Monday, December 31, 2007

2007 wrap-up

Self-Criticism look back at '07
Well, a really pathetic finish to what started out as a torrid year of reading. I do have some very good excuses, but ultimately, despite them, I think had I just focused a little more and spent less time noodling around on the internet I could have easily gotten the 50. My excuses were that I was in school full time and the final semester was really busy, with a group project to graduate. Everybody seems to agree that group projects are always a nightmare and this was no exception. On top of that, there was a last-minute real estate Step to Maturity in December. So reasonable excuses, but still, if I had spent those 10-20 minutes just reading instead of arguing on some obscure forum the role of narrative in roleplaying games, I probably would easily have reached my goal.

This year, though, I really did get some great reading done. I finished the awesome (though sadly not truly completed) Amtrak series. I got into George Pelecanos, a great find and got a taste of Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly, also very promising. I read some must-read sci-fi authors, like Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Charles Wilson, Tim Powers and Arthur C. Clarke. And I found a few gens here and there, like the Wreck of the Dumaru, Among Madmen and Conquest in California. Finally, it was a big year for me for Christopher Priest and Chuck Palahniuk, both of whose writing has given me a lot of enjoyment. The truth is that, despite the crumbling of civil society and the general idiocy level of most of the population of the developed world, there are still tons of great books out there and great authors still producing excellent writing and story. I am thankful for their hard and creative work.

Congrats to Others
Kudos to Print is Dead, who just kicked some serious ass this year. Not only did he read 62 books, but he also brought in a wide range of titles, introducing me to some sci-fi authors I hadn't heard of, as well as keeping me up to date on some interesting graphic novels. Honorable mention to June 23rd, with a solid 27 and to the steady MtBensonReport, who pulled through a tough and distracting year with some interesting titles (though with his all-time low of 15 books read, he's definitely going to get some good draft picks this year). Another Honorable Mention to LeBraconnier, a newcomer who started off strong, but had a quiet 4th quarter as he worked towards bringing a new reader into the world. And finally, I can't end this year without recognizing Meezly's strong showing. She's becoming a pretty impressive used bookstore patron herself these days, coming out with an armload of titles I've never heard of.

Looking Ahead
As for next year, I am shooting again for 50. I'll be working fulltime, but no more school (assuming I pass all my classes in the final semester). So it should be doable. We have a strong new addition to the meme, Doc Holaday, who has already posted a bunch of interesting books to read from his own past and looks, based on past productivity I have seen from him in other cultural contexts, to be quite strong. Finally, I hope we can see more from Buzby this year, who brought a lot of excellent non-fiction to the table in 2006. He has a good excuse for his no-show in 07 (another new reader on its way), but I think he will be able to step it up this year.

Good luck on '08 everybody! Let's do this!

46. Right as Rain by John Pelecanos

Right as Rain picture

A very solid and enjoyable effort. Many of the themes that were present in the Washington Quartet are here in this book, but it being a one-shot allowed me to just get into the story. Pelecano has a strong voice and consistent themes (relationships between black and white men, men trying to get their life back together, inner city economic failure) and I suspect that they may get a bit repetitive. However, so far this hasn't happened for me. One reason is that I agree with his themes. He's clearly an American who is proud of his country, but who is outraged by what has happened to it. He sympathizes with the underdog and the downtrodden and he has clearly seen enough of that to know that's often where the real, hardworking and proud America still exists. Another reason is that his characters, the main and the secondary ones, are cool and entertaining. The main guys are badasses in the right, subtle way and he has all kinds of rich secondary characters, like redneck meth farmers and corrupt cops.

I'm a fan of Pelecanos, but I'm going to space out reading his books. Maybe one every 6 months, maximum.

45. Ripley Under Water by Patricia Highsmith

Ripley Under Water picture

This is the 4th book in the fantastic Ripley series. I actually was suprised to see that there are 5 books in the series. I've been avoiding the Ripley series in the last couple of years, just because I have gotten so much pleasure from her stand-alone books. But I found this in a used bookstore in Berkeley for a decent price and figured it was about time to catch up with everyone's favorite civilized sociopath (or is he?).

This novel revisits the guilt of Ripley's past crimes as an American couple moves into his small french town and start intimating that they know what he's done. This moves into a campaign of subtle and not-so-subtle harrassment that forces Ripley to react. You definitely need to have read the previous Ripley books to enjoy and follow this one. There were at times so many reference catch-ups and backstory explanations that it got a bit annoying. I think it was a while between this and the last one and Highsmith was either reminding herself or her editor made her do it.

Despite these small interruptions from the flow, the book is really engaging. At this point, you've kind of come full circle with Ripley. As a reader, you are totally rooting for him (at least I was), though Highsmith still does a fantastic job of making you feel slightly uncomfortable with this. His opponent seems just as psychotic as Ripley, but he's uncivilized about it, so you hate him. It's hilariously ironic to read Ripley's thoughts about the antagonist and his wife and how abnormal and psychotic he thinks they must be.

The whole Ripley series is a study of morality. She pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable, taking the reader along with Ripley in his love of fine foods, good music, pleasant conversation and the french countryside as well as his penchance for a little murder or corpse-hiding when these things become necessary.

What is weird to me is how when the first Ripley movie came out, there was this big flurry of "re-discovering" Highsmith, with lengthy articles in (where else) the tiresome New Yorker. As if her literary legacy had completely vanished. But her books were being constantly published in the 80s and 90s and you can still find tons of used copies in non-movie branded versions. I suspect that the mystery-reading community (especially in England) has always considered her to be a mainstay. It's just that suddenly money in the form of a big movie found her and now "real" literary critics have decided that she has now surpassed the lowly depths of her genre and is allowed to be elevated to their lofty heights.

If you have never read any Highsmith, you definitely should. As I say, her books can be found in decent quantities in most used bookstores. If you are going to read the Ripleys, start at the beginning. They are a greater commitment, but definitely worth it. But any of her other books are just as rewarding and sometimes much darker and more disturbing.

Here is the order of the Ripley books:

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)
Ripley Under Ground (1970)
Ripley's Game (1974)
The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980)
Ripley Under Water (1991)

Holy disaster! I see that I made a terrible error. Ripley Under Water is the last in the series! I assumed that it was the penultimate one based on the listing I found inside two books. Wow. That screws me up. Now I am going to have to scramble to read The Boy Who Followed Ripley and then try and fold it under the last one in my brain. Not easy to do, people. This is what you get when you just buy books willy-nilly without a plan.

44. Gamesmanship by Stephen Potter

gamesmanship picture

My dad recommended this to me. He told me that when he was at UBC in the 50s, Stephen Potter came to do a lecture. He described him as a small, unassuming looking man who spoke very quietly and soberly, but by the end my dad laughed so hard that his ribs hurt.

It's a manual on how to defeat your opponent without actually being skilled at a sport or cheating. The games are british popular sports from the early middle of the 20th century: lawn tennis, croquet, billiards, golf. It's a very slim manual, with a few hilarious diagrams and instructions on how to have the more sympathetic injury, or how to create an inflated reputation. The humour is sometimes very dry and couched in very different cultural mores, but the spirit is the same today and this book will appeal to anyone with a competitive spirit. I laughed out loud many times and I will definitely use some of the techniques here.

He also has a book called Lifemanship that I definitely want to read.

I recommend it highly.

43. Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk

survivor picture
I've read enough of Palahniuk's books, that I am starting to get a sense of his style. Sometimes there is too much style in his writing. It becomes clever and precious. However, he so far has always laid his style on a solid foundation of story. Things happen in interesting ways in Palahniuk's books. This is certainly the case with Survivor, where I enjoyed most of the ride, but at times felt a bit like I was plodding through the repetitive parts to find out what happened next. In the end, it won me over. This book has some really crazy ideas in it and pretty imaginative over-the-top stuff goes down. It's worth a read.

42. Tricked by Alex Robinson

tricked picture
I really don't know anything about the context of this graphic novel. I just found it in the english section of the comic book wing at the bibliotheque nationale. It had a nice, solid line style and what looked like an engaging storyline from the few snippets I skimmed.

The story follows six characters in their individual threads. They all take place in or around a major midwestern city (Chicago?) and as the narrative progresses, you start to see the gradually increasing connections between the threads. Each story is intriguing and the characters interesting. And the payoff was, at least for me, satisfying.

A good read. Pick it up if you see it at your local comic shop or library.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

41. Somebody Owes Me Money

somebody picture

I read this book actually about a month ago and completely forgot about it. It had been in my on deck lineup for a while (possibly through the Mt. Benson report). I'm a huge Westlake fan, particularily his Parker books under the Richard Stark Pseudonym. His earlier novels often show little flashes of the granite hardness and cynical criminal knowledge of that incomparable series, so I always like to read them. Somebody Owes Me Money was much more in the light vein, with a lot of emphasis on the life of a humble NYC cabbie and gambler. It was wrapped around a not that intriguing mystery and the kind of clever idea that the murdered guy was the protagonist's bookie who owed him on a big win. In order to get paid, the hero has to solve the mystery. It passed the time. Got me to #41.

In looking for a picture for this book, I'm a little surprised to discover that Hard Case Crime is re-publishing it. I'm not sure it merits it. But I'm glad for any extra money that gets into Westlake's pocket. He deserves it. The copy I read is an old Signet paperback from 1971.

