Saturday, January 9, 2016

Books Read in 2015, Part 3

And last but not least…


Tibetan Peach Pie (Tom Robbins)

While it is true that every life is interesting, in its way, it is also true that Tom Robbins has led a more interesting life than most.  I first discovered him with Skinny Legs and All, and have since read almost everything he’s ever written.  Few authors have as much fun with the English language as he does, and this carries over now and then in this book – which, however much he disclaims the label, is indeed a memoir of sorts.  It is a collection of stories from his life, chronologically arranged if rather incomplete in that he leaves out what he chooses to leave out and makes no apologies for it.  But what is there is worth the price of admission.  The early chapters covering the years before he published his first book were the most interesting to me.  He was born in the Depression-era South and via stops at various educational institutions and the US Army slowly turned into one of the embodiments of the psychedelic Sixties.  He remains rather proud of his drug use, going so far as to criticize casual or recreational users for whom it is not the sacrament it appears to be to him, for example.  The storytelling slows as he goes over events after his career as an author got rolling, and he spends a fair amount of time discussing and defending his books – not something anyone likely to read this really requires – but his writing and general sense of the ridiculous carry the book forward anyway.

The Waking Engine (David Edison)

This is a delirium of a book, with echoes of Alan Campbell’s Scar Night, Sean Williams’ The Crooked Letter, and China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, and I’ve long had a fondness for such books even if they do invade my subconscious and make it harder to sleep at night.  Cooper was once a New Yorker, but that was before he died.  Now he finds himself in the City Unspoken, a mad world ruled by a madder nobility and a world that is falling apart.  Death is not the end, it turns out.  When you die, you simply move to the next stage in “the dance of lives” and wake up somewhere else in the multiverse, essentially still you.  True Death is a reward reserved for the deserving few and the City Unspoken is one of the only places it can be obtained.  Except that something has gone wrong, and it falls to Cooper, Sesstri, Asher, Purity Kloo, and Nixon (yes, that one, only now in the body of a boy) to figure out how to fix it.  Opposing them are the remnants of the City’s nobility, locked in the enormous Dome in the center of the City, and the Marchionesse of one of the remaining districts, a fey whose mother is both more and less than she was and is perhaps the biggest threat of all.  It’s a phantasmagorical and challenging story – I had to stop around the hundredth page and start over because I had lost track of things – but worth the effort.

The Rhesus Chart (Charles Stross)

Bob Howard and the Laundry are back in rare form in the fifth installment of The Laundry Files (and yes, I still think Stross missed out by not calling this The Laundry Cycle).  For those new to the series, the Laundry is the code name for the branch of British intelligence tasked with saving the realm – and by extension all of humanity – from the Lovecraftian horrors on the other side of reality.  As such the books are a mixture of supernatural thriller, spy novel, and office comedy – a mixture that Stross handles deftly and one that is often laugh-out-loud funny.  In this installment, Bob and his wife – Mo, wielder of the world’s deadliest violin – are having marital troubles almost entirely based on their shared line of work, and Stross uses this to get Mo out of the picture for most of the novel.  In her place comes a nest of vampires (although vampires aren’t REAL, right? – this, by the way, is a running theme), one of which happens to be Bob’s psycho ex-girlfriend and a former Laundry employee herself.  As with most of these novels, things get grim, the action ramps up to a shocking end, and the wit and graceful writing keep you entertained throughout.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things (Patrick Rothfuss)

One of the intriguing minor characters in Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles series is Auri, the “strange, sweet, shattered girl” who lives in the Underthing beneath the city and who forms a friendship of sorts with Kvothe.  This novella is a meditation more than a story, a week in the life of someone broken by the forces of the world, someone aware that she is not quite right but who has built a life of her own anyway in the dark spaces below.  Auri lives in a world where politeness and forgiveness are paramount virtues, where everything has desires and needs – including blankets and gears – and where the proper placement of things is crucial to the day.  It’s the week before he arrives (Kvothe, presumably – the main character of the Kingkiller Chronicles – though this is nowhere specified so it could be someone else) and each day Auri wakes up to find out what kind of day it is and what she can do during that day to prepare for his arrival.  She explores her domain.  She finds treasures great and small.  She reflects on the nature of the world and her place in it.  It is a quiet story in which very little happens but one that pulls you gently into Auri’s world and makes you feel for the broken but resilient young woman in the center of it. 

