a story of love and sacrifice, of friendship, hurt and healing, of safe places, returns and memory.  It is, more than anything else, a story of moments glimpsed through a glass darkly, yet beautifully lit.

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