Friday, November 16, 2007

40. Bordersnakes by James Crumley

Bordersnakes picture

Well I really fell off the trail these last couple months. I blame roleplaying games. Way too many cool freebies to download. Though there is reading and story in these publications, I tend to not read them from beginning to end and rarely complete them. If I did, I might consider counting them here. Worse, they contribute to my internet-driven inability to concentrate on one thing for extended periods of time. So realizing that I'm getting near the finish line (and that Print is Dead is clearly on the way to taking this year's championship), I'm pushing myself to get back in gear.

This colourful-covered, easy-reading crime book from 1996 looked to be a good place to start. I picked it up at the only english language used bookstore east of McGill, S.W. Welch's. The owner, who reads a wide range of crime books himself (and likes the Parker books), said that Crumley's books were pretty good and well known. I was a little surprised I'd never crossed the paths of detectives Milodragovitch and Shugrue before.

I think I jumped in late in the series. The two detectives have split up and are out of the game, but get back together to right individual wrongs. The plot becomes very complex, revealing that these wrongs are wrapped up in their pasts and may be connected. I'm being deliberately vague here because it was all kind of complex and at times a bit confusing. Crumley is one of those crime writers who makes little leaps of logic and expects his readers to follow along. I'm too lazy to do that, especially when I didn't have much invested in the characters. I think jumping in at the end of these two characters' stories was a factor here. But not entirely.

This book is very violent and sometimes over the top. I like violence and excess, but I don't like sadism and excess for shock. Bordersnakes walked a thin line. The first half is really a fun ride, with the two of them driving all over texas and mixing it up with a range of freaks, criminals and weirdos. But it gets darker and nastier and less realistic in the second half, while plummeting into the darker sides of the characters themselves. For me, this went too far into self-indulgence for me and got really nasty, with a very detailed and horrific exposition of a rape scene. It was just too much. The fact of it was enough. The detail felt pornographic and indulgent. The author lost me at that point.

I'll keep an eye out for the earlier books and if I find them cheap and am stuck in an airport or something, I may pick them up. I suspect the earlier books may have been cleaner and tighter and less extreme. Bordersnakes moves fast and there is lots of good action, so it was a good way to ease back into the 50 book race.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

39. Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley pictureI read this once before, the beautifully drawn Bernie Wrightson edition, but I don't remember it well. I was probably too young to get through the early Victorian (or is it pre-Victorian and what was that period called?) language. Now, however, I thrive on the stuff.

Frankenstein is an amazing book, especially considering the stage in literature that it was written. I imagine that readers in the early 19th century must have been quite horrified by the scenes when the monster appears. In terms of the horrific things he does, punches really aren't pulled. All the loved ones get killed, innocent children and women included. Also, the monster is not slow and shambling. He's super fast and dextrous, jumping out of windows and climbing up rocky bluffs with ease.

My take on this book is that it is a condemnation of humanity. I suspect my own position on this pathetic species is colouring that interpretation. But she does a good job of showing us humanity's selfishness and cruelty through the eyes of an outsider and she portrays Dr. Frankenstein as at best morally equivocating and possibly even the bad guy of the story. You really do sympathize with the monster.

Friday, August 31, 2007

34-38. books 2-6 of the Amtrak Wars

Amtrak Series picture
Oooh, sneak attack! You weren't expecting that Carrot (though this didn't give me the lead I was hoping for, I am in the race still).

The mountain man of Mount Benson found the rest of the Amtrak War Series which I received as a very welcome surprise in the mail a couple months ago. I've been working my way through them (not much work really). I had devoured the first one and was really looking forward to continuing the series. In many ways, the set-up in the Amtrak Wars is my ideal post-apocalyptic setting. It's far in the future (1,000 years) but still has connections to the past. There is tons of unknown and mystery set up at the beginning that really hooks the fan of exploration of the unkown in me.

The themes underlying the series is also very 80s. It's the fascistic near-1984 society versus the primitive plainspeople, who are kind of rock and roll (with names named after rock bands and midwestern cities). Plus an entire post-apocalyptic feudal Japanese society that shuns electricity. It has a frank tone and pulls no punches, with the violence and sex. Sometimes this makes it feel a tad cheap, but more often it's entertaining and reminds you how precious and careful we have become with our genre writing.

Ultimately, the series moves more towards the conflict between the three major powers in this wasteland North America. The protaganists are heroes who have special powers and are clearly marked for world-changing destinies and their narrative path guides the political conflicts. I got into this, but after the third book, most of the mysteries of the world are revealed. They are pretty cool, but the series moves away from exploration, which I missed a bit.

Also, and this is pretty major, it never fully concludes. It ends very open-ended, either because the author deliberately wanted it that way (as a reader you have enough info to speculate on your own) or because he grew tired. I've heard he is a bit of a recluse now and doesn't want to talk about The Amtrak Wars. It's too bad, because I would definitely be buying the next books if he were to do them.

Overall, a fantastic find and full of tons of ideas that I'll be stealing for future gaming. This would have blown my mind if I'd read it in my adolesecent years. I'm amazed it never popped up until now.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

33. Shame the Devil by George P. Pelecanos

Shame the Devil pictureShame the Devil is the fourth book of the Washington Quartet. Here are my reviews of the first, second and third. I'll talk about this book on its own first and then briefly discuss the whole series. In Shame the Devil, the main protagonist, Dmitri Karras, is in his 40's, older and wiser and at the very beginning quite happy. This doesn't last long. I'm not going to tell you what happens, even though it's in the very first chapter, because if you start on the series, it will still be a spoiler for you. But his happiness is taken away from him and we fast forward a few years. The story now finds Dmitri slowly pulling his life back together when the cause of his downfall in the first place returns.

Shame the Devil weaves a semi-objective crime story, following the paths of two sociopathic, professional criminals, with a story of adulthood and recovery, with a tablespoon of revenge. Pelecanos books always move forward and his settings and characters are rich and engaging. Where the third book bogged down a bit, becoming too dark and too concerned with which song was being played or what kind of clothes people were wearing, here he seems to have found his balance again. It's a quick, entertaining and moving book. It redeemed the quartet in my eyes.

I think it's a bit erroneous to refer to these four books as "the Washington Quartet". I believe he has other books that take place in D.C. and characters here definitely show up in other lines of his. I believe that Nick Stefanos has his own series and he is one of the major characters here. I could be wrong. Nevertheless, the four books make a very satisfying story arc. They are realistic and the characters complex. And they definitely give me a great sense of a city that has abandoned its roots. I can see why Pelecanos got tapped to write for the Wire. This is good stuff and gives me some hope for our otherwise wasted generation.

Of the four, though, the first is still definitely my favorite.

Monday, July 30, 2007

32. Blood of the Gods and Other Stories by Robert E. Howard

Wreck of the Dumaru pictureThe little book troll of Mount Benson gave me this book (for my birthday, I think) a couple years ago. I have been slowly reading it one story at a time in between novels. Howard's short stories are so turgid and dense that you don't want to read one right after the other. It's best to take each story as a little novella on it's own and get right into it.

These are all short stories that take place in and around Afghanistan, during the period of Great Game. Most of the stories feature El Borak, a wild Texan who long ago adopted the ways of the desert and mountain people. He respects their culture and lives among them, but he also has to lay the beat down on them often when their naturally savage ways come to the fore. He delivers the same treatment to Europeans of weak moral fibre who come to this land to exploit and plunder.

The final story stars Kirby O'Donnel, whose exploits I had quite enjoyed in another paperback I found that were just about him. Those took place on the docks of pre-war Shanghai and he was mainly a boxer and dockman. Here, Kirby is in the desert as well, I guess just part of a world-jumping sailors many adventures.

Great stuff all around. There is a reason Howard is considered a master today. He always delivers and it is cool to read his fierce, adventuresome writing in a different context than Hyboria.

This collection was put together by Girasol Collectibles, who have been reprinting Howard's works (as have some other publishers). It is really great to be able to finally read Howard's work on its own as well as to find all these other lost gems that he produced.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

31. The Wreck of the Dumaru by Lowell Thomas (actually Fritz Harmon)

Wreck of the Dumaru pictureI found this book at the local thrift store. The sub-title is "A Story of Cannibalism in an Open Boat" and it has real pictures of a cool old freighter as well as the old salts who were on her. It's an old book, yellowed pages, dust jacket long since gone, part of the "Lowell Thomas Adventure Library". I learned later that Lowell Thomas was a promoter, radio announcer and general publicity guy who was very well known in the 20s, 30s and 40s. He is credited for making famous the story of Lawrence of Arabia. I put this in context because it was weird to me that he is credited as the author of this story, considering that he only wrote the first chapter and the rest was written by Fred Harmon, the guy who actually lived the story. It's funny, because the first chapter is really floridly written and almost discouraged me from continuing. Fortunately, the rest of the book is really clear and direct. As Thomas (slightly patronizingly) says "an extraordinary simplicity and graphic power, with that strength and reality which a man unschooled to writing and to literary artifice can achieve when the impressions of some fearful crisis have graven themselves on his brain."