The Shepherd’s Crown (Terry Pratchett)

There is a certain amount of bittersweet feeling that comes with finishing the last book Terry Pratchett wrote before he died.  There are no more Discworld books to follow, not really.  Oh, there has already been a successor named, and perhaps his daughter will write books worthy of the series, but they will not be Terry Pratchett books.  I am glad that his last work was a Tiffany Aching book, as she has slowly become one of my favorite characters – as I suspect she became for him as well.  Tiffany is a bit older than she was in I Shall Wear Midnight, though the events of that book are still fairly recent.  There are vast changes afoot in the witchcraft world, changes that will thrust her front and center and wear her thin at a time when new challenges are quite literally emerging from the woods.  Those challenges will be dealt with, of course – Pratchett favored happy endings, though not always predictable ones – and new ways of looking at things will manifest.  It’s a thin book, one that probably would have been a hundred pages longer had he lived to complete it on his own terms, but not a bad way to go out.

The End is Nigh (John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey, eds). 

This is volume one of an interesting idea.  There are many anthologies of apocalyptic short stories out there, but this one focuses on stories that describe the lead-up to whatever it is that will destroy the world or human society or both.  It’s a wide-open field, and the contributors have everything from asteroids to disease to mold doing the dirty work.  Because the focus is so narrow and because the quality of the authors writing the stories is so high (Paolo Bacigalupi, Tobias Buckell, Hugh Howey, Ken Liu, Seanan McGuire, and so on) there are no real filler stories here – they are all well written, and they are all engaging.  What’s actually more interesting is the fact that this is just volume one.  There are two more volumes to come, the second focusing on the apocalypse itself and the third focusing on the aftermath, and most of the authors have contributed follow-up stories to those as well.  This means we get to track these characters through the whole process.  I’ve read a lot of anthologies in this genre – probably more than is good for my outlook on life – and this was one of the best.  I’m looking forward to the other volumes.

The End is Now (John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey, eds.) 

The second volume of the series, and this time focusing on events during the Crises themselves.  Like the first, this is a collection of well-written stories and most of them hit their marks without the kind of odd emptiness that you often get with short stories – stories that are too short for the story they tell, or too long.  These do a nice job of staying contained and focused.  Many of them are continuations of stories from the first volume, though some are new. 

The End Has Come (John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey, eds.)

The series concludes, and while there were a number of stories that continued through all three volumes the number of new ones rose in the concluding volume.  The stories are all well written, though, so it works.  If you’re looking for a thoughtful and interesting collection of tales that will bleed into your subconscious and darken your worldview, this is a good place to start.

Trigger Warning (Neil Gaiman)

I’m not sure why I’m reading so many short stories of late, since it’s not really a genre I tend to enjoy much.  It’s hard to get a whole idea out in a handful of pages, and I find I prefer novels that way.  But when you’re as good a writer as Neil Gaiman, that’s not a problem.  Gaimain tries his hand at stories meant to set people on edge, and in many of them he succeeds.  He also gives you some background on the stories themselves, which I always appreciate.  I got this for free this summer – the local AM news station always gives away high quality books at the County Fair, and that is a lovely service to the community, I think.

The World of Post Secret (Frank Warren)

This was another one I got from the AM news station.  Post Secret has long been a website I check regularly.  If you’re not familiar with it, you should be.  Basically, Frank Warren decided one day to see if people would send him anonymous postcards with their secrets on them.  He figured he’d get a couple hundred of them, and that would be that.  Over a million postcards later, he’s been doing it long enough that he’s thinking of retiring.  The secrets here range from the funny to the heartbreaking, and if you can get through this book dry-eyed you are a stronger person than I.  One of the things I like about these books is that Warren has a number of odd quirks, among them refusing to keep an online archive of the ones he has posted on his site, and this goes a way toward addressing that, I suppose.

