Monday, January 12, 2015

Books Read in 2014, Part 4

And that about wraps things up.  Stay tuned for next year!


The Big Over Easy (Jasper Fforde)

DI Jack Spratt has a problem.  He’s the head of the Nursery Crimes Division of the Reading Police, a career-killing assignment that he shares with his staff of misfits and officers who have crossed the powers that be (notably DCI Friedland Chymes and the Guild of Detectives), among them Constable Baker (a hypochondriac), Constable Ashley (an alien), and Constable Kandlestyck-Maeker, who questioned Chymes once too often and was dumped into the NCD as punishment.  When Sgt. Mary Mary gets assigned to this crew, it just makes things complicated.  There has been a murder – Humpty Dumpty has been found in pieces below his wall, and the trail of skullduggery extends throughout Reading – to the halls of Spongg Footcare, Reading’s premiere industry; to the Most Worshipful Guild of Detectives, who are more concerned with publication stats and narrative structure than with actual police work; and even to St. Cerebellum’s, the local mental hospital.  Spratt and Mary must figure out whodunit whle carefully avoiding being done, and must navigate the moral slopes of the Guild of Detectives.  Fforde is an astonishingly referential writer – almost every line in this book is an allusion to something, either a nursery rhyme or a noirish detective hero or something else – and the plot flows quickly.  It’s a biting satire of detective novels and the culture that make them up, and in some sense it’s also an interesting take-down of the publish-or-perish world of academia, though I don’t know if Fforde intended that.  Lauren and I read this as a bedtime story, because she’s old enough now to enjoy real stories.

Tigerman (Nick Harkaway)

On a doomed island in the Indian Ocean there is a sergeant and a boy.  The boy is a local, nicknamed Robin, and a fountain of pop culture.  His friend the sergeant – Lester Ferris, late of the British Royal Army – has been put out to pasture there after his service in Iraq and Afghanistan, declared to be the Brevet-Consul representing Her Majesty’s Government, and told mostly not to bother with doing too much before the island is destroyed.  Because the island will be destroyed – thanks to a roiling pot of chemical and biological nastiness created out of industrial waste that has already devastated the island, the world has declared that it must be razed to the waterline.  This creates an odd, self-contained little world just beyond legality, and the Fleet – a vast patchwork of ships anchored just offshore – takes advantage of this extralegal space to offer a wide variety of services that would otherwise be frowned upon.  There is also an international force – NatProMan – headed by an American named Kershaw, a team of Japanese scientists whose leader Kaiko Inoue, provides some glimmer of romantic possibility for Sgt. Ferris (or as much as two representatives from famously self-effacing and polite societies can manage in that direction, at least), a former Legionnaire named Dirac, and a local bartender named Shola.  And into this mix comes Tigerman – a hero for our times.  The fact that our times are bleak and screwed up, that nothing ever quite works out the way it does in the comic books, is just how it goes.  This is a more straightforward book than Harkaway’s earlier novels and a darker one, but his usual glorious prose slides you right along.  Harkaway is one of my favorite writers, just for how he writes sentences.

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions (Randall Munroe)

Randall Munroe draws the webcomic XKCD, which is deservedly famous among a certain kind of internet nerd as one of the best bits of science humor out there, but prior to that he was a genuine NASA engineer and he uses his scientific training and research skills to answer what are, on the face of them, genuinely stupid questions.  The result is both fascinating and weirdly funny.  Have you ever wondered what would happen if a pitcher threw a fastball at 9/10 the speed of light?  Munroe actually gives you a serious scientific answer (the stadium and everything in it would be vaporized, and – in accordance with the rules of Major League Baseball – the batter would posthumously be awarded first base for being hit by the pitch, in a rather broad sense of “hit”).  He walks his way through any number of such questions, and by the time you are done you are both educated and kind of shellshocked that people would ever think to ask such things. 

