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05 October 2010

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Anathem was my introduction to Neal Stephenson. Prior to reading that book, I questioned whether his writing would interest me. I knew of his ginormous Baroque Cycle series filed in fiction, but it was intimidatingly large. I mean, for a fiction series; fantasy epics get ridiculous in size, and I have nothing against them. Then, Anathem came up, and I reaaaly like it. I didn't quite understand it, but I did like it. Then, my friends started telling me how much they like Stephenson, and how I needed to read Snow Crash. So I did.

The book follows
"Hiroaki Protagonist: Last of the freelance hackers; Greatest sword fighter in the world; Stringer, Central Intelligence Corporation; Specializing in software-related intel (music, movies & microcode)"
in his search to find the source and the remedy for a new disease, called Snow Crash. Part computer virus, part pathological virus, part drug, and part sociological meme, Snow Crash has affected Protagonist's close friends. With the help of skatecourier Y.T. and with funding from two "franchulates", Uncle Enzo's Nova Sicilia (aka The Mafia) and Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong, Protagonist traces the roots of Snow Crash to media mogul and billionaire L. Bob Rife. Badass Dmitri Ravinoff rounds out the cast and gives an appropriate adversary to the sword-wielding Hiro. The action charges through a semi-futuristic America where the government has fallen to corporations and anarchy is held off by rent-a-cop security forces out to make a buck. It's a pretty wild ride, encasing a fabulous story as told by a master writer.

I was turned on by the high-powered and non-stop action in the book, though I found it just outside the realm of believable. The badass is just a little too bad, and the good guys still manage to defeat him. The setting was more attractive than the action. It's a 20th/21st century America where the government went broke, privatized everything (especially the military) and citizens look to corporations for guidance and protection in life. It's written just far enough past the current reality to require imagination, but close enough to real life that it's believable. However, the plot and the technical aspects of the Snow Crash virus are the real point of the book, and Stephenson put the most work into these aspects. The central chunk of the novel revolves around Protagonist discussing history, philosophy, and technology with the Librarian. This gets pretty dry, but it's sprinkled through with descriptions of Y.T.'s adventures on the ground, seeking intel to forward the discussion. As I said, the action really drives the book forward, and the central discussion balances that quite well.
This book is as great read, especially to those with an interest in the cyberpunk genre. It's one of the first of the genre, originally published in 1992. I predict that the setting will be functionally obsolete as technology outpaces whats in the story (the internets are already as functional, but the visualizations are not yet in place). Stephenson retains a strong hold on the plot, and brings everything together with flair and obvious mastery of the language.

12 September 2010

Ringworld Saga by Larry Niven

I sometimes find myself thinking, "How did all this get started??" I wonder who was the first to do something, and how, exactly, we got from there to here. Because of this I lost an hour the other day looking up how RPGs and LARPs developed out of wargames and historical reinactment. (That doesn't relate to anything in this post.) Larry Niven's Ringworld was the first of a scifi genre that has come to be known as The Enormous Big Thing or the Big Dumb Thing. You know the plot: explorers come across a mind-blowingly huge and scientifically important discovery, and them spend the rest of the story trying to figure it out.

Niven's Ringworld is an object that masses the same as Jupiter, stretched out along a ribbon that matches Earths orbit around the sun. The exterior is an unknown material which protects the interior from the dangers of space. The interior is a sculpted landscape with three million times the surface area of Earth. It rotates at 770 miles/second, creating a centrifugal effect similar to that of Earth's gravity. Who built it? Why did they build it? What can we do with it? How can we exploit it to our purposes? These are the questions that the saga in built around, with good plotwork thrown in to create readable books.

Ringworld was published in 1970 as a stand-alone novel. It was well received, winning the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. It describes the adventures of Louis Wu, a space explorer from Earth who is drafted by the Pierson's puppeteer to explore the newly-discovered Ringworld. Speaker-to-Animals, a diplomat from the fierce catlike Kzin race and Teela Brown, a human woman bred for luck make the rest of the expedition.
I'm under the impression that the other books weren't exactly planned when Niven released Ringworld. Ten years later, the second book, The Ringworld Engineers, came about largely because various readers pointed out problems with the science of the Ringworld. The object was unstable, and about to crash into its sun. Wu and Speaker (now called Chmeee) are brought again to the Ringworld, and more is learned about its creators and its inhabitants as the expedition endeavors to save the world from incineration. Book #3 The Ringworld Throne describes the struggle of to wrest control of the world and its peoples out of manipulative hands into more nurturing ones. It was released sixteen years after The Ringworld Engineers. A gap of eight years separates the final book, Ringworld's Children. Niven's voice is distinctly different in each of the books. The first one has a very hard scifi feel to it, with more time given to describing the setting and the objects than to character development. Dialogue is flat, and it ca be difficult to tell who is speaking. In books three and four, the plot is much more character driven and Niven gives voice to more characters, allowing the reader to see from different viewpoints. The fourth book was the easiest for me to read.
I rather enjoyed the series. It exists within Niven's futuristic Known Space universe. There are some points where, arguably, knowing more of the Known Space history would be useful to the reader. I came into it with almost no knowledge of the setting, and was able to grasp the ideas handily. I would recommend starting with Ringworld, because it really sets the stage; the other books spend less time on the description of the Ringworld. The rest of the books are better plotted, however, and more fun to read.

