Wednesday, July 29, 2009

JD's Take: Misspent Youth (Peter F. Hamilton)

I love Peter F. Hamilton so it was without thought or hesitation that I picked up Misspent Youth. I barely even complained that it seemed to come out between The Dreaming Void and The Temporal Void, figuring that maybe he wrote it before those. I don't know. Publishing is a weird game. Besides, I correctly assumed, I'll probably still end up reading the Temporal Void first, my stack being what it is and my priorities being what they are.

So, I finally got around to pulling this off the shelf last week, and discovered that Hamilton had put aside Space Opera to take a stab at Near Futurism. This, I thought, ought to be good. Hamilton is an absolute master of extrapolating technology in interesting ways! However, my excitement slowly faded into... not disgust but at least apathy. By halfway through the book, I had no desire to open it again and placed it, sadly, on the shelf.

So what went wrong? The story follows a well-off family in 2038-ish England. The father is missing, gone to get the world's first Rejuvination treatment. This rare honor was given because of his massive popularity and fame, having invented a crystal memory lattice that could be grown cheaply and provided unlimited storage space... and then giving it away for freesies. His beloved son and trophy wife are waiting for him to return from the 8 months in isolation, and the security teams from the EU are setting up shop to protect against terrorist assasination attempts. So far so awesome, yeah? The problem is that when Hamilton turned in Space Opera, he traded it out for Soap Opera. The first part of the book was spent following the son and his friends in their drama-tastic sexual exchanges. Then the dad comes back and we get more of the same with the father. And the Wife. And the neighbors, the old friends, and probably the postman.

The technological and societal extrapolation was interesting, but very much in the background. Normally I'd consider that a good point, but in this case the foreground was filled with vapid, unlikable characters. The greater sin, however, was that like all Soap Operas, this novel lacked any kind of real plot. There was no conflict, no villian, no political intrigue. There was nothing to keep me reading unless I actually cared if the Father and the Son's Girlfriend would hook up (really. That was the big suspense when I set it down).

So give this one a miss, and busy yourself reading everything else this man ever wrote.

[Mini Review] JD's Take: The Forever War (Joe Haldeman)

Honestly I'm not even going to bother to really review this book. Every nice thing about it that can be said has, at some point in the last 35 years, been said. If you happen to see a copy, you will be assaulted by quotes from authors you respect singing it's praises on every visible surface. I think it had a blurb on the spine. You will wade through 8 or so pages of review blurbs they couldn't fit on the cover, carefully chosen to represent only the creme de la creme of the sci-fi world.

They are all basically right: Haldeman took his experiences with war in Vietnam and crafted an amazing story about humanity and war and relativity. There is only one real character in it, and the ending is little trite, but those are extremely minor quibbles. The technology is very "future viewed from the 70s", but that's not a complaint at all... it's just an interesting perspective.

So yeah, I'm not going to spend any more time with this one: it's a solid, thoughtful, quick-reading exploration of war and human psychology set in a sci-fi warzone. Good times.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

JD's Take: Personal Effects: Dark Art (Hutchins, Weisman)

This was a book with a gimmick. It's a supernatural detective novel that comes with a stack of papers, invitations, business cards, drivers licenses, maps, and artwork. The idea is that the added content will make the mystery more engrossing, drawing you in by letting you see the evidence, piece together the clues, call cellphones and check voicemail, investigate online information and so on. I picked it thinking "well gosh, Alternate Reality has really caught on and here's a book version. Clever!"

Predictably, the gimmick fell far short of the premise. The book itself was passable... a pretty bland little mystery filled with some supernatural stuff that failed to tingle the spine sufficiently. The characters themselves were... almost painfully "in-touch"? You have the main character: an Art Psychologist who is dedicated to making the world a little brighter by having viscious killers that society has locked away in a stereotype of an insane asylum (they built it DOWN instead of up! Spooky!) by making them do finger paintings, through which they tell him all about their insecurities and whatnot. He has a younger brother who is a genius NYU film student who is heavily into parkour, and a girlfriend who is smoking hot and tattooed and a huge nerd who eats potato chips and plays videogames all day for her blog and never needs to work out. Oh, and she's also a fact-checker for a newspaper, giving her great connections for researching stuff. Oh, and his father is the Assistant DA trying the case he is assigned to. How convenient that we will use all of these disparate skills and connections in the solving of this mystery!