The Outsourcerer’s Apprentice (Tom Holt)

How exactly would a fairy-tale kingdom actually function?  What are the economics of dragon slaying?  If all you have in your area are kindly woodcutters, who’s buying all the wood and why are they doing so when they could just walk out of their house and pick it up for free?  Buttercup is this land’s version of Little Red Riding Hood, except she asks the hard economic questions and she’s getting tired of slaughtering wolves every day.  Sir Turquine sells dragon carcasses to the king for bulk meat.  And as for Prince Florizel, well, he’s kind of a lost cause.  Literally lost, in this case, since he’s actually Benny Gulbenkian, graduate student in physics and party crasher into this world.  He’d like to get back to our reality, except that requires a donut or other food with a hole in the middle and such things are violently taboo in this world.  As for Benny’s uncle, well, it just gets more complicated from there.  In this sharp satire of fairy tales and wizard stories (there’s a spot-on parody of the whole Moria sequence in The Lord of the Rings, for example), Holt explores the idea of what would happen if we could outsource our jobs to alternate realities and the results – while occasionally laugh-out-loud funny – are all too sobering.  One gets the impression that this is a sequel to something, and now I suppose I need to find it.

The Fourth Bear (Jasper Fforde)

The Nursery Crimes Division is not a place where you find the normal, the mundane, or even the sensible, as DCI Jack Spratt well knows, and in this story he will find his expectations fulfilled in many ways.  It opens with Goldilocks – a reporter and a Friend To Bears – on the trail of a story involving giant cucumbers (a trail littered with bodies, it turns out) – and winds its way through a murderous baked good (the Gingerbreadman), a self-repairing car purchased from a salesman named Dorian Gray, a half-built amusement park called SommeWorld, and a fair amount of conflict with the sentient bear community of Reading, Berkshire, UK, before ending on a more or less happy note, depending on how one defines things.  Along the way DCI Spratt will confront new neighbors (Punch and Judy, whose second career is a bit of a shock), his very angry wife, and a psychologist who admits that he is probably better at his job for not being quite sane but still has to go through the motions of analysis anyway.  There are side stories involving DS Mary Mary and her tentative relationship with the alien PC Ashley (whose family is trying to be human and not quite succeeding), a long-lost scientist named McGuffin, and a near disaster of a sting operation meant to catch the Great Long Red-Legg’d Scissor-Man, a figure out of British nursery rhymes who snips off the thumbs of children who won’t stop sucking them.  In other words, it is a fairly typical romp through the cluttered and fascinating mind of Jasper Fforde, and Lauren and I enjoyed it thoroughly together.

Fragile Things (Neil Gaiman)

This collection of short stories and poems demonstrates once again what a skilled writer Neil Gaiman is and how rare that can be in the SF/F genre.  Following an introduction mostly devoted to explaining the circumstances under which each piece was written, Gaiman reels off story after story, interspersed with poems, each one crystalline and cutting, most of which stay in your head long after you’re done.  My favorite line in this book came from one of the poems, actually: “Do not fear the ghosts in this house; they are the least of your worries.”

The Eye of Zoltar (Jasper Fforde)

The story of Jennifer Strange – teenaged orphan, indentured servant, chief operating officer of Kazam Mystical Arts Management (the finest purveyor of magical services in the Ununited Kingdoms of Great Britain) – continues in this third installment that has all of the wit, allusions, and breakneck pacing of the first two (The Last Dragonslayer, and The Song of the Quarkbeast).  Fforde is clearly tiring of the constraints of Kazam and is moving Jennifer’s story further afield.  Little of this book actually takes place in the Kingdom of Snodd (somewhere in what is now western England).  Instead, very early in the book Jennifer and Perkins, one of her sorcerers and potentially a boyfriend, are tasked with going into the Cambrian Empire (more or less Wales).  There are three reasons for this.  First, they need to ransom the Once Magnificent Boo from the clutches of Emperor Tharv (kidnapping is a thoroughly bureaucratized and routine function of the Cambrian government, and it is all strikingly aboveboard and rule-bound).  Second, the Mighty Shandar has ordered Jennifer to fetch the Eye of Zoltar – a jewel of immense magical power – from there or he will kill the last two remaining dragons.  And third, the queen of Snodd has switched her spoiled, bratty daughter’s mind into the body of a servant (Laura Scrubb) and asked Jennifer to teach her some humility and usefulness, so she comes along as well.  The princess, it turns out, has an MBA-level understanding of finance, which is just one of the odd little things that occur in this book.  Cambria makes most of its money from jeopardy tourism – tour guides quote fatality rates for each option you choose.  There is a railroad militia war that occurs precisely on time with carefully scheduled breaks.  Cambrian fauna defy logic.  It’s a sprawling, at times deeply funny book, and it clearly sets Fforde up for the next volume in this series, a volume I will purchase at the first opportunity.

