Some Quick Summary Comments

I haven’t posted here in forever – something about having a baby now that limits my time.  So, here are a few things I’d like to say about what I’ve been reading.

This was on NPR’s “best books of 2011” list and it was about Florida, so I really was looking forward to it.  It had its moments, that’s for sure, but overall it wasn’t as tight of a narrative as I would have expected from a best books of 2011 entry.  There were also a few times when I wondered, without knowing the answer, just how much time the author spent in the everglades before writing this book.  I also wished she had used real place names.  I can’t decide – the book either tried to do too much or it didn’t do enough.  A better book like this is one called A Land Remembered by Patrick D. Smith.

I moved on from there to something that I knew I would certainly enjoy a bit more, but was for sure not on any top ten books of the year list.  Returning to my favorite sci-fi author, Alastair Reynolds, I read his Century Rain.  It was very good, though a bit of a departure for him from his normal, thematically.  It was still very much sci-fi, but not quite the hard core, vacuum of space, type story I’ve come to expect.  Nonetheless, I enjoyed it and also enjoyed how he incorporated little tidbits of real history into the flow of his narrative, like the bit about how Guy de Maupassant ate lunch under the Eiffel Tower because that was the only place in the city of Paris where you could eat lunch without having to see the tower.  Wanting something a bit more “spacey,” from him, I next turned to…

Pushing Ice, I had heard, was quite the fan favorite, and it was easy to see why.  I was riveted to the narrative, and genuinely felt some of the emotion behind the tough decisions the crew had to make.  One minor complaint was I felt the back and forth in terms of leadership position between the two main characters went one back and forth too much.  It felt a little bit forced then.  But that really is so minor because this is a fantastic story, a hard core space story with high stakes just like I was looking for. Reynolds has said he might like to return to this universe for another story and I for one would love that.

Then I left space and returned to a fantasy world for a bit, and wanted to see what all the fuss was about over Brandon Sanderson.  He’s currently writing a big fat huge fantasy epic “decalogy” and before I invest any time in that I wanted to get a feel for him and read the Mistborn trilogy that got him noticed.  The first book was pretty great, the second boring as grass growing, and the third just about as good as the first.  I loved the system of magic in it, though at times, when he would introduce something new about it just in time for it to impact the plot I was annoyed as that felt a little contrived.  The characters were fun, though some of the supporting characters were a bit 2D.  He tried really hard to create a dark fantasy environment, what with constant ashfalls and killer mists at night, but for some reason I just never bought it.  The danger wasn’t real for me.  I’m not sure this was his fault or not, cause he mentioned it often enough.  All in all, this was a fun, light series to read that probably could have been two, slightly larger books rather than a trilogy.  But, if you want to get noticed in fantasy you have to write a trilogy.  It’s like author hazing.

Having finished that, I wanted to read something that would be both quick and more literary, so I picked another of the books from NPR’s top ten of 2011 and went with Ben Lerner’s debut novel (he’s apparently more well known as a poet) Leaving the Atocha Station.  This is a story (maybe?) of a young American student on a prestigious poetry fellowship in Madrid, Spain that he feels he neither deserves nor particularly wants.  He is an unsympathetic character as he constantly lies and deceives everyone around him for personal gain, and by the end of the book, I just really didn’t like him.  I did, however, spend a lot of time (for a 150 page book) thinking about some of the social situations he found himself in and recognizing myself in those.  They weren’t particularly fond memories.  At times I felt like I was reading a younger Hemingway, but Hemingway would never have cared as much as this guy pretended he didn’t care.  There is some debate among readers about whether or not the character actually was a profoundly good poet, despite his protestations.  The thing that sucks is, I think he probably was.  I think what makes these kinds of books “good” is their ability to evoke that emotion in a reader, rather than a kick ass plot or edge of your seat suspense.  So, I get it.  It still wasn’t all that fun to read though, but it was probably “good” that I did read it.  I liked it.  I didn’t like it.  I read it fast.  I thought about it a lot.  I’m ready to move on.

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Game, Set, Match

I finished The Player of Games, Iain M. Banks’ second Culture novel, yesterday and truly enjoyed it.  It wasn’t a brilliantly written book or even an amazing or inventive narrative (I flashbacked to Ender’s Game regularly, which was published only three years prior to Player).  But what I really liked about it was how it didn’t take itself too seriously, it was fast-paced and fairly lighthearted, and a really fun read.

Banks’ Culture is a wonderful setting, too.  It is almost the exact opposite of Reynold’s Revelation Space universe.  Where as Reynolds’ universe is dark, scary, unconquerable, and oppressive, Banks’ Culture universe is settled, utopian, calm and orderly, and you don’t get the sense there is any real threat to the Culture out there.  If push came to shove, I would prefer Reynold’s universe, but Banks’ Culture is quite enjoyable, too.  I particularly enjoy his sentient drones and called what happened on the last page just before getting there.

The whole book is a build up to the ending (duh!, right? – but not all books do this well) and the real shocker, like Ender’s Game, is at the end.  Ender’s Game did it a lot better, but this was still good, if slightly more predictable.  Looking over my shelf, that’s the last sci-fi book I have to read, which is somewhat sad, but also the opportunity to go get more – likely more Reynolds and Banks; I’ve heard Use of Weapons (the 3rd Culture novel) is amazing.

