Reading List Jan-Mar 2011

I had planned to do an entire year’s book list like last year, but thought that it would be easier to read and allow me to write a little more if I split it up. I do like waiting for some time and after several different books to give my opinion.

The Orange Eats Creeps – Grace Krilanovich

This wasn’t an easy book to read or to understand. It’s a drug-altered stream of consciousness, and although linear events can occasionally be deciphered, if you’re looking for a plot or a clear ending, you’re going to end up frustrated. The narrator is a teenage junkie possible vampire in the Pacific Northwest and memories of her foster sister and mother drift in and out as she drifts between convenience stores and temporary hideouts. It’s short and I found the writing style to move quickly. If you think it sounds interesting, you’re probably right and if it doesn’t sound like something you’d like, you’re probably right.

The Half-Made World – Felix Gilman

Incredibly well written. I saw this book recommended many times as one of the best of 2010 and I believe it’s deserving of that designation. The setting is imaginative, the prose is excellent, and the plot is intriguing. The developing West is being fought over by the Gun, angry, chaotic spirits attaching themselves to lone gunmen, and the Line, driven by Engines that desire the organized building and operation of an increasing number of railways and stations. But if my review thus far is a bit bland, it’s because it’s for a book that I can recommend with respect and admiration, but for all that, I was never completely absorbed in. I felt at a distance from the main characters and their thoughts and actions and was more interested in the mechanics of the world building than in any plot related incident.

The City and the City – China Mieville

Here was a book in which the mechanics of the world building were a main aspect and I found the result to be fascinating and attention gripping. A crime takes place in a “shared” city whose inhabitants coexist with deliberate lack of interaction, and a detective follows the trail between cities – that description doesn’t do the situation justice, but it’s better understood through following the characters than by an explanation. You should read it if you like Mieville and you should read it if you didn’t like Mieville – it’s very different in tone and setting than the Bas-Lag novels but is equally vivid.

The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future – Vali Nasr

Very informative and slightly biased. The differences and conflicts between Shia and Sunni Muslims are significant both in their theological outlook and their resulting politics and policies. Nasr does a great job of explaining these differences and the history of the sects. I don’t think that he’s unfair or necessarily pushing an agenda, but I do think that he has the tendency to downplay wrongdoing by Shia groups and individuals in comparison to how he presents the Sunni.

Shriek: An Afterword – Jeff Vandermeer

I’ve had the problem a few times now with characters who are accurately, descriptively and perceptively written, but are nevertheless so obnoxious and annoying that I can’t bear to read about them.Janice Shriek is so self-absorbed that even as the most fascinating events are unfolding around her – in this case, a new emergence of the mushroom-like Grey Caps and a war involving fungal weapons – she can’t stop blathering on about personal issues. I didn’t enjoy reading from her perspective, but still felt the unrelenting urge to know as much as possible about the Grey Caps. Some of the middle could have been condensed and I’d have had a better opinion.

Stories of Your Life and Others – Ted Chiang

Almost everyone who’s read this has been favorably impressed and almost everyone is right. There wasn’t a single story I didn’t like, although the titular story was by far my least favorite. Tower of Babylon, Division by Zero and Seventy-Two Letters were great, but I was completely blown away by Hell is the Absence of God. Many of Chiang’s stories are available online, although of course I recommend that you support him by buying his book.

The Orchard Keeper – Cormac McCarthy

Kind of a slog, to be honest. It’s worth reading if you’re a big fan of McCarthy because you can see how his style and themes have developed from this first book he published. If that doesn’t interest you, there are probably better things to read. The style whose later incarnation works so well in the bleak violent ultra-extreme landscape of Blood Meridian doesn’t ring true for me in the Tennessee Appalachians, nor does the story warrant such treatment. In fact, the story reemerges in Blood Meridian in just a few lines, and I think it’s more powerful in the few lines than in the entire novel. A lot of well-read, well-educated reviewers disagree with me and praise the way that McCarthy captures the dialect of the area, but it doesn’t have an Appalachian feeling to me.

Thunderer – Felix Gilman

I loved this book and I loved it from the first chapter. It was Gilman’s first book, and it’s enthusiastic and chaotic and fantastic. It’s about a lot of things – a man looking for a vanished god, a bird-god who left some of its power with a boy who escaped from a workhouse and a ship belonging to an countess, a man who captured bits of gods, and other gods who wander through the story and the city. In the first chapter, I was completely convinced by the excitement and desire of the city watching the bird-god pass, and it was excitement and desire that stayed with me through the entire book. I don’t think it’s technically as well written as The Half-Made World – it’s not as clean and tight and pared down – but perfection isn’t a requirement for love and I love the excess and the way that everything is constantly threatening to spill out around the edges.

