Thursday, January 9, 2014

Books Read in 2013, Part III

Part next…


While Mortals Sleep: Unpublished Short Fiction (Kurt Vonnegut)

This is pretty much exactly what it sounds like – a collection of early short stories written when Vonnegut was still honing his craft by churning out works for the magazine trade.  If you like Vonnegut’s writing (and I do), you will like this collection, though it is definitely geared for those already fans rather than those new to Vonnegut.  All of the stories are well done.  None stand out particularly.  Probably the most interesting snippet I got out of the book was from Dave Eggers’ introduction.  Most modern short stories, Eggers writes, owe their structure to photography.  What they portray is realistic, and the artistry lies in how that reality is framed.  These stories, on the other hand, come from an older tradition that Eggers labels “mousetrap stories” – stories where all of the details, from the characters to the setting to the plot, are carefully artificial and lined up just so in order for the final bit to snap shut on the reader with a satisfying jolt.  That is a useful distinction to know.

This I Believe (II): The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women (Jay Allison and Dan Gediman, eds.)

In 2005, National Public Radio launched a project to have people submit short (350-500 word) essays outlining one core belief that they held.  The result was an astounding outpouring of essays – thousands of them – some of which were printed in this second collection.  You can’t read this without marveling at the depth and complexity of ordinary people – some of the contributors are people you may have heard of, but most are not – and the willingness they have to share that with others.  Cynicism has no place here, and once in a while that is a welcome respite.

The Vintage Caper (Peter Mayle)

On the surface, this is a straightforward and rather light whodunnit mystery.  The plot is fairly simple.  Danny Roth – Hollywood entertainment lawyer and Generally Unpleasant Person – owns a serious wine collection, and early in the book it is stolen.  Eventually the job of tracking it down falls to Sam Levitt – former ne’er-do-well turned investigator and also a trained wine connoisseur – who travels to France to unravel the case.  It is a one-level plot, with no undue complications or terribly surprising subplots – everything works, everyone ends up happy, more or less.  But the main point of the book isn’t really the plot.  The plot is simply an excuse to have Peter Mayle – author of A Year in Provence – revisit his old stomping grounds and describe in great and lascivious detail all the wines and food consumed by his characters.  It’s a pleasantly undemanding story that way.

Iron Sunrise (Charles Stross)

Early in this book, the planet Moscow (named for the town in Idaho, not the one in Russia – one of the many odd little details that pepper this book) is destroyed in a deliberate act of war, an act that Stross chronicles in loving scientific detail.  This sets off a breathless interstellar diplomatic whodunnit as a survivor nicknamed Wednesday, a journalist nicknamed Frank the Nose, and a UN diplomat named Rachel (no nickname given) frantically try to avert the revenge of the dead planet on a blameless nearby planet, even as another group known as the ReMastered (with all of the Nazi overtones fully intended) push to make it happen.  Stross is a very good writer who keeps the plot together even as it hurtles from one crisis to the next, and he wraps things up on a suitably ambiguous note should he ever want to revisit this universe.  Apparently this is a sequel to an earlier book, which I suppose I should read now.  Also, the wonderful thing about buying second-hand books is that you get to read all the lists and reminders that people scrawl into the margins.  Whoever owned this book before me led a busy life.

The World of the End (Ofir Touche Gafla, translated from Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg)

Ben Mendelssohn writes endings for a living, fixing what other writers can’t do well, but when his wife Marian dies unexpectedly he finds himself with an ending he cannot handle and, like many a bereaved spouse, he commits suicide in order to be with her.  The afterlife turns out to be rather different from what Ben was expecting, however – bureaucratic, secular, comfortable in the mindless style of a cruise vacation, and utterly devoid of Marian.  Gafla’s story quickly becomes, by turns, a detective novel, a pointed and many-layered commentary on relationships and humanity, a meditation on the interactions between the living and the dead, and a heartbreaking tale of irreplaceable loss.  It is a complicated and thought-provoking story well worth the time it takes to figure out some of the more obscure passages.

