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Archive for the ‘Books & Literature’ Category

Unlike last year’s anemic tally (a mere 65 books read) this year has been a very good one for reading.  I’ve surpassed my goal of 120, finishing up my 140th book last night.  I don’t know how busy prep will keep me once I hit Toronto, but I think I can easily hit the 150 book mark by year’s end.

Yes, I do read a lot, but I’ve got A LOT to read.

Every week, I hit my two favorite bookshops:

The Book Warehouse (http://www.bookwarehouse.ca) where I’m now on a first name basis with the gang and regularly go in to chat,  praise, and critique my recent reads.  Unlike megastore Chapters, the staff here have ACTUALLY READ their Staff Picks, offering up a wonderful range of recommendations.

White Dwarf Books (http://www.deadwrite.com/wd.html) for all of my genre needs (SF, Fantasy, horror, and crime).  While I browse, Akemi spends quality time with the owners’ loveable basset hound (who we ended up dog sitting not too long ago).

I rarely ever leave either place empty-handed.  As a result, THIS, is my burgeoning To-Read pile:

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It’s like an ever-growing batch of kombucha, expanding from that original literary mother culture (which, if memory serves me right, is Clive Barker’s Weaveworld). And these are merely the books I have on deck, to be read sooner than later.  My downstairs library holds three times as many titles waiting to be called up to the majors.

As much as I prefer real books, I realize that digital is the way to go for the duration of my  Toronto stay.  Rather than lug around a suitcase of books, I can just download the titles onto my laptop or handy reader.

As a result of Amazon’s continuing war with publisher Hachette, I’ve decided to retire my kindle and purchase all future digital titles via iTunes and Barnes & Noble. Yes, the dispute is a complicated one and it’s not as simple as picking a side – but, in my case, I am because Amazon is the party that is inconveniencing me by making it difficult (if not impossible) to purchase the titles I want to purchase.

Anyway, I’m putting together a Toronto Reading Library and am looking for recommendations.  Here’s a list of some of the books that have been recommended to me so far:

Flash Boys – Michael Lewis

Sous Chef – Michael Gibney

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant by

Love, Nina – Nina Stibble

Black Moon – Kenneth Calhoun

The Slow Regard of Silent Things – Patrick Rothfuss

Complicit – Stephanie Keuhn

The Enchanted – Rene Denfeld

The End of Eve – Ariel Gore

Little Failure – Gary Shtenygart

War Dogs – Greg Bear

The Martian – Andy Weir

Shotgun Lovesongs – Nickolas Butler

Ancillary Sword – Anne Leckie

Silence Once Begun – Jesse Ball

The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

An Untamed State – Roxane Gray

Winter People – Jennifer McMahon

The Word Exchange – Alena Graedon

J – Howard Jacobson

Season to Taste – Natalie Young

The Lemon Grove – Helen Walsh

The Farm – Tom Rob Smith

Elizabeth is Missing – Emma Healey

The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell

Letters of Note – Shaun Usher

Wave – Sonali Deraniyagala

The Examined Life – Stephen Grosz

Big Brother – Lionel Shriver

The Reason I Jump – Naoki Higashida

The Silent Wife – A.S.A. Harrison

Kiss Me First – Lottie Moggach

Any of you read any of the above guest and care to weigh in with your thoughts?

Or have a book to recommend me?  Preferably, no: steampunk, alternate wold, magic-themed, magical creatures, vampires, werewolves, zombies, romance, tie-ins, or instalments in an ongoing series.

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These are outrageously overdue.  Capsule reviews of my June reads.  And there were a lot of ‘em…

1LAGOON by Nnedi Okorafor

When a mysterious object crashes into the waters off the coast of Lagos, the lives of three strangers are forever changed as they become intermediaries between humanity and an alien race.  A mix of scifi, magic, superheroes and Nigerian folklore.  It’s certainly unique and an interesting study of Nigerian culture and society, but there’s little subtlety to the writing.  It’s all surface with no real depth to the individual scenes and characters.  At times, it feels like you’re reading an extremely long fable.

1HOT HEAD by Simon Ings

A seemingly unstoppable hundred mile-wide A.I. mining probe is headed towards Earth and the planet’s salvation lies in Malise, a broken combat veteran addicted to military hardware.   Cyberpunk cool and incredibly confusing.  If you’re able to slog through the first half of the book, things will come together for you at the end.

1THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY by Jack Trevor Story

Well, they certainly don’t make ‘em like they used to.  And, sometimes, with good reason.  Several people come across a body on the outskirts of a small English town and, as each assumes responsibility for the death, hilarity (?) ensues.  Mired in silly improbabilities.

