The Library of Babel: February 2002

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February 27, 2002

Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story by Christopher Moore. I love my job, I really do, but there are days when it can be a real downer. Sunday and Monday were two such, and Steven Erikson's Deadhouse Gates, while very good, is not exactly a pick-me-up book. For that, purpose, I own Christopher Moore books.

This is a laugh-out-loud funny book (even on a third or fourth reading), and there are any number of quotable bits from it. I'll quote the tail end of the passage which (turned to randomly in a bookstore) caused me to buy the book:

"Do you want to consult the cards about your new home?"

"No. I don't believe the cards."

"I could read your palm."

"Will it cost extra?"

"No, it's included."

"Okay." Tommy held out his hand and Madame Natasha cradled it delicately. Tommy looked around to see if anyone else was looking, tapped his foot as if he was in a hurry.

"Goodness, you masturbate a lot, don't you?"

A guy at a nearby table spit coffee all over his paperback Sartre and looked over.

That's the kind of book this is, and the kind of writer Christopher Moore is. As if that weren't obvious from titles like Island of the Sequined Love Nun or Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove or, well, Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story. This is, indeed a love story, and it's also the funniest vampire novel you'll ever read.

The love story is between Tommy Flood ("C. Thomas" to his future readers, should he ever become a writer) and Jody (whose last name may be Stroud, but is never specified), a twenty-six-year-old vampire in San Francisco. Unfortunately, Jody was turned into a vampire without getting the orientation lecture, so she knows about as much about how to be a vampire as Tommy, recently arrived from Incontinence, Indiana, knows about living in the city. Between them, they have to figure out how her vampirism works, how their relationship can work, and how stay alive (or undead) when the vampire who first bit Jody is stalking her for his own amusement.

I can't speak for the female side of things, but Moore absolutely nails Tommy's slightly befuddled male approach to love and relationships ("He hung up and thought: She's evil. Evil, evil evil. I want to see her naked."), and the whole love story plot is handled brilliantly. Moore's vampires are unique (not much like those found in other books, as Tommy discovers through careful experimentation), and wonderfully imagined. There are even some genuinely dark passages toward the end, when Jody is coming to terms with what her new un-life really means. The only flaw is a tacked-on subplot which attempts to put a scientific gloss on vampirism-- that sort of thing just never works.

This is a teriffic book, and highly recommended. Moore's other books are also very good, and well worth reading. And, I see from his web page that he's got a new book out, which means a run to Borders to stock up for the next time my job gets me down...


Usually, I'd post this to one of the rec.arts.sf.* groups, but I'm curious to see who actually reads this log, so I'll throw this out here. In recent weeks, I've acquired extra copies of a few well-liked and moderately hard to find books, which I'm willing to send to good homes (i.e., to people who haven't already got copies...). The books available are:

All of these are excellent books (in my not-at-all-humble opinion), and I don't hesitate to recommend them. All are paperbacks, none are in a condition that would be particularly prized by collectors (I got several of them off the $0.25 rack at a local used book store, and I'm offering the more battered of the copies I have...). The deal is this: the books are available on a first-come-first-served basis-- email me if you want one or more of them, and I'll mail the books to you. Since I didn't pay more than a buck or two for any of these, I'm not asking for anything in return, though if you have interesting books you'd be willing to trade, I'm always happy to hear offers.

UPDATE: All gone. All the books have been claimed, the first within a couple of hours of the original posting, the last by Sunday evening. Things move fast in the Information Supercollider. I'll keep an eye out for more copies of these books, and other semi-obscure favorites, and maybe we'll do this again in a couple of months.

February 22, 2002

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson. This is one of the books I bought from Glen Cook at Boskone. When I brought this to him to pay for it, he remarked "This is a good book. Weird, but good." While I'm not that laconic by nature, I pretty much have to agree.