Dodger (Terry Pratchett)

Dodger is a young man living in an only slightly fictionalized mid-19th-century London, a tosher by trade – one of the abjectly poor who survives by scouring the underground sewers for lost coins and other valuables – and a determinedly optimistic and good-hearted soul.  Early in the book he rescues a young woman from a vicious assault, and from there the story spirals out.  In the process of trying to keep the young woman – whose actual name is never revealed – safe from her pursuers, Dodger will meet any number of rather famous Londoners (Charles Dickens, Henry Mayhew, Sir Robert Peel, etc.), become an unwitting hero several times over, and slowly ascend from the sewers to a more secure sort of life.  This is a book full of bright hopes never dashed, of calm wisdom dispensed with good will (much of it from Dodger’s landlord/friend Solomon, perhaps the most interesting character in the book), and happy if not predictable endings. 

Between the Bridge and the River (Craig Ferguson)

A picaresque is a story whose energy comes from putting the main characters through a string of loosely related adventures rather than a single coherent plot, and this book definitely qualifies.  There are a number of main characters – Saul and his brother Leon, George and his childhood friend Fraser – and a number of strong minor characters, and they all get mixed up in various ways, some related and some not.  It’s a book filled with copious amounts of sex, religion, and surreal details (the ghost of Carl Jung comes up repeatedly), and there are times when it seems that the main reason Ferguson wrote it was to put into one central location all of the little bits of things that were cruising through his head.  Every character, no matter how minor, gets introduced with a capsule biography (often extending into the future beyond the book), for example.  But it’s a fun ride.  Ferguson is an engaging writer not afraid to take on both joy and sadness in a single moment, and his main theme in this – “help each other” – makes an easy hook for an entertaining book.

Sharps (KJ Parker)

Scheria and Permia were ruinously at war for decades before a fragile peace took hold.  Now, in what is billed as a goodwill tour to a fencing-mad nation, four of Scheria’s best fencers are blackmailed into becoming a team.  They are joined by a similarly involuntary manager and a political minder, and sent by coach toward the Permian border.  Given that set-up, Parker’s typically grim story really can go nowhere positive.  None of Parker’s stories do – the pleasure is in the writing and in finding out just exactly how things are going to go wrong.  And go wrong they do.  Parker creates a rich, textured and believable world and fills it with fully-realized characters.  The ending is a bit thin compared to Parker’s other books, but even at that it is an excellent read.

The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific
(J. Maarten Troost)

Maarten Troost and his girlfriend Sylvia were young, broke and frustrated living in Washington DC in the 1990s, and when Sylvia got a job working for a nonprofit agency on the island of Tarawa they jumped at the chance for adventure in the Pacific.  But Tarawa – the largest of the islands that together make up Kiribati (pronounced “Kee-ree-bas”), the former Gilbert Islands – is a miserable place, full of poverty and sickness and lacking in electricity and plumbing.  This is the story of the three years they spent there, slowly growing accustomed to the natives and their lifestyle.  Troost is an entertaining writer – there are parts of this that are howlingly funny, particularly when he goes off on one of his tirades against Air Kiribati, the world’s least reliable airline – and this makes this “fish out of water” story more interesting than most in the genre.

The Last Dragonslayer (Jasper Fforde)

Once more, as a bedtime story.  I like reading stories to my daughters, especially stories that are well written and feature strong female lead characters.

Give War a Chance (PJ O’Rourke)

Nothing ages quite as quickly as political humor, and this collection of essays from the early 1990s stands as proof positive of this.  O’Rourke made his name as the party-boy’s conservative, gleefully skewering the foibles of the liberals of the 1980s, and all that is on display here.  But the facile stereotypes and the constant juvenile name-calling wear thin very quickly, the sheer pettiness of these essays – particularly compared to the paranoia and outright bile of the modern American right wing – makes them hard to take seriously, and about a third of the way through this collection I decided that I didn’t have to this to myself, so I put it down.

Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbor One Siren at a Time (Michael Perry)

Michael Perry is a First Responder – a volunteer firefighter and about a half notch below an EMT – in New Auburn, Wisconsin.  He’s also a writer who has moved back to the town of his childhood after more than a decade away.  These two things combine into one of the best books on what it means to respond to distress calls that I have ever read.  Perry does not glory in the action – few people do, and as he points out most of those who do tend to drift off fairly quickly after they discover how much grunt work is involved.  Instead his focus is on the community he serves and how being such a volunteer enmeshes you in that community.  It is a book populated by memorable characters, haunted by ghosts, enlivened by the kinds of shenanigans that you get used to in volunteer firefighting, and sobered by the things you see in that line of work.  There are parts that are laugh-out-loud funny, and other parts that are utterly heartbreaking.  I spent five years as a volunteer firefighter – all of them deeply unheroic and mostly filled with the mundane tasks that had to be done to be ready for the action when it did come (they also serve who stand and roll hose, after all) – and this captures that time incredibly well. 

