The Library of Babel: June 2003

This page contains the archived copies of book log entries for June of 2003.

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June 30, 2003

Fury by G. M. Ford. Mary Kay Kare originally recommended both the John Francis Cuddy books and G. M. Ford's Leo Waterman series, and the two authors have been linked in my mind ever since. Thus, when I picked up a Healy novel to read on the plane to Las Vegas, I picked up a Ford for the flight back.

This isn't a Leo Waterman novel (there's one more of those after Last Ditch, but I haven't picked it up yet), but rather the start of a new series (the second book featuring Frank Corso came out fairly recently). Leo does make an early cameo, though, as if it would be too much of a shock for the reader to pick up a Ford novel and not encounter familiar characters.

(What is it with mystery authors and long series, anyway? You never find stand-alone mystery novels, and book reviews of first novels by new mystery writers will refer to this as "introducing the So-and-so series." What gives? Is this just an unfortunate side effect of Arthur Conan Doyle's writing for syndication, in the same way that "trilogy-itis" in epic fantasy can be blamed on the tripartite structure of The Lord of the Rings?)

Anyway, as I said, this novel introduces a new set of characters, in the same Seattle that Leo Waterman inhabits. Freed of the obligation to write semi-comic scenes for Leo's sodden Baker Street Irregulars, though, this is a darker book than most of the Waterman books. It's also better for it-- maybe the best of his books that I've read.

On the other hand, it does run on a little. There are three false endings before the book actually comes to a close, and it probably could've done without two of them. Still, it's an engaging novel, and kept me well entertained on the flight back home.

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June 28, 2003

Shallow Graves by Jeremiah Healy. I picked this up to read about a week ago, because I was finding Teckla hard going. Given how cheery the earlier entries in this series are (see The Staked Goat and So Like Sleep), that should tell you something about Teckla.

Actually, there isn't a hell of a lot to say about this book. It's another entry in the John Francis Cuddy series, and pretty much par for the course. Cuddy gets hired by an old friend to investigate the death of a model, who turns out to have ties to a prominent Mafia family. The insurance company who hired him just wants him to find out whether she was killed for money, but the mobsters want the killer found and handed over to them. Things are, of course, more complicated than they seem, and it all ends in bloodshed.

As I've said previously, these books are essentially Robert B. Parker novels, only with actual human beings in the key roles. This one is no different. They read easily, and the characters are good enough that I don't feel guilty about reading them. And that's really about all there is to say about it.

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June 27, 2003

Teckla by Steven Brust. I've finally bowed to the inevitable, and accepted that I'm in the middle of a complete Vlad Taltos re-read.

This is only the third or fourth time I've re-read Teckla, for one simple reason: this is a very unpleasant book. Not in the "gratuitous character mutilation" sense that some Iain Banks novels are unpleasant, but on an emotional sort of level.

For one thing, this is the first book in the series where Vlad has to face some hard questions about what he does for a living (namely, kill people for money). As a result, it's a lot less fun than the previous books, in which he just, well, kills people for money.

The bigger problem, though, is that these questions are brought up through having Vlad's marriage (which started in Yendi) fall apart messily. This is not the sort of thing you want to watch through the eyes of a well-drawn first-person narrator.

It ends up being one of those books where you just want to slap all the main characters. Cawti (Vlad's wife) has gotten involved with a bunch of cant-spouting Marxist revolutionaries, who, like most cant-spouting revolutionaries, are just begging for a good whack upside the head. On to of that, Cawti handles the whole thing fairly badly on her end, and needs a kick in the ass. And Vlad, having been placed in a situation in which there's no real Right Thing to Do that would get him out of it intact, still manages to pick exactly the wrong thing to do at every turn.

The only character who comes off well in this book is Vlad's grandfather, and sadly, Noish-pa is far too much of a gentleman to sit Vlad, Cawti, and Kelly (the head Marxist) down in a line, and run back and forth slapping them in the head with a dead teckla.

This is a necessary book, and I'm glad he wrote it. I'm never really happy to read it, though.

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June 23, 2003

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling. Because I'm a total sheep, and just can't bear to not have read the current book-of-the-moment.

