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The Library of Babel: A Book Log

"This much is already known: for every sensible line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherences." -- Jorge Luis Borges


Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

When I started through my morning blogroll today, I was amused to see a post on the latest Harry Potter book over at Calpundit Monthly (Warning: Spoilers). Put together with all the other speculation and commentary floating around the Net, this started me thinking about the book some more.

This is not a particularly good idea, as these are not, for me, books that reward deep thought. Whenever I end up thinking about the details of the Potter universe, I end up finding a whole bunch of things that strike me as stupid and annoying, and I wind up thinking less of the series than I did when I started.

In the interest of cutting this (somewhat) short, then, I'm going to bang out a quick booklog post, and move on to other things (I'm halfway through Midnight Tides by Steven Erikson right now, which is just a little bit of a change of pace...). In the interests of politeness, I'll keep the main body as spoiler-free as possible, and put all the spoilery stuff about the ending in comments. That's probably the most interesting bit, so do make sure to look, if you're no longer worried about spoiling the book. I will, of course, be happy to respond to comments here, though I'm going to try to avoid reading much of anything else about the book after I post this.

So, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It was better than the last volume, that's for sure, though given how little I liked the last book, that's not actually saying much. The hormonal teenager bits are still excruciating, but at least they're not used to drive an idiot plot (a sub-plot in which people act like idiots, yes, but that's not as bad). We're also spared the ham-handed attempts at social satire that marred the previous couple of books-- the new Obligatory Bumbling Professor is another Type who comes in for ridicule, but it's not as irritating as with the tabloid reporter and the horrible educational bureaucrat. There's also some actual movement on the overall series plot, which is good.

Unfortunately, this is all really too little, too late. While this is a much better book than the previous one, it seems like the previous book squandered the last stock of goodwill for the series. For most of the book, this one failed to really hold my attention-- it wasn't a chore to read, or anything, but it wasn't difficult to set it aside to do other things, either. And it was awfully easy to find things to dislike about it on the way through-- things that were intended to be cute and charming (and may have worked that way in the first couple of books) generally came off as irritating.

On a slightly higher level, I thought there were some serious structural problems regarding Chapter 2 and the ending (which I viewed differently than Kate did), and I'm not really thrilled about some of the things the ending sets up for the second book. Detailed thoughts on those problems, and why I'm hoping most fans of the books are wrong about the ending, will follow in the comments.

Posted at 8:01 PM | link |
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7 comments


Sunday, July 24, 2005

Meeting Expectations, Continued

Two more books that I really can't discuss sensibly in any details:

Mike Carey's The Wolf Beneath the Tree maintains the high quality of the Lucifer series (it's volume 8). There's not much else that can be said about it without massixe spoilers for the earlier volumes.

Whenever the entire arc in complete, I may try to do some full-series wrap-up. Until then, well, if you liked the earlier volumes, you'll like this. If you haven't read the earlier volumes, read them first.

Carl Hiaasen's Skinny Dip is, well, a typical Carl Hiaasen novel. The Good Guys are charming and smart and come out on top, the Bad Guys are stupid and venal and destroying Florida's environment, and their demise is colorfully inventive.

You'll get more of the jokes if you've read his earlier books, but it's also reasonably self-contained. It's a high-quality airport book-- sort of like Elmore Leonard with more noble protagonists.

(Also, I did some minor updating of the template. More substantive posts are coming, really.)

Posted at 9:34 AM | link | no comments


Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Preaching With Intent to Convert

Over on her LiveJournal, Kate offers a list of books to introduce people to fantasy literature. (This apparently grew out of a discussion elsewhere in LiveJournal space that I never saw.) Her list of books (if you want the reasons, go read her post):

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien.
Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay.
Finder or War for the Oaks by Emma Bull.
Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny or Jhereg by Steven Brust.
Last Call by Tim Powers.
Spindle's End by Robin McKinley
Resurrection Man or Mockingbird by Sean Stewart
Sorcery and Cecilia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer or The Element of Fire by Martha Wells.
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.
Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton.

I am, of course, completely unable to resist this sort of thing, and I'm also egotistical enough to put this on my own site, rather than leaving a huge comment in Kate's space. Hence this post.