Technology Matters: Questions to Live With (David E. Nye)

One of the down sides to agreeing to help out a friend by giving a guest lecture is that you have to do the readings that the students have for that day, and when your friend is a philosopher rather than a historian, well, there’s no way that’s going to end well.  This well-intentioned but ultimately deeply frustrating book sets out to address the issue of technology and human society – what it is, how it shapes our culture and is shaped thereby, and how we ought to be dealing with it – and it is arranged in a series of chapters each focusing on a single question.  I knew I was in trouble when the first chapter – “Can We Define ‘Technology’?” – declared that the answer to that question was effectively “no.”  This made the rest of the book kind of pointless, really, but I slogged my way through to the end and did my best to expunge its contents from my head the moment my guest lecture concluded.

A Slip of the Keyboard (Terry Pratchett)

Terry Pratchett has spent his entire life writing, first as a journalist and then as one of the best satirists and moralists (two categories with a significant amount of overlap) in the English language.  And he’s funny, too.  This is a collection of his non-fiction pieces – talks given, letters published, articles written, and so on – that spans much of his life and is organized into three broad categories.  The first is generally focused on writing, and contains more than its fair share of humor and observation.  The second, similarly well-written and entertaining, is more generally focused on his life and opinions.  The final section is more pointed – the reactions and exhortations of a man diagnosed with a rare and early form of Alzheimer’s Disease who knows his time is limited and would like that time to be spent well and to end when he wants it to end.  It has its humor as well, but as you would expect it is a section more raw and angry than the other two.  I have long loved Pratchett’s writing because it is extremely well written and makes me laugh and think at the same time – a combination more uncommon than you’d think – and this collection was no exception.

The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle: The Thing Beneath the Bed (Patrick Rothfuss)

This is a picture book, but as the shiny gold sticker on the cover says, “This shit is not for kids.  Seriously.”  Rothfuss has a great deal of fun subverting the conventions of children’s books with what at first seems a fairly conventional tale of a princess and her stuffed animal, who live alone in a marzipan castle.  The ending (well, the final ending, as there are three) can come as rather a surprise if you’re not paying attention.  I bought this at a reading given by Rothfuss and read through it while waiting for him to begin his presentation.  I was happy when he chose to spend the first part of the evening reading this and then pointing out that he was “not some hack writer who would spring a twist ending on you,” by going through the artwork and writing to show you how what might seem like a surprise ending is actually there from the beginning for those who are willing to see what is in front of them rather than what they expect to see in front of them.  The second time you read the story through, he said, it is a very different book than it is the first time.  And that is a lesson worth learning.

The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle: The Dark Deep Below (Patrick Rothfuss) 

The second installment of this series is a bit longer and more complicated and introduces a new character to the mix – the princess’ brother.  How exactly she has obtained a brother is left unclear and after the events of the first book this is not something I choose to dwell upon for long.  But there he is and, in the way of all baby brothers, he is deeply, deeply aggravating to the princess.  But when he falls afoul of the goblins in the deep dark cave, the princess will spring into action.  As with the first one, this is not a children’s book so much as a commentary on the genre, and it is a lot of dark fun.

