Friday, January 10, 2014

Books Read in 2013, Part IV

And now, the thrilling conclusion.


Tiger’s Curse (Colleen Houck)

Kelsey Hayes is a teenager living with a foster family after the death of her parents.  When she takes a temporary job with a local circus her world quickly becomes immensely complicated because the tiger she is caring for is actually a centuries-old prince from India, under a dark and sinister curse.  Ren can turn back into a man for six minutes a day, and he has a minder of his own – Mr. Kadam, an elegant man as old as Ren himself, who nevertheless remains a man.  Eventually the whole plot shifts to India where Kelsey, Ren and Mr. Kadam set out on a quest to overturn the curse and restore Ren to his manhood.  This is complicated by two things, neither of which is the curse.  First, there is Ren’s brother, Kishan, whose relationship with Ren is rather tense.  And second – as you would expect in this YA novel – the strictly chaste romantic relationship between Kelsey and Ren that also gets rather tense.  Lauren and I read this as a bedtime story and it was actually quite pleasant up until the last quarter of it, at which point Kelsey’s rampant insecurities and overthinking took over the narrative and made us both want to slap her with a dead fish, tell her not to be such an idiot, and just kiss Ren and be happy for a change.  This sort of crisis probably speaks to its target audience of 14-year-old girls, but neither Lauren nor I were all that anxious to move on to volume two of what is probably a four-book series.

The Apocalypse Codex (Charles Stross)

Bob Howard is a computational demonologist working for the Laundry – the top-secret black-op agency of Her Majesty’s Government in charge of protecting the realm (and by extension the rest of us) from the sorts of Lovecraftian alien intelligences that hunger across the dimensions.  In this installment of the Laundry Files (I still think Stross missed an opportunity by not calling it the Laundry Cycle), Bob finds himself tasked with overseeing two external contractors as they try to infiltrate an American evangelical megachurch that is more sinister than it appears.  It’s a rollicking story, as most of these volumes are – full of action, dry British humor, and interesting mash-up sections where the world of James Bond meets that of Edgar Cayce.  Stross clearly finds the kind of extreme fundamentalist Christianity so popular in the US to be distasteful at best and reprehensible at worst – the novel pulls no punches in this regard, and the deeds of this particular magic-infested church are only very thinly disguised from the sorts of things those churches do anyway – and the action can get a bit confusing if you haven’t read the other volumes in the series recently, but as with all of the Laundry books it is well worth the effort.

Metatropolis (John Scalzi, ed.)

This is actually an interlocked set of five short stories by fairly recognizable SF/F authors (Jay Lake, Tobias S. Buckell, Elizabeth Bear, Karl Schroeder, and Scalzi as well) centered on the theme of future cities, though with the usual dystopian angle of stories on this theme played down somewhat.  They share a world in which resources are scarce, sovereign nations have lost the battle for power against multinational corporations, and law and order is a private, fleeting thing.  These stories range from an exploration of what happens when chaos – in the form of a person – comes to an environmentally-conscious off-the-grid city, to stories of grim determination in the remains of current cities, to a fascinating if not all that comprehensible look at virtual cities overlaid on top of not only real cities but each other as well.  They’re all well done and the fit together in a fractal sort of way, though one wishes for a longer-form look at this world   Perhaps someday.

Halting State (Charles Stross)

It takes a clever writer to pull off a novel in the second person from three different points of view, but Stross manages to achieve that here.  It’s sometime in the near future, not too long from now.  Scotland is independent, police officers are recording their actions and posting them to CopSpace – a digital world where they can share information – and immersive role-playing games whose sophistication dwarfs anything like those now are the cutting edge of the new digital age.  When a virtual bank is robbed inside one of those games, the consequences quickly become very real – one suspects, in fact, that Neal Stephenson had this book in front of him when he conceived the basic framework of REAMDE, which takes a very similar idea in a very different direction.  DSS Sue Smith of the Edinburgh police force, forensic accountant Elaine Barnaby, and programmer Jack Reed all get caught up in the aftermath of this crime – a swirling morass of espionage, theft, deception, terrorism, and slowly-building paranoia where new vistas of trouble open up pretty much every time you think things have settled down.  It’s a generally well-written story – the pleasure of the novel mostly makes up for the abrupt and rather too tidy ending – and I think I shall have to pursue the rest of Stross’ output sometime soon.