But for now, I’m headed back to fantasy and am finally ready to begin the enormously daunting and much talked about Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson.  On sffworld.com, there are three distinct groups of people: those who hate the first book (often because of how confusing they say it is) and never finish it or the series, those who like the first book but find it ridiculously confusing, and either do or do not continue the series, and those who love both the first book and the series.

Now, this series has a huge advantage in my opinion – it is completed!  I hate reading series books that are not yet completed.  That is not to say that I will read all ten, fat, Malazan books in a row, but I like to know that there is a concluding volume on the shelf somewhere and that the author won’t up and die before finishing.

The Malazan series is what is apparently now known as BFF – Big, Fat, Fantasy.  I like those.  Yes, they are confusing because they’re so large.  No, you won’t be able to grasp every name, place, and concept within the first 50 pages, and yes, a lot will be asked of you as the reader.  I know that.  I accept that.  Which is probable why I’m 50 pages into Garden of the Moon and am not having any trouble with it.  I refer to the maps (which are impoverished in the paperback version I have) and to the glossary regularly.  Nether of which is 100% helpful.  But that is ok – I’m being taken for the ride and I’m going to enjoy it.  The writing is fine so far, in my opinion – another frequent complaint I’ve read, so that’s good.  Apparently, the story is going to jump around a lot in terms of people, places, and even time.  Ok, so what?  Pay attention, follow along, and if worse comes to worst, there are several kind and energetic folks out there who have written chapter by chapter guides!  So far, the story and the characters have grabbed me; the writing has succeeded in putting me squarely in a fantasy-war ravaged environment that I can see and feel in my mind’s eye; and sense of the huge setting with all of its complicating factors is palpable.  I’ve not yet been confused.  There’s stuff I don’t understand, but I feel like I will, the more I read.  So, in essence, I’m not afraid of this book and I felt like I might be.  And I’m poised to enjoy it!  Here we go!

Swimming with Pattern Jugglers

I finished Absolution Gap this morning, after furiously reading it the past two days.  The end was absolutely incredible, and a wonderful way to conclude the trilogy.  Alastair Reynolds’ matured in writing this book, even more so than from Redemption Ark.  The narrative was tight, while still containing all that neat astronomy and science-fiction description that I so enjoy.  I loved how, in the end, many loose end were tied up and you really weren’t left wondering too many questions about what happened to characters or places.  Which is not to say the end did not raise questions, it did, but they were questions about going forward, not questions about things a reader would want/need to know about the characters in the story in order to feel a sense of closure and completeness.

The ideas in this novel were big, as befits a space opera, and they were sufficiently alien.  That’s one thing I admire about Reynolds’ universe, the aliens are very alien, not just little, green men.  They are so alien as to be unknowable.  I suspect, if we ever encounter intelligent life beyond Earth, that it/they will be more like this than like the Star Trek version of things.

I enjoyed how much the ship, Nostalgia for Infinity, became a character in its own right, for a variety of reasons, but not the least of which was the slow but total assimilation of the ship’s captain into the ship via the melding plague. 

I appreciated how Reynolds’ paid attention to the passing of time, enormous amounts of time, and it effects on the characters and how their motivations changed.  The chief, excellent, example of that was Scorpio.  His was perhaps the most complete character arc in the whole trilogy.  By the end, he was my favorite character.

It is incredible to me, and I don’t know why it should be after all the times I’ve experienced it, how much a good book demands that you read it.  The last book I was reading, I disliked so much that I loathed picking it up.  Absoluti0n Gap seemed to go out of its way to find itself open in my hands.  It’s the kind of book that makes you late for work. 

I look forward to reading the rest of Reynolds’ corpus of literature, but I will be somewhat sad to leave the Revelation Space universe – I was just coming to understand it.

Next, sticking to the sci-fi genre, I’m picking up Iain M. Banks The Player of Games.

Not wasting any more time

I had to give up on the Age of Misrule.  I just couldn’t do it any more – I found I didn’t really know much about the characters, let alone care about them or what happened to them.  I had a hard time differentiating between some of them even.  I made it to about 1/3 of the way through the second book when I caught myself thinking before bed, “Oh, I don’t want to read tonight…” which is never, NEVER a good sign for a book for me.  So, I shelved it.

And was thoroughly excited to pick up Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds, the third and final book in the “Revelation Space” trilogy.  A bit unusually for me, I’ve not read this trilogy back-to-back-to-back, like I normally like to do.  It’s been pretty good that way, as Reynolds’ books tend to be dense, packed with information, and mostly by the end of one two things have happened: I end up loving the book, and I don’t want to read another one of his right away.