The story is about a poorly and quickly built merchant ship, during the First World War. Most of the men on it were forced to be there, there only alternative to going to the trenches or in some cases jail. Once on, they found out that it was carrying a load of dynamite. It got caught in a lightning storm just off of Guam and blew up. The bulk of the story is one of the three life boats (actually two life boats and a raft), which was carrying almost twice its capacity (because the first life raft deserted) and had only a tin of biscuits and two gallons of water. They got caught at the first day of the tradewinds, which pushed them away from shore and ended up floating in the sea for 24 days. It got rough. Some went mad, over half just died and in the end there definitely was some cannibalism.

It turned out to be a great read. The author is clearly a straightforward guy but an observer and he spends the first chapter detailing the boat and then all the crazy misfits and castoffs that manned her. When we finally get to the lifeboat, you already know a lot of the characters well and you dread how they are going to behave under the pressure of surival. The narrative goes through it all in an engrossing, enjoyable but dreadful detail. When they do finally resort to eating one of the bodies, you are truly horrified, but also relieved because it actually ends up prolonging their lives and giving them enough energy to push on. But it is really disturbing. They strip the meat (what was left of it) from one of the guys thighs just after he dies, as he is lying there with his legs straight out in front of him. And they cook it in a tiny metal biscuit tin. It freaks you out!

I don't know if this book is around in any form other than a lucky find. But I am glad I found it. A great slice of sea life and an amazing story of survival and human behaviour.

[In searching for the cover of the book I have, I noticed that this story was published in 4 parts in Argosy magazine.]

Monday, June 25, 2007

30. Last Call by Tim Powers

Last Call pictureI'm kind of surprised that I had never heard of Tim Powers before now. He's made his mark in sub-genres that interest me and yet his name hasn't come up until this year. It did come up because his books are considered to be one of the major inspirations for the tabletop RPG Unknown Armies. I've been playing in a campaign of this since the beginning of the year and was told that if I liked the setting, I should check out Tim Powers.

Last Call is a modern occult noir adventure. It takes place in the real world, but one in which not so far underneath the civilian surface, there is a world of powerful magic that is accessed and manipulated by gambling, consumption, drinking and a range of other very creative and bizarre ideas. I am not a big fan of "the occult" in fiction, generally because I find the aesthetic pretty limited. It's usually either brooding goth vampires, fruity new age suckers or post-hippy wiccans in loose fitting natural fibres. Last Call is totally the opposite. The people who practice the magic are criminals, low-lifes, alchoholic losers, the kind of characters you would expect to find in a Charles Willeford or Elmore Leonard book, except really weird. Actually, some of the characters in Carl Hiassen's book, minus the slight humour, would fit well in Tim Powers movies. But these guys are weird! There is an immensely fat man who is obsessed with maintaining the living vitality in his body, so he's constantly eating living things (like getting out of his car to munch an on aloe vera plant in the yard of the person he is spying on) and smearing his obese, tattooed body with ray-ban to keep the energy trapped inside of him. There are characters who have children and raise them just so they can take over their body when they get old. It's weird and dark.

The book opens with a boy who was destined to have his body taken over by his father (his older brother spent most of his time on their roof, acting as eyes for his father), but whose mother saves him at the last minute. We jump forward to the present, where the boy is now grown up and an alchoholic who the more he drinks, the more he is able to bring back a physical manifestation of his wife who died recently. However, crazy stuff starts happening to him and he learns that his father (whom he doesn't know and who is by now a very powerful practitioner) is gathering his magic to call all the bodies he controls (which he "bought" playing a special ancient card game at a certain time and date). After a certain point, the protagonist will lose control over himself and become another empty vessel that his father will use to extend his life. Things are much more complicated than that. There are many other important characters and wrinkles in the story line, but that is the central thread. It's actually quite epic in scale, ultimately, but the whole book is grounded in such a seedy, criminal world that it doesn't have an epic feel at all.

I really enjoyed Last Call. It had an anarchic feel in the pacing and behaviour of the characters. Powers comes up with some pretty amazing ideas and he is willing to push them to extreme ends. It took me a little while to get linked into to what exactly was going, just because there is so much detail to the magic and its effects, but once I got a sense of the structure of the world he is portraying, I really got into it. Cool stuff and I'll be keeping my open for other books by him.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

29. Conquest in California by Berkeley Gray

Conquest in California pictureMy reading consumption has dropped off considerably with the start of summer. Nice weather, gaming, weddings, etc. are making it hard for me to sit down and make good progress. Fortunately, I've had Conquest in California in my side pocket for the last couple weeks and have been stealing pages from it when I could.

I picked it up at an antiques store for a buck. As you can see, the cover alone is enough. I did a bit of internet research and discovered that Gray was a pseudonym for Edwy Searles Brooks, a journeyman British author who produced a massive amount of published work. Conquest was one of his later and more succesful series.

Norman Conquest (get it) is a young englishman of excellent character, wealthy and athletic. And fearless. He lives to get in scraps and have adventures. In this one, he rescues a young American girl (a blonde to which he is always attracted) from a threatening thug. This gets him caught up in a tale of small-town corruption in Clam City, California, where Conquest goes to show American thugs how its done and clean up the mess. There is a lot of not-so-subtle British pride here. I wouldn't go so far as to say it is anti-American, but you can tell that the writer and the intended audience have a bit of a chip on their shoulder. Lines like "Conquest swung his fist up with a short, outward jerk of the elbow and struck the American on the side of the jaw," give a good sense of where this book is coming from.

It was a fun read, particularly for the setting and the side characters. The plot is pretty straightforward and moves forward a bit too clunkily. There is a lot of repetition of exposition and a lot of the author telling us how awesome Norman Conquest is. Sometimes it is very effective, but generally you get the feeling that the whole thing could have been cut down a lot and the book would still have been entertaining.

I would check another one of these out if they come across my path. Check out these sweet covers!

Friday, May 25, 2007

28. Killing Mr. Griffin by Lois Duncan

Killing Mr. Griffin pictureI don't know if the name Lois Duncan rings a bell for you, but her books were all the rage when I was an adolescent back in the early 80s. She wrote teen horror novels that were genuinely freaky. I think they appealed to girls more and I have a vague memory of my sister getting them from the library and me reading them. She also wrote "I Know What You Did Last Summer" which got made into a series of teen horror flicks in the last few years.

Killing Mr. Griffin is about a group of high school students who get together to kidnap and scare a really severe english teacher. The tale is told mainly through the eyes of a square loser who gets coerced by the cool group because she won't be suspected. Of course, as suggested by the title, the plan goes too far and the teacher dies.

It's funny because before I started reading this book, I felt a bit cheap about it, like I shouldn't count it as one of my fifty because it wasn't that long and written for teens. But it actually took me a while to get into it. I'm just really not interested at all in the insecurities of teenages, especially girls. I wasn't when I was a teenager (not to say I didn't have them!) and I sure am not now. But once I got into the story, it went very quickly. It's well-written, clear and straightforward, though in a manner that one might associate with a book aimed at teenage girls (very direct emotional exposition). The characters are actually quite good. Each of the teens is slowly revealed, as well as the family around them. Their motivations make sense and nobody is really annoying or stupid. And the narrative moves forward. It's gripping. Though it all wraps up neatly, this almost seems like an afterthought, as everything really goes to shit in quite a nice way. You sense that Duncan prefers the chaos and impending doom to the happy ending.

What struck me most about this book is that it didn't pull any punches. The teens drink and smoke weed, without a big deal being made about it. Bad stuff happens and nobody is blamed. Duncan seems to be saying that bad shit can happen and it can be impossible to avoid. She doesn't waste any time moralizing or making her characters struggle with moral dilemmas. They make mistakes but you can see that it would have been almost impossible for them to do other wise. I have no idea what modern day realistic fiction teens are reading today, but I have this suspicion it is watered down and compromised with morals. I know that fantasy is back in a big way and it is too easy to avoid real harshness in that reality. Something about these teen books from the 70s were really hardcore, like Roger Cormack and SE Hinton (though she was really the one that started it all probably). I remember seeing them for order in those Arrow or whatever catalogues we used to get and feeling freaked out by their toughness and adulthood.

Monday, May 21, 2007

27. Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

Shutter Island pictureI had heard about Dennis Lehane because he is also one of the writer's for the best television series ever "The Wire". The producers chose writers for that show from people who wrote succesful genre fiction local to the urban northeast. Dennis Lehane's area of expertise is Boston.

However, Shutter Island, actually takes place on a small island outside of Boston. So it doesn't draw too much on local flavour. The island is home to a prison for the criminally insane. It's 1948 and two U.S. Marshals have been sent to the island because one of the patients has escaped. Things are weird right from the start, particularly how nobody seems all that freaked out. They get much weirder.

I am not going to go into any detail because I would say this book is good enough to recommend and part of the pleasure of the read is figuring out what is going on. Sometimes when you don't know what kind of a book a book is, what boundaries are acceptable given the genre and setting, you can be critical while you are reading it and then realize 50 pages later that what was going on was actually quite cool. Now, I don't like a book where you finish and then look back and think that was actually kind of interesting (this is even worse with movies). I want to be entertained while I am reading it and if I am constantly critical then I am not being entertained.

