Jan 052017
 

This novel was frustratingly close to a do-over of Leviathan Wakes. Yes there was variation—a different world in the Belt, an introduction to life on Earth, new characters—but it was still a fake war providing cover for a rogue experiment involving the protomolocule.

What saved it for me was Avasarala and the most unexpected last–page surprise I’ve read in a long time.

I have the third book and will get to it eventually, but I’m less enthusiastic than I was after finishing the first volume.

 January 5, 2017  Book Logs Tagged with: , ,
Dec 302016
 

This is the second in Edmund White’s series of quasi-autobiographical novels and like the first, it follows a precocious and uncannily mature youth as he grows into adulthood.

Two threads of story stood out for me as I read. The first is the portrait of a youth as a budding artist. The youth knows he is a writer, an author. What he doesn’t yet know is what to do in order to author a story. He writes endlessly night after night, but he can’t figure out how to make something of it.

The second thread is a tale of sexual discovery. In it the youth has no idea who he is. What he knows is where to find men to have sex with. He trolls toilets endlessly, yet he is in turmoil because, although he recognizes a kinship with the men he meets, he doesn’t recognize himself in what he sees and defines himself against them. This leaves him incredibly alone.

These two threads of story mirror each other. In the first, the youth knows who he wishes to be but he isn’t sure what to do or how to act. In the second, he knows what do to, has the confidence to act, but suffers wondering what kind of person he is.

These two threads come together in the final pages of the book when the youth, now living in New York and playing out his efforts at sexual and artistic self-discovery in apartments in Greenwich Village and on the beaches of Fire Island, finds himself caught up in the Stonewall riots. These are iconic and historic events: in those nights of protest, a public queer community emerges onto the streets.

In the novel’s account of the riots the youth’s long search for voice and identity transforms into something transcendent. Without losing any of it’s specificity, the youth’s struggles take on the sheen of allegory. His discovery of public voice tracks the community’s, and the community’s, his.

 December 30, 2016  Book Logs Tagged with: , ,
Nov 262016
 

leviathan-wakes-coverThe Sci-fi Channel’s adaptation of The Expanse put these books on my radar. The show seemed like it might be fun, and I decided to read the books instead of watching.

Leviathan Wakes is the first and I tore through it over a few evenings this summer during our trip to Andalusia. The Beav and I had, as usual, brought a small library with us to read on the plane and before bed. I’d considered leaving this one at home because it was a thick volume loosely printed and took up a lot of space. But by the time the protomolecule was wrecking havoc on Eros and the first vomit zombies had made their appearance, any lingering regrets were gone, and I was reading as fast as I could move my eyes.

The book reads like a mock-up of a movie or TV series: lots of action, clearly delineated characters, and a double point-of-view presented in alternating chapters that functions as cross-cutting. Plus its story is a nice mash-up of a space adventure and a noir mystery. Yet, as I think back to the book now, what stands out in sharp relief in my memory is not the plot. It’s the fresh but disorienting portrait of our solar system.

This story is set as humanity is moving out into space. They’ve reached the astroid belt, Mars, and have set up a few colonies on moons of Jupiter, but these far-flung outposts and some mining operations in the rings of Saturn are the very limit of their reach. The narration continually points out the extreme distances the characters must travel (and the time it takes) as they move from place to place. It also notes and lingers over the profoundly odd realities of motion and gravity and light constraining the characters’ lives. This attention to physical limits acts (perhaps?) as a nod to near-future, real-science stories like The Martian (okay, I’m exaggerating a bit here), but more practically, it generates a useful tension between people and their place. (It also reminds me of one of the admirable features of Sanderson’s The Final Empire.)

I really enjoyed the book and will be reading the rest of the series.

 November 26, 2016  Book Logs Tagged with: , ,
Nov 252016
 

down-there-on-a-visit-coverI bought an old hard cover edition of this book online and it showed up riddled by bookworms (all dead now thankfully).

By the time I was done reading, I felt those traces of past life—cutting a wobbly track across the surface of four or five pages before digging a hole straight through a dozen more and then turning and cutting a bit more track in a new direction before coming to an abrupt end—I felt those traces were an apt image of Isherwood’s style in this book. Spare and sharply defined, but also wandering and seemingly aimless.