Kushiel’s Dart (Jacqueline Carey)

Phedre no Delauney is one of the more compelling characters in modern fantasy, and the world that Carey creates around her is no less fascinating.  Terre d’Ange – roughly where modern France would be – is quite literally the Land of the Angels, the place where the Blessed Elua, born of Mother Earth and the blood of Jesus, roamed with his angelic companions.  The key precept of Elua’s worship is simple: “Love as thou wilt.”  On this Carey builds a version of seventeenth-century France, full of courtesans and nobles, Gypsies and war, but with largely medieval technology (there is no gunpowder, for example).  Terre d’Ange is home to the Tsingani (more or less Gypsies) and surrounded by Skaldia to the east (with its Germanic/Scandinavian warrior culture, circa 1000CE), Caerdicca Unitas (more or less Renaissance Italy), Alba (Celtic Britain), and other more far off lands.  Into this comes Phedre, a divinely appointed masochist and a prostitute (a sacred calling in Terre d’Ange, given the precept of Elua), trained in the arts of diplomacy and scholarship, all of which she will need as she is sent scrambling through this world with her appointed bodyguard, Joscelin Verreuil and her Tsingano friend Hyacinthe.  Carey is clearly fascinated by both sex – there’s a lot of it in here, most of it quite involved, some described in rather lengthy detail and some left implied – and the tangled political intrigues of dynasties and aristocracies, and when combined with a writing style that can only be described as “lush,” it makes for a good story.  This is not a series for everyone but for those willing to ride along it is a grand time.

Kushiel’s Chosen (Jacqueline Carey)

The second installment in this series finds Phedre venturing even further afield than she did in Kushiel’s Dart.  Now comfortably settled after the events of the previous year, Phedre gradually becomes aware of the continued threat to Terre d’Ange posed by her former patron, Melisande Shahrizai.  In pursuit of this threat, Phedre and her companions will venture to La Serenissima (a version of Renaissance Venice), where things will get complicated, and thence to Illyria (roughly the Ottoman Balkans, or perhaps earlier) and Kriti (Minoan Crete), where they will get more complicated still.  She will meet priests and warriors, kings and peasants.  She will fall in with pirates.  She will find imprisonment and release.  She will get to know the Yeshuites (this world’s Christians, a minority sect modeled on the Orthodox Jews of our world).  And she will encounter both faith and betrayal in places unlooked for.  Carey continues to walk the fine line between lush and purple prose, and Phedre continues to be both diplomat and courtesan.  It’s a compelling tale.

Kushiel’s Avatar (Jacqueline Carey)

This concluding volume of Carey’s initial Terre d’Ange trilogy (there are three of these trilogies) takes place a decade after the events of the first two books, as the various loose ends of those novels come up for resolution.  Tying them up will take Phedre even further from home than ever before – to the Menekhetan city of Iskandria (roughly Egyptian Cairo during the Ptolemaic period), the realm of Khebbel-im-Akkad (medieval Persia), Jebe-Barkal and its capital city of Meroe in east-central Africa, and from there to the land of the lost tribe of Israel, which is even further into Africa.  Along the way Phedre and Joscelin will have to rescue Melisande’s lost son Imriel (with all of the dynastic and political consequences attendant upon that) and find the Name of God – a necessary precondition to resolving the fate of Hyacinthe (left hanging since Kushiel’s Dart).  This is a sprawling, complicated tale, written in the narrow space between baroque and overwrought, and whose deep world-building and interesting characterization is just barely enough to overcome the gratuitous cruelty of the middle third of the book.  Again, not a series for everyone, but worth the trouble in the end.

