Monthly Archives: July 2015

A reading list for LS

So a couple of weeks ago I was talking to somebody about books and offered to put together a list of suggestions for them. Because I’m lazy I decided to make the list do double duty as a blog post, and because I’m too lazy to type up an email and then copy-paste it to the blog I’m going to write it up here and send them the link instead. As a result you’ll be getting this a couple weeks late as I already had several posts buffered, so my apologies.

Anyways. This particular person had been somewhat unsatisfied by a lack of “edgy” reading material. They were disappointed by the ending of Redshirts as it was too upbeat for them, so I offered to put together a list of suggestions on the darker side. They cited the way Martin manages to make the reader fall in love with his characters before killing them off.

Crooked little vein / Warren Ellis — If you’re looking for edgy fiction it’s hard to find edgier than Crooked little vein. A “road novel” that exists to explore the bizarre excesses of weird humanity, this one has everything, incest, drug abuse, kaiju fetishists … (It’s like that thing were people get together and masturbate to Godzilla movies while wearing monster gloves) [end Stefon].

Ellis is known for excess, but Crooke little vein is excessive even for Ellis. It’s closer to Ennis in prose than anything else, which means it’s going to gross out or offend a huge portion of its potential audience. Think Palahniuk. 

The lies of Locke Lamorra / Scott Lynch — I reviewed this fairly recently so I won’t repeat myself a ton, but it has a lot of the strengths of Martin but transplants them from England to Italy and replaces political maneuvering with con games and elaborate revenge schemes.

The thousand names / Django Wexler — the third book in this series just came out. I wasn’t initially going to recommend it here as the first volume is very much a military-focused campaign novel, but a blurb on the second volume claimed that it “[does] for the Napoleonic wars what George R.R. Martin did for the War of the Roses.” The second book takes things in a more urban direction, and despite the fantasy genre it’s the best depiction of the French Revolution in fiction, hands down. Because there isn’t a one to one correlation between history and the plot Wexler can capture the atmosphere and competing tensions without distracting people looking for historical inaccuracies.

I almost dropped The thousand names after the first chapter, worried that it was going to be a classic “Europeans fight savage colonial rebels” style military fantasy novel but I stuck with it and was really pleasantly surprised.  I’ll probably post a more detailed review of this later unless I don’t.

American psycho / Brett Easton Ellis – I always forget that not everyone has read this so I don’t frequently recommend it, but this story of a yuppie who may or may not be a depraved serial killer is a classic of transgressive fiction.

Lock in / John Scalzi

This one is a murdwr mystery with a twist: in the near future, a disease has spread worldwide that renders a sizable portion of survivors “locked-in”. Completely conscious but with no control over their bodies, those so afflicted must rely on specially designed cradles to take care of their physical bodies while they control “threeps”, robotic surrogate bodies controlled via a surgically implanted interface. As threeps have become more common, public sentiment has started to shift. No longer seen as a disabled minority requiring special care merely to survive, the “normal” majority increasingly views the locked-in as excessively coddled and privileged.

It’s not a particularly edgy book but it’s an interesting premise and it is well written enough that I feel comfortable recommending it here nonetheless.

The heroes / Joe Abercrombie

I have a love-hate relationship with Abercrombie. I really disliked the First law trilogy as he seemed to be doing his best to make every character as unlikeable as possible. His later books have foud more of a balance, retaining the edginess and cynical outlook while creating more well-rounded characters. 

This is another one I’ll probably write a full post on later so I won’t say too much aside from this: The heroes is one of the best anti-war novels I have ever encountered and it shares Martin’s sensibility that goodness and best-ness aren’t really the same thing.

Things I would recommend but think you’re less likely to actually read

Preacher / Garth Ennis – a preacher finds himself with the power of the Word of God. Accompanied by his girlfriend and a foulmouthed Irish vampire, Jesse Custer travels the country looking to make God answer for his crimes. Ennis is arguably the kin of gratuitously edgy, and Preacher is his best known work.