Fortunately, this is not the case with Shutter Island. The characters are interesting, the dialogue gripping and the setting is fantastic. There is enough weirdness, action, intrigue and mystery to keep you hooked. There were some false spots and sometimes the writing was a bit too florid (a common problem even among the better American authors these days; sparsity, people, sparsity!). Overall, though, a great, quick read. Recommend it for the plane or the beach or a rainy day with nothing to do.

Friday, May 18, 2007

26. The Separation by Christopher Priest

The Separation pictureSince seeing The Prestige, I became aware that Christopher Priest's career is going stronger than ever. The library here actually had 4 hardback copies of The Separation and it seems to have gotten such rave reviews, yet it completely passed under the radar here in North America.

There is something about Priest's writing style that compells me and yet keeps me at a certain distance. I suspect that he is a very careful writer, crafting his sentences because his prose always has a slightly objective feel to it, as if the characters themselves are slightly removed from their own lives. I really like that because it avoids all the flowery adverbs and adjectives and excessive self-psychology of so many american authors (even good ones). On the other hand, it can sometimes make you feel not totally caught up in the book. Again, I suspect it is deliberate, because he is still very good at changing the voice when he changes narrators.

The Separation is a story where these kinds of details are very signficant, because not only does it jump around from narrator, it also appears to jump around in realities! The basic story is framed in a contemporary author who writes histories of the Second World War. He is researching an elusive individual who, from his research, appears to have been both a concientious objector and an RAF bomber pilot. The bulk of the book is then the narrative of these characters, who turn out to be twin brothers. We see their story through their eyes and through a few other characters around them, as well as some historical documents.

On the surface, they were both excellent athletes, who rowed for England in the 36 Olympics in Berlin and then fought over their differing positions on war. One became an objector and a Red Cross worker, the other an RAF bomber. Each gets involved in some way with the escape of Rudolph Hess in 1941 (who, in our world, split from Hitler and claimed he was trying to make peace with England and ended his life in prison in Nuremburg).

From what I've written so far, it all sounds very straightforward. What I haven't omitted is that the modern author is living in a time very different from our own. I won't go into any more detail because it is cool in the reading. And as you read the various narratives, things get even weirder. This is what makes this such a great book. The stories of the twins are absorbing and ultimately really moving, but it is also working at a much bigger level, where complex layers of alternating realities make the reader question what drives history forward and how certain decisions make change in the world. I don't know if I get entirely what Priest's goal was but this is a rich, complex and moral book that makes you question your own stand on war, without lacking entertainment.

It is also clear that Priest has done a great deal of research himself, both on the larger political developments of the Second World War as well as the more personal details of living under the blitz and piloting a bomber. This makes this book a great read for any WWII buffs as well as sci-fi fans. Probably the most impactful book I've read this year so far.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

25. A Man of Affairs by John D. MacDonald

A Man of Affairs pictureThis is another of John D. MacDonald's non-Travis McGee books, dealing with business machinations and intrigue. I really enjoyed "A Key to the Suite" so I keep an eye open for these when they show up at used book stores. They are cheap, with cool covers and he has written quite a few. He does a good job of capturing the world of white male businessmen from the top to the bottom. And the corruption is there at every level. It takes different forms, but MacDonald does not hold back in showing that the evil and slime is inside the suit of the most sophisticated CEO as well as the tough who unloads the shrimp boat (and is handy with a gaff).

A Man of Affairs does not actually get so violent. It is more of a social drama. A group of people are invited to a private island in the Bahamas where they are being wooed to sell their shares to a shark-like investor (similar to the Gordon Gecko character, except 20 years earlier; just shows how little changes in the world of business). There are conflicts and sex and intrigue. It all centers around the one lower middle-class hardworking guy who has kept the company alive while its founder died. His ethical struggle, whether to accept the shark's tantalizing offer or fight him, is the center of the book.

Overall, this is good stuff and I am a big fan of MacDonald. But he loses me with the modern, romantic dialogue that goes on between the protagonist and his love interest. It's this really painful mix of early 60's white people lingo and what he considers post-feminism. So the women are frank, but coded, about sex in a way that is meant to be really adult and sophisticated but only reinforces the sexism of the period. And it is just annoying. This book has way, way too much of it. [insert quote here].

The ending was also all a bit pat. But it was still a good, quick airplane read with some great characters and descriptions and a bit of corporate tension.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

24. The Dreaming Jewels by Theodore Sturgeon

The Dreaming Jewels pictureI actually read this book before the Jack Tatum autobiography. I somehow forgot it in my rush to get library books back on time. I found this one purely at random at the library. I have definitely heard the name Theodore Sturgeon before and I feel that somewhere it pops up in a Gilbert Shelton comic (can anyone verify this?).

The Dreaming Jewels is about an adopted boy who runs away from his totally abusive father. He hitches a ride with a bunch of midgets who happen to be a part of a carny. The only thing he brings with him is a jack-in-the-box doll (now smashed by his adopted father) with peculiar jewel eyes. As the story progresses, you see that the eyes and the boy are strangely connected. The narrative gets even deeper as the manager of the carny turns out to be a disgraced doctor who hates humanity and is obsessed with these strange jewels he once discovered.

This is a really interesting book, because it is a mix of two strong (and not well-respected) genres of the time it was written(1950): science fiction and crime. It is kind of half Charles Willeford half Andre Norton. There are seedy jazz clubs, carny love, corrupt local judges as well as telepathic powers, non-human intelligences and mad science. It's a combination that I really enjoyed, like my own personal genre peanut butter cup. Furthermore, this book went fast, the characters were interesting and well realized and there are some strong and moving themes about humanity and cruelty. I am definitely going to stay on the Theodore Sturgeon path.

23. They Call Me Assassin by Jack Tatum with Bill Kushner

The Call Me Assassin pictureI lived in Oakland, CA until I was 10 years old and I was a huge Raiders fan. John Matuszak actually lived up the block from us for a summer (these were very different times for professional athletes). I had the entire 1978 team in football cards and I went to the rally to keep the Raiders in Oakland. There I met many of the Raiders as well as the Raiderettes. My favorite player was the punter Ray Guy but I was pretty psyched to meet Jack Tatum, the infamous free safety. We shook my hands and I still remember how his huge hand completely enveloped mine. I was pretty psyched.

I found his book for fifty cents. Perfect plane reading. He talks a lot about his role on the team and his philosophy towards organized violence. Basically, he comes off as a very gentle, thoughtful person who knows his expertise and primary attributes are physical. So he uses them to the maximum within the rules allowed. He walks a thin line, sometimes sounding quite reasonable and other times quite scary. This contradiction is wrapped up quite nicely in this sentence: "I've used the word "kill" and when I'm hitting someone I really am trying to kill, but not like forever." The beginning and ending of the book go into this issue in some depth and ultimately, I kind of side with Tatum. You get the sense that the level of competition is so intense in the NFL that you have to be going for the kill or you'll lose your job.

The rest of the book follows his childhood in rural North Carolina and then urban (and rough) New Jersey, his college career and his first years with the Raiders. He also dedicates a chapter to rating his contemporaries, which brought back a lot of names and memories for me, particularily of that awesome Raiders team. They just don't build them like that anymore. Willie Brown, Fred Bilitnekoff, George Atkinson, Kenny Stabler, my man Cliff Branch.

There is one key passage that to me captures the old spirit of sports that seems totally lost today. In the last week of the 1976 season, the Raiders were guaranteed a spot in the playoffs. They had a final, meaningless to them, game against Cincinatti. The Bengals had been on a tear and if they won, they would make the playoffs and knock the Steelers out. The Steelers were Oakland's main rival, had knocked them out of the playoffs two years before and were still considered a much tougher opponent, despite losing control of their own regular season. Oakland could have let Cincinatti win and thus avoided the Steelers in the playoffs. Here is what Jack had to say about that:

When you honestly believe you are the best in any profession, you do not shy away from a challenge; you seek out the best of the competition to test your talents against. Sure, Cincinnati had the potential to "get lucky" and beat us, but it would be a most difficult task. As Oakland Raiders, my teammates and I had no need of any of the Steeler psychology to get us ready for the Bengals. To go on to win the Super Bowl without facing Pittsburgh again would have been a very shallow victory indeed. But to blast Cincinnati away and trample everyone who got in the way of our rush to become number one, well, that is what our motto "Pride and Poise" is all about. It's all a part of becoming a man and being called a professional. To hide from any player or team is cowardice. If I had felt the Raiders were going to lay down, I would have asked to sit this one out. Maybe I would have even asked to be traded. Never in my career have I ever approached a football game or anything with the thought of letting the other team win. When Monday night came along, I am proud to say that every member on the Raider team and staff went onto the field with a ruthless attitude toward the Bengals.

They ended up winning 34-21 and then went on to become Super Bowl champions.

Maybe the Mavs should have read that before tanking it against the Warriors in the final game of the regular season only to have the not-worthy Warriors slap them down and out in the first round.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

22. Darwinia by Robert Charles Wilson

Darwinia picturePicked this one up on a total fluke. Meezly and I were in the sci-fi/fantasy section of la Bibliotheque Nationale (can you tell I am living well!:)) when this book caught her eye. She is a student of all things Darwinian (being highly evolved). She only glanced at it and put it back, but being in a very pulp/explorer phase right now I was intrigued by the cover, kept looking and decided to take it out. Plus, I had read The Chronoliths by the same author and was still interested in reading more of his work.