1WILDWOOD (WILDWOOD CHRONICLES #1) by Colin Melot and Carson Ellis

When her baby brother is spirited away by crows, 12 year old Pru and her nerdy sidekick, Curtis, embark on a grand adventure in The Impassible Wilderness (located somewhere in Portland).  Spirited and enjoyable but doesn’t quite attain the heights of Harry Potter or Series of Unfortunate Events.

1THE SERPENT OF VENICE by Christopher Moore

The sequel to Moore’s Fool is a bit of Othello, a touch of The Merchant of Venice, a dash of Poe’s Cask of the Amontillado, and a hell of a lot of fun.  The rascal fool, Pocket, runs afoul of three dangerous enemies who drug, then entomb him alive. He makes good his escape and seeks revenge, but his plans are both helped and hindered by Othello the Moor of Venice, Shylock a Jewish money-lender, a mysterious sea serpent – and others.

1THE TWELVE-FINGERED BOY by John Hornor Jacobs

A promising start is wasted in this tale about an introverted juvenile delinquent with special abilities who piques the interest of some very powerful, very dangerous people.  The opening section that centers on the juvenile detention center is terrific, but when the action shifts away from the facility, the narrative devolves into all-too familiar territory.

1SPIRAL by Koji Suzuki

The sequel to Ringu (The Ring) offers an engaging development to the familiar mystery as well as an interesting exploration of the “science” behind the curse but, inevitably, it all gets bogged down in the technical details.

1AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE (VOL. 1: ESCAPE FROM RIVERDALE) by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla

Archie Andrews and the gang from Riverdale face a zombie apocalypse when their high school dance is crashed by the undead, forcing them to take refuge at Lodge Manor.  Surprisingly dark, this grim take on the hitherto silly comic is shockingly effective.  Right up there with The Walking Dead and World War Z.

1MR. VERTIGO by Paul Auster

A young, St. Louis orphan is taken under the wing of a charming old Svengali who promises to teach him how to fly.  Of course learning to fly is a long and laborious process and, in the four years under Yehudi’s tutelage, young Walt develops a familial bond with the old man and a couple of the other colorful characters who make up his entourage.  Eventually, Yehudi does teach Walt how to fly and they take their act on the road, wowing crowds across America and learning valuable, often difficult, life lessons along the way.  Auster does a marvelous job immersing the readers in this 1920’s setting, and his well-drawn characters are alternately amusing, frustrating, and touching.  At times, the story walks that fine line between fantasy and reality and it’s a tough balancing act to pull off.  By book’s end, I’m not wholly convinced Auster was wholly successful.

1THE PASSAGE by Justin Cronin

One of the scariest “vampire” novels I’ve read, this book gets off to a resounding start, featuring some compelling characters and a horrifying contemporary scenario involving a viral outbreak and the government’s inability to contain it.  Then, we jump forward in time and the story becomes a cross between Attack on Titan and The Walking Dead, with less interesting characters and a not quite as compelling narrative.  It’s still post-apocalyptic fun with plenty of scares, but it pales in comparison to that riveting opening section.  It also goes on a little too long.

1THE ADJACENT by Christopher Priest

Hmmm.  I loved Christopher Priest’s The Inverted World and liked his The Islanders that, while engaging in its “unconnected connectedness”, nevertheless felt just a little obtuse.  And while The Islanders may have been a little obtuse, I found The Adjacent downright unfathomable.  I enjoyed the sum of its parts but, as a whole, it lost me.

œF$¿Æ‘$8Òò¤»däå¸R8BIFORTUNE’S PAWN by Rachel Bach

Great adventure and fun characters in this high-flying actioner about a female mercenary who gets a job on a ship called The Glorious Fool crewed by some colorful characters possessed of secrets and hidden agendas.  It’s a fast read and I would have absolutely loved it if not for an obtrusive romantic subplot that, unfortunately, undermines our protagonist’s kick-ass personality.  And sense of logic.

1DOCTOR SLEEP by Stephen King

The sequel to The Shining is significantly different from its predecessor, abandoning the original’s isolated setting with its claustrophobic creepiness in favor of a more open travelogue-like tale pitting a grown-up Danny Torrance against a group of roving white trash vampire-like beings.  It’s a Stephen King novel so it’s chock full of great scares, but at times the open road narrative feels a little diffuse and, at the end of the day, less like a sequel and more like a whole other world with a couple of shared characters.

1THE OPRHAN MASTER’S SON by Adam Johnson

Jun Do is a professional kidnapper in the service of the great People’s Democratic Republic of North Korean.  We trace his rise, from his humble beginnings in a work camp run by his father, up the ranks of the oft-bewildering paranoia-fueled system, to his position of power – and inevitable mental collapse.  It’s at this point that the novel veers into ridiculous territory as Jun Do assumes the identity of national hero “Commander Ga” to win the love and freedom of famed actress Sun Moon.  The only thing standing in his way: King Jun Il.   An absorbing and harrowing social satire, but the quirky characters, with their unbelievable motivations, defy credulity.

