Friday, December 31, 2010

Friday Review, New Years Eve Edition - 12/31/2010

[eta: This is the last post of 2010!]

Cassandra Clare - The Clockwork Angel

So, this is the first book of a prequel trilogy to Clare's Mortal Instruments series, about which I know almost nothing (but the covers are pretty, in a conventional way). When I brought it home, I speculated on how one might classify it's genre - neo-Victorian, steampunk? Having read it, I'd say that it's sort of neo-Victorian, more than steampunk, although clockwork and steam machinery do play a role. I don't think it necessarily fits the steampunk ethos, although perhaps that will change over the course of the series. At any rate, a young girl from New York arrives in London to meet her brother, but discovers that she is not who she thinks she is, that her brother is not who she thinks he is, and the world is not as she thinks it is. She falls into a enduring struggle between - well, not good and evil, per se, since one of the major themes of the novel is that conventional definitions of good and evil tend not to fit well, but between order and chaos, perhaps. On the side of order are the Nephilim, descendants of an ancient race of human/angel hybrids. On the chaos side is the Shadow-world of vampires, werewolves, and other things that go bump in the night. Further on the chaos side are demons, and so the Nephilim and the Shadow dwellers have warily put aside their differences in order to deal with an influx of demons. The loose alliance between traditional enemies seems to be fraying, however, as the Shadow dwellers have begun to move into the mundane shadow world of gambling and drugs (which in Victorian London means opium and card games like Faro).

The book was fun, and well written enough that I am considering picking up the first of the Mortal Instruments books. The plot was fairly conventional, the twists were moderately predictable, and the characters were interesting enough to be worth reading. The Victorian background seemed fairly background - I suspect it was used because these books are prequels, rather than any real desire to set them in the Victorian period - but Clare has obviously done some research, and the setting was not jarring for all that it was more or less non intrusive.

Cinda Williams Chima - The Warrior Heir

I enjoyed this book. Like the Clare, it wasn't all that deep, but the characters were fun, and the plot was simple. I think I would have split the book in two, ending book one with the end of the school year and having book two cover the trip to England (England seems to feature in reading this week). This book was a romp, a quick read, with a few twists. Although part of an expanding series, this book seemed perfectly complete in its own right. I'll probably pick up the next one - Chima seems to be writing a series of interlocking stories within her world rather than following the same characters through several books -- interesting if done well.

Jill Lepore - The Whites of Their Eyes

A short work, more like a long essay than a book. Lepore is a Colonial historian, and this is an interesting musing on the ways in which Americans use (and abuse) the history of the Revolution, the early republic, and the Founding Fathers. Lepore tells three historical stories: the story of the Revolution (when did it start? 1776? 1760? Earlier? It depends on what you mean by the Revolution - the war, or the radical shift in ideology?) and the early republic (who were the Founding Fathers? When did they become Founding Fathers?); the (largely unsuccessful) effort to organize an inclusive Bicentennial celebration in 1976; and the current use/abuse of Revolutionary history by the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, and folks like the Texas School Board (who revised their US History curriculum to remove Thomas Jefferson as a Founding Father).

This was a fascinating book. I found Lepore's discussion of the Revolutionary generation most interesting. Her discussion of the current attempts to re-cast US history into a Fundamentalist mold felt mildly screed like (even if I agree with her) - it wasn't necessary to convince the people who agree with her, and wasn't sufficient to convince the people who disagree with her. The general theme of the work was that the Revolution has been a political football since 1779, and that what we are currently experiencing isn't really all that different from previous attempts to control the meaning of the beginning of the nation (although, perhaps, somewhat more shrill and certainly louder than in previous iterations.)

I have only one complaint. Much of the work, I felt, would have been better as a lecture than as written - Lepore has a fairly breezy writing style that probably works very nicely when spoken. This reflects, I suspect, her view that academic historians should write histories that non-academics can understand and appreciate (I agree!), but sometimes it is difficult to walk the line between a tone which is open and conversational and one which seems to trivialize the subject under discussion. There were places where I think Lepore crossed that line, places where, in a lecture, she might have softened the words with an ironic smile, or a wink.

Still, a solidly thought provoking work, and one which I would recommend to anyone currently frustrated by the political rhetoric in the United States.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Tuesday Library Post - 12/28/2010

Schedule should probably get back to normal once the semester starts again, and then there will be Monday posts, probably. I didn't get to the library yesterday, and so here is a Tuesday post.

Two books today. I'm trying hard not to bring a bunch more books into the house, since I got a pile for Christmas, and I have a pile from before Christmas, and it's all a little overwhelming.

Charles DeLint - The Painted Boy

With the two DeLint I got last week and this one, I think next week may be DeLint Week.