The Science of the Discworld IV: Judgement Day (Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen)

Like the other volumes in this series, this is a popular science book framed by a slight Discworld story in alternating chapters.  The Discworld chapters are short and, for all practical purposes, expendable – bait, in a sense, to lure people into reading the science chapters.  Those are long, complicated, and very well done.  In this book the science chapters focus on cosmological issues – the size, shape and nature of the universe itself – and they are some fairly high-order stuff.  Stewart and Cohen do not cut the reader much slack, though their explanations are clear and comprehensible.  The central conceit of these chapters in Judgement Day [sic – this is a British book, with spelling and measurement units to match] is the distinction between human-centered thinking (mythology, most people’s everyday life, and religion) and universe-centered thinking (science).  It’s an interesting division and they apply it very well to a number of issues, though the last chapter devolves into a full-fledged polemic in favor of atheism that I found unnecessary for their larger point.  As for the framing Discworld story, it concerns a legal struggle between the wizards at Unseen University (the closest thing on Discworld to scientists) and the priesthood of the Church of Latter-Day Omnians (a thuggishly fundamentalist church obviously meant to stand for religious zealots and extremists everywhere) for the rights to own the Roundworld (our universe).  It is consistent with the general theme of the book that the authors have the Omnians refuse to change their minds even when their own god Om comes down from the heavens in manifest glory and tells them they are wrong.

The Savage Humanists (Fiona Kelleghan, ed.)

I don’t normally read short story collections, in large part because I’ve always felt that it is harder to write a good short story than it is to write a good novel and I get tired of being disappointed.  Very few writers can pack a decent tale into something less than thirty pages long.  Most often you get a piece of a story – a snippet that hints at a larger tale that you’re not getting.  Or you get something that covers an entire plot but without much of the connecting tissue that makes it more than just a summary.  This collection also suffers from the handicap of an introduction by the editor, a manifesto that is nearly seventy pages long – more than 20% of the entire volume – and which could easily have been cut by three-quarters without sacrificing anything of note.  That said, there were several high-quality authors in this collection and a few stories worth reading.  Topping that list was Gregory Frost’s “Madonna of the Maquiladora,” a powerful and angry look at how economic injustice and political repression find an ally in quietist religion.  Robert J. Sawyer’s “Flashes” was an interesting meditation on what happens when all of life’s questions get answered and yet life goes on anyway, and James Patrick Kelly’s “Think Like A Dinosaur” explored the moral question of what exactly constitutes a murder in a society that can duplicate individuals perfectly.  Many of the other tales, though, were just snippets or outlines, suggestive rather than satisfying.  Kelleghan chose these authors and stories to make a cultural – and, in modern America, inevitably political – point.  They are all, she said, devotees of reason over faith, humanism over dogma, and Enlightenment vitriol over comforting bromides.  It’s an interesting collection.

The Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum)

When Dorothy arrives in the land of Oz from Kansas, her one wish is to go back home.  But before she can do that she must first befriend the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, and the Cowardly Lion, and defeat the Wicked Witch of the West.  All that is well known from the 1939 movie, but the book is different.  There is no setup prior to the cyclone – no farmhands, no professor, no Elvira Gulch.  The shoes are silver, not ruby.  And once the Wizard sails off in the balloon Dorothy and her friends have still another adventure – to the South, where the Quadlings are ruled by Glinda, the good witch of the South (not the North).  There she finally gets to click her heels and go home, but this engaging YA story is sufficiently different from the movie that it reads somehow fresh.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (Gregory Maguire)

