January 17, 2016
I’ve been thinking a bit lately about the purpose of reading fiction. Or, more specifically, why I read fiction. Entertainment? Edification? The chance to be introduced to new ideas? I’d like to think I read as much to better my mind as I do for amusement.
I found that self-perception sorely challenged by this book. Read the rest of this entry »
December 19, 2015
I’m generally a fan of genre mashing, so I was excited to see one of the Shirley Jackson Award Nominees for 2014 was a horror police procedural. Set among the blight of modern-day Detroit, it begins with the discovery of a corpse that’s gruesome even by local standards – a homemade satyr kludged together from the bodies of a fawn and a small boy.
December 10, 2015
I picked up another Robert Jackson Bennett, to make good on my ancient promise to try his work again. I should apparently keep this sort of promise more often.
The City of Stairs is Bulikov, situated at the center of the Continent, and the seat of power from which the Continentals and their living Divinities invaded and enslaved surrounding nations. Until about 70 years ago, when one man from the enslaved Saypur discovered a way to kill gods.
Fortunes are subsequently reversed, with Saypur at the center of all power and the Continent reduced poverty and permanent occupation by Saypuri forces. Saypur controls not only economy and governance, but history and culture, forbidding all knowledge of the Divinities and their powers. Every scrap of divine text or miraculous object has been sealed away, until the recent arrival of a Saypuri historian who alone is permitted to research. Read the rest of this entry »
December 5, 2015
I went through a recent period where my work was within walking distance of a used bookstore. I was broke from student loans, not yet ready to face my old library co-workers (or cope with the fines that racked up as I adjusted to having to actually remember due dates, instead of just being in the building every day). As a result of this particular confluence of circumstances, I spent pawing though the three for a dollar bins to find things to read.
One of these finds was an Ellery Queen novel, The Dutch Shoe Mystery. I had a vague recollection of hearing that these were the Harlequin Romances of the mystery genre: written quickly by a wide variety of people, with much repetition of plot. On the other hand, it was only thirty-odd cents.
So… yeah. It’s been awhile. I’m not a librarian anymore. I went back to school, changed careers. Fell completely away from reading short while. Get back into reading recently. More to follow.
June 1, 2011
It’s all Shirley Jackson’s fault, this review.
I love Shirley Jackson; she and children’s author Sylvia Cassedy are the two authors I’ll read over and over again, finding some new little detail to love every time. So, when someone names an award after a such an author, I end up expecting a lot from the nominees.
In past years, I’ve not been disappointed. I read all the novels on the finalist list for 2009, and was actually a little distressed that only one of them could win. (After weeks of pondering the qualities of each book, I finally placed my hopes with Big Machine by Victor LaValle. This turned out to be the judges’ pick as well, but I’d like to think it was a pretty close competition.)
This year, I was concerned that the intervention of life’s typical chaos would keep me from getting all 6 nominees finished, so I read a little about them and ranked them by interest. Mr. Shivers topped that list: a supernatural/speculative tale set during the Great Depression was a completely new idea to me, and Bennett does evoke that setting quite well. There’s mix of modernity with backwards superstition, and there are strange, uncivilized places yet in America. The characters and dialogue fit smoothly with their time as well; you could just as easily be reading Steinbeck as a new author.
The plot, on the other hand… well. The first one-half to two-thirds was fine, as the scene laying and character development took center stage. But once all the pieces were laid out, the movement of the plot became a trifle predictable. Okay, really predictable. And despite the enormous “warning: plot twist ahead” banners that litter the last several chapters, none of the characters are genre-savvy enough to look up and read them. Maybe this was supposed to be a comment on inevitability or fate or some such, but instead I was left with the sense that these characters, who were smart and careful about their plans for so much of the story, have suddenly been stricken with plot-necessitated idiocy so that the author can get them into the dumb and dangerous situations he’s planned.
I feel like maybe I’m slamming this work over-much. It isn’t a bad book, really: it’s just that it’s a merely okay book. And merely okay isn’t sufficient to stand in Jackson’s footsteps.
I look forward to seeing Mr. Bennett’s next work; I have a sneaking suspicion he’s capable of improving upon this books weaknesses, and coupled with the setting and character skills he already possesses, he should develop into an excellent author. I despair for the rest of this year’s nominee pool though.
