Sunday, January 04, 2009

A Blizzard of Book Reviews

For a long time now, I've been meaning to catch up on writing book reviews. The last time I actually sat down and put down some thoughts about a book I'd just finished was probably May, and since then, the "finished pile" beside my desk has been growing larger and larger, increasing the risk of avalanche, and causing no end of clutter. Since most of Canada was hammered by snowstorms this holiday season (yes, yes, I know... we always get hammered by snowstorms during the winter, but this year was worse than most in the last decade or two), I thought it fitting to unleash my own blizzard and get all of these book reviews (some for relatively new books released in 2007 & 2008, others for older fare that I've just gotten around to for the first time) out of the way in one shot. Grab your shovel and Sorrel boots, you're about to be hip-deep in SF goodness.

Warning: spoilers
(spoilage factor: about the same as any given fruit taken off a wild apple tree in the middle of a field or on a farm that's been abandoned for a hundred years - some might have no spoilage at all, others, well, worms are extra protein, aren't they?)


"Valley of Day-Glo" by Nick DiChario
This quirky take on the post-apocalyptic journey follows a young man (the last member of his First Nation) named Broadway Danny Rose across parts of the eastern US that have been turned to wasteland seeking to find the mythical Valley of Day-Glo. Along the way, he has to avoid other hostile natives (bearing equally odd monickers) who fight for legitimate resources as well as absurd relics like marketing textbooks and Igloo water coolers. It's a real page-turner that has the reader constantly asking not only what will happen next, but also what new weirdness will BDR encounter. I didn't enjoy this book as thoroughly as DiChario's debut work of genius "A Small and Remarkable Life", but it's certainly worth a read.

"Identity Theft and other stories" by Robert J. Sawyer
Sawyer always does a solid job of writing entertaining hard SF, so it was a no-brainer when I saw his new collection on the shelf at the book store one day. The title was taken from one of the 17 stories within. "Identity Theft" and its companion piece "Biding Time" are film-noire style detective yarns that had me picturing the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet in some of the character roles (if Bogart and Greenstreet had been doing gumshoe flicks on Mars, that is). The collection also includes "Shed Skin", which Sawyer would later revisit and adapt into his successful novel "Mindscan". My favourites though were "Mikeys" about astronauts finding the remains of an alien observatory on the Martian moon Deimos (which reminded me of an old sci-fi novel that I read in my childhood where a plucky young adventurer discovers Phobos and Deimos are both alien starships - can't remember the title for the life of me) and "On the Surface", where Sawyer picks up the tale of the Morlocks of H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine" after the human inventor has fled back into the past.

On Spec - Spring 2008 issue
Why they chose cover art reminiscent of a giant testicle is beyond me, but aside from the pictures, this was a reasonably good issue. The highlights were Marissa K. Lingen's "Carter Hall Sweeps a Path" (another entertaining installment in the ice arena misadventures of the title character), Leah Bobet's poem "The Pack Rat's Manifesto". "Trickster", by Steve Stanton, about some really ambitious graffitti, was also worth the read.

"The Difference Engine" by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling
A great piece of steampunk from the early 90's revolving around the machinations to possess stolen computer punch cards. Gibson & Sterling to a top-notch job of creating the look and feel of Victorian England - the descriptions of London could have been from Dickens and they've nailed the Victorian mindset of the characters. The fragmented final section was perhaps a little too jarring for me, but ultimately it's a book I'd read again.

"Snow Crash" by Neal Stephenson
It's taken me far too long to get around to reading this. You have to fully concentrate when you're reading Stephenson's masterpiece of cyberpunk (masterpiece may not be a good enough term... along with Gibson's "Neuromancer", "Snow Crash" is one of the twin gods of the cyberpunk sub-genre) to pick up on all the ideas he's firing around. It's worth every minute to explore a world where pizza delivery guys work for the mob when they're not spending time in cyber bars or crossing paths with glass-spear-wielding hitmen or trying to avoid getting their brains hacked by ancient Sumerian memes. It's not the kind of book where you just hang on and enjoy the ride -it's one that you'll be thinking about long after the ride is over.