It's not really a surprise that Cook would enjoy this book-- John Novak described it on Usenet as "The Black Company vs. the Wheel of Time." Like Cook's signature series (well, one of his three, with the Garrett books and the Dread Empire), it mostly deals with the adventures of a rather mercenary (in character, if not in fact) band of soldiers involved in a brutal war in a complex and dangerous fantasy landscape. There are battles and betrayals and world-shaking sorcery, and the Bridgeburners struggle to stay alive and hold their unit together.

As The Novak pointed out, it's also similar to Robert Jordan's magnum opus (and when I say magnum, I mean magnum...), in the sheer scope of the thing. The book is mostly set on one of three continents wholly or partly under the sway of the Malazan Empire, and wracked by constant warfare. The cast of characters runs into the dozens, and most of them turn out to be major-league ass-kickers. Actually, it might be better to compare the book to George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire saga, as Erikson is unafraid to inflict serious torture on his characters (though it's not clear any of them have died a permanent death...).

A summary of the plot is nearly impossible to manage in a small space: The Bridgeburners, an elite corps under the founding Emperor, have fallen into disfavor since his assassination by the current Empress Laseen, and they find themselves being thrown into one hopeless situation after another, as she tries to kill them indirectly without sparking a mutiny among her other armies. Following the slaughter of most of their number in the sorcerous climax of the seige of the Free City of Pale, they are sent to the legendary city of Darujhistan to prepare the way for conquest by the Empire, in what is quite plainly another attempt to get them all killed. They're also assigned a new captain (who promptly gets himself stabbed), who is really an agent of the Empress's Adjunct, hunting a new recruit to the Bridgeburner ranks: a young girl calling herself Sorry, who may be possessed by some sort of evil deity. The Adjunct herself is involved in another scheme to thwart Anomander Rake, Lord of Moon's Spawn (a flying planetoid housing an entire city), and dedicated enemy of the Empire's conquest, while the Bridgeburners have some scheme of their own to evade slaughter. Meanwhile, a half-dozen gods and demi-gods have chosen to become involved, and start using a number of human pawns more or less directly to set up their own deadly game.

And that's the short version. Every plot and scheme alluded to above has at least two other plots setting out to thwart it (directly or not), and nothing is what it seems at first. Or at the last, presumably. If you don't like Big Complicated Epic Fantasy, run, don't walk, away from this book. There are mages high and low, sorcerors, demons, dragons, gods, demi-gods, immortal ancient warriors, a scale spanning hundreds of thousands of years, a horrifically complex magic system, and more back-stabbing than you'd care to shake a stick at. And this is book one of a series of N books (each presumably a 700-page paperback like this one), given the somewhat grandiose title "Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen."

This is a hugely ambitious book, and I can't say for sure where the series might be headed (I'm partway into the second book now, which has discarded most of the major characters from this one, and seems bent on introducing a couple dozen new characters). It's not entirely clear that Erikson will be able to pull the whole thing off-- there's a section near the middle of this book alone where the plot threatens to spin out of his control-- but it's fun to watch him try. There's an admirable level of gall involved in the project-- in the same way that Peter Hamilton's Night's Dawn Trilogy is pedal-to-the-metal, pull-out-all-the-stops Space Opera, this is hell-for-leather Epic Fantasy (and significantly less silly in conception than Hamilton's Oversexed Space Pirates books). Hell, just the names of the powerful characters threaten to spiral into self-parody: Whiskeyjack, Tattersail, Shadowthrone, Anomander Rake, to say nothing of the D'read Ap'ost'rophe which turns up in several places.

If Erikson can manage to hold it all together for however many books he's planning, and can deliver a reasonable pay-off at the end, this could be truly amazing stuff. If he's going to fail, well, he's going to flame out in the most spectacular manner possible. There doesn't seem to be any middle ground available. One way or another, it'll be interesting to see where this ends up.

Site Update

Nothing drastic involving changes of bookmarks, but I was reminded this weekend of a few reviews I had kicking around which never made it onto the web page. For those who care, I've added them to the Reviews section of the site: The Land of Laughs by Jonathan Carroll, The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers, and The Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb.