Gears of the City – Felix Gilman

Usually I wait for a while between reading books by the same author, but I was so excited about Thunderer that I wanted to read Gears of the City immediately. And happily, this is also a book that I love. When I finished Thunderer, I felt that it was complete even though there were large plot points that were unresolved, so I was happy to see that this book moved in a different direction with a new story – it also increases my optimism for the sequel to The Half-Made World. Arjun is still searching for his vanished god, but his attempt to climb the Mountain that looms over the edge of the city has created new problems for him in a new part of the city.

The Ninth Avatar – Todd Newton

I wrote a full review on this site.

Finch – Jeff Vandermeer

I was a bit wary after Shriek, but I shouldn’t have been since this was my favorite Vandermeer book thus far. It’s properly weird and unsettling, and I thought it wrapped up the history of Amergris and the Grey Caps in a satisfying way although there was still a good deal of mystery and open ending remaining. It was worth reading all three books.

The Affirmation – Christopher Priest

At this point, I didn’t have a clear idea of what I was going to read next, and I decided to start reading things that looked interesting from the Westeros Fantasy and Science Fiction Book List, based on forum recommendations. When I say things that looked interesting, I’ll probably skip long epic series, books by authors that I’ve disliked in the past, books that are very difficult to find, and I don’t intend to read all of Discworld before moving on to other books. Life is too short to read books that I’m not interested in just because someone else liked them.

With that said, The Affirmation was a good recommendation. I thought that the first three quarters of the book were great, wonderfully written, and built the concept well. While the ending was certainly clever and appropriate, my perception of the situation changed in a way that I’m not sure the author intended, as I started firmly identifying one account as “true” and the other as “imagined”, which reduced the narrator from being ambiguous to simply delusional. I’m still glad I read it but feel that some of the impact was lost on me.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects – Ted Chiang

Very good, not quite as good as some of his short stories. Well worth reading. It’s about two people who work on AI pets designed to look like baby animals or cute robots. The AI is so advanced that the pets are more like children who learn language, concepts, and a sense of self. The people who work with them are able to become attached to them as living beings.

The New Weird – ed. Ann and Jeff Vandermeer

It seemed inevitable, considering my liking for the New Weird authors I’ve encountered. The anthology itself was somewhat uneven, although I enjoyed most of the stories. I didn’t think that Crossing into Cambodia by Moorcock had the same tone as any of the other stories at all, and I thought that The Gutter Sees The Light That Never Shines by Rennie was truly terrible – who’d have known that so much violence gets boring? And I was a bit disappointed that the Laboratory section was dependent on continuing a beginning that was well enough written but felt contrived. I’d rather have seen the authors create something that was NEW new weird. OTOH, the atmosphere was overwhelming in In The Cities, The Hills by Barker and Watson’s Boy by Everson – from the first line of Watson’s Boy, I felt twitchy and claustrophobic. Several of the stories made me curious about the author’s other books. The one story I feel I should reread is Ligotti’s A Soft Voice Whispers Nothing. It was seriously weird, but I’m not sure I caught everything.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – Michael Chabon

This probably won’t be popular, but I truly disliked reading this book. I had to force myself to finish and pleasurable moments were few and far between. I have no idea why it won a Pulitzer. The brief story of Joe and the golem was the best part, and I was hoping there’d be more of that tone, a bit of the truly fantastic rather than merely the implausible, but it wasn’t to be. It’s a pretty frequent criticism that I have of bad books – we’re told repeatedly that Sam and Rosa are clever and special, but their conversations are dull and wooden. One of the biggest sacrifices Sam makes in the story is completely in the background, over for years before we encounter him again. So he ends up in the first half being like a humorless Jewish Forrest Gump, a blank slate that happens to be part of big events with famous people. Rosa had a fleeting moment of apparent oddness when we met her, but turned out to be a conventional simpering type. I also felt that the author was heavy handed and unnuanced. Even in the saddest moments, I couldn’t forget that the author wanted me to feel sad. I did have ongoing sympathy for Joe, but I found the other characters to be unbelievable and unlikable, and that the plot steamrolled over their personalities and individuality.

Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 – Steve Coll

Long, dense and interesting. A mistake in the Kindle edition really drives me crazy – the book is repeated twice in its entirety, once without electronic chapter breaks, which made the book look impossibly long. I found the prose style to be slow in the first section, with so many different incidents of money and weapons going to the mujaheddin. The next two sections were easier to read and dealt largely with bin Laden’s rise as a financier of global terrorism and the American attempts to find a way to capture or possibly kill him. If I had one complaint, in a few places coherent narrative is lost in an information dump.