Kushiel’s Scion (Jacqueline Carey)

With this volume Carey’s world turns into a multi-generational saga.  Imriel, son of Melisande and foster son of Phedre, is now the narrator of events.  The first time I tried to read this that fact irritated me and I stopped about a quarter of the way into the book – Phedre is one of the more interesting lead characters I’ve run across, and I was sorry to see her relegated to a background role.  But that now makes more sense, as there is only so much adventure one can pile onto a given character before they become mere caricature.  So this is Imriel’s story, and Phedre stands behind him as a shadow, patron, and guide.  On the one hand, this makes the story rather different.  Imriel is neither a courtesan nor the chosen of Kushiel, which means that the sex has been toned down a bit and more space given over to the political intrigue that Carey so dearly loves.  On the other hand this story is clearly a continuation of the earlier trilogy rather than a new story, and events from earlier books are both immediately relevant and constantly referenced – unless you are familiar with the first trilogy you’re not going to get much out of this one.  Imriel is in his teens when the book opens, happy with his adopted family and still a bit out of place among the nobility of the realm.  The early part of the book is mostly about his tempestuous quest to come to grips with himself, a process only partially successful and fraught with much agitation.  Eventually he reaches his majority and sets off for Tiberium (this world’s version of Rome, a much poorer and more diminished place in keeping with the general sense of Caerdicca Unitas as roughly Renaissance Italy) to lose himself abroad and perhaps find himself as a scholar.  There he finds friendship and loyalty, intrigue, war, maturity, self-knowledge, and – yes – a fair amount of sex.  He will also begin to plumb what it means to be Melisande Shahrizai’s son, which sets us up for the next book.  Carey’s writing has matured a bit here and is not quite so breathless, but her world-building remains captivating.

Kushiel’s Justice (Jacqueline Carey)

Imriel no Montreve de la Courcel, third in line for the throne of a nation whose sole religious precept is “Love as thou wilt,” has somehow managed to find forbidden love.  He has promised to wed Dorelei of Alba to cement the political alliance between Alba and Terre d’Ange, but his heart belongs to Sidonie, the Dauphin of Terre d’Ange.  And therein hangs a tale.  It is a tale that takes Imriel from being a self-absorbed and (despite his experiences in Tiberium) still rather immature and mopey young man into a complex and honorable maturity, from Alba to Terre d’Ange to Skaldia and beyond to the new Yeshuite kingdom of Vralia (roughly medieval Russia), and from vengeance to forgiveness but with justice throughout.  It’s a more subtle book than the previous volumes in this series and a more thoughtful one, with the moral complexities that bound this world made both starker and gentler than usual, particularly in the character and fate of Berlik of the Maghuin Dhonn, and Carey’s prose manages to tone down somewhat to reflect this new seriousness.  There is swordplay, political intrigue, a few breathless passages, and a fair amount of sex, of course – the book wouldn’t belong in this series without those things – but here they serve the larger story rather than define that story.

Kushiel’s Mercy (Jacqueline Carey)

The final book of Imriel’s trilogy opens with him an outcast in his own land, yet still much beloved by Sidonie.  But when emissaries of Carthage (based on the actual city-state though of no particular period that I could see) visit Terre d’Ange they leave chaos in their wake – chaos that Imriel, of course, will need to resolve in Carey’s standard fashion: by traveling far from his homeland, giving him and the reader a chance to explore Carey’s world and see what else is out there.  His quest takes him from hurried alliance with his oldest d’Angeline enemy to the home of his exiled mother, Melisande Shahrizai in Cythera (Phoenician Cyprus) and from thence to Carthage and Aragonia (early modern Spain), where events unfold with ever-increasing speed.  As with previous volumes there is sex and politics aplenty, though the prose and plotting continues its transition away from breathless and toward intricate.  And when it all comes home to Terre d’Ange, the stakes get even higher.  A fitting end to a well-written trilogy, though not really meant for those who missed Phedre’s tale, this volume continues Carey’s exploration of the themes of love and redemption.