The Martian (Andy Weir)

Rarely have I ever had so many people tell me I had to read a single book, and even more rarely have I been able to say that their advice was correct.  This is that book.  The basic set-up is stark: astronaut Mark Watney has been stranded on Mars.  His task is to survive for as long as he can and hope that a) NASA figures out he’s still alive and b) someone can come and rescue him before he starves to death or succumbs to any of the other myriad threats that await a lone human literally hundreds of millions of miles from home.  Fortunately, NASA (and its associated agencies, ranging from JPL to the Chinese space agency) is attentive and clever.  And even more fortunately, Watney is both an engaging narrator (the thing about this book that surprised me more than anything else was just how funny it was at times) and a scientific MacGyver.  For more than a year, Watney kludges together what it takes to survive on Mars, paying careful attention to the science of it – Weir spent a lot of time getting the science right, once you forgive him the exaggeration that sets up the story – and the reader follows along willingly.  I can see why they made this into a movie.  The movie was good and worth seeing, but the book was so much better.

Doomed (Chuck Palahniuk)

Middle volumes of trilogies are odd things to read, especially if you don’t figure out until about halfway through that there was a first volume and you don’t discover until the end that there will probably be a third.  But such is Doomed, sequel to Damned and precursor to something forthcoming, no doubt.  Madison Spencer (full name: Madison Desert Flower Rosa Parks Coyote Trickster Spencer) is a ghost, and a rather snarky and spoiled one.  She’s also damned to hell, which from her perspective sucks.  This is perhaps why she is not all that unhappy when she gets stranded on Earth one Halloween, doomed to wander for a year until she can get back to hell next Halloween.  What follows is part memoir – how she spent her childhood as the spoiled rich-kid daughter of glamour couple Camille and Antonio Spencer, how she murdered her grandfather, and so on – and part redemption story centered on avoiding the damnation of all of humanity because of a misunderstanding between her and her mother.  There really aren’t any sympathetic characters here, though Palahnuik’s writing is well crafted and pulls you right along.  I’m not sure I want to find the other volumes, however.  Maybe.

Tales of the City (Armistead Maupin)

Tales of the City is as close to a Dickens novel as the United States has ever produced.  It started out as a newspaper serial, much like many of Dickens’ works (which means that every chapter is short and punchy), and it involves a small cast of characters who all know each other in other contexts (I once drew a flow-chart of what characters in Great Expectations knew each other when under what name, and the thing looked like drunken macrame).  Mary Ann moves from Cleveland to San Francisco in the 1970s – post-hippie, pre-AIDS – and eventually finds herself renting an apartment at 28 Barbary Street.  There she meets her neighbors: Michael, Mona, Norman, Brian, and the landlady, Mrs. Madrigal.  She works for Halcyon, an ad agency, which brings in another crew of characters.  They all bounce off each other in a crisply written portrait of a very specific time and place.  Maupin is a talented writer who draws you into what is, essentially, a Dickensian soap opera, and makes you glad you showed up.

More Tales of the City (Armistead Maupin)

The saga of 28 Barabary Street continues, with its crisp writing and its potato-chip chapters (small, salty, and hard to stop at just one), as each of the characters tries to get away.  Mary Ann and Michael go on a cruise to Mexico, where each will find some version of love.  Mona goes to a whorehouse in Nevada and discovers more about her family than she ever thought possible.  Brian and Mrs. Madrigal go on journeys that are more interior but no less distanced.  And the other Dickensian mob of interrelated characters from the first book continue to bounce off each other with abandon.  Maupin is not afraid to do awful things to his characters, but for the most part they grow and thrive and then it’s on to the next volume.  I should track it down sometime.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things (Patrick Rothfuss)

On audio book this time.  I’m never sure whether to count audio books, but it’s my blog and there you go.  I’m also not much of a fan of audio books – I’d rather read the book myself, thank you – but this was narrated by Rothfuss himself, so it was interesting that way.  Now I know how to pronounce a few things that I didn’t before.

