Saturday, June 30, 2012

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Book review: The Scar, by China Mieville


The Scar is the second book set in China Mieville’s enormous and species-diverse world of Bas-Lag, and while it might help for readers to be familiar with its predecessor Perdido Street Station, it's not strictly necessary, as this is not strictly a sequel. It's enough to know that as the story opens our protagonist, linguist Bellis Coldwine, is fleeing her beloved city of New Crobuzan (the setting for PSS) in fear for her life. Unfortunately, Bellis has a tangential connection to the awful events that make up the narrative of PSS, and her friends and acquaintances have started disappearing in the resulting government investigation. Determined not to meet the same fate, Bellis hastily books passage working as a translator on the Terpsichoria, a ship bound for the distant colony of Nova Esperium. There she hopes to wait out the trouble, and eventually return home.

As her journey gets underway, Bellis – chilly by nature and in mourning for her lost life – remains aloof from her fellow passengers, though she acerbically records shipboard goings-on in a long, journal-like letter she means to send back to New Crobuzon at her first chance. Growing restless in the long, dull days at sea, Bellis finally strikes up a guarded friendship with Johannes Tearfly, a naturalist and fellow academic whose primary interests are in “megafauna” and exotic underwater life. She also grows curious about the hold full of "Remade" prisoners, intended to be used as labor in the new colony. (The Remade are the lowest class in New Crobuzan: usually criminals, whose punishment includes the forcible addition or alteration of body parts. These might be organic – beaks, claws, feathers, tentacles, extra human bits; or mechanical – legs replaced by steam-engine powered treads, arms replaced with tools useful in factories. The punishment generally fits the crime in some perverse way, and the possibilities are endless. In a world occupied by a multiplicity of "xenian" races, the Remade are among Mieville's darkest and most fascinating creations. But I digress.)

It's not long before Bellis is pressed into earning her passage, serving as translator in highly volatile and secret talks with New Crobuzon allies the Cray, who seem to have misplaced something large, top-secret and essential to government interests. There is clearly more going on aboard the Terpsichoria than meets the eye. When Silas Fennec, a mysterious passenger with enough clout to commandeer the ship, announces they must return to New Crobuzon immediately, Bellis is both alarmed and relieved.

And then pirates attack. Really. Just when the novel is building up a good head of espionage steam . . . pirates? Please don't let the narrative hard-left throw you – there will be many more – because now the action really begins.

Led by the mysterious and deadly swordsman Uther Doul, the pirates board the Terpsichoria and summarily execute the officers and most of the crew. The passengers, cargo and ship are then claimed for the legendary floating pirate city of Armada. (Another of Mieville's better conceits, Armada is a fully-functioning city-state, built from an endless array of ships captured over centuries, intricately refitted and lashed together. It is quite literally legendary, since the pirates of Armada leave nothing behind when they attack, and no one taken to their city has ever been allowed to leave.) The press-ganged Bellis understands her chances of getting home are now next to none.

But Bellis finds that Armada is not the lawless place she imagined: all the passengers, including the newly-freed Remade, are offered jobs and places to live. The political climate, while contentious, is relatively stable and egalitarian, consisting of several independent “ridings” in loose confederation, all overseen by a pair of mysterious leaders called The Lovers. In spite of her despair, Bellis begins working as a librarian in Armada's huge pilfered collection, and quietly getting to know her new home. But when a strange and important manuscript is discovered in the library, Bellis draws the uncomfortable attention of both Silas Fennec and Uther Doul – who serves as right hand to The Lovers. Drawn into their political machinations, her fate becomes inexorably bound with that of Armada itself.

I have given short shrift to some important aspects of this book – for example the moving subplot of Remade prisoner Tanner Sack, who finds his freedom and a modicum of redemption in his new maritime home; or the fascinating Uther Doul and his deadly quantum magic-fueled “Possibility Sword.” But to say any more (and there is so much more!) would be to deprive potential readers of the pleasure of discovering the myriad of strange beings and weird twists The Scar delivers before reaching its stunning climax.
Perhaps the most astounding thing about The Scar – a novel drawing on traditions as varied as the sea-shanty and “big-fish” yarn, political thriller, quantum theory and existential horror, and influences as disparate as Lovecraft, Borges and Melville – is that all the twists, turns and wildly complex narrative threads actually add up to something truly satisfying. Mieville not only builds a world so real you can see (and possibly smell) it when you close your eyes, he also sticks the landing like a gold medalist. The more China Mieville I read, the more in awe of his disturbing and fruitful mind I become. At this moment, I’m convinced The Scar is his best work – though I have no doubt he’ll surprise me again.