Transmetropolitan / Warren Ellis – Transmetropolitan is really just an extended rant by Warren Ellis with science fiction trappings. Like the cyberpunk genre as a whole, as it has aged it has become much harder to distinguish some of the “futuristic” aspects from everyday life. With Transmetropolitan, which revels in hyperbole and obnoxiously excessive jokes, it is perhaps more surprising that some of those jokes now accurately describe contemporary society. 

Angel’s blood / Nalini Singh – this is a romance novel. Still, if you’re looking for edgy it’s pretty far up there, featuring a society rules by utterly amoral angels who have no real regard for mortals and treat humanity as disposable playthings at best. It’s by far the most violent book I’ve ever encountered in the romance section, only slightly less gruesome than American psycho.

Prédateurs / Maxime Chattham – as far as I can tell, this book is only available in French. Which is too bad because despite being by far the most disturbing book I have ever encountered it’s still really good and has a surprisingly uplifting ending. The story of a group of MPs attempting to stop a serial killer in the middle of a war zone, it presents an interesting commentary on human nature. The setting and time period are kept intentionally ambiguous, although it’s heavily implied that the characters are American soldiers on the western front of World War II. Jump on a translation if one exists.

A rogue by any other name

A rogue by any other name / Sarah Maclean

And now for something completely different: a historical romance review.

A rogue by any other name is the first book in Sarah Maclean’s Rules of scoundrels quartet, each featuring one of the owners of the most notorious gaming hell of 1830s London, the Fallen angel. It’s an interesting series for multiple reasons but it finishes better than it starts.

Plot summary

After losing his ancestral lands on an ill-conceive wager, the Marquess of Bourne is willing to do anything to get them back.

Lady Penelope Marbury has wealth and connection to spare, but the stigma of a broken engagement has caused her father to go to desperate lengths to enhance her dowry and find a husband for her and her sisters.

So how is it?

It gets better as it goes along, but is hampered somewhat by some of the particulars of the plot. Overall it’s pretty good and worth the read.

The biggest failing of A rogue by any other name is that it follow the somewhat tired “kidnapped bride” plot structure. The writing is there, and Maclean’s dialogue is some of the best I’ve ever read in any genre. Still, if you’ve read very many historical romance novels you’ve seen this plot before, and the rhythm cleaves closely to the formula.

The actual premise of the series is interesting, and there’s some trenchant social criticism to be found. Each of the Angel’s four owners has found themselves exiled from polite society because of some past mistake or scandal. Unable to compete on society’s terms, they’ve decided to change the game. Of the four principals, Bourne is the least interesting and Chase, the hell’s enigmatic founder, is by far the most. 

It’s an interesting story of a group of people “disinvited” from polite society who, after building power and success outside of traditional avenues for such, decide that they are ready to return. There are visible inspirations from other sources, but unlike many genre fiction series it’s not a genre remake. A rogue by any other name has done definite Count of Monte Cristo influence, complete with discussion of whether or not it’s appropriate to go through with revenge even if it means innocent people will suffer the same way the revenge-seeker did.

As I’ve mentioned, the serie sets progressively better after this one, but there is a thematic progression as each installment colors further outside the traditional lines of the genre (and the society it depicts) so it’s still worth reading them in order.

The series is a little bit like Empire records or [insert title of rebellious teen angst film] in a Regency setting. It’s got that feel of a group of outcasts deciding to “stick it to the man” that I find overwhelmingly appealing.

Recommendation

This is a must read for fans of historical romance. For others the recommendation depends on an open mind. This series is not Stephanie Laurens, equally comfortable sitting alongside the “regular” fiction as it is historical romance. MacLean sits comfortably deep in the genre, and the fact that there’s more going on here than popular conceptions of the genre would suggest* won’t sway those who find the genre itself a turn-off.

For those willing to explore a new genre, those who don’t enjoy sentimental happy endings should probably look elsewhere as well. Those who don’t like being able to predict which characters will end up married after the first chapter could skip this too.

One thing that’s worth mentioning about the series as a whole is that there’s a wider diversity of character types than is usually expected of a regency romance. Not everyone is a member of the titles nobility, and some people end up married outside the aristocracy. For a genre that’s largely about wish fulfillment** that’s kind of a big deal.