Necrophenia (Robert Rankin)

Like all Rankin books, this is a cheesecake kind of novel – dense, rich, delicious, and extremely filling.  You read one and you’re good for a while, no matter how much you look forward to the next one.  Rankin is also extremely British and makes few concessions to his American readers.  This is one of his more deliberately absurd books, written in a style that starts at “arch” goes through “deadpan,” and ends up somewhere in a collision between “vaudeville” and Waiting for Godot.  The story is told as a memoir by Tyler, who starts out in the early 1960s as a schoolboy and member of the rock band The Sumerian Kynges and then proceeds through most of the pop culture of the late 20th and early 21st century in a Zelig sort of way.  Elvis has a big role, for example, as does Mama Cass, George Formby, and Mick Jagger.  Tyler spends much of his life being manipulated – first by Mr. Ishmael, and then by Keith Crossbar, whose relation to Tyler is only gradually revealed.  There are long scenes in bars and even longer jumps – years – where Tyler has no memory and the narrative dissolves from one era to the next.  It’s the story, as he says, of how Tyler almost saved Mankind, and if you are willing to get into the spirit of it and enjoy the flow of the language, it’s a wonderful experience.  If you’re not, well, it will just be weird and awkward.

The Stupidest Angel (Version 2.0) (Christopher Moore)

It’s Christmas in Pine Cove, and it will be one to remember, or perhaps not.  The evil developer Dale Pearson (generally described as such) is harassing his ex-wife Lena Marquez.  Tuck Case is in town with Roberto, his talking fruit bat.  Theo Crowe – former hippie turned well-intentioned lawman – is trying to keep a lid on things.  His wife, a former B-movie action star named Molly Michon whose mental state is precarious at best, is off her meds and slowly losing the distinction between her actual self and the barbarian warrior princess she used to play on the screen.  And the angel Raziel is about to grant a Christmas miracle, except that he is, indeed, the stupidest angel in the heavens and what he thinks people want is not actually what they want.  It’s a swirling mix of murder, mayhem, love, action, and more than a few laugh-out-loud funny bits – as one would expect from Moore – and the “2.0” at the end is a little epilogue that gives you a look at the characters a year on, when a new threat to Pine Cove appears.  Not one of Moore’s best, really, but well worth reading anyway.

Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America – An Evangelical’s Lament (Randall Balmer)

I should really know better than to read books like this one.  It’s not like my blood pressure isn’t high enough already.  Balmer is a committed evangelical Protestant who refuses to accept the stranglehold that the Religious Right has on his fellow evangelicals or the ways in which that stranglehold has destroyed most of the claims those evangelicals have on their own past or even, at times, the very notion that they are Christian at all.  In a few short, well-documented chapters he outlines the history of the Religious Right in the US – a history that begins with a spirited defense of segregation and racism and only gradually expands to include more socially acceptable issues such as abortion, which evangelicals initially held rather pro-choice views upon – and the damage that history is doing to both the US in general and to American Christianity in particular.  It is impossible to read this book with anything approaching an open mind and still believe that the right-wing extremists masquerading as conservatives in America today have any moral legitimacy whatsoever or that they speak from any real sense of what the Good News of Christ actually was.  The fact that so many people in the US continue to give them that legitimacy and listen to their views speaks volumes about the sorry state of the American mind and the even sorrier state of American morals and faith.

Bridge of Sighs (Richard Russo)

Books like this are what the words “big-hearted” and “shambling” were created to describe, though that would shortchange the complex, multi-layered structure of the book.  Told in a series of overlapping narratives – several in the present and one more as memory – this is the story of an ordinary life and the extraordinary events it can contain.  Lou C. Lynch (forever known as Lucy, thanks to a teacher’s imprecise diction and the attempted cruelty of his classmates) is a boy in Thomaston, a town in upstate NY that is slowly withering.  The tannery is poisoning the creek, and the old jobs are disappearing.  When Lucy’s father impetuously buys a corner grocery, he ties his family to the town.  It’s a story of Lucy and his father – warm-hearted, innocent, decent people.  Of Lucy’s mother, Tessa, and his eventual wife, Sarah.  Of Bobby Marconi, who flees the town to reinvent himself as Robert Noonan, an artist in Vienna.  It’s a memoir of Lucy’s youth and a bittersweet, melancholic reflection on his present.  Characters come in, play their roles (Lucy’s uncle Declan is a particularly interesting figure), and then disappear, sometimes tragically and sometimes quietly.  Life happens, and then it stops.  It’s a compelling and well-written tale of a quiet life full to the brim with stories.

Total Books: 66 to 74, depending on how one counts
Total Pages: 24,026
Pages/day: 65.8

Happy Reading!

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