There are a couple of different ways to approach this sort of thing. Either you can attempt to do a list of books that provide a comprehensive survey of the genre and its sub-genres (more or less what Kate was doing), or you can come up with a list to pitch to a specific subset of non-genre readers. I did the comprehensive survey thing on my other blog, with regard to pop music, but I'm more inclined to do the other version here.

Thus, to make the problem a little more tractable, I'm going to pre-emptively restrict the set of imagined readers-to-be-converted to primarily people who read mainstream fiction, a term which here means "books you find shelved under 'Literature' in your local big-box chain." I'm not going to attempt to pick books that might appeal to people who read romances or mysteries, mostly because I figure those people need less convincing-- if you're buying books in those categories, you've already had to get over the idea that genre fiction has cooties. The people who need to be convinced to read fantasy are the ones who think it's all craptastic D&D knock-offs. (Also, I don't read romances, and only read a specific subset of mysteries, so I can't really speak sensibly about the tastes of those readers... It's not that I read all that much mainstream literary fiction, either, but I feel like I have a slightly better idea what works there.)

I would keep a few of the books from Kate's list: Tigana has already been shown to work well for some English faculty, and Tooth and Claw would probably work pretty well with anyone who has read Victorian fiction. Good Omens is a fine choice as well.

I'd also keep a couple of the authors from Kate's list, but choose different books. For Powers, I'd be somewhat inclined to go with Declare rather than Last Call. Declare is a secret history Cold War spy novel, and nicely mixes supernatural elements with real history and a fairly straightforward spy plot. It's not likely to work for Tom Clancy people, but I think it would be an easy sell to people who read, say, Alan Furst. Last Call covers more important territory in the fantasy landscape, but it's very confusing for the first two-thirds of the book, and might turn some people off.

Of course, with the inexplicable popularity of poker at the moment, it might not be that hard to push on people...

Speaking of poker, I like Steven Brust enough to want to keep one of his books on the list. Unfortunately, Jhereg doesn't really seem like the best choice. It's fundamentally not a terribly deep book, and I'm not sure it would appeal to anybody who wasn't already comfortable with the fantasy genre. The series as a whole has some real depth to it, but the books that might appeal to a more mainstream reader require so much backstory that they can't really be read alone.

A better choice might be Agyar. It plays most of the same games with unreliable first-person narration that the Vlad Taltos books do, but it's much more polished than the early Vlad books, and it's self-contained.

The other author I'd keep is Sean Stewart, only I'd go with his most recent, Perfect Circle, over Mockingbird, for much the same reason that I'd prefer Decalre to Last Call. They're similar sorts of books, in many ways, being family stories set in Texas, but Perfect Circle is a little more restrained, hewing much closer to the territory of mainstream literary fiction. Mockingbird isn't a bad choice, but for the specific task of getting mainstream readers interested, I think Perfect Circle would be slightly better. (To be fair, Kate hasn't read Perfect Circle yet, as far as I know.)

Of the others on Kate's list, I haven't read Sorcery and Cecilia, The Element of Fire, or Spindle's End, so I can hardly recommend them. I like both the Emma Bull books mentioned, but neither of them really feels like the sort of thing I'd recommend to a non-genre reader. I'm tempted to suggest John M. Ford's The Last Hot Time as an alternative, but I suspect that the whole subgenre of Borderlands-style urban fantasy is probably no good.

Things I would push at non-genre readers? Someone in Kate's comments suggested either The Princess Bride or One For the Morning Glory. As William Goldman has a decent reputation as a mainstream writer, I'll give John Barnes the nod. Kate thought the vocabulary might be a problem, but I think it would fit right in with a certain strain of cutely experimental metafiction that already exists in mainstream fiction. The biggest knock against it is probably the fact that he really hasn't written anything else that's remotely similar to it (the soon-to-be-booklogged (really, I swear) Gaudeamus comes closer than anything, but it's not very close), and some of his other books are really pretty dire.

Another suggestion in Kate's comments was Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale, which is a good idea. Helprin is more likely to be found on the Literature shelves than over in the genre fiction ghetto, though, so I'd probably go for John Crowley's Little, Big instead, as Crowley is more closely associated with SF than Helprin. They're very similar books, in many ways-- big stories of sweeping magical transformations, drunk on their own imagery. Crowley's has more concrete ties to existing mythology, and a somewhat tighter focus. They're both books that tend to leave you wondering what happened, but that's not really that big an obstacle.

