Monday, February 28, 2011

The Month in Review and of Things to Come

February may have been my single biggest book buying month ever.  Outside of the ten books I bought here,  I also picked up The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan, an Everyman's Library edition of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, and Firebirds Soaring, edited by Sharyn November.  That's thirteen books on the month, fifteen really since one was an omnibus containing three novels.  The average price per book comes out to $2.93; I'm feeling good about myself. 

Firebirds Soaring was the only real random purchase of the month; it was in a bargain bin in a local bookstore.  The cover got me.  It may be my favorite cover for a book... ever.  The cover bills the book as "An Anthology of Original Speculative Fiction."  I'm not familiar with the editor.  I opened to the table of contents and had only heard of one author.  The combination of the factors meant I had to buy it as I fancy that I know a thing or two about speculative fiction.  It is for young adults and adult readers and I've noticed that the more I read YA fiction the more I like it.  I'm not sure what that means.  I've read two stories from the collection so far and have been extremely pleased.

I'm cutting back on my hours at work so I can have more time to enjoy life; at least that's the plan.  I hope to even get more reading done.  Also it's getting nice outside and there are so many Atlanta area patios calling out to me when the weekends come.  It's taken awhile but I've made the adjustment to having less income so now I'm looking forward to readjusting to having more fun.

I don't foresee any craziness in March.  The door-stopper for the month is The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles.  I also hope to knock out Slaughter House Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Soldier of Sidon by Gene Wolf and my first 2011 read of the year, The Hammer by K.J. Parker.  If it ever gets here, I'll read Parker's long-short story Blue and Gold as well.  I've also been siphoning stories from George R.R. Martin's Dreamsongs II in addition to Firebirds Soaring but I'm not committing myself to finishing either of those this coming month.

You can expect a commentary of Andrzej Sapkowski's phenomenal The Last Wish sometime tomorrow; I haven't been this excited about traditional fantasy since ever.  Even though it's just making more work for myself, I'm not going to count that commentary for March (when I put these commitments on my blog--in writing as it were--I tend to hold to what I say much more faithfully).  

I honestly have no reason for it, but I've been feeling great these past two days and I think that bodes well for an ass-kicking March.  There will be some random comments on Tanqueray 10, as well as The Perfect Manhattan, possibly my power bill and the heat.

That's all.     

Friday, February 25, 2011

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

The pace of Heart-Shaped Box is relentless.  Jude is an aging rock star living a quiet life with his much younger significant other, Georgia.  Jude buys a ghost online, is promptly haunted, and begins fighting for his life; go figure…  The tension runs extremely high, and pages go by really fast; too fast for my liking.  We are so caught up in the cinematic suspense of Jude and Georgia's encounters with the ghost, Craddock, that Hill has completely forgot to make me care about their fate.  
The first third of the book does nothing to establish character.  Jude doesn't feel grounded.  He is more or less a prop for Hill to display his ability in creating some truly creeping moments of insubstantial fluff.  Not to mention the length at which chase and near suicide scenes goes on.  It was a fun gimmick once, and Hill does it extremely well, but his nuance became a nuisance.  While I was never desensitized to the intensity of these repetitious moments, if the action had been intermittently broken up and if I were given a chance to find something substantial called a story (beyond what I've already mentioned) I think the affect of these scenes would have been even stronger.
Luckily, (at least in this case) I'm stubborn and I didn't put the book down.  Eventually we get backstory and exposition and while those aren't things I generally crave in a novel, Hill presents a good example of what happens when they aren't present.  His writing is clean and anything but confusing, but there was no gravitas to any of the action; it all felt superficial and surface level at best.  It was only after identities were established, motives hinted at, and events beyond, "Run!  Run for your life!" were described that the story started to have some presence.  
To make a musical analogy (music being another quasi-repetitious element in the book) I felt the novel happened in sonata allegro form (a structure that can certainly be linked to literature and drama) where the development came before the exposition.  While what was being developed was amazing, I was unaware as the material had never been presented in it's basic form.  (And with that, I win the battle for most pretentious and esoteric literary review analogy!)  
We learn of Jude's past and a previous girlfriend with some disturbing family problems and a connection to the ghost that wants him dead.  Hill does a great job of keeping you guessing if Jude is the bad guy and the Craddock the avenging angel--or vica versa--right up until the end.  Ultimately the novel works, but felt to me as if the author were trying too hard.  There's action aplenty and it will only take a few days to read as the pace is supercharged.  It's not for the weak of heart and certainly has to power to disturb a good night's sleep.  Heart-Shaped Box is fun, however no where near as convincing as his short story writing.  

