Thursday, December 31, 2015

31. Crysis Legion by Peter Watts

This is possibly the worst book I have read since I started this blog.  That's not necessarily so bad as there have been few books that I truly hated in that time and the quality mean is quite high.  It's more frustrating because I paid $5.50 for it at a used bookstore on West Broadway in Vancouver, that should have known better (or perhaps they did, I bought it after all).  I had high hopes as well.  I like Peter Watts' work a lot, but always found it a bit conceptual and science heavy.  When I heard that he was writing a fiction based on a videogame, I thought it might allow him to focus on his badass action writing.  It did, but the result was not what I had imagined. 

Currently, for the things I enjoy in fiction, videogames are just not a medium that allows for creativity.  Crysis Legion does have tons of cool action, but it's mostly repetitive.  Even worse, the main character has barely any character and even less agency.  It's a first-person shooter, so the story is basically on rail road tracks.  Watts writes it like he is an observer, which I suspect he was, probably basing the storyline on watching walkthroughs of the actual game.  Worse, he relies on a few gimmicks over and over again, in paticular italicizing words constantly (really, like when describing big destruction he will do it several times in a paragraph).  It gets really grating.

It has bits and pieces of Wattsian crazy science reality gussied up into science fiction and the way he describes the final exposition is pretty compelling.  Also, at times you can feel Watts himself exasperated with the constraints and even poking fun at them (or at least pointing them out).  It's a valiant effort, but ultimately, nobody is connected to anything going on (neither Watts nor us) and it became a real slog to get through.  I have been reading this book for over two years!  (and man, what a relief to get it done.)

I love the idea of real authors doing the story behind videogames (Richard Morgan was the writer for the videogame and Watts worked under him for the novel) and I hoped it made the game better.  But going the other way, taking a game to make a novel out of, seems like basically cheap heroin for the Crysis addict who has already finished the game and wants more.  I also hope that it made Watts a good chunk of cash so he could go on writing the books he wants to write.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

30. My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart

I really picked up steam on my reading over the xmas holidays this year and am now trying to get through books I stopped and started in the past.  I've been labouring over My Brother Michael for most of the year.  I expect Mary Stewart to be slower and more thoughtful than what I prefer, but this one really took a long time to get going.  The ending paid off, but I almost abandoned it at several points.

It's the story of a young divorcee traveling by herself in Greece when through some mix-up ends up delivering a car to an unknown man in a small village near the Oracle at Delphi (which had been on her tourist wish-list).  The man turns out to be a dashing British archaeologist who was also looking for the dying place of his brother, who had been killed at the end of World War 2.  It takes a ton of meandering, having to do with visiting a bunch of ruins and the picturesque greek town and a bunch of random people about two-thirds of the book before we figure out that there is a solid story here.  Maybe Mary Stewart wanted to do justice to a place she had visited or maybe that kind of travelogue is a big part of the sell of this genre, but it wasn't working for me.  Also, there is always that weird layer of British female romance of this period where they are all weird and coy about whether they are into the guy or not, trying to always be all practical while there are constant looks and finger brushings on cheeks or backs of arms ("like a moth"). 

It all did tie together and the ending is actually quite intense and brutal, restoring my faith in Mary Stewart.  But this one needed a tougher editor, in my opinion.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

29. Play Dead by Peter Dickinson

Peter Dickinson was one of my parents favourite authors, but I never got into him (other than his young adult series starting with the Weathermonger) the way I did with other British mystery writers of that period.  It may be that he is just a bit too adult and sophisticated compared with Gilbert, Ambler, etc.  He died this year and received the appropriate respect and I thought I should, being practically an adult myself, read more of his books. 

Play Dead is told from the perspective of Poppy Tasker, a 50-year old recent divorcée in late 80s London who has reluctantly taken on the job of nannying her grandson.  She struggles with the role, feeling pegged into the role of a gran when she still has career and romantic aspirations.  Despite her reluctance, she does begin to enjoy the social complexities of the other caregivers at the play group where she takes her grandson.  Things get more than interesting when a man is seen creepily peeping at the children, then ends up dead–stripped naked, his genitals decorated with flowers– a few days later, in the park where the children play.  There are also several other plotlines going on, involving a squat of radicals, the local election and her own romantic involvement with several men in the community.

The mystery was really quite good and complex and I enjoyed reading from the perspective of this different character, who was not happy with her situation, but never became maudlin or annoying.  You slowly realized what a remarkable person she was despite her own inability to see it.  Still, it was all just a tad too reflective (though some of the reflections were quite interesting) for me to be drawn in and I'll definitely continue to read Dickinson, I believe my initial hesitations were not misplaced.  He is a great author, but perhaps just a tad too intelligent for a simpleton like me.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

28. Capital by John Lanchester

This was recommended by every member of my immediate family and happened to be in the bookshelf over the xmas holidays.  A bit of a brick for the year-end reading rush, but I tore through it.  It's a real page-turner.  I guess it falls under the category of literary fiction.  The story follows the lives of several characters, all of whom interact with a specific street in London in 2007 and 2008.  The opening chapter lays out the history of the street and how it went from primarily a middle class neighbourhood to suddenly becoming super valuable with the money and real estate boom in London at the beginning of the 21st century.  The anchoring element is that somebody has been putting postcards in people's mailboxes with photos of their front door and the words "We want what you have".  The characters are a wealthy financier and his materialistic wife, a Pakistani shopkeeper and his family, a Polish builder who does lots of renovations in the neighbourhood, the non-citizen but can't be deported East African meter maid, a young Senegalese soccer star and a dying woman who lived her whole life on the street.

It's a thoroughly enjoyable read, that I am guessing really captures many of the major issues of living in London today, it's massive increase in wealth, the political and social challenges of the muslim populations living there (and other immigrants) and an overheated real estate market.  Lanchester treats the characters with a lot of respect and bad things happen, but never extremely so and you hope the best for all of them. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

27. Mr. Midshipman Hornblower by C.S. Forester

Found this on the shelf of free books lining the window of the grocery store near my parents house and hesitated to take it at first, but then was drawn in upon realizing it is the first of the Hornblower books (at least within Hornblower's own fictional chronology).  As usual, it is a series of vignettes and I found this to be my favourite so far.  Each vignette describes a stage in Hornblower's early career and I found the contrast between his own lack of confidence and the boldness of his actions quite endearing (as did his senior officers, evidently).  There is also tons of great action, straight up mercenary action like attacking a galley with a jolly boat or jumping on to a burning fire ship to steer it away from its target.  Though I could not agree with it, my biased anglo-saxon side took perverse pleasure in the portrayal of the french and spanish militaries (cruel and inefficient).  Great stuff.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

26. White Leopard by Laurent Guillaume

I picked this up on a whim in new trade paperback format at a nice bookstore in Berkeley I had been browsing at for way too long and felt like I should support with real dollars.  It was a good choice, though I wish the format had been a traditional paperback and I wish I had the discipline to have hunted it down and read it in the original french (and maybe I will with some of his other books as this one was pretty short).

It starts out intense and brutal and grabbed me right away.  After that, it was the setting of Mali that kept me hooked.  It's the story of a French cop of Malian origin who is forced to flee France after a revenge killing.  He is now a private detective in Mali, who earned the moniker the White Leopard in the local papers, due to his detecting exploits and light skin.  The story is fast-paced and relies too many times on last minute rescues (he is well-connected), but ultimately pulls together well.  Really enjoyable.

Guillaume has written several thrillers in french.  This one was translated by lefrenchbooks, a line that sources out good french genre books and translates them into english.  If White Leopard is any indication, this looks like a line worth keeping an eye on.