14 May 2010

#19 Hunter's Run by George R.R. Martin, Daniel Abraham, and Gardner R. Dozois

George R.R. Martin is quite possibly one of the greatest fantasy/science fiction writers of our time, and his name is what prompted me to read this book. I found it while investigating a different title by co-author Daniel Abraham.

Ramón Espejo is on the run, having killed an important foreign delegate in a drunken brawl. As a prospector on the new human colony at Sao Paulo, he's used to spending his days alone in the wilderness, and finds himself more comfortable away from the concerns of society.
Then, his small mining explosive reveals the hiding place of an alien species unknown to man who take Ramón captive. Forced to hunt a man who escaped their grasp, Ramón quickly realizes that all is not what it seems. The man he is hunting is himself, and he is a clone created by the aliens for the purpose of hunting himself. Yet, the cloning is perfect; he retains his memory, his personality and sense of self; even the scars earned from a rough-and-tumble life appear on his body. Slipping the bonds with which the aliens held him, Ramón guardedly joins forces with his double, hiding the truth of his identity as long as he can.

To popular culture, this book doesn't have much going for it. It's science fiction, the premise is hokey, and the characters aren't sympathetic. Did I mention it's science fiction? Give it some credit, though. Where other than scifi can a badass face off against himself? Ramón Espejo is quite a character. He's mean, violent, sneaky, foulmouthed, and more than a little sociopathic, and the entire book is about him. The character development is slow, kicking in maybe halfway through the book, and it's not exactly subtle. What's interesting is the way that you can see the clone developing alongside the human who is unchanging.

The writing in the book is really good. There isn't unnecessary development or description; everything is to the point, moving the plot at a good pace. The writing is not artistic, but allows you to sink into the reality of Sao Paulo. The plot, while somewhat hard to swallow from outside, is really well handled. There's a small amount of set-up at the beginning of the novel, but just enough to get you into the plot and introduce the players. The only real "complaint" I might make is that the scifi elements are rather weak. There's no deep discussions of fancy technology, no battles through the depths of space, and the world is really quite like our own. However, all of this just allows the reader to focus more on the concepts being presented. Weighty matters like self and identity come up for a rare appearance in a scifi novel. The hokey elements are handled delicately enough that you don't even realize they're hokey while you're reading. By the end of the book, I found myself cheering for the unlikeable Ramón. The book is a well-contained novel that doesn't leave you hanging or really even wanting much more from the story.

07 May 2010

#18 The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry

I read a half-dozen or so webcomics regularly (by regularly I mean obsessively) and one of my favorites is Jeph Jacques' Questionable Content. Some weeks back, he plugged this title, calling it a "really cool China Mieville meets Raymond Chandler with a dash of Jasper Fforde fantasy detective story." That was good enough for me!
This book comes with it's own website (and cheesy music, mute button top right).

Charles Unwin is a clerk, a rather predictable man in a very predictable life. He excels at his rather boring position in the exciting world of the Agency, a city-enveloping semiofficial detective firm. As a clerk, he re-writes the reports of star Detective Sivart, dotting I's and crossing T's and cleaning out all of the personal commentary that the gregarious Detective Sivart puts in his reports. Unwin's pride is his work, and he excels at it, right until Detective Sivart disappears from the city. Under strange circumstances, Unwin is promoted from clerk to detective, with a private office and a personal assistant and a watcher ready to give Unwin his first case. Unfortunately, the watcher is murdered before the details of the case can be given. Unwin decides that his best option is to find the missing Detective Sivart and give the case over to him. His clues are the case files that he so carefully edited, and he is helped by a cast of shady characters and suspects through a very fun and tongue-in-cheek story.

This is Mr. Berry's first book, but the writing is crafted much better than that of other debut novels I've read. He uses small details to create a surrealistic setting and give a very meta feel to the book; I'm not going to define that any further because it's fun to discover. With a little imagination, the writing allows you to immerse yourself in his world. I suspect that someone well-versed in the noir genre would find the setting a little over the top and hokey, but to me it was stylistically charming. With the exception of Unwin, the characters were rather flat and undeveloped, but this again came off as stylistic. Unwin goes through a little self-development and I think discovery, though that discovery could simply be the reveal of the solution.

With a small exception at the end of the story, I quite enjoyed the plot. Berry took slightly too long with the reveal; there was too much chasing of loose ends and stage setting when we should've simply been finding out what happened. Throughout the rest of the book, the plot advances at a good pace, with an appropriate balance of puzzles and solutions. The book is full of unobtrusive but clever (okay, perhaps groan-worthy) details. These lift the noir atmosphere into something a little lighter without turning cliche. I think this is a great new book, and look forward to future novels from Mr. Berry.

26 April 2010

#17 All The Way Home by David Giffels

This title was featured in the "Great Reads" blog from Columbus Metropolitan Library. I picked it up because of the recommendation and to read a firsthand account of home renovation. I've found that I enjoy journalistic nonfiction, and this looked like a good break from the F&SF stuff I generally read.

