Tag Archives: book reviews

Friday in the Libe

5 Aug

Reading
Finishing up The Price of Spring, by Daniel Abraham. It’s the fourth part of his Long Price Quartet, and both book and series have been amazing. Smart fantasy for adults with strong characterization and no fear of raising the stakes and facing the consequences of choices made.  I love it when authors establish a strong and evocative status quo and then let their characters batter it, and I love when a plot development makes me close the book and curse in amazement. There’s a lot to love in these books.

Planning
The next few weeks are pretty heavy for the Reference & Outreach Committee, of which I’m the co-chair. We’ve got our first monthly forum on Tuesday (which we managed to program with only minimal insanity, though I am probably going to end up as one of the presenters), and our first real orientation event on Thursday. Two weeks from today is the massive orientation fair for new undergrads, with the grad fair following soon after. So that’s dominating most of the “planning” portions of my brain.

Writing
In addition to the short presentation alluded to above, I’m trying to contribute to the outline of the book chapter I’m co-authoring with UNLV’s Cory Lampert. Thank the gods for Google Docs, and the patience of colleagues.

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Judd’s been doing this Friday thing for a good long while, and I’ve always thought it was keen. I used the structure a few times last year in my gaming blog, but since I never post there and most of the content this week is library related, it seemed better done here.

Book Review: Leviathan

9 Jul

Last September, I posted the very cool trailer to Scott Westerfeld’s then-forthcoming novel, Leviathan. A fan of his Succession novels and totally won over by Leviathan‘s high concept*, I requested that Cornell buy a copy and eagerly awaited its arrival.

And then totally forgot to check it out. Luckily, our friends Mike and Kerri in Boston were willing to lend their copy. And it is, in fact, an awesome YA book that even As a bit less Y should enjoy.

While the high concept described below** forms an excellent backdrop to the novel, the main action revolves around Deryn, a young Scottish woman who pretends to be a man to join the British Air Service, and Aleksander, the apparently disinherited (but still notably hunted) son of the late Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Their stories and development drive the plot, and they — along with an excellent supporting cast — are what kept me turning pages, even moreso than Westerfeld’s engaging worldbuilding.

That being said, Alek gets an armored mech, and Derwyn serves on a giant bioengineered airship based on a whale that comes with an entire fabricated ecology. Which is just damned cool. With this alternate Earth, Westerfeld does a wonderful job of not just taking the scientific liberties inherent to steampunk to great heights, but also applying those same liberties to the Darwinists’ genetic experimentation. Either could’ve worked as a sufficient background for a novel; weaving both together along with not one but two fascinating coming-of-age stories is formidable, indeed.

The only complaint I can levy at the book is that it’s clearly the first in a series, and thus its ending left me cursing the fact that Behemoth won’t be out until October. A book release that I’m now far less likely to forget about.

* An alt-WWI waged between the genetic engineer Darwinists (aka the Entente) and the steampunk Clankers (aka the Central Powers)? Sold.
** You do read the footnotes as you go, right? If not, what are you doing right now?***
*** And why does writing about this book lead me to include to so many footnotes?

Three comics in three paragraphs

16 Nov

Scott Pilgrim, volumes 1-4: A slow starter, but once it hit its stride it really hit its damn stride. Following the adventures of a dimwitted Canadian slacker bass player (who just happens to be one of the greatest fighters in the world) as he deals with less-slackery friends,  jobs, past relationships, and a new girlfriend who just happens to come with Seven Evil Ex-Boyfriends, the Scott Pilgrim books are by turns, smart, sweet, funny, and possibly just a little to into 80s video games. They, like Scott, have a nigh-irresistible charm, and I’m looking forward to reading more.

 

The Umbrella Academy, Apocalypse Suite: Created and written by Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance, this book starts off the way more comics should: with superkids battling national monuments and famous zombies. That’s the sort of mad and beautiful idea that Alan Moore cited as being so wondrous about comic books, and more and more that’s exactly the sort of thing I want out of the comics I read. Sadly, there’s a tonal shift early on, and we find ourselves in the midst of angsty superpowered thirtysomethings who seem quite certain their lives suck because daddy never loved them. As such, the rest of to book disappointingly fails to live up to the promise of those first pages, just as the Academy’s adult lives failed to live up to the potential of their early years. How very, very meta.

Atomic Robo: I got this comic through interlibrary loan, and purchased my own copy the next day. Created by Tesla in 1923 and getting himself neck-deep in high weirdness ever since, the title character is reminiscent of Hellboy without being outright derivative. The art is similarly influenced by Mignola, but both the writing and the palette have brighter tones. The comic is thoroughly excellent: action-packed, witty, laugh-out-loud funny, and even poignant. Great stuff; more please.

Book Review: The Steel Remains

8 Oct

Richard K. Morgan’s The Steel Remains is, as I mentioned in my last post, staggeringly awesome. It tells the tale of three unlikely heroes and unlikelier friends, drawn together by a war that threatens to destroy all of humanity, that they manage to win through steel, skill, heart, and the assistance of a more friendly group of non-humans who lay their lives (and their Sufficiently Advanced Technology) on the line to help humanity win the day.

Wait, no. It doesn’t tell that tale at all, really.

The Steel Remains instead picks up nearly a decade later. The enemy is defeated, but victory didn’t prevent humanity from quickly finding ways to begin destroying itself again. Our heroes find themselves exiled and marginalized thanks to their culture, heritage, or sexuality… but still called upon when the world needs saving.