When the book ends, it doesn’t so much conclude as stop. Reading the final pages, it seemed to me that Edmund White does something like what Isherwood does but with an artistry and a sense of structure and a density that suit my tastes more.

I was reading this book as the election came to a close, and the sense of dread that builds off-stage as the narrator, Christoph, notices the Nazi’s rise to power and the war that ensues, notices it from Greece, from England, and finally from Hollywood, notices it but invariably, repeatedly looks away, well, it all felt uncomfortably topical in those early, gloomy days after the election results were announced. I walked away from the book with a new understanding of how even terrible, earth-shattering events leave vast swaths of people merely inconvenienced, leave them free to do other things.

I suppose this is a cause for hope—things go on, people survive—but if so, it’s a bleak kind of hope.

 November 25, 2016  Book Logs Tagged with: ,
Sep 242016
 

Ready Player One CoverReading this book was like sitting on the couch as a kid watching my brother play a level, waiting for my turn with the controller. It was also nearly as fun.

In other words, I really can’t say enough how much I enjoyed reading this thing.

 September 24, 2016  Book Logs Tagged with: ,
Sep 172016
 

summerknightI started Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files nearly two years ago, but as of spring I was still only through the first three books. Something about them was off, and I liked them but only in a very hesitant and uncertain way.

Then out of the blue, my mom told me she’d started a new series that was great, and yes, as you will have already guessed, it was The Dresden Files. So we talked. I told her I’d given up. She said it started slow. I said I’d read three. She said the fourth, Summer Knight, was the turning point.

Now this is a conversation that I’m familiar with from TV talk with friends. You say you don’t like something. Your friend says it’s great and gets better and, somehow, no matter how far you’ve pushed forward into the series, it’s always the next episodes or the next season that matters and that you’ve got to see. I’m never persuaded.

That said, I’d never had this conversation with my Mom and certainly never about books. She’s a voracious reader and has generous but reliable tastes. She also never pushes books on people, trusting that there are too many books to read anyway and people will find what suits them. But here she was telling me how much she liked this series and two things became clear: she genuinely found them fun to read and she was serious when she said everything gets better starting with the fourth book.

deathmaskscoverObviously, I agreed to read more and, to my surprise, when she came up to visit this summer, she gave me the next book as a gift. I read it immediately and discovered that, duh, Mom was right. (When is she not?)

It’s always risky to imagine what’s going on in a writer’s head but my sense of the fourth book was that it was written by someone who had discovered all of the sudden that what they were writing wasn’t awful and that they could enjoy making the story up. That’s a weird sense to have but I felt it very clearly and very strongly. This book seems to enjoy itself and that change makes all the difference.

So with Death Masks, the fifth book, now read (and yes, I liked it), I think it’s fair to say that I’ve found some winter reading.

 September 17, 2016  Book Logs Tagged with: ,
Sep 022016
 

De Profundis CoverNearly a year after reading it for the first time, this short book remains one that, when I’m sitting in my reading chair and glancing at my shelves, I find myself picking up, flipping through and reading a page here or a page there. Or if I don’t actually pick it up, I end up remembering bits and thinking about them as I sit.

Wilde’s confidence in the power of art and imagination is inspiring and his appropriation of history and the Christ narrative as a queer antecedent is wonderfully and deeply audacious. And the story of the love and the failures that brought him to prison reads like a novel. (The father’s persecution of Wilde reminds me of the diabolical officer in Billy Budd.)

There’s earned wisdom poured into this book, and, coming to Wilde as I did from the popular image that persists today on mugs and shopping bags, its seriousness was unexpected and a happy discovery.

 September 2, 2016  Book Logs Tagged with: ,
Jul 232016
 

H Is for HawkIt’s been a long time since I’ve read a book as unsettling as this one.

Things start off in familiar territory: a death pushes the author to pull back into themselves and into nature. The descriptions of landscape are run through with tree names and cloud names and bird names that I don’t know and that provoke the kind of envy that the best nature writing often does. I want to know these names and to see these distinctions within “tree” and “cloud” and “bird” that I’m currently blind to. Falconry is romantic and fascinating and the fact that the author has spent her life learning and practicing it is exciting. The only distractions here are the detours into T. H. White’s efforts to train his own hawk. They feel awkward and I petulantly wish they’d stop: he is not a pleasant figure and his misery and his miserable efforts are so less interesting than MacDonald’s work training her own hawk, Mabel. I want more descriptions of hedgerows and underbrush.