Scott Westerfeld - Behemoth

I loved the first book of these - Leviathan - they are a steam-punky alt-histy World War One series. Points in their favor - 1) lovely struggle between English genetic modification and Germanic mechanical things. 2) World War One is a favorite period for me, historically. 3) They are very well written. 4) They are illustrated! The decision to illustrate a book that is not for little kids is apparently a really big deal; Westerfeld wrote about it here. (The image seems to be broken, but the essay is below the broken image, and it's worth a look.) Best of all, the coverleaf is a fantastic allegorical map of Europe - Westerfeld wrote about THAT here - which is really worth looking at for its own sake. I suspect that when this series is done (I'm expecting a trilogy, the third book, Goliath, is due out in October of 2011) I may actually buy them. They're that good.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

12/25/2010 - Christmas Bounty Post

This is a true accounting of the books received by my wife and I this Christmas. Her books will be marked with an *.

Connie Willis - Doomsday Book

I swear we own this one already, but we can never find it. So now we own it, or we own two copies of it. This is the first of Willis' time travel books, and it's brilliant.

Roald Dahl - Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life *

A collection of short stories centered on Dahl's life in the country post WWII.

Robin McKinley - Sunshine *

McKinley does vampires. I'm not sure if we've read this one or not, but the beginning seems familiar - McKinley is very very good, though.

Elizabeth Moon - the speed of dark

Moon's fictional musings on autism. We have read this one, and it's quite quite good.

Charles DeLint  - Waifs and Strays

A collection of short stories by DeLint, who does quite good short stories.

Charles DeLint - Spirits in the Wires

If I haven't read this before, I'm not sure why not - I quite like DeLint, and this is from 2003. The subtitle sums up the theme, I think - "A Novel of Myth and Magic - on the Streets and on the Net."

Nancy Baker - Blood and Chrysanthemums

Baker is a not well known author of vampire novels. She's from Toronto. She writes very slowly, alas, because her books are very good.

(My wife points out that the preceding could serve as a map of the first couple years of our marriage - Moon was the reason we met [not that book, but Paksenarrion], we read the Willis together within the first year of marriage, I introduced her to DeLint, and we went to see Baker read at a little bookstore down the street from our first apartment, which was how we learned that she even existed as an author.)

Bernard Clayton, Jr. - The Complete Book of Soups and Stews

We've been experimenting with soups and stews for a year or so - they're harder than they look, you know?

Nava Atlas - Vegan Soups and Hearty Stews for All Seasons

We've also been experimenting with increasing our vegetable intake.

Charles Schulz - The Joy of a Peanuts Christmas
Charles Schulz - Have Another Cookie (It'll Make You Feel Better)

We visited the Schulz museum while we were in California this summer, so there was a hefty Peanuts theme to our gifts this year - a Snoopy tie, a Woodstock ornament, a Peanuts game, and these two books from my daughter to me. I especially like the Christmas one, which has some of the very early, 1950s strips, which I like better than the stuff from the '80s and '90s. (Charlie Brown was less hapless in the '50s.)

Friday, December 24, 2010

Friday Reviews, 12/24/2010: Special Christmas Eve Edition!

Terry Pratchett - Hogfather

Pratchett writes fantasy novels, mostly.  For the most part, these books are set on the Discworld, a disc shaped planet carried on the back of 4 elephants carried on the back of a giant turtle. Once he hit his literary stride, Pratchett began using this clearly fictional environment to discuss far more real and pertinent questions of this world. These books are deeply philosophical, and also darkly amusing.

This book in particular deals with a familiar story involving a man in a red suit who travels around the world and delivers presents to the good girls and boys - the Hogfather. Pratchett slowly reveals that the Hogfather is a hold over from much older sacrificial rituals, in which a pig, or a man, might be sacrificed at the end of the year to bring the sun back. Anyway, this year, the Hogfather is missing - and Death takes his place. (Pratchett uses Death often; he's one of the most popular characters in the books. Death, oddly, is often the most alive character when he shows up.) There's a plot, you see, to kill the Hogfather. Death and his granddaughter (?!?) Susan foil the plot.

That's the story, but that's not what the book is about.  Really, the book is about what makes us human.  Pratchett believes that stories do.  Pratchett clearly believes that the Hogfather, or Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, play an important role in explaining who we are as human beings. He places the explanation in Death's mouth (Death talks LIKE THIS in Pratchett novels):

"All right," said Susan. "I'm not stupid. You're saying humans need ... fantasies to make life bearable."
"Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little ---"
"So we can believe the big ones?"
"They're not the same at all!"
"Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what's the point ---"

The little lies which help us believe the big lies. I'm inclined to agree.

Charles Dickens - A Christmas Carol

I hate Charles Dickens. I really really do. In times past, I haven't been able even to read this, his most popular work. However, I gritted my teeth and plowed through it this year. Look, we all know the story. We've seen the Muppets do it, we've seen Mickey and Co. do it, we've seen Patrick Stewart do it (or, at least, heard him do it - and I must admit, I heard Stewart as Scrooge throughout this reading, which helped a lot). Perhaps my dislike of Dickens is a case of familiarity breeding discontent. But, it didn't kill me.