Global Crisis: War, Climate Change, & Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (Geoffrey Parker)

One of the things you learn if you read enough history is that we really don’t have it all that bad these days, all things considered.  This is one of those big, synthetic histories that I so dearly love, covering what is apparently called The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century – a term I had not run into before in more than two decades as a professional historian, but one that seems rather apt.  Basically, the entire known world (with the possible exceptions of Japan and colonial New England) was a basket case of woe for much of the 1600s, and in this thick but well-written volume Parker tries to explain why.  The book is divided into three sections (five, technically, but the last four can easily be grouped into two).  In the first and third sections, Parker sets out his analytic framework, exploring his themes of climate change (this was the era of the Little Ice Age, when growing seasons shrank, droughts and floods became common, and the winters were some of the coldest ever recorded) and warfare, while the second section explores the impact of those things on various portions of the world – Japan, China, India, Turkey, six different regions of Europe, and at least a glancing look at Africa and the Americas.  The middle section can get very long and repetitive, but it provides the data that supports the first and last sections.  Parker’s basic points are three: 1) that things can always get worse, often in a tremendous hurry, and they can take a very long time to get better, 2) that climate change is an implacable foe, one that can only be dealt with but not really averted or defeated, and 3) given half a chance most human societies will do pretty much everything in their power to make things worse, generally by exhausting themselves on wars, bleeding themselves dry with taxes, and/or heightening internal tensions through arrogant and tone-deaf policies.  It is a history of a blighted and deadly century, when a third of the world died prematurely, and the lessons this holds for the 21st century are obvious to those not too blinded by ideology to see them.

Boomsday (Christopher Buckley)

After the rather heavy reading of the last book, it was time for something lighter and more diverting.  This was certainly more diverting – Buckley has Christopher Moore’s gift for light dialogue and there were more than a few laugh-out-loud moments that way – but whether it was lighter would be an interesting discussion.  It is set in a near-future United States that is deeply in debt (foreign governments are refusing to buy US Treasury Bills) and unwilling to do anything about it.  The Baby Boomers are all retiring and forcing younger Americans (U30’s, in Buckley’s odd formulation – short for “under 30’s”) to pay vast chunks of their income in Social Security taxes to support the golf courses and lavish retirement lifestyles to which they have become accustomed.  Into this comes Cassandra Devine, 29-year-old blogger, Army veteran (the chapter describing her service is one of the funniest in the book) and PR professional.  Late one night she throws into the blogosphere the idea of Transitioning – of convincing aging Boomers to commit suicide at age 70 in exchange for tax breaks and benefits for their descendents.  Throw in Senator Randolph K. Jepperson (old-line WASP, ladies’ man, and acquaintance from Cassandra’s Army days), President Peacham (increasingly beleaguered), and Reverand Gideon Payne (leader of the Society for the Preservation of Every Ribonucleic Molecule, and you can work that acronym out on your own) and you have a deftly plotted story of legislation, public relations, campaign strategy, and Congressional hearings that works pretty much right up to the last chapter, when it is fairly clear that Buckley got bored and just wrapped things up so he could move on to another project.  Like the other books of his that I’ve read, though (The White House Mess; Thank You for Smoking), it’s a clever if not especially biting critique of modern American politics that stays entertaining and – for all the grim subject matter – relatively light-hearted throughout, and that’s exactly what I was looking for.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making (Catherynne M. Valente)

On the very first page of this YA novel, a girl named September receives a visit from The Green Wind, who spirits her off to Fairyland on the back of a flying leopard.  There she meets any number of other similarly fantastical characters – notably a wyvern (or wyverary, since he claims to be descended from a library and is named “A Through L”) and a marid named Saturday – has a number of rather episodic adventures, and goes on a quest given to her by the Marquess who has overthrown the Good Queen Mallow and who seems intent on doing the same to September as well.  It’s a charming story – and yes, eventually September will indeed circumnavigate Fairyland in a ship of her own making – and it combines the oddly formal feel of something written around 1900 with a modern playfulness and sense of humor.  The Marquess is, of course, not quite what she seems, and the final confrontation between her and September is more complex than stories of this type traditionally see.  I’m looking forward to the next volume in the series.