A somewhat problematic inclusion is Kij Johnson's The Fox Woman. Not because I have any doubts about the book-- it's a fantastic book-- but because I originally thought of lumping it together with Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds, which kicked off a big spiral of liberal guilt, as if I was just looking for one token non-European book, and so on.

Ignore all that, though. It's a terrific book, rich with detail, and absolutely deserves a place on the list. The fact that it's a non-European story is just a nice bonus.

Including duplicates and slight modifications from Kate's list, that's nine books. The tenth is the real problem-- Kate has The Lord of the Rings in that last spot, but I don't think it's a sure thing for people who normally read modern literary novels. It can work for some people, but there's not a lot of overlap between the virtues of Tolkien's work and the virtues of modern literary novels.

Of course, leaving it off means that there's nothing on the list in the "epic fantasy" sort of vein, which runs afoul of a sort of residual desire to span the whole fantasy genre. It's a big omission, because whatever nasty things people may say about "Extruded Fantasy Product" and the like, it's a very big part of the genre as it exists today. And it's really, really hard to come up with any other epic fantasy to recommend.

But then, on reflection, it's probably not that bad a thing to just leave it out. After all, if there's a subgenre of fantasy more likely to confirm all the worst prejudices of mainstream fiction readers, I'm not sure what it would be (are "Magic: The Gathering" tie-in novels a subgenre?). Fundamentally, it's just not an area of fantasy that's likely to appeal to someone who isn't already inclined toward that sort of thing.

And, really, if you were setting out to try to get an SF reader to read mainstream fiction, it'd be idiotic to give them the sort of deadly-dull books that they probably hated in high school (Ethan Frome or whatever). If you want to get a SF reader to see some redeeming qualities in mainstream fiction, you should give them books that are closer in spirit to SF-- Chabon, Lethem, Pynchon, some Tom Robbins, that sort of thing. You'd start with the "mainstream" side of "slipstream," and go from there. How do I know this? Because that's how I got back into reading some mainstream novels.

So large-scale epic fantasy is a write-off. OF course, that leaves the list sort of heavy on modern-world fantasy, without much in the way of your classic knights and dragons sort of stuff, which shouldn't bother me, but does. So I'd probably go for filling that last slot with something like Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter. It's not really much of a modern novel, either, but it's got a much different feel than Tolkien, in a way that it seems to me might be more effective for people who don't like more traditional genre fantasy.

Ask me again in a week, and I'd probably come up with a completely different list, but that's a place to start, anyway.

Posted at 9:36 PM | link | [ hide comments ]


If you're looking to confirm suspicions, Baen puts out some military fantasy that's pretty dreadful -- Elizabeth Moon's Pakesenarrion books, for instance. (For me, they work to confirm my stereotype of Baen books; for someone unfamiliar with the genre, they might ruin all of fantasy.)

Mike Kozlowski, 07.21.2005, 6:00pm | permalink


You probably should feel bad about leaving out the large-scale epic fantasy...well, except not, since there's no moral imperative in making up these lists, so I guess you really shouldn't feel one way or another in particular. Let me start over again..

Much of this depends on the framing criteria of your list. You explicitely note that you're more interested in the "gateway drug" theory of list formation, and maybe on that theory you're right that sweeping epic fantasy may not be the best hook for literary fiction types. On the other, "survey of sub-types" theory, though, as I tried to sort of point out at Kate's, I think you could could well make several defensible categories out of the "sweeping epic fantasy" group.

At any rate, I think new readers could do worse than getting turned on to Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, Bakker's Prince of Nothing, even Carey's Kushiel series . Nor do I think the fact that none of those series (except Carey's) are finished yet is an argument against possible inclusion...it may even argue in favor if we're looking for a gateway drug approach. Get 'em hooked an make them want more.

The subjectivity of my comment should be obvious, of course. I'm pimping for the big epics because that's the sort of thing I like, if they're well done. Bad epic fantasy is like a fork to the eyeball, of course, but then as far as I'm concerned, so is bad several-other-sub-genres.