Anyway, one of the things the book does well is to impart a sense of peril about the characters who surround the protagonist. Throughout the book you feel like you are one panicked moment away from utter devastation. In part this is because he loves them all so hard and appreciates them and needs them and you just KNOW that's the Kiss of Death. Partly it is because their deaths are fortold like 10 pages in, and that is also a Kiss of Death. But here's the thing: nothing bad happens to anyone. Even the *very* secondary character who is marked for death early in the book (and whose death would have made the whole plot more convincing and impactful) comes out unscathed. By the end, I felt kinda... ripped off that all of the foreshadowing and dread and suspense ended with smiling rainbows and chocolate.

If you've noticed that I haven't mentioned all of the non-book content so far, you've made a very good observation! On the plus side, the quality of the inserts was quite good. The drivers license was laminated plastic, the certificates were on crappy government paper while the CIA memos were on nice stationary. Nice production value! The problem with the Book Tied Into Clues concept is that it totally falls apart if you neglect to make any of the non-book content meaningful. Let me itemize:
  • Most of the stuff ends up being very tangentally connected (birth and death certificates for a couple of minor, off-screen support characters, for instance, which have no bearing on the mystery).
  • When there are phone numbers you can call (to, say, check voicemails) the messages aren't reprinted in the book (good! Make me do it in real life!) but they are also WORTHLESS. Every single syllable of the messages can be easily extracted from the in-book context and they are totally mundane anyway ("Son. I'll be late to the funeral. Love, Dad.").
  • On top of the above, the outgoing messages on the voicemails are totally out of synch with the book. At a point in the book where the main character has only barely heard of the case, the outgoing message you get is "Sorry I can't come to the phone. This case has taken hold on me in unexpected ways. I love you all" or something. It totally destroys the sense of immediacy that the whole concept is doing its best to impart.
  • Some of the clues have puzzles in them. Neat! I spent 15 minutes deciphering a card that was totally blank except for some brail writing. This was a fucking waste of time and opportunity, since it was never mentioned in the book, added absolutely nothing, and provided no clues or insight. Gah!
  • Websites! There are several! One of them was missing, one of the them provided a clue to the characters in the book but NOT TO THE VISITOR, and one of them was actually kinda cool (a blog run by the protagonists girlfriend that actually developed her character a bit and lent authenticity... though had no relevance to the story).
  • There was some artwork included. There was artwork in the book, the clever manipulation of which led to important clues. There were not connected. The included artwork had no relevance to the book at all.
Basically, in order for this to have been a compelling gimmick, the toys had to have relevance to the story. I needed to be able to solve puzzles and work out connections that weren't given to me in the book. Honestly, the book shouldn't even have *had* an ending until I solved things my damn self. The narrative should have cut off suddenly at the end and begun with a "Previous researcher missing: see what you can do" introduction. As is, they could have dropped all of the props... I'd still be left with a mediocre mystery novel but at least I wouldn't be angry about it.

Friday, July 17, 2009

[Lisa’s Take] Act of Will – A. J. Hartley

[Editors note: This review sat for a few days before I was able to post it, and when I got back around to re-reading it I think I may have been a bit harsh, especially due to some of my biases from related books. I'd be happy for someone to contradict me on this review and give me a reason to try the second book]

I really, really, really hate to pan this book, because it’s soooo close to being everything I love in character-fantasy: snarky first person narrator, main character with dubious morals, betrayals, plot twists, magic, &c, &c. Unfortunately, either due to my own personal bias or perhaps due to the lack of polish that sometimes comes with first books, these ideal elements didn’t quite coalesce into a good book. A passable book, perhaps, but not the excellent, rollicking, laughter-inducing tale that I hoped for.