I picked this one up because I had been reading so much fantasy recently that I decided it was time for a shift and I’ve been having my hard sci-fi/space opera itch lately (probably cause I’ve been playing a lot of Mass Effect 2).  I’m about 80 pages into it so far and I think Reynolds’ writing has gotten better with each novel.  It’s tighter, somehow, which is daunting, given how much information is already in his books.  But I love reading about stars and star systems – the grandeur of it all impresses me.  I love how much he knows about astrophysics, and I’ll happily go to his school for several pages if that’s what he wants to do.  This trilogy took some time getting into, but the payoff is definitely worth it – the end of the second book, Redemption Ark, has really stuck with me and this final installment picks up right where he left off.  The only thing I would say might be helpful to add is a glossary of terms (astrophysics), factions, characters, and locations.

Once upon a midnight dreary

I finished Reynolds’ Redemption Ark, towards the end with great amounts of speed.  The narrative really picked up, uncharacteristically for Reynolds, at the end of the story and I found it a pretty good romp.  His ideas are so big, so vast, and his use of science (astronomy, astrophysics, cosmonomy) throughout really fleshes out and backs up his fictional ideas.  I enjoyed this one the best of the three that I have read so far, but will take a break before I read the third and final book in the series, Absolution Gap.  It is unusual for me to take such a break, but I feel like his books are so dense and heavy that I need to do so.

So, I’ve moved on to something lighter and more cheery – Edgar Allan Poe.  I was reading recently that it was the 200th anniversary of his birth last year and, coupling that with the fact that I now live in a city where he once lived and where his house is a historic site, I decided it was time to re-visit some Poe.  I say re-visit because I have read one or two of his stories before (“The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Pit and the Pendulum”) but never much more than that and those at a very young age.  I knew that on my bookshelf sat an omnibus edition of his complete works, prose and verse.

I also read recently in a magazine a little bit about him, about his ideas, his stories, his poems, and a little bit of his personal history.  Talk about a macabre story!  All of this combined to kindle my interest and get the omnibus down from the shelf.

So far I’ve read two poems, probably by far the most famous two: “The Raven,” and “Annabel Lee.”  Both really worked on me; they are incredible.  I, of course, like most of us, was at least familiar with “The Raven,” but really only as a pop culture icon.  I’d never actually read it.  Let me say this: put it on your list of things to read before you die, and read it aloud.

“Annabel Lee” was equally as good and probably more chilling (no pun intended), though the mad insistence at the end of “The Raven” followed by the refusal by the raven to depart is pretty haunting.  I also really appreciate that they rhyme.  Their flow and meter makes them come alive.

Of stories I have also read two – “MS. Found in a Bottle,” and “The Devil in the Belfry.”  The first was rather scary and filled with a sense of dread, but is kind of antiquated now that we know more about the globe.  The second was actually rather silly, but I think it was at least intended to be partly so.  It has a kind of horror to it, but one that is singular to itself.  I have set to begin “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” tonight.

What are your favorite Poe stories?  Which should I read next?  Why?

The Science of it All

I’m really enjoying Redemption Ark, much better that both Revelation Space and Chasm City. Reynolds seems to be maturing as an author; there aren’t as many long winded passages that go nowhere and the percentage of plot driving writing is much higher. I really like the science aspect of a lot of what he writes. His Ph.D in astrophysics or whatever really shows and I enjoy learning about things like stars and vacuum space and tachyons from him. About 400 pages in now and it keeps getting better. Another book that I find I look forward to opportunities to read.

Back to Infinity and Beyond

Having finished Steig Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I decided to switch genres again and go back to science fiction for a time.  Larsson’s book was pretty good; the story was engrossing after it took of but you did have to be patient for that.  I felt like some of the writing was very pedestrian, but I can’t help but imagine that a part of that was due to the fact that it was a work in translation.  So, I’m going to blame the translator a little here.  All too often I felt like someone was relaying the narrative to me as if it was a newscast.  I didn’t feel like I was in the story as much as I might have wanted.  Was it good enough to make me want to read the two other books in the “Lisbeth Salander” trilogy?  Sure, but not right away.

Instead, I decided to head back to space.  A while back, before I started this blog, I read Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space and Chasm City.  I enjoyed them, the second more than the first, but when I finished Chasm City I didn’t want to read any more.  It’s what they call “hard” science fiction, which means its heavy on the science and technology aspects.  But it is also classified as space opera – large, sweeping narratives encompassing enormous amounts of physical space and civilizations.  That part is what I can really get behind.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy the hard science parts, just not as much.

So, this morning before work, I read the prologue and I’m hooked.  It picks up several decades after Revelation Space left off, but in space opera time, that’s not a whole heck of a lot.  His idea of the “melding plague” (a virus that infects nano-machines and biological matter the same, merging them together in a horrific juxtaposition) is back and I have to say, that’s one of the coolest sci-fi ideas I’ve read.  Probably why I enjoyed Chasm City so much; it was all about that.

So, this book picks up with the idea that humanity has gotten the attention of the Inhibitors, a mysterious race of heretofore unseen aliens who have set up, for lack of a better word, space stations throughout the universe to alert them to the presence of other star-faring cultures.  Alert them to their presence so they can destroy them before they become a threat.  Destroy them with super weapons that rival what the Death Star could do.  Now if that doesn’t set up a good conflict for space opera, I don’t know what does.  We’ll see where it takes me…