Archive for the ‘ Books ’ Category

John le Carré – The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Book Review)

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold  cover

John le Carré – The Spy Who Came In From the Cold

The setting of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is pure Cold War, focused mainly on the conflict between British intelligence agents and East Germany. But the book’s worldview is still relevant fifty years later. Author John le Carré portrays the spies on each side as amoral people who ignore their nations’ stated ideals in order to win the battles. The psychological toll on agents is high and the chance to “come in from the cold” (regain their humanity) is perpetually out of reach. This point of view isn’t nearly as surprising today as it was in 1963, but the novel’s depiction of it is powerful. Le Carré’s history as a member of British intelligence gives it an additional authority.

The book follows Alec Leamas, a competent British agent who nonetheless has a history of failure against the East Germans. His superiors send Leamas on one last mission that takes advantage of his reputation. Leamas, pretending to be fired and disgraced, sells his knowledge to Communist agents. This includes misinformation calculated to convince them that one of their highest officers is a traitor. The goal is to get the East Germans to eliminate their own man, since Leamas had failed to do it the traditional way. But as the plot unfolds, the danger to Leamas grows and new wrinkles about the mission are discovered. It all ties in to the idea that the “good guys” may be doing bad things out of pragmatism.

The story, especially the ending, is clever and will stick with the reader. The writing is simple and workmanlike, but that’s not a flaw in a story that’s supposed to evoke a spy’s practical mindset. There is one very frustrating aspect, though, and that’s the woman who falls in love with Leamas. It seems that she does this for no reason other than the fact that that happens in spy stories, as Leamas never does anything to earn her attention. She is supposed to be the sort of moral person who is at odds with cynical spies, so the book definitely would have been stronger if she’d been developed well enough for the reader to care about her.

Despite that, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is worth reading. It’s an interesting spy story in addition to making a statement. It’s quick, fun, and a little disturbing. I think it’s lost some of its power now that people are less idealistic about spy stories, but it still works even from that perspective.

Grade: B


Neil Gaiman – Fortunately, the Milk (Book Review)

Fortunately, the Milk cover

Neil Gaiman – Fortunately, the Milk

2013 is apparently Neil Gaiman’s year of short books. In addition to the children’s book Chu’s Day and adult book The Ocean at the End of the Lane, he also published the young reader’s novel Fortunately, the Milk. It’s a light, farcical story without the depth or elaborate structure that Gaiman often puts into his books. However, like most Gaiman novels, it’s exactly the length and style that it’s supposed to be, without regard for industry expectations.

Fortunately is the story of a father who goes off to the store to pick up milk for his children’s breakfast, and takes longer than expected to return. The kids accuse him of absent-mindedly talking to neighbors for too long, but he responds with a story of the time-and-space-spanning adventure he got sucked into. Fortunately, he managed to keep the milk safe every step of the way, and even saved the day before returning home with his shopping mission accomplished.

It’s a fast-moving romp, with scenes and characters changing constantly. It’s supposed to be an improvised shaggy dog tale, and the plot structure is pretty loose. The situations are funny, though. For adults, this captures the feel of a silly parent playing around with jokes that go just above their children’s heads. For kids, these ideas are just unusual enough to capture the imagination and become inside jokes or fodder for new stories.

It’s also filled with whimsical illustrations by Skottie Young. They have the same silly, sketchy feeling that the writing does, and it’s hard for me to imagine this book without his contribution. (It seems like Gaiman must have planned this with Young in mind. But since the British edition of this has a different artist, apparently that’s not true. I’m very curious to hear how the art works in that book.) The font of the book also changes to bold, hand-drawn lettering at certain points to emphasize action. That helps tie everything together, actually. Though this is nothing like the classic comic book mix of text and pictures, the two combine into one reading experience.

Yes, Fortunately, the Milk is a short book. (Thanks to those illustrations taking up space, it takes maybe a half hour for an adult to read.) But it was very fun for me, and it’s easy to imagine this being thrilling for the right child. It’s not a classic book, or even Gaiman’s best of the year, but it’s one I can recommend strongly.