My petty gripes:
1) Dickens clearly states that the ghosts will visit Scrooge over 3 nights. They do not; they visit him in one night, and Dickens retcons madly in order to explain this - I think he just didn't want to describe Scrooge during the days in between ghost visits. 2) Scrooge has mended his ways by the end of the FIRST spirit, and the SECOND spirit seems to cement that mending - the third spirit seems overkill. I mean, for symmetry, the spirit needs to be there, but Scrooge seems resigned by that point - "yes, yes, you are the spirit of Christmas yet to Come, I'm going to learn something here, aren't I? Well, let's get to it...". 3) The transformation is too much. Scrooge is a caricature at the beginning, and a different caricature at the end, but I don't believe either of them. It's clear why he's fun to play - you get to play both the black hat AND the white hat in the same character.

Things I liked, despite myself:
1) Ok, ok - Dickens has a way with language, and I enjoyed many of his multi-claused sentences. I will probably try some more Dickens in the coming year (suggestions? I've started Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and Pickwick Papers, and hated all of them...) to see if my dislike is only a passing fancy. (My wife suggests that this was an abbreviated edition - and listening to the Patrick Stewart reading, I find that it is, slightly.)
2) The book was fascinating as a window into Victorian era Christmas practices - no Father Christmas (although the Ghost of Christmas Present is pretty close), no Christmas trees (although Prince Albert, Victoria's husband, introduced the tree to England, so one might expect the practice to have trickled down), and the Cratchits are so poor they are forced to eat a goose instead of a turkey. (Bwha?) Bob Cratchit, on his way home on Christmas Eve stops to go sledding. All of the silly party games that get played by Scrooge's nephew. Fascinating stuff.
3) The temperance message at the end - Scrooge never touched spirits again after that - really?

Frederic Forsyth - The Shepherd

There is an old English tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas (Dickens did it, you know, and not just A Christmas Carol, and so did Robertson Davies, although he was Canadian, of course.) and this is a fine example of that. Forsyth tells a story of a young man flying a single seater jet fighter home from Germany on Christmas Eve, 1957. Somewhere above the North Sea, the electronics in the plane fail, and a fog rolls in. Flying in irregular triangles, he hopes to attract the attention of a radar operator, who will send up a shepherd, a plane with a working radio to guide him home. Just as he is sure that no shepherd is coming, an antique Mosquito fighter shows up and guides him down. That's the story. It's very short, less than 100 pages, and the copy that I have is lushly illustrated with lots of pen and ink drawings - it's gorgeous.  The whole book shouldn't take longer than half an hour to read - and Alan Maitland used to read it every Christmas Eve on As it Happens for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation - here's a podcast. The descriptions are lovely, the story is simple, and it gives me chills every time I read it, simply perfect.

S.M. Stirling - The Protector's War

Ummm, this one is totally not a Christmas book. Sorry. I started it at the end of last week, and I finished it this week while waiting for the Dickens to be free. This is the second of the Emberverse books, and it may well be my favorite. Stirling does a lot of interesting world building - one group of characters travel from Europe to the US, and that allows the readers to get a glimpse of what things are like outside of Oregon. It's clear why there is a community of fanficcers for this series - Stirling provides a lovely sandbox to play in, and then concentrates most of his attention on a single corner of the box (and rightly so). I love that Stirling has offered some sort of official sanction to the fic as well, since he has a page of links on his official website. He recognizes that he's only using a corner of the sandbox. Personally, I'd like to see something set on Newfoundland - if any group survived the cataclysm, it was the Newfies.

Anyway - I like the way that Stirling weaves three separate tales together here. I like the personalities that interact, I like the description of the difference between folks who lived through The Change and those born after it - it's easy to accept the status quo if you've never experienced anything like it before. I like that the characters are really only dealing with other humans - in the second series, the stakes are bigger because the players are less mundane. (I like that too, but this first trilogy is far more down to earth.) I like that Stirling seems to have restrained his desire to play with accents here - very well done.

So, that's it for this week. Tomorrow is Christmas, and I hope you all have a good one, those of you who celebrate. I'm expecting some books, and I'll tell you about them on Monday...

Monday, December 20, 2010

Monday Library Post, 12/20/2010

Four books today!

Jill Lepore - The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle over American History

What is History, and what is it for? Lepore looks at the way that the Tea Party uses (and abuses) History to make their point and how they create what she calls "anti-history" in the process. I started this earlier, and I'm pretty sure I agree with her, but I'm also pretty sure that I don't like the way that she writes. More on that later.

L.E. Modesitt, Jr. - Empress of Eternity

I've actually met Mr. Modesitt, and he's a pretty cool guy to talk to. I prefer his sci fi to his fantasy, and this is sci fi (despite the title, which he suggests makes it sound like a fantasy novel). We'll see - I really like the way he writes politics (which may have something to do with a previous career in politics.)

Scott Lynch - The Lies of Locke Lamora

Recommended by arashi and Rushputin, and described as a fantasy caper novel. As you know, I adore caper novels. Further, arashi and Rushputin have rarely steered me wrong (and never both at the same time...), so I'm really looking forward to this one.

