Thursday, January 8, 2009

Bibliophilia - Holiday Edition!

While I was too busy to blog for the entire holiday season, I was of course not too busy to read. Full post has my opinions and links. Note: Some reviews include spoilers....

Comic Books - 8
Young Adult - 1
(Historical) Romance - 3
Historical Adventure - 2
Sci-Fi - 9
Fantasy / Satire / Pratchettesque - 1
History - 1
Psychology - 1
Memoir - 1
Education / Politics - 1

"Steampunk" by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer. (Anthology) This is creepy unsettling science fiction. The only problem is that ALL the stories involved some really dismal alternative possibilities. Why is it that people equal dismal dystopian pointless surreallism with literary quality story-telling? Because if you don’t get that, you will NOT enjoy this book a bit. The depressing & macabre tone made it really hard to keep coming back to read another story. Also, I did NOT appreciate the story regarding what happened to the guy from the HG Wells “The Time Machine”. That was perverted, gross and pretty damn useless. So, a lot of potential here but ultimately, I couldn’t finish this and it’s going straight into my sell-back pile. Steampunk gone wildly astray.

“Girl Genius volumes 1 through 6” by Kaja & Phil Foglio. (comic books) Great neoVictorian technological fun. No that’s not right. More like: OMG THIS IS AWESOME!!!! Female heroine with a strange past, steampunk universe on crack, lots of awesome supporting characters and an artistic aesthetic to die for. Not to mention the whole idea that super-geniuses/heroes might be a profound danger to society and therefore are usually regulated, contained, controlled or killed is a really intriguing idea, especially when the universe makes very clear that these people have caused untold death and destruction in the past even when they were “good” guys. For such a depressing premise, the authors create a wonderfully amusing, thought-provoking and (for a comic book) logically consistent story. That alone makes LXG (see below) look like total amateur hour by comparison. Steampunk done right in every way imaginable.

“Me & Mr. Darcy”
by Alexandra Potter. Ok, you know what’s going to happen here. The art is in the “How” not the “What”. This modern retelling is surprisingly good considering it’s predictable as hell. Plus, I have to love a book where the main character is a bookstore-managing bibliophile. I think I prefer the “Darcy” novels by Elizabeth Aston to this one but, if you’re in an airport and see this, it’s definitely worth picking up to pass the time.

"The Time Axis" by Henry Kuttner. Yet another download find. An excellent, mind-bending read. The premise is straightforward but what sells it is the author’s presentation. Told from a single perspective, the main characters journalistic style combined with his confusion about what is actually happening makes for a wonderfully enjoyable tale.

“1215: The Year Of The Magna Carta” by Danny Danziger & John Gillingham. Rather intriguing summary of life in England the year of the signing of the Magna Carta. It includes some information on the historical significance and actual intent of the Magna Carta as well as background on the conflict between King John and the barons that lead to Runnymeade. Quite a nice weekend read.

“Odyssey”, “Cauldron” & “Polaris” by Jack McDevitt. All three solid sci-fi stories. The first two are continuations of the “Priscilla Hutchins” series. And they are both compelling additions to a fantastic future history. "Cauldron" is especially good. I love the super-villian character introduced in the end - creepy, amusing and effective. Lastly, we have a novel in the “Alex Benedict” series which although good was my least favorite of the three. For reasons I can’t quite pin down the Alex Benedict novels are less satisfactory for me than McDevitt’s other works; there’s an underlying cynicism to those stories that puts me off. "Polaris" especially was ultimately about a bunch of scientists screwing everyone over because people weren't ready for "the truth". YAWN of an ending.

“True Darcy Spirit” & “The Second Mrs. Darcy” by Elizabeth Aston. Thank God Austen is in the public domain. So we can get authors like Aston writing such wonderful continuations of the story. Two wonderful historical romances involving Anne de Bourgh's daughter and a Darcy widow. Very enjoyable and left me craving for more (so much so that I asked for yet two more P&P continuations for Christmas).

“Genius Squad” by Catherine Jinks. Sequel to “Evil Genius” (which was brilliant). This book covers the aftermath of the fall of the Axis Institute and how Cadel Piggot deals with being outed as the child of an evil genius. The rag-tag band of maybe-not-quite-good super-genius kids who may-or-may-not fight evil was exceptionally well written. At no time do you forget that for the most part, these are children or teenagers with some severe emotional problems. Great kids adventure that never forgets even geniuses kids are ultimately kids.

“A Slave Is A Slave” By H. Bean Piper. (short story) Got this little gem off after realizing one of my favorite sci-fi quotes originates from the work. An excellent (if somewhat depressing) story on human nature, slavery and the dangers of “fixing” other people’s societies.

“Rebels of the Red Planet” by Charles Louis Fontenay. (novella/short story/I don’t know) From the golden age of sci-fi comes what would be a really good novella, if it wasn’t so horribly dated in places. The heroine is cool as a super-spy underestimated even by Martian government officials (one in particular who is very keen on marrying her). However, the second she interacts with the hero character, she throws all that out the window and turns into the typical 50's sci-fi damsel in distress. Lots of good twists and plot beats about evil manipulations of settling Mars but overall underwhelming because if you’re going to have a female character that cool, you need to have a equally cool male character to pair her off with and the “hero” didn’t cut it. It’s never a good sign when you’re rooting more for the crazy old guy in the secret government hydroponics facility than the supposed hero.