Akron, OH saw a boom early in the 20th century fueled by rubber and tire production. Goodrich, Firestone, Goodyear, and others all operated out of Akron. When the automobile industry took off, the executives of the rubber companies all got quite wealthy and many built fabulous homes around Akron.
Fast forward to the 21st century. Globalization has killed the rubber wealth in Akron, and their legacies are crumbling. Giffels career as a writer is becoming more established, as is his family: the birth of his first child means the home they live in is quickly becoming too small. The house on N. Portage Path is full of opportunity: plenty of bedrooms, plenty of yard, and and plenty of opportunity for David to flex his crafting muscles as he renovates the house. You see, the house is crumbling. Wildlife has settled in the upper floors, squirrels and raccoons freely coming and going through the holes in the roof. Water has laid waste to the walls, dripping into collection pans that line the floor. The garage is a deathtrap, spitting bricks from its walls and threatening to topple at the slightest provocation. But, the beauty and elegance once inherent in the house is undeniable. Six fireplaces, a billiards room in the basement. A main staircase, and a back staircase for the help. Servants quarters, and the Giffels are hooked.Upon securing ownership (which came with its own trials) the Giffels budget out the cost of renovations. A quirky contractor brings in a slew of characters (including Rod Stewart as an electrician and a rock-band drywall crew) who make the place habitable for humans. Friend and family all turn up to lend support, and slowly, painstakingly David wrests a home from the wreckage.

I expected a little bit more human interaction from this book. It's subtitled "Building a Family in a Falling-Down House", but would more accurately read "There's This House I'm Fixing, and Oh Yeah I'm a Daddy." Giffels spends much of his book on self-discovery through house renovations. The book includes three interludes written by Mrs. Giffels (about 10 pages out of 312), and these help add a little perspective. Her words give a little insight into David, humanizing him more than he does himself. However, there's very little actual depiction of family life. Their son plays a bit-part throughout, but extended adult family has a much larger role in the narrative than does the immediate family. I was hoping for a more detailed account of how to manage the balance of family and work and hobby renovations, but such did not exist in this book. For one, the project of renovating the house was absurd. This was more than the average "handyman's special" that needs a bit of updating; this was a full-out rebuilding of an effectively condemned building. There can be no balance in a hobby like that, not when it's your home. The project eats your life, leaving nothing for family or recreation. The stress of making the home livable pushes on every member of the family, and with no end in sight from the book, it leaves a reader on a resigned, almost negative note. I'd recommend this title as an example of what you might get into renovating houses, but not as a piece of literature or great writing.

23 April 2010

#16 The Apocalypse Reader, Justin Taylor (Editor)

Remember a couple posts ago when I mentioned this idea about stories and the apocalypse and stuff? That idea prompted me to read this book, too. As an anthology, I was thinking that it'd be a great place to find new writers, new ideas, new stories, established greats (Poe! Gaimen! Le Guin! Hawthorne!) and so much more. It didn't exactly live up to this potential. Sure, there were authors I'd never heard of published next to classic authors and a whole book full of apocalyptic tales of all varieties, but it landed off-mark for me. There's a class of fantasy that dives way of the deep end of weird, wandering around in nonsensical realms with all the logic of a Dali painting but none of the artistry; that's how I felt about most of this book.

The stories that stood out were mainly the ones by authors whose names I knew. Neil Gaimen had a characteristically quirky piece; Nathaniel Hawthornes' story was thought-provoking but then proceeded to define all the thoughts for you; Lovecrafts' was typically cryptic and evil-in-the-shadows type. One of my favorite stories was the first part of "Apoca Ca Lyp Se: A Dip Tych" by Joyce Carol Oates. The format broke the story into two voices but one speaker. Brian Evensons' "An Accounting" was enjoyable, well-crafted and twistedly amusing, though kinda without depth. "Miss Kansas On Judgment Day" by Kelly Link was imaginative and fairly well written. I actually enjoyed Grace Auilars' "The Escape - A Tale of 1755", the story of a clandestine religion and a miraculous escape. Similar in appeal, "The Rapid Advance of Sorrow" by Theodora Goss was intriguing, well-written, a complete story among fragments.

A couple of the stories I haven't mentioned were just bad, but most were simply forgettable. Lucy Corin wrote "Sixteen Small Apocalypses", and that's exactly what they were. They weren't great. Dennis Cooper wrote "The Ash Gray Proclamation" which frankly I found pointless, confusing, driven by shock and completely unappealing. Too many stories in the collection relied on content rather than writing, and most of the content was unnecessarily sexual. Though if you took out the sex you'd be left without content, so maybe it was necessary? Either way, I didn't enjoy those. In sum, there are a few gems included in this collection, but I imagine that with a bit of searching, you could find those either on their own or in a better collection than this.