I'm rambling, so I'll stop now.

Trent Goulding, 07.21.2005, 6:20pm | permalink


No mainstream reader could ever read Erikson. Even with Kay, the number one complaint I get from non-genre readers is, "They all have those silly names..."

Mike Kozlowski, 07.22.2005, 12:59am | permalink


I tried a non-fantasy reader on Martin, and he couldn't get past the first couple of chapters.

Ray, 07.22.2005, 4:14am | permalink


Trent: On the other, "survey of sub-types" theory, though, as I tried to sort of point out at Kate's, I think you could could well make several defensible categories out of the "sweeping epic fantasy" group.

Possibly.
For that sort of list, though, larger groupings are better.

At any rate, I think new readers could do worse than getting turned on to Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, Bakker's Prince of Nothing, even Carey's Kushiel series.

On the "gateway drug" side of things, Martin might have an infinitesimal chance of success, but the writing is frequently inelegant, and the story is complicated enough that I think you need to have some feel for the epic genre already to really appreciate it.

Erikson is hopeless. Even long-term epic fantasy readers find it difficult to figure out what's going on in the early books, and the names are unbelievably daft. I mean, Midnight Tides lists a character named "Ublala Pung"...

I haven't read Carey or Bakker.

Really, Tolkien is the best bet, being both epic and relatively small-scale, but LotR has been ripped off so thoroughly and pervasively that I think it's likely to cause bad reactions. In sort of the same way that people can complain that Tolkien isn't as good as, say, Terry Brooks, I could see non-genre readers thinking that it's just too similar to the cheesey D&D-inspired crap that they think is all of fantasy.

Nor do I think the fact that none of those series (except Carey's) are finished yet is an argument against possible inclusion...it may even argue in favor if we're looking for a gateway drug approach. Get 'em hooked an make them want more.

I'm very leery of recommending unfinished series, having been badly burned by Dan Simmons and Orson Scott Card, and a host of others. It really is possible to write a book so bad that it retroactively damages the books that came before it.

Of the authors you list above, Erikson might be the safest, since the Malazan books are self-contained enough that you could easily read the first handful, and not feel cheated by not knowing the rest of the story. It's not even entirely clear to me what the overall plot is, a hundred pages into the fifth book (in which he appears to have decided to re-boot the entire series on a completely new continent...).

Chad Orzel, 07.22.2005, 8:02am | permalink


I thought I'd posted a similar list for science fiction to Usenet many years ago, but it appears that I decided not to post it because the discussion was turning into one about the Necessary Canon, which wasn't something I wanted to get into. That's the problem with these lists; you have to be careful that your gateway drug samples don't turn into Necessary Canon, and belittle rather than attract outsiders in the manner of all that awful jabber about "cultural literacy" in the early 1990s. It's important to convey the idea that if you don't in fact like the first thing on the list that you try, it's still worthwhile to try some of the others, and that this isn't some sort of obligatory chore you have to do to join the club.

Matt McIrvin, 07.22.2005, 9:26am | permalink


Actual conversation this morning in Chateau Steelypips:

KATE: By the way, Trent is on crack.
CHAD: . . . and here I always thought he was such a nice boy.

Which is to say, I wouldn't give someone I was hoping to convert to fantasy "A Song of Fire and Ice" either (even if they were big War of the Roses fans, I'd try them on _The Dragon Waiting_ before that, and I know full well that's a dubious proposition).

As for Chad's list, belatedly:

I just don't think _Declare_ is as good as _Last Call_, though it's been a while since I read _Last Call_ and so I might well be misremembering how confusing it is at the start. My recollection of _Declare_, however, is that the big finish . . . isn't, which made it kind of disappointing. However, you may be right that it's a better choice for thriller-ish types.

My admiration for _Agyar_ is of course boundless. I wasn't thinking of it because it's dark snark rather than happy snark, but for the audience you're going for (rather than my hypothetical plural audiences), it would probably do very well.

You're right, I haven't got around to _Perfect Circle_ yet.

Kate, 07.22.2005, 1:45pm | permalink


KATE: By the way, Trent is on crack.

