Marissa Lingen (mrissa) wrote,
Marissa Lingen
mrissa

Long book post

I usually do these every two weeks, but I was away from my booklog at the end of August, so this is for an entire month.

Daniel Abraham, A Betrayal in Winter. This series is why I keep reading high fantasy by total strangers: because something like this will come along and delight me. Yah, it takes ten or fifteen false starts, ten or fifteen series that make me go, "Oh, for the love of Pete!" and quit in their first volume, or their first chapter. But then there's something like this that does what it's doing so well, and is its own thing so thoroughly, oh. I haven't gotten the third one yet, but I can't really think I'll be able to hold out until Christmas on it.

Elizabeth Bear (matociquala), Hell and Earth. I said when I read Ink and Steel that I'd say more when I was done with the story. I'm not sure I can, really, because most of what I have to say here is that it's well-done, and I am still not the target audience for Elizabethan Faerie fantasy. The first two Promethean books are my favorite of Bear's books, and I want there to be more, so I sincerely hope that you do not share my unreasonable prejudices against Elizabethan Faerie fantasy: go! buy! convince the publisher to pay Bear for books in this series that are not these books, because she's already done them! And it's not that those prejudices kept me from enjoying Ink and Steel and Hell and Earth (or, earlier this summer, swan_tower's Midnight Never Come). It's that they kept me from enjoying it as much as someone whose immediate reaction wasn't, "Oh no, not Shakespeare as a character!" would have. It's very much like coffeeem's Territory in that regard: for some readers, the Tombstone mythos was a gateway into the book, and for me it was a hurdle to clear.

But one of my biggest complaints about Shakespeare as a character is the idolatry that seems to go on, the idea that he bestrides the narrow -- wait, no, unfair to use that particular quote here. And Hell and Earth explicitly rejected that. Bear's Shakespeare is part of a community of writers. In some ways and at some times, he is completely alone. But he is not inherently alone; he is not alone due to the resounding genius of being William Shakespeare, but rather due to the machinations of other folks. This is a Will Shakespeare who has no shortage of people who will call him on his bullshit. And I like that very much.

Alan Brinkley, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression. I like a lot of things about this book; if you're interested in Depression-era American demagogues, I think it's very well-done. One of the things I found interesting is that he did an appendix on whether Long or Coughlin could be said to be sowing the seeds of an American fascist movement, and I really like being fairly precise about what he did and did not mean by fascism. "Fascist" does not mean "authoritarian I dislike," or "non-Communist authoritarian." Or at least it shouldn't.

Mike Carey, Vicious Circle. I stand by "like the Harry Dresden books, but set in London, and also better from the beginning" as an assessment of this series. I also like that Carey not only did not take the story in the direction I spotted, but the direction he took it was more positive and hopeful than mine, without betraying the tone of the rest of the book.

Amanda Cross, Honest Doubt, The Edge of Doom, and The Puzzled Heart. I talked a bit about these back in August: I would have wanted to find out for myself anyway, but I really feel that the series went downhill in the last few books. It became more generic, and at the same time it strayed from some of the genre constraints that kept the early books upright on their own power. Also, there are only so many times one can hear a character saying, "This just isn't like you!" before one concludes that that character, and probably his author, are in denial, and it's exactly like her.

Sarah Dessen, Just Listen. Dessen's voice is compulsively readable. This was a textbook example of "had a hard time putting it down." I'm wondering about the shape of this mainstream YA subgenre, though. It seems particularly prone to the "I met this totally hot boy who was right about everything in my life and made everything much better" problem. The protag needs to grow over the course of the book, okay, and also to have a romance, so structurally I think it's kind of built in. But still a little uncomfortable for me. Also, this is only the second of Dessen's books I've read, but in both, the Totally Hot Boy in question has had a criminal record as a teenager. I would be the last person to say that high schools are not filled with complete jerks who have managed not to have charges pressed against them. But I also think that there are quite reasonable questions a parent or other responsible adult can raise about a teenager with a record of violent crime as a significant other for their teenager. I expect I'll be reading more Sarah Dessen, so I hope the You Just Totally Don't Understand Him problem looks less statistically significant with a larger sample size. Because unidirectional My Boyfriend Reorganized My Entire Life is bad enough, but when the boyfriend has been violent, my creep alarms go off like crazy.

Put it this way: I have a friend who's started high school this fall, and I'd be pretty worried if she behaved like the characters in these books. I don't think that means anyone should stop her from reading them if she wants to, but I trust that she has better sense/self-protective instincts than the authorial voice seems to feel is necessary.

Peter Dickinson, The Old English Peep Show. Odd little mystery with lions and reenactment museum space. Not very deep, not very long, just fine for what it is.