1THE GIVER by Lois Lowry

A young adult coming-of-age tale set in a “perfect” future where equality and service to The Community trumps individuality.  Young Jonas comes of age but, unlike his fellow Twelves who are appointed fairly standard careers, he is proclaimed the new Receiver of Memory, the vessel for all the memories of past generations.  As he receives these exciting, bewildering, occasionally painful memories, he begins to question what is and begins a search for what could be.  A relatively quick read that, while appealing in its premise, ultimately feels like the opening chapter in a much larger story.   Soon to be a major motion picture!

1THE LAST POLICEMAN by Ben H. Winters

Maia (Asteroid 2011GV1) is on a collision course with Earth.  The planet is doomed. Society is coming apart at the seams.  Many of its citizens “go bucket list”.  Others choose suicide.  But some persevere, maintaining their routines, going into work and doing their jobs.  And, in the case of Detective Hank Palace, investigating a murder whose victim was discovered in a fast food rest room.  A delightful pre-apocalyptic whodunit.

1WE ARE THE GOLDENS by Dana Reinhardt

A story of two sisters and their incredible bond.  Nell and Layla are inseparable, the best of friends, drawn even closer by their parents’ divorce.  But Nell begins to notice a change in her sister.  Layla becomes withdrawn and secretive, and Nell suspects it may have something to do with a popular high school teacher. Restrained and real.  Wonderful but for the ending that leaves us hanging.

1ATTACHMENTS by Rainbow Rowell

Lincoln O’Neill’s job is to read emails.  Other people’s emails.  As the newsroom’s Internet Security Officer, he keeps tabs on intra-company correspondence for possible red flag behavior.  What at first strikes him as a suspect, even creepy task, grows increasingly fascinating as he begins to monitor the exchanges of two positively delightful employees.  One, in particular, captures his interest – in more than a professional way.  The novel presents a wonderfully dicey moral dilemma – that it fails to fully explore, ultimately letting our conflicted, guilt-ridden protagonist off the hook.  Great, breezy, clever writing.  Darkly humorous.  Then, about halfway through, takes a turn for the implausibly cloying.

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I have a feeling that working on scripts for this new show is really going to put a crimp in my rapid-fire reading pace.  Last year, I read a paltry 65 books.  I was so embarrassed that I set a seemingly lofty goal for myself in 2014: 120 books!  At the time, I figured it would be tight but now, with July officially behind us, I’ve tallied an impressive 107 reads.  Yeah, getting to 120 will be more than doable, even with all the prep and script work, so I’ve decided to raise the bar.  150 books! That’s my new 2014 goal.

In addition to impeding my reading, this new gig has also slowed things down on the writing end – as far as my monthly book reviews for this blog are concerned. I’ve still got to get around to doing write-ups on 11 of the 19 titles I read in June.

In the meantime, you can always check out my right sidebar for my reading recommendations (Listing my Top 20 Recent Reads).

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Since we’re on the subject, I thought I’d put in a shout-out for our friend – and fantasy author extraordinaire – Joe Abercrombie and his new book Half A King.  I already mentioned last week, it’s one of his best – incredibly engaging and nearly impossible to put down.  I read the first one hundred pages in one night, then blazed through the final 200+ the following day.

Thrones-and-Bones-Frostborn

Another friend to this blog – and equally extraordinary in his own right – is long-time editor and first-time author Lou Anders whose YA novel, Frostborn (Thrones & Bones), hits the shelves next week.  It’s perfect for budding young fantasy enthusiasts looking for their first foray into the world of giants, wyverns, and treacherous relatives.

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My recent purchases.  Every time I knock a title off my to-read pile, two more take its place.  It’s like my own literary hydra.

Sorry, needed to add this link to a story about a language school blogger who was fired for writing about homophones: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2712312/Language-school-blogger-fired-boss-confuses-homophones-homophobes-accuses-promoting-gay-agenda.html#ixzz39BU4mBQ5

P.S. : Hey, Mark – The novel I mentioned at lunch was Fortune’s Pawn by Rachel Bach.  A great mix of action, adventure and humor with a terrific protagonist in Devi Morris.  My only criticism was the romantic subplot that, at times, undermined our hitherto kick-ass heroine.

Today’s blog entry is dedicated to sis on her birthday:

P.P.S. They were apparently shooting the Grumpy Cat Christmas movie while we are at The Bridge Studios last week.  Alas, no celebrity sighting despite keeping my eye on every vehicle that rolled on and off the lot.  I hear he’s a self-drive.

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This book is the equivalent of that lamb kebab I ate one hot summer back when I was living in Montreal.  Like the Pendergast series to date, I quite enjoyed Indian food – until that wretched kebab.  It was bad.  So bad that I couldn’t eat Indian food against for years.  And, I suspect, it’ll probably be that long before I pick up another book in the Pendergast series.