Rick Riordan - The Titan's Curse

It's book three of Percy Jackson and the Olympians! I've been kinda enjoying these, and it would be good to have something light in my reading pile.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Friday Review Post, 12/17/2010

I have spent most of the week reading student essays. I will not subject you to a review of them (although some of them were better than others). However, it did result in my only finishing two books this week. I am done now, so next week I should be more read-y.

R.J. Pineiro -

This book was not great. I finished it, so it wasn't all bad, but it didn't catapult Pineiro into my "favorite author" list. The plot was mildly implausible - Cuban agents subvert the IRS to help fund the purchase of nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union. The characters were not particularly compelling - I wouldn't have cried if any of them had died, for instance. The protagonist types were too greedy to ask solid questions, and the villains had very little grasp of what was going on around them - they deserved to lose, and the heroes did not deserve to win. Plus, the whole thing was a little dated. Further, it felt very much like a chance for Pineiro to discuss his theories of virtual reality, and how it might help an agency like the IRS. It was compelling enough to finish, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend it.

Eric Flint - 1635: The Eastern Front

Flint does a solid job here, continuing his popular shared world series, the Ring of Fire. Several books ago, aliens caused (for reasons of their own) a small West Virginia mining town to be transported back in time, and geographically across the Atlantic, so that a small population of feisty Americans arrived in the middle of the 30 Years War. Flint originally intended it as a stand alone, but it was so popular that he continued. Further, he invited others to continue with him - and not just professional writers, but gifted amateurs as well - a crowd sourced work of fiction. The result has been a set of lovingly researched and often very well written books exploring how 20th century American technology and thought would interact with 17th century European technology and thought.

This book is more on the technology side than the thought side - Flint writes very nice mil-fic (military fiction; often popular in the sci fi genre; see David Weber, John Ringo*, and others.) and this is a lovely example of that. A short war against Saxony, the beginning of a longer war against Poland, several sweeping battle scenes, and a cataclysmic ending which ends nothing and leaves the readers anxious for the next book. The pace is quite rapid, especially as you get towards the end of the book - I finished the last 1/3rd last night, and found that I had stayed up later than I had intended. I sat down to finish a chapter, which turned into two chapters, which turned into finishing the book. Your gain, dear readers, because otherwise you would be stuck with a review of Pineiro and nothing more.

Of interest, note that Flint presents his military figures quite fairly - no concentration entirely on the officers, but neither is the focus entirely on the grunts. This is nice. Also note, Flint is a strong subscriber to the Great Person theory of history - a little off putting if you prefer a more social movement style.

*I know, I know. But those first three books were fun, right? When the humans were heroically slaughtering evil yellow aliens? Before they got all political and stuff? Right?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Monday Library Post, 12/13/10

Sometimes, you go to the library, and you find a great deal. Sometimes, not so much. Today, I took back more books than I took out - unfortunately, some that I have not had a chance to read. This was a danger I was aware of, and some of them I may grab another time if I see them again.*

Anyway, two books today. Almost 3 - they had a new Harry Turtledove on the new book shelf, and I started reading it, and I said "this doesn't make sense? How did we get to this juncture?" It turns out that it was the second book, and the library did not have (right now) the first. Oh well, another time.

Cinda Williams Chima - The Warrior Heir

This looked interesting, it's the first of a trilogy. Young boy in Illinois discovers that he is part of an ancient magical thing, and that he is a critical part of the thing, and enters into an epic struggle between good and evil. Yes, we've seen this plot before, but that doesn't mean that this version won't be worth reading.

Terry Pratchett - Hogfather

Because the season is upon us. This is part of Pratchett's Discworld series. Death takes on the role of the Hogfather - the Discworld equivalent of Father Christmas - and hijinks ensue. It's very good, and quite deep, and a friend reads it every year, and for some years now I've joined him in this tradition, which I think is a fine one. Perhaps this year you will join us?

*If there was a book mentioned in a Monday post that you did not see a review for, and you want to see a review for, feel free to bring it to my attention.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Friday Review Post, 12/10/10

Bill Bryson - At Home

Bryson is an American, living in Britain, who has a history in journalism. He is a keen observer of human behavior.  Further, he is clearly a voracious info-vore - he devours information. Bryson's great talent lies in presenting this vast accumulation of information in a clear, fantastically readable, and utterly enjoyable way, filled with humor and intelligence.
This book, in that regard, is no different from his earlier work. As always, Bryson writes with exuberance and verve. His goal here was to write a history of the world without leaving home - to use the lens of ordinary household objects (like his salt and pepper shakers, or his telephone) to investigate the history of how we got to where we are now.  He flits from topic to topic, covering everything from prehistoric settlements (and the early archaeologists who investigated them) to the use of steel in architecture; from the Columbian exchange of goods and diseases to the efforts by doctors to make basic medical procedures safer, and through all manner of things in between.

