Tag Archives: book recommendations

Bookhunter

Bookhunter / Jason Shiga

Cold open

The metropolitan library system is divided into two equally important groups: the Librarians, who facilitate access to information and the Library Police who investigate crimes against it. This is their story.

(Gavel sound)

The Library Police have finally tracked down the individual responsible for the disappearance of multiple copies of Judy Blume’s Forever. While preparing to break into the criminal’s apartment and recover the books they discover that the fiend is holding the books hostage. Thanks to the quick thinking of the inspector and the creative use of a shotgun, the books are retrieved unharmed. But this is only the beginning…

(Opening credits)

(Commercial break)

Law

(Dramatic glasses removal)

A Caxton Bible on loan to the main branch of the public library has mysteriously disappeared without triggering any of the security systems.

(Dramatic glasses return)

The Library Police are called in to investigate the case.

(Dramatic glasses removal)

They must discover the source of the replica currently in the display case, how the culprit managed to get the book out of the library without triggering the security system, and what

(Commercial break)

(Gavel sound)

(Dramatic glasses removal)

the villain’s ultimate goal is. They’ll use the most up-to-date technology to track down the culprit and retrieve the stolen book … by any means necessary.

(Gavel sound)

Continue reading Bookhunter

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Princess of Mars / A rose for Ecclesiastes

A review in two parts.

Part I

Princess of Mars / Edgar Rice Burroughs

A rose for Ecclesiastes / Roger Zelazny

Princess of Mars is a story about imperialism and how assuming indigenous cultures are ignorant savages rules by their superstitions just waiting for a white man to come rescue them is foolish in the extreme.

Wait, I think I may have things slightly wrong here. Let me consult my notes.

I’ve been informed that the above description of this classic pulp adventure is totally backwards. Let me try again.

A Princess of Mars stars a soldier who has recently taken part in a treasonous uprising. The revolt having failed, he decides to invade a sovereign nation in search of gold. Upon finding it, he is shocked to discover that the inhabitants take issue with his plan to rob them of their natural resources. Trespassing on sacred ground to avoid capture, he finds himself transported to Mars. There he protects the local settled, agricultural population from the nomadic Green Martians (race being the determiner of virtually all individual characteristics), rescues the (nude) princess and becomes a prince, using his superior strength and intellect to negotiate a truce between the Green and Red Martians. At this point I feel obliged to point out that this story was the inspiration for the movie Avatar.*

So it’s pretty much your standard colonialist white savior narrative that has been done ten thousand times. Yes, it’s an uncomplicated adventure story but at this point more than 100 years after its original publication there are so many other stories that don’t drip unexamined racism there’s not really any point to reading this for entertainment. It’s definitely valuable for its historical importance and those wanting to experience the history of the genre should check it out.

*I was incredibly disappointed when I discovered that it was not, as I initially thought, a movie about Krishna. The promotional stuff I initially saw only showed an eye on an apparently blue skinned face and I was really excited that there was going to be a big budget movie featuring the eighth avatar of Vishnu. That would have been an amazing movie.

Part II

So what about my earlier description? That’s more suited to A rose for Ecclesiastes, a story that almost didn’t get published because Zelazny, more than 50 years ago, knew that the “dying Mars” subgenre was outdated and somewhat embarrassing.

To describe A rose for Ecclesiastes as an anti-imperialist take on Burroughs isn’t really accurate. Still, Zelazny does an excellent job of subverting the standard planetary romance tropes while crafting the best example of the genre I’ve ever encountered. So read that instead.

The three musketeers

The three musketeers / Alexandre Dumas, père

Seeing as how it’s been quite a while since I did something that wasn’t 20th century sf, I figured I’d go back to the classics and take a look at The three musketeers.

Spoiler: it’s not particularly faithful to subsequent adaptations

Brief plot summary

D’Artagnan is a hotheaded would-be musketeer. Armed with an ugly horse, his father’s sword, a letter of recommendation, and instructions from his father to fight as many duels as possible, d’Artagnan leaves his native Gascony and heads for Paris. Adventure, espionage, and “romance” ensue.

