Wednesday, November 30, 2011

100 Books 69 - Maurice Broaddus' KING MAKER

Man, I was as ready to like this as I've ever been to like anything. I even put myself into full delayed gratification mode -- I was originally going to save this book as my prize for finishing NaNoWriMo (see prior post). But in that I failed; I made it maybe a week into this month before I just couldn't resist anymore -- such allure, a cross between The Wire and Arthurian Legend! -- and gave in.

But -- you feel that "but" coming, don't you? -- I'm sad to say this novel didn't quite live up to its initial promise.

This is half of a fan-damn-tastic piece of balls-out amazing fiction writing, and half a messed-up, cliche-ridden mess, more or less. The first half is the former, vivid and strange and gripping, tripping with lines of the kind of weird and heart-breakingly poetic imagery and observation that this Wyoming girl only gets to hear at 5am on Saturday mornings when her local public radio station gives it over for Snap Judgment. The legend of Arthur and the formation of his Knights of the Round Table feels like it really could be re-enacted in the sad ghettos of Indianapolis, though perhaps the rib-digging character names (King, Lott, Lady G, Wayne, Green, Dred) aren't strictly necessary. My jaw dropped. Often.

What Broaddus did with Merlin, here cast as a crazy homeless man shambling through the projects in a tinfoil hat to which he keeps adding layers, struck me as especially fine, for instance.

But once the characters are established and the world (about 90% drug-slum realism, 5% TV cop show fantasy version of that realism, 5% epic fantasy, except the magical sword is a pair of guns, etc.) is built, the book kind of collapses in on itself a bit, so that by the time the zombies (oh man, really? Zombies?) show up I was bored and disappointed and scrolling back to earlier chapters, wondering how these two halves got sewn together.

Origin stories always suffer a bit from the formula thereof, though, so I'ma give Mr. Broaddus another chance. I already have the sequel, King's Justice, loaded on my various e-reading devices. I really hope it's more like the first half of this one than the second.

We Did It!

Despite a busy writing docket full of seekrit projects (to which I've just, sigh, added another one, it seems) and scorching lateral epicondylitis in both elbows, I am a NaNoWriMo winner again in 2011.

I co-wrote a rather demented bit of redneck pulp sci-fi with my good friend and fellow Cheyennian, Colin Stricklin. We traded days of adding to the word count, with me providing the very first and last 1666 words (or so). We started the month with a vague set of ideas, many of which we kicked forward to future books (for of course this thing has crazy series potential), and only cooked up a plot to follow about halfway in to the enterprise -- though, I'm delighted to say, that plot was already taking shape within our daily contributions.

The really fun part was, since this was more or less word count driven, we each felt perfectly free to stop in mid-scene and see how the other would finish it, which meant we had a lot of fun leaving each other with tension-laden cliffhanger situations to resolve. This is the best part about collaborating, and why I recommend it to anyone, as long as it's two or more people who have similar goals, commitment and discipline, and senses of humor.

Though we're well over the 50,000 word mark, the novel is nowhere near done. I'm guessing there's roughly another 20-30,000 words to go on this first draft before the real fun of editing begins.

But for tonight, well, cheers, mates!

And special thanks to My Own Dear Personal Mom, Carol Sherrod (@Casherr on Twitter), who spent the last week with me helping me cope with my semi-handicapped state, combing my hair, helping me with some housework that I was behind on, keeping me company through a lot of crap and, most importantly, typing in my entries (which I'd written longhand, in very soft pencil, on graph paper, because I am a big dork and like doing it that way) so Colin could read them.


Saturday, November 26, 2011


Well! There is genre-bending, and there is genre-bending, and the bending author J. Daniel Sawyer has done in this political thriller/crime noir/space opera/tale of revolution/double-cross extravaganza would require a whole new, possibly Lovecraftian, geometry to trace out.

Which is to say this is one of the most downright complicated novels I've read since... hmm... Game of Thrones? Yeah. It's like that. Except for no dragons. Or swords. Or horses. Or kings (at least not in name).

But yeah, Game of Thrones in space? A little bit. Except there are a whole bunch of people on the Moon, Mars and various space stations who are sick of being treated like chattel-colonists and aren't going to take it anymore (one of my favorite scenes is near the end, when a Lunar city erupts in exactly the kind of colorful and seemingly purposeless disorder that characterizes the Occupy Wall Street movement, proving that the movement has been incohate in the air for quite a while now), the one element that I think is most sorely missing in GoT.