I'll keep this fairly general and reasonably spoiler-free. If you want detailed blow-by-blow commentary examining all the minute details of the plot, well, throw a rock in the air, and it'll land on somebody who has a website listing all the latest Harry Potter buzz.

Unless you've spent the last several years living in a cave, you know that this is Book Five of the Harry Potter saga (and if you have been living in a cave, allow me to recommend sunscreen...). The first three books were enjoyable fluff-- a nicely whimsical style, a good dollop of inventiveness, and just enough creepy atmospherics to tie it all together. The sub-Roald Dahl antics of the Dursleys were a little bit off-putting, but those sections were dispensed with fairly quickly, and the Hogwarts bits were good fun. In the fourth book, however, the plot took a distinct turn, with an actual death among the cast, and some suggestions of greater depth to come, as the struggle against Lord Voldemort moves toward open war.

Unfortunately, this book, like Harry himself, is caught in a sort of awkward adolescent state, partway between the pure fluff of the first book, and the darker world of more adult fantasy. It's not exactly a step back in the progression of the series, but it doesn't really move forward, either.

A large part of the problem has to do with the structure of the plot. The first four books were all driven by a lack of communication-- they had to be, because all the problems could've been wrapped up in a matter of moments had any of the child protagonists bothered to talk to an adult. This is not a problem unique to Harry Potter, of course-- it afflicts all YA books to one degree or another. The protagonists are almost always children, and constructing an interesting book for the target audience pretty much requires that they be instrumental in solving the problems of the plot, which in turn requires that adults somehow be removed from the picture. There are lots of ways of doing this, ranging from having the adults be entirely absent during the crucial action (the approach used in Coraline and The Wee Free Men), to having them be utterly ineffectual buffoons (the Lemony Snicket approach).

These all get sort of tiresome after a while, though, and I had hoped that the next Harry Potter book would break out of the idiot plot rut-- Harry being more and more A, and less YA, as it were. Sadly, Rowling departs from the previous formula only in finding a new reason for Harry to stupidly refuse to tell any adults about his problems: a magical transformation into Petulant Adolescent Boy. Harry spend much of this book in a snit at being kept in the dark, and as a result won't talk to anybody.

This doesn't make for especially enjoyable reading, from either the plot or character ends. I did appreciate the fact that, at the end, some blame is assigned to the adults as well for failing to treat Harry better, but that doesn't really make up for the preceding eight hundred-odd pages.

Which is not to say that it was a bad book, just that I'd hoped for better. There's some good stuff here, and a few interesting character developments, but Rowling overshot on the teenage angst front, and the results were fairly disappointing. I'll still read the next two volumes as soon as they come out, but I think an opportunity was missed with this one.

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June 19, 2003

Issola by Steven Brust. I'm not having all that much success avoiding re-reading the entire Vlad Taltos series...

This is the most recent Vlad book, and it's a doozy. A few off-hand remarks made in The Lord of Castle Black called to mind things that were said in this book, so I picked it up to check a few facts, and found myself drawn into re-reading the whole thing. I hear that happens a lot.

As usual, the book is summed up reasonably well by the tagline on the cover: "In which Vlad learns more than he bargained for about Dragaera, its masters, and the makers behind them." Vlad gets drawn into a series of epic events involving powerful sorcerers, the gods, and the mysterious Jenoine, beings who once ruled Dragaera, and are so different from the current inhabitants as to be all but incomprehensible.

I am still considering the matter and trying to understand, but it seems to me that they spoke to me-- insofar as I could perceive tone-- in the tone one might use to, well, a greeterbird. They were amused that I could form any sort of coherent thought; they think we're cute."

"Cute," said Aliera e'Kieron.

"Cute," said Morrolan e'Drien.

"I am cute," said Loiosh.

I said, "And that didn't, uh, annoy you at all?"

"I thought it interesting," said Teldra. "Actually, I didn't put it together in exactly that way; I've been thinking about it since the conversation, and that is my conclusion."

"Hmmmm," I said.

"Cute," repeated Aliera.

"All right," said Morrolan. "I think we can accept that. So, what do we do?"

"Kill them," said Aliera.