#15 The Food of a Younger Land by Mark Kurlansky

This book wasn't at all what I expected it to be. See, I own Michael Pollans' Omnivore's Dilemma, I've read Barbara Kingsolvers' Animal Vegetable Miracle and I tried to read Carlo Petrinis' Slow Food Nation but found it too dry and manifesto-ish. So when I saw this title come across my desk, I didn't look that hard at it before checking it out, and thought I'd find a somewhat preachy land-lovers account of how modern society, food technology, and agribusiness have destroyed America's food culture and how to resist that. Instead, I got a history lesson and a sampling of recipes and essays regarding food in the United States written just prior to WWII. Pretty cool! Unfortunately, it' doesn't really lent itself to a review.
Kurlansky gained access to unpublished WPA files and luckily for me, he defined what the WPA was at the beginning of the book. The project was to profile how people ate in the U.S.A. To this end, writers collected recipes, conducted interviews, reported on events, and wrote stories about food. Local traditions such as clam bakes and barbeques were captured. Disputes like how to correctly make a mint julep were aired. Even some oddities, for example possum pie, made their way into the book. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but might recommend it more as reference than as actual reading material.

#14 Darkness and Dawn by Andre Norton

There's an idea that's been rattling around in the back of my head for years now, an idea relating to stories and the apocalypse and new civilizations and whatnot. Periodically, this idea rears up and tries to make me act on it. When this happens, I usually find books on a certain topic or of a certain genre, read them, and call it "research". That's why I read this book.

Darkness and Dawn is made up of two different stories, previously published as Star Man's Son and No Night Without Stars. They are different stories, set perhaps in different worlds, and don't really have much in common aside from a post-apocalyptic theme. The first story is about Fors of a mountain clan, an outcast because of his mutant white hair. With no future in his tribe, Fors strikes out to the wilderness in the footsteps of his father. A great explorer who died at the hands of the Beast Things, his father left Fors with the hope of discovering unknown cities and remnants of the times before the Great Blowup. Avoiding the dangers of the wilderness, Fors does indeed find an unexplored city, where he saves the life of a young explorer from a southern civilization. Traveling together, the two young men make wonderful discoveries, face horrific danger, and ultimately forge peace between peoples of their world.
The second story tells of Sander, an apprentice smith who leaves his people to discover the secrets of metal that were lost in the Dark Time. In a seaside village that fell victim to raiders, Sander encounters Fanyi, who also seeks lost knowledge, but her quest is for the sake of power and revenge. Sander and Fanyi are mysteriously guided or pulled across a deserted landscape until they come to a place that preserved the technologies of the Before People. Here, the two realize that technology and power aren't necessarily the best path to accomplishing their goals.

These stories reiterated for me why I've generally disregarded the works of Andre Norton. I understand that she may be regarded as a ground-breaker and a pioneer in the sci-fi/fantasy genre, but her writing simply doesn't do it for me. I find it wordy, weak, and disjointed. There's not enough story-telling and too much writing.
Aside from the writing, the stories are interesting. Norton fits into the category of authors whose stories make me want to know what happens, even if the writing isn't strong enough to pull me along. Of these two, Star Man's Son is the better story. It's more plausible and better developed. It has a very elementary structure and is not something that I would class as adult literature, but once I was a couple chapters in, I wanted to know how it ended. No Night Without Stars left me wanting to quit, but I persevered so that I could say I finished the book. It's your call; I probably wouldn't recommend this title to anyone, but I wouldn't tell you not to read it, either.

14 April 2010

#13 Acacia by David Anthony Durham

This post is actually about two different books, the first two books in the Acacia trilogy. I spent a couple weeks seeing book two, The Other Lands, on display as a new book in my library, along with all the other new fantasy books. I browse through them regularly, but I actually checked this one out thinking it was a different book! I try not to start a series until I know it's finished but Acacia slipped in past my notice and now I'm stuck waiting for the finale to be released.

Book One
The story opens on the balmy island of Acacia, where life is calm and happy for the royal Akaran family. The four children, Aliver, Corinne, Mena, and Dariel know nothing of the business their father conducts to keep his empire functioning. Indeed, he has refused to share with them the dark secret of the land: the pervasive drug, Mist, which keeps the population tractable. It is provided by a powerful, strange and unknown group in exchange for a tribute of child slaves collected from their families under cover of darknetss. All this King Leodan hides from his children and heirs. Trouble brews, however, as turmoil rises in the north; rumours of strage armies and whispers of betrayal among the Meinish peoples, long repressed by the Akarans. The four royal children know nothing of this and live blissfully until the sudden death of their father at the hands of a Meinish assassin. They are rushed into hiding, to be separated and raised in the world, hidden from those who wish harm on them. Prince Aliver becomes a man among the tribes of Talay, earning great respect as a hunter and warrior. Princess Mena washes ashore on the islands of the Vumu, where she is regarded as the human aspect of the Eagle Goddess. Price Dariel finds his way among the pirates and raiders of the western ocean. Princess Corinne, betrayed by her guardian, is sold to Hanish Mein and kept captive in his court, watching her childhood world fall into, as she sees it, barbarism. Seduced by Hanish Mein, she learns the ways of his court, falling for him until she learns of his dark plans for her and her siblings, who continue to evade Meinish hunters. Years pass, and hope gathers around Prince Aliver when he is grown. He undertakes a quest to find the Santoth, sorcerers who established the throne for is family 22 generations prior, but who disappeared years ago. With their aid, Aliver raises an army to challenge the Mein. His free siblings gather to him, each bringing their own abilities. Disaster is loosed when Aliver is slain in single combat and is avenged by the tainted magic of the Santoth, In the chaos, Corinne stages a coup and installs herself on the throne of the Acacian Empire, wrests control of the Known World for herself and forces peace upon the land.