The setting: Will Hawthorne is a young actor (think Elizabethan era) who writes some stories, but more often than not gets stuck playing female characters - dress and all. On the day that he’s set to graduate from his role as an apprentice and become one of the big players, a decree is sent out to close all theaters and arrest all writers of note (repressive government and all that jazz). Will makes a run for it and is sheltered by a mysterious collection of men and women. They turn out to have things like Morals and Scruples (unlike our Will) as well as a firm belief in Doing The Right Thing. Will is forced to tag along with them in order to stay out of the government’s clutches, and ends up being sucked into an investigation of strange attacks and magical happenings in a nearby province.

Will as a character is a lot of fun – just the sort of narrator that I love to read: witty, scrupulous, tactless, and a big self-serving coward. Unfortunately, a couple of problems kept him from being ideal. First, as the book goes on Will “develops” and “changes” but it seems forced. His shenanigans and reactions also get a bit predictable, so he’s less and less fun to read as the story progresses. The second problem is more a personal problem: Will is basically a clone of the main character from Sir Apropos of Nothing. If you hadn’t read the aforementioned excellent little novel by Peter David, it probably wouldn’t present an issue for you. But since I read it last year, Apropos was fresh enough on my mind that Will seemed like an imitation – and a pale one at that. Very Sad.

Still, that’s getting pretty picky. Overall I liked the narrator and the themes in the book; a strong story or supporting cast would have done a lot to remedy my gripe. Sadly, the supporting cast were mostly one-dimensional and predictable (though I did have a soft spot for Orgos), and at their worst moments annoying. The story tried for political intrigue, but mostly ended up with a plot line of “then they went there and discovered ‘this.’ Then they went somewhere else and discovered ‘that.’ Gasp! A revelation!” The “big reveal” at the end wasn’t much of a surprise, and honestly the tedium of the storyline by 250 pages in had me close to giving up.

So – it is with much disappointment that I can’t really recommend Act of Will. I wanted so much for it to be great, and given so many promising elements it’s a travesty that it didn’t come together as excellently as promised. That said, I think there’s a pretty good chance that I’ll give book two a try – the story’s (fictitious) translator promises it will be out in a year… I guess we’ll see. I want very much for Hartley to live up to the promise he shows. Perhaps it will just take him a couple of novels to hit his stride.

[Mini Review] Lisa’s Take: (Temeraire Book 5) A Victory of Eagles – Naomi Novik

I’ll keep this review short and sweet: I think I’m done with this series. The first book was a very novel idea and quite interesting and engaging... and then the books steadily went downhill. A Victory of Eagles was more of the same: Laurence is exiled and bummed about it, Temeraire is obstinate and disliking of the state of affairs, Iskiera is annoying, and there’s a war. Same old, same old. The characters don’t change or develop (in fact I’d go so far as to say that Laurence regresses and becomes more boring and flat as a character) and while the story does move along at a brisk pace, it’s not new and exciting anymore.

I don’t want to disparage the series as a whole, because the first book really was excellent, and the second book was enjoyable. I just wish that Ms. Novik had kept an end in sight for the story as a whole, and maybe limited the whole ordeal to 3ish books. Damn shame. Someone do tell me if the 6th book suddenly turns around and redeems the series, ok?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

JD's Take: Manual of Detection (Jedediah Berry)

I actually picked this book up in the mystery section of all places, though it could comfortably hang out in the seedy hive of the fantasy section as well. Actually, it could probably dress up nice and at least stroll through the "Fiction" section, as it certainly has a literary* character to it. It is Berry's first novel, though he has published short stories before and he is an editor at Small Beer Press (making me want to read the stack of $1 books I ordered from them rather more than I did).

So. Let me set the scene. The story is set in the city, an unnamed noir style metropolis dominated by a monolithic building housing the Agency. The city is dark, and rainy, dirty and dismal, and structured. The city honestly feels more like Bas Lag than Metropolis. There is nothing openly fantastic about it, but the people are too structured, too neurotic, too obviously and subtly broken to be entirely mundane.