Morrolan rolled his eyes. "Of course we're going to kill them," he said. "I meant, how?"

On re-reading, I was struck by just how talky this book is. There are several whole chapters consisting of little more than philosophical conversations between characters (chiefly Vlad and Teldra), discussing history, metaphysics, the nature of godhood, and etiquette. And yet, Brust manages to make this compelling reading.

There is a plot, of course, but discussing it in detail would ruin the book for anyone who hasn't read it, so I'll skip over that part, save to note that it ends up advancing the overall story arc in dramatic and unexpected ways. I can't wait to see where he takes this next.

Oh, yeah, I did find the information I originally went to this book to check. I don't know why I'm surprised that it turned out to raise more questions than it answered...

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June 17, 2003

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett. Kate booklogged this a few weeks ago, which should serve as ample proof that I don't drop everything for a new Pratchett... Actually, I was busy when it first arrived, and then it got put on a shelf in Kate's office, where I only rarely venture, and I completely forgot that it was there...

This book bears some superficial similarity to Neil Gaiman's Coraline, in that they're both YA books about young girls who turn back an incursion by an evil fairy Queen. The similarities pretty much end there, though, as Coraline's only ally is a slightly enigmatic cat, while Tiffany, Pratchett's protagonist, has the backing of an entire army. Granted, they're six inches tall, but they're not a force to be trifled with:

The Nac Mac Feegle liked clear goals. Hundreds of swords and battleaxes, and one bunch of battered flowers in the case of Daft Wullie, were thrust into the air, and the war cry of the Nac Mac Feegle echoed around the chamber. The period of time it takes a pictsie to go from normal to mad fighting mood is so tiny, it can't be measured on the smallest clock.

Unfortunately, since the pictsies were very individualistic, each one had his own cry and Tiffany could only make out a few over the din:

"They can tak' oour lives, but they canna tak' oour troousers!"

"Ye'll tak' the high road an' I'll tak' yer wallet!"

"There can only be one t'ousand!"

"Ach, stick it up yer trakkens!"

But the voices gradually came together in one roar that shook the walls:

"Nae King! Nae Quin! Nae laird! Nae master! We willna be fooled again!"

Between Tiffany's relentlessly sensible way of looking at the world, and the fighting zeal of the wee Free Men, the armies of Elfland never stand a chance.

Well, OK, that's not entirely true-- the evil Queen does put up a good fight, and Tiffany has to dig deep to find the strength to beat her. Which brings up the other obvious comparison, to Lords and Ladies (possibly my favorite Discworld book, which is odd, since I don't usually care for the Witch books). Tiffany is very much a Granny Weatherwax in waiting, and some of the lessons she learns in the course of this book are the same ones Granny learned in Lords and Ladies.

Anyway, this is a good, fast read, which I polished off in the course of an afternoon spent lounging in the sun and recovering from my college reunion weekend. It doesn't quite stack up to the best of the Discworld series, but it stands on its own very well, and would serve as an excellent introduction to Pratchett for people who might be put off by the thought of picking up a novel from a series that's almost thirty books long.

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June 16, 2003

The Lord of Castle Black by Steven Brust. I have something of an ethical dilemma, here. This book isn't slated for release until August (it says so right on the spine of the review copy Kate got), but then I'm just anal enough to want to log it now, not later. Also, it'll do more good to review it then, when other people might possibly be encouraged to go out and buy it as a result, but I've actually read it now, and won't remember it as clearly come August, which means I'll have to read it again when it comes out and I buy a copy with actual art and stuff. Wait, that's not a bad thing...

I'll compromise by noting now that I've read it, and it's Very Good Indeed, and everybody should run right out and buy a copy of The Paths of the Dead to prepare for the release of this volume. I'll post an actual review sometime closer to the actual release date.

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June 15, 2003

Fluke, or I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore. The author of Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal and Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story is back with a unique perspective on marine biology.

Amy called the whale punkin.

He was fifty feet long, wider than a city bus, and weighed eighty thousand pounds. One well-placed slap of his great tail would reduce the boat to fiberglass splinters and its occupants to red stains drifting in the blue Hawaiian waters. Amy leaned over the side of the boat and lowered the hydrophone down on the whale. "Good morning punkin," she said.