Book Two shows Corinne dragged down in the daily business of running an empire. She has been forced to continue the oppressive distribution of Mist and collection of Tribute. Her son, the child of her seducer and oppressor, Hanish Mein, is doted on by his mother and her younger siblings. Mena hunts for creatures unleashed by the Santoth, and Dariel attempts to sooth and heal the land and people through acts of charity and goodwill. Corinne studies the ancient magic of the Santoth, jealously guarding the knowledge of her power, but maintains an uneasy balance of peace over the Known World. This balance is upset when the Lothan Aklun abruptly invite Corinne to a meeting with their other customers, the Auldek, who accepted the tribute provided for the Mist. Prince Dariel travels as her emissary, only to learn that the Lothan Aklun have been betrayed and slaughtered by a separate trading faction. The Auldek overcome this faction, but Dariel is carried away by strange beings, oddly human but altered; some have tusks, others fangs or claws, and all are decorated with tattoos. These are the Tribute, sold to the Auldek by the Lothan Aklun. By unknown magics, the Lothan Aklun can transfer the soul of one person into another, extending the receivers life. The Auldek have lived thus for hundreds of years but the price of the exchange was every future generation of Auldek, for though immortal, the race was rendered completely barren. With the demise of the Lothan Aklun, the Auldek see a possibility for redemtion in the lands ruled by Corinne, lands where children are bred normally, are born and grow and die as the Auldek have not for years. An invasion is planned, and the only chance for warning or action is Prince Dariel and the altered Tribute children.

Wow, that's an exhausting summary! Perhaps if I'd written this review when I'd finished the book rather than waiting a month, I could've summed it up better. On the other hand, perhaps if Durham wrote a somewhat more cohesive story, the summary wouldn't be so involved. Don't get me wrong, I love a well-told epic as much or more as any other, and Durham's has the scope and breadth and life and vibrancy of the best of them. However, it's also clunky and plodding, where others simply glide and flow, gently pulling the reader deeper and deeper into the story. The first book is foundation, page after page of descriptions and rising action that create the world for the reader but also makes him impatient and eager to GET TO THE POINT! The point seems to be the assassination and the following war, but no, that's really just the starting point of the story that Durham actually wants to tell. He would've done better to discard the trilogy and write three (or perhaps four) novels in this world. There are three stories in these two books. First, you have the conflict between Leodan Akaran and the Meinish people, their uprising and seizure of the Known World. Second, you have the development and reunion of the Akaran children and their rise to power, culminating in Aliver's death and Corinne's wresting of the throne from Hanish Mein. Third, you have the story of the Auldek and the children of the Tribute. A fourth novel could bring everything together, the conclusion of the epic which is, I assume, forthcoming. If Durham had broken his tale this way I believe that each segment would be better developed, and the dragging plot of book one would be alleviated. But I didn't write the book, so we're stuck with Durham's organization of his story.
The writing is decent, I'd rank it 7 or 8 out of 10. My main complaint is that Durham doesn't immerse the language in the world. There are anachronisms, and phrases written so that they don't fit what they're saying. Durham wrote too much for his audience, providing them easy access to his world but confusing the scope of his world in doing so. Once he gets into the meat of the story, his characters are likable and sympathetic if a little stupid and obvious at times. Acacia makes a fun new epic that puts a new shine on the formulaic fantasy, but doesn't really stand out on its own.

01 March 2010

#12: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

I first came across this book through a college roommate who really, REALLY liked it, and I can see why. I myself didn't appreciate it that much, but I'm glad I read it. Eco uses his writing to present a philosophy of life and thought, and crafts a good story while doing so. His writing style, however, is heavy, wordy, and very descriptive though not in a visual or imaginative way (perhaps due to translation). Eco tells the reader each and every small detail relevant to the story (and some details that aren't relevant), weakening the sense of the true actions taking place.

A historical mystery, the story is told through the eyes of Adso, a Dominican novice from 14th century Germany. He has been assigned as a scribe to Brother William of Baskerville, a Franciscan friar and onetime inquisitor who has been asked to act as a mediator between political factions of the church. The meeting is to take place in a Dominican abbey in the highlands of Italy renowned for its library. When one of the monks is discovered dead, foul play is suspected and Brother William is asked to look into the matter, though restrictions are placed on his investigation, namely that he stay away from the library. However, the library is central to the events taking place in the abbey. Factions are exposed between the monks, old complaints are aired, and more deaths occur as the story continues. As with all good mysteries, the answer is hidden until the end of the novel, though signs point to the answer throughout.