February 19, 2002

Old Tin Sorrows by Glen Cook. I believe this is the fourth book in the ongoing Garrett series, a sort of fantasy-world hard-boiled private eye pastiche. I think I've read all of them now-- this was the last one I was missing, and I picked it up at Boskone this past weekend. Sadly, I didn't actually buy it from Glen Cook (I would've, but he didn't have a copy), but I bought a few other books from him, which will probably turn up here soon.

The Garrett stories are light and fun reads, or at least light and fun by the standards of Glen Cook novels (to steal a simile from John Novak, it's one thing to go for "grit" in fiction, but Cook's books tend to be "gritty" like staring into a sand blaster is gritty...). Garrett, the narrator (no other name is given), is a private eye in the multi-ethnic city of TunFaire, where elves, dwarves, humans, trolls, wizards, werewolves, vampires, and worse co-exist about as well as you might expect. Garrett's a veteran of the long-running war between his kingdom of Karenta and various other entities over the silver mines in the region known as tha Cantard, a war which has consumed most of the young human males in Karenta for several generations, and which enters its final stages (off-camera) during the course of the series. Ethnic and political unrest is on the rise as discharged soldiers return from the wars, providing Cook with ample opportunities for social commentary.

Still, as I said, these are mostly light and fun books. Garrett's narration is a reasonable imitation of the first-person hard-boiled novels of the past-- Cook doesn't have Chandler's flair, and certain descriptions are repeated nearly verbatim in each of the books, but it's better than most. There are nods to all manner of other detective series-- Garrett has a corpulent genius for a partner (who differs from Nero Wolfe (see, for example, A Right to Die) mainly in being dead), and a bad-ass dark-elf buddy, Morley Dotes, who bears some resemblence to Hawk from Robert Parker's Spenser novels (see A Catskill Eagle, below)-- and the plots are right out of bad detective movies, with femmes fatale, corrupt aristocrats, cops, and businessmen, and all manner of seedy low-lifes.

Nowhere is the debt owed to older works more obvious than this book. The set-up is straight from The Big Sleep: Garrett is called in to the home of a crippled General and asked to unravel a sordid plot involving members of the General's household. In keeping with the Chandler plot, Garrett is basically on his own for this one-- the Dead Man hardly appears, and the other series regulars make only brief appearances.

Perhaps not coincidentally, this is also the darkest of the books by far. The humor inherent in the set-up is toned down quite a bit, and nobody makes it out of the book unscathed, Garrett least of all. It's still a good read, and explains a recurring reference in the later books (which I had never fully understood), but it lacks some of the charm of the lighter novels in the series. It's worth a read, and I'm glad to have found it, but I'd recommend starting with one of the others, if you're new to the series.

February 13, 2002

The Disappearing Dwarf by James P. Blaylock. There are dozens of mediocre Tolkien imitators out there-- close your eyes and pick a book at random out of the "fantasy" section of your local store, and you'll probably find one. Most of them are trying to copy The Lord of the Rings, though-- James Blaylock is one of the few authors I know who seems to have attempted to re-write The Hobbit. Perhaps not coincidentally, he's also one of the few to match or exceed the original.

The Elfin Ship (the book to which this is the sequel) is the story of Jonathan Bing, Master Cheeser and devoted reader of the adventure novels of G. Smithers of Brompton Village, who is forced to set out from his peaceful home in Twombly Town (in the company of Professor Artemis Wurzle) on what turns out to be a capital-Q Quest, involving elves, goblins, wizards, colorful characters, the evil dwarf Selznak, and the dashing pirate Theophile Escargot. Our unlikely hero is chased forth from his vaguely Victorian home, finds himself embroiled in Significant Events, then returns home to his comfortable life-- if that's not the Book-A-Minute summary of The Hobbit, I don't know what it is.