February 4, 2011
Nothing new to say in some time, mostly because instead of finishing a book so I could comment on it, I’ve returned three to the library unfinished right in a row. On consideration, it’s possible that thoughts on unfinished reading, as long as their clearly labeled such, have their own merit. So, present the three newest additions to the abandoned pile:
- Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos H. Papadimitriou, Alecos Papadatos, and Annie Di Donna. There was quite a bit to like about this graphic novel biography of logician Bertrand Russell. Starting with the fact that someone, somewhere, bothered to assemble a graphic novel biography of Bertrand Russell at all. Both the art and writing were good, and the transitions between eras, and thus between the authorial narration and Russell’s own words in the past, were particularly well crafted. However, I didn’t have the energy lately to grapple with the concepts presented, and the math was so far beyond what I’d ever learned that I thought my brain would melt and dribble out my ears.
- How Fiction Works by James Wood: This was a neat little adventure in narrative prose. It gives the reader the skills to look closely at the seams in a work (so to speak) and evaluate what they see. I love exploring the craft of writing, and I do want to get back to this one some day, but I haven’t read enough on the works that Wood references, and I was too often lost. More reading of Serious Novels and I’ll try this one again.
- Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake: I will go back and finish this odd gem, but it is massive. I couldn’t finish it in the time I was able to have it out of the library. Partly because Steerpike planning to set a library on fire made me so heartsick I starting avoiding this one in favor of the other two for the last bit before the due date. I will soldier on later, as the books merits should outweigh this horror when I’m in a more forgiving frame of mind.
Well, that’s the news from here. I should actually finish a book sometime in the near future, and ponderings upon a complete work shall thus follow.
January 20, 2011
This one’s the third in the Inspector Chen series, after Snake Agent and The Demon and the City. I felt a bit ambivalent about this one – the opening was okay, and the ending was on par with the first two books, but the middle was rather… blah. It seemed to go on for chapters at a time without the vivid action scenes and clever narration that makes this such a fun series to read.
This may in part be my fault as the reader – I’ve learned by the third book that the fate of nice, likeable characters in this series is never pleasant, so I had hardened my heart against Pin a few pages after he was introduced, rather than sympathize with him through whatever horrors were inevitably in store. (Fool me once, shame on me, etc.) So, by the time Pin hits (literally?) rock bottom, I had forced myself to stop caring about him a good 200 pages previous. Thus, much of the emotional punch of the event was gone, because I simply refused to fall for the same trick another time.
That’s not to say there weren’t redeeming qualities: new characters, more world building, yet another Ministry of Hell explored and subsequently obliterated (yes, repetitive, but still fun to read). Inari’s role in the story was also greater than in previous books, and she interacts with (and thus is described from the point of view of) someone who isn’t attracted to her – meaning we get more of an idea of her personality this time, instead of just another description of her pretty face. Which made for a nice change.
I still stand firmly behind my high opinion of Snake Agent. It really was unlike anything I’d ever seen before in modern fantasy. However, unless you love the genre for its own sake (in particular, you’re waiting for the next Dresden Files to come out), I’d suggest saving your valuable reading hours for other innovators instead of the rest of the series.
Full Details: Precious Dragon: an Inspector Chen Novel, by Liz Williams. Original copyright 2006; paperback edition by Night Shade Books 2009.
January 17, 2011
Non-fiction time again!
This one’s a chronicle of cases by a forensic psychologist. Each section explores a specific aspect of psychology in legal system: competencies to stand trial and to waive Miranda rights, and the often misunderstood insanity defense. In the last section, she also discusses the issue of defendants who fake psychological symptoms.
I generally enjoy books featuring the “supporting cast” of the legal system, particularly scientists in forensic specialties. And while many of the cases here were quite interesting, there were a number of drawbacks that disrupted the narrative. I get that the arrangement of cases into groups by common features is a good set-up in theory, as the reader does get to see the same issue from a number of angles unique to the various situations. Unfortunately, this also led to a serious repetitiveness problem. Not only for the reader, I suspect: the explanatory paragraphs for certain psych tests and legal concepts are phrased identically from one chapter to the next, in a way that whispers “copy-and-paste”.
The explanatory paragraphs are also part of my other major issue with the book: the frequent tone of condescension. The one that bothered me the most was one page 130, explaining the psychology term “neologism”. I suppose the idea that we poor non-psychologist readers might be familiar with the neo- prefix AND the loan word logos from Greek never occurred to the author. (Yes, I realize the amateur classicist in me got all puffed up and offended over that one, but in addition to classics dorks, anyone with an interest in linguistic history, or bible scholarship, or has simply studied for the SATs is either well aware of what ‘neologism’ means of can divine the basic idea from a prior knowledge of its parts.)