“The Laughing Cavalier” & “The First Sir Percy” by Baroness Orczy. Two great novellas about the equally audacious ancestor of “The Scarlet Pimpernel”. Just lovely, old-fashioned swashbuckling reads. Great fun, good suspense and surprisingly packed with great one-liners.

“Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir In Books” by Azar Nafisi. A simultaneously depressing & uplifting book. In addition to the women’s pov on living in The Islamic Republic of Iran, the author’s background as someone who had previously supported revolution made for very interesting reading. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it; this isn’t a book anybody enjoys (in some respects I get the feeling the author didn’t enjoy writing it so much as needed the release). But definitely a thought provoking work.

“Omega, The Man” by Lowell Howard Morrow (short story) BLAH & YUCK. A completely unnecessary and depressing story about the end of the human race in some far, very dismal future. Not to ruin the end for you, but we don’t come out too well. I’m good with dystopian futures but this one didn’t have any purpose to it at all!

“The League of Extraordinary Gentleman (vol 1 & 2)” by Alan Moore (& Kevin O'Neill, vol.2) (comic book) It’s very rare that I have such wildly variable responses to two different books in a series but that’s exactly what happened here. Volume One was excellent. Volume Two was complete & utter dreck. So I’m dividing up the review:
Volume 1 - Solid and enjoyable but not a story for kids. I especially loved all the little details like the incorporation of the Sherlock Holmes mythos, nod to ‘Mysterious Island’ and my favorite, hints that a previous league existed earlier in British history including (SPOILER) The Scarlet Pimpernel himself! My only negative is how they keep hitting you over the head with the Mina/Quartermain relationship. Given Mina’s past, I can understand why she would be attracted to an older man but the way they are going about it is very, very junior high school. Aside from that, definitely good stuff.
Volume 2UGH. A comic book involving a “War Of The Worlds” scenario should be excellent. The premise is yours to screw up. And boy, did they! Let’s just say that after reading this comic, I’m remembering the LXG movie a LOT more fondly than I did previously. The actual invasion parts were cool. The actions and thought processes of the League characters were a DISASTER. For one thing, there were 2 sex scenes that (I thought) were totally out of character for the Mina Murrary of Volume One. Also, the Invisible Man’s betrayal was so predictable, its aftermath didn’t engage me at all. And while Dr. Hyde died well, he didn’t really have much to do but avenge the Invisible Man’s betrayal in a completely disgusting manner and die well. Also, while I agree that the British Empire had its bad points, the constant harping on how terrible it was really annoys me. We are talking about the only empire in history to outlaw slavery, right? The same one that managed to leave behind more productive, relatively stable societies when it collapsed than most, right? The same one that exported the Industrial Revolution and all of its technological wonders around the world, right? Sure it wasn’t all roses but dude, the downside of the Victorian/Empire Period has been so DONE that the clicheness of those plot twists took an already mediocre story and made it terrible. Needless to say, I'm skipping volume 3.

“Ivory Towers On Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies In America” by Martin Kramer. Got this as a .pdf from the author’s website A little bit of a dry read (but if you really like reading tales of academic infighting, this is for you!) but an interesting summary of both why Middle Eastern Studies in the US is so incredibly biased and how it got that way. Seriously, even knowing the book has its biases, Edward Said sounds like a complete tool!

“Kris Longknife: Audacious” by Mike Shephard. Yet another awesome addition to the equally awesome Kris Longknife series. This is how you write a sci-fi heroine. Plus, I’ve got to love a book that opens in the middle of an assassination attempt on the main character, is focused on causing/preventing/it-depends-on-the-chapter a coup, and has some of the best wacky space politics & how they got that way future history I’ve read in a long while. Seriously, New Eden politics was wonderfully complicated and believable.

“Making Money” by SIR Terry Pratchett. Of course this doesn’t suck! There are very few surer bets in modern fiction than a DiscWorld novel. Still, this was really good even for Terry Pratchett. Several Laugh-out-loud moments, excellent wry commentary on fiscal policy and just a wonderful plot. Also, Lord Vetinari is one of those characters who started out awesome and continues to out-awesome everyone around him on every single page. Pratchett deserved to be knighted just for creating HIM.

“Games People Play: The Basic Handbook Transactional Analysis” by Eric Berne. An interesting if difficult read. I think it says something about the state of modern psychology that they take such a cool topic and then spend 100+ pages sucking the cool from it one dry academic pronouncement at a time. If the topic weren’t something that deeply interested me, I’d have stopped after the first chapter. Also after reading, I am left with a lingering but distinct desire to play “Now I’ve Got You, You Son Of A Bitch” (which will forever be on my list of Best Game Names EVAH).

No comments: