The View from the Cheap Seats

I am reading several books right now. I am almost always reading several books “right now.” It’s the curse of ebooks. I can carry hundreds of books in my pocket, or a small handbag, switching according to mood, weather, time of day. Rarely, anymore, do I read a single book straight through, beginning to end, without any detours.

Neil Gaiman’s collection of speeches and essays started as a short detour, something to read on work breaks, because it promised selected shorts, complete bits that could be read in 10 or 15 minute increments. It hasn’t worked out that way.

Yesterday, I missed my floor on the elevator, twice, only vaguely aware of the quiet ding that signals one has arrived, riding up and down nine floors while I finished one of these short bits. The third time, I stepped off, still reading, walked down the hall–still reading–badged myself into the office, yes, still reading: walking slowly, reading quickly, down the corridor to my bland little cubicle. Sitting down at my desk was painful, a wretched tearing of attention away from pleasure, like ripping off a bandage.

This is why I don’t drive.

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Cry, if you want to cry

I was fifteen, living in a little town outside a big city. There wasn’t much to do, unless you had both money and a car, and I wasn’t quite there, yet. For entertainment, because we couldn’t afford albums or get to shows, my friends and I traded fuzzy, buzzing bootlegs and mix-tapes of bands like Mudhoney, MotherLoveBone, Nirvana, Soundgarden, sounding strangely muted, so far removed. We mourned that we’d never had the opportunity to see Green River live. We were certain that everything interesting and good was passing us by.

A year later, I had both money and a car, thanks to an after school job that left me and the car reeking of cinnamon, sugar, and yeast. But it was worth it to drive down into the city, or take the late ferry over to Bainbridge on Friday and Saturday nights. I sat in damp grass while guys only 5 or 6 years older than me sang on picnic tables. We swarmed gravel parking lots behind bars so down and dirty that you didn’t even need fake ID to get a beer, listening to music about pain, depression, sex, and heroin. We were certain that everything interesting and good was here and now.

A year later, Andy Wood died. He wasn’t the first, nor the last. Accident, overdose, murder, suicide. For these, I learned the first part of Ginsberg’s Howl almost verbatim…

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,
     starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking 
     for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
     connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking...

Who else could write so eloquently of our angels and demons, down through generations, except their fellow dead?

Another year, and I was 3,000 miles away in the olive grove of Academe, where torn jeans, thermal underwear, and flannel shirts were a fashion statement, not simply the wardrobe of the working poor, myself, my friends. I could look down at myself, clothes bought from the Salvation Army, identical to runway styles in the fashion pages of the Sunday NYT. I couldn’t even afford the paper the photos were printed on.

By the time I returned home, to Seattle, most of the furor had died down. It was possible to be “from Seattle” like a normal person. It helped that Seattle has never been a normal town. This isn’t a place where celebrities are stalked by photographers or surrounded by mobs of screaming fans. It rains too much to stand around waiting for a photo op or an autograph. And we’re proud of our determined egalitarianism, of billionaires who wear faded jeans and drive Hondas, dismissive of conspicuous wealth, contemptuous of equally conspicuous consumption. Just north is the home of the US communist party, and labor organizers were born from the timber mills, fisheries, mines, and fields of the region, spreading like Bolshevik dandelion seeds, east and East.

Over the decades, Chris Cornell has become someone I see at the dog park and the local cafe. We went to the same vet, shopped at the same grocery store. Just another guy in Seattle, with tattoos, facial hair, and a dog. And yet, with his death, my memories have split in thirds. Where there were two Chris’s, now there are three, and I never knew the last one.

Image result for chris cornell dogs

The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

baruFor what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?

That is the question Baru Cormorant must answer when her homeland is conquered by the Empire of Masks, also known as the Masquerade.

Foreign invasion is a popular theme in fiction. In fantasy fiction, there are swords and sorcery; in science fiction one will probably encounter lasers and spaceships; popular fiction tends towards tanks, guns, and drones, lately. In The Traitor Baru Cormorant the weapons are paper currency, disease, and education. It is a sophisticated take on the trope, one that reads as far more modern than typical SFF. The result is a grim, fast-paced novel with the most reliable narrator that I can recall.