Continue reading The three musketeers

… and call me Conrad

This immortal / Roger Zelazny

This immortal was originally published in a somewhat shorter, serialized form under the title “… and call me Conrad” which was apparently Zelazny’s preferred title for the work and may or may not be the title it is currently published under? Apparently the “complete” version wasn’t actually published until 1980. I read the 1974 Ace edition so there are (once again, apparently) about ten paragraphs that I didn’t get.

It’s been hard for me to find the right angle to approach this one from. This review will probably come across as more negative than this book warrants considering its publication history but so be it. I’ll just say for the record that I do like Zelazny’s work, including this book.

Also the aliens are from Vega so they are, naturally, referred to as “Vegans” which has great comedic potential.

Plot summary

Conrad Nomikos is apparently ageless and possibly a god. Conrad is ugly, clubfooted and with a face covered in some sort of fungal infection. The Earth has been devastated by nuclear war, the vast majority of the population has moved offplanet to serve as menial servants to the Vegan people. The Vegans are fascinated with how humanity has managed to destroy their planet and view the Earth as an intriguing holiday destination.

Years previously, Conrad was the leader of the Radpol movement, the center of the Returnist movement that attempted to convince human expatriates to return to their homeworld and used terrorism to prevent the Earth from being entirely turned into a tourist trap for the Vegans.

Now, Conrad has been charged with escorting the wealthy Vegan Cort Myshtigo on a research tour of prominent locations in human history. Myshtigo claims they are writing a book, but the current Radpol leadership sees Myshtigo’s trip as a fact-finding expedition to enable complete Vegan domination of the planet.

Continue reading … and call me Conrad

The night angel trilogy

The way of shadows / Brent Weeks

The night angel trilogy (although apparently there’s a fourth one now?) is a series I mentioned way back in my review of The warded man (which recently became the most-viewed post I have done to date).

I haven’t written a post focusing on it for some time, partially because other titles have taken priority but mostly because I don’t really know where to go with this one.

So I’m going to do my best and address the issues with this series as well as I can.

Plot summary

Azoth is an orphan, constantly struggling to get enough to eat while appeasing the “bigs” of his guild and protecting his two friends, Jarl and Doll Girl. When he encounters legendary killer for hire Durzo Blint, he sees an opportunity to bring himself out of poverty and finally establish some measure of control over his life.

Azoth goes to great lengths to convince Durzo to take him on as an apprentice killer, but in legendarily corrupt Cenaria, everyone has an ulterior motive.

Continue reading The night angel trilogy

Dr. Adder

Dr. Adder / K.W. Jeter

So. Doctor Adder is one of those classic books that nobody seems to have heard of. I know I hadn’t. I’d say that’s because it’s a definite “go for the extremes of content” style book but as it’s sf it doesn’t get the credit that stuff like American psycho does. I myself had only heard of it recently, and a friend who Is a huge fan of 60s-80s sf hadn’t heard of it either.

And despite its completion in 74 and publication in 84 Dr. Adder is still a 60s book.

It’s one of those books that took forever to publish because it was “ahead of its time”, initially because of the explicit content but lit crit types who call it “ahead of its time” now generally refer to how it prefigures what became cyberpunk.

Adder is contrasted with John Mox, televangelist extraordinaire and a sworn enemy of Adder, whose MoFos (moral forces) roam the streets in an attempt to “clean things up” while LA’s denizens entertain themselves by murdering Mox’s minions.

Plot summary

Allen Limmit is ready for bigger things. Approached by a representative by megacorp GPC with an offer he can’t refuse, Limmit heads to LA to sell the contents of a mysterious case to  counterculture icon Dr. Adder,  master of elective surgery.

Dr. Adder specializes in body modification of prostitutes. Using a drug that allows him to see into their unconscious minds, Adder can discover what extreme bodymod will most satisfy both the prostitute and their customer. Usually this involves amputation.