Nathan Quinn shook his head and tried not to upchuck from the cuteness of it, while surreptitiously sneaking a look at her bottom and feeling a little sleazy about it. Science can be complex. Nate was a scientist. Amy was a scientist, too, but she looked fantastic in a pair of khaki hiking shorts, scientifically speaking.

Nate is a well-respected cetacean biologist, who has spent years studying humpback whales in Hawaii with his partner, renowned photographer Clay Demodocus, and a bunch of other slightly eccentric researchers. His life take a sharp turn when he spots a humpback whale with "BITE ME!" written on its tail. Things get really weird after that...

I wasn't entirely satisfied with Moore's last book, Lamb, which veered unsteadily between fairly serious theological stuff and utterly juvenile slapstick (it's sort of the text equivalent of Kevin Smith's Dogma). I was a little worried that he might be losing his touch, just a little bit.

Happily, Fluke is a return to the form of Bloodsucking Fiends. Well, OK, maybe not quite that good, as there are some heavy-handed bits in the middle (I continue to have little use for the "meme" concept, which comes up here), but it's not too far off his best stuff. The characters don't have much in the way of depth, but they're vaguely charming all the same, and the plot they get put through is nothing if not inventive. You've got fake whales, sentient sludge, eccentric widows who talk to whales on the phone, and a surfer Rasta from Jersey, all wrapped up in the mystery of why, exactly, whales sing.

This is a fun read from start to finish (the paragraphs quoted above are from the very first page), even if it's not as Deep as it sometimes attempts to be. It's a worthy addition to his collection of oddball novels, and would serve well as an introduction for anyone who has yet to discover him.

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June 13, 2003

Taltos by Steven Brust. I mentioned when I booklogged Jhereg that I had loaned a few of these to one of my freshman advisees. He finished Taltos and Yendi recently, and declared that Taltos was the better of the two. This ran counter to my recollection, so I started re-reading it...

In this volume, as it says on the cover, we find out what really happened when Vlad was hired by Morrolan e'Drien and Sethra Lavode to run an errand to Paths of the Dead:

"I understand that Easterners aren't allowed to enter the Paths of the Dead, and that, in any case, no one except the Empress Zerika has emerged alive."

"Both true," said Sethra. "But those two facts, taken together, may indicate that an Easterner would be allowed to--"


She hesitated. "I think it likely."

"Great. And, for doing this, I get exactly what?"

"We can pay--"

"I don't want to hear. Certain sums of money are so high they become meaningless. Any less than that and I won't do it."

In the end, of course, he does agree to go, and hijinks, as they say, ensue.

This is one of the good ones. The writing is a little more polished than in Yendi or Jhereg (though not quite as polished as Dragon, or Issola), and the plot is still fun (unlike Teckla, Phoenix, and Athyra, which are closest to it in publication order). I still enjoy Yendi more, but this is a very good book.

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June 9, 2003

Money for Nothing by Donald E. Westlake. One of the little things that lets you know that Donald Westlake is really very good at what he does is the way in which each of his books manages to take some familiar sort of scene, and spin some clever little turn of phrase off it that's just perfect:

"We don't walk there," Robbie told him. "It's too far to walk. You're a rich guy, we'll take a cab." [...]

Following in Robbie's wake, Josh said, "Why do I always have to pay for the cab?"

"Because you're a capitalist lackey," Robbie explained.

Josh was sure there was a perfect retort to that remark, but as they walked along, southward instead of northward, he didn't hear himself say it, so he never found out what it was.

This is Westlake dabbling in spy stuff: Josh Redmont gets a check once a month for $1,000 from a mysterious outfit named "United States Agent." A halfhearted attempt to locate them never turned anything up, and the checks always clear, so for seven years he's taken the money, and thought nothing more of it. Until one day, a smiling man sits down next to him, gives him a bank book showing $40,000 in an account in the Caymans, and tells him "You are now active."

It seems Josh has unwittingly been accepting money to be a deep-cover agent for some splinter of the former USSR, and now they've come calling. Of course, he's not a spy, he's an advertising executive with a family to support, and he has to find his way out of a tangled mess of bumbling but deadly ex-Soviet operatives.