Grade: B+


Maria V. Snyder – Poison Study (Book Review)

Poison Study cover

Maria V. Snyder – Poison Study

What would you do if you were forced to become a king’s food taster, and also given a poison that would kill you if you ever tried to run away from that dangerous job? Would you rebel, quietly work on staying alive, or just give in and become completely loyal to your captors? Yelena, the hero of Poison Study, goes through all those stages. Admittedly, this captivity doesn’t sound as bad as her alternative, since she was a condemned prisoner before that. Still, her behavior would seem like Stockholm Syndrome if author Maria V. Snyder didn’t stack the deck in her favor from the beginning: Yelena has a front-row seat to most royal events, protection from the second-in-command, and a personal history with the people who turn out to threaten the crown. Also, there’s a love interest to keep her loyal. Though this is a fantasy book, there’s a strong dose of the romance genre in it.

In general, your opinion about the book will depend on how much you mind the deck-stacking. Snyder definitely sets up the world and the situations so that Yelena always has a way through. A lot of that makes little sense – Why is Yelena granted so much freedom, as well as so much personal help from the head of security and intelligence, when that man other times makes it clear that he doesn’t trust a condemned murderer like her one bit? Yelena is skilled – she’s no passive heroine-in-distress – but these skills usually feel like arbitrary decisions made by the author to get her through the story. Everything about the rules, traditions, and situations that occur has been set up to get her from Point A to Point B.

On the other hand, Poison Study is light and often fun. Even if most of the characters and plot events are foreshadowed, it’s still interesting to see the details unfold. And the setting is clever. Ixia is ruled by an iron-fisted dictator whose harsh laws make no exceptions for people’s motives or life situations. However, it replaced a corrupt kingdom which rewarded only power and bribery. The book doesn’t shy away from the evils of the current system, but makes a good argument that the citizens are better off than they had been before.

Though there is magic (arbitrary rules have been set up to ensure Yelena’s victory, remember?), most of the book feels grounded in reality. A romance fan could enjoy this easily, although it’s still definitely more of a fantasy novel. The romance never derails the plot, even though it is fairly obvious all along. I did mind the abusive undertones to it – The man is controlling and violent, but that’s ok because Yelena understands him. These are just undertones, at least, making it better than a lot of successful romances, and I was glad to see Yelena stand up for herself most of the time.

I can’t recommend Poison Study, but didn’t dislike it either. It’s clever sometimes, predictable others, with two-dimensional characters in an interesting situation. Yelena succeeds at times just because she’s the main character, but other times because she’s a strong, confident woman. It’s blandly enjoyable and doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence, but it frequently skirts that line.

Grade: C+


Young Wizards Books 6 and 7

It’s been a couple years since I last looked at Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series.  These were my favorite books as a kid, but my reaction as an adult is more mixed. I love that its magic feels more like science or computer programming than hand-waving, but this rational system is overshadowed by a kiddy-New- Age theology in which gods micromanage our lives and a loving universe wants Life to win out. Overall I enjoyed the books, though they don’t feel quite as polished as the biggest YA books being written today.

I only had the first three books when I was young, but I tried volumes six and seven a few months ago. Here are my reviews.

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China Miéville – Railsea (Book Review)

Railsea cover

China Miéville – Railsea

Though I am a huge fan of China Miéville, I put off reading Railsea for a full year. It’s his second young adult book, and his first, Un Lun Dun, had been his only bad novel to date. That book introduced a world filled with arbitrary, pun-filled wonders that didn’t even begin to form a cohesive whole, and felt like Miéville was just not understanding or respecting his audience.

I needn’t have worried. Railsea takes an entirely different approach to adapting Miéville’s writing for young adults. Now, I’m not sure how many children are going to want to read through the novel, as it’s filled with big words and complex concepts. If you’re already familiar with him, though, it works, and he feels free to invent his most wild and exciting world in years. It’s difficult to describe the setting of Railsea without making it feel ridiculous. Suffice to say, it involves a desolate world filled with railroad track that trains traverse like ships on the ocean, and the ground below them swarms with burrowing beasts that make it as dangerous to go overboard as it would while sailing. Many trains hunt giant moles, and the captains are generally motivated by Moby Dick-like nemeses. And that’s just the basic setting, without the truly fantastical details. But Miéville, being Miéville, makes it work.

