I’ve been meaning to do this sooner, but, wow time flies…
Here are some brief comments about books I’ve read so far this year and would recommend. I think I’ll pass on doing negative reviews here at the moment, unless I can make a larger point somehow.
Captain’s Fury, by Jim Butcher
Book four in the Codex Alera series continues pretty much everything that’s enjoyable about the series. I particularly like the way Butcher continues to move the story along, as well as how he’s resisted the easy way to manage the hero and his lack of fury powers.
The Dragons of Babel, by Michael Swanwick
So about fourteen years ago, Swanwick published The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, which was, I think, the first prominent example of a crossover between common fantasy icons and dystopian SF icons. If I remember correctly (always a dubious assumption) a lot of people (meaning me) weren’t quite sure what to make of the weirdness. I don’t think The Iron Dragon’s Daughter is a great novel – it’s very episodic, for one thing – but it is one of the most inventive and memorable novels you’ll ever read.
The Dragons of Babel is marketed as a sequel, although I don’t think there’s any particular crossover beyond tone and some place or character names – I don’t remember Iron Dragon’s Daughter having much plot to continue. It does however, continue the same tone as the original, a world that freely mixes fantasy elements with ideas from “the real world”, and with a certain, say, lack of reverence toward High Fantasy.
The title Babel is a city, somewhat loosely based on the biblical and Mesopotamian myth, but populated with all kinds of fey, including ghouls and their corrupt city alderman leader, underground horse keepers, a mysterious throne with an absent king, guns, spells, and con men.
It’s still fairly episodic, but I think it holds together as a coherent story better than Iron Dragon’s Daughter, and it’ll certainly mess with your head. In a good way. Mostly.
God Save The Fan by Will Leach
Leach is the editor and proprietor of Deadspin, which is the pre-eminent sports blog if you are a certain kind of fan – irreverent? immature? Dunno, but it’s one of my favorite sports web sites, serving up sports news and analysis while not stinting on pictures of drunken, partying quarterbacks.
The book is essentially Leach’s attempt to make the Deadspin worldview explicit. (Although only one piece in the book is taken directly from Deadspin, regular readers will recognize many of the running jokes…) It’s a collection of essays with the common goal of recovering sports from the people who take them too seriously. It’s kind of hit and miss, but the best pieces are worth your time, and Leach has probably my favorite take on the steroid issue – which is we’re sick of it, please stop moralizing over it.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick
I think this book is the longest work to ever win the Caldecott Medal for children’s book illustration. Most Caldecott winners are your basic short kids picture books. Selznick has written a 500 page novel, about half of which is told through words, and about half through wordless pictures.
The story takes place in Paris in the 1930s. Hugo Cabret lives alone in the Paris Metro station, winding the clocks through a series of out of sight tunnels, and repairing a mechanical automaton rescued from a fire by his late father. Eventually, he comes to the attention of an elderly man who runs a mechanical toy shop in the station. The early history of French silent film is involved, along with an image you’ve surely seen of a rocket ship hitting the man in the moon square in the eye.
The pictures carry a lot of the story load, and they are moody and atmospheric without losing clarity – it’s never hard to follow the story, and you can’t easily do things like slow zooms in pure text. There’s a nice meta twist at the end, too. Definitely track down this unique and interesting book.
Lincoln and Douglas by Allen C. Guelzo
Somehow The Daily Show and The Colbert Report became my main sources for new non-fiction book recommendations (Stewart has almost completely stopped having actors as guests in favor of non-fiction authors, Colbert never really had many actor guests to begin with…). Guelzo was on The Daily Show, since books on the buildup to the Civil War really pack in the ratings.
The book is interesting, if not as dazzling in prose style as your super top-notch non-fiction books. It certainly focused on some areas that were relatively new to me. Notably, how the feud between Douglas and James Buchanan affected the race, and how East Coast Republican leaders didn’t really support Lincoln out of the probably-vain hope that Douglas would reveal himself as a Republican. Guelzo also covers the various political pressures that affected Lincoln’s message as well.
The interesting “what-if” scenario here is what would have happened had Douglas not chosen to debate Lincoln – he had not much to gain from the debates as the prohibitive favorite. Absent the fame from the debates, there’s no way Lincoln is the nominee in 1860. But absent the questions he had to answer in the debates, Douglas is much more likely to have cobbled together the Southern states into a coalition that could have elected him (adding a Southern VP, possibly). Where it goes from there is anybody’s guess, especially since Douglas would have died months after taking office (although absent the debates, his health might have been better…)
The Mirador, by Sarah Monette
Book three in a series. One of those cases where the author settles character situations at the end of a book, then in order to write the next book in the series, she has to roll back some of the plot and character gains. That’s what this book feels like – the three main characters, acting mostly in harmony at the end of the second book, spend a lot of this book rehashing the arguments and conflicts from the last book.
That said, there’s a lot in the book that does work. Monette does a nice piece of writers indirection, hiding the identity of an important character for a while. The characters and plot all move forward, maybe reaching new understandings in the end. Still looking forward to the next book.
New Amsterdam, by Elizabeth Bear
I read Bear’s first novel (Hammered), thought it was okay, but never went back to the series. Since then, she’s jumped her way around several genres, and the description of this one was compelling enough for me to check back in. It’s alternate history, the difference point not quite spelled out, but America is still a British colony, and New Amsterdam remained a Dutch colony until the early 19th century when it was given to the British.
Our two lead characters are Sebastian de Ulloa, a centuries old vampire (the book favors “wampyr”) and Abigail Irene Garret, a forensic sorcerer. Together they fight crime. Really.
The book is a series of connected short stories that eventually connect enough to roughly form a novel (some, if not all, of the stories were published separately). The early stories are mostly standalone, and have a certain Agatha Christie meets Bram Stoker kind of feel. Later stories build on each other, as both Sebastian and the British Crown find their positions in America become increasingly untenable.
I liked this book for it’s atmosphere and for the main characters, I think it would have been even better fully structured as a novel – I think it might have drawn out the supporting characters a bit more. The mystery elements give the story some texture, but the magical background behind the crimes is a little opaque to the reader… not a problem exactly, just a comment on what kind of mystery story this is. Plus, I’m an easy mark for any novel with the British Crown still ruling America. (If I met Richard Dreyfuss, I’d probably ask him what it was like to work with Harry Turtledove.) I’m hoping for a continuation to this story, and I’ll check out some of Bear’s other fantasy work in the meantime.
T is for Tresspass by Sue Grafton
Grafton is one of the few really best-selling authors that I read, and one of the things I like about her recent work is that she’s been able to avoid having Kinsey Milhone solve the same case over and over again. In this case, the point of view goes back and forth between Kinsey and a sociopathic predator posing as a home nurse, the better to steal large sums of money from the neighborhood elderly recluse.
The mouse in this game sees Kinsey coming from a mile away, and manages to manipulate her into losing her temper and seeming unhinged to any authority figure Kinsey is inclined to consult. That’s frustrating for Kinsey, but interesting for me – I generally like watching the hero have their strengths used against them judo-style. The book is tense, although the actual ending struck me as a bit too easy.
It’s also kind of interesting to watch Kinsey’s stories, which take place a few months after each other and are therefore still in 1988, increasingly become period pieces. I think Grafton is increasingly referencing current events to make it easy for the reader to remember the time frame, and not wonder why Kinsey doesn’t use a cell phone or the internet.
Coming soon: Matthew Hughes Magestrum series. New Lois McMaster Bujold. The third book in John Varley’s Mars series. Jim Butcher’s latest Dresden novel…