Additionally, there are characters who are gay (although this is not mentioned explicitly it’s implied so heavily there’s not really room for doubt), a protagonist who is a single mother, and even nonwhite characters whose skin color isn’t fetishized. 

It’s a great series for genre fans, and it seems to be tailor-written for fans of the genre who recognize its frequent blind spots. Still, this is very much a historical romance series. It’s not going to be a heart-wrenching examination of 19th century English social problems. That’s a strength for those of us who deal with some of those issues firsthand on a day to day basis and so don’t feel the need to be beaten down by the same issues in their leisure reading, but that also means despite the definite social conscience of the series it’s not going to have a lot of appeal outside of the genre.

*my supervisor derisively refers to historical romance as “smut books”. As a result, there’s no way I’m recommending this series to them.

**I don’t mean that as a pejorative.

Death of a kingfisher

Death of a kingfisher / M.C. Beaton

I don’t generally read a ton of mysteries anymore. It’s not that I have some problem with the genre, it’s that as I’ve grown up I’ve come to occupy a cultural headspace that makes the value structures seen in most mystery novels seem baffling. I don’t know if this is a generation thing or a philosophical thing or what, but I tend to find that mystery novels assume a set of perspectives on the part of the reader that I don’t share. 

I still do read them though. Partially because I think it’s important that I don’t get too wrapped up in reading lots of the same types of books, partially because I’m occasionally in the mood for something stupid and can’t find anything to read, and partially because I either hope it will make sense finally or that this one will be different. It’s similar to my experience with The adventures of Menahem-Mendl but more embarrassing as I’m supposed to have all the cultural context here. 

Sometimes these things are easier to pinpoint than others. With M.C. Beaton it’s fairly self-evident what the issue is.

So, Death of a kingfisher is one of the Hamish Macbeth novels, featuring the misadventures of a folksie constable in an exceedingly rural part of Scotland. They’re not quite cozy mysteries, being a bit longer than something like Miranda James, but in terms of structure and complexity they’re firmly in the cozy camp.

Plot summary

When a tourist in town for a fishing class does mysteriously, it’s up to Hamish Macbeth to bring the culprit to justice!

So how is it?

Perfectly serviceable. The plot follows more or less the same structure as your average mystery novel (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing – I say this as a reader of both epic fantasy and wuxia novels). There’s nothing really here to distinguish it to those outside the genre aside from the setting.

Now to go on an extended tangent. I feel like the mystery novel is an inherently conservative genre. I’ve seen that accusation leveled at superheroes before, which is true to some extent, but there’s a very active group of authors who are trying to subvert that, which is aided to some extent by the fact that while superheroes may be agents of the status quo most of them are also vigilantes and not the exclusive tools of “the system”. When it comes to mystery novels it seems like there’s less of a counterculture, or if there is that it’s less visible. Gun machine and Crooked little vein are the only English-language example I can think of at the moment.

Here’s an example from Hamish Macbeth: at one point he complains about how rediculous it is that he’s expected to take it easy on people found with small amounts of marijuana whereas he’s supposed to actively prosecute people who drive drunk.

Yeah, complaining about not being allowed to let people get away with driving drunk is not a way to endear me to the series. It’s a really easy example of what I mean by the inherent conservatism of the genre though. Marijuana use is a priori worse than drinking and driving not because it has a more negative impact on the people doing it or others, but because it doesn’t conform to the expected societal norms. It would be one thing if there was any justification presented for why one was somehow worse than the other, but there isn’t. It’s seen as self-evident. The idea that failure to conform to “proper society” is somehow a bad thing independent of the (real or imagined) negative impact of a given activity permeates mystery novels. This was just one example that immediately jumped out at me.

But as I’ve said it’s a perfectly serviceable mystery series with a quaint rural setting. It’s pretty quick reading – I finished this one during the downtime of a reference desk shift. It’s just not quite my thing.