The whim was a good one as this turned out to be an excellent book. It follows the life of a young man born on the turn of the twentieth century. When he is 8 years old, he witnesses, as does the rest of the world, a strange light in the sky and the following total transformation of most of Europe into an entirely different ecology. The landmasses are the same, but the plant and animal life is totally alien and all the humans and their work is gone. The book then follows the protagonists exploration of this transformed continent and how the revelations of its origins change his life and the entire world.

It is, in effect, an alternate history. I was a little disappointed after the first half because I was hoping there would be more exploration and discovery of the crazy details of this alien world transposed upon earth. I was also hoping for more depth on the resurgence of creationism (because with such an obvious 'miracle' the theory of evolution becomes completely discounted but for a few heretics) and the conflicts that would arise from that. I suspect that this book would have been better served in a longer format, like a trilogy, because the questions it poses and the story possibilities it creates are vast.

On the other hand, I appreciated that the actual source of the transformation and the great story behind it is fully explained and justified. I won't say more beyond that it is big picture science fiction (reminded me a lot of some of Zelazny's ideas). I am actually glad that it was kept to one single book, even though I felt some things were skipped or rushed over. As I have said many times, I have neither the will nor the time to get into long series and trilogies, so Darwinia served me well.

A rich and satisfying read, with a gripping story and some very cool concepts. Recommended.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

21. Roadblaster #1: Hell Ride by Paul Hofrichter

Roadblaster pictureI found this nugget of Reagan-era nuclear holocaust pulp literature at S.W. Welch's moving sale for a buck. It came out around the same time as the Outrider series and is clearly riffing off the Road Warrior. It's after the Nuclear War that everyone feared in the 80s and now the good and plucky must work together to fight against the savages that rise up in times of chaos.

I speak a bit disimissively of this book, as it is pretty junky in many ways. However, it also has some good stuff in it. The story follows an outdoor hobbyist, from New York, but on vacation camping and hunting in the Northern California mountains. It also jumps around to a B-52 crew who were on their way to nuke Siberia when they developed engine trouble, a gang of bikers and the citizens of the small town they decide to take over. All these characters converge in a fairly entertaining way.

Here's what's good: The opening scene, when the guy is at the top of a mountain looking out towards the coast and suddenly sees mushroom clouds blossoming all over the place is pretty cool. Following the air crew as well is quite cool. The author doees a decent job of describing how the civil infrastructure would respond to being nuked, but he keeps most of the action in the small towns, where that kind of thing is easier to handle as a writer. If you are a student of the genre, this book has some good stuff in it.

What's bad, however, is that it is saturated with pornographic descriptions of violence, explosions and rape. There are a couple scenes that minus their brutality could have come off the pages of Penthouse Forum (or at least what I would imagine those pages would read like ;) ) Every bullet wound, every knife stab is described in blow by blow detail with loving attention paid to the death rattle. It's the same with explosions. I guess that is what the audience of the time demanded, but it leaves a kind of sour taste in your mouth. The story is nasty enough without needing to go into that kind of detail. Though there is one pretty good over the top scene where the bikers have kidnapped the hero's proxy daughter and they are forcing her to perform oral sex on one of them. The hero sneaks up on them, armed and blows the guys dick off while it's in her mouth. With a rifle!

It doesn't have the same kind of crazy inventiveness as the Outrider books and lacks the fun, but there are some good grim details here that makes it rise above the Mack Bolan level of serialized fiction paperbacks. I'll keep my eye out for #2 and #3.

(note: the image above is an original scan because I couldn't find the cover anywhere on the net. Getting old school, boy!)

20. A Good School by Richard Yates

Richard Yates pictureI was looking for Revolutionary Road as it came recommended by a few people, but they didn't have it at the Bibliotheque Nationale, so I picked this one up. I am prety sure it is autobiographical. It's the story of a middle-class New York boy who gets sent off to a boarding school in New England in the early '40s. Though it has the fading remnants of a strong old school tradition, it is financially failing and looked down upon or not even considered at all by the other private schools.

There really isn't much of a storyline. More like a series of moments and vignettes that connect together to show the last couple years of this school and the narrator's development through it. He starts out as a real social loser, but shows some skill in writing and gets a position on the school paper, which by the end of the book he is basically running. He still has his social problems, but they are nowhere near as acute as in his first year and the reader gains some satisfaction in this.

Overall, I liked the book, but it had its real ups and downs for me. There is a lot of homoerotic behaviour and suggestion, both in what happens and in the writing (this boy was beautiful, this boy made the teacher blush). I went to a boarding school and maybe it was because it was in Canada or the west coast or this time period, but we were not holding weaker boys down and masturbating them, as goes on here. I was suspicious whether this was real stuff that happened, or a New York 70s writer embellishing to make things more sexy. I'm conservative in this way and I was reacting to all this fruitiness in the first quarter of the book. But the writing is good and seems real and as it moved forward, I could believe the collection of people and there perspective on the war (all of the boys were being sent off to fight upon graduation). So it won me over in the end. A nice little book, though I retain some suspicions.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

19. Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

Haunted cover pictureI took this one out from the Library. It's a story about a group of people, each who has responded to an ad for a writer's retreat where they are promised to be taken out of their lives and given the chance to finally focus on writing. What actually happens is that they end up locked in a deserted old theatre with no way out. All the doorways and windows have been sealed in with brick. They have freeze-dried food to last several months, heating, running water and a place to sleep. However, instead of writing or trying to escape, they become obsessed with figuring out a way to turn what is happening to them into fame and fortune.

It's hard to say if it's because each character is so damaged and screwed in the first place or if it is Palahniuk's critique of modern society, but they begin to destroy each other and themselves in their efforts to be the one who suffered the most in this terrible crime. So they start poking holes in the food bags so the food will rot, destroying the plumbing, the heating and the washing machine, mutilating themselves.

The story is structured so that every third chapter is the progress of the narrative in the theatre. After that is a short poem about each character and after that is a short story by and about that character, revealing their pasts, what brought them to this writer's retreat. In effect, it is a short-story collection wrapped into a greater narrative. The stories themselves were for me the best part. There are some truly disturbing, crazy ideas here. The first story is so grotesque, so over the top that I was actually laughing hysterically out loud while reading it. It is far and away the most nuts masturbation story I have ever heard. There are several other moments in the book that were truly shocking. Yet somehow they don't seem to be shocking for shock's sake. They seem genuine. Nonetheless, still very disturbing.

I am not so positive about the overall narrative. Unlike Diary, there didn't seem to be an overarching explanation or revelation for what was going on or why. It was more thematic and metaphorical and I found that a bit unsatsifying. Also, there was no real development or arc for all the characters, once things got really rough. It's also a bit long. There are a lot of characters.

Still, this is probably the most disturbing and shocking thing I have read in a long time, which is saying something. Palahniuk doesn't pull any punches and he doesn't apologize. If that sort of thing appeals to you, I strongly recommend it. If you are looking for a more solid narrative, then maybe Diary might be a better choice. If you really want to be freaked out and not commit to the whole book, I recommend just reading the first short-story by Saint Gut Free, it's called "Guts". You could probably find it in the bookstore. It's short and really blew my mind.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

18. Terror's Cradle by Duncan Kyle

Terror's Cradle cover pictureI picked this one up for 50 cents at a bookstore on St. Catherine. I have always considered Duncan Kyle the poor man's Desmond Bagley. Both are Scottish and both wrote succesful solid, manly thrillers in the 60s and 70s. I think I should probably give Kyle a little more credit. He just didn't have the same publishing clout as Bagley, whose books are produced in nice consistent thematic runs, so they look really cool on your shelf. But Kyle is good, competent. Normal, british-tough, realistic men getting caught up in dangerous situations.

Terror's Cradle stars journalist John Sellers who gets caught up in a spy game when he goes after his missing co-worker and unrequited love. There is action and intrigue in Vegas, Gothenberg and finally the Shetland Islands. Good stuff.

Friday, March 16, 2007

17. Among Madmen by Jim Starlin and Dana Graziunas

Among Madmen cover pictureI feel like this was a cool Post-apocalyptic find. S.W. Welch's, the stalwart used bookstore on the Main, right across the streets from Schwartz's is moving (sad days as the Main slowly transforms) and they had a big $1 sale. There really wasn't any real treasures, but I found a few neat things, including this little gem, a novel with illustrations ("A unique new form of novel" or something like that it says on the back).

The story takes place in a small town in the Catskills, holding out after the Troubles. The Troubles in this case is a plague that first and gradually starts turning people into shambling vegetables. They aren't threatening or anything, but as their numbers increase, they slowly become a massive social and logistical weight on society. I mean what do you do with them? Just when things are getting really ugly (vegetables being rounded up and shipped to islands, mass starvation, economic collapse) a new strain of the virus, starts turning others into total psycho beserkers. It's worse than just turning them violent, because they retain their intelligence and some of them plot and take their time before exacting their own specific form of sadistic cruelty. It's an intricate but well-thought out apocalypse and quite fun in the telling.