"Rainbows End" by Vernor Vinge
I'm a bit conflicted about this singularity story. On one hand, I think Vinge has done a successful job at creating a story where the primary character is, for the most part, unlikeable, but where we feel for him as he tries to adjust to what is essentially an alien world and re-invent himself. "Rainbow's End" also at times felt like a bit of an eerie techno homage to "The Wizard of Oz" as much as "Alice in Wonderland". And yet, it failed to "wow" me. I'm not sure why, either. I may have to re-read it in a year or two to try to answer the question. It certainly wasn't a bad book, it just wasn't great, in my opinion, either.

"Victory of Eagles" by Naomi Novik
Typical of Novik's Temeraire books, VoE is a quick, fun read - a nice summer book. It's always great to see what new spin she's put on the Napoleonic wars and what kind of strategies the military minds of that era would have cooked up for dragon aerial corps. Novik takes us in a darker direction with this installment, as Temeraire and Laurence are seperated for much of it as they deal with different kinds of imprisonment as punishment for bringing Napoleon the cure for the dragons' illness at the end of the previous book. Even when the two are reunited after Temeraire forms his own vigilante dragon militia, it's still not a happy time as Laurence feels his honour slipping further and further away under orders from the Admiralty to wage a guerilla war against the French with no mercy for the enemy's men or dragons. I'm looking forward to the next book where Novik will again be giving us a glimpse of what life is like with dragons in other parts of the world.

"Something Wicked This Way Comes" by Ray Bradbury
Normally, I'm a huge Bradbury fan. For some reason though, this classic didn't really do anything for me. Yes, he does do an excellent job of painting the old travelling carnival as a potential source of terror, but overall, I think he's written other stories like "The City" that were more frightening, and done a better job with many others that take us on strange adventures, or portray small town life, or shine a light on the compromises that adults make in life and how they bear up under them, or the explosion of life within youth. It was good to get this book under my belt as part of my familiarity with Bradbury's body of work, but it's not one of my favourites.

On Spec - Summer 2008 issue
A creepy cover on this one - little plastic babies crawling around what looks to be a bee hive. Daniel LeMoal's "Beach Head" was a very tense piece of work and well worth reading, and Kevin Cockle's "The Devil's in the Details" was unsettling too.

"Futures from nature" edited by Henry Gee
In an anthology of about a billion (okay, maybe not a billion, but there are a whole lot of them crammed into this book) really short stories, each no more than 3 pages long, you're bound to get a lot of misses. Quite a few of the stories contained here were way too heavy on the jargon (some authors, I think, putting more weight on speaking the highly-specialized languages of some of the scientific journal's readers than with simply writing good stories) and lacking in story. That being said, when you're dealing with a three-pager, the story itself is going to be fairly simple with little characterization in most cases. That being said, there were some gems that made this book worth reading. Warren Ellis' "At the Zoo" was a real hoot, and, though not the smartest, the one that sticks out in my memory. I also enjoyed "Speak, Geek" by Eileen Gunn and Ken Macleod's vampire-tech tale "Undead Again" and a few others.

"Kafka on the Shore" by Haruki Murakami
There's a bildungsroman wrapped in a lot of deeply weird goings-on in this book. A teenager decides to run away from home and ends up finding himself after finding a woman who could be his mother who he takes as his lover, and along the way he steps into another dimension for a while. And did I mention the old codger who talks to cats and goes on an adventure across Japan with a young trucker looking for a stone that will re-align reality? This is a book that has to be experienced rather than encountered in a review.

"Song of Kali" by Dan Simmons
I'm a huge Simmons fan, but it's taken me forever to get around to reading his debut novel. It's highly unsettling, but I'm glad I did. Not a lot in the way of the fantastic in this book - despite the encounter with an undead poet and a scene where the protagonist is chased around a dark room by the Hindu destroyer goddess herself, the real horror in this book is in the evil that people inflict on one another. This is a theme that Simmons seems to have kept with throughout his novels - the exterior stuff really isn't as bad as the monsters that can lurk within the human heart. That being said, redemption and hope also come from within oneself and from other people in Simmons' worlds, and not from magic or super-scientific trinkets. A must read.