[Reader’s Copy of Unpublished Book] 

I volunteered to be a beta reader for a friend’s novel, and that’s all I’m going to say about that.  You’ll just have to wait until it’s published.

Austerity Britain: 1945-1951 (David Kynaston)

This is easily the most English thing I have ever read.  It is, on the surface, a phenomenally detailed look at a fairly bleak period of British history, when a victorious United Kingdom faced the post-WWII world and realized that winning the war did not mean an easy or prosperous peace.  It was a time of continued rationing, short housing, air pollution, and poverty.  Yet it was also a time when the foundations of much of the post-war settlement were laid – notably the National Health Service – and the main theme of Kynaston’s series (of which this is only the first volume) is the creation of the New Jerusalem that was the target of most British politics between 1945 and 1979.  Kynaston spreads his focus out to everything from politics (the travails of the Labour government take up a large chunk of this book) and the economy to education, gender roles, home life, and entertainment.  He relies on a wealth of scholarship and – fascinatingly – what must have been a long-running and incredibly comprehensive public opinion survey known as the Mass Observation, which asked ordinary Britons about their lives and struggles.  The chapters focusing on education are particularly harsh, but the portrait that emerges is of a nation grimly – if not especially happily – determined to soldier on.  This is clearly a British book meant for British readers, and nothing is translated for Americans.  Cultural figures are introduced and not explained, since you’re expected to know who they are.  The same goes for sports, locations, pre-decimal monetary amounts, and general attitudes, and honestly reading it fit my experience with reading English road signs as well: if you have to ask, you don’t belong here.  It was a fascinating book, and I look forward to the next two volumes of the series (covering to 1962, I believe) and the rest of it, though with this level of scholarly depth and physical heft for each volume I can only hope that he will actually get all the way to 1979 before either he or I pass on.

How to Tell If Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You (Matthew Inman)

If you’ve never read The Oatmeal, you should – it’s one of the funnier online comics around, and this is a collection of some of his cat-themed cartoons.  They’re clever in a biting sort of way, though the extended “cats in the office” sequence got tiresome after a while.  A pleasant way to spend some time.

Iremonger: Heap House (Edward Carey)

This is what you would get if Edward Gorey wrote a YA novel.  Illustrated by the author with grim black and white Victorian-style drawings of sallow and lumpy people, this book tells the story of the Iremongers, who live in a ramshackle conglomerated mansion surrounded by the Heaps, on the outskirts of London in 1875, and it mostly follows two characters – Clod Iremonger, a family member blessed or cursed with the ability to hear objects speak, especially the birth objects that family members are required to carry at all times, and Lucy Pennant, a young orphan taken in as a servant and renamed “Iremonger,” as are all the servants.  To say that this is a bleak and twisted story of sin and magic is to miss the sly glee in which Carey tells his tale and the complex world he sets it in.  This is the first of a projected trilogy and thus ends inconclusively, but it will appeal to a certain kind of intelligent and alienated teen reader, as well as those who used to be one.

Ship Breaker (Paolo Bacigalupi)

In a rather grim near future, somewhere on the Gulf Coast of what may or may not still be the United States (the book stays pretty tightly focused on the immediate plot) is a beach full of abandoned ships from the age of oil.  Nailer is a teenaged boy working on the salvage crews that strip those ships of copper and other now scarce materials.  It’s a hard, brutal, and often short life, particularly given Nailer’s abusive and mercurial father.  Everyone dreams of the big Lucky Strike – the find that will allow them to get rich and move out of this environment – but few ever find it.  When Nailer and his friend Pima find a wrecked clipper with a rich girl still alive inside, they think it might be their Lucky Strike.  Eventually Nailer, the girl (Nita), and Tool (a genetic hybrid, part human and part animal) head off to try to cash in.  It’s a hard but rewarding story of friendship and survival in a harsh world, and I can see why it won so many awards.

