Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Book Log (or how long until Jayne's attention span runs ou---oooh something shiny!)

So I think about this time last year I said I was going to write more book reviews, wrote the four part post of the book that drove my liver to hate me, and then never posted another book review. Oh, self, why do you gotta be so cripplingly lazy? (Well, okay, I also was working on my thesis--SO MANY REVISIONS WHY--and not sleeping). Anyway, the point is that I really want to do some book reviews because books are awesome.

But knowing my attention span and the way my brain works (we all remember the Alan Moore stuff, right?), I thought it would be a better idea to do more of a book log with shorter reviews/comments than lengthy ones. Although, knowing me, some of the comments will get long and there are individual books I still want to do reviews for (like The Magicians and Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series), but for now let's stick with this plan.

Love in the Time of Fridges by Tim Scott.

I'm going to be honest here, I read this book awhile ago and some of the details are fuzzy for reasons that will become clear as I ramble on. The books takes place in the near future, about fifty years or so from now in the city of New Seattle, which is obsessed with safety and has a zero tolerance policy on danger (The slogan is something about don't die for no reason what's the point, which is very anvilicious when the character of the hero's dead wife is introduced).

Our hero is Gabe, who returns to New Seattle after moping around after the death of his wife, Abigail. Gabe meets up/becomes obsessed with Nene, who reminds him of his dead wife, which is totes not creepy or anything, and the two are chased through New Seattle by the Health and Safety Department. There's some conspiracy and memory wipes (oh dear god, the memory wipes) and a bunch of talking fridges trying to escape over the border or something.

I picked this book up because I wanted a fun read. The first few pages were promising, having a quirky style, so I figured, hey why not?

The problem with the book is that the quirkyness and zaniness is very much manufactured and forced and doesn't let up and after awhile all the details run together into mush and you're left floundering and wondering why your brain is leaking out your ears. Gabe and Nene meet up, run away, get separated, meet up, get some memory wipes, run on, fall in love for reasons that don't make sense, and so on and so on. There's really no plot, just them doing stupid things for no reason other than for Scott to show off how zany he is.

Scott also has a very irritating habit of dropping Gabe into or overhearing these completely inane conversations. Scott tries to imitate Adams and Pratchett here, but he fails because the conversations aren't a) funny or b) make any goddamn sense. There's only so many times you can read bit characters saying inane and senseless things before you want to beat your head against the wall.

Love in the Time of the Fridges is exactly like eating an entire bag of marshmallows: you start out and everything is great, the marshmallows are sweet and fluffy and so delicious and this seems like a great way to spend an afternoon; then you get halfway through the bag and you're slowing down because, yeah, still delicious, but that's a lot of fluff you've just eaten and your teeth start to feel fuzzy, and you're starting to maybe get a stomachache but you can't stop now; and then you finish the bag and you feel ill and accomplished nothing and possibly given yourself diabeetus (I always hear this word in Wilford Brimmley's voice) and, in general, made a really bad decision.

So, like marshmallows, Love in the Time of Fridges should be read in small installments and you should probably keep the literary equivalent of broccoli next to you to clear out all that sugar.

Notes from No Man's Land by Eula Biss

This is a collection of Biss' essays, and I don't even care if essay isn't your thing you need to read this book right now. Bliss deals with hard, complicated themes such as race and fear and ties them together in ways that make you stop and go yes this. She's upfront that she doesn't have answers, but she offers questions. And the questions she raises are thoughtful and nuanced and really important.

Take the titular essay, "Notes from No Man's Land." Biss discusses fear, specifically those along racial lines. She talks about the still deep racial division in Chicago and the lines and boundaries we set up, heritage from our pioneer past. She brings in Laura Ingalls Wilder and gentrification and the fear of gangs and the neighborhoods of Chicago and ties them all together into a beautiful essay that's something much greater than all of its parts.

If nothing else, you have to read "Telephone Poles." It's the first essay in the book and it is hard and difficult and absolutely amazing. Biss starts by discussing the discovery of the telephone and then goes on with anecdotes about how the American people responded to the telephone poles (spoiler: Americans are crazy and irrational!) and then, suddenly, you learn about the role the poles played in lynching. It's like a punch to the gut.

This essay, in an understated, sparse way, brings attention to a shameful time in American history, when American citizens were murdered and terrorized and it was considered a good thing, a family event. And the essay does nothing to disguise this, just lays out, and at the end you feel raw and open and vulnerable and, oddly enough because Biss is the kind of writer that makes me realize I will never be that good, hopeful.