CHAD: . . . and here I always thought he was such a nice boy.

It's really distressing. I mean, he seemed so respectable, but here he is, doing crack and pimping epic fantasy...

I just don't think _Declare_ is as good as _Last Call_, though it's been a while since I read _Last Call_ and so I might well be misremembering how confusing it is at the start. My recollection of _Declare_, however, is that the big finish . . . isn't, which made it kind of disappointing. However, you may be right that it's a better choice for thriller-ish types.

I don't remember having a problem with the ending of Declare, but it was lacking in pyrotechnics. The problem with Last Call is that there's a whole bunch of magical card-playing early on, and then a big chunk of the middle where all the characters join the reader in trying to figure out what the hell just happened.

My admiration for _Agyar_ is of course boundless. I wasn't thinking of it because it's dark snark rather than happy snark, but for the audience you're going for (rather than my hypothetical plural audiences), it would probably do very well.

I prefer the Vlad series, as a whole, to Agyar, but the first few Vlad books are pretty squarely aimed at a genre audience. I think Brust is a writer that mainstream readers could probably enjoy, but I don't think Jhereg is the place for them to start.

(My AP English teacher did enjoy To Reign in Hell, though. At least, she never returned it...)

Chad Orzel, 07.23.2005, 9:47am | permalink


I like the bit in Last Call with all the characters trying to figure out what happened. As I mentioned in a subsub comment somewhere on Kate's livejournal, I've also gotten positive returns from of all things THE SCAR from a friend who mostly reads mainstream Iain Banks type stuff

Tom Scudder, 07.23.2005, 1:30pm | permalink


No such list is complete without a Swanwick and a McKillip, IMO. I've never read Spindle's End, but I think Sunshine is a very good McKinley. If they like Harry Potter-type stuff, maybe Sabriel and sequels by Nix? And, if you don't want to put in Bridge of Birds, I will.

Aaron, 07.23.2005, 4:53pm | permalink


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Saturday, July 16, 2005

1602

A week or two back, we had some sort of discount coupon for Borders, and made a sweep through the store picking up things that didn't seem interesting enough to get at full price. One of the items on the list was Neil Gaiman's 1602, a graphic-comic-book-novel in which he transplants a bunch of Marvel comics characters to Elizabethan England.

The idea has some potential, along the same lines as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the good first volume, not the dire second). He's used a bunch of X-Men characters, Daredevil, the Fantastic Four, and a bunch of others that I don't really recognize, along with some of their associated villains, and it's interesting to think about what would be involved in translating those heroes (who have a sort of quintessentially 20th Century American feel to them) to a radically different milieu.

The execution, alas, is too cute by at least half. Probably more. It was really kind of hard to follow the plot (which is sort of dopey) through the sound of jokes whistling by overhead. I am not a regular reader of comic books (my knowledge of the Marvel universe is drawn almost entirely from cartoons and movies), and as a result, I felt sort of left out.

The general effect was similar to that of Gaiman's Hugo-winning Sherlock Holmes meets Lovecraft short story, multiplied by about a thousand. And like that story, it's not done in a manner that makes me want to run out and read the originals, to find out what jokes I missed. It was more a "Yes, you're very clever. Now shut up." sort of thing.

The few bits that I did understand were good (there's a running joke concerning Peter Parquah and spiders that was pretty amusing), but there weren't enough of those to really carry the story. If you're not a regular-to-obsessive reader of Marvel comics, I'd say don't bother with this book.

Posted at 9:04 AM | link | one comment


Friday, July 15, 2005

Magic for Beginners

As I said of Stranger Things Happen, Kelly Link's stories are awfully hard to categorize, but very, very good. Her new collection, Magic for Beginners was a definite buy-on-sight, and hearing her read part of the title story at Readercon bumped it right to the top of the to-be-read list.

It's hard to say anything really coherent about the stories, though. There's a sort of breathless inventiveness to many aspects of them, as in this bit from the title story:

In the previous episode of The Library maske pirate-magicians said they would sell Prince Wing a cure for the spell which infested Faithful Margaret's hair with miniature, wicked, fire-breathing golems. (Faithful Margaret's hair keeps catching firs, but she refuses to shave it off. Her hair is the source of all her magic.)