The hero is an ex-Vietnamen vet, ex-NYC cop who made his way to the Catskills. The town is fortified and there are enough competent people here (used to hunting and living in the forest) that it manages to hold on, despite the occassional veg-out or psycho transformation as well as bands of marauders and bandits.

The story is about the hero as he tries to protect the town and his relationship with his wife, who has turned into a psycho. The disease manifests itself differently in her, coming out only after she has had sex. The guy has the situation all planned out, where he locks her in a padded closet until after her good self returns. Of course, the town is not happy with his situation and this is a major source of conflict.

A lot of the book is about how people deal with their loved ones when they have gone psycho or veg. One woman cares for her husband, even though he shows up in town naked wandering around with his jaw hanging open every now and then. Another woman has her psycho son chained to the back porch. He lives in a doghouse and when he is calm, she spends time with him. It's cool because when she first does it, the kid, who was always a pudgy wimp, is so fat and harmless that the sheriff can't bring himself to shoot him and lets the lady keep him. However, after months of snarling and yanking on his chain and eating whatever raw meat the lady throws him, the kid starts getting thin and strong and starts to become a real problem. I thought that was a neat idea.

There is nothing super profound here, but it is a lot of fun and competently written. There isn't any excessive bullshit either and the setting follows its internal logic well. A good little find and I'm glad to add it to the PA collection.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

16. Diary: a novel by Chuck Palahniuk

Diary cover pictureI've had a few recommendations to read Chuck Palahniuk. It was the one that came after the 4th pitcher, along with the argument that he writes concisely, that convinced me to actually give him a try. The specific book (Lullaby) in question wasn't available at the library, so I took out Diary.

I had no real expectations. The story starts out sort of indirectly, written in a mix of third and second person, as if you are being spoken to. It narrates the life of a woman who is currently living on an old blue-blood island somewhere off the northeastern coast of the U.S. She was originally from a small trailer-trash town in the midwest, went to art school where she met this young boy from the island. She had dreams of becoming a great painter, but instead got pregnant, fat and ended up waiting tables at the island's only hotel. Her husband tried to kill himself and is now in a coma. But shit is getting weirder and it seems to be amping up. Her husband was a contractor for people's summer homes and now they are all calling her, in yuppy outrage, discovering that he had done some bizarre remodeling in their absence, such as sealing off entire rooms. Worse, when re-opened, the walls of the rooms are covered in crazy, violent graffitti.

Diary goes into a few interesting areas, critiquing art school and rich art students, attacking our consumerist society and it's endless appetite for new vacations spots to take over and destroy, there's even a bit of art theory. But the story keeps moving forward and the prose is entertaining. [sort of spoilers ahead]Because I had no expectations, I was concerned that the book was going to go into some weird places without actually concluding the story or revealing the mystery. It turns out to have a very solid backstory and a very cool one at that. The book is very much a classic horror tale. Ironically, in some ways I was almost dissapointed that it made so much sense at the end. Could it be that I am becoming more sophisticated? (highly doubtful). I think it was more that when the actual situation becomes clear it is done in such a blatant, obvious way that after the weirder, less direct prose of the first two-thirds, it's kind of jarring.

Cool book, though. I will definitely check out more of his work.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

15. Blindsight by Peter Watts

Blindsight cover picture
Whew! This was a challenging book. It's a good book, too, but I can't say I really enjoyed it as I was reading it. It's too bad, because Peter Watts is an intelligent and interesting writer. I loved his first book, Starfish, and liked the follow-up to that Maelstrom. I still have two more books to read in that series, but the Mt. Benson Report got me Blindsight for xmas (much appreciated!) and it is a stand-alone book.

Blindsight takes place quite far in the future. You only get snatches and glimpses of what it is like on earth, but technology is advanced enough that it's considered deviant to have sex outside of the virtual world, terrorists use genetic bombs that can cause people's bodies to start growing a new skeleton (thus tearing them apart), and people's brains can be transferred to other bodie or connected directly to virtual realities where they spend their entire lives. One day, earth is surrounded by what looks like a giant meteor shower. A skyfall of exploding stars. Nothing beyond that happens, but the scientists of earth believe that our planet has just been photographed. This causes a great deal of concern. By the slightest chance, an anomaly is discovered outside of Jupiter. A ship is sent out to investigate.

The story of Blindsight takes place on the ship, whose captain is a vampire (literally; an actual other species living on earth) and whose crew includes a female military officer, who can control entire brigades of drone soldiers with her mind, an expert in languages and communications, who deliberately split her own personality into 5 separate ones, a scientist who is half diagnostic computer system and half human and finally, the protagonist, a sociopath (though this greatly simplifies his personality complex) responsible for observing the whole operation and reporting it neutrally back to earth. Of course, everybody else on the ship hates him, because they feel like he is always spying on them.

The anomaly is some kind of alien thing, but so profoundly different that they can barely understand even how to approach it. The story is divided between their stumbling attempts at contacting and learning about the alien presence and the psychological conflicts and developments on the ship. As you can see, it is a really cool setup, extremely well thought out. Though some of the concepts above might sound quite fantastical and over the top in my description, the book is without a doubt, hard sci-fi and all the conceptions are based on established scientific theory (and extremely well-researched; as usual the end of the book has pages of explanations, heavily footnoted and this was cut down from the original appendix, which you can find on the website).

Watts is no joke. He's an intense, intelligent, radical-thinking person. You can see that his personality is potentially quite combative in his notes and he doesn't pull his punches. He is also someone who doesn't shy away from difficult morality and the painful side of human psychology. I respect his writing for these things. But boy can it make for a lot of work! The book is not that long and moves quickly, it's not even that dense, but there is so much complexity, so much vocabulary and implied ideas that you really have to concentrate. On top of that, there is no happiness in his world. Humans are barely capable of perceiving anything outside of their own existence, let alone connect with another human. So it isn't a joyful ride! And there are some profoundly dark and disturbing moments, where you are just feeling, ugh and hesitant to continue forward. Watts addresses the human capacity for cruelty more directly than even Banks, I would argue, and it is not pretty.

Ultimately, the presentation of the alien being and the evolution of our technological world are convincing and fascinating. I got a lot to think of out of this. The book is a success. But it is a challenging one. I recommend it, but be prepared to work a bit. If you find most sci-fi way too fluffy and positive, then I would strongly recommend it. This is original and daring and in a sea of lame ideas, that alone is worth supporting. But beyond that, Blindsight is a dark and despairing look at the profound solitude that human existence can be, both at the personal and galactic level.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

14. Cloud Warrior, Book 1 of the Amtrak Wars by Patrick Tilley

Cloud Warrior cover picture

Oh, I am in such turmoil! Our Post-apocalyptic lit expert at the Mount Benson Report recommended this book to me as being well respected in the PA community. It's part of a trilogy (which at this point seem inevitable if I am going to continue reading sci-fi). But I just went to the author's website and found it there are actually two trilogies! Oh, the reading ahead of me.

Anyways, this book rocked. Most of the PA I have read is sort of near-future disasters, things that could happen in our time (No Blade of Grass, Fugue for a Darkening Island, I Am Legend) or in a very near future (most of the Ballard books). The Amtrak Wars is big future PA, taking place 900 years after the fall, with tribes of mutants ("Mutes") on the surface and a growing community of militaristic pures living underground in a super disciplined society. The underground society is built around controlling myths and restricted information. The Mutes are blamed for the wars that destroyed the world and the whole society is geared around slowly expanding their territory on the surface, killing the Mutes (and sometimes enslaving them) as they go. The Federation (as the underground society is known) drives these giant wagon trains of super high tech battle buses and fly sorties from their roof, shooting down Mutes and dropping napalm on their fields.

The Mutes, at least the ones we see, have their own myths, which are much more spiritual. Though they suffer from physical (mainly deformities) and mental mutations (most have no memory), they have a rich tribal life, are powerful warriors and some of them have special "magical" abilities. Their spiritual leader is called a Wordsmith, because he is someone with a memory. It is the Wordsmith's job to remember the 900 years of their history and to pass this on to the next Wordsmith. There are also Seers, who can see the future in some objects, and Summoners, who can control shit with their minds.

The structure of the story is divided between Steve, a hotshot rookie pilot for the federation and Cadillac, a junior Wordsmith. Their two stories are told separately, until they come together.

I am totally into the setting. There is also tons of great action (with some pretty gruesome violence). The whole thing is really well thought out, with the mores of the tribe gradually revealed and the complexities of the Federation life as well. There is tons of mystery and I really want to find out more about what is going on behind this world. Finally, the whole thing has a mellow attitude at its core. The Mutes smoke weed and do mushrooms. You know they are the good guys.

I'm totally following this series.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

13. A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945

Grossman cover picture

Edited and translated by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova

I got this book for xmas. It is the journals of Vasily Grossman, who was one of the major Russian war correspondents in the Russian front during WWII. He wrote a couple of novels, including one about Stalingrad. Riding with the russian army as it entered Poland and Germany, he was also one of the first to see the concentration camps and his writings on that were a significant part of the evidence used at the Nuremburg trials.