White Fire starts off promisingly enough with a mystery set in a Colorado town. Pendergast’s protege, a young idiot named Corrie Swanson, gets into trouble while researching and studying (and breaking and entering) the bodies of some 19th century miners.  She is facing serious jail time until Pendergast shows up and turns the table on the community in spectacularly convenient fashion (locating a descendant of the dead who objects to plans to dig up a local graveyard, something the community failed to do even though, as Pendergast points out, she was remarkably easy to find).  Also coincidentally, wealthy locals start getting knocked off in grisly fashion, their multi-million dollar homes burned to the ground.  Why is this suddenly happening now when Pendergast comes to town?  Good question.  And one that’s never answered.  Who is responsible?  Er, if you guessed the character who doesn’t serve any real purpose in the story, you’d be correct!

As the town is gripped by the murders, someone begins to stalk Corrie: creeping around her place at night, killing her dog, taking a shot at her.  Corrie reacts like any level-headed person in her position would: by not reporting the incidents to the authorities and not telling her mentor (who is an FBI agent by the way) Aloysius Pendergast.  In fact, she seems more annoyed at Pendergast’s concerns for her safety than she is about her dead dog and almost getting shot.  While Corrie runs around town making one dubious decision after another, effectively moving the plot forward, Aloysius looks into the existence of an unpublished Sherlock Holmes story that may shed some light on the mysterious 19th century killings of a group of miners.  Fans of Sherlock scholars and fans have sought this rumoured manuscript for close to a century.  Enter Pendergast who locates it in a matter of days.

Blind luck, coincidences, and convenient developments abound to help a listless and uninspired Pendergast solve the case.  Yes, okay, he’s depressed due to the events in a previous book, but that doesn’t excuse the lazy way by which he works the case.  At one point, he attempts to blackmail an elderly woman to gain access to a property.  At another, he gains access to sensitive documents by barging into a house and setting a fire (which he later puts out with some gravy), causing everyone to conveniently clear out so that he can search.  At still another, he time travels through the power of his mind to listen in on a conversation between Oscar Wilde and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Yes, I know, this means of magical mental transport was set up in Still Life With Crows, but that doesn’t excuse it’s lameness. I hated it then and hated it here.

Ultimately, we learn that the murderer was rendered insane by mercury poisoning, something he was exposed to in the womb.  Oddly enough, we are told about one character who is exposed to the mercury while working the mines and it turned him into a babbling, deranged psycho.  Our murderer, who has been exposed since birth is, in contrast, a calculating serial killer possessed of the intelligence and rationale to hide his crimes.

And, uh, again, why does he just happen to start killing people when Pendergast comes to town?

Oh, almost forgot.  The book almost scored points for me late when it seems Pendergast is too late to save Corrie from being burned alive.  BUT, in yet another ridiculous twist, it is revealed that the charred remains don’t belong to Corrie but some other woman who the serial killer/arsonist happened to burn alive in approximately the save spot a little earlier.

A long way from Relic, the first instalment in the Pendergast series, this book was one bad lamb kebab.

This blog entry is (ironically) dedicated to Birthday Gal Das!

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Capsule reviews of all the books I read in May…and there were more than a few:

1ME BEFORE YOU by Jojo Moyes

An individual with no caregiving experience is hired to look after a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic who has all but given up on life.  Eventually, the two overcome their mutual uncertainty to form a bond, experiencing happiness, adventure, and, ultimately, love.  This, by the way, is the premise of Intouchables, a great French movie that came out in 2011.  It’s also the premise for this maudlin novel released in 2012. 

1I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER by Dan Wells

15 year old John Wayne Cleaver is obsessed with serial killers.  He is so obsessed, in fact, that he studies them religiously in order to figure out how to avoid becoming one.  But when a body turns up and it looks like a serial killer has struck close to him, things become a lot more complicated for John.  I LOVED the first 100 pages of this book.  It was darkly humorous and set up a great premise that…crashed and burned with the revelation that the murderer is actually a supernatural entity.  Huh??  This book had the makings of a ghoulishly clever crime novel and character study but, for some reason, morphs into a silly monster hunt.  Hugely disappointing.

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THE INVERTED WORLD by Christopher Priest

A city moves along a railroad track in constant, laborious progress, attempting to keep up with something called “the optimum” – or risk losing pace and falling victim to a gravitational field that has warped space and time.  This is a truly bizarre work of science fiction that jumps between multiple narrative styles in telling a story that is both grounded in its characters yet intellectually and creatively provocative in its conceit.  At times, I felt like I was reading Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow - on acid.