The pirate-magicians lured Prince Wing into a trap so obvious that it seemed impossible it could really be a trap, on the one-hundres-and-fortieth floor of The Free People's World-Tree Library. The pirate-magicians used finger magic to turn Prince Wing into a porcelain teapot, put two Earl Grey tea bags into the teapot, and poured in boiling water, toasted the Eternally Postponed and Overdue Reign of the Forbidden Books, drained their tea in one gulp, belched, hurled their souvenir pirate mugs to the ground, and then shattered the teapot which had been Prince Wing into hundreds of pieces. Then the wicked pirate-magicians swept the pieces of both Prince Wing and collectible mugs carelessly into a wooden cigar box, buried the box in the Angela Carter Memorial Park on the seventeenth floor of The World-Tree Library, and erected a statute of George Washington above it.

(At the reading, she said that part of the inspiration for the story was the ending of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and a desire to have some new tv show to obsess over.)

At the same time, she has an excellent eye for the mundane details of life, particularly for the adolescent heroes of "Magic for Beginners":

Jeremy and Karl and Elizabeth have known each other since the first day of kindergarten. Amy and Talis are a year younger. The five have not always been friends, except for Jeremy and Karl, who have. Talis is, famously, a loner. She doesn't listen to music as far as anyone knows, she doesn't wear significant amounts of black, she isn't particularly good (or bad) at math or English, and she doesn't drink, debate, knit, or refuse to eat meat. If she keeps a blog, she's never admitted it to anyone.

The Library made Jeremy and Karl and Talis and Elizabeth and Amy friends. No one else in school is as passionately devoted. Besides, they are all the children of forms hippies, and the town is small. They all live within a few blocks of each other, in run-down Victorians with high ceilings and ranch houses with sunken living rooms. And although they have not always been friends, growing up, they've gone skinny-dipping in lakes on summer nights, and broken bones on each others' trampolines. Once, during an argument about dog names, Elizabeth, who is hot-tempered, tried to run Jeremy over with her ten-speed bicycle, and once, a year ago, Karl got drunk on green-apple schnapps at a party and tried to kiss Talis, and once, for five months in the seventh grade, Karl and Jeremy communicated only through angry emails written in all caps. I'm not allowed to tell you what they fought about.

A few of the stories ("The Cannon," "The Great Divorce" and "Lull") get a little too weird at points, but they all have their moments of weird poetic genius. The best of them ("Magic for Beginners," "The Hortlak," and "The Faery Handbag" (which is the most straightforward of the lot)) are scarily brilliant. One of them, "Stone Animals," was picked by Michael Chabon for The Best American Short Stories, and while the ending was weird and abrupt, it seems like a good choice.

And, really, that's about all I can say regarding this collection. If that's not enough to get you to read it, I don't know what would be.

Posted at 8:27 PM | link | no comments


Dogs in the Moonlight

I wasn't even going to booklog this collection of Jay Lake's Texas-themed short stories, until a snarky remark by a panelist at Readercon.

Weirdly, the first three panels I attended on Saturday at Readercon all included at least one rant about the badness of mainstream literary fiction. Now, rants about the superiority of SF in general are to be expected in that setting, but this was a little different-- these were specifically comments about mainstream literature being "soooo boooring."

The real kicker was one panelist-- I forget who-- who expressed his distaste for mainstream literature by saying something very close to:

I mean, how many stories can you read about abusive Southern families with incest?

The striking thin about this, to me, was that that's almost exactly the reaction that caused me to return Dogs in the Moonlight to the library without finishing it. And Jay Lake is an award-winning SF author.

The stories in this collection are basically all fantasy stories, and they're all set in Texas, which provides a loose organizing theme. Unfortunately, the first half-dozen (or so) are also all squalid-- everybody lives in either a remote shack or a trailer park, they're all poor and ignorant and frequently drunk, and an alarming number of the stories contain at least one reference to sexual abuse. I have no great love for the state of Texas-- frankly, I'd be happy to let them secede, provided they take their politicians with them-- but I was vaguely offended on behalf of the Texans I know.

What really put me off was that the sexual abuse bits seemed awfully gratuitous to me. Not in a prurient way, just a "Look at me-- I'm Edgy!" sort of thing. Because God knows, nothing says "Literary" like minors being groped.

