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Books #39-53: Short Reviews

The books I read on my honeymoon and a few I've finished since...

#39: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

Imagine an alternate-history 1985 - you can tell it's an alternate history because there are airships - where instead of being obsessed with celebrity deaths and sports and reality television, the public is obsessed with literature. Thursday Next is a detective tasked with investigating literary crimes. Usually dealing with thefts or forgeries of first editions and the like, she runs afoul of a particularly nasty character holding original manuscripts for ransom by entering the stories, kidnapping vital characters, and threatening to kill them if his demands are not met. A little bit science-fiction, a little bit meta-fiction, and a whole lot of fun. I'm looking forward to reading the next one.

#40: Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi

This is a sort of sequel to Scalzi's Old Man's War trilogy - which I haven't actually read - which retells parts of the story from the point of view of a sixteen-year girl who got wrapped up in some of the most fascinating events in the history of human space colonization. Zoe is a clever, warm narrator with an entertainingly snarky sense of humor, and even if the plot fell short - which it doesn't at all - her voice would carry the book well. This was another Hugo nominee, but I'll get to my final rankings later.

#41: Coraline by Neil Gaiman

A girl finds a door in her house that usually opens on a brick wall, but one day reveals a tunnel that leads to a twisted alternate version of her home. It took Neil Gaiman twenty years to write this book, working on it for a little while then setting it aside for a few years, then picking it back up, but the end product is well worth the read. Gaiman's usual sense for building slightly disconcerting worlds works well here. (This was also the first book I read on Sora's Kindle. I'm impressed with it so far.)

#42: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

I get the feeling this is the book Doctorow has been preparing to write for his entire adult life. It certainly feels like the most important book he's written so far. The premise is a near-future world where, after a terrorist attack on the Golden Gate Bridge, a seventeen-year-old hacker and his friends get caught up in the DHS's net. Upon finally getting released - after giving up all their rights, and their dignity besides - they decide to fight back, intent on proving that the DHS are the ones terrorizing American citizens. The book's depiction of a near-future DHS is plausible enough to be utterly chilling, and the technology is realistic as well. The book also serves as a primer on the importance of encryption, privacy, and civil and legal rights, and Doctorow is the perfect person to wind all this together into an entertaining story.

And that completed my Hugo reading. My voting for Best Novel:
1: Anathem
2: Zoe's Tale
3: Saturn's Children
4: The Graveyard Book
5: Little Brother
It was a very strong field, but Anathem captured my imagination and utterly engrossed me in a way the other four never quite managed to.

#43: A Fire upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

Epic, far-future SF set in the outskirts of the galaxy - the only area of the galaxy where FTL travel is possible. Humanity is but one small civilization among many. At the very edge of the galaxy, a small team of human researchers accidentally unleash a Transcendent Power from quantum digital storage, and it starts terrorizing sentient life - but not before a small human ship, crewed by two adults and containing their two children plus a hundred others in cold sleep, escapes to the boundary of the Slow Zone with a piece of - something - that can defeat the Power coming to be known as the Perversion. The ship lands on a world inhabited by pack-minded doglike creatures, and soon the children have to survive among them as humanity sets out to rescue them and find the thing that can defeat the Perversion.

This was a hard book to read, at the beginning, since Vinge took the usual "immersion" method of exposing the reader to all the new concepts the book had to offer - and there were a lot of them. (It felt a lot like Light by M. John Harrison in that regard.) But soon enough, the concepts make sense and the story is very engaging. The only thing I found implausible was the way entire civilizations and species would communicate as one voice on the galactic version of Usenet - it made the civilizations seem far more monolithic than they likely would have been.

#44: Dead Beat by Jim Butcher (Dresden Files, book 7)

I don't think I've reviewed the Dresden Files yet. It's basic urban fantasy, written from the first-person perspective of Harry Dresden, a private investigator who happens to be a wizard. In fact, the only wizard willing to advertise his presence to the world at large. (In the Yellow Pages, no less.) The series feels just a bit noirish, but the narrator's sense of humor gives the world a bit of levity that it needs pretty badly. (The supernatural world is not a pretty place, as it turns out.)

I know enough of mythology and the like for the world to feel pretty familiar. Other than occasional deviations, the werewolves and faeries and vampires feel like you'd expect them to, but the author's genius lies in his ability to knit all these elements together into a believable and entertaining story. And he's done very well at that so far. A particular feature of the later books is the decisions Harry made in the earlier ones coming back to affect him, and as a result even after seven books the series feels like it's got a lot of life left in it.

#45: The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

Some non-fiction, now - the story of how two men working independently, then together, determined the source of a cholera outbreak in London - and proved for the first time that it's a waterborne disease and not due to "bad air" - in possibly the first recorded case of rigorous medical forensics. Interesting reading, particularly the debate between the scientifically-driven investigators and the superstition- and prejudice-driven authorities and "miasmatists". I enjoyed his The Invention of Air better, though.