"Dreamsongs - volume I" by George R. R. Martin
Seeing Martin's writing style evolve from the boy imitating what he saw in the comics to the man who explores new territory in his own voice is what makes this collection worth while. Martin's essays on various periods in his life and what influenced him are entertaining in and of themselves, but it was good to revisit some of his short stories like "Sandkings". Worth buying for Martin fans.

"The Android's Dream" by John Scalzi
A crisis in interstellar relations, a film-noire style chase story that would have worked well with the cast of "Blade Runner", secret societies founded on the ramblings of a drunk, an AI based on the mind template of the protagonist's dead friend, the hope for humanity being related to a sheep, and fart jokes - this book has it all. Scalzi's cooked up one heck of a read.

"Very Hard Choices" by Spider Robinson
This short but powerful book is memorable for a couple of reasons. First, it’s inhabited by well-rounded characters who stay true to themselves, but who are still capable of change. It also examines the emotional consquences of making very hard choices, and how people deal with them. Robinson has written one of the most deeply unsettling portrayals of what it’s like to die that I’ve ever come across. But amidst the pessimistic backdrop of global threats and the exercise of staggering powers, this is ultimately an optimistic book showing that the connections between human beings are things of the highest and most enduring importance. I'd initially seen this book on the shelves at the bookstore and thought, "I'll get around to it at some point" but then I heard Robinson read an excerpt at VCon in October and thought, "Must read now!" Good thing too. "Very Hard Choices" is easily one of the best novels of 2008 and I'll sure as hell be recommending it for an Aurora this year.

"Tesseracts Twelve" edited by Claude Lalumiere
This installment of the annual anthology of Canadian SF focusses on novellas, which is refreshing. I love the usual collections of short stories, but I'm always left wondering what good stuff was left out because it might have been too long. This time around, it's the long stuff that rules. And, unlike some of the recent editions in the Tesseracts series, Twelve, under Lalumiere's hand, had a good, strong line-up. The two bracketing stories, Derryl Murphy’s gold rush-neanderthal collision “Ancients of the Earth” and David Nickle's “Wylde’s Kingdom” where a washed-up reality show adventurer lives amidst the grim reality that there’s a new species on the extinction list, were the ones that stand out most in my memory. That being said, "Wonjjang and the Madman of Pyongyang" by Gord Sellar was a fun ride too. An anthology that's definitely worth reading.

"The Savage Humanists" edited by Fiona Kelleghan
A collection of stories using SF as a foil for biting social commentary. Gregory Frost’s “Madonna of the Maquiladora” was perhaps the most memorable for its brutal look at the means used to keep people down to make them easy to exploit, and how they accept it. I enjoyed this anthology overall, but could have done without Kelleghan's gigantic and frequently repetitive essay at the beginning. While I don't disagree with what she's saying, I think she could have made her point far more concisely - a full academic essay belongs in a collection of essays, rather than a fiction anthology where the stories can illustrate the point from a variety of perspectives. Still, it's a book worth reading.

"Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes" by Peter Watts
Watts has assembled a group of violent stories. This is not to say that physical violence takes place within the each of the stories in the form of monster attacks or space battles or other usual SF means, but violence is there in some form, present or past, physical, psychological, sexual or other, in each of these tales to some degree, exerting its influence on characters and events. These stories occupy a Hobbesian state of nature, where things are brutish, nasty and lives, or, at least lives before they're altered forever by some form of violence, are short. A brooding, dark collection, but certainly worth while.

"The Name of the Wind" by Patrick Rothfuss
This is another book I'd noticed at the store but had mentally filed away under "eventually" until I heard Rothfuss speak at a couple of sessions at VCon back in October. Good thing I did too, because "The Name of the Wind" is a smart and refreshing addition to the fantasy genre at a time where a lot of the stuff on the shelves looks stale. A renowned adventurer now living quietly under an alias begins to tell the story of his life in this book, but it's not the usual increasing steps of glory. No, the protagonist sometimes scratches some forward progress for himself, but always at a price and not without a lot of tough, scarring lessons along the way. It's not about a young man's adventures so much as it is about how a boy becomes a man as he tries to survive and what he learns along the way. I'm eagerly looking forward to the next book in this series.


And that catches things up for the book reviews.

What have you been reading lately? What should the rest of us be picking up?
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