Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Lisa’s Take – Little Brother (Corey Doctorow)

Marcus is a high school senior in San Francisco and an expert in all things technology and security related – he can fry RFIDs, fool his school’s gait recognition software, and don’t even get him started on encryption algorithms. Then one day there’s a terrorist attack on the city and Marcus and his friends are picked up by the department of homeland security, imprisoned, tortured, and thrown back into the world with dire warnings about being on good behavior. San Francisco turns into a police state, and Marcus takes it upon himself to fight back against the tyranny.

Doctorow’s work is usually full of nifty (sometimes silly) ideas and far-fetched scenarios, so Little Brother was a very different experience from the other books of his that I’ve read. It was flat-out believable, realistic, and bleak look at a near-future scenario in which government-run security gets out of hand. The book itself is very absorbing, but when you take a step back and really consider the plausibility, the effect is pretty chilling

As always, Corey nails his characterizations head on. I’m not sure anyone has ever written a more believable 17-year-old boy – a good mix of hormones, smarts, and real emotion make it exceedingly easy to get attached to Marcus. The supporting characters are also strong, the technology is fun, and the story really moves along never getting bogged down (though he does sometimes wank poetic about tech for a little longer than a non-geek might appreciate).

Touching on what is becoming a bit of a theme in this blog - Little Brother is billed as a YA book, but will definitely be readable both by teens and growed-up-types. Corey doesn't pull any punches, and takes a really frank look at teenage life. I appreciate him not talking down in a book that was directed at teens, and the end result is that adults will not feel like they're reading something trite or below their level.

My biggest worry about the book is that the many, many, many pop culture references will be stale in 2 years. For now they make the book hip, up-to-date and very real… but soon a lot of those buzz words are going to fade to obscurity and might make the text seem dated.

Anyway, this review is coming off as stilted (what is it with me lately?) but the bottom line is that this is a great little read. It’s easy to plow through in a few hours, has some cool ideas, and will leave you with a pleasant afterglow as well as some food-for-thought. Hoorah.

Friday, November 21, 2008

JD's Take: Last Dragon (J.M. McDermott)

Framed as letters written by an old woman days away from death, her mind fragmented and jagged and brittle, her lungs full of blood, her hands palsied and pale, Last Dragon tells a story that will leave you cold inside, and sad... and somehow better.

There are two stories being told in these letters. The first is the obvious one. It's an adventure tale, with journeys and battles and fabulous sights and death. It's a tale of friendship and betrayal and all of the things that make up a fantasy novel. It's also none of those things. Our narrator feels to us as real and as fragile as any person I have known. She tells of her youthful adventure looking back, and the things that matter to her now as she lies dying are not what authors, even ones striving for realism, feel the need to tell us. Her story is told in circles, in fits and starts. She circles around the most crucial moments probing them gently, like a healing wound, before finally summoning the courage to recall, as best she can, the moments that defined her life. Moments of pain, or shame, or crippling doubt. While she does so, she tells of the trivial moments that caught, as she says, in the web of her memory. Emotional impressions, glances, words between friends before sleep. She jumps around in time as she tells the tale, and her memories are not always consistent or clear. She tells us of things that she didn't see as if she did, tells them as she imagines or as she was told or how she dreamt them to be.

She doesn't tell us the story start to end because that is not the story she's trying to tell. The second story is the story of her life after the events in letters she is writing, a story of pain that lasts a lifetime, of love and betrayals and journeys and marriages and empires and children and all the things that make up fantasy novels. This story isn't told, it's alluded to. It forms itself in our minds as we read her letters, the tragedy of her life, the pain of her decisions. It's a story that features very few of the people she knew in the first story. Its major players never get screen time and its passions go unresolved, but its poignancy is what we will remember, long after the details of her first story fade into the web of our memories.

Oh, and there's a third story in there as well. A brief and beautiful and sad exchange towards the end of the book that, uniquely, takes place in the writer's present. I'm not sure why, but it might have been my favorite part of the book.

This isn't a tale of adventure. It isn't a tragedy in the Shakespearean sense... you'll get no catharsis as you turn the last page. It won't inspire you, your pulse won't race, your mind will not turn contemplating the subtleties of the schemes. The end won't surprise you, the action won't thrill you, the sex won't titillate you.

This is the best book I've read in years. It isn't my favorite, but it is the best.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Lisa’s Take: The Man with the Golden Torc (Simon R. Green)

If you took Harry Dresden and mashed him up with James Bond, you’d get Eddie Drood, the main character in this… er… fun little book. I hesitate because yeah, it was a fairly fun read, but I’m not sure I’m up for giving it a rousing endorsement. Hmm, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up and take it from the top.

Meet Eddie Drood, the black sheep nephew of the Drood Family – enforcers of the supernatural world. With their secret estate filled with agents and laboratories, they’re the biggest force to be reckoned with if you’re a Bad Guy. Take every spy gadget you’ve ever heard of, mix it up with every magical spell or contrivance you’ve ever heard of, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of how the Drood Family operates.

Anywho, some Bad Shit goes down behind the scenes, and Eddie – formerly a (somewhat) respected field agent – gets declared rogue. All the baddies of the supernatural world come after him, along with a healthy dose of his own family and friends. Hijinks ensue, plots are uncovered, days are saved, romance blooms, &c, &c.