1A FALL OF MOONDUST by Arthur C. Clarke

A cruiser traveling on the lunar surface is lost in The Sea of Thirst, buried deep in the dust.  The cruiser’s occupants try to maintain their spirits as a rescue mission is mounted and life support systems begin to fail.  A hard SF version of those Irwin Allen disaster features from the 70’s.  Classic but staid and, at times, dated and silly.

1THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern

Against the backdrop of a mysterious circus, two young magicians must square off in an age-old duel fueled by the rivalry of their respective fathers.  But matters are complicated by romantic entanglements.  A good book certain to appeal to fans of the genre, but I inevitably find magic-themed stories incredibly frustrating. Unlike, say, SF that sets down technological parameters as to what can and cannot be achieved, in magic-based narratives all bets are off.  Shits happens, people die and then, ultimately, it’s all upended because…magic!  Ho hum.

1THE LIONS OF AL-RASSANby Guy Gavriel Kay

Moorish Spain (or a fictional version thereof) is the backdrop of this sweeping historical fantasy involving sieges, warfare, diabolical plots, courtly intrigue, crosses, double-crosses, friendship, and romance.  At heart of it all are three protagonists whose backgrounds and alliances lead them on intersecting paths both heroic and tragic.  Brilliant world-building and wonderfully nuanced characters.  My introduction to the works of author Guy Gavriel Kay novel.  Highly recommended.

1THE BRIEF AND FRIGHTENING REIGN OF PHIL by George Saunders

A nonsense novella about the fictitious principalities of Inner and Outer Horner.  It’s a silly and ultimately unsatisfying political and social satire that feels like it was written over the course of a drink-fueled evening.

1THE WALL OF THE SKY, THE WALL OF THE EYE by Jonathan Lethem

I was looking forward to this one but was left disappointed by a collection of SF-themed stories containing some interesting ideas but not much in the way of cohesive, self-contained narratives.

1THE SHINING GIRLS by Lauren Beukes

A serial killer travels through time, dispatching of his victims: young women he refers to as “shining girls”.  Finally, a time travel novel that makes sense.  Sort of. An interesting premise and no real faults in time travel logic – but no real answers either.  Why is this house a time machine?  What motivates the serial killer to murder these women?  What makes them “shine”?  They’re developing this book for television so maybe the t.v. series will have the answers.  But probably not.

1THE ROAD TO RECKONING by Robert Lautner

You can almost smell the gun smoke, sweat, and campfire in this gritty Western character piece about a young boy, orphaned after his father’s murder, who enlists the help of an ornery bastard to get him home.  Smart and surprisingly absorbing. A great read.

1SALVATION OF A SAINT by Keigo Higashino

I went in expecting a page-turning crime thriller but ended up with an awkward and plodding mystery that isn’t really a mystery at all because we know whodunit from the start.  The body of the book is just an extended conversation of deduction.  Unlike the author’s previous novel, The Devotion of Suspect X, there’s little in the way of actual suspense or narrative build.  In the end, when all is revealed, the details of the murder are so implausible they’re almost laughable.  I suspect that this novel may have also suffered from the quality of its translation.

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PERFUME by Patrick Susskind

In 18th century France, a child is born without scent.  Because of this strange, physiological trait, he grows up a social pariah.  But, eventually, he finds his calling – first as a brilliant perfumer, and later as a diabolical serial killer who uses scent to manipulate those around him.  This book has all the makings of a unique, engaging novel but its promise is undone by a thoroughly detestable protagonist.  I’m not saying that our serial-killing main character must necessarily possess traits that make him sympathetic to the reader (a la Dexter or Hannibal Lecter), but it would be nice to get inside his head at some point and learn a little about him.  Instead, it’s all surface.  The corpses pile up.  Our a creepy freak of a protagonist bemoans his scentless genitals.    And it all culminates in one of the stupidest endings ever committed to print.

Would have made a fine short story.

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SCHRODER by Amity Gaige

In the heat of a custody battle, a desperate father takes his daughter on an ill-advised extended road trip.  It’s one of several big errors in judgement that lead our protagonist down an inevitably heartbreaking path.  The fairly straightforward premise belies a surprising complexity in this touching and tragic tale.  On the surface, not “the type of book” I’d enjoy – but I was thoroughly engrossed.

1THE SLAP by Christos Tsiolkas

At a family gathering, a guest slaps a child not his own.  A lawsuit and strained relationships ensue in this comprehensive look at the ties that bind one extended family.  This book certainly does a masterful job of pushing the reader’s buttons. I’ve heard that many mothers who read the book were outraged and extremely sympathetic to the child and his mother.  I, on the other hand, had no sympathy for the spoiled brat and his loopy, smothering mom.  In fact, I had little to no sympathy for any of the multitudinous characters who people this novel.  They’re all beyond flawed and well into “reprehensible” territory.  I should have seen it coming when, only one page in, I was already annoyed with a character who takes advantage of his wife being away by: “not washing or brushing his teeth all weekend.”  Come on.  Regardless of company kept, what kind of neanderthal doesn’t brush their teeth all weekend?  A consistently irritating read.