With this novel, Morgan brings the same level of craft and bravado to fantasy that he brought to sci-fi in the Takeshi Kovacs series. While this means that readers should be prepared for lots of graphic sex and violence, they’ll also discover excellent characterization, beautiful imagery, genuine horror, insightful social commentary, and deconstruction of genre thoroughly grounded in love for that genre. (Morgan specifically cites Michael Moorcock, Karl Edward Wagner, and Poul Anderson as influences, but it’s tough not to see shades of Conan in the characters of both the swordsman Ringil and the barbarian Egar.) This novel also demonstrates again Morgan’s ability to balance high concept with strong storytelling, a rare commodity in fantasy and sci-fi.

In short, The Steel Remains is one helluva ride. I can’t wait for the sequel.

Sci-fi Book Reviews: The Player of Games

24 Sep

The Player of Games isn’t the first of the Iain M. Bank’s Culture books that I’ve started — that honor goes to Consider Phlebas — but it is the first one that I’ve finished. It’s only in the last five years or so that I’ve been willing to give up on books; before that, I’d struggle through to the end no matter how boring the prose or how unlikeable the characters. Consider Phlebas didn’t suffer from either of those problems, really: it just didn’t grab me, and when you’ve got as many books out of the Cornell Library, public library, and interlibrary loan as I do, you’ve got to be willing to cur your losses. 

However, I was still interested in the idea of the Culture: a massive civilization of post-scarcity humans who live pretty-damn-near utopian lives with the assistance and guidance of godlike AI Minds who are, oddly enough, honestly benevolent. Of course, you may be saying, “Well, that sounds neat, but where’s the conflict?” Well, that’s where Contact (the folks in the Culture who deal with its interactions with other species) and its subsection Special Circumstances comes in. Y’see, life’s pretty good in the Culture, but the Culture’s not the only game in town.

The Player of Games tells the story of Gurgeh, a well-respected member of the Culture who spends his time learning, playing, and writing articles about games. This has made him something of a celebrity, not because he can afford to live like this — in the Culture, pretty much everyone* gets to live like a tenured professor on sabbatical** — but because he’s really, really good at it. Unfortunately, this means that Contact taps him to visit the Empire of Azad, a civilization based almost entirely around the play of the game which shares its name. Gurgeh finds the game of Azad to be exceedingly complex, peerlessly nuanced, and insidiously seductive… traits shared, perhaps not unsurprisingly, by the Empire itself.

I’m not sure why The Player of Games grabbed me so thoroughly when Consider Phlebas failed to. Maybe it’s because I’m primarily interested in the Culture itself, and the former is firmly rooted within the Culture while the latter is written from the point of view of its enemies. Maybe I just thought Gurgeh was a more interesting main character. Maybe it was something I ate.

But whatever the reason, Gurgeh’s unpleasant uprooting from his well-established life within the Culture and his integration into the game and civilization of Azad wasa story I was glad to keep returning to. I was especially impressed with the scenes involving gameplay: Banks has his characters play a number of games that don’t, y’know, actually exist, and he manages to convey the play in a suspenseful, thorough way despite never delving into the specific details or minutiae of rules. This is especially true of the descriptions of Azad: I felt I had a clear idea of what was going on in every step of the game, though I couldn’t explain the rules to save my life. Sci-fi writers often stumble trying to explain things beyond human experience, either by providing an overwhelming level of detail or by leaving the picture to sparse to be comprehended. Banks does neither, and the book soars because of it.

I’ll definitely be returning to the Culture books. I think Use of Weapons is next on my list, but if they keep being this enjoyable, I’ll even give Consider Phlebas another go. Heck, it took me two tries to get all the way through all four volumes of Book of the New Sun, and that ended up being very much worth it.

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* Even the sentient robots, who are considered full citizens of the Culture.

** A tenured professor who can change genders with relative ease, and has a special drug-secreting gland in their brain***.

*** Well, I guess the sentient robots don’t do the gender-switching brain-drug thing, but they still get to write papers.

Sci-fi Book Reviews: Old Man’s War

22 Sep

So, blatantly stealing from Library Scenester, I thought I’d write reviews of a couple of books I’ve recently read: John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, and Iain M. Banks’ The Player of Games. I confess I wasn’t really into “hard” sci-fi in my youth, preferring fantasy and the kind of sci-fi in which people fought with swords or knives. And, to be honest, I’m not sure where these books rank on the odd consistency scale that speculative fiction fans seem to construct about genre works… but they’re not space opera, that’s for sure.

So, let’s begin…

 Old Man’s War starts out better than any book I’ve read in a while:

“I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.”

The book is the story of John Perry, who leaves the Earth he’s known for 75 years to join the Colonial Defense Forces. An embargo on travel and information between Earth and its purported colonies leaves just about everyone in the planet completely in the dark about what’s happening in the rest of the galaxy, but John and his fellow senior recruits know two things: the Colonials have technology that’s demonstrably beyond the wildest dreams of native Earthers, and enlistment promises some sort of rejuvenation program above and beyond anything found at home.

And all you have to do promise to serve for two to ten years, and never return to Earth. Which of course John does, otherwise the book would be short and far less noteworthy.

The universe put forth in the novel is both refreshingly humanistic and remarkably optimistic. While the genre trope of fighting for your species’ survival is alive and well between these covers, the advantages humanity brings to the table are presented effectively. And while there are numerous occasions when the CDF could sell the species’ soul for its survival — and arguably a few when they do — the picture of future humanity tends to be a society that tries to do right by its own, even as it fights to exist.

Refreshing, that.

All in all, I enjoyed the book. Cory Doctorow called it, Starship Troopers without the lectures… Forever War with better sex.” Having read both those works recently, I’d have to agree. But Old Man’s War also stakes out its own territory in the realm of works that chronicle humanity finding its’ place in an often-hostile universe.

Come back later this week for another review! (Or, y’know, read it in your RSS reader.)