The unreliable narrator is almost a given these days. Humans are inherently untrustworthy–memory is dependent upon emotion, perception is guided by biases both conscious and unconscious, the brain decays, because physics, entropy and all that jazz. It is rare to meet a narrator that is completely and totally reliable. So rare, in fact, that the “twist” of the novel is based on the reader assuming that the narrator is unreliable.

I had to read this book twice, for that very reason. During my first read, there were a few points where I was all “wait a sec! If, then, so…” but my brain said, “naw, it couldn’t be.” And then, lo, it was so! So, I read it again, just to double check, and yes, the trick to this book is… There Is No Trick. Trust me when I tell you that I have not spoiled the novel for you.

If I have a criticism, which I do, of course, it’s that the book is too short. It moves too fast, as if half of the words were cut to make sure that the plot tripped giddily along. Unfortunately, the result is that the world-building is oddly shallow. We find out what the Masquerade is, but not much about the history and very little about the day to day economic, social, and political workings of the empire and its constituents.

Otherwise, this was an engrossing read, filled with delightfully terrible characters, espionage, and just enough action to satisfy my bloodthirsty side.

NOTES:
2016 Hugo Eligibility: Sept 2015
Publisher: Tor
Rating: 4/5
Genre: Fantasy

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

station11I came late to this book. Apparently, it was all the buzz back in 2014, when it was published, but I was reading other books, dealing with family, work, and personal crises, et cetera. Let’s face it, there are just Too Many Books. No one person can read them all, or even hear about every book that might be right up her alley.

Fortunately, really great books often have a long tail. People keep talking about them, reading them, passing them along to friends, family, and coworkers. They pop up over and over again in comments, on blogs, and recommended reading lists.

Despite all the hubbub, when I finally checked out the book, I knew absolutely nothing about it other than the title. The cover actually put me off for a bit, because I didn’t understand it. But, the other night, I finally cracked it open, and Lo. There was light. And it was good. Very, very good.

The storytelling is somewhat unconventional, in that it skips forward and back in time, and between points of view. This is by no means a criticism. In fact, I don’t think this would have been so gripping a story if had been told in a more conventional narrative. And the language. Oh, my, the gorgeous language.

Ms St. John Mandel is no lover of overwrought or purple prose. She simply has a fine ear for rhythm. She doesn’t browbeat the reader with obscure vocabulary, but wields simple language and common usage like a poet. There were so many passages that captured me, that I reread over and over, marveling and envious.

But these thoughts broke apart in his head and were replaced by strange fragments: This is my soul and the world unwinding, this is my heart in the still winter air.

Yeargh. Or:

There was a reminder that the library was always seeking books, and that they paid in wine.

And:

No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.

Or, I could quote the whole book, because it’s beautiful and moving and true, but that would spoil it for you. And that would be a tragedy.

The Daniel Blackland Series, by Greg van Eekhout

Cali bonesWelcome to an alternate Southern California, where magic works through consuming the flesh and bones of magical creatures, or other magicians, called osteomancy. Where the United States is a separate territory from the Hierarchies of California, and SoCal is ruled by terror.

Daniel Blackland is the son of one the realms most powerful osteomancers, Sebastian Blackland. Daniel’s father was killed and eaten by the ruler (Hierarch) of Southern California when Daniel was just a boy. In Book One, California Bones, Daniel is in hiding to avoid the same fate, scraping out a living as a thief in Los Angeles. It’s going more or less okay, until he’s offered a job that he can’t resist by the man who pretty much raised him after the murder of Sebastian.

And then, of course, it all goes to shit.

Quick, quirky, and occasionally gruesome, the trilogy is essentially urban fantasy heist novels. There’s a crew of eccentric thieves who work with Daniel, a series of menacing antagonists, a double-cross or few, and some ambiguous allies who help or hinder Daniel and his crew, according to their own self-interests.