1AUTHORITY Jeff VanderMeer

The second book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy picks up where things left off in Annihilation – sort of.  The focus has shifted to the shadowy government agency that has been overseeing the various expeditions into Area X.  Our protagonist, John Rodrigues (nicknamed “Control”), assumes command of the operation and attempts to make sense of the baffling leads in the ongoing investigation: secret notes, a bizarre video, and an uncooperative witness (the biologist from the first book).  He begins to suspect that Area X has broken containment and gained a foothold in our reality, the realization dawning on the reader in a simultaneous slow, creeping burn of a narrative.  The subversive terror of the first book is ratcheted up, building to a disquieting climax that left me in great anticipation for the final instalment.

1GREAT NORTH ROAD by Peter F. Hamilton

The murder of a member of the powerful North “family of clones” triggers an investigation that peels the onion on a dark conspiracy, ancestral secrets, covert weaponry, and a desperate alien sentience.  More masterful world-building in this epic narrative that jumps around different points of view, some (the military hunt for an otherworldly predator) more interesting than others (the official police investigation).  It’s an interesting, though at times overwrought ride that culminates in a resolution that will please fans of scifi, fans of clever thrillers less so.

1NEBULA AWARDS SHOWCASE 2014 edited by Kij Johnson

A selection of this past year’s Nebula award winners and nominees showcases a varied mix of stories and excerpts.  My favorites were the more character-oriented entries: “After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall”,a Nancy Kress eco-thriller about a group of post-apocalypstic survivors who travel back in time, kidnapping children to help ensure humanity’s survival, and “Christmas Inn” by Gene Wolf, a deceptive, deep and textured tale about a struggling family hosting some strange guests on Christmas Eve.  Some big, provocative ideas.

1FROSTBORN by Lou Anders

Award-winning editor Lou Anders first novel is a Norse-inspired, adventure-fueled tale for young fantasy enthusiasts.  Karn, a young farmer-to-be, strikes up an unlikely friendship with Thianna, a half-giantess, to take on undead forces, an ancient dragon, troublesome trolls, an opportunistic uncle, and more!  If you’re looking to inspire your child to follow in your Martin/Eddings/Jordan-loving footsteps, then this book is a great place to start.

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FUTURE BABBLE by Dan Gardner

Author Dan Gardner looks at our innate desire for order and how it drives us to seek pattern in a chaotic universe.  Experts, it turns out, are no more accurate than the flip of a coin, and their popularity has less to do with their predicive successes (or lack thereof) than showmanship.  An interesting if not altogether unsurprising read.

1THE TROOP by Nick Cutter

A field trip on an isolated island takes a horrific turn for a group of young boys when their scout leader welcomes an emaciated stranger into their camp.  It’s a horror version of Lord of Flies that is at turns harrowing, humorous, and thoroughly engaging.  Wonderfully written.  It’s heads and shoulders above most novels in the genre.

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SWORDS AND DEVILTRY by Fritz Leiber

The first book in one of my very favorite fantasy series starts off with a more of a determined whimper than a bang, offering an interesting, dark, at times surprisingly somber account of the early lives of our two heroes and their eventual meeting.  There are flashes of fun throughout, especially in the dynamic between Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, initially as strangers crossing paths, then as fast friends over drinks and, finally, as allies united in revenge.  Not as strong as the ensuing instalments, but solid storytelling nevertheless, holding the promise of greatness to come.

1WALKING IN CIRCLES BEFORE LYING DOWN by Merrill Markoe

Our protagonist is a romantic loser whose increasingly pathetic existence is dealt a curveball the day her dog begins to talk to her.  And not just her dog.  She soon realizes she can hold conversations with other dogs as well.  And what do all these dogs have to say?  Oh, you know, pretty much what you’d expect a dog to say if you’ve read any of those anthromorphic animal comic strips.  They offer “hilarious” insights into relationships and life, are able to recognize and identify an Oasis song but, on the other hand, mysteriously have no understanding of tears or death. The opportunity for “funny” dialogue trumps reason – but, hey, it’s a book about talking dogs so I suppose I shouldn’t expect internal logic to prevail.  The writing style reads like David Sedaris lite.

Enjoyed the Look Who’s Talking movies?  Well, you may enjoy this book as well.

1A DANCE WITH DRAGONS by George R. R. Martin

The first three books rank among my Top 10 Fantasy Reads, so it’s been incredibly disappointing to see the wheels fall off this once great series.  Back in the day, it used to be a true page turner, building suspense from chapter to chapter, offering unexpected twists and shocking turns.   Now, the individual stories drag out as more and more characters are added to the increasingly complex mix.  Two-thirds of the way through this book, all those characters reached critical mass and I began to lose my patience as well as interest.