Man with the Golden Torc is a hella fast read – it’s unabashed candy, and goes down in a sitting or so with no problem. That said… I really didn’t like it that much. There are a lot of cool things and ideas in the books, but there’s not a shred of eloquence in their presentation. It’s just one long string of “and then this and then this and then this and then….” The plot had no flow at all, it was just like a dam broke and cool ideas came pouring out. There wasn’t really any interesting conflict other than the major plot point, and the story had no ebb and flow – just a constant fire-hydrant-like stream.

I also didn’t give a damn about any of the characters… Eddie Drood was kind of slippery to peg down as far as what kind of person he actually was. I suspect part of the problem is that I kept transposing Harry Dresden on top of him, which gave me a mental conception of a Moral Set that Eddie lacked – he kept trying to come off as bad ass, but then I’d pretend he was actually a good guy at heart. Who knows. The secondary characters will bland and forgettable (I can’t even remember their names now, and it’s only been a week).

So… what’s the bottom line here… other reader reviews on BN & Amazon suggest that maybe I’m being too hard on this one. It’s fully possible that when I read it I just wasn’t in the mood for candy, or maybe my expectation for the genre has been set too high by other similar series. Regardless, it’s fairly likely that I’ll skip the rest of the books in the series – I’m just not getting anything out of them. Of course, I say that now when I still have a few Dreseden File books in reserve… once I’m out of those, all bets may be off.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Lisa’s Take - The Stand (Stephen King)

Much like my baseless aversion to Westerns, I tend to avoid mainstream, prolific authors. However, so many people have told me “you HAVE to read The Stand” that I figured I better go through with it. I needed something non-fantasy to reset my expectations after the last book I read (Last Dragon, which was amazing, and will have a review forthcoming), so I figured I’d finally go through with reading The Stand.

Now – I think I griped about this when I reviewed The Gunslinger… but is it really fair to keep letting Mr. King go back and re-write his books? At least this time he didn’t get to change things around, but he did get to re-include 300-odd pages that were cut from the original edition. I’m just saying (yet again) that it seems like cheating. Also, can I bitch just a little about editing? It’s all well and good to let your pet author go back and add old text back, but when you update it don’t introduce anachronisms and inconsistencies, please.

Anyway, on to the book! The basic idea here is a post apocalypse story: the military has a security breach and an extremely virulent flu makes it out of the lab and into the wild, killing 90% of the population. The first quarter or so of the book deals solely with how the flu spreads, the reaction of the people, the military trying to keep things hush hush, major characters being introduced, etc. The second book chunk follows the main characters introduced at the start of the book as they make their way across the country, adapting to the change and dealing with the new world. They’re following mysterious dreams that seem to be leading them west. Quarter 3 is all about the new civilization that springs up around Boulder and begins to explore some of the strange, dark themes that everyone has been dreaming about, and the last fourth of the book is the war against that darkness. Vague, I know, but I don’t want to be too spoilerific. Suffice to say that the story starts as standard post-apoc, then takes a pretty significantly different tack from the norm, and gets pretty fantasy-themed and deep.

When it all boils down, the book was pretty damn good. I can definitely see why it was shortened in the first place – especially in the first half things drag pretty frequently. Still, by the end everything moves along very quickly and engagingly – I’m actually still having a hard time coming to grips with the fact that the book is over. I keep expecting to have more to read… which all in all is usually a good sign in a book. It left me fulfilled but wanting more.

Perhaps one of the most interesting things about the plot of the book is how much it got me thinking about the other post-apoc book I read recently, Dies The Fire, by S. M. Stirling. I was only middling impressed with Dies The Fire the first time I read it, but while reading The Stand I found myself thinking more and more about Stirling’s work, and really analyzing it: comparing it to King’s, debating what was worked and what didn’t, thinking about the places they followed a similar path, and the places where they diverged completely. Honestly it makes me want to revise my review of Dies The Fire from “skip it” to “read it.” Intriguing.

Plot aside, one of the biggest strengths in The Stand is the characters. They’re all just so real and believable – it’s impressive to see such human creations in a work of fantasy. When my favorite character was killed off (on my lunch hour no less) I had to try hard not to get tears in my chili. Even characters that I wasn’t as attached to had me pretty upset – I was choked up through most of the last 150 pages. Also, kudos to King for sprinkling his literature with some false portents – it’s refreshing to think “oh, I know exactly where THIS is going” and then to be proven completely wrong. My one character gripe is that it seems like a few of the “core” characters could actually have used more development… it was weird to have two “main” characters next to each other, where one had chapters and chapters behind them, but the other had only a few paragraphs. It’s a knit pick, but it made me feel a bit unbalanced.

Finally, I have one last negative thing to say: I feel like the author ruined the ending of the book. The final chapter ends with a very Real conversation, appropriately tinged with melancholy and doubt – it was a perfect ending. But then you turn the page and there’s one last little caveat… and to me it felt insulting in its explicitness. The author didn’t -need- to say what he said; he had already implied it. It really left a bad taste in my mouth.

Anyway, I think I might just pull those two pages out of the book, and then return it to my shelf. Overall it was a very complete, fulfilling, and satisfying read, and I can understand why people have bugged me for so long to read it. I’m glad I finally did.