Taken separately, some of the stories probably would've worked pretty well-- "The Goat Cutter" in particular was interestingly creepy. As a package, though, I found it pretty repulsive.

Posted at 8:05 PM | link | no comments


Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Odd Thomas

Some time back, I booklogged Dean Koontz's Life Expectancy, and noted that a number of readers at Amazon had said that it was good, but not as good as Odd Thomas. Since I enjoyed Life Expectancy quite a bit, that was too good a recommendation to pass up.

This is another quirky first-person book, narrated by the title character (whose name really is Odd), a young man who sees ghosts. He's telling the tale some time after the events, under strict instructions:

Don't worry: These ramblings will not be insufferably gloomy. P. Oswald Boone has sternly instructed me to keep the tone light.

"If you don't keep it light," Ozzie said, "I'll sit my four-hundred-pound ass on you, and that's not the way you want to die." [...]

When at first I proved unable to keep the tone light, Ozzie suggested that I be an unreliable narrator. "It worked for Agatha Christia in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd," he said. [...]

Understand, I am not a murderer. I have done nothing evil that I am concealing from you. My unreliability as a narrator has to do largely with the tense of certain verbs.

Don't worry about it. You'll know the truth soon enough.

This book is very similar to Life Expectancy, and it's similarly excellent. It's a little mroe serious in tone-- Odd sees some pretty dark things-- but there's a goofy side to the story as well. The book is frequently funny, occasionally scary, and the revelation of Odd's unreliability is genuinely moving.

This isn't your typical supermarket best-selling thriller novel, despite Koontz's association with that semi-genre. It's really good stuff, and I recommend checking it out.

Posted at 9:20 PM | link | no comments


The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad

This is a book that's been on the booklog queue for a long time (I read it on the way to Chicago in April), just because it's sort of hard to say anything sensible about it. I'd sort of like to be able to write a brilliant and insightful booklog entry about it, but since that's obviously not happening, I'll just type some crap, and then shelve it, so it won't be staring reproachfully at me.

On the most basic level, The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad, by Minister Faust (no idea if that's a pseudonym), is a pretty standard urban fantasy novel. Two young hipsters in Edmonton (I believe) run into a beautiful, mysterious woman, and end up way out of their depth in supernatural events, with the fate of the entire world at stake. The underlying mythology isn't the usual pseudo-Celtic stuff, but has a more African flavor, but the basic idea is nothing all that unusual.

What sets it apart is the writing style, which is geekier than... than an extremely geeky thing. At the start of any chapter introducing a new character (usually from that character's own POV), there's a "Chaarcter Data" entry:

Hamza Achmed Qebhsennuf Senesert
Intelligence: High.
Strength: Unkillable.
Weakness: See Intelligence and Strength.
Shit Points, Take/Give: 50/100+.
Bitterness, Range/Duration: Unlimited/Unlimited.
Wisdom: Fortune cookie +8, experiential -2.
Charisma, Work/Leisure: -19/+23.
Armor Type: Hipster leather coat (secondhand), kaffiyeh, goatee.
Scent: Questionable due to age and condition of coat.

(That's one of Our Intrepid Heroes, by the way.)

In the end, this is another of those "if you liek this sort of thing, you'll like this book" kind of books. The mythological background is fairly unique, the villains are creepy, and the action plays out in a way that is amusing, if not always immediately understandable. But it's all wrapped up in this super-geeky writing style: the protagonists speak to each other in a just-barely-comprehensible dialect of in-jokes and pop-culture references. I'd excerpt a bit, but it's hard to find anything that would make sense taken out of the whole.

As such things go, this is actually pretty realistic. We've all known people like this. Hell, if you're reading this, you've almost certainly been people like this. It doesn't necessarily work well on the page, though.

In the end, I liked the good bits more than I was bothered by the stylistic tics, but your mileage may vary.