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Flanders Panel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

The story behind a five-hundred year old painting and the secrets found there comprise the canvas of this novel about art, chess and--by the end--anachronism personified.  It's a stand-alone title and the first contemporary one I've read from Pérez-Reverte.  
Julia is an art restoration specialist who has been commissioned to work on a very valuable 16th century masterpiece.  "The Game of Chess," the name of he painting she is working on presents the focal point of the novel.  It depicts three people, two playing chess one observing.  The painting and its artist, and this bears the need to point out, are completely fictional.  However, such is the author's skill that you can easily visualize the work by the opening chapter; it is gorgeous and this picture that isn't real makes such a strong impact it will stay with you all throughout the novel and even after you've finished reading.  Pérez-Reverte has a unique ability to present an idea, or a character in the simplest and shortest terms and establish familiarity with readers as if he'd just presented a dissertation.  The immediacy that he can put readers in a scene is very impressive.   
The painting holds the answers to a murder now five-hundreds years old and the game of chess depicted in the painting may hold the answers to the murders taking place around Julia.  
Julia makes for a 'placeholder' protagonist as I felt she was the weakest of all characters established; she could have been supplanted in her role by anyone else of any age or gender.  All we really know is that she is beautiful, very good at her job, and a chain-smoker.  Her supporting cast of colorful (to say the least) characters includes: an antiquities dealer, César; an art agent with a penchant for powdering her nose "The pharmacy is open" Menchu; and a quiet but brilliant chess theoretician who has never won a game, Muñoz.  Fortunately, they are of more interest than Julia who had potential but never really 'popped' as a character.
The painting contains a hidden message.  It was intentionally obscured by the artist and now can only be seen by X-ray, "Who killed the Knight?"  The meaning of the question proves to have more possibilities than possible answers and as Julia's restoration work progresses, and the painting's value escalates before it's auction, the body count raises among Julia's close personal friends and her life becomes very unstable.  
Naturally, the police investigators in the book are incompetent leaving all the true detective work to Julia's gang; primarily Muñoz with his otherworldly ability to diagnosis the mind of the killer by the 'moves' he makes on the painting's chess board.  Odd as it sounds, this device works.  Many, my self included would deem chess an esoteric topic to center a novel around, but Pérez-Reverte has made an exceptional career in making the esoteric accessible with remarkable ease as if the reader were a long established veteran of the topic.  (Other such topics of the author's included cartography and fencing.)  
The writing is free of tangents and diversions yet it is longer than it seems.  This is a rare book in which you won't mind getting 'stuck in.'  You won't notice page count, or be thinking of what's next on your reading pile.  There are very few books that we read where we don't think ahead but only enjoy every chapter, every page, every word.  Being in the thick of The Flanders Panel is a great feeling and while it's not a 'cozy' anything this is the next good book you'll want to curl up with.  
Veteran readers of murder-mysteries and thrillers may say it's a bit light on the whodunit and thrills and heavy in dealing with the characterization and themes.  They would be right to say so.  The painting--which, again, is fictitious, I can see as clearly as the few Rembrandt's; and Van Gogh's I've like eyes on--is dwelled on to a degree I didn't think possible.  I didn't think a author could get that much material for narrative out of so simple a topic.  
Readers more familiar with Pérez-Reverte's historical fiction (e.g. "me") may be temporarily put off balance.  The florid prose and vibrant descriptions that the author achieves with such convincing ease are gone.  Setting is no longer than primary character, but a painting: an inanimate object possibly holding more room for discussion and interpretation than any location could, take it's place very admirably.  
The ending of all thrillers are a let down to me no matter how the author chooses to resolve things.  I'm too much of a realist to accept the absurd yet I crave it over the mundane.  While the last thirty pages are moot the novel's over all effect is anything but.  If you've ever felt the desire to get stuck in the middle of a good book look no further.      