Normally, Miéville’s name on a novel also means that it will be violent, cynical, and likely have an unsatisfying ending. I’ve said before that his gift is for world-building, but his heart lies in world-destroying. This was his main concession for the YA audience. It’s still a bit bleaker than many young books would be – expect some murderous, corrupt government agents, for example – but throughout nearly the whole book, the feeling pervades that this is a “safe” story, which will follow the expected patterns and provide most characters with the ending they deserve. And this does require some people to act in selfless ways that seem to be against their normal personality, as well as some plot-hammering to reintroduce people who are spread about the world. If my familiarity with Miéville made the convoluted (but fun) prose easier to accept, it also made the gentle plot feel jarring. After wishing that he would stick to more standard endings from time to time, I learned that it wasn’t really what I wanted.

Sure, there are other aspects that fit the young adult audience. The basic sketch of the story is definitely designed that way: A young orphan learns about himself, and picks up a clever animal sidekick, while on a quest that introduces him to other children who are more capable than adults. But it is usually hard to pick out the standard YA threads from all the Miévillian flights of imagination. Overall, even though I don’t know how right this is for most young readers, and I found the plot less satisfying than normal, the prose and setting will be a treat for any fan of his. I’m hoping for more pure worldbuilding fantasies like this.

Grade: B


Karen Thompson Walker – The Age of Miracles (Book Review)

The Age of Miracles cover

Karen Thompson Walker – The Age of Miracles

Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles is a first-person account of an apocalypse. When the Earth’s rotation begins to slow down for unknown reasons, both society and the environment fall apart. The narrator, Julia, is a middle-school girl whose coming of age is intertwined with changes for all humanity.

Don’t think too much about the science behind this. If such a thing were to happen, I believe the changes in temperature and atmosphere would actually be a lot more extreme than the book shows, and anything that relied on satellite communication would probably break right away. But that’s not supposed to be the focus of the book, anyway. Walker is more interested in her characters and they ways they’re affected.

The problem is that the characters aren’t good enough to carry the book, either. The cast was very well-planned, with motivations that feel realistic and play off each other in interesting ways. But the novel rarely gives the characters much more warmth than that initial outline must have had. Interactions are shallow and uninteresting, and Julia’s narration gives no emotion to most important events. Julia is a poor choice for narrator. She’s a passive observer who doesn’t even take action the rare times that something truly matters to her. Sometimes narrators like this work because it makes them a good stand-in for the reader, but if so they need to have something interesting to say. Even her “growth” in the later part of the book has more to do with how other people decide to treat her than with anything she does.

This aspect does slowly improve as the book goes on, though. Several people have subplots, a few of which are interesting. Near the end, some emotional events happen that Julia finally feels strongly about, and they work. Walker can write powerful prose when she focuses on simple human tragedies like a loved one dying.

On a broader scale than the main characters, this book’s portrayal of humanity also seems weak. From the moment scientists announce that the Earth’s rotation has changed, a country full of people who didn’t believe in global warming is suddenly paying rapt attention and panicking. People actually move out of state less than a day after the event happens. Within a couple months, there is such a wide gulf between people who stick to a 24-hour clock and people who adjust to the ever-lengthening days that ex-friends are already vandalizing houses and turning each other in to the police. Governments seem to be strangely passive as their systems collapse, and while I can believe that no one ever finds a solution to the problem, I’d expect some systemic reactions to it.

The Age of Miracles is a simple read that still took me a while to get through. It’s not a bad book, really, but it is a bland one. For all its attempts to humanize a fictional apocalypse, its main strength is satisfying an abstract curiosity about what will happen next. There’s a decently-structured plot, just little reason to care.