In conclusion, you need to read this book.

Helmet of Horror: The Myth of Theseus and the Minotaur by Victor Pelevin and trans. by Andrew Bromfield (translators need to get more love, because translation is hard, y'all)

For accuracy's sake, the book should be titled Helmet of Horror: The Myth of Theseus and the Minotaur (A Mindfuck). Because that's what it is: a mindfuck.

Helmet of Horror, like the title suggests, is an updated retelling of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. You know, the one with the maze and the magic string and Ariadne.

The entire novel takes place inside a chatroom. I know, I know, but stay with me. It's not a real chatroom, as there's no use of netspeak and no one uses misogynistic/racist/homophobic language and there's no spam or random pictures of girls making out; it's not the Internet at all.

You're introduced to eight characters (Ariadne, who starts the one and only thread, Monstradmus, Nutscracker, Organizm(-:, IsoldA, Romeo-y-Cohiba, UGLI 666, and Sartriks) only known by the screennames their unknown captors give them. Each of them woke up in a room with a screen and a keyboard and only had access to the one chatroom. The captors also correct all their misspellings and monitor the conversation, censoring all attempts by the characters to use their real names or give any information about themselves.

It's revealed that they're not actually trapped, as they can command their doors to open or close any time they want. Each characters has their own individual maze outside:some are like hedge mazes and others are just a room and one is a church.

Ariadne has dreams, which reveal things about Asterisk (possibly the Minotaur or possibly Theseus or maybe something else entirely, who knows) and his Helmet of Horror, which is made up of several parts (and each of those parts are complicated and, like, deep, man). The rest of the cast try to puzzle their way through the Helmet and who/what/where Thesesus and the Minotaur are. Monstradums becomes almost the default leader in the discussion, having more philosphical leanings than the others, especially Sartriks, who only pops up in the thread a few times and is perpetually hungover and ill.

The novel is deeply philosophical and I have to admit that I didn't get a lot of it. It probably didn't help that I read the book on the El, which does not lend to deep thinking when the guy sitting behind you smells like pepperoni and the woman across from you is eating goldfish crackers and surreptitiously drinking beer while wearing a beret (I love Chicago). And then you get to the end and your mind is blown. Only much classier than I made it sound.

I didn't get the entire book and not sure I understood all that went on, but I'm pretty sure I liked it. So in conclusion: mindfuck.

Whitechapel Gods by S.M. Peters

This is one of the books that I can never decide if I like or not. I will fully admit that I picked it up based almost solely on the cover (look, it's really pretty, okay? Don't you judge me). This came out when steampunk was really starting to, terrible pun totally intended, pick up steam. The book has all the marking of the steampunk aesthetic (Victorian setting, lots of cogs and gears, clockwork men, etc) while trying not to exactly be steampunk.

Yes, Whitechapel Gods is an alternate history, and it actually is Victorian England instead of Victorian England lite, and all the clockwork and the very important cogs and gears aren't man made but are the result of the titular gods of Whitechapel: Mama Engine and Grandfather Clock. In the book, clockwork and steam-powered engines and whatnot are considered to be Very Bad Things. Also, there's like vague mystical alchemical stuff going on for some reason, I don't know.

So basically Mama Engine and Grandfather Clock showed up one day (from space? Like they're aliens or something, I guess?) and since you can't really kill them, Whitechapel has been cut off, enclosed by an impassable wall to keep Mama Engine and Grandfather Clock from infecting the rest of England. The back cover describes the gods as "Mama Engine is the goddess of sentiment, a mother to her believer. Grandfather Clock represents logic and precision." So there's that.

You've got a bunch of humans trying to rebel and kick out Mama Engine and Grandfather Clock, who, while not evil, are just really inhuman and don't understand how us fleshy things work. The hero is Oliver, who, in the wake of a catastrophe which wipes out their little freedom fighter cell, takes over, and in whom Mama Engine takes an interest in. You have Bergen, a mysterious German who is out to try to kill both gods. Missy, the only woman who is there for, well, her motives are never entirely clear. There's Baron Hume, the human who first encountered Mama Engine and Grandfather Clock and attempted to turn himself into a machine and then, I guess, regrets his decision or something? Like he hates he that he worshipped the gods and started up a religion and helped them gain power and now decides to help out Oliver instead to kill them and regain his humanity? I'm not entirely sure.

And then there's John Scared. Oh lord, John Scared. He's pretty much portrayed as the Evil in the book, more so than the machines. He also metaphysically rapes Mama Engine. Seriously.