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Mother-Lode

I've been waiting for this for about six weeks now, and patience is not one of my virtues.  "All books $1"  For me there are no stronger magic words.  Sadly, tomorrow will be the last day of business for the Borders in Buckhead, and just yesterday Borders announced they will close four other Atlanta area locations by April.  It felt weird getting a giant stack of books in a store that I've never shopped in before and was only doing so now as to take advantage of the sale.  It was weirder still to hear employees thank me for my patronage knowing they don't have a job as of Monday at eight o'clock.  Enough said of sad tithings… 
Last week, everything was 40% off and I wasn't inspired to buy, I'm not sure how long the $1 sale lasted--maximum six days--but there wasn't much to pick from.  Nonetheless, I'm glad I scanned the shelves twice.  
The Urth of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe fills me with dread.  I loved the end of this series and the thought of him stunting my imagination and out-right telling me what happens next has my anxiety meter high.  This book has near impossible to chore of following up Wolfe's Magnum Opus.  Since the potential for EPIC FAIL is so high, I'm setting my standards really low.  Having said that this is now one of the many books in my TBR pile that I can't wait to get to.  
Martin Millar has been on my list for years… Years…  Neil Gaiman raves about him every chances he has and while Curse of the Wolf Girl wasn't the initial book that brought Millar to my attention, he has a reputation for quality and this one seems a bit out of my regular realm of reading; which I always think is a good thing.
I'm embarrassed to say it but I've never read I am Legend by Richard Matheson.  To add to my embarrassment I refuse to buy books with movie covers; I think I got lucky to find this particular copy as it lacks Will Smith, and has other short stories by the author related to the novel.  Extraordinarily awesome for $1.
The Habitation of the Blessed will more than likely by my introduction to Catherynne M. Valente.  The novel also bears the honor of being the only paperback book I owe--or have ever seen--with deckled edges.  In fact, Night Shade Books felt the need to deckle the hell out of these edges.  I hate the physical book already.  It's impossible to flip a page with your thumb (yes, I've started reading it).  I do love the legend of Prester John and have it on good authority of the authors awesomeness.  I do hope I can suffer the books production because trust me, I could review this book's quality all on it's own… (it would not be good)  
Steampunk is all the rage these days and I've stayed away from it for years.  However, I said I'd breakdown and read some as a resolution in 2011.  I think Dreadnought is a subsequent entry in a series so the oft heralded awesome of Cherie Priest probably won't by at the top of my reading stack for some time.    
Swords and Dark Magic an original short story collection by Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders was the one book that I considered to be a rare find in Borders last days of operation.  The author line up is staggered.  I hope the payoff is too.  
I won a ARC of Finch by Jeff Vandermeer a few years ago.  I bought one today.  I'll read the finished copy and hopefully 'soon.'  I've never heard about bad word said about this one.  
Reading The Hammer by K. J. Parker this year would satisfy my goals of reading more works by women (maybe) and books published in this calendar year.  I only know the author from Purple and Black but that one book was enough to put 'her' on my radar.  
It's amazing how prudish of a buyer I can be; even when things are a dollar.  The three Gormenghast Novels, in an omnibus, is the only thing I bought due to, "It's just a dollar."  I've only heard of it other than that, I know nothing about these books. 