The Disappearing Dwarf,like its predecessor, differs from The Hobbit mainly due to the fact that Blaylock reaches and sustains a level of whimsy and humor that Tolkien only rarely manages (though, to be fair, it's been fifteen years since I read The Hobbit, and one could quibble about the degree to which Tolkien was trying to be whimsical). Jonathan and the Professor (and Jonathan's trusty dog Ahab) set out with a bunch of daftly named companions in search of adventure, the titanic Squire Myrkle, and maybe valuable treasure. This is Quest Fantasy filtered through Jerome K. Jerome:

It struck Jonathan as a pity to do anything at all with the treasure. It would be far more worthwhile to leave it be, to return every few years and find it again, to sort of climb about in it yelling like a man who has lost his wits and let the chains of jewels and the gold coins run through his fingers and heap up on the floor. And there would no doubt be grim evidence lying around of the horrible history of it-- skeletons in cocked hats run through with cutlasses and set here and there to keep watch. What a shame to move such a treasure-- something like tearing apart an old and crumbling building or chopping down an ancient tree.

The Professor didn't exactly see things in the same light when Jonathan discussed it with him the next morning. He told Jonathan that he has too much of the poet in him-- was too romantic. There were things that a man could do with such a treasure. Just for historical purposes it should be catalogued; and given the nature of treasures in general, a good bit of it should be spent on historical exploration and study.

All that sounded pretty punk to Jonathan-- which is how Theophile Escargot would have put it. But then it didn't much matter there at Myrkle Hall; after all, they didn't have the treasure yet.

These books (there's a third, The Stone Giant, which I've never seen) also have a great deal in common with Bellairs's The Face in the Frost: the story is generally whimsical in tone, but there are some genuinely scary bits, and a nice air of looming dread in some of the passages. And yet, at the end of the day, we come back to what's basically a light-hearted tale of a Master Cheeser well out of his depth.

It's a fun read, all in all, and I recommend the books to anyone who likes fantasy stories with a sense of fun about them. It's not such brilliant stuff that I'd run right out and scour the used bookstores for a copy (fortunately, little scouring is required-- the first two at least are pretty common), but if you're looking for a good light read, these should work well. But read The Face in the Frost first, if you haven't already.

February 8, 2002

Them: Adventures with Extremists by Jon Ronson. I've been on a bit of a non-fiction kick of late, and this is another non-fiction book. Though, really, it belongs to that loose category of books in which the authors visit, interview, and travel around with utter lunatics-- books like Alex Heard's Apocalypse Pretty Soon or Michael Paternitti's Driving Mr. Albert. (This group of books is distinct from books in which the author does something ridiculous all by himself and then writes about it-- hitch-hiking the length of Japan (Will Ferguson's Hokkaido Highway Blues), or hiking the Appalachian Trail with a badly out-of-shape acquaintance from years gone by (Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, though Katz almost lifts it into the other category...)).

Jon Ronson's contribution to this branch of literature involved traveling all over the world to visit wild-eyed conspiracy theorists-- Waco, Ruby Ridge, and KKK headquarters in the US, trailing the shadowy Bilderburg Group (supposed secret rulers of the world) in Portugal, and, most memorably, visiting with David Icke, a former soccer star who has convinced himself that various world leaders and captains of industry are actually pedophilic reptiles from another dimension, and regularly proclaims this to the world, resulting in a surprising lack of libel suits:

"Why do you think that is?" David Icke had asked me when I interviewed him about this matter in London. Then he turned to my notepad and thundered, "Come on, Ted Heath! Sue me if you've got nothing to hide! Come on, George Bush! I'm ready! Sue me! I'm naming names! Come on, Jon! Why are they refusing to sue me?"

There was a silence.

"Because they are twelve-foot lizards?" I suggested, meekly.

"Yes!" said David. "Exactly!"

All in all, this is a very entertaining book, which nevertheless contains a few surprises. Ronson (identified in the author note as "an award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker" without naming either awards or films) does a nice job of showing how some of the people opposing extremists have become almost as goofy as the enemies they fight-- for instance, in the dogged refusal of various "antiracist" groups to accept that when David Icke says "twelve-foot lizards" he doesn't mean that as code for "Jews" but rather literal twelve-foot alien lizards. He's also good about pointing out the virulent strain of racism which links most of the groups he visits, without belaboring the point too much.