Antony Beevor is a well-regarded military historian and his Stalingrad was another book that I really enjoyed. He puts the journals excerpts into context, framing each one with information about the progress of the war, the political context and backgrounds of individuals mentioned. It's just the right amount. The footnotes, especially, are sparse and appropriate. I really hate histories with excessive footnoting. I feel compelled to read them, but they distract from the main narrative. Beevor gets it right here.

The story is just incredible. Stalingrad is an amazing piece of history, but the subsequent German retreat is even more crazy, as captured villages are freed, and the peasants come out from hiding in the forest or households taken over by the nazis tell their stories. When the Russians finally get into Germany, they pick up speed and their revenge is famously fierce. There are roads so deep with german bodies that the tanks just drive on top of them. Grossman was present for all of this and his journals capture more than what he was allowed to write in the official newspapers. He has the perspective of the civilian who has deep respect for the soldier. Because he has lived side by side with them, he also gains their respect and they open up to him more than they normally would.

This book really impacted me for many reasons. It was a reminder of the scale of the Second World War. I know the history, but when you delve back into the details, it is just mind-blowing. It reminds me again of how soft we have become. How minor something like 9/11 is in the world scale of war (obviously not minor to the people directly affected, but no violence is). Just for one example, before the war Warsaw had 1,310,000 people. When the Russians arrived, there were 162,000 living there. 380,000 of the inhabitants were Jews who first held in the Lodz ghetto and then sent to their deaths.

The second thing that blew my mind was Grossman's incredibly detailed and specific recounting of how the extermination worked at Treblinka. I had read his original essay in college "The Hell Called Treblinka" but had forgotten how incredibly powerful it is. I wish this was in the public domain, because I think it should be mandatory reading for all human beings. It goes a long way towards demolishing that myth that humans have some kind of innate moral superiority. The combination of mechanistic efficiency and terror are profoundly frightening. Stayed with me for days.

Finally, the history of that period is so fascinating. It is completely against my nature, but I am growing more and more attracted to Russian stuff, the history, the writers, the culture. Those pretentious kids that decided to be all interested in Russia used to annoy the shit out of me in college, but sort of accidently, through the few Russian books I read and some Russian friends, I am seeing the appeal. Their phlegmatic and tough character is pretty cool and the way it weaves its way through their propaganda, history and politics makes for interesting times.

This was a great book. I strongly recommend it. It reads quickly, is never boring, educational and is a great example of truth being stranger than fiction.

One note, that I had forgotten, and I found very applicable to today, was how the concentration of power made for inept military strategy. Both Stalin and Hitler made absolutely retarded decisions in 1942. Stalin refused to believe the Nazis were actually capable of approaching Russia, despite the warnings of all his top commanders in the field. People were demoted and later sent to gulags for telling him the truth and because he ignored them, the Germans had a much easier time moving on southern Russia. In his turn, Hitler got totally bogged down in Stalingrad, a city that was no longer strategically significant, because he was obsessed with catching it as a prize. The resistance the german soldiers met there (and their unpreparedness for the winter) ultimately caused the turning point in the war, many historians argue. If it wasn't so depressing, it would be funny, how, despite so much historical evidence to the contrary, we still allow our militaries to be directed by our civilian leaders.

Okay, one more thing. Another really amazing moment in this book is when the red army finally arrives in Germany, they are totally blown away by the pristine beauty and wealth of the german villages. The rich, organized farms, the lovely chalets, the stocked larders. Why, if they had all this, did they come to Russia? they constantly ask. A good question.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

12. The Sweet Forever by George P. Pelecanos

The Sweet Forever cover pictureThe Sweet Forever is the third in the Washington Quartet (though seeing his other books, many of which take place in D.C., I'm not quite sure of the solidity of that label). It takes place ten years after the events in King Suckerman. The funk and chaos of the 70s have morphed into something more serious, something emptier. Everybody is doing blow and making money. The ghetto and the criminals have gotten harder and colder. Dmitri Karras and Marcus Clay are still the main protagonists. Marcus' record stores (of which there was just the one in King Suckerman) are succesful. Dmitri is a manager there and addicted to cocaine.

Whereas King Suckerman, the crime and danger element came in sort of randomly (a bunch of psychos on a crime spree), here it has become an indelible part of the landscape, a constant threat that inevitably pushes itself into the lives of anyone who stays in the city. A car crashes into a telephone pole outside the record store in the rough part of town (Marcus Clay is trying to revitalize the economy; his other stores are in the college areas or hip, white parts of town). A guy waiting for his girl to pick up some coke from Dmitri sees it happen and steals a pillowcase full of dope money from the wreck before the cops show up. The hunt is on. There are many characters, most of them broken or on their way to being damaged: street children recruited by the gangs, corrupt cops, rednecks, mothers trying to hold it down.

It's a quick and entertaining read, but I wasn't so sure about this one. It was much more moralistic than the first two, and yet it didn't go anywhere that new. It lacked the random chaos of King Suckerman and the rich, social depth of the Big Blowdown. It also never really punched. Marcus Clay is an ex-vietnam vet and he does some cool stuff, but not enough to get you really jazzed. This would be fine except that the way the ending develops, you think there is going to be another big violent clash where the old school guys show up the new ghetto young bucks. It doesn't really happen.

You do see the oncoming threat of crack and the insane corruption and incompetence in the political leaders. But there is more lamenting and moralizing than depth of place and character and it left the book a bit thin. It's cool the way he has populated a universe. From blurbs of his other books, I can see several characters that popped up in The Sweet Forever have their own intriguing stories. I'm going to give some time before reading the fourth and final book in the quartet. Hopefully it will walk the line between genre thriller and social consciousness book more adroitly.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

11. King Suckerman by George P. Pelecanos

King Suckerman cover pictureKing Suckerman is the second in what is known as The Washington Quartet, the series of books, starting with the Big Blowdown, that take place in Washington, D.C. over the years. King Suckerman takes place in 1976 and is about two friends who, through their own tangential connection to the drug world and impetuousness, get involved with some total psycho criminals. One of the characters is Dmitri Karras, a young, good-looking guy just living the easy life, getting high, playing basketball, chasing women and just dealing a little weed on the side. He is the son of the main character from The Big Blowdown. His friend, Marcus Clay, is a black guy who runs his own record store and though likes to party and ball, has got his life shit together. He also was in some kind of badass outfit in 'Nam (that always helps).

If I hadn't read The Big Blowdown first, I would have come away from King Suckerman with a very different view of the author. This book is fast and tough, not bothering to spend a lot of time on the kind of character depth and culture texture its predecessor did. It reminded me a lot of Charles Willeford, crazy people on a criminal roll and things just happening. There is certainly a lot of emphasis placed on the period, music, clothes and cars are carefully detailed. And in passing the reader is shown what became of the immigrant neighbourhoods of the 40s. But it doesn't capture a time and place so totally.

That's not a criticism, though, because the lack of depth of place is not reallly an omission. I suspect it might have even been done on purpose, maybe Pelecano's way of trying to capture that fast and loose feeling of the 70s. The story moves, the characters are cool and there is a lot of pretty rough action. It gets dark at parts, too. A bit nasty, even.

It's neat the way Pelecanos has stretched his characters across such a long time span. I'm quite psyched to start the third book in the series to see where he takes it in the 80s.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

10. Startide Rising by David Brin

Startide Rising cover pictureDavid Brin is very well respected and recommended. His Uplift series is well-known in the geekosphere. I read Sundiver and found it wanting a bit. I was not motivated to continue the series, especially with so much more sci-fi in front of me that I haven't read yet. However, two new friends I have met, whose taste in other things so far seems quite solid, strongly recommended that I give the series a second chance. They both agreed that Sundiver was the weakest of the first trilogy. That information clinched it for me and I kept an eye out for a cheap used copy, which I eventually found at Half-Price books in berkeley. Actually, not a tough find at all. There are so many used copies available that it is more of a challenge to find it as cheap as possible. I got it for a buck seventy-five, autographed as well ("Hello, Mike! —David Brin").

The Uplift universe is made up of a hierarchy of alien species. The dominant paradigm is that it is not possible for a species to reach sentience and space travel on their own. Rather, a patron race must lift them up through genetic manipulation. The uplifted species is then indentured to the patron species for 10,000 years. This worldview believes in an ancient race, called the Progenitors, who uplifted the current patron races and then left. Humans are an anomaly, a "wofling" race that raised itself up to space travel and are thus beholden to no patron race. Though puny and young, the humans' very existence causes a significant rift in the complex politics of the universe. Many believe they were secretly uplifted and not told. It's much more complicated than that. All the various races are constantly fighting for power. And they are all different species, so they have different worldviews, physiologies, cultures, etc. Some are helpful to the humans; others hostile.

A powerful tool in this mythos is the Library, a vast, ancient and inscrutable collection of knowledge, pieces of which are handed down parsimoniously by the patron races. Most species learn their tech through the library. The humans have access to the Library, but in a very limited and convoluted way and they pride themselves on developing their own tech, though it is significantly primitive in relation to what the library can offer. Humans have uplifted chimpanzees and dolphins, who by the law of the universe are thus indebted to them. But humans try to maintain an equal relationship with their client species, another violation of the uplift laws.