So much duplicity. And orbital mathematics. And cool space colonization history. And duplicity. And scotch. And poker. And did I mention duplicity?

So much J. Daniel Sawyer, all that is missing is someone singing to an acoustic guitar in a heart-melting clear tenor. But it appears there are three more novels in this Antithesis Progression, so I may yet get some of that.

If you like any (or all) of the above genres Sawyer has bent here, you really pretty much owe yourselves to pony up the five bucks for this here ebook. If you want a dead tree edition, I think one's in the works, but why wait.

And if you're really feeling poor, well, Sawyer is one of those generous Podiobooks authors who offers his books as free audiobooks before they even hit the Kindle/Epub world.

Eyeholes or earholes, you can't lose here.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

100 Books 67 - Jose Saramago's BLINDNESS

So it's now a toss-up between this and Cormac McCarthy's The Road in the contest for Bleakest Book I've Read This Year. Were it not for the ending, I'd say Blindness wins, and even thereby, it still kind of does. Which is saying something.

Interestingly enough, Blindness shares another quality in common with The Road: it's rather difficult to read, just in terms of the prose and, especially, the dialogue. Neither novel uses conventional punctuation or presentation for dialogue, but Saramago's work, at least as here translated by Giovanni Portiero, comes at us in great torrents, without tags or any warnings at all of a change of speaker. Hello, how are you, I'm fine, how are you, fine, thank you, where is the dog buried, over behind the cat's grave, ok, that must be what I smell, hey, I overheard you guys talking about a dog, I could sure go for one with catsup and mustard, no not that kind of dog you idiot, oh, ok, but I sure am hungry, why isn't there a food named for cats?

As you can maybe see from that made-up example, it's more or less possible to tell that more than one person is talking (I intended it to be three individuals - is that what you experienced?), and maybe even to tell, if you've outside or prior knowledge of characters' modes of speech or motivations, which character is saying what, but it's a whole lot of interpretive work that most of us American readers are unaccustomed to having to do, finding that the basic interpretive work of looking at skinny and repetitive designs in ink on paper, understanding them as words, and following the sequence of words as a story is quite enough, thank you.

But some books are worth the extra effort, and this account of a world in which first one man, then a few people, and then a whole bunch are suddenly struck with "white blindness" (in which the visual field becomes a field of complete white, rather than the blackness that we usually believe blindness to be), which turns out to be virulently contagious, and the horrors that ensue when first the afflicted are confined to a run-down mental hospital, and later when it turns out the whole city, perhaps the whole world, has gone blind, is absolutely worth that effort.

It is not, however, for the weak of stomach; if you are easily grossed-out by descriptions of serious squalor (as in what happens when a hundred of people or more are kept in a small space and can't find the toilets squalor), maybe give this one a pass. But if you're not that wimpy and want a seriously amazing read, don't pass this one by. Saramogo is a Nobel laureate for a reason.

Monday, November 14, 2011

100 Books 66 - Erin Morgenstern's THE NIGHT CIRCUS

I want Tarsem Singh to direct a film adaptation of this movie, STAT. And I need a red scarf, also STAT.

Singh because I think he would bring The Night Circus's vividly imagined sights and sounds (alas, no way to bring the smells as yet, in any way that isn't hokey and cost-intensive, I suspect) to eye-popping life, and I want to see them: unlike some readers, my mind's eye isn't all that clever. I'm a verbal girl. I mostly yawn through detailed descriptions of fabrics and color schemes and intricate designs, and can't be arsed to do the work of making them into pictures in my head. So, since said detailed descriptions make up the bulk of The Night Circus's pages, one might expect that I yawned through this book.

But I didn't.

I think what makes the difference is the writing itself, which is poetic and gorgeous in its own right, so I never yawned, and instead was filled with longing to actually see what was being described. I suppose that's my background in comics coming out (and indeed, if for some reason I don't get my film of this, I'd settle for a graphic novel, with, say, Christian "Infinite Vacation" Ward on art detail. Or Fiona Staples. With Dave Stewart on colors... Ahem).

Anyway, while this book is a little thin on plot (and what plot there is owes a lot to Christopher Priest's fantastic novel that was spoiled by its film adaptation, The Prestige, and maybe a bit to Robertson Davies' Deptford Trilogy, too, and of course Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes if you drained out most of the wicked and just left the wonder), it's a treat to read, dreamy and evocative as hell and just the sort of bedtime story you'd want to read to your kids, if you want them to grow up to be art snobs.