For the most part, this book is delightful, but a little exhausting. Bryson does jump around a lot, and if you're not ready for it, his writing style can take a little getting used to. This is especially true in a book like this - his travel literature tends to be more focused, because of the strong narrative thread of his travel. Further, while Bryson jumps around only a little within each chapter, the jumps between chapters are quite a bit more dramatic. One chapter will be on formal dining, for instance, and the next is on the development of indoor plumbing, and the next on fashion. This does make it easy to read chapters out of order, and Bryson seems to have anticipated this, by including references to material he has covered in more depth earlier in the work - "so and so, you may recall, was the focus of chapter x", and the like.

Some caveats. For those who are squeemish about the fauna we share our modern habitats with - from the microscopic (bacteria) to the decidedly macroscopic (rats) - the chapter on The Study might be a bit much. You could probably skip it without damaging the book overly. Second, Bryson is a journalist. He is a very good writer, and he does extensive research (his bibliography is quite long, for instance, and his full notes are available online), he is not a historian, and so some of his presentation is a bit sensational. This makes the book sparkle, but scholars might want to consult Bryson's sources rather than rely on his rendering.

All that to one side, this was a remarkably good book, entirely readable, and well worth picking up.

Pierre Pevel - The Cardinal's Blades

This is, as I mentioned when I picked it up from the library, the first English language publication for Pevel, who is French. This work hearkens to the works of Dumas. It is a story of love and hate, revenge and betrayal, spies and musketeers, swashbucklers and dragons.  The dragons are actually mostly off stage - the Spanish court seems to be ruled by reincarnated ancient dragons, but we never actually see any of them. In fact, one might be permitted to ask if the dragons were entirely necessary. In the end, I'm not entirely sure. I quite enjoyed the book, it was a lot of fun, and the dragons certainly didn't take anything away from my enjoyment, but the fantasy was very low key - perhaps this is a reflection of the difference between fantasy in France and fantasy in the US.

The book was lovely - full of sweeping cinematic battle scenes involving fencers leaping across rooftops and jumping out of windows, truly the best sort of swashbuckling fiction, and exactly what you would expect from a book which borrows from Dumas. The periodic touches of historic exposition - such and such was constructed by this king for this purpose, and so and so was designed to do this and that - very nice, and not too heavy.

I have only two complaints.  First, the book was a little slow, for all that it was quite well plotted. This may, again, reflect the difference between popular fiction in France and in the US, and the pace was certainly not a deal breaker, but understand that the book was not a page-turner. Every once in a while, it tipped from slow enough to appreciate the writing craft to too slow - clearly a fine line.  My second complaint is that, in the last major battle, the use of capital letters to indicate shouting was a little off-putting, and probably unnecessary. Had Pevel used this technique throughout the book, it may well have been unreadable. Thankfully, it was only in the last few chapters.

Despite that, a perfectly fine book, and I would happily read more.

In a similar vein, I will recommend The Cardinal's Heir by Jaki Demerest - there are entirely too few books about musketeers currently on the market, and so it would be remiss of me not to bring this one to your attention while I have the chance.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Library Tuesday

A very quick trip to the library today netted only one book:

Cassandra Clare - Clockwork Angel
This looks interesting. It's the first book in a prequel trilogy. The library does not seem to have any of the original trilogy (Mortal Instruments). Could be steam punk. Could just be neo-Victorian. I'm not sure - it's got paranormal stuff, it's set in Victorian London, it's YA. I'll let you know.

Other thoughts - we approach Christmas, and there are some books that I tend to read right around Christmas - The Shepherd, and Hogfather, possibly some others. Are there books that you read at Christmas? Hanukkah? Solstice? Kwanzaa? Some other holiday, even some other time of the year? I'd love to hear about them.

Where is the Monday Post?

I did not get to the library yesterday. There is a chance, a good chance,  that I will get there today, and, if so, I will make a Tuesday library post instead.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Friday Book Review, 12/3/2010

Only one book this week. Mr. Banks occupied me until the end of Wednesday, and Mr. Bryson will probably occupy me through the weekend.