Add in that yesterday I bought a used copy of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen that looks brand new for four dollars at a used book store (I feel like the only person who hasn't read it yet) and this was a good week for book buying.   
According to my receipt, by waiting to the second-to-last-day of business I saved $143.71  I also missed out on minor savings in weeks past on tittles that other shoppers picked up.  I'm okay with that.  Everything I bought was on my list.  I feel a bit like a shady lawyer chasing ambulances in an effort to get business, but now that I know the ropes of a Borders GOB sale, I think I'll wait a few weeks before preying on the other unfortunate store up the street.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A different kind of fantasy

Prepare yourself: I'm excited.

In the past few days no less than four books have come to my attention that are really off the beaten, mainstream path.  They are all decidedly fantasy novels, yet none of them adhere to the mold of European history; European culture; Caucasian knight with a sword, kicking ass and saving the (blond) princess.  While there is nothing wrong with the former, these other books I refer to represent something different  

The Desert of Souls  might just win the most evocative book cover ever award.  It's gorgeous.  As to the book itself, nothing in the reviews I've come across claim it's anything too far out of the norm but the setting--8th century Bagdad, not a secondary world, invented city name that acts as a place holder for a real world Western European city--is enough to get me interested.  I can only hope that the author doesn't white wash the characters (unless of course they should be, hey it's his book not mine...) a la Disney's recent Prince of Persia film: Jake Gyhellhall looks only slightly more Persian than Zack Morris; and by "slightly" I mean not at all... 

The Oracle of Stamboul has perhaps caught my attention more than any other book I'll mention here.  Despite the similar cover to The Desert of Souls  (color palate, font, and border) this one seems less likely to focus on fantasy and ass kicking and more on character development.  Add in that I love Turkish history and I'm ready to read this one now.      

How much do you know about the Mali Empire circa fourteenth century?  I probably know less.  Again, setting is my primary attraction here as the plot synopsis sounds all kinds of mundane, yet still The Timbuktu Chronicles, if only on the surface, appear to offer something different.  How many pages have I read of fantasy author 'X' describing the carefully crafted world of 'Gwarhain' only to not be enchanted because said world was constructed on the same material as 99% of everyone else working in fantasy today?  (Editor's note: statistics are as fictitious as Disney's attempt to include ethnically Persian actors in the aforementioned movie.)  Reading this self published novel would also knock off another of my reading resolutions for the year. 

The book I'm most excited to read on this 'list' is Nnedi Okorafor's Who fears Death which was released last year.  I won't hype it, follow the link read all about it yourself.  I can't say that I've heard of anything like it.  It has also made many 'best of the year' fantasy list as well if I recall; for whatever that's worth.  

Finally, NK Jemisin made a lot of noise last year with The Hundrend Thousand Kingdoms.  I profess up front, on all works mentioned here, this is the one I know the least about.  Ironically, it was very popular with readers.  The only real reason I mention it here, is because the author is a woman of color, and the protagonist is of mixed ethic decent.  Concerning the setting, and plot, it could be more conventional fair (please chip in if you know).  

Understand that I'm not highlighting these books because I think they awesome: I haven't yet read a single one.  The proof is on page waiting for my eyes to read... I'll let you know what I think of the quality then; right now I'm merely speaking of potential concept.  Damnit, I think I just added five more books to my reading load... time to make a visit to the library.  

On a completely unrelated note, I just finished The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte and started Heart Shaped Box by Joe Hill (whom I love).  The former was really good, and the latter--at a hundred pages in--is completely forgettable.  Expect reviews of both soon.            

Monday, February 14, 2011

What should I write about?

One of my unofficial new year's resolutions concerning my reading was that I wanted to post comments for at least two books a month.  Not to have covered twelve by the year's end, but to establish a habit of at least two book commentaries a month.  It's not asking much of myself and it's a very manageable goal.