Continue reading Dr. Adder

The black jewels

Daughter of the blood / Anne Bishop

Daughter of the blood is the first book in the Black jewels series.

I don’t know where to start with this book. It’s tough to pick a point to get a handle on other than the reviewer who described it as “sensual” should feel terrible about using that word to describe this book’s world of nightmarish predatory sexuality.

Plot summary is below the cut this time. Content warning for a world of nightmarish predatory sexuality including extreme abuse.

Things also got a little more political than they normally do but part of that is as a live “human” I find the real-world parallels are important.

Continue reading The black jewels

The powder mage trilogy

Promise of blood / Brian McClellan

Promise of blood is the first installment of the Powder mage trilogy by Brian McClellan. It’s a series I have mixed feelings about even though I really enjoyed it.

The powder mage trilogy is, alongside The shadow campaigns, one of the most visible examples of what is currently being called “flintlock fantasy”. Fantasy novels based in the goings on of 18th and 19th century Europe have been around for a long time, but specifically military novels focusing on the era are a more recent phenomenon. That the subgenre got a name when authors started writing books “full of machismo”* probably says something about the types of fans who obsess over genre labels and/or the biases of publishers.

*I’m paraphrasing a blurb here

Plot summary

Field Marshal Tamas has just initiated a coup. After overthrowing the government of Adro he must attempt to hold the nation together in the face of an invasion by their neighbor and historical rival, Kez. He also must contend with the possibly fictional curse that befalls the one who murders a sovereign, supposedly invoking the return of the gods.

Continue reading The powder mage trilogy

Uzumaki

Uzumaki / Junji Ito

It took me way too long to realize that as much as I might like the idea of horror I don’t really care for it much in practice. This is largely because many of the people I hung out with in college really liked horror movies. As a result, I watched a lot of horror movies. Even after college I still tried to convince myself that I liked the genre. It took longer than I’d like to admit for me to realize that I didn’t have to force myself to sit through media I didn’t enjoy because I thought that was what I was supposed to like.

I still like the genre in theory. It competes with science fiction for the “genre best suited for social commentary” award. It’s a genre where imagination is allowed to operate more freely than in other genres, where there are deeply entrenched tropes that tend to limit one to either following them or deconstructing them. Not to say that horror doesn’t have its own set of clichés (see the interesting but not exactly thought-provoking Cabin in the woods) but that in many cases there’s more room for experimentation. Theoretically this is also true of science fiction, fantasy, and graphic fiction in general but in practice the Golden Age problem shows up frequently.

I also like horror because on a fundamental basis it tends towards stories about people trying to survive in a universe that is at best wholly indifferent to them. There’s a sense that slasher films are like mystery novels in that they fundamentally serve to uphold social norms as those who are visibly or behaviorally different are murdered in creative ways (once again, see Cabin in the woods, as it serves a useful function as ur-text for the slasher genre). I’m more tempted to read them as an indictment of the way society as a whole punishes difference and enforces conformity and adherence to “appropriate” social norms (where being a visible minority or sexually active gets you killed first).

So in general I don’t really watch many horror movies. Living with someone with a low threshold for terror means I don’t have many opportunities anyways (not that I’d seek out opportunities at this point). I’ll check one out once or twice a year but in general Doctor Who is as scary as things get at home. I’ve also found that the more I’m exposed to real-life horrors the lower my tolerance is for fictional ones.

Which brings me to the actual subject of this post, Uzumaki. Originally published in 1998-1999, Uzumaki is the story of a small town plagued by spirals.

Plot summary

A small town in Japan experiences a series of strange events involving spirals. From snails to hair to smoke, spirals plague the town and its inhabitants. Kirie Goshima* and her boyfriend Shuichi Sato* appear, at least initially, to be the only people in town to realize that something very wrong is happening.

*Yes, purists I’m using the Anglicized name order. The English translation does it that way so I’m just reporting the names as presented in the book itself.

Continue reading Uzumaki

Gateway

Gateway / Frederick Pohl

Since it’s the day after Christmas I’ve decided to feature a book about how we live in a desolate, dangerous universe where everyone you love will most likely die an arbitrary and meaningless death.