Iain M. Banks - Surface Detail


I suppose I could leave it at that, but some readers might object. First, a little background on the Culture novels. Banks has (as Simon pointed out earlier) been writing these books for going on 20 years now, starting with Consider Phlebas (which, in retrospect, I'm not sure I've actually read - I think I've read the novels from that point on, though). These novels are set in a post-singularity universe. The singularity, as a concept (as I understand it) describes a technological advancement of such effect that from the far side of the advance we cannot imagine what it was like to live before the advance took place (and vice versa to some extent).* The example I offer to my students when I find the need to explain the concept is the cell phone - at least in most instances of western society, the cell phone has become more or less ubiquitous, and it's hard to imagine what life was like before we had them (even though I, for one, grew up in a world without cell phones) - think about a trip to the mall with your significant other and no cell phone, for instance. How would you coordinate? How would you know where to meet? It's hard to think about on some level. Anyway, in scifi, post-singularity as a sub-genre exists as an exploration of the world after some future singularity, which is usually one of the following: the development of strong/true artificial intelligence (AI), a significant advance in virtual reality, some form of breaking the mind/machine barrier (cyborgs, or nanites, or some form of machine which interacts directly with the human brain), or some combination of the three. Banks writes in a universe which combines all three of these advances. His universe is peopled with human beings who can experience real virtual reality on a whim, who have a wide variety of mechanical and biological body modifications (within the Culture, Banks' central civilization, it is entirely common for people to have specially designed glands which secrete carefully tailored drugs). It is also peopled (if that is the word I want) with sentient machines - drones (basically robots, but non-humanoid, somewhere between the size of a breadbox and a tea cup, with internal anti-gravity effectors) and ships. Banks' ships are, arguably, the most interesting characters in the books - they are hyper intelligent, often quite snarky, theoretically independent of their human counterparts, and they have fantastic names - Surface Detail features the Fast Picket Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints and the General Systems Vehicle Sense Amid Madness, Wit Amidst Folly, and a whole cast of other ships with equally colourful names. The ships, I think, are one of the things which bring me back to these novels as consistently as they do, they are, quite frankly, brilliant.

Within this universe, Banks tends to focus on the Culture, a galaxy spanning civilization of mostly humans which has an interesting (from the point of view of the author/reader) or unpleasant (from the point of view of the Culture's neighbors) tendency to "do good" and "help out" and "invade, but it's entirely for your own good" - they are, clearly, a hyper-advance version of the Western Liberal tradition, and they are also brilliant. It would be entirely possible, I think, to write about the Culture somewhat tongue in cheek, and I think that would probably spoil the effect. Thankfully, Banks does not do that - his Culture characters are forthright, earnest, honestly believing (for the most part) that they have the best of intentions, and Banks does not scar them with authorial sarcasm, for which he is to be eternally praised. At the same time, he allows the Culture to reveal its own flaws - the characters are not plaster saints, which would be boring.

Ok. So all of that out of the way, Surface Detail is a stellar example of Banks at his very best. He explores, in the very best traditions of speculative fiction, hugely deep questions about the nature of reality, and what makes us human, and what happens to us when we die. He does all of that while telling a brilliant story, with enormous spaceships and big explosions. Frankly, I can't imagine what else you could possibly want in a novel. The Culture finds itself on one side of a war over the existence of virtual reality hells - most advanced societies, Banks explains, have developed the ability to capture the mental essence of the biological members of the society - their "soul", for want of a better word - and store it, indefinitely, in a complex virtual reality. Most societies design these virtual realities as paradises, but some also have hells, where the virtual inhabitants suffer endless torment. the Culture is opposed to the hells, and one of the central focii of the novel is the war (in an expansive virtual reality itself) over whether hells should continue to exist or not. There is also a lovely revenge plot, a fantastically evil villain, some double and triple crossing, a great deal of war, and several massive explosions.

That last paragraph highlights a couple of things that I quite like about the Culture novels, but which new readers might well find off-putting. At least recently (I think this isn't true, for instance, of The Player of  Games), Banks has been constructing his novels as a complex nest of interlocking narratives which often seem to take the form of vaguely related short stories. Banks has also made extensive use of lengthy expository digressions (not unlike this one), which I find delightful.  This produces a dense, but immensely satisfying novel - like a well made fruit cake, perhaps, rich and full of a wide mix of things, some of which you might like and some of which you might not (and, it should be added, not necessarily enjoyed equally by all).

So, in conclusion, Surface Detail is brilliant, and almost certainly a must-read for existing fans of the series. It's a fine example of the lofty level at which Banks is currently writing - hugely dense and fantastically satisfying - but it is probably not a useful place for someone new to the series to begin. Banks makes no effort to build upon previous novels - there is no continuity of characters, for instance - but his earlier novels are simply more accessible. I recommend The Player of Games and Use of Weapons as good entry points (because I'm not sure I've read Consider Phlebas - I'll have to see if I can find a copy) - you can build up to the denser and more complicated novels once you've fully engaged with the universe.

I should note, perhaps, that upon some further research, it turns out that novels that I thought were part of the Culture series are not, really. Against a Dark Background and The Algebraist - both of which I read and enjoyed - are not Culture novels, per se, in that the Culture does not play a role in the plot. There seems to be some argument as to whether they exist within the same literary universe as the Culture novels - more so for Dark Background that The Algebraist - which may be what threw me. At any rate, those are also excellent novels, deeply twisty in their plots and involved in their characterization. I should also point out that Iain M. Banks and Iain Banks are the same guy, but Iain M. Banks writes sci fi and Iain Banks writes contemporary fiction.

* Not to beat a dead horse, but, looked at in a particular way, Steampunk is also a subset of singularity fiction - it's just that the singularity in question is steam power rather than artificial intelligence.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A Greeting for New Folks

So, um, Cherie Priest linked back to my review of her book the other day. I gather (because I decided to take a look at my stats) that this has resulted in a moderately huge spike in traffic (less huge than in October; I'm not sure what prompted the spike in October). So, if you have come looking from Ms. Priest's kind link, hello. I hope you stick around and leave some comments if you feel moved to do so.