I've yet to post a commentary this month despite having read a few books.  I was thinking on why I comment on certain books why I don't on others.  I am by no means an expert essayist when it comes to commentary, but I humor myself in thinking that when I do leave comments they are slightly more than, "I liked this book;  The characters made me happy" and other such inane remarks that litter many review sites and amazon ratings.  (Remember I claimed my arrogance up front.)  For me to leave comments, a book needs to have made a substantial impression on me; good or bad.  Actually some of what I think has been my 'best' commentary has been for books that left me feeling 'powerfully indifferent' if such a feeling exist.

Sometimes I'm lazy.  Sometimes I'm just plain ole obstinate and don't do it, but for the most part I've got to feel something to go through with the act of commentary.  I recently finished Summerland by The Amazing Michael Chabon.  I don't feel I know enough about children's literature to offer my two-cents or at least that is my excuse I'm using for being underwhelmed by one of my favorite writers.  "Meh..." rarely qualifies as a strong enough feeling for me to write about though if I had to I'm sure I could at length. 

Apropos of nothing, I had a perfect Manhattan this weekend.  Well, actually I had three.  Rye is necessary--and not the smoothed out mellow 'new-aged-vodka' type rye--but the spicy, in your face, prohibition-era, SHAZAAM variety.  That may be an eye opener for some however, it's the vermouth that is is key ingredient.  The same could probably be said for a Martini, but why would anyone drink a Martini?  

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Sunday Musings

I am becoming an up-tight book buyer.  For the third week in a row, a local Borders going out of business sale failed to make any impression on me.  They are up to all things 40% off which came out to be roughly a dollar less for a new book bought online.  Don't get me wrong, I love saving a dollar but considering that I buy most my books used for about $5-$6 total or from a publishers remainder or bargain bin for the same price; 40% didn't convince me to buy anything.  Factor in on top of that my limited cash flow, taxes I have to pay in a few months, and the fact that I own thirty or so books I've yet to read and it was surprisingly easy to put back Annabel by Kathleen Winter of which I've read so many good things, Great House by Nicole Krauss of which I don't think anyone has said anything negative, and Before the Flood by Margaret Atwood.  They are all still on the list; only not in the TBR pile.

It would have been a fun purchase I there was a small part of me that was caught up in the moment.  It's rare I have a book buying binge that consist of only women; in truth, it's probably never happened before.  Add in a list that is dominated by Canadians and even I'm a bit confused...  My taste in fiction has certainly changed in the past few years.  

Without getting into to much of the financial aspects of a GOB sale, Borders has some crazy-ass pricing structures.  I understand the need to maintain a certain profit margin but I don't think consumers are as dumb as Borders executives do, or at least; I'm not.  I'll spare you my business discourse and hypotheses of their sales strategies.  I could expand on this in probably no less than ten pages with examples and numbers for support, but trust me: Borders has some crazy-ass pricing structures.

I truly feel sorry for all who are losing their jobs, but the GOB sale only throws into relief why I never shopped at Borders in the first place.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