But then slowly things go off the rails and I realize I am not in the book I thought I was. MacDonald is not a literary monk from the wild world of deep feelings sending the rest of us reports laden with small nuggets of wisdom to be underlined and quoted. Neither is Mabel a symbol or guide. She’s a bird, and she can’t do anything to keep MacDonald from tumbling out of control.

And MacDonald does tumble out of control, losing her job, her home. She stops talking to friends and family. Day after day after day, she runs through fields and woods with Mabel hunting and killing rabbits, killing pheasant. The text holds things together for a long time, but by the mid-point it’s clear that our guide in this story, the woman with the names of trees and birds at her fingertips, is losing herself to darkness, and she’s bringing us with her.

Miraculously, the book ends in a better place with feet unsteadily but certainly on the ground. Beauty and light are seeping back into the sky, but things aren’t the same. We’ve read an account of deep wounds closing into aching scars. There’s beauty in the history they hold, but it is an earthy, difficult beauty that smells faintly of the grave. And it’s caught under my nails.

 July 23, 2016  Book Logs Tagged with: ,
May 092016
 

Phoenix CoverIt was a dreary day and the seriousness of life was getting to me and I just wanted to get away. Phoenix was on my shelf. I grabbed it, settled in and tagged along as Vlad had adventures.

I have history with Vlad. I’ve known him since university. He can be difficult and has rough edges, even some anger issues, but his heart’s in the right place and he takes care of his friends. He also keeps a sense of humor even when things get rough. I like him.

I also like Steven Brust, or at least, the man I imagine him to be. A talented writer with a light touch and the power to be funny and enchanting, and also, on this particular night when things were getting me down, a steady voice telling me a story, pulling me out of my bubble and making things better.

I don’t think I can have enough books like these on my shelves.

 May 9, 2016  Book Logs Tagged with: ,
May 082016
 

Hero of Ages coverMonths after finishing The Hero of Ages, I still catch myself lost in thought, imagining its characters and scenes or picking my way through aspects of its plot. It is the last volume of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series (I’ve written briefly about the first and second), and I think it’s near perfectly done. Rather than going on about everything I like though, I’ll just point out three things that seem especially noteworthy.

First, I loved that each book is complete in itself. In each one, a group of characters has a specific goal that will “solve all the problems of the world” [spoken with portentous voice and reverb] and in each book the characters overcome great difficulty to achieve their goal. Yet in the first pages of both the second and third book it becomes clear that they seriously misunderstood the situation, that their solution wasn’t in fact one, and that it may have even made things worse. This is not however a case of a successful book spawning sequels that undo the work of the earlier resolution of the plot with a twist in order to create more business. Instead, by the end of the last volume, it becomes clear that the characters are learning more about their situation and that incidental chains of events running through the early books are actually essential plot points in the later ones. In a sense, the characters think are in an epic fantasy—“grow up and become the hero who destroys the material embodiment of evil before the forces of good fall”—but by book three it’s clear that they have also (an perhaps more importantly) been participating unwittingly in a mystery novel and a political thriller from the very beginning.

Second, these books are not fantasies of individual victory. Individuals succeed throughout and these small victories are meaningful and exciting. But the story also confronts the reality of their failure, loneliness and death. Characters build relationships with each other only to be separated and forced to operate independently. Alone they make decisions in with little information, hoping that their relationships are trustworthy but without having any reliable ways of discovering if what they are doing helps or even matters. It seems to me that this aspect of the books echoes (but only echoes) the notion of glory in ancient Greek epic. (And in this regard, its seems worth noting that every heroic figure in this book ultimately dies valiantly in battle.)

Finally, this series, although heavily and carefully plotted, does not trod along telling what happens. Instead, it traces its plot, indicating it rather than detailing it. All of the pieces are there. The causal links are clear. The separate lines of action intertwine. (And by the last book, major events are happening in many different locations, each separated from the other and developing independently.) But the full implications of the plot’s complications and complexity are left implicit. Enough information is given to figure out all of the connections and nothing is hidden, but they are not stated directly. As a result, the story leaves room to imagine and explore what happened after you’re done moving through the first telling.

These books have helped me remember what great fantasy novels can be like and I can’t recommend them enough.

 May 8, 2016  Book Logs Tagged with: , ,