The only other problem is with psychology itself: there is a clear tone of authority throughout the text, but when psych’s “soft science” underbelly is showing, the unintentional irony can be too much. This is especially apparent when the author administers tests in which the patient is asked to draw and those drawings are interpreted by the psychologist. Things like a tree with its roots showing are viewed as proof of delusion. I would think that a botany nerd, or someone who’s worked in landscaping, or even someone who’s lived in a maple tree region (surface roots can be visible 10 and 20 feet from the larger trees) might draw what they know a whole tree looks like, rather than just the surface portion. Conversely, not including the groundline with a house or tree indicated the patient is not “grounded” in reality. That one really strikes me as a trick question: you ask them to draw “a house”, but what you really want to see is “a house placed in a yard or similar scenic marker”. See how that works? You have to draw the ground (even though you weren’t asked to, so literalists beware) but don’t draw anything that might be under the ground. Never mind simple variation in artistic ability. And yet this silly “test” is explained with the same gravity as the rest of the text, as if you could determine someone’s entire mental makeup by whether or not their little house drawing includes a doorknob.
Ultimately, interesting concept and middling fair execution.
Full details: The Measure of Madness: Inside the Disturbed and Disturbing Criminal Mind by Cheryl Paradis, Foreward by Katherine Ramsland. Published 2010 by Citadel Press.
January 12, 2011
Growing up hurts.
You remember that first teenage crush, maybe on an older student, maybe even a teacher, and how you thought this person was sooooooo amazingly perfect? How no evidence of mere clay-footed humanness on the part of your object of affection would penetrate the sparkly bubble of adoration you saw hovering about them?
Some years later, did you run into that person again? Something’s very wrong about that later meeting. She’s small-minded and gossipy, or his eyes rove after some barely pubescent girl, or she’s left teaching to engage in some ethically dubious money making, or he’s chapter president of some violently racist organization. Thanks to the addition of years and perspective, they’re just not quite the person you thought they were. The qualities you loved as a foolish kid are still present, but your adoration is rather tempered by the sobering effect of these new discoveries. There’s a tarnish on that shining mental image now, one that you can’t quite scrub away. “How nice to see you again, I really must be going,” and you rush away, more from the evidence of your own teenage stupidity than from the old crush itself, back to your grownup life.
Apparently it takes (me) longer to outgrow the tendency to literary crushes. In my defense, it’s abstract adoration, the love of a mind and a pen, and not so idiotically all-consuming as high school romantic fantasies had been. Still, I’m feeling the awkwardness of the realization that object of my adoration, while still great, is by no means perfect.
I discussed Steven Millhauser’s work some time ago, and I’ve finally taken time to track down some older stories through inter-library loan. And they’re… different. The sense of wonderment was harder to find. There were still moments of perfect prose, and scenes you could practically touch, not just see and hear; but there were long roads between those moments. Long roads full of gratuitous breasts, intrusive fantasies about pubic hair, descriptions of asses in tight white shorts that didn’t contribute anything to the story. Please be aware that I’m not against the appearance of sexuality in literature. Far from it. Sometimes the sex is vital to the story, develops the characters and relationships, or moves the plot along. However, this was not that kind of sexuality. The way these things were brought into the story, both in timing and phrasing, made something cold slither through my stomach. There didn’t seem to be any sort of driving reason behind some of the stories; just streams of words, however pretty those words may be, but without purpose.
I didn’t even read Eisenheim the Illusionist (which was my whole reason for picking up the book) the whole way through. I was so worried that I’d lose my love of the film, that I’d lose my love of Millhauser’s other works, that the tarnish would spread until all the shine was covered up. It turns out I needn’t have worried so much; the film’s romance was a considerable embellishment compared to the brief mention of a thwarted romance in the original story.I did skip Alice, Falling entirely though. If the narrator had felt the need to intrude there with another pointless sexualized description, the tarnish could have spread not only through all my reading of Millhauser, but all the other Alice-inspired works I’ve previously loved. Too great a risk for me.
I still stand by my assessment of Dangerous Laughter – every story in the collection is great. However, I realize now that producing great work does not preclude sometimes producing the mediocre.