Kelley Eskridge, Dangerous Space. The drawback of having someone write an introduction to your short story collection, in which he praises what he sees as your major strengths, is that if someone reads this and then reads the stories, she may be more disappointed not to see those strengths on display than she would otherwise have been. Geoff Ryman spends a fair amount of time in the introduction talking about Eskridge's light touch, her subtlety, and gives specific examples of what he means, so that I can be very sure that I disagree with him rather than simply missing the said subtlety. Not every writer, not every story, has to be subtle. Some political points can be reasonably obvious and still not offensive, still set in an interesting story. So I'd recommend skipping the introduction if you read this, unless you think I am kind of hypersensitive about what is and is not subtle. Which is possible, I suppose, but -- well, for serious, "they aren't allowed to improvise any of their own music in this society"? How is this a subtle political idea?

Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, The Long Week-End: A Social History of Great Britain, 1918-1939. I didn't realize when I put this book on my wish list that it was first published in 1940. The advantages and disadvantages of that perspective were fascinating. One can even forgive them a certain narrow view of W. H. Auden, from the perspective of 1940. This is not just for interwar junkies as I have apparently turned out to be. But for those of us who are, it's really cool.

Barbara Hambly, Stranger at the Wedding. I had heard this mentioned in several conventions' Fantasy of Manners panels and finally got a copy from the library. I see why they mentioned it, but I think it's in an intersecting genre, Fantasy of Mannerlessness. It's another of those books where Our Heroine turns up and is rude in all directions, and we are to take it for independent spirit and lack of conventionality. (Conventionality, you understand as a good fantasy reader, is Always Bad. So are pastels. So if our heroine wears a brilliantly black and yellow striped gown -- at 5'10", so she looks like a really tall hornet -- this is a sign that she is Awesome, and not like the Evil Chick, who wears pastels. I hate pastels. But I also hate characterization by shared prejudice.) For me a good portion of the fun of a Fantasy of Manners is that the people in it have some need to work within some social constraints of their period, and this...didn't do that. People went around breaking rules of various kinds, and the consequences were sort of off sideways, and...yah. There was a plot twist I saw coming but heartily approved of anyway, but I really have fairly limited patience for Our Charmingly Clumsy Heroine getting to stand in for everyone who really wanted to give Those Mean People From High School a good telling off. And the romance plot...was both obvious and completely implausible for me. (This is why I don't read romances. "You fell in love with him why?")

Helene Hanff, 84, Charing Cross Road. Extremely short and slight and entertaining. If it had gone on longer, it might have annoyed me. But it didn't, so it didn't.

Arnaldur Indridason, Voices. The usual cheerful, upbeat fare you can expect from a Nordic crime novel. Everybody sing! I'm really not sure it's good for me to read this stuff, as it may tap into ancestral gloom reservoirs. But there are just lovely moments, like when one of the police officers complains that she doesn't know when she's done this little baking for Christmas, that just...hit me where I live, is I guess what I'm saying here.

Diana Wynne Jones, House of Many Ways. This was a perfectly good example of what it is. I wish she'd do something that's a little farther from her core competencies, though; sometimes that goes really well, and it's always worth reading.

John Kessel, The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories. There is SFnal hockey in some of these stories, people. SFnal. Hockey! Of course a space matriarchy would feature hockey! What an astute man Mr. Kessel is. Hurrah. (For those of you less enthusiastic about the hockey: it really is very little hockey. But enough.)

Laurie R. King, To Play the Fool. I got given this as a reintroduction to Laurie King, having bounced off a previous attempt. I did not bounce off this one. I'm not sure whether I'll go get the rest in this series, but I might. We'll see how I like the other one I was given at the same time (different series, though).

Michael Merriam (mmerriam), Shimmers and Shadows. This is something we don't see much of: a collection of early short fiction from someone who's still early in his career. We don't see much of it because short story collections are so very hard to sell, and this one was no exception: it was self-published. It's dangerous to look at short stories' publication dates and try to guess when they were written in relation to each other, but I still think I could see mmerriam improving over the course of this collection. It reminded me of one of the collections Charles de Lint put out recently of his earlier stuff -- in more ways than just its sequential place in his life -- but we don't yet have the comparison for mmerriam's work that we do for de Lint's, to see which themes stick with him and which get replaced. I'll be eager to find out.

This is the third short story collection in this month's list, and I have to say: when I read magazines, I often find myself skipping or skimming at least a third of the stories. (If it gets much over two-thirds, I stop reading the magazine regularly.) For Eskridge, Kessel, and Merriam, I read all of each story. Selection bias? Maybe; I hadn't read any of Eskridge's short fiction and only a few pieces of mmerriam's before I bought their collections, so it wasn't a very strong selection bias on my part if so. Maybe they each left short stories I would have skipped out of the collections. I can't say for sure. It seems like an interesting data point, but I'm not sure interesting in what direction.

Jean Merrill, The Pushcart War. timprov left this hanging around the house when he was having people read it for a panel for Farthing Party, and I ended up rereading it. It did not take long to reread, and everybody could use a little more General Anna in their life.