I loved it.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

100 Books 65 - John Mierau's ASUNDER: WAR BETWEEN WORLDS

Short version: a fun answer to the question of what happened to all of the bad-ass alien technology after the microbes took care of the aliens in H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds with a nice, adventurous flair. Victorian reverse-engineering, pirates, sea battles, and tension within the ranks of Her Majesty's Armed Forces. Alas, like a few other self-published treats, the sweet comes with a little bitter: this could have used at least one more careful edit/proofread before it was released into the world. Lots of sentences are weirdly missing the verb, more than a few homophone errors have reared their ugly heads, and a few malapropisms, too. They're all the kind of errors a professional editor would never let slip by, but that a spell-check doesn't catch. If you're the kind of reader who gets too distracted by these, wait for another edition. But if you don't mind them, this is a fun and delightful read.

100 Books 64 - Trent Jamison's ROIL

Short version: God damn, Angry Robot is putting out some good, genre-muddling stuff. This one is part straight-up sci-fi (this world seems to be a settled, terraformed exoplanet on which something native and terrifying is fighting back against the terraforming), a dash steampunk (lots of clockwork technology, airships -- oh, but get this, the airships are ALIVE) and possibly a little bit fantasy, too (lots of malformed monsters, some of which kind of defy physics a bit and rejoice in baroque and bizarre names like "Hideous Garment Flukes", and also a quest that hangs heavily on an ordinary boy who turns out to be a very special boy and who is everybody's Only Hope). I found it wonderfully reminiscent of Alastair Reynold's last proper novel, Terminal World in lots of ways, which made me very happy. I tore through this thing in a matter of days and can't wait for the sequels. Hurry up, Trent!

Long version: again, will try to do an Audioboo. Cuz, even this much typing is ouch.

100 Books 63 - Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending's THE 10,000 YEAR EXPLOSION: HOW CIVILIZATION ACCELERATED HUMAN EVOLUTION

Short version: No, humans did not stop evolving 10,000 or even 4,000 years ago. We still are, in lots of fascinating little (and big) ways. And sadly, no, not all people are created equal. As many of us have inherent biological advantages as disadvantages -- and some people have both all at once. Interesting read, but I am pretty much part of the choir Cochran and Harpending are preaching to.

Long version: will try for an AudioBoo later this weekend. Typing is still to be kept to a minimum.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

100 Books 62 - Henry James' PORTRAIT OF A LADY

Short version:  Boy, it sure do suck to be a lady.

Long version: in AudioBoo form because I am typing impaired due to continued elbow problems (now in both arms!).

Henry James" PORTRAIT OF A LADY (mp3)

Friday, November 4, 2011

100 Books 61 - Gary McMahon's DEAD BAD THINGS (D'oh!)

Dad gum it, I hate taking up stories in the middle. Which is what, it appears, I did in deciding to read this next ebook in my Angry Robot subscription. Which I didn't realize until I was considerably invested in the story. Which has me a little annoyed, but I can't really blame anyone but myself; I should have known by now that a lot of the ebooks magically coming to me every month were sequels, continuations, snippets of bigger stories.

Somehow I missed it this time, though.

That aside -- and it's mostly annoying because all of these ominous references to the series arc's overall hero, Thomas Usher, keep cropping up without any context for the reader who has just happened to stumble upon this title -- this is mostly a pretty satisfying bit of horror, gross and creepy and emotionally wrenching and did I mention creepy?

It took a little patience, though, to get through this. For most of the novel, the four storylines followed show no signs of having anything to do with each other at all and the reader must simply have faith that they will knit together at some point. This is common enough in fiction today and I would not normally remark on it, except that one storyline is told in the first person and the rest in the third. And for all but the last few chapters, I had no idea who the first person narrator was supposed to be. His chapters were interesting and evocative, though, so I at least sort of cared about seeing what the hell they had to do with anything. For most of the book, they were just a weird distraction from the storyline I really cared about, that of a young female policewoman who was having to deal with a lot of weird and possibly supernatural shit in her professional and personal life, supernatural shit that was well hinted at by a prologue that suggested how the other two third-person storylines might tie in with the policewoman's, but still left that first-person stuff (that I now, having finished the book and nosed around the author's web page, know to have been this Thomas Usher, he of the unknown importance and powers unless one has read the earlier Usher novel, Pretty Little Dead Things) unconnected but buzzing around like a mosquito that's too quick to swat.