The books are primarily written from Daniel’s point of view, which makes following the occasional chapter written from an alternate POV easy to follow. Mr van Eekhout produces well-crafted, fast-paced novels. The world-building is detailed and convincing, the characters fully realized, and the plot requires little suspension of disbelief. Even when the story gets objectively silly, it’s completely logical within the context of setting and character.

Highly recommended for fans of the Dresden Files, Rivers of London, and Sandman Slim series.

NOTES:
2016 Hugo Eligibility: Yes, all 3 books were released in 2015
Publisher: Tor
Rating: 3/5
Genre: Urban Fantasy

Not a review

I have a day job, as do most of us. This day job is generally delightful, fulfilling, rewarding, et cetera; however, on occasion, I am subjected to the Worst Writing Evah, aka business jargon. Multi-page memos of obscurantism, sound and fury, signifying nothing.

EG:

As part of our review of horizontal management structure, we have decided to move forward with intuitive agility. Yolo. Our exploratory research points to 21st Century modular flexibility.

Next quarter we will launch our new face time-killer which will circle back the tipping point literally. At the end of the day, it’s time to act with pro-active skillsets and cross-pollinate our team IP. Going forward, it’s time to act with amazing ideation and synthesize our team mindshare.

As we distinctively envisioneer front-end quality vectors and deliver on-demand strategic theme areas, we credibly conceptualize business synergy. This sector has win-win vector. It is what it is.

Uprooted, by Naomi Novik

UprootedAsk a writer how a book came to have a particular title and you might get any number of answers. Sometimes the writer chooses the title, and that title might not be the same over the course of the writing of the book. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, was originally titled Offred. I don’t think Offred would have been as popular a novel as The Handmaid’s Tale turned out to be. A title needs to at least seem somewhat transparent. Atwood, a poet as well as a novelist, is unusually sensitive to how her words are perceived, in my opinion.

Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, was originally called The Kingdom by the Sea. What would the past 60 years of popular culture have been without “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all…”

Would William Faulkner be so well known if he’d written Twilight, instead of The Sound and the Fury? And Jacqueline Susann is so tone deaf (as evidenced by her prose vis a vis The Valley of the Dolls) that she initially called it They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen. IIRC, that one was changed by the publisher, and lucky for Ms Susann they did.

Uprooted, as a title, does two things. One, it both reveals and obscures major plot elements. Two, the novel uproots traditional Western fairy tales, giving common tropes a little light and air. A bigger pot to grow in, if you will. I have no idea how this novel got titled–whether it was the author, the publisher, or a barista; whether it was the first or hundred-and-first title–but it works.

The heroine, Agnieszka, lives in a village near a forest. As required, there is a dragon and a wizard, which happen to be the same being, and every once in a while, on schedule, a young girl is sacrificed (sort of) to the Dragon. A beautiful girl, of course, well loved, smart, charming, with an appropriately musical name, is the usual sacrifice.

When Agnieszka comes of age, everyone expects Kasia, Agnieszka’s best friend to be taken, but no. All unwilling and unprepared, Agnieszka is instead taken to the Dragon’s tower, and that’s when the story gets really interesting.

Uprooted is a story of magic and healing. Agnieszka never does quite what is expected, either by her fictional counterparts and antogonists, or by the reader. She’s not an entirely comfortable heroine. At times, she’s downright unlikable, but she’s human and real.

I would totally read this book again. I read the first few Temeraire novels, enjoying the world and characters briefly, before I got bored. Uprooted works better for me, and I hope it is never expanded into a series. It works beautifully as a stand-alone story. Also, the cover is lovely and very appropriate to the type of story within, if you are into judging books by their covers.

NOTES:
2016 Hugo Eligibility: Yes, May 2015
Publisher: Del Rey
Rating: 3/5
Genre: Fantasy

The Protector of the Small Quartet, by Tamora Pierce

first testSometimes, a girl wants a story with horses and kittens and puppies. Where right makes might, justice is merciful, and good wins. And also, pie. Because pie is awesome.