1BIRD BOX by Josh Malerman

A suspenseful horror thriller that is undermined by some minor inconsistencies in logic.  A series of bizarre murder-suicides in Russia pique the media’s interest, but when these horrific incidents begin to proliferate and start striking closer to home, the world descends into a blind panic.  Rumour spreads that people are being driven insane by the sight of some mysterious otherworldly entities and, soon, people have retreated into their homes, covering up their windows, refusing to open their eyes if they venture outdoors.  The novel opens on our protagonist, Malorie, as she attempts to safeguard the lives of two young children, then jumps back in time to, five years earlier, when a pregnant Malorie seeks refuge with a group of survivors.  We hop back and forth, between the past and present, and the twin stories unfold in spellbinding fashion. Still, issues arise when you stop to reflect.  People seem to connect these strange murders to a visual cue way too quickly and with little evidence to support this theory.  Animals (dogs, wolves) are seemingly unaffected by the sight of these creatures and yet, later in the novel, ARE affected.  Perhaps oddest of all is Malorie’s decision to name the children Boy and Girl rather than giving them proper names.  Minor quibbles aside, however, it’s a helluva page-turner.

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1“In the far future, a young man stands on a barren asteroid. His ship has been stolen, his family kidnapped or worse, and all he has on his side is a semi-intelligent spacesuit. The only member of the crew to escape, Hari has barely been off his ship before. It was his birthplace, his home and his future. He’s going to get it back. “

It certainly sounds like a focused, revenge-fueled romp but, in reality, Evening’s Empires is actually a sweeping, cerebral tale of betrayal, vengeance, and, surprisingly, family.  It’s an ambitious and intelligent novel that is  both hard SF and space opera although, to be perfectly honest, it took a while for the story to really capture my interest.  For the first fifty pages or so, I was utterly baffled, even frustrated, by the overwhelming denseness of the shifting social landscapes and political and religious paradigms.

The book is incredibly rich in its grand scope world galaxy-building and much of the background history, established and developed in the author’s previous books, can be incredibly confusing for the uninitiated.  I had to double (and triple) check that Evening’s Empires was, in fact, a standalone novel that didn’t require any knowledge of McAuley’s other works.  The various backstory elements are eventually explained, a little too often in the form of mass conversational info dumps but, once I finally had a better understanding of its foundations, the novel became a far more enjoyable read.  Still, partway through, when I came across the line “It’s a maze he lost himself in.” I couldn’t help think “There but for the Grace of God went I”.

At the heart of this book is the mystery of “the bright moment”, a simultaneously shared vision, glimpsed by everyone in the solar system, of a man on a bicycle. Our hero, Hari, is raised on a spaceship where his family plays host to a scientist studying “the bright moment”.  Then, one day, their ship is hijacked and Hari is forced to flee – with the scientist’s head and the valuable data it contains.  Hari plots to retake his ship but, to do so, he must connect with people from his past and peel the onion on a multi-layered mystery involving religious fanatics, shifting alliances, and dangerous clones.

It all makes for a head-spinning tour-de-force that, I suspect, will leave many readers thoroughly amazed by the novel’s depth and breadth while, simultaneously, leaving just as many thoroughly bewildered.

As an added bonus for the well-read SF fan, the book is divided into six parts titled: Childhood’s End, Marooned Off Vespa, The Caves of Steel, Pirates of the Asteroids, The Cold Equations, and Downward to the Earth.  I’m not sure if there was more to it than a simple tip of the hat to the golden age classics, but there’s no denying Evening’s Empire has far more in common with the narratively expansive and challenging works of Alastair Reynolds and Iain M. Banks than it does the works of Clarke, Asimov, and Silverberg.

Let’s get the conversation started.  What did you all think of Evening’s Empires?

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Capsule reviews of my April reads…

1CHEW (vol. 8: Family Recipes) by John Layman and Rob Guillory

The eighth instalment in the ongoing series about detective Anthony Chu, a chibopath capable of receiving psychic impressions from whatever he tastes, be it inorganic matter or fresh(ly deceased) flesh and blood.  It’s been a wonderfully bizarre, over-the-top series but I feel the darkly humorous fun has took a turn for the darkly unhumorous a couple of volumes back with the gruesome murder of one of our main characters.  That surprising development left a, er, bad taste in my mouth and has cast a pall over the ensuing madcap proceedings.  It’s going to be tough to recover from that one, methinks.

1THE DINNER by Herman Koch

About 50 pages into this novel comes this passage: “You do everything in your power to make the narrator shut up, but nothing helps.  They’re too far gone to notice the signals.  Above all, they’re addicted to themselves and their own crap about film.”  And that pretty much mirrored my feelings about this book in the early going except that, instead of focusing on film, our narrator goes on and on about the different dishes he is served.   Even the foodie in me found it incredibly tiresome.  But stick it out and, about a third of the way through, things pick up in this suspenseful tale of murder and the lengths people will go to protect those they love.