Knickers in a Twist: A Dictionary of British Slang (Jonathan Bernstein)

This is exactly what it says it is – a short annotated dictionary of British slang words and phrases, some of which are simply translated into the American and some of which are also given the kind of sarcastic definitions that have been part of British dictionary-making since Samuel Johnson.  They’re arranged generally by subject matter, so if you’re looking for a specific term you’d be best served by starting at the index.  I found that many of them I already knew (a lifetime of British books and television comes in handy sometimes), some better than the author, which was at times disconcerting as he is a genuine British Person.  Some of the terms are also Americanisms, at least in my family – my grandmother, whose ancestors had lived in the Philadelphia area since at least 1835, often came out with a few of them, though she had a gift for that sort of thing so perhaps that’s not a fair comparison.  In any event, it was a short, fun book that was exactly the kind of light entertainment I was looking for at the time.

Total books: 62
Total pages: 22,369
Pages per day: 61.3

Happy Reading!


Random Michelle K said...

"I’m not sure why I’m reading so many short stories of late, since it’s not really a genre I tend to enjoy much. It’s hard to get a whole idea out in a handful of pages"

As someone who LOVES short stories (I have shelves and shelves of anthologies), I agree with you that it is not easy to get a well-done story in a few pages, but when it's done well, it's something marvelous.

I've always had a collection of short stories at hand, because I get INVOLVED in the books I read, and I also do not function well on short sleep, so short stories allow me to get my story fix but not stay up past my bedtime.

That said, the problem (IMO) is that it's a skill to craft a short story, and the ability to write a novel does not mean someone can compose a good short story. So when anthology writers solicit big names for their anthologies without bothering to learn whether those authors can write in a shorter format, well, that just gives short stories a bad name, which then ruins it for everyone else.

I think this turned into a rant. Sorry.

So to end on a more positive note, if you're willing to give short stories a try (as snacks for when you don't have time for a full novel.) I really really recommend Charles de Lint. I utterly adore his stories. He manages fantasy and world and character building in only a few pages, and even when writing about recurring character, you don't feel as if you're missing something without a backstory.

I have other favorites as well, but IMO he is probably the best crafter of fantasy short stories around.

David said...

My problem with short stories is 1) so few authors know how to do it that the risk/reward structure for starting them is awfully threadbare, and I've reached the point in my life where I am no longer willing to put up with bad writing in order to get to an author's idea; and 2) I find that I prefer stories that have the space to stretch out a bit, which brings me to novels. Even novellas feel cramped to me, most of the time.

When it is done well, it is, indeed, something marvelous. But it so rarely is, and life is short.

I may try de Lint at some point, though.

Random Michelle K said...

Now see, for me, that's an incentive to read MORE short stories!

Couple paragraphs in, MEH, moving along to the next story. :)

Possible the fact that I often read in snatches of time while waiting helps encourage me to read short stories. Something to read while waiting for the doctor, even knowing that my doctor frequently runs early. :)

David said...

Oh, I can ditch a novel in a couple of paragraphs too, although I tend to give them 40-50 pages most of the time at the bare minimum and usually more like 100. Ditching things isn't the issue.

For me the point comes when I get to the end of a short story and ask myself "Is that all there is?" Because then I feel I have truly wasted my time, even if it's only a handful of pages. I read an anthology in 2014 that was full of stories like that - maybe half of them made me think, "I would read this if they expanded this into a novel, but right now this was just skeletal and useless."

I learned how to read in snatches in graduate school, when reading was my job and I still had dinners to make and appointments to keep. I still read hard-core academic history like that, so novels are no trouble.

Different strokes, I guess. I'm glad there are people who enjoy short stories, as those authors would die of starvation if the world consisted only of people like me.