I don’t know how Tamora Pierce does it, but she consistently manages to craft lovely, uplifting novels with difficult themes; characters who are deep and emotive without becoming maudlin; and worlds with complex social, economic, and political systems. And she never, ever info-dumps all over the story.

Ms Pierce writes stories that I don’t want to write, but that I love to read, that remind me, in a wonderful way, of my early love for Robin McKinley’s Damar novels. I always wished there were more Damar stories, and the Tortall stories hit that spot for me. I finished Protector of the Small last Friday and dove right into the Beka Cooper trilogy. Thank you, Library Gods!

Sandman Slim novels, by Richard Kadrey

killing prettyIf you haven’t already figured out that I like mystery and suspense with my SFF, then you haven’t been paying attention. Stark (perhaps an homage to Donald Westlake’s Parker novels, published under the pseudonym Richard Stark?) is a human magician who was sent to Hell by his “friends” at the tender age of 19, whereupon he spent the next 11 years having the ever-living shit beat out of him.

Stark escapes Hell to find his ex-girlfriend’s killer and perhaps stave off Armageddon, although that last is more of a knock-on effect of Stark’s total badassery. Along the way, he cracks wise and drinks too much, in the grand tradition of all noir heroes.

If you like Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant/Rivers of London series, and Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, you will love Sandman Slim. One Amazon reviewer called the books “Harry Dresden On Crack,” not a bad description, although I prefer the Sandman Slim series to the Dresden Files.

The covers are terrible, though. Just awful.

NOTES:
2016 Hugo Eligibility: Yes, #7, Killing Pretty, was release in July 2015.
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Rating: 3/5
Genre: SFF/Horror/Urban Fantasy

My Top 3 of 2014

The Girl with All the Gifts, by MR Careygirl in the road

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Clair North

The Girl in the Road, by Monica Byrne

…just in case you were wondering, so you can set your taste and/or baseline against mine.

The Girl in the Road is the only novel I’ve read in the past few years that I would give a 5/5. It was perfect. It was also difficult, disturbing, lyrical, and non-linear. Not the sort of book one understands completely with just one read, but haunting enough that I’ve already read it three times, and upon each read it was a different book. Still deeply disturbing, but also beautiful.

Other recommended reads from 2014:

Neptune’s Brood, by Charlie Stross – I’m not a big fan of Stross, but he won me over with this one. A space-opera mystery featuring an accountant clone. What’s not to love?

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman – This one was actually published in 2013, but I read it last year. I am starting to recognize Gaiman’s voice as a novelist. If you like him as a YA writer, you’ll probably like this novel, marketed towards adults. If you like him as an adult writer, there is no earthly reason you won’t enjoy The Ocean.

Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie – Tomes have already been written about Ann Leckie’s debut space-opera trilogy. Fortunately, I didn’t know there was a “controversy” until I had already thoroughly enjoyed the first two volumes. Swashbuckling good fun, with lots of manners and politics, tea and china. Kinda Regency, actually, now that I think of it.

Fortune’s Pawn, Honor’s Knight, Heaven’s Queen, by Rachel Bach – Ripping good military SF, super fun, not a lot of depth or complexity, but who cares? Bang, bang, bang!

Lock In, by John Scalzi – Scalzi has frequently commented that he flipped a coin for the genre of his first novel, and it came up SF, instead of mystery. 2014’s cross-genre Lock In demonstrates that he can definitely write a mystery novel, and may arguably be better at mystery/procedurals than the mil-SF/space opera that he’s know for.

Lock In happened to trigger a six-month binge of mystery and suspense reading. I reread all of Lawrence Block, Agatha Christie, and the Nero Wolfe novels, sprinkled with some newer novels, most notably: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn; Under Your Skin, by Sabine Durrant; and The Silent Wife, by ASA Harrison. (The Silent Wife was by far my favorite of the three, by the way. Perfect ending. Mwahahahahahaa…)