I quite enjoyed the mystery story in the novel, but I found it hard to pick out from the political descriptions, not to mention the coming of age story, the religious commentary, and the philosophical teachings. Perhaps in his native Itailian, Eco produced a fantastic tale that brought all elements together into a seamless narrative, but in English, it's ponderous and slow. The writing is florid, sentances strung together into huge paragraphs in which the reader gets lost, forgetting what he's reading about before he reaches the conclusion! Eco went out of his way to expose beliefs held by the characters about the workings of the 14th century European world; it became frustrating to me the fourth or fifth time I read about the fantastic basalisks or unicorns to be found in the depths of unknown lands. Equally frustrating were the descriptions of medieval justice, laying bare the fallacies employed in the trials of heretics. Perhaps this information is new to some readers, but the descriptions became celebrations of stupidity, and that really irked me. The setting is well designed once one sorts through the unnecessary language, and like I said, there is a very intricate and fascinating mystery solved. Brother William is a great character, and he utilizes Holmesian techeniques through is investigation that will delight the reader. The book seems a good fit for mystery lovers seeking something a little less fluffy than a lot of what that genre generally presents.

22 February 2010

#11 The Road by Cormac McCarthy

This was a quick read, a matter of a couple days. Post apocalyptic short fiction expanded into novel lenth, the plot is simple, though significant themes appear through the book. I've intended to read the book for some time, and I'm glad I picked it up. Beware spoilers below!

A man and his child are survivors of an undefined world-shattering event. Civilization has collapsed, natural life has collapsed, and humanity has turned to whatever means possible for survival; to many, this means cannibalism. Facing winter, the man and the boy travel south, seeking the sea. The landscape is barren, cloudcover blotting the sun, snow frequent from the clouds, ash parodying snow. Nothing grows, and dead trees topple one by one. They travel through the mans homeland, visiting the house where he grew up, now abandoned. Starvation threatens, but time and again luck leads them to edible goods: mushrooms, dried where they grew in the ground; canned goods, taken from derelict farmhouses; apples, long fallen and withered in the field. The other travelers on the road are either pathetic, as Ely who claims ninety years of age and offers neither assistance nor resistance to the man and his boy; or dangerous, as is the band of cannibals who hunt the pair only to leave one of their own, dead. Upon reaching the sea, the man finds yet another windfall in a ship run aground, the stores promise to nourish the two for days, perhaps weeks, though the man, long sick and aging, succombs to death a short time after finding the ship. Seemingly hopeless without the man, the boy is approached by another survivor, a man with a family who was been tracking the two for some time. The boy is welcomed into the family, and the book ends.

The themes of the book are many, but few of them are examined in depth. The book examines death and suicide throughout: we learn that the boys' mother killed herself because she simply could not go on, and the man contemplates killing his son in order to save the boy from life as a foodsource or worse. Religion is touched upon; indeed, the idea is presented that the boy is an angel or messiah of some description. Parenting is a theme, though one that isn't delved into. I can't say that humanity or human nature is examined, unless perhaps through the discussions between the father and the boy. I'd have to read the book again to see farther into the writing.

Don't pick this book up if you're offended by lax use of the English language; the writing is not for the faint of heart. McCarthy's style in this book helps describe the world. He uses short (sometimes incomplete) sentances. I don't recall seeing a single quotation mark despite sections of dialogue. The book is not divided into chapters, but rather short sections, scenes of perhaps a paragraph in length. Personally, I found that all of this did contribute positively to the book; it's hard to miss just how barren the world is when presented in this style. However, the novel is too long for the style, maintained as it is throughout. The book is too long to truly be described as a short story, though I believe that it's more appropriately classed as such rather than as a novel. I think the story could easily have been expanded upon and built into a novel that actually examined human condition or made a statement about religion. Alternately, a few episodes could have been deleted from the book (there are only so many times you want to read about someone facing starvation) to slim it down to short story length. But, we have the book as the author wrote it, and it's well written despite my complaints. If you're looking for a gritty, vivid tale that will haunt you and challenge your assumptions about life and living, The Road might be a good choice.

18 February 2010

#10 Farm City by Novella Carpenter

My wife passed this book to me after enjoying it herself. It chronicles the adventures of the auther as she pursues farm dreams from the depths of the Oakland ghetto. A terrifyingly cool idea!

Novella Carpenter moved from Seattle to Oakland in pursuit of adventure. Unsatisfied with her living arrangements, she abandons the backyard gardens and beehives she maintained in Seattle, and reestablished herself from an apartment in a rough area of urban California. Blessed with helpful, colorful neighbors who discribe their home as Sesame Street, Novella starts with bees on her deck and birds in her bedroom. Overtaking the empty lot next door, she establishes a vegetable garden. A friend leaves breeding rabbits in her care, which promptly establish themselve as livestock. The farm experiment culminates with pigs, whose feed consists of dumpster forage and whose future was hamsteak and salami. Novella survives awkward moments with neighbors, self-imposed local diets, attempted muggings, and more.

The writing in the book is demonstrative of Carpenter's training as a journalist. The chapters are short, episodic, and the tone is dry but poignant. The book shows Carpenter's development as a person discovering her own calling and comfort. It's a quick read, and I recommend it as a wonderful demonstration of the potential urban areas hold for personally raised produce.

