I’ve read ten or so books since the last posting, but honestly I’ve had a run of bad luck and am finding that I don’t have a whole lot to say about any of them that’s particularly positive. I’m not entirely sure that this is helpful to anyone, and since this list was for my own edification, I don’t think that it’s much worth continuing on with. I’ll continue to post about books that I like, but since I am grumpy and they’re fairly rare, I doubt that there will be much here for the next little while, until I think of something else to drive commentary and content.
November 4, 2009
September 8, 2009
I really like Karl Schroeder’s books so far. Meaty SF think-heavy books that never shrink from engaging with the human characters at their hearts. That said, I have some quibbles with the Virga books. While the central idea is a great one, and it is explored in relentlessly interesting ways, I can’t help but think here that there are too things competing for space in what are, after all, relatively short novels. The first three books were pretty light, action-adventure novels that took us on a tour through Virga while including real human drama and the ugly choices that people are forced to make by circumstances. Since they were at ground level, playing out, for the most part, far from the character’s home, there’s fairly little engagement with societal construction, and that’s fine, because we never really stick any place for long enough for the reader to start wondering how it would all work.
In The Sunless Countries, Schroeder goes darker and attempts to engage with some serious, fascinating societal issues (absolute democratic rule when the public is ill-informed, the hijacking of a polity by neo-fascists), all the while keeping up the adventurous pace and rip roaring action and giving us more Virga wide-screen SFX and taking us out of Virga for the first time and and and. This could really work well, but the downfall of the novel is that Schroeder sticks to the format of the other Virga novels. That is, it is somewhat short (maybe 100-110k words?) and primarily follows the viewpoint of a single character. It’s rare that you’ll find me arguing that a novel should be longer. I’m generally exasperated by the level of padding required to get a book out to the 200k-ish words that seem to be required these days. But this is a book that could really use it. Using both Hayden and Leal as viewpoint characters, actually following Leal outside of Virga, rather than having her briefly recount her adventures, spending more time with the failure of the Eternist takeover, making the ending less abrupt, etc. Another 100 pages at least are justified here, and the last quarter of the book suffers a lot for their absence. Everything feels second-hand and rushed, and it skews the pacing of the novel something awful. You spend a great deal of the end of the novel inhabiting the perspective of someone in a locked room while a naval battle goes on outside.
I enjoyed the book a lot, and the setup at the end could potentially lead some interesting places, but I hope that Schroeder will manage to rush the ending less next time, which might mean bending the structure more than he’d like. As the book stands, it’s a tantalizing hint of the book that it could have been; great fun, but not all that it could quite plainly be.
September 1, 2009
This book was more or less OK. It strikes me that it’s a little bit too by-the-numbers to really enjoy, but that it’s a competent instantiation of its particular formula, and thus (since it’s a good formula, generally) pleasant enough. I don’t mean to damn with faint praise here. This is a good, polished book for a first novel, and squarely hitting the middle of the road on one’s first outing is impressive. My primary technical complaint, I suppose, is that Downum is perhaps too eager to prove that her viewpoint character isn’t a Mary Sue, that this isn’t just a particularly good transcription of a D&D game, and in so doing largely robs her protagonist, Issyt of any agency in the resolution of the story. There are other characters with more agency than the viewpoint character, but by the end you start to wonder why Issyt (how do you pronounce that, anyway?) has any screen time at all. The one thing that she does in this story could have been just as easily done as a quick insert of backstory in the next novel where she encounters the other character in question. Perhaps the main problem I had with the novel was a lack of economy. Pages and pages were wasted kicking the crap out of the interfering foreigner, and too little time was spent with the local characters who actually make the story go. It’s understandable that the author wants to spend time with her primary character, but she should likely be given more to do in future novels (that said, it’d be an interesting experiment in form if someone were to do a series like this that never featured its nominal protagonist as a primary viewpoint character).
Not a lot to say about this one. It was a book. A book that was too YA for me, too obvious in its setup for its sequels, too uneven in its pacing, too unstinting with its gifts of sentience to almost every thing in the novel. For all that, the writing is consistently pretty good, and there are some playful sections where the writer takes interesting liberties with the voice of the book, and that liven it up. Ultimately, though, there’s just too much going on here all the time, as if the author is worried that if he doesn’t get all of the setup in for the next fifteen books or something he won’t be able to write them, or at least look clever when they come out. Additionally, the book seems to have a hard time deciding whether it wants each portion to be allegorical or taken as a secondary-world construction. Still, the prose is decent, the author’s heart is in the right place, and there really are interesting things happening here, even if there are too many of them and they’re happening too slowly. Did I mention that the pacing was absurdly uneven?
I think my strategy here will be to check out the author’s second series, if there is one. He’s got a lot of raw talent, but the story he’s telling here combined with the roughness of execution makes me think that I’ll skip the rest of this one.