Reader cluelessness aside, Dead Bad Things did come to a pretty fantastic climax, full of action and anguish and genuine horror. By the time all of this comes about, the reader is well invested in the policewoman's story and background; for me she was the protagonist throughout and I cared quite a lot what happened to her (though the revelation of who she "really" was left me pretty meh since I was apparently reading this book wrong. I should have taken a clue from the first person narrative of that other thread, yes; this is a(nother) book about this Thomas Usher dude and if I knew or gave a damn who he was I'm sure I would have been all kinds of emotionally invested in the policewoman's identity blah blah blah). Until the end when her story is hijacked by this Usher dude. Sigh.

I sound like I hated this book, but really, I didn't. The policewoman's story is really compelling and so it comes really close to standing alone on that basis. The fact that one can read Dead Bad Things as her story says something about it, and I liked it well enough to want to go back sometime (after this challenge, in which I'm insisting on every book coming from a different author, is over) and read Pretty Little Dead Things and find out what the big deal about this Usher dude is. I just wish McMahon had given me more about Usher in this one.

I'm sure, in retrospect, that this might be how people might feel coming upon a Doctor Who episode like "Blink" and being surprised to learn at the end that this is not a show about Sally Sparrow, adorable, spunky 21st century girl who has to battle creepy statues, but about some amazing time traveling dude who only appears in her story as a guy on TV giving her bizarre instructions. We who are/were in the know hail "Blink" as one of the best episodes of the DW revival, but people who'd just stumbled across this episode were probably a little annoyed and puzzled and it might be a crap shoot whether they'd bother with another episode.

I've just learned a lesson about my Angry Robot subscription: never assume that the ebooks I'm getting are stand alones. Always assume they are sequels until proven otherwise.

Because yeah, both of the books in this month's feed are third volumes of trilogies! So imagine how annoyed I might potentially be if I fell into this same fallacy again with them!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

100 Books 60 - China Mieville's THE CITY & THE CITY

The City & The City was the first book I ever pre-ordered for my Kindle. I had had abosolute faith in China Mieville's ability to entertain me and didn't feel like waiting for a pile of shoddily bound paper* to physically ship to me. I remember seeing copies in the wild at an airport bookstore in Baltimore on my way home from BaltiCon and sort of gloating that I already had it, I just needed the time.

That was over two years ago. I started to read The City & The City pretty much just as soon as I got home and unpacked, but its opening chapter, which sets the book up very much as a rather run-of-the-mill murder mystery/police procedural, did not grab me the way Mieville's other books had -- and I had come home with a pretty good haul of signed paperbacks written by friends, the likes of Philippa Ballantine, Tee Morris, Val Griswold-Ford, Nathan Lowell, Patrick McLean... and my attention strayed and never returned.

Then a few of my friends started reporting in that they'd been pretty disappointed with The City & The City (even though it won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Hugo for best novel), and my slight enthusiasm fizzled.

Two years later I stumbled across the book again as I was belatedly taking advantage of the collections feature on the Kindle and sorting my considerable horde of ebooks into some broad categories. At first I pulled a face -- I had snagged and quickly read Mieville's follow-up to The City & The City, The Kraken, and had been more than disappointed; I had been actively displeased. But after having enjoyed Zoo City, which was this year's Arthur C. Clarke Award winner, I remembered that the Clarke award, unlike some, is a pretty reliable guide for what I'll consider quality. Plus, I hate to have unread stuff that I've paid good coin for sitting around on my device, vulnerable to deletion should I start running up against storage problems. So I took it up again.

Am I ever glad I did!

Yeah, the first chapter is pretty rough going. It's a bit old-hat, even if the hat being tried on might be Dashiell Hammett's. But I forged on through it, and quickly remembered that old hats can look quite dashing on the right guy, and when the guy in question is basically acting like the mutant offspring of Hammett and Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka and Robert Musil, well, I'm in.

Because as is often the case with things I like (and sometimes things I write), the rather ordinary plot is not what's important. It's just a narrative thread to follow through the labyrinth of an extraordinary world. And when all that is done right, the ordinary plot turns out not to be all that ordinary, but to be entirely sui generis because it is a product of that extraordinary world, and its central questions and mysteries would never even come up outside that world. Which makes The City & The City in part a kind of thought experiment, that produces some fascinating results.