Garth Nix, Superior Saturday. This was a perfectly competent advancement of the series -- the last book is next -- but was not satisfying as a book, just as a block of seriesness. It did not compare well to some of the earlier volumes in that regard. This may just be a tightening of possibilities as the end draws nigh. We'll see, I guess. I'm still really eager to find out what he does with the whole thing.

Ruth Rendell, Shake Hands Forever and Some Lie and Some Die. I liked the latter better than the former -- better character development, I thought -- but both were worthy entries in the series. Onwards.

Kim Stanley Robinson, Sixty Days and Counting. The last in its series. This is the series that makes me think character-driven SF is really overrated, because I read it to see what happened to the rocks and clouds. The main character, as I've mentioned before, is That Guy, the one who thinks it's a great thing for both of you if he lectures you for half an hour in REI about your socks. He sucks. Frank may be the worst main character I have run across in a series I actually finished. I have very sturdy boots (purchased at the aforementioned REI!), and I wanted to clobber him repeatedly with one of them until his internal monologue shut up about Buddhism and Thoreau already. Tell me more about the clouds, dude! That's what I care about! I said going into this that I would probably not believe in any ending Robinson was willing to give this thoroughly odious character, and I was correct: I did not believe it. He had a brain damage plot! He had a superspy girlfriend he barely knew! Did this do anything interesting in the end? Not even remotely. Except in the ending I tacked on in my own head, where the spy girlfriend killed him and hid the body in the bottom of one of the new artificial lakes and joined forces with the new First Lady -- which series of events I also don't believe even a little bit, that the US media would smile and nod if the PotUSA started a romance with one of his top advisors? Come on, this isn't even the junior high fantasy of how politics works -- to do something, anything cooler than what they were doing. Only in my head. The first book in this series got me reading KSR again. The second and third got me to stop again.

Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Largely illustrations. There is a category of children's book -- you can watch it happening in front of you. The meta-story is: author finds cool historical fact/artifact. Author decides to write children's book about this thing. Book fails to convey author's excitement but features cool pictures anyway. Unfortunately, I am pretty skewed towards the text end of the text to pictures continuum.

Adam Stemple, The Steward of Song. Sequel to Singer of Souls. Yes, seriously: sequel. Nor did he back off the ending of that volume to begin this one, so: hard-core. As little as I liked the ending of Singer of Souls, I would have liked it less if he'd backed off. Also I think it might have been worth it to get to The Steward of Song. (Those of you who have talked to me about Singer of Souls and its ending: yes, seriously, I mean it.) I will be absolutely fascinated to see where the last one gets us.

Neal Stephenson, Anathem. Do you like portmanteau words like the title? (anthem + anathema) If so, this is the book for you. If not...um. The thing is, I felt that Stephenson thought he was being clever significantly more often than I thought he was being clever. It was not to the point of a Jasper Fforde novel, where I wanted to shout, "Oh, shut up!" throughout the narrative. But I wanted to intone, "har de har, clever you," a great deal more often than I wanted to laugh, reading this. Also there is a terrible, terrible Dischism in the mid-800s...oh, such a bad Dischism, uff da. I went to see what the reviews of this were saying on Amazon, and nobody seemed to have gotten around to saying, "Not all that deep, actually." Many of the people who liked it were talking about how it would make you think, and if you didn't like thinking, you wouldn't like it. It turns out that was not my problem. My problem is that none of the thinking struck me as particularly "upsightful" on the topics at hand -- certainly nothing I hadn't seen done better elsewhere -- and after 900 pages, you want better than a couple of bits of not-too-badness. Also there were times when interesting worldbuilding was sacrificed to "trenchant" social commentary: yes, lots of people in the US today wear sports gear-inspired oversized clothing and drink lots of soda! How insightful to notice and draw parallels in this alternate world! That'll certainly teach those of us who think that...um...well, cadithial, maybe. He will read it and think, "Curse my Mountain Dew! This has made me think!"

...or else not. Disappointing. And all the more so because it was 900 pages, and he spent all the time it took him to write these 900 pages on this and not on something better. Not that this was horrible. (Wouldn't you like to see what I'd have said if it was horrible!) But for 900 pages from the author of the Baroque Cycle, I wanted more than not-horrible. Considerably more.

Kate Wilhelm, A Wrongful Death. When dd_b lent me Robert B. Parker's most famous series, he kindly marked for me the point in the series where he felt it had gone downhill. If that volume was not an improvement over previous volumes for me, he noted, I might not wish to continue. And indeed I had had enough Spenser at that point. If someone was reading the Barbara Holloway books borrowed from me, I would note that there came a point of diminishing returns in that series as well. A Wrongful Death is about the fourth book after that point, in my opinion. I read it all the same, because I like Kate Wilhelm better than I like Robert B. Parker, and there are some moments of new "real" Kate Wilhelm in these last few books, and those moments strike me as better than no new "real" Kate Wilhelm at all. Most of the time they do, anyway. Sort of.
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