One caveat should be noted here: The first chapter, describing Ronson's experiences with Muslim extremist Omar Bakri ("A Semi-Detached Ayatollah"), has lost a lot of its humor value since September 11. Bakri's inflated claims to be "Osama bin Laden's man in London" fall a little flat-- he's too buffoonish to really be menacing, but it's still a little too close to the late unpleasantness to really be funny (this is noted in the prologue to the American edition-- I think the book was prublished in the UK before 9/11). The later chapters are generally free of unpleasant resonances with recent events, though, so if you find the first chapter rough going, the book does get better.

February 5, 2002

Nine Crazy Ideas In Science by Robert Ehrlich. Robert Ehrlich is a physicist at George Mason University, and has written a couple of exceptionally useful books for someone in my profession (Why Toast Lands Jelly-Side Down and Turning the World Inside Out and 174 Other Simple Physics Demonstrations). This book, subtitled "A Few Might Even Be True," is a different beast, a list of some prominent wacky ideas in the sciences, carefully analyzed and rated (from zero to four "cuckoos") as to their general plausibility.

The "crazy ideas" under consideration are carefully chosen to span a wide range of subject matter (from the famous claims that more guns mean less crime and AIDS isn't caused by HIV, to slightly more esoteric issues like steady-state cosmology and the possible existence of tachyons), and to be prominent and crazy without being demonstrably ludicrous. It's a good selection of topics, and makes for lively and varied reading.

The analysis is sometimes devastatingly effective, most notably in the case of John Lott's famous More Guns, Less Crime study (which is Holy Writ for gun nuts), which Ehrlich demolishes quite neatly, showing that Lott's analysis and presentation techniques range from the dubious to the duplicitous (you can get the basic idea from this online "debate" between Lott and Ehrlich where Lott takes umbrage at but never really answers Ehrlich's objections). A few of the later ideas, particularly the question of tachyons, lie a little too close to Ehrlich's own interests, though, and don't get quite the same harsh scrutiny (much time is spent describing the neat properties of tachyons, which helps gloss over the fact that there's really no way to detect the damn things (unless neutrinos are tachyons), making their existence more a metaphysical issue than a physics problem).

Each of the sections manages to be both entertaining and informative, and the book provides a nice introduction to a few crazy ideas I didn't even know existed. I might quibble with the inclusion of one or two of the ideas (I don't think the beneficial effects of sunlight really rate a chapter of their own), but this is a very good book. I have only two minor complaints to voice: First, that the book is a little too free with statistical terms (they're usually defined in footnotes, but it could be a bit rough on the mathematically disinclined), and second that the "cuckoo" rating scale (zero meaning "Why not?" and four meaning "Definitely false") isn't actually explained until the final chapter (where a convenient table summarizes the ratings).

In a nice ironic note, I had the tv on for background noise while I finished the last couple of chapters, and happened to catch another of the innumerable Erich von Daeniken type shows with that ubiquitous UFO expert with the scary neck beard ranting on about how the Pyramids couldn't possibly have been built without alien assistence. Craziness everywhere. It's nice to know that, should Ehrlich decide to write a sequel, he'll have a target-rich environment in which to operate.

February 3, 2002

A Catskill Eagle by Robert B. Parker. More Spenser, this time with Hawk:

"Remember where Mill River Boulevard is?" I asked.

"Un Huh."

"Jerry Costigan lives off it on something called Costigan Drive in something called The Keep."

"The Keep?" Hawk said.

"The Keep."

"The more money you honkies get," Hawk said, "the sillier you get."

"Wait a minutes," I said, "Didn't you grow up in a place called The Ghetto?"

"Shit," Hawk said. "You got me."

"See, you intolerant bastard."

Hawk drove quietly for a moment and then he began to laugh. "Maybe I move to Beverly Farms," Hawk said, "buy a big house call it The Ghetto." He made ghetto a two-word phrase.