A much more complex and nuanced look at Oz than either Baum’s original or the popular musical based on Maguire’s book, this is the story of how the Wicked Witch of the West became who she was, told from her point of view.  It is, in essence, the story of a failed revolutionary – an outcast in a society that treats outcasts harshly, a cog in a larger movement aimed at justice, a lost soul (though she would question whether she had one) once that movement fails, a woman whose struggles to understand herself and to make her world better as she defines better are in some sense doomed from the start.  Where the original is a fairy tale and the musical is about the stories that exist behind the stories we tell, this book is a long and at times profound meditation on the nature of good and evil.  It starts with the birth of Elphaba – a strange green child ill-suited for her world or her family (a pious but hapless minister for a father, a sensuous mother of minor nobility now falling apart under the weight of poverty).  It follows her to the university at Shiz, where she meets shallow Galinda and falls under the intellectual spell of Doctor Dillamond, a sentient goat whose research promises to upend the Wizard’s cruelties.  It takes her to the Vinkus, the isolated and impoverished western section of Oz, where she falls in with the widow of her lover.  It takes her to meet the Wizard, an interloper from another world and a man so far removed from concerns of truth or morality that he has attained an odd sort of serenity.  Eventually Dorothy arrives and while the events themselves follow along Baum’s pattern, more or less, the motives and reasoning behind them are all different.  Perspective is everything, and by shifting the story to that of the Wicked Witch of the West and fleshing out her reasons and her life – by naming her and seeking to understand her – Maguire provides a fascinating new way to think about a very old story.

Son of a Witch (Gregory Maguire)

Not long after Wicked ends, Maguire picks up the story of Oz by focusing on Liir, the “son of a witch” referenced in the title, who had been a small boy in Elphaba’s household in the Vinkus when she died.  The story follows two separate but converging storylines for most of the book.  The first is the story of a broken and severely injured young man, comatose and lying in a mauntery (the convents of the Unnamed God in Oz), being nursed slowly back to health by a young maunt named Candle.  The second is the story of how Liir got that way, starting with where his life picked up after Elphaba’s death and continuing through his ill-fated service as a soldier of the Emperor and a messanger of the Birds.  After the storylines meet there is an interlude with Candle, a return to the Emerald City, and a quest for some kind of justice and redemption.  Liir is a grade-A mope – passive, lacking confidence, and probably diagnosably depressed – and only slowly and partially does he overcome this.  Along the way Maguire continues his melancholy exploration of the good and evil that people do to one another and to the world around them, never straying far from the bittersweet or the ruefully humorous.  In some ways this is a tone poem more than a book, but it is a well-written and carefully plotted one at that.

A Lion Among Men (Gregory Maguire)

In this third installment of Maguire’s Oz books, the character who looms largest over the story never appears.  It is nearly a decade after Liir’s disappearance, and the Cowardly Lion – a dandy, a spy, a failure at almost everything he attempts – sits at the Mauntery of St. Glinda interviewing Yackle, a woman born as a crone and who cannot seem to die no matter how much she wills it.  Most of the book is told in flashback form, as Yackle and the Lion reveal their stories over the course of a couple of days and as the armies of Oz and Munchkinland draw ever closer.  Into this comes the Clockwork Dragon, the Grimmerie, a character long presumed lost, and a new direction based on old wounds and stories, but all of it revolves around the missing Liir, the hole in the donut of this story – what happened to him, where he has gone, and how the characters (including the long-vanished Elphaba) pinball off of him.  As with Son of a Witch this is more of a tone poem than a straight-forward novel, a portrait in somber hues of lives twisted and toyed with by forces outside of their control and yet grimly hopeful.