04 February 2010

#9 The Contrary Farmer by Gene Logsdon

I dream about self sufficiency, having the ability to produce my own food on my own land, releasing my reliance on the agroindustrial infrastructure into which this country is locked. When I came across this title, it seemed a great introduction to such an idea. While the book is somewhat dated, it contains a lot of information that'll remain current because it focuses on the best way of doing things rather than the popular way of doing things; it describes a way of farming contrary to what the government and big business proscribes. Logsdon descripes keeping sheep, cows, and chickens, growing various crops, and cutting wood, all in a fashion designed to keep the ground on which all this happens viable for future generations. He does not dismiss out of hand newer practices and wisdoms (such as chemical fertilizer or herbicides) but incorporates such ideas into his own way of farming. Using the common-sense wit of the country, Logsdon scrutinizes all aspects of farming and does not hesitate to criticize corporations, governments, or individual farmers.
The book reads almost like a how-to manual, although it doesn't delve far enough into the topics it introduces to be used individually as such. Rather, it gives enough information to present an idea of how and why, leaving the details to other manuals. I think that anyone with pastoral agrarian dreams would benefit from this book.

02 February 2010

#8 Ghettonation by Cora Daniels

Why I picked this book up: It was the most interesting title in reach when I desperately wanted a distraction from work.
Why I finished it: I wanted to find the point. Writing about the mindset which has overwhelmed American culture, Daniels has an almost unique perspective in the literary world, one that is between ghetto and . . . whatever is the next step up. The tone throughout was mixed, saying one thing but with a subtext that said the opposite. Daniels is clearly in favor of eliminating the ghetto mindset from society, but frequently alluded to demonstrations of that mindset with fondness and nostalgia. This made the book hard to follow, and diluted the quality of Daniels writings. While easy reading, I found the book to wander a little; it was hard to find the object of the chapter at hand, hard to find unifying subthemes outside of the main, stated theme. However, Daniel's familiar tone, amusing anecdotes, and the confirmation of held beliefs kept pages turning.
The book was, to me, a lighthearted look at a serious problem that fell short of the call-to-arms it wanted to be. Perhaps a good jumping-off point for studies along a similar vein, but not a weighty enough source for true social commentary.

29 January 2010

#7 The Outspoken Princess and The Gentle Knight by Jack Zipes

This was another book that caught my attention coming across the returns desk at the library. I was curious to see an adult book of modern fairy tales. Re-takes on Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella, stories challenging the status quo and standard roles of our favorite fairy tales by some of the greatest published storyspinners. Lloyd Alexander told a tale of a foolish king put in his place by his daughter and a clever feline; Jane Yolen gives an account of a selkie's life; Earnest Hemmingway tells of Ferdinand the Bull. Many others had cute stories, too It was a great little read; I finished it in approximately a day or two of passive reading, as I recall.

#6 River of Gods

This book is an impressive undertaking! Imagining the near future of a foreign and constantly developing society is more than I'd attempt, but Ian McDonald managed quite well. River of Gods focuses on a large cast in their daily lives, which all intersect through the actions of 3rd Generation AI's. It examines all walks of life in India 2047, from street gangsters to politicians and social dropouts to university scientists.

In 2047, the humanity is wired, information in instantly uploaded to the brain. Artificial Intelligences run everything from monetary markets to entertainment soapis, but the U.S. government has placed a limit on how high that intelligence can get. Bharat, a sub-state of India, allows AI's to reach a higher level and has become a haven for programmers and their software, who set up electronic sundarbans to develop and hide their work. Mr. Nandha is a cop who investigates and destroys high-level AIs. His new wife Parvati, fresh from the country, is trying to fit in to her new society and longs for a genetically engineered Brahmin baby made with the technology that Mr. Nandha hunts. Shaheen Badoor Khan tops high society as a special consultant to the Prime Minister, though his life is no cup of tea as he fights trouble in the government and trouble at home. Najia Askarzada is an aspiring journalist covering soapi stars who stumbles into information on Khan's home troubles. Tal is a soapi set designer and a nute, the one who caps off Khan's home troubles. Lisa Durnau is an American professor and researcher who designed a set of her own, not for entertainment soapi but for evolutionary theory; computers control projected evolution of life on earth from early ages. She was guided through her work by Thomas Lull, preeminent AI theorist and programmer. He walked away from his life when his wife left him, but now his government needs him to solve a galactic mystery. Aspiring comedian Vishram Ray is recalled from his university life in England to run his father's energy corporation, which just might have the answers that Lull needs. Their adventures create the story which is River of Gods. It's a very exciting story, well imagined and just close enough to our technology to be quite believable.

McDonald's writing good enough to carry the story, but that's about it. The story reads towards a clearly pre-determined ending. The plot and world is rich enough that this didn't bother me as I was reading the book, but it detracts from the overall quality of the book. The characters are all well-defined if not well-rounded, and none of them go through any true development. In the case of some of the characters, the development that would make them real is described, but it all happened previous to the actions of the book. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed reading the book, but the story carried the writing rather than the other way around.