Grade: C


Drew Magary – The Postmortal

The Postmortal cover

Drew Magary – The Postmortal

What would happen if we discovered an inexpensive way to stop people from aging? According to Drew Magary’s The Postmortal, everyone would quickly take “The Cure” and begin to wear away at our environment and social fabric. It’s a plausible answer, but a pretty shallow one that assumes a quick read of modern American culture is all we need to predict the next century. In fact, “shallow” describes the book pretty well.

It starts off pretty strongly, with an interesting hook that fits the book’s breezy, blog-post style. (That voice is a little weird if you worry about how convenient it is that the author’s explanations and details are perfectly aimed at a reader of the book, rather than a contemporary of his. But it’s easy enough to ignore.) And when the story suddenly jumps forward ten years to a world still celebrating The Cure, it stays believable. Magary’s depiction of our modern world may be a bit facile, but it feels real and manages to spark anger, curiosity, and sympathy at the right times.

Then it jumps forward again, twenty years this time. And the narrator acts completely the same, despite the major lifestyle changes he allegedly underwent during that time. The world is devolving into chaos, but his day-to-day interactions with the supporting cast feel the same as they did pre-Cure. The occasional interruptions to deal with disasters don’t feel like they belong in the same world he’s describing the rest of the time. And really, the entire plot just flows along as if that twenty-year break had actually been a week. The story gets put on hold whenever it jumps through time (it happens again), and plot threads that should be long-forgotten keep coming up as if the world revolves around just him.

It’s sad to see a light, enjoyable book go so far off the rails. By the end, the protagonist is making sudden, hard to justify decisions about crazy plot twists that stem from events that had been unresolved for decades. The rest of the world seems just as eager to bring things to a climax, and events that were obviously foreshadowed but never made believable begin to happen at a fast pace. What was supposed to be a thought experiment about human nature closes on a big mess of coincidences, rushed plot, and side characters who don’t have agency except to support or foil the narrator.

The Postmortal could have been good. The strong part, which seems more or less grounded in reality and gives us supporting characters to care about, takes up almost the first half of the book. But it lacks the vision to keep extrapolating, as well as the ability to keep the plot developing fairly. It has its strengths and weaknesses, but maybe the most disappointing part is the missed potential.

Grade: C


Elmore Leonard – LaBrava (Book Review)

LaBrava cover

Elmore Leonard – LaBrava

Elmore Leonard’s LaBrava is a fun, fast-reading crime novel. Leonard has a strength for memorable characters, clear prose, and a plot that slips surprises into a comfortable formula. In fact, he revels in that formula, building the conflict around an aging actress who starred in films exactly like this.

Protagonist Joe LaBrava even serves as a stand-in for Leonard: He makes art that celebrates the characters on the streets, and he had a childhood crush on the “bad girl” actress. LaBrava is admittedly a more interesting character than the real-life author would have been: He quit the Secret Service due to his love of photography, but he can still throw a punch and is as quick-witted as, well, an Elmore Leonard hero.

This is a great book in many ways, but I found it to be a little uneven. The beginning is a deliciously seedy portrait of early 1980s Miami. Every new character is distinct and memorable, even if they’re just present for a few pages, and Joe’s banter with his friends is as fun as a Tarantino script. The end of the book features a very satisfying resolution to the crime plot. It seems predictable early on, but takes several clever twists that feel true to the characters.

In between that beginning and end, though, the book drags. The colorful characters and setting fade into the background once the plot gets going, but that plot takes a while to really become interesting. None of the time in the middle is really wasted, but it does seem like a poorly-planned structure. Two of those three sections are great, though, so it does still feel worth reading.

Some aspects of the female characters do bug me. (The rest of this paragraph has very minor spoilers.) For much of the book. LaBrava is sleeping with two women at the same time. And yes, that is a genre convention, even if he didn’t seem to have earned the second woman’s attention in the first place. But the thing that bothers me is that that second woman starts out as a very interesting character. After she sleeps with LaBrava, her character arc abruptly halts. They even discuss this in the book: She shows up a few times to complain that he’s ignoring her, but that she’ll still happily sleep with him any time. As if to rub salt in the wound, her only development after that is to change her hobbies to be more like his. The book couldn’t be more casually cruel to her if it tried, but there’s no sign that this is an intentional statement. LaBrava does play around with the cliché of the “bad girl”, but it can do nothing with its “good girl”.