What's Borgesian about it is this unique world, which is very much like our contemporary post-millennial existence, except in that somewhere in eastern Europe there are two independent city-states that occupy the exact same physical territory. Besz is a somewhat drab, Kafkaesque, 1950sish, Prague/Budapest-ish place; Ul-Quoma is slightly more modern and brightly colored -- which is to say there is a striking visual and cultural contrast (they even each have their own language, though how different those languages really are becomes a bit of a puzzle as the story progresses). But the two cities are in the same place! To a degree the reader is allowed to imagine them as sort of gerrymandered around each other by means of squiggly borders, but there is also a lot of overlap -- crosshatching, as it's termed. So one's apartment building in Besz might be abutted on either side by Ul Quoman buildings but, get this -- everyone in the two cities is trained from birth (I imagine a process very like prolonged sessions of hypnosis; since no outright magic ever occurs in the novel, I can find no other likely explanation for how the "unperceiving" that is central to the characters' existence goes on) not to notice the people, the fixtures, the buildings, the traffic, of the other city, so the dweller in that Besz apartment building "unsees" the Ul Quoman flower shop next door. Sometimes he might walk down the street and see someone ambiguously dressed, only perhaps to hear a word or two in the other city's language and abruptly and assiduously edit that person from his consciousness.

The only way to visit the other city is to go to the vast government building that is universally agreed to be part of both city-states, endure some red tape, and leave again -- often walking down the same street by which he approached, but now perceiving only the new city's features. If he walked up a street in Besz, he now sees that street in Ul Quoma. It is and isn't the exact same street. Ow, my brain.

It all sounds more than a little looney, doesn't it? Like a population of lunatics somehow agreeing to live in this ludicrous way... for hundreds of years. And this separation is rigidly enforced, of course, by a terrifying, shadowy entity known as Breach. Breach disappears anyone who is caught looking at, talking to or in anyway acknowledging the coterminous Other; he or she is never heard from again.

Against this bizarre backdrop is played out a murder mystery that takes on positively ontological connotations, starting with a big conundrum: was the person whose murder our protagonist is investigating dumped in Besz or Ul Quoma? And in which country was she killed? And was her killer a Besz or Ul Quoman? So even before the means, motive and opportunity of traditional murder mystery can be established, a lot of weird detective work has to happen.

And since this is China Mieville, who can't leave socialist/revolutionary politics alone, writing, there's plenty of that woven into this story, too. For instance, in both cities are groups who want to put an end to this two cities nonsense and get everyone to stop being ridiculous and admit that there's really just one city there (and they have a good point; driving in a city where half the inhabitants aren't "really" there but can still step in front of your car or sideswipe it with their cars would be a nightmare -- to say nothing of the mental strain of constantly having to edit out half of one's surroundings all the damned time. And to what end? Why  is this so? Nobody seems to know. It's just the way it is. Shut up or Breach will take you away).

There is, too, a weirdly historical/archaeological component to the milieu Mieville has created here. The murder victim was a scholar, unearthing artifacts from a time before the cities split (a time which they refer to more often as "Precursor" than "Pre-Cleavage" because even in the languages of Besz and Ul Quoma -- awesomely Borgesian name, that -- the latter sounds vaguely anatomically naughty), from a world that seems still to have been weird -- one arresting artifact is a lobster claw embedded with some clockwork parts -- and brought to this Bas-Lag fan visions of that tremendously weird steampunk-and-sorcery city, New Crobuzon, as though perhaps that city had perhaps degenerated and then split into Besz and Ul Quoma. Hey, it could be so. Right, China? Fans? Anyone? I can't have been the only one who thought of that as I read!

So yes, the world of The City & The City is all quite a fascinating idea, with shades of the divided city of Berlin before the Wall fell, with hints that some lunatics might take as the ideal solution for the Israel-Palestine problem (oy). And, unlike Borges, who would have thrown it out there in a lazy short story and left the rest as an exercise for the reader, Mieville has done the exercise with a thoroughness -- maybe even a mania -- that most of us would never bother expending on something so goofy.

The result is a weirdly engaging read that I wound up tearing right through (metaphorically speaking, since it's an ebook).

*Really, modern hardcover publishing should be ashamed of itself. Where's the craftsmanship? Where's the respect for people who want to have and keep a nice object that happens to contain cherished content in a durable, heritable form? Rubbish! OK, rant over. It's hopeless. With the exception of some small press holdouts like Tyrus Books, and Dark Overlord Media, who are still trying.