"The Wasps would turn lime green," I said.

"Match their pants," Hawk said.

I chose this by the simple expedient of taking the oldest Spenser novel the library had which featured Hawk. Much better than The Godwulf Manuscript-- the banter's a lot snappier with two people cracking wise (the above quote is pretty representative of the dialogue, both in terms of its general quality and the overall level of enlightenment, race-relations-wise). It also helps that this is much more an adventure yarn than a private eye story, and thus demands less of a comparison to Chandler. It bogs down a bit in psychobabble toward the end, but it's a fun read right up to that point. I'll seek out a few more of the early ones with Hawk (if anyone would care to provide pointers to particularly good Spenser novels, feel free to email me, otherwise, I'll go with the same scientific selection process used here...).

February 2, 2002

Basket Case by Carl Hiaasen. Hiaasen was much on my mind a little over a year ago, as the Great Election Squabble of 2000 was the sort of thing that could've come straight out of one of his novels, with shamelessly corrupt political hacks, dubious legal proceedings, and a media frenzy. All it lacked was a few hookers, some tawdry sex, and a murderous psychopathic former governor visiting poetic justice upon a few major corporate polluters. Hiaasen's not a subtle guy, but his books are a lot of fun.

Perhaps realizing that he can't top reality, Basket Case, his newest novel, is much less manic than its predecessors (among them Sick Puppy, Lucky You, Stormy Weather, and Striptease, which is much better as a book than as a Demi Moore vehicle...). Which is not to say that there aren't some brilliantly unsubtle (and downright Thompson-esque) passages in this one:

Only two types of journalists choose to stay at a paper that's being gutted by Wall Street whorehoppers. One faction is comprised of editors and reporters whose skills are so marginal that they're lucky to be employed, and they know it. Unencumbered by any sense of duty to the readers, they're pleased to forgo the pursuit of actual news in order to cut expenses and score points with the suits. These fakers are easy to pick out in a bustling city newsroom-- they're at their best when arranging and attending pointless meetings, and at their skittish, indecisive worst under the heat of a looming deadline...

The other journalists who remain at slow-strangling dailies such as the Union-Register are those too spiteful or stubborn to quit. Somehow their talent and resourcefulness continue to shine, no matter how desultory or beaten down they might appear. These are the canny, grind-it-out pros who give our deliquescing little journal what pluck and dash it has left. They have no corporate ambitions, and hold a crusty, subversive loyalty to the notion that newspapers exist to serve and inform, period.

(Did I mention that Hiaasen's day job is as a columnist for the Miami Herald?)

Basket Case is the story of Jack Tagger, one of those spiteful and stubborn old pros, who humiliated his new Corporate Master in public, and as a result has been demoted from investigative reporting to obituary writing. He's reduced to grinding out twelve column inches a day about dead rabbis and minor celebrities (major celebrities get written up on the front page, and he's not allowed to have a Page One byline), his one remaining ambition to drive his editor out of journalism as well. When he gets the news of the suspicious death of James Bradley Stomarti (AKA "Jimmy Stoma", the former front man of the band Jimmy and the Slut Puppies), his old investigative instincts kick in, and he sets out to discover who mudered Jimmy, and why. As the murderer moves on to some of Jimmy's band mates, the plot, as they say, thickens, and, well, hijinks ensue.

This is relatively subdued compared to his other novels (only two villains die messily), but might be better for it. There's nothing too flashy here, and while the plot gets a little complicated, it never gets as flat-out weird as the plot of, say, Stormy Weather. This is a very assured book by an author who knows he's got a good story to tell, and plans to tell it in a straightforward and enjoyable manner. I checked this one out of the library (I haven't enjoyed his other books quite enough to buy them new in hardcover), but I'll be buying a copy to keep.

As I'm not as ambitious or conscientious as Kate is, this isn't using any weblogging software at the moment-- I don't figure it will be updated regularly enough to require automatic archiving and the like.

Begun: 7 August, 2001