Charles Unwin is a orderly man, a clerk by trade, and the best in the business. His job is to chronicle the cases of Detective Sivart, a legendary figure who is a cross between Holmes (in stature) and Sam Spade (in attitude). Our story starts as Unwin is suddenly promoted to the rank of detective and his life spirals rapidly outside of his ability to cope. He meets a cast of characters feel like they are in color against the black and white of their world. They are broken, strange, intriguing. Many would not be out of place in a Dick Tracy story, and others feel lifted straight out of Chinatown. Unwin is forced to stretch outside his comfort zone (a zone that is 7 blocks long and 14 stories high), his only strong motivation to make sense of his life and go back to the way things were.

As details emerge about cases past and present, they are filled with fantastic elements. I'm not talking dragons and high magic though... one of the cases that is often referenced in the story quite literally focuses on the theft of November 11th, a Tuesday. Certainly the book is imaginative, along with being well written, well plotted, and engrossing. There are weak points, perhaps, in the resolution though that is largely a matter of taste I think. I strongly recommend this book for anyone who enjoys noir, urban and weird fantasy, and/or great writing in general. Honestly, it's a shame that the book is in the mystery section, because it doesn't read or play out like a mystery, and true fans of the genre will probably be disapointed. There are no clever clues for you to work out while you pretend to work, and the butler most certainly did not do it. The biggest mystery is figuring out what exactly "it" is that was done.

* Used in the sense that it plays with language, and at time flirts with poetry. There were paragraphs I stopped and read aloud, just for the pleasure of doing so.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

[Lisa's Take] Stranger in a Strange Land (Robert Heinlein)

There are some books that every book geek should have read, and I have an embarrassing number of them that have been sitting in my stack for many, many years. Cache 22 has been in there since 2001, along with Fahrenheit 451. Catcher in the Rye, Dorian Grey, something by Ayn Rand, not to mention all of the strictly-fantasy books that people tell me I have to read.

Stranger in a Strange Land has been in my stack for a very, very long time. I remember in early high school my mother said "you really need to read this" then quickly changed her mind after re-reading it herself and deciding I didn't need that much candid sex as a 13-year-old. The novel unofficially joined my stack around that time, and then officially a few years later when I received a copy as a gift.

Honestly, now that I've finished SiaSL, I'm unsure about how best to review it. Much like when I read 100 Years of Solitude I find myself struggling with evaluating the elements of "real literature" versus "fantasy candy." I didn't find the story of SiaSL particularly compelling, and it dragged painfully through the second half. I was counting down the pages to the end, so very ready to get it over with. I didn't like or care about any of the characters with the exception of Jubal Harshaw, who reminded me far too much of an old friend to dislike.

I did, however, appreciate some of the very progressive ideas that Heinlein touched upon, especially considering the book was written over 40 years ago. His diatribes on love, lust, sex, relationships, and polyamory were impressive and well considered. Early in the book I enjoyed Jubal's dissertations on religion, media, and lifestyle, though Heinlein's portrayal of religion shifted so heavily towards the end of the book that I was left with a sour taste in my mouth.

What I didn't appreciate about the book were the rampant undertones of sexism and the blatant gay-bashing. Generally my rule is that it's ok for an author to have opinions opposite of mine (Orson Scott Card comes to mind) so long as those viewpoints don't creep into his literature. Heinlein did not manage to maintain this separation, and his diatribes on the matters left me quite grumpy. Saying things like "9 out of 10 women who get raped probably were asking for it" and generic gay bashing is more than I can deal with. I especially have a hard time reconciling all of the "free love, open relationships, orgies!" talk in-story with the blatant statement that "being gay is wrong and immoral."

I don't really have a bottom line for this review. As with many books that are "more serious" rather than strictly fantasy, I don't know whether to recommend it or not. It's a lot like Wicked in some ways - not a very pretty story, but one that has some really interesting themes. Take from that what you will.