Posted at 8:18 PM | link | 3 comments


Monday, July 04, 2005

Killing Yourself to Live

Chuck Klosterman is a dangerous writer for me to read. This is a guy who throws around similes like "the night was as dark as Johnny Cash's closet," and describes young men on the streets of Nashville as looking "like they're auditioning for a Kings of Leon tribute band." His writing consists of roughly equal parts I-can't-believe-you're-taking-this-seriously academic analysis and emphatic statements of contrarian opinion that make Mike Kozlowski look mainstream and indecisive.

Robert Johnson met the devil about as many times as Jimmy Page, King Diamond, and Marilyn Manson did, which is to say "never." But that doesn't mean rock'n'roll wasn't invented here. Rock'n'roll is only superficially about guitar chords; it's really about myth. And the fact that people still like to pretend a young black male could be granted Lucifer's darkest powers on the back roads of Coahoma County (and then employ this demonic perversity through music) makes Johnson's bargain as real as anything else. It would also indicate that the devil is lazy, since Johnson's entire musical career is a paltry 29 songs. [...] In 1995, I gave Quincey the Robert Johnson box set for Christmas... and we immediately tried to listen to it, only to realize that (a) the box set includes two takes of almost every song, sequenced back-to-back, and (b) even the songs that are technically different sounded identical to all the others. I like blues-based rock, but I hate the fucking blues; it was more fun to play Let It Bleed and look at Johnson's photograph on the front of the box. He certainly had a stellar hat.

Why is this dangerous? Because if I read too much of his stuff, I start writing in bad Chuck Klosterman pastiche. More than I usually do, that is.

Killing Yourself to Live is an odd little book, though, even compared to Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs. It tells the story of a lengthy road trip in which Klosterman tried to visit the sites of the most famous deaths in rock history-- the places where the planes carrying Buddy Holly and Lynyrd Skynyrd crashed, the hotel room where Sid Vicious killed Nancy Spungen, the spot where Kurt Cobain swalloed a shotgun. He attempts to draw some sort of conclusions about rock on the basis of this morbid quest.

Or, rather, about half of the book is devoted to the story of these visits and attempts to spin deep insights out of what he learn on the road. The other half is a weird Dave Eggers-style self-referential story about various relationship issues. And, of course, he comments on the fact that he's doing this, by quoting a conversation with a colleague at Spin:

"I'm just trying to be the voice of reason," Lucy says. "I don't understand why you would want to produce a nonfiction book that will be unfavorably compared to Nick Hornby's High Fidelity."

"Well, perhaps if I specifically mention that possibility, it won't happen."

As you can probably tell, this gets a little too cute for its own good.

There's still some brilliant stuff along the way, and even the too-cute bits are pretty good as such things go, with the exception of one imaginary dialogue between the author and his three semi-girlfriends. All in all, I enjoyed the book a good deal (even though I read about four chapters while lying on the floor of a crappy dorm room in Tilton, NH, icing the ankle I sprained playing basketball at the Gordon Conference), but it's definitely a "if you like this sort of thing, you'll like this book" sort of experience.

Posted at 8:09 PM | link | 2 comments


The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy for Teens

The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy for Teens is the first of a new series of anthologies, edited by Jane Yolen and Patrick Nielsen Hayden. That's a pretty high-power pairing-- Jane Yolen is well known as an author and editor of children's books, and Patrick Nielsen Hayden is one of the best editors of SF around.

As you might expect, the resulting collection (ten stories from 2004, plus a "golden oldie" from 1904, Rudyard Kipling's "They") is pretty solid. The stories are from the more Literary side of SF, for the most part (David Gerrold's "Dancer in the Dark" damagingly so), with only S. M. Stirling's "Blood Wolf" approaching the sort of pulp-ish adventure stuff that I associate with older juvenile books. Personally, I thought the standout story of the collection was Bradley Denton's "Sergeant Chip," but I'm very much a Dog Person, so it's aimed straight at me. It didn't hurt that I read it out in the back yard, with the Best Emmy Ever bravely protecting us from invisible alien robot squirrels...

One of the best things about the collection, though, is found in the story introductions. Ever story is introduced with a short paragraph putting it in some context, as is normal for "Year's Best" anthologies, but this collection adds some "if you like this story, try these" recommendations. I don't necessarily agree with or even recognize the stories they recommend, but it's a terrific idea. I wish more anthologies did that.

Posted at 7:46 PM | link | no comments


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