August 28, 2009
A little bit late to the party on this one, but I picked it up off of someone’s shelf and thought that it was interesting enough to keep reading, mostly on the strength of the voice. While I think that Savage has his heart in the right place, and that the moral scolds he seeks to address are worthy of swatting down, I am not sure that this book finds the best way to do it. People complaining about how right now is worse than the good old days is a seemingly universal human trait. A certain type of person is always going to be doing it at any given point in history. For some reason, today’s media gives these people a lot more air than they used to, but it’s hardly something novel. I suspect that attacking any one instance is doomed to failure, because even if you win, another person with a slightly different perspective, possibly even on your intellectual side, will take up the torch soon enough. It seems to me that a better strategy over the long term is to figure out a way to give just as much air to people like Savage, who think that the current is a great place to be living, as to people like Bork, who’d rather live in some mistily idealized past where the person and their kind had more power.
It’s entertaining enough, but ultimately a bit fluffy, at least at this late date, where much of the imperative has worn off.
August 18, 2009
I just finished this this morning, and I’m still not sure what I think about it. It felt kind of tossed off and unconvincing. It has a lot of similar problems to Warren Ellis’ Crooked Little Vein, in that if you spend a lot of time reading either of their blogs, a lot of the arguments, world-building and asides are old hat, since you’ve read them all before as the author first wrote them on their blog. Otherwise, it was something of an over-complicated caper tale, with all of the complicated twists that can happen in a SF novel where identity is more fungible than what might be in a standard mimetic novel. Which is all fine, as far as it goes, but it is not my favorite of Stross’ novels.
Candy! Good candy. I read both of these in two days. I’m not sure what I have to say about them. They’re fun, soap-opera type stories. Interesting, but not incredibly deep. From what I understand, these may be the last books in the series, because Tim’s editor at Del Ray got let go in the recent turbulence. He’s continuing working on some user-supported prequel stuff here. Hopefully, he’ll find another publisher so he can continue the series.
Like most detective stories, the revelation at the ending can never quite live up to the tension generated by the narrative prior, and the whole thing sags and collapses like a cut string. That said, I felt like this was one of the more satisfying books of Lethem’s that I’d read, mostly on the strength and inventiveness of the prose. Lethem does an absolutely wonderful job convincingly limning the interior state of his Tourettic protagonist, and the writing, never less than good, at times rises to brilliance. I’m glad that I finally got around to reading this, and it was more than good enough to overwhelm my general distaste for mysteries and crime fiction in general.
June 27, 2009
Green follows the general trend of Jay’s work over the last several books, as his technical chops continue to improve. This is a solid offering with a strong first person voice. That it didn’t really push my buttons is more on me than on the author. The author more or less did what he was setting out to do, but most of what was being done I didn’t really care about. I’d have preferred it if there were less time spend in the narrator’s childhood and less in her head, but it would not have been the same book at all if those things were true.
I thought that the related story here was stronger, but both are worth reading.
June 21, 2009
An interesting book that attempts to tie overeating to addictive behavior in general. All of it more or less makes sense to me, especially comparing my experiences with weight control and quitting smoking. Contrary to Cory Doctorow’s suggestion here, there was a lot of interesting advice in the book. I suspect that part of Cory’s reaction was simply that the advice given (mostly CBT mindfulness/thought-pattern-changing stuff along with planning/portion suggestions) is simply that there is no silver bullet, even when you understand the psychology of the interaction to a certain degree. But if you’re looking for brain hacks, here’s an idea: as soon as you’re served at a resturant, ask for a to-go container, and immediately pack away everything over your immediate requirements, then put your leftovers out of the way somewhere. This seems less rude and wasteful than returning the portion that you don’t plan or need to eat.
Interestingly, Kessler pulls his punches overmuch. He’s a technocrat, of course, and does come across with some policy proposals, many of which are already winding their ways through the halls of power (Kessler, after all, was a key Washington player in much of the damage done to big tobacco in the last two decades). He stops, however, before coming out and saying something that really needs to be said. Most restaurant food, especially the food sold by the big chains, is more or less toxic sludge, and should be avoided until such a time as these businesses recommit themselves to producing actual food that is rarely more than one or two steps removed from its source. He dwells for much of the time on restaurants, but the same thing could be said for much of the processed food that’s available in supermarkets, or delivered at many of the coffee shops and chain bakeries around the country.
One last problem that Kessler ignores is that many middle-American cities are food deserts. When I go home to Tulsa, for example, I seem to find it inordinately difficult to find a restaurant that isn’t incorporated in Delaware. The supermarkets are a little better, but not that much, as processed food seems to take up more and more shelf space each year, but that’s more of a nationwide problem than one that’s specific to the midwest. The problem of processed foods in the markets is less tractable than that of the restaurants; food is already labeled with the number of calories it contains, yet people buy it and overeat anyways. Perhaps the best technocratic solution to this issue would be to eliminate feedlot animal production and grain subsidies that make the processed foods so much cheaper than their constituent parts bought individually at reasonable levels of quality.