Naamah’s Kiss (Jacqueline Carey)

With this book Carey’s world moves from multigenerational to historic and from Terre d’Ange to the wide world of Carey’s imagination.  Moirin mac Fainche lives in Alba, four generations removed from the events of the previous books.  Phedre, Joscelin, Imriel, and Sidonie are long gone – a wise move on Carey’s part, as it allows her to let them rest and enjoy some peace before they became mere action caricatures.  Instead, the events of their lives are now lost in myth and legend and all that remains are the stories told of a bygone age of heroes, one that we saw unfold in all its messy uncertainty but which now achieves a clarity that can only be gained by distance and ignorance.  Moirin is the great-great-granddaughter of Alais, Sidonie’s sister, now revered as “Alais the Wise” in Alba.  She is also one of the Maghuin Dhonn, a no less proud but much more penitent people in the wake of Imriel’s story.  When it becomes clear that Moirin has a destiny she must follow, she leaves Alba for Terre d’Ange, immersing herself in dire events there even as she seeks her d’Angeline father and becomes deeply involved with the feared Queen, Jehanne.  As usual with Carey’s books, there are no pure villains – characters are complex and motivated by ideas that mix the wise and the foolhardy, and the idea that the Maghuin Dhonn should be the heroes of this story after their role in earlier books is of a piece with this.  And when things come to a head in Terre d’Ange, Moirin finds her destiny leading her far afield, to Ch’in (roughly early Ming China), where she will find love and war in the eyes of a dragon.  The plotting is a bit thinner and the sex a bit more ramped up than the Imriel books, but Carey keeps the whole thing moving forward crisply and entertainingly and I’ve always had a weakness for stories that continue much older stories.  As a historian, such stories are my life.

Naamah’s Curse (Jacqueline Carey)

Picking up almost immediately after the previous volume left off, Moirin heads off across the Tatar steppe to find her beloved Bao.  But as one would expect, this quickly becomes complicated.  There are at least three separate stories in this picaresque of a book – Moirin and the Tatar Horde, Moirin and the Yeshuite patriarch of western Vralia, and Moirin and the Falconer’s Wife of Kurugiri – and all of them give Carey room to explore her favorite themes of love, redemption, and the fact that the gods use their chosen ones hard.  Moirin finds love and acceptance in places unlooked for, corruption in other places unlooked for, and – as you would expect in a first-person narrative – eventual triumph, though occasionally a sideways sort of victory.    The Yeshuite section is perhaps the most cuttingly written of the three – Carey has a lot to say about the gaps between the original gods and those who seek to rule in their name, and it is hard not to see this section as a bitter condemnation of the kind of right-wing Christianity that so distorts the message of Jesus in modern American politics. The trials of the Tatars (roughly the Mongols of the Golden Horde) and Bhodistanis (Mauryan India, though leavened with both Tibetan Buddhists and a more broadly diffuse Nepali element) seem almost simple in comparison.  The sex remains fairly intense, sometimes by its presence and sometimes by its yearning absence, and the world-building gets broader and shallower as we go, but Moirin remains a fascinating character – a less-intense, more impulsive version of Phedre, just as Bao often channels a similarly attenuated version of Joscelin.  Wheels within wheels.

Naamah’s Blessing (Jacqueline Carey)

Jacqueline Carey’s books tend to follow a three-part pattern.  The first section – usually about a quarter of the book – takes place at home or wherever the main character ends up at the end of the previous book.  There is a slow build-up and then a medium-sized crisis that gets partially resolved but with a twist that sends the main character out into the larger world of Carey’s imagination – a world that gets bigger with each volume.  This main section introduces newer, more serious problems to solve, but their resolution is not the end of the book.  There is a third section wherein the characters return home to tie up the loose ends from the first section, and thus the story comes full circle.  In this book Moirin starts out in Terre d’Ange and ends up befriending Desiree de la Courcel, Jehanne’s young daughter and a tragic figure in her own right.  This brings her into conflict with the regent of the kingdom, and that conflict sends her out across the Atlantic to Terra Nova, to the empires of the Nahuatl (roughly the pre-European-contact Aztec Empire) and the Tawintinsuyo (the Incas of the same period).  There the disparate strands of Moirin’s tale are sewn back together and Carey’s theme of redemptive love takes over – it is not an accident that the villains of Phedre’s and Imriel’s stories (House Shahrizai and the Maghuin Donn) become the saviors in this one, nor is it accidental that the conflict begun at the outset of Moirin’s stay in Terre d’Ange must be resolved in a very different South America.  Eventually Moirin and Bao return to Terre d’Ange, tie up matters there, and head off to Alba where Moirin’s saga truly began.  Carey ends Moirin’s tale on a quiet note – a gift to a character who has travelled from one end of her world to another in order to find herself back where she started.

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