It's a pretty lightweight book, more in the vein of Put a Lid On It than any of his classic comic novels, but it's enjoyable enough on its own terms. I read this in one sitting, after the family cleared out on Sunday, and it held my interest all the way through. It's not side-splittingly funny, but there are some good moments, and Westlake still knows how to construct a plot.

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June 6, 2003

Set This House in Order by Matt Ruff. Someone once said of Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn that it read as if he'd written it just to prove that he could write a novel narrated by somebody with Tourette's Syndrome. There's some truth to that, though I enjoyed the book far more than that comment would suggest.

Set This House in Order, Matt Ruff's latest, reads like he set out to go Lethem one better. Not only did he pick a more controversial and challenging mental disorder to write about, he wrote two such characters. The two principal characters in the book have Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), brought on by horrific childhood abuse:

The house, along with the lake, the forest, and Coventry, are all in Andy Gage's head, or what would have been Andy Gage's head if he had lived. Andy Gage was born in 1965 and murdered not long after by his stepfather, a very evil man named Horace Rollins. It was no ordinary murder: though the torture and abuse that killed him were real, Andy Gage's death wasn't. Only his soul actually died, and when it died, it broke in pieces. Then the pieces became souls in their own right, coinheritors of Andy Gage's life.

There was no house back then, just a dark room in Andy Gage's head where the souls all lived. In the center of the room was a column of bright light, and any soul that entered or was pulled into the light found itself outside, in Andy Gage's body, with no memory of how it had gotten there or what had happened since the last time it was out. As you can imagine, this was a frightening and terrible existence, made more terrible by the continuing depradations of the stepfather. Of the seven original souls who descended from Andy Gage, five were later murdered themselves, broken into still more pieces, and even the two survivors were forced to splinter in order to cope. By the time they got free of Horace Rollins, there were over a hundred souls in Andy Gage's head.

Andy Gage actually has his MPD relatively under control when the book opens, thanks to a complicated mental geography created to help manage the problem (the house, lake, and forest mentioned in the above passage). The other multiple in the book, Penny Driver, has no such geography, and isn't even aware of the problem when she first comes into the story. The book is written in alternating and overlapping point-of-view sections, giving Ruff ample opportunity to show his writing chops, and tells the tale of what happens when Penny and Andy meet, an event which has serious consequences for both of them.

This was a very difficult book to read. Not because it was badly written-- quite the contrary. There are several flashbacks to the events which created the many souls of Andy Gage and Penny Driver, and they're deeply unpleasant to read about. If anything, those bits are written too well-- I finished the book late at night, and had to spend an hour or so blogrolling to clear my head before I went to bed.

The writing in this really is excellent-- if they gave awards for brilliantly imagining mental illnesses, this would be neck-and-neck with Motherless Brooklyn. Andy's personality fragments are nicely drawn, and Ruff does a wonderful job of capturing the disorientation and terror of Penny Driver's daily life. There are even a few flashes of the whimsicality that makes Sewer, Gas & Electric so much fun-- the staff of the Reality Factory (where Andy works) are colorfully eccentric, and the Factory itself feels like a setting discarded by Neal Stephenson for being just a bit too odd.

My only complaints (outside from the way that the story creeped me out, which actually ought to be a point in the book's favor) come on the plotting side. There's one big revelation too many in the course of revealing Andy's past (sadly, it's the one that sets the last act in motion), and the ultimate resolution of the plot was a bit too... cinematic might be the best way to put it. Spoiler-ridden explanations are available on request.

Anyway, it's a good book. I enjoyed his other books more, just because they're more fun, but he succeeded with this one far beyond what I expected when I first heard the basic concept. It's sure to be an important entry in the subgenre of literary stories about the barking mad, along with Motherless Brooklyn, Iain Banks's The Wasp Factory and Bradley Denton's Blackburn. I'm not sure I'll ever read it again (as I said, it creeped me out big time), but it's a much more polished book than either of his previous novels, and I look forward to seeing what he does next. (Hopefully, the next one won't take six years...)

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Begun: 7 August, 2001