Monday Library Post 11/29/2010

Normally, I take the Kid Who Reads with me to the library, but today she stayed home with my wife (who reads), and I had the rare pleasure of a solo trip to the library. Thus, no fussing as I wandered by the new book rack (initially, there was nothing of interest on it - very sparse!) or browsed lingeringly through the stacks.

Three books today:

S.M. Stirling - The Protector's War
This is the second novel of The Change - I'm re-reading.

Bill Bryson - At Home
After grabbing the Stirling, I returned to the new book rack - and I'm glad I did, because I found this. I adore Bryson, his dry wit, and his sometimes unusual way of looking at things. This is a history of the world without leaving home - Bryson looks at the history of things one might find in a home. I really looking forward to this; might read it out of order, even.

R.J. Pineiro -
I went looking for an Elfquest  graphic novel by the Pinis for the Kid Who Reads (didn't find it. And, decided that she's not quite ready for Elfquest anyway. Maybe in a couple of years.) and found this instead. It's old (and so the "ripped from the headlines" style might not work), but I wrote my master's thesis on conspiracy theories, so I thought I'd take a look at this.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Friday Reviews, 11/26/2010

I should confess that I am under the influence of rather too much turkey at this point. I hope all of you had lovely Thanksgivings, and ate just enough of the things you enjoy eating at this time of year. I hope you took the opportunity to do some reading, as well - I know I did. This week, my review features zombies, war, police detection and zombies, war and police detection all at once. Also, cyclopses. Ready?

Cherie Priest - Dreadnought

Ms. Priest has begun to make a name for herself in the steampunk genre. This is her second book in what she is calling her "Clockwork Century" series, a series of books set in an alternate history in which the US Civil War started just a little later, and so involves technology just a little better, and has thus lasted a lot longer. Also, there are zombies. The war provides the backdrop to this book - it has raged for at least a generation, such that boys and girls born after the beginning of the war are now old enough to participate in the war. Mercy Lynch, a nurse in a Confederate hospital, receives bad news about her Union husband, and then troubling news about the father who abandoned her family when Mercy was just an infant. This precipitates a long voyage across the continent by air ship, steam ship, and train. The only train she can get onto leaving St. Louis for the West Coast is pulled by a heavily armored Union locomotive named the Dreadnought. While on the train, she encounters some interesting characters, including a Union scientist who believes he has a solution to the war. It involves zombies. Right and justice prevail over warmongering and the undead hoards, but this prompts some thought for me.

Recently, Charles Stross has posted a screed attacking steampunk as a literary movement. His objection is grounded in two points - first, that the genre, or sub-genre or whatever it is within the speculative fiction realm, is too everpresent. That is perhaps justifiable - there does seem to be a trend towards tossing a zepplin and a steam powered robot at an otherwise perfectly good novel and calling it steampunk. His other point is that the genre (or sub-genre, or whatever) glorifies the Victorian era, with all of the darkness and excess of Victorian era imperialism. This, I think, seems to miss the point - and the zombies in Ms. Priest's books (which come under special condemnation - "gas induced zombies are not Science, now are they, Ms. Priest?" - I paraphrase) really seem to illustrate the point.  Yes, the "steam" in steampunk points to the Victorian era, when mechanization, especially of factories, was rising quickly. Yes, that factorization (if that's a word) marked the era, and every era after it, forcing (western) societies to take a certain path and other (eastern?) societies into a particular role (subjugation, mostly) - but the "punk" in steampunk rejects the standardization that those factories imply. A single example: aesthetically, yes, steampunks tend towards brass and brown, but, most importantly, they tend towards do it yourselfishness - not one size fits many off the rack fashion, but one size fits one tailor made clothing. The characters in Dreadnought fight against the zombies, against the standardization of modernism, against the uniformity of war and empire and conquest. Steampunk is, at its best, a celebration of the individual - and isn't that the basis for most speculative fiction? Indeed, isn't that why we read it and love it, those of us who do? So, Cherie Priest, keep on with your gas induced zombies and heavily armored trains and zepplins in the weird west, please, and I will continue reading about them.

Connie Willis - Blackout and All Clear

Although published as two works, these really constitute a single, very long, novel. Willis writes a wide variety of things, but she tends to be known for her time travelling books, like these two. The underlying premise - at some point in the future, time travel is developed.  After it becomes clear that the technology cannot be used to alter the past, it is abandoned by governments seeking to improve their situation and instead used by university history departments to get a real grasp on the past. Through several works, Ms. Willis has developed the principles of her version of time travel - what are the risks to the participants; where are the loop holes in the rules, and how far can they stretch; and, above all, how can these elements intersect to make for good stories? And they do make for good stories, because another thing Ms. Willis is known for is her skill as an excellent story teller.