So basically the plot of the books starts off simple: they have a code or something to kill the gods. Whitechapel is patrolled by canaries, clockwork men that do the bidding of Baron Hume or the gods or whoever when it's convenient. Whitechapel is a really not nice place to live, and some people begin to turn into machines, like instead of breaking out in hives you break out in gears.

So the guy who has the code ends up falling to his death, but not really because his soul is now in a rat. I said there was vague mysticism at work. So Oliver and his gang (including Tommy, who is turning into a clockwork man and picks up the rat-with-a-human-soul) run around fighting the canaries and trying to figure out how to kill the gods. They're really ineffective at it, but get lucky a lot. Until, with the help of Mama Engine's baby (sort of? God, I don't know) and Baron Hume's clockwork men, they finally manage to kick out the gods and kill John Scared (who at that point is all metaphysically raping Mama Engine) and everyone gets to leave Whitechapel.

I know I'm making the book sound like a mess, and it sort of is, in a way, but it's a well written and interesting mess. There is a lot of questions unanswered, like who the hell is Baron Hume, what is really up with Mama Engine and Grandfather Clock, and, in general, how the hell does this world work?
This is Peters' first novel, and it shows. The world building could be a lot better in places and clearer, as could some of the characters motivations. Some sections require you to read at least twice, because a lot happens within a small space of time, and Peters prose sometimes is too dense to unpack it all.

On a technical level, the book is well written and a pleasure to read. But on a plot level, well, there's a lot of holes. I don't believe that an author should spell out every little thing for the reader, but Peters doesn't give us enough sign posts to completely follow, and the lack of detail and explanation for how Mama Engine and Grandfather Clock work and what they are is just maddening.

Not to mention Missy. Oh dear lord, Missy. So ferretbrain.com has a thing they call fantasy rape watch, which tracks how women characters are treated in sci-fi/fantasy. And Missy, unfortunately, falls into every category. She is the only woman (if you don't consider Mama Engine a woman, which, frankly I don't, since she's not even human and pretty metaphysical) in the entire novel and guess what she used to be. Guess. That's right, she was a whore! Of course she was.

But she didn't like being a whore! It was awful! She really has a heart of gold! That makes it okay!

I understand that in Whitechapel a lot of the woman worked as prostitutes, but Missy is not presented as a woman trying to survive, but as a victim. She is a character defined by her victimhood, which is, I'm afraid to say, pretty much par for the course for the majority of female characters in sci-fi/fantasy.

Missy does have some agency, and while she follows Oliver's orders, she does get to do her own thing and (spoiler!) is the one to ultimately take down Scared. But this is after she gets brainwashed and betrays Oliver. Of course.

While I appreciate that Missy isn't quite a damsel in distress, she's not presented as heroic as Oliver and is, of course, defined by the time she spent as a whore. Fail, Peters.

The thing about Whitechapel Gods is, even though I don't actually know if I like it or not, I have to admit it did keep my interest and was, if not great, an entertaining read. It's one of those books I recommend if you have an afternoon free and want something to take up some time. You could choose a lot worse than this book.

White Night (A Dresden Files book) by Jim Butcher

Oh, Jim Butcher. So we meet again.

I think we can all agree you don't read the Dresden books for their great insights into human nature. They are a fun, entertaining, and, above all, a mindless read. I turned to them when I had to take a break from doing research and reading theory, and needed something light and mindless to relax.

That said, there's no denying that the series has some race and gender issues. Oh lord, the gender issues. At some point I'm going to do a post titled Just because you're writing fantasy noir doesn't mean you can be a sexist asshole, and that means you, Jim Butcher and Simon R. Green. But that is not this post. Also, there is at least one part in every book where I have to put it down and walk away.

So the plot of White Night is that some supernatural enemy is running around killing women practitioners and Harry is hired to find out who it is. He runs into his old girlfriend Elaine, and for a while it looks like his half-brother Thomas, a White Court Vampire, may be the serial killer.
It pretty much follows the standard formula of all Dresden books: Harry gets hired for a case, the case gets really complicated, we're told for the elevenity bijillionth time that Harry is "chivalrous" and hates seeing women hurt and he's not a sexist asshole but a Nice Guy (which is a whole 'nother can of worms), Butcher continues to have a creepy obsession with sex and we're told a lot how long it's been since Harry last had sex, there's a bunch of magic fights, one of the women he was protecting dies (oh angst), more creepy sex powered shit (seriously, there's like a sort of weird Whore/Madonna complex going on with a lot of the female characters that's just icky), and there's a happy ending while alluding to a larger plot that Butcher is trying to use to tie all the books in together (and is failing at).