Most of the book is good. The other characters tend to hit the right balance of lowlife and human, and the beginning and the end are both great in their own ways. The novel doesn’t come together in the right ways to realize its potential: That opening seems like the start of an amazing character study that never appears, while the ending has a wonderful plot that didn’t start up quickly enough. Even if I can’t get excited about the novel, though, almost everyone will enjoy it. This is a sporadic but memorable showcase of Leonard’s skills.

Grade: B-


Ryan North – To Be Or Not To Be (Book Review)

To Be Or Not To Be cover

Ryan North – To Be Or Not To Be

To Be Or Not To Be is one of the strangest projects I’ve seen lately: A choose-your-own-adventure version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s an interesting but also ridiculous idea, and the author plays up this idea with plenty of absurd humor.

Just a year ago, I gave the original Hamlet a weak recommendation, saying that the language and title character were fascinating, but the plot and other characters were poor. This puts me in an interesting position with To Be Or Not To Be, since it’s entirely re-written with new prose. Author Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics fame is a very intelligent man, but he’s known more for writing dialog like “I am tripping all the balls” than philosophical soliloquies. Admittedly, North is good at that style. He’s arguably even the Shakespeare of faux-dumb AWESOMESPEAK, but that doesn’t necessarily mean his style is a natural replacement for Shakespeare.

While this new book loses a lot of the original’s language, it adds a lot of humor. Weird situations, modern humor, literary humor, and random factoids all show up throughout the book. There’s even a choose-your-own-adventure Chess game stuck in the middle. (Not to mention that the play-within-a-play of the original has been replaced by a gamebook-within-a-gamebook. And it fleshes out some parts of the story, like why Polonius would want to hide behind a curtain.) I bought this expecting a lot of laughter and not much literary value, even given my interest in gamebooks as an untapped art source, so I can’t say that that surprised me.

I was surprised, though, by the interesting points that North makes throughout its retelling of the original story. This offers a lot of choice, even letting you play as other characters or setting off to become a pirate, but it also marks the “canonical” choices with cute little skull icons in case you want to play through the Shakespeare version of the story. Usually I feel like the only person willing to point out that Hamlet is filled with flat characters and stupid decisions, so it’s a relief to see North poke fun at the same things. The book actually makes fun of you for doing ridiculous things, and gives you plenty of chances to kill the King easily instead of moping around for weeks and acting crazy. It even berates you for sticking to the original’s misogynistic treatment of Ophelia. Though this version’s depiction of Ophelia (an ass-kicking, liberated woman scientist) is not supported by the real text at all, its point is well-made. In fact, although I wasn’t expecting much from this as a story, I found the canonical walk-through to be very satisfying. It guides the reader along a predictable path, but also gives them enough agency that they feel responsible for their decisions. It examines the story by making the reader an active part of the experience, and that calls attention to things we’d otherwise ignore.

However, there are many other plot branches through the book. I have to say that most of them undermine the point that the main path makes about the ridiculousness of Shakespeare’s writing. This book can let you play Hamlet’s dead father and give up vengeance for marine biology, or lead an army of ghosts against an alien invasion in the future. With options like that, it’s difficult to complain about the holes in Shakespeare’s version.

I should also mention the Kickstarter campaign that funded this book. For the most part, I try to rate this separate from a campaign that you can no longer choose to join, but it’s pretty difficult to separate my appreciation for this from the Kickstarter in general. This was the campaign that made me realize how valuable it can be just to join a community with the creator being backed, and I felt like I’d gotten my money’s worth out of the project updates even before the book arrived. I also ended up with a multipronged bookmark designed to hold different places in a branching story and a small “prequel” adventure called Poor Yorick. (The bookmark is cool but impractical to use, and the book has as simple a structure as it’s possible to find in a choose-your-own-adventure, but it certainly is funny.) But some of the bonuses from the Kickstarter did make it into this book. It is huge, with over 700 pages, and color illustrations at each ending provided by a Who’s-Who of webcomic artists. Yes, the two-page spread at each ending (one picture plus a “THE END” page) does eat up many of those 700 pages, but it’s still a lot of story. Usually, I feel compelled to read through every path of a book like this. In this case, I got my fill long before I’d finished it all, and I look forward to coming back from time to time so I can page through to new surprises.