All in all, I found River of Gods to be a fun, engaging read. McDonald provides an action-packed romp through a world that is almost, but just past, what the Western perspective says India today. Anyone versed in the near-future scifi genre should get a kick out of this book.

#5 Paper Cities, edited by Ekaterina Sedia

Anthologies are a great way to sample new authors or genres. Fantasy is one of my favorite genres, though I often get frustrated with the epic-style multi-book series that populate the field. After completing a lengthy universe of a read, a small book of short stories helps me kick the brain back in to normal-lit gear.
Paper Cities is a collection of fantastic stories set in urban landscapes. Having recently read a few of China Mieville's works (which I would place firmly into the urban fantasy sub-genre), I was curious to sample other writers. However, I have a hard time classing some of the included stories into the genre. Mieville's fantasy city of New Crobuzon is almost a self-aware entity and plays almost a character roll in his Perdido Street Station. Most of the stories in this anthology fall short of that, and although this doesn't negate their worth as stories, it makes it hard for me to view them as good entries for this particular anthology. Here are some of my favorites from the book:

Hal Duncan's The Tower of the Morning's Bones stands out in this book, posing the city as a sentinel of time, watching the rise and fall of civilizations. The florid and inventive language reminds the reader that writing is an art. (This is the second of Duncan's short stories that I've read and loved, but I couldn't make it through his novels.)
Promises; A Tale of the City Imperishable by Jay Lake makes me want to read more of his women warriors and their careless world. A friend recommended I find his books, and I think I will.
Tearjerker by Steve Berman caught my attention. Set in the "Fallen Area" where the world rains vinegar and physical rules have been violated, it examines one woman's attempts to survive.
Stephanie Campisi gave an intriguing glimpse into a fascinating world in The Title of this Story, where an illegal onomatician is stumped in his work to name a mysterious religious text brought by an illiterate young man from the outskirts of the . . . city? planet? world? That's unclear.
Alex and the Toycievers by Paul Meloy was the only story in the book with an introductory paragraph explaining the source, a story cycle of universal creation conflict. It was a charming read, though not a short story (nor was it particularly urban).
I was fascinated by both the characters and the setting of Ben Peeks story The Funeral, Ruined, in which new technologies (magics?) allow people to pass by death, though it's questioned whether they're continuing life or not.
The Age of Flowers, Post-Fish was a great little story with a wonderful title by Anna Tambour where the city has been destroyed by semiaquatic orms, and the residents of the Brevant Building, having fortified their home, are trying to survive on their various hoards of edibles (and not-so-edibles).
I was mostly confused by Catherynne M. Valente's arousingling written and richly imaginedPalimpsest, but it was praised by a friend who says that the longer novel gives more information, so I'll look into that.

Don't expect an earth-moving read from Paper Cities, but keep your mind open and perhaps you'll find new places to send your imagination.

#4 Animal Farm, George Orwell

I picked this book up at work a day that I forgot my currently-reading title at home. A number of copies were being returned and I thought to myself, "I really ought to read that!" It was a quick read, and another notch on my bookshelf. I wasn't particularly impressed, though. Orwell fashioned a moralistic tale of warning into a detailed and timely story, but I think it's a little stuck in its time. Without having the immediate context of political actions of the Soviets to compar...more I picked this book up at work a day that I forgot my currently-reading title at home. A number of copies were being returned and I thought to myself, "I really ought to read that!" It was a quick read, and another notch on my bookshelf. I wasn't particularly impressed, though. Orwell fashioned a moralistic tale of warning into a detailed and timely story, but I think it's a little stuck in its time. Without having the immediate context of political actions of the Soviets to compare to the actions of the pigs, the warning becomes esoteric and hypothetical. I think this would be a brilliant read to pair with a history class looking at the eastern European scene surrounding WWII, but not one for your English teacher to assign. The writing is concise, with a good balance of detail and forward movement. The tone is detached, unemotional and calls to mind journalistic styling as is appropriate for the purpose of the book. As I said, though, the impact of the book is reliant on detailed knowledge of the time in which it was written. I look forward to reading other writings from Orwell.

18 January 2010

#3 Growing Up Amish by Richard A. Stevick

I picked this book up out of curiosity for the Amish lifestyle, vaguely as research. I expected a dry, academic read, and well, I wasn't disappointed. However, the author's tone is that of an interested bystander presenting fascinating anecdotes and examples of a day in the life. Most points are well-supported, although there's a tendency to emphasize extreme examples. The biggest thing I took from this book is the fact that, just like any other society, the life of the Amish as a whole is v...more I picked this book up out of curiosity for the Amish lifestyle, vaguely as research. I expected a dry, academic read, and well, I wasn't disappointed. However, the author's tone is that of an interested bystander presenting fascinating anecdotes and examples of a day in the life. Most points are well-supported, although there's a tendency to emphasize extreme examples. The biggest thing I took from this book is the fact that, just like any other society, the life of the Amish as a whole is varied and non-definitive. A good source of insight into an American culture off the mainstream.