#46: Choke by Chuck Palahniuk

Palahniuk's novels are always full of horrible, wretched people, and this one is no exception. The "protagonist" is a medical student who trolls sex-addict support groups to pick up women, feigns choking at restaurants nightly in order to lure rich people into "saving" him and feeling like they're responsible for him afterwards, and works at a Colonial-Williamsburg-sort of tourist location. From that list, you'll probably get the same impression I did - Palahniuk is starting to run out of gimmicks to make his characters look bizarre. The various facets of the main character's life don't hang together as well as in past books, and while I mainly read his work for the occasional brilliant insights his characters stumble upon - Invisible Monsters was a good example of this - in Choke that's pretty much reduced to constant thoughts of dying of some horrible disease. Absent particular recommendations, I think I'm done with Palahniuk for quite a while.

#47: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

I don't remember when I had this recommended to me, but it'd been sitting on my Amazon wishlist for a while when I got it as a Christmas gift. It looks like of like generic gritty fantasy, but the author delights in subverting the fantasy character cliches. The barbarian is an existentialist who spends roughly equal amounts of time reminding himself that he's still alive, wondering why he's still alive, and killing the fuck out of things. The wizard, while mildly inscrutable, has a cheerful disposition and an unwillingness to take himself too seriously (as evidenced by the scene where he stops in at a theatrical costume shop to buy his outfit for addressing the government the next day). The wizard's apprentice is a useless coward, and the master swordsman is a lazy asshole who had just enough talent to skate by on that instead of developing a work ethic. The setting's pretty much bog-standard fantasy, but at least the characters have been worth it so far, and I imagine I'll pick up the second book soon.

#48: Victory of Eagles by Naomi Novik (Temeraire, book 5)

Like I'd said before, this is where a lot of the seeds planted in the previous books start blooming. Particularly Temeraire's insistence that dragons be treated as people in their own right. Saying much more would probably spoil the previous books, but I'm still enjoying the series.

#49: The Honor of the Queen by David Weber (Honor Harrington, book 2)

Still enjoying this series, too, with the same caveat - Weber's military fiction is well-written, but his political writing tends to be a bit ham-handed. We'll see whether he can develop his writing a bit more artfully in future books. Honor Harrington is still a fantastic character, though, and Weber does a very good job of justifying the faith her subordinates put in her.

#50: Proven Guilty by Jim Butcher (Dresden Files, book 8)

See review #44. This book continues to develop the series well, setting up some new plot points (and refreshing others) that will certainly keep things interesting for a while.

#51: How Much for Just the Planet? by John M. Ford

A Star Trek (TOS) novel, and a rather odd one. The Klingons and the Federation simultaneously discover a massive deposit of dilithium on a colonized planet in the Neutral Zone, and by the terms of their treaty they must each make their case to the planet's inhabitants and allow them to determine who to grant mining rights to. The natives, however, have been expecting them, and have scripted a musical comedy for the Federation and Klingons to step into... not that they've been informed, anyway. The whole book is amusing slapstick comedy with humans and Klingon getting paired off and getting into trouble together, but the ending's a bit lackluster.

John Ford also wrote "The Final Reflection", a serious book entirely about Klingons that may have been the first serious look at their culture. I'd definitely recommend that one.

#52: Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming

Don't know where this book came from, but I noticed it on the shelf and decided to read it. Being written in the 50s, some of the language seems a bit antiquated (particularly since a lot of the characters in this story are black), but it was interesting to see that James Bond the novel character is actually a fair bit different than Bond the movie character. In the novel, he suffers several injuries which actually require time to heal from, and he actually gets nervous and fearful about his circumstances every once in a while. It was an interesting contrast, but other than that I like the movies a fair bit better.

#53: Tramp Royale by Robert Heinlein

In the mid 50s, Heinlein and his wife Virginia ("Ticky") took a trip around the world, primarily in the Southern Hemisphere. Afterwards, Heinlein wrote this book as a way to get his thoughts organized, but it remained unpublished until after his death. It's an entertaining read - much of that comes from his characterization of his wife, and his wry commentary on some of the lowlights of the trip - but it feels a bit unpolished and disorganized. Which I suppose makes sense. It's also a fair bit outdated by now, but I suspect a lot of his observations remain true.

I just started Old Man's War on my iPhone - plugged into Sora's Kindle library, of course - and I'm enjoying it so far, though I'm just a few pages in. More book reviews soon, I'm sure - but I'm nearly back on track with my reading. I actually have a shot at reading 100 books this year, and I'm about one book behind right now. We'll see how it works out.
Tags: 2009, books
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