So is To Be Or Not To Be worth it? Well, first of all, it provides a great reason to read Hamlet in this modern age. You’ll understand a lot more of the jokes that way, and gain an appreciation for why people say you should read the classics in order to get modern references. Beyond that, though, I also recommend this book. Yes, it’s a flawed treatment of a flawed story, and so it only gets halfway to the brilliant deconstruction it teases us with. But it’s a humor book in the “court jester” style, able to speak truths that the intelligentsia often ignore because they’re couched in dumb jokes, and it also provides as much funny Shakespeare gamebook content as you’ll ever want. This is a good deal.

Grade: B


Redshirts and the Hugo

Redshirts cover

John Scalzi – Redshirts

Well, yesterday we learned that John Scalzi’s Redshirts has won the Hugo Award for best novel. I’ve read more than twenty books so far this year, and that was definitely the worst one. (In fact, it’s tied for the second-worst book since I started my blog, only beating out an artless ode to fascism.) I knew when I wrote my review that I was going against popular opinion, but it still baffles me how much some people like it. The people I’ve discussed it with generally found it light and amusing, and say they liked it because they also liked Star Trek. Fair enough – those elements were enough to get me through the first 75 pages or so, but even the people who enjoyed it don’t seem to be describing a Hugo-worthy novel.

If you’re curious, I stand by the complaints in my review. Scalzi tries for metatextual jokes about Sci-Fi characters who know they’re surrounded by “bad” science, which is fine. But their own science and logic, used in situations where the “bad” science shouldn’t take effect, are even less sensible! The main point of the story is supposed to be clever reactions to a weird situation, but every reaction is predicated on something that felt wrong. The character development, pacing, and tone are all poor, as are the rushed ending and its awkward “codas” that don’t feel like appropriate follow-ups to the story.

But I don’t mind the Hugo Award too much. I knew Redshirts was likely to win it, so I’d already dealt with that. The thing that really shocked me is that Patrick Nielsen Hayden won a Hugo in the editing category. As far as I know, the award doesn’t specify which book or books factored into the award. But I doubt it’s a coincidence that he won at the same time as one of the books he edited. And while I generally have a lot of respect for him and think he deserves his multiple Hugo wins, I still feel like Redshirts should have disqualified him this particular year. Most of my biggest complaints about the book were logical errors that should have been fixable given the flexible science that the book had available. I feel like a good editor should have been able to catch them. (For example, “If your characters are going to do this thing, cut out the conversation a few scenes earlier in which they decide it’s impossible.”) This book literally made me wonder whether John Scalzi had decided to start working without an editor. For the book and the editor to both win awards both seems wrong.

Let’s hope for better results next year.

Update: I worry that I may have sounded too harsh in my post. So let me clarify.

I am a big fan of Scalzi’s blog. I also think he has done great things for the SF community, both as president of the SFWA and through his personal quests to educate aspiring writers. He’s willing to make personal stands on issues even when they cost him readers. Basically, I’m a huge fan of just about everything BUT his professional writing. Usually, I just shrug my shoulders and accept that it’s not for me. But Redshirts seemed especially bad, enough so that I’m still perplexed by its reception.

Similarly, though I can’t say I pay as much attention to Hayden, I love what his company does and what I see of him as a person when I’m pointed to his blog or Twitter. I’m glad he’s won Hugos before. I just think this year’s Hugo is connected to Redshirts, and I can’t agree with that.

I still suspect this is some sort of Emperor’s New Clothes situation. Like I said at the start of this article, all the people I’ve heard from who liked this book seemed to find it light and enjoyable. No one makes it sound like a Hugo contender. I get the impression that a lot of voters just said “He sells well, he has a big fanbase, and he’s won Hugos before. This book wasn’t bad. I guess he gets another one.”