Out of Oz (Gregory Maguire)

In this concluding volume of his alternate version of Oz, Maguire departs from the more contemplative and reflective tone of the previous two books and returns to the plot-driven action of Wicked.  The story opens with Rain – Candle and Liir’s daughter, Elphaba’s granddaughter – being raised by Glinda at a time when the armies of Oz, in the person of General Cherrystone, have come to take over Glinda’s house.  When push comes to shove Rain ends up on the road and eventually she runs into all of the familiar characters from earlier: Candle, Liir, Nor, the Cowardly Lion, the Clock of the Time Dragon, Mr. Boss, Little Daffy (formerly Sister Apothecaire), and so on.  At Shiz Rain meets a young boy named Tip who joins up with them.  Dorothy also returns, dropped into Oz by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.  Adventures are had, observations on the human condition are made, and the story hums right along.  Maguire spends the book wrapping up loose ends in a manner that is both fast-paced and somehow quietly still, with the war between Loyal Oz and the Free State of Munchkinland being the backdrop to it all.  Everything gets resolved, more or less – including issues that have permeated throughout the series – though perhaps not as those involved either wanted or could have foreseen, and Maguire ends the story on a rather ambiguous note that manages to stay fully in character.  It’s a worthwhile ending to a fascinating series.

Un Lun Dun (China Mieville)

After I read this last year I squirreled it away in my mind as a good candidate for bedtime reading with Lauren, and this year we read it together.  It’s the story of Zanna and Deeba, two young girls in London who fall through to the UnLondon of the title – a parallel city under attack by the Smog.  Zanna is the Shwazzy – the Chosen One (translate it into French and then run it back through a working-class London accent) – but when things go wrong it falls to Deeba (“the UnChosen One”) to set things to rights.  It’s a fascinating story of friendship and pluck, and of what happens when the prophecies are wrong and you have to do things anyway.  Deeba turns out to have a fair bit of gumption to her that surprises both her friends and herself.  Mieville fills this YA story with all sorts of oddness and Other, as well as a few small jokes for the adults (in UnLondon there is an old folktale about how the Smog’s attack on London in the mid-20th century was foiled by a magic weapon known as “the Klinneract,” which makes more sense if you say it slowly out loud), and the book held up well to a second reading.

Shakespeare: The World as Stage (Bill Bryson)

William Shakespeare is both the most famous of all English authors and one of the least known, as even the most basic facts about his life are often shrouded in mystery.  Into this yawning abyss of knowledge steps Bill Bryson, who cheerfully runs through the highlights of what is known about the life of Shakespeare while equally cheerfully examining the gaps in that knowledge – not filling them, particularly, just examining them and pointing out the foolhardiness of those who would speculate overmuch on what went on in those gaps.  Along the way he breezily covers much of the broad social milieu of Elizabethan and Jacobean London, situating Shakespeare nicely into his times.  In the final chapter that is worth the whole book, Bryson takes on the cottage industry of the Shakespeare Deniers and pokes holes in the various claims that Shakespeare could not have actually written Shakespeare.  It’s a short book – less than 200 pages – and Bryson’s brightly readable prose provides an entertaining and informative introduction to this most enigmatic of authors.

Intelligence in War (John Keegan)

Warfare is a physical thing.  It pits one side against another in a struggle for dominance that can only be decided by blows.  Given that starting point, what role is there for intelligence to play?  How much does information – whether taken from the enemy by spies and signals analysis, or distributed to your own side through whatever means – determine the outcome of individual battles or entire wars?  The answer, says Keegan, is not very much.  It can shorten battles or avoid them.  It can allow forces to position themselves away from pursuit or in the face of it.  It can give to one side or the other a small advantage.  But using examples ranging from Nelson’s pursuit of the Napoleonic fleet to JEB Stuart’s Shanendoah Valley campaign to both of the World Wars and beyond, Keegan’s point is depressingly consistent: intelligence can help or hurt, but not decisively.  What matters is the fight once joined.  It’s not a bad book, really, if you discount the fact that the maps that accompany each chapter are basically useless (which may have been some kind of sly commentary on his part, now that I think about it), but it is not a very rewarding book either.