Time and time again, Ms. Willis has returned not only to the theme of time travel, but to an exploration of World War Two in England - a fascinating topic. This two part novel is a tour de force, covering the war from a wide variety of angles, and bringing in stories about ordinary people doing extraordinarily heroic things. It is a story about heroes, and about love (Ms. Willis got her start in writing romance novels, and some of that shows here - but the really good sort of romance novels, not the kind you would ever sell to a used book store). The story is also about mystery novels, and about chaos, and about history. The plot is twisted, and the chronology is also twisted (which doesn't help), and Willis uses her characteristic dialogue to excellent effect. An element of many of Ms. Willis' stories is the way in which her characters talk over and under each other, accidentally using language to prevent communication. Sometimes this is a little frustrating, often it is amusing, and occasionally it is heart breaking, or leads to heart breaking conclusions. One thing you can fairly expect from a Willis novel is a happy ending, although it is often bitter sweet. This pair of books is no exception.

One thing - this is LONG. Plus, once you start, it's very hard to stop - the pace is inexorable. Clear a weekend, because you won't get much sleep.

Laurie King - To Play the Fool
(recommended by my wife, who reads.)

If you've been reading these posts, you know about Laurie King - she writes the Sherlock Holmes post WWI novels. This is two or three books into her other series, the Kate Martinelli series. This series is set in present San Francisco, and focus on police detective Kate Martinelli. My wife has been enjoying the Holmes books, and there's a cross over between the two detectives (which is odd, since these books are set in the present), so she started the Martinellis, and she handed this one to me, so I read it. It was exceedingly good. Martinelli investigates the death of a homeless man. The prominent suspect is a Holy Fool - a sort of itinerant monk who speaks entirely in quotations (from the Bible, from Shakespeare, from Gilbert and Sullivan, from all over). He's not crazy, he's part of a movement which seeks (or sought, he seems to be the last one) to expose meaning in the world through acting as if they lack meaning. In the context of Shakespeare, the fool in King Lear serves as a model - through foolish acting, the fool can speak truth to power. The Fools seek to do the same in our modern world, to mixed effect.

I found this book fit very nicely with the rest of what I was reading. The Fools (or, well, Brother Erasmus) act as a foil for the dehumanizing effects of modern life, and so the theme fit with Dreadnought. Erasmus, and Martinelli, are heroes because of their dogged devotion to their personal cause, and so the theme fit with the Willis as well. Plus, King writes very nicely, and I appreciated that too. A surprisingly deep, and deeply satisfying, novel. Unconditional recommendation.

James Knapp - State of Decay

A debut novel for Mr. Knapp, this book features war, zombies, and police detectives. The war seems to be some sort of endless extension of the War on Terror (this is never really stated, but rather broadly implied - if we are entering into a forever war, then Knapp has described the outcome in his mind) and the zombies are the troops used to fight the war - the revivors, the re-animated corpses of those too poor or too insignificant to avoid being pressed into posthumous service. There are two ways to avoid being made into a revivor - one is to rise to the top of society as a scientist or engineer or businessperson. The other is to volunteer for pre-humous service - one way or another, service in the cause is guaranteed.

The novel follows a group of characters from various stratas of society as they work their way through life in this brave new world. A police detective struggles to make sense of a series of killings, an FBI agent deals with a zombie smuggling ring (for cheap labor, and also cheap thrills - some people like to pay for sex with revivors, it seems), a confused woman has visions of people asking her for help, and a lower class woman makes her living as a professional wrestler. Together, they unravel a complicated conspiracy, involving the zombies (naturally) and the government (sort of), and a shadowy group of shadowy people who are trying to run the world.

That description makes the whole thing sound cheap, doesn't it? It's not - this is quite well written, the characters are strong, the plot was strong, and the whole thing was quite enjoyable. Now, what remains to be seen is if Mr. Knapp will attempt a sequel - I think that will be a mistake, frankly - or is able to go off in an entirely different direction, either loosely within this setting, or somewhere else. That book would be worth reading, I think, and I'll keep my eye out for it. (edit - I note that State of Decay is the first of a trilogy - I won't go out of my way to avoid the second book [The Silent Army - out now], but I'm not putting it on my library reserve list.)

Rick Riordan - Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters

This is the second of the Percy Jackson books. I picked up the first one when the movie came out, and it was fun. This one was better than the first - fewer points where I wanted to shake the characters and shout "how could you miss that plot point, are you STUPID?!," but still not a hugely deep novel. The premise of the series - the Greek gods continue to exist and have limited influence upon the world, mostly through their half-deity offspring. Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades have taken a vow (post WWII) not to have kids anymore. Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades are the three big gods, and their offspring tend to have bigger and less intended consequences in the world (like World War Two). When I tell you that Percy (Perseus) Jackson is the son of Poseidon, you will begin to see how well the Greek gods tend to keep their promises, even to each other. The teen children of the various gods struggle against re-imagined monsters of myth (Hydra is responsible for commercial franchises, for instance), and the whole thing is a fun romp, just not all that deep.