Recommendation

I do and have recommended this series before. It’s one of my go-to recommendations for older mystery novel readers that are looking for something new that isn’t too edgy. It works pretty well for that.

Komarr

Komarr / Lois McMaster Bujold

Komarr is the first post-Memory volume of the Vorkosigan series. As a result, it’s quite a bit different than the earlier books and even more so than Shards of honor presents a blend of genres – half regency romance, half science fiction.

Miles Vorkosigan features, but from this point on in the series other pout of view characters become increasingly prominent.

Plot summary

Ekaterin Vorsoisson is unhappy. Her husband, terraforming project administrator Tien Vorsoisson, is moody and struggling to hide a genetic illness that drove his brother to an “accidental” death in a vehicular accident. To make matters worse, her husband’s job has forced her to leave her belove home world for the domed cities of Komarr, a world whose attitude towards Barrayarans is rarely welcoming and frequently hostile.

After a mysterious accident destroys a large portion of the planet’s orbital solar power collector her uncle, former engineering professor and current Imperial Auditor Vorthys comes to Komarr to investigate. Accompanying him is the “mutie lord” Miles Vorkosigan, the twisted dwarfish son of the notorious “Butcher of Komarr”.

So how is it?

As I’ve mentioned in many of my previous posts on this series, it’s one of my favorite books of all time. 

I need I make a confession: I like books that feature really mundane activities. My favorite Recluce book is the first one because I like the part where Lerris is working as a carpenter. My favorite of the Chronicles of Prydain is Taran Wanderer. My favorite parts of Memory are the part where Miles is trying to get his home up and running and the part where he goes fishing. For some reason my favorite parts about sff are the parts that do the least to distinguish it from other genres. As a result, my favorite part of Komarr is a scene where Ekaterin and Miles go shopping. My second favorite part is a scene where Ekaterin’s son refuses to go to school. So be aware of that when I say that this book is one of my favorites.

One of the reasons I like Komarr is how relaxed the whole thing feels. Yes, there’s a plot involving the secret behind the accident that destroyed the Soletta array, but that takes a back seat to scenes of people going shopping and eating dinner and questioning themselves and getting to know each other. It feels very historical romance that way, which is fine with me an makes me wonder if I should be reading more historical romance anyways.

Komarr is also more towards the “hard sf” end of the spectrum than most Bujold. There’s plenty of discussion about terraforming and waste-heat and things like that. It adds a sense of realism but never falls to Kim Stanley Robinson-like depths of obnoxiousness like “Joe exited the ship into an atmosphere of 70% nitrogen and was promptly surrounded by a dust cloud featuring iron particles at a concentration of 377ppm. The barometric pressure was N and the gravity was .7g which meant he found walking across the surface composed of 66% silicon, 20% iron, and 10% trace organic material …” (Etc.)

So Komarr is kind of weird in that it’s simultaneously more and less “hardcore” sf. I suspect that this will be more of a stumbling block for hardcore sf fans than it will others. The engineering talk is largely just extra flavoring while the emotional moments are the core of the story.

I think it was Jo Walton who said that for her, Memory was the point were the Vorkosigan books stopped getting better. That wasn’t the case for me, but Komarr is the beginning of a new stage of the series with less emphasis on Miles himself and fewer set-piece action scenes. I like it that way but those looking for puppy-style adventure will be disappointed when characters start talking about their feelings.

The climax of this book is amazing and make it worth checking out for fans of the earlier books too.

Recommendation

As I mentioned in my previous post about this series, Komarr is actually a great entry point to the series. It’s mostly told from the PoV of a new character and while previous events are important the plot doesn’t assume knowledge of them and it’s easy to figure it out from context. (Neither is much time spent recapping. Bujold is the best at informing the new reader without boring the old one.)

It’s also worth a recommendation to non-sf readers. Historical romance* fans in particular will find a lot to love here. It’s a strong recommendation for fans of Sarah MacLean who are willing to try something unusual. Shana Galen is another good comparison.

*That being said, Komarr is much less sexually explicit than most historical romance so if that’s your primary motivation you’re going to be disappointed.