Startide Rising takes place on a distant planet, covered in metallic-water and small, metal islands. The human ship The Streaker accidently discovered a vast, derelict fleet. A communication about it back to earth is intercepted. The derelict fleet could have information of the Progenitors. All the patron races rush to catch the streaker, which has the fleet's coordinates and a corpse taken from one of the ships. The human ship hunkers down underwater, while the competing fleets battle in the skies above them.

It took me a while to get into Startide Rising. I was held back trying to get all the details of the setting and by my own hesitancy. Furthermore, the relationships between dolphins, humans and the one scientist chimp on board are equally complicated and take a while to absorb. But once I did, the narrative really too off. The characters are interesting and compelling. The antagonists are infuriating and you really want them to get theirs. The story and the science and the idea that humans are kind of cool renegades among a bunch of super-powerful but super-dogmatic alien races all blend together to create a really exciting read. I tore through the second half and am definitely going to read the next one.

Finally, there is a strong ecological theme hiding under the surface. Humans still carry the shame of their history towards other mammals and it colours their relationships with their client species. It is also an interesting form of extreme colonialism. Technologically superior species don't just come and exploit the natives, they genetically manipulate them into forms that are pleasing to them and use them as servants/slaves.

Good stuff, strongly recommended.

Startide Rising big picture

Friday, January 26, 2007

9. The Big Blowdown by George P. Pelecanos

The Space Machine cover pictureI can't remember when George P. Pelecanos' name first hit my consciousness. I think that the Mt. Benson Report might have told me about the "washington quartet" when he was living out there. I saw his name on the credits for The Wire. My interest was definitely sparked when listening to an interview with David Simon, the head writer for the Wire, when he said that he hired writers who were genre writers and wrote about cities in the northeast U.S. rather than TV writers and he specifically mentioned Pelecanos. So he was on my list and how pleasantly surprised was I when Meezly gave me the four of his books that make up the Washington Quartet for my birthday!

I have to admit to feeling a bit overwhelmed getting 4 books, all by the same author. I am obsessed these days with getting my on-deck shelf narrowed down and this just re-widened it! However, once I jumped into The Big Blowdown, my worries went away, because I tore through that book. I could barely put it down. I found myself going to the bathroom unnecessarily in order to get some more reading in.

After, a brief intro during the depression and then the war itself, the rest of Big Blowdown takes place in the poor immigrant section (centered particularly around the Greek community) of Washington, D.C. after the Second World War. It's the story of a young man who has some guts and some character, who gets trapped between the crime community that seems to be his default career path and a more normal life that is also a possibility. It isn't a morality tale, though. The plot careens forward and there isn't a lot of hand-wringing or moralizing. The main character makes his choices and is well aware of them. This is not one of those books where the characters do stupid or weak things and that is used to make the plot move forward.

The setting is so rich and detailed, both at the surface level and the deeper historical trends, that the narrative seems natural and inevitable. The character constantly remarks on how much he loves the city and it is obvious that the author does too. I never considered Washington, D.C. to be interesting but Pelecanos has changed my mind about that. What a world! Nightclubs, diners, butcher shops, all kinds of immigrants making their way, slowly accepting or running away from the growing black community. The characters in these locations are real as is the language they use. Very cool stuff.

I see now that the Big Blowdown is a backstory about, I believe, the father of one of his later regular characters. It's a cool way to start and I am really psyched to see how he writes D.C. in later periods. I'm not worried so much about the impact of these books on my on-deck shelf. Rather, I am going to have to pace myself if the other 3 in the quartet are as interesting as this one.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

8. The Space Machine by Christopher Priest

The Space Machine cover pictureFound this one in a used bookstore in Berkeley. I really enjoyed Fugue for a Darkening Island and always keep my eyes open for anything by Christopher Priest. The Space Machine is a "re-creation of the Victorian scientific romance" (from the back blurb) and Priest's hommage to H.G. Wells. It's about a young salesman in Victorian england who, when trying to sell driving goggles to the female assistant of a well-known inventor, ends up becoming romantically entangled with the woman. This all happens in the very beginning of the book.

The real story starts when they decide to take the inventor's time machine out for a spin. 10 years in the future, the hero sees the woman he has just fallen in love with being burned to death by a flame-ray coming from the sky. In his shock and horror, he tries to prevent them from returning to the past in order to avoid her fate. He messes with the controls on the machine and sends them spinning out of control.

Where they end up totally surprised me. I am not going to get into any spoilers beyond saying this book expertly fits its narrative between The Time Machine and the War of the Worlds. The two protagonists are not the most efficient and sometimes do some really stupid things, but it seems appropriate for their age and upbringing. Christopher Priest is a very talented writer, capturing the late-nineteenth century language with sentences like "The enormity of my situation was without parallel" (referring to being in a woman's room in a traveller's hotel!). The concept and backstory that he comes up with is also really cool. It's interesting because I never considered the War of the Worlds beyond its original presentation but in the last couple of years I re-read the original book and now two novels that go a long ways towards positing explanations for the martian invasions. Good stuff.

Fugue was great, but for some reason it didn't start me on a real interest in Priest's works. I see now that he is capable of a wide range of good writing. Seeing blurbs for some of his other books, with equally intriguing plots, furthers my interest to really start reading his stuff. And then check out this picture here. That's a good look for a British sci-fi author.Christopher Priest picture

Monday, January 22, 2007

7. Spock's World by Diane Duane

Spock's World cover pictureSomewhere in my nerdly wanderings in the digital realm, I gained the recommendation that of all the Star Trek novels, there were two by Diane Duane that were particularly good and worth reading. I had already read and enjoyed Dark Mirror when I found Spock's World for a quarter at the local thrift store. It's been sitting on my on-deck shelf for quite some time now.

I am a huge fan of the original Star Trek series. As a kid, it was the show and, since we didn't have a television of my own, was a motivating factor in many social visits in my life. I would hang out, but I was always plotting to get Star Trek on. I recently watched the first and half of the second seasons of the series on DVD and it holds up. Kirk's delivery has been so lampooned that it is easy to forget how well-written the shows were. The charactarizations were strong and rich. The shows were exciting. Mr. Spock was and remains a role model for me (one that, sadly, I seem to be getting farther and farther away from the older I get).

I give you this info so you can understand that I am a bit sentimental to the Star Trek universe. The first few chapters of Spock's World do a great job of capturing the inner thoughts, the on-deck banter and the personal lives of the characters that I love so well. So I was pretty psyched. I can see how if you were a real geek and didn't want to be away from the Star Trek universe, you would read all the novels (and there are tons, at least 50 concerning the original series alone).

The story starts out with the Enterprise docked in orbit around earth for maintenance and the crew all on vacation. They get called back because of an important vote that is going to happen on planet Vulcan, Spock's homeworld. A majority of Vulcans have called for a vote to secede from the Federation (the UFP, United Federation of Planets, the political entity that governs the Enterprise) and sever their ties with humanity. Kirk and Spock are called to testify (Spock is half-human, half-Vulcan and both of them have a history on Vulcan, particularly the episode Amok Time where Spock is supposed to go back to Vulcan and get married; awesome episode). So the enterprise is sent back into space. This is also an excuse for the reader to get a history of Vulcan. Every other chapter is an important segment of that planet and specie's development, starting from their savage stage to when they first discovered space.

I was hoping more for a episode-like adventure. Spock's Planet is more of an excuse to give us a ton of backstory on Vulcans and their history. That was okay, but it didn't seem very rigourously thought out to me. The history was cool and there were a lot of pseudo-science that explained a lot of things. But at the same time, their development seemed all too human. The main story as well, the plot about the secession, was kind of soft, with it basically being a move by some corrupt Vulcans. I just didn't get a good sense of the mysterious and powerful other as it was so well portrayed by Leonard Nimoy. So overall, despite some good moments, I was dissatisfied with Spock's World and will let the background of the baddest of badasses remain a mystery, with only subtle hints here and there, in my imagination.

[addendum:] I was quite surprised to see the author herself post a comment to this blog (and a funny one). I went back and re-read my review with the thought that it had been read by the author. With this new perspective, I found my review bit dismissive. I still stand to my overall opinion of the book, but I would like to add that there are many very good elements in the book that made it an enjoyable read overall. Sarek's backstory and his relationship with Amanda, his human wife is well done. The structure of the history of Vulcan, which just captured slices of different eras rather than trying to show all the big moments, was very effective and interesting. The explanation of the development of Vulcan attributes (such as their mind meld and the neck pinch) was also well thought out. Dr. McCoy's personality is enrichened and deepeened while maintaining the crusty exerior that we all know from the TV show.

What kept bugging me was the constant suggestions of Vulcan emotion. T'pring's resentment and jealousy didn't seem Vulcan at all. Also, the constant reaction from the audience, during various people's speeches (especially the laughter) seemed very un-Vulcan. This might not be Duane's doing, as the later iterations of the series got mushier and mushier (and lamer and lamer; call it the Guinan infection) and for all I know it could now be canon that the vulcans are actually very emotional. But the Spock I know and love only laughed when some evil flower sprayed its emotion dust in his face.

But I know that the writing and ideas in Spock's World come from a place of love and respect so I don't want to come down super hard on these disagreements of interpretation. I'm glad I read this book and it has given me some depth and insight into Vulcan but I will still keep most of that backstory at some distance from my imagination.

Evil Spock cover picture

"It is only logical that I will kick your ass."