1A CALCULATED LIFE By Anne Charnock

In the late 21st century, society has stratified into the haves (genetically-enhanced individuals who live comfortable lives free of addiction and crime) and the have-nots (drudge workers who live in segregated, crime-ridden communities). Our protagonist, Jayna, is a hot up-and-comer at a corporation that track global trends.  She has the perfect job, the perfect life and yet, she can’t help but feel that something is…off.  Perfection aint all it’s cracked up to be and when Jayna decides to inject a little unpredictability into her ordered existence, things take a turn for the dangerous.  A very smart book.  My favorite fiction read of April.

1THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG by Muriel Barbery

50-something Parisian concierge Renee is a closet intellectual who keeps her interests and intelligence a secret from the upper class tenants of her building because she doesn’t want them judging her.  Ironically, she spends most of this novel generalizing and judging the upper class tenants of her building – when she’s not going on philosophical tangents. Paloma is a young Parisian teen who has evidently read Mersault’s L’Etranger one too many times and is overcome by a pervading sense of ennui.  She is so brilliant she doesn’t want to draw attention to herself and plans to commit suicide. Tsk, Parisian kids these days.  These two insufferably annoying characters are the dual protagonists of this pretentious bore of a novel. If this books was someone you met at a party, two minutes into a conversation with her and you’d be heading for the door.

1MAN IN THE EMPTY SUIT by Sean Ferrell

I love a good time travel story – but, alas, this one isn’t.  A tale of a man who travels to an abandoned New York in 2071 to celebrate his birthday with past and present versions of himself.  But, on his 39th fete, he discovers the corpse of his 40 year old self.  A lengthy, meandering, convoluted investigation ensues.

1BLOOD AND IRON by Jon Sprunk

Horace is a ship-wrecked soldier on enemy land.  Soon after being sold into service as a house slave, he discovers that he is possessed of powerful magical abilities. With the help of two unlikely allies – a gladiator named Jirom and spy named Alyra – he must circumvent courtly intrigues and dangerous external conspiracies to win the freedom of the empire’s slaves.  A rip-rousing opener to an ongoing series that offers great fun and adventure, but a little too much magic for my taste.

1HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG by Andre Dubus III

A clerical error sparks a property dispute between a former Iranian Air Force Colonel and a recovering addict, a conflict fueled by desperation and pride that eventually leads to tragic consequences.  Dubus does a masterful job of presenting us with the very real and very sympathetic people on both sides of the issue.  This one will stay with you.

1VILLAIN by Shuichi Yoshida

I was expecting a crime thriller in the vein of Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X but, instead, got a plodding and unengaging mystery that wasn’t really a mystery at all because we know whodunit from the get-go .  Ultimately, more of a character study of some very bleak personalities, the whole hampered by an awkward, at times stilted, translation.

1THE WEIRDNESS by Jeremy Bushnell

Satan appears to struggling writer Billy Ridgeway one day and offers to make him a success IF he will do one thing for him: steal a cat statue with magical powers from a warlock hiding out in New York City.  It’s a fun premise but this book is a good example of how over-the-top silliness can undermine any real sense of jeopardy. The loopier the narrative developments, the weaker the emotional investment so that, by the time you finish reading the novel, it’s already forgotten.

1SUPER GRAPHIC by Tim Leong

This visual guide to the comic book universe uses pie charts, venn diagrams, bar graphs, maps, and trajectories to highlight some fun facts.  Whether it’s a rundown of DC’s alternate Earths, the pizza particulars of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the alliances and connections of the denizens of Sin City, a Walking Dead kill counter, a map of Tintin’s travels, or a taxonomy of animal-named characters, there’s something here for most every fan to geek-out over.  LOVED it!

120TH CENTURY GHOSTS by Joe Hill

An early collection of short horror tales by Joe Hill, this one is a mixed bag. Standouts for me included “Pop Art”, about a boy and his inflatable best buddy, “The Cape”, in which a boy discovers he can fly – kind of, and “Voluntary Committal” that tells the tale of a young savant’s ability to build complex cardboard mazes to other worlds.  These three alone are worth the cover price.  For those who aren’t fanS of short fiction but would like to check out Hill’s work, I would strongly recommend his latest novel, N0S4A2.

1THE DRAGON BUSINESS by Kevin J. Anderson

A king tries to toughen his young son up by telling him a tale from his days running a dragon-protection scam, a con that was going very well – until things were complicated by the appearance of an actual dragon.  Not quite Pratchett but it has its funny moments.  Still, as mentioned in a previous review, after a while silliness robs the narrative of any real stakes.  Light, popcorn fun.

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