"From my birth when they went undetected, to my baptism where they upstaged the priest, to my troubled adolescence when they didn't do much of anything and then did everything at once, my genitals have been the most significant thing that ever happened to me.  Some people inherit houses; others painting or highly insured violin bows.  Still others get a Japanese tansu or a famous name.  I got a recessive gene on my fifth chromosome and some very rare family jewels indeed." Page 401    
It's easy to say that Middlesex is all about sex, because it is.  It is also a family history and biography.  Calliope Stephanides, our narrator, is at the heart of all the stories and while not always the focal point, she--and the evolution of her transformation to 'he'--is the element that always drives events forward.  Even when Callie is not yet born; even when we already know the present state of his circumstances; everything in the novel drives toward one massive moment of discovery that a statistically few amount of the human population can truly wrap their heads around.  There is nothing like Middlesex.  
The book's presentation is something of a memoir, with Cal looking back on his life and the lives of his parents and grandparents.  In this first half there is some very detached narration as we learn of Cal's grandparents incestuous union, compounded, nearly excused, and to some degree completely forgotten amid their dangerous lives of being Greek in Turkey, World War One horrors and immigration to Detroit in the beginning portion of the twentieth century.  
The characters are rich and tangible and yet the distance that their story is related to the reader makes itself felt all throughout the book.  This distance or gap in emotional connection between the narration and the characters slowly closes as Callie's grandparents story turns into that of her parents and finally her own story.  It is not to say everything before Callie's time--nearly half of a five-hundred plus page novel--is un-engaging or even anything slightly offensive, rather it is decidedly not personal and very detached.  It is Callie's family history that is being related, yet Cal's current insecurity while telling his family's history yields a certain coldness to the story being told; not quite apathy but something greater than passing indifference.  
It is in this section of backstory to Cal's life that Eugenides scored many points for getting the reader to think.  The heart of Callie's story is in finding herself; who she finally settles on being, 'himself.'  The array of topics Callie encounters span a myriad of influences from gender identity, gender supremacy, how the individual views gender and how society views gender, race riots, revolution, what it means to have sex, the vague parameters of a relationship before and after things become physical, the evolution of Cadillac, and heartburn.  Some of these topics are hilarious.  In fact, it is a trait of the book that everything within it's covers is funny.  Not the laugh out loud humor that leaves tears on your cheek rather the half-smile that lights up your face and you try to suppress as to not have to explain to someone else what's so funny.  Other aspects of book are very serious, but never given so serious a consideration by the author as to be academic or stymie the narrative drive.    
There is so much social commentary about the time that Callie grows up and general food for though that I'm convinced that the book didn't have to end.  Eugenides is amazing in his ability to relate so many vast aspects of life to his lead character all with relevance, interest, and an astonishing amount of clout.
The change from Callie's family history to Callie's story itself happens right around puberty, or midway through the book.  Callie first love, anther girl referred to as "The Obscure Object" (Eugenides' naming conventions are infuriating; Chapter Elven is the only name given her bother, The Obscure Object is referred to as such to protect identity but Callie can call out the incest--generational incest--of her family without pause.  It took me a moment, but in the course of reading this behemoth I got over it) as well as her first 'conventional sexual' experience with The Obscure Object's brother are the harbingers to her change.  It is this change to Callie's story, told by Callie that things personal, uncomfortable, and disturbing.  This book will make you squirm around and set your imagination loose on things that you'd never before knew you could imagine.  It's wonderful and will keep you riveted, possibly revolted, but undeniably hooked and condemned to read to the end.  
Some sexual drama and physical injury later, Callie is presented with the information, or perhaps choice, that she is a he, or even more ambiguous; Calliope Stephanides is nothing definitive in terms of gender.  It is the narrators coming to terms with this information that begins an odyssey and journey of self-discovery that isn't truly fulfilled at the books end.  
There is much in this long story that is left out.  Substantial amounts of time in Callie's life are glossed over or wholly ignored.  Callie's mother--the woman who changed her diapers and bathed her for years and never once noticed anything strange down there--is a minor character, perhaps only because her father is such a powerful one.  But what we are given is so fresh an non-derivative that we can fill in the blanks our self and be plenty happy in doing so.  Eugenides' prose is something to talk about.  It's the same, presentation and style he offered in The Virgin Suicides.  Stark and cold, there is nothing poetic or flashy about his combination of words.  I can't imagine anyone ever calling him a 'stylist' and who cares?  He forgoes artful lyric poetry for daring sledgehammer-impact originality, and overwhelming 'dear God is this book really about a true hermaphrodite' unexplored narrative territory.  A more than fair trade in my opinion.  
Did I like the book?  I don't think the question relevant to a discussion of it's merits.  I can't imagine anyone saying Middlesex is their favorite book or that they can't wait to read it again.  Yet I'm glad I read it.  While I don't particularly care for Eugenides (there I said it) if his next offering hits this hard, I can't wait to read it.