Zero History (William Gibson)

Imagine if John LeCarre wrote for Vogue magazine and you've pretty much got the setup for this spy thriller - it's an action-packed, high-tech drama centered around, well, not much.  Fashion.  Military contracts for uniforms.  Things like that.  It's also not an easy book to read at first - Gibson simply drops you into the story without bothering with the kind exposition that fills in who the characters are or why they are doing what they're doing, and you spend most of the book with the nagging feeling that this is a sequel to something else - but as the story gets rolling it pulls you in and you find yourself caring about the characters.  Bigend is a shadowy figure, a man in charge with fingers in every pie, and he wants the name of a designer of legendarily secret clothes.  Hollis has worked for him before and she wants no part of him again, but gets drawn in.  Milgrim - a former addict and now something of a bemused simpleton with flashes of his sharp old self - works for Bigend as well.  There are a lot of odd names (Bigend, Inchmale, Sleight) and some strange militaristic twists, but it is a fun book and, much to my surprise, one that held my interest.  If you can make it through the first seventy-five pages or so with any sense of what's going on, it rewards you well.

The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity (Carlo M. Cipolla)

The history of this little book (only 71 post-card-sized pages, many of which are either blank or devoted to simple graphs) is almost as interesting as the book itself.  Originally written by the PhD economist author back in the 70s and circulated in hand-written copies among his friends, eventually this bit of samizdat literature became a real book.  His position is fairly simple - stupid people are everywhere, in constant proportion, and they will destroy society.  In five basic laws and an assortment of graphs, you get an academic description of just how.  It's oddly compelling and a lot of fun to read.

Stand-in Superstar (Nat Gertler)

Self-published books are always works in progress, and this novella is no exception.  It could have used a bit more copy-editing and perhaps another draft or two to iron out some of the rough spots and flesh out some of the bare spots – really, this seems at times a precis of a much longer book that would function better with the additional material.  But the general story is interesting, and the writing is fun to read and really, what more can you ask of a story?  Andy is a waiter in Hollywood, and unlike every other waiter in Hollywood he isn't just doing it until his big acting break comes through.  He likes being a waiter.  But he's generally on hold, not really living much of a life.  Through a series of events that can charitably be described as improbable, he ends up being hired by a major Hollywood movie star to be his stand-in - not in films, but in real life.  Julius Morton is a good guy and is tired of reading all the lies about his supposedly wild and debauched life in the tabloids, so Andy is there to live that life for him.  With an odd sidebar plot about two losers trying to frame Andy for drug possession to escape from a bad debt to a worse person, that's pretty much the book.  Andy will of course learn lessons, and even find what might well be love.  Fortunately, Gertler keeps his characters and his stories honest – there are no magic epiphanies, and for as weird as things get they stay fairly grounded.  I would be interested to see this expanded and polished in a future version.

Hyperbole and a Half  (Allie Brosh) 

I first encountered Brosh’s work on her website of the same name, and it made me laugh out loud for days.  This collection of her long-form story-and-comic-art tales didn’t have my favorite (“The Year Kenny Loggins Ruined Christmas”) but it still made me laugh and think.  Brosh has a sharp eye for a story and her deceptively simple drawings complement those stories better than you’d think on first glance.  If you haven’t discovered Brosh, you need to do so quickly.

Paradise News (David Lodge)

Bernard Walsh is another sad sack British academic in the tradition of Lodge’s Philip Swallow character.  An Irishman, a bachelor, and a failed priest, he is teaching a theology he no longer believes to students at another of the colleges in Lodge’s fictional English university town of Rummidge when his long-estranged aunt Ursula contacts him from Hawaii to say she is dying of cancer and would like to see him and his father.  What follows is part “fish out of water” comedy, as Bernard and his father adjust to a society that is about as different from England as it is possible to get, part family tragedy, as Ursula’s story spins itself out both forward and backward in time, and part romance, as Bernard gradually falls in love with a woman his father quite literally runs into.  Throw in Bernard’s sister Tess and a bleakly eccentric cast of fellow travelers on holiday with him, and events unfold from there.  It is a story of love and forgiveness, of finding faith in the everyday events of this world rather than in the hopes of the next, and if it wraps up as neatly as most of Lodge’s books seem to do at least Lodge keeps his characters and his situations honest.  Not many authors can write about love in the hopefully regretful sort of way that he does.


Total books: 82
Total pages: 30,477
Pages per day: 83.5

Happy reading!

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