Again, these are mindless, fun reads, but there are a few problems with this book. Thankfully Butcher doesn't draw out the "Oh noes Harry's half-brother Thomas, THE ONLY FAMILY HARRY HAS LEFT IN THE WORLD, may be a killer even though Harry knows he's a sex vampire and there's really creepy consent issues that Butcher never addresses because of his weird sex obsession." It gets wrapped up pretty quickly and it isn't a major plot point, no matter what the back cover may want you to think, because, come on, we all know Thomas isn't going to be the bad guy even if he is unintentionally creepy (back to the consent issues, but again, not the point of this post).

The book clocks in at 450 pages, and honestly it could probably be 100 pages shorter. There are sections that need to be tightened up and the subpolots could be streamlined. Like many authors whose series is running long (Rowling is definitely guilty of this), each book seems to be longer than the last. The problem with this is that the pace tends to slow down and the book itself is bogged down by completely useless scenes and details and padding. The Dresden Files work best with a smaller page limit, which pushes Butcher to stick more to action than plot (and his plots are usually kind of ridiculous). Plus, with long running series you lose character development, since the character stays pretty constant so that readers can pick up a book in the middle of the series and not feel like they're missing out (I have a problem with that, but again, not the point of this post).

One of the good things about the series is Murphy, who is fucking awesome. Man, I wish the books focused just on her going around being all badass because, seriously, she is a BAMF. Also, I find her way more complex and interesting than Harry. Eliane is also a BAMF and I wish she would stick around, but it's probably best that she doesn't or we would be treated to more of Harry whining about how he hasn't gotten laid in four years, you guys, seriously, he is is sex deprived. I think Butcher wants us to feel bad for Harry while simulaneously applauding his self-control for not fucking his smoking eighteen-year-old apprentice because, you know, turning down teenage ass is totally a noble thing. SERIOUSLY, BUTCHER, KEEP YOUR ISSUES WITH SEX OUT OF THE BOOK THANKS.

The part in this book that made me put it down and walk away has to do with Elaine. So Eliane is under a psychic attack by a Skavis (which whammies a person into basically committing suicide--just go with it) and Harry has to snap her out of it. Once she's better, Elain fucking blasts the thing through a fucking wall and pounds it into the dirt, all while bleeding from her wrists and suffering major blood loss. Elaine is fucking badass. Sure, Harry and Thomas ultimately kill the Skavis, but they wouldn't have been able to do it without Elaine getting her BAMF on.

So what does Butcher say about Elaine's sheer badassery? Well, we're treated to her saying, "Every time I come to Chicago, I've got to get rescued. Embarrassing as hell." Okay, yes, she needed help, but that was far from being rescued, seeing as how she blasted the Skavis through a wall and then called lightening down on it.

And then, addressing her badassness, Elaine says, "Wouldn't have happened if you hadn't warned me. Thanks, Harry."

Again, yes, Harry helped, but Elain still fucking kicked ass, but Butcher doesn't let her own it. He has to remind us that Elaine wouldn't be alive without Harry fucking Dresden. The same thing happened with Murphy a couple of books back: she kicks ass, but we're told that it's because Harry warned/helped. Butcher has these kickass female characters, but they're not allowed to own their awesome (although it's gotten better with Murphy) the same way Dresden does. We're constantly told how powerful Dresden is, usually in comparison to other wizards, and we're shown how awesome Murphy and Elaine are, but Butcher puts in effort to show that, you know, Harry is still better.

Hey, Jim Butcher, it's totally okay to allow your female characters to kick ass. Their awesomeness doesn't threaten Harry's masculinity. Seriously, please addess your sketchy gender issues.

White Night is a like a bag of delicious, nutritionally empty potato chips: you read it for the magic and the action and not for its literary value.

And I think I'm going to leave it there for now. My next booklog (which I'll post sometime next we--ooooh Misha Collins!) will hopefully contain more thoughtful books.


Danicus said...

Just finished the first Dresden Files book, definitely going to have to keep reading them. Though mindless, I enjoyed the hell out of it.

Jayne said...

The Dresden Files are really fun books. They're also problematic in certain areas. Same thing goes for the Nightside series by Simon R. Green: fun and interesting but not without problems. Also, sorry for all the spoilers I didn't warn you about in this post. Oops, my bad.