Yay!

Gateway is an interesting book to read in 2015. It has a lot of good and interesting ideas, but the plot is predicated on a psychological model that feels horribly outdated.

There are some other novels set in the same universe but so far Gateway is the only one I’ve read so I can’t really speak to its value as an entry point.

Plot summary

Robinette Broadhead, former worker in the “food mines” is rich and famous. After multiple successful interstellar journeys he has retired to Earth. Deeply traumatized by his experiences, he avails himself of a computerized therapist.

So how is it?

It’s very good but deeply flawed. Gateway’s portrayal of space exploration is fascinating. Interstellar travel is possible only via the use of alien craft of unknown origin. It’s not even known how to refuel the craft or even how to figure out how much fuel is remaining. The vast majority of expeditions find empty space or don’t return at all. It’s an enigmatic setting and the way Pohl tells an entire story without ever giving any real answers is masterful.

Fully half the novel consists of Broadhead’s therapy sessions. Broadhead is deeply suspicious of his AI therapist and the AI’s motives remain in question for the vast majority of the book. That might turn some readers off, but it follows the “alternating chapters in two timelines” approach that helps keep things fresh. Interspersed throughout are personal ads, lecture transcripts, and other “primary source” documents that do a great deal to illuminate the culture of Gateway and the background of the story itself without too much exposition.

But…

The biggest issue with Gateway is that it is, like all things, a product of its time. The core of the book is an exploration of Broadhead’s psychology. What that means is that some of the “explanations” we get later on are predicated on what are now largely discredited ideas about sexuality and psychological development. Published only two years after the APA statement that homosexuality is not a mental disorder and four years after the other APA removed homosexuality from the DSM, Gateway’s portrayal is fairly progressive but is deeply rooted in Freud’s theories on human development – theories that were 40 years out of date when Gateway was published.

I can appreciate Gateway for what it is but its reliance on an outdated theory of mind in a book featuring a high-tech future therapist breaks the immersion somewhat. It’s still a good book and one I enjoy but for that one thing.

This is an issue that happens frequently – see also the extremely 1950s social roles of Asimov’s The caves of steel. It’s not terrible but books like Stand on Zanzibar were able to portray a changing cultural landscape far more effectively.

Gateway is a book about exploration. The text itself is an exploration, both of Gateway and of Broadhead himself. The actual exploration that the characters themselves do is essentially meaningless and largely fruitless. It’s a book that paints a decidedly pessimistic picture of space exploration but for all its bleakness the book manages to avoid being depressing, on the whole.

Recommendation

Gateway is like Way station. It’s a book that I highly recommend to people looking for classics but otherwise I tend to stay away.

I’ve encountered a couple of essays lately about how young people today don’t read “the classics”. I think one of them was by Scalzi. Both of them presented complaining about how “kids these days” just don’t get “the classics” and how that’s somehow dumbing down the world of sf fandom. I’m glad, since it’s a ridiculous proposition and the reliance on using works 40+ years old to try and win new readers to the genre seems misguided at best. Sf is aggressively a product of its own time and in that light attempting to canonize some “golden age” and treat the genre like it needs to be experienced chronologically seems doomed to failure.

The point is I don’t think it’s a good idea to recommend anything older than 5-10 years when asked for generic recommendations, especially when it’s a recommendation for a young person. I could barely make it through Astronaut Jones in 1993; more than twenty years later the book has even less cultural relevance. I make partial exceptions for people who have actually lived through the era in question as they will generally have the first-hand experience of the cultural context necessary to truly get into the work.

To put it succinctly, as a rule generally avoid recommending books to people that are older than they are. The older the reader the more you can get away with bending that rule, and if you know the reader very well then obviously that knowledge should take precedence. There was one person I know, born in the 1990s, who refused to read any sf published after the mid-80s because they felt like more recent sf suffers from a “longer is better” mindset. They aren’t as restrictive now but that’s the type of person I recommend books like Gateway or Way station to.