Book Review: Blackbirds, by Chuck Wendig


If Joss Whedon and Chuck Palahniuk had a love child, she might be called Miriam Black. A foul-mouthed and totally kick-ass borderline sociopath, Miriam also sees the future . . . or at least one particular kind of future: your death. With a simple touch of her hand, she knows exactly when, where and how you're gonna snuff it, and it's mostly not very pretty.

Neither is her life. When we meet Miriam -- in a cheap hotel room, posing as a truck-stop hooker -- it's just another day for her. On the grift, she makes her way by profiting from deaths foreseen. Having long ago come to the conclusion that she can't beat fate, so might as well profit from it, the self-proclaimed "vulture," is watching the clock on her current seedy mark (it's three minutes and counting) so she can liberate his cash and valuables, and move on. You can imagine how it's hard for her to make friends.

But when Miriam hitches a ride from nice-guy trucker Louis, she senses her own presence at his strange and violent death a few weeks hence. The vision haunts her, and somehow, a chance ride turns into an uneasy friendship, which kick-starts a twisted race to beat the reaper -- and maybe change the future.

I bought this book because I couldn't resist its gorgeous cover art, but Chuck Wendig really delivers the goods: Blackbirds is a fast-paced, ultra-violent supernatural noir, with cheeky dialogue and a vivid pop-culture vibe. 4.5 stars instead of 5, because sometimes the writing is too self-consciously edgy (a freeway has a "crusty, broken dividing line like a spattered stripe of golden piss"), but just as often lines made me laugh out loud.

At the time I picked it up, I was unaware that Blackbirds is the start of a series. Sometimes this really bugs me -- can nobody write a stand-alone anymore? -- but in this case, I'm glad. Miriam may have morals deep into the grey zone (and a mouth like a sailor, and a serious drinking problem . . .) but she's good, snarky company. And contrary to some other reviewers, I find Miriam to have a very believable "female voice." She may not be a role model, but like Arya Stark, Lisbeth Salander, or any number of Whedon's warrior women before her, she's one girl that doesn't take any shit. Even from Fate.

Book Review: Horns, by Joe Hill


I love it when fiction slips the bonds of genre expectations and becomes something altogether more than what you bargained for. Joe Hill's debut novel Heart-Shaped Box was a tautly-written horror story, but if you've read his collection 20th Century Ghosts, you know he's also more than capable of work that's whimsical rather than than frightening, sometimes intensely disturbing, but frequently touching . . . and dare I say literary?

After having finished it -- in less than 24 hours, thanks to the propulsive narrative -- I can safely assert that
Horns is not a horror novel, though it's certainly horrifying in places. It's an odd, funny, dreadful, compelling and deeply romantic story about average young people whose lives are touched by the violent and surreal.

Ig Parrish, Horns's metaphorically and literally demonized protagonist, will no doubt offend some irony-challenged readers with his (often hilarious) musings on God and the Devil -- "The Fire Sermon" is a philosophical and comedic gem -- but Ig's main concerns -- love, cruelty, revenge, and the ethical complexities of simply being human -- are universal to good literature. Hill's touch is sure, both with comedy and pathos, and the deftly woven narrative realizes his characters believably from the tumultuous desires of adolescence to the sharp wounds of adult responsibility. The ending may be slightly problematic for some (I'll need another read to be sure what I feel), but "Horns" is much more than the sum of its parts.

I won't summarize the plot here -- but I will say where Horns  fits into my literary pantheon. Touchstones would include Christopher Moore (though Hill is less giddily comic), Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses  (darkly absurd, hilariously offensive magic realism . . . and of course the horns problem), Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife   (genre-upending, wrenchingly real love story), and, for better or worse, Stephen King's classic story of adolescent innocence and experience, "The Body."

Joe Hill is one of the most promising writers working today -- in any genre -- and I hope he continues to defy expectations with every new piece.

Book Review: Embassytown, by China Mieville

On one hand, I wish I could convince everyone I know that Mieville is the best science/weird fiction writer working today; on the other I'm kind of gleeful to have encountered his alien genius before he really does become the next big thing (at least among smartypants nerds). He is a writer always testing the boundaries of genre, and Embassytown is likely the most “literary” book he’s written so far . . . though perhaps not the most immediately accessible. Prepare for a novel that both blows your mind and gives it an excellent workout.

You know you're entering heady territory when a novel's epigram is a quote from Walter Benjamin: “The word must communicate something (other than itself).” (Although it might equally be another, quite different, quote: “Gifts must affect the receiver to the point of shock.” I'll let you work that one out as you read the book.)

In Embassytown, Mieville continues to showcase his deft world-building skills on the planet Arieka, a crucial node in the interstellar shipping lanes. Here, human colonists coexist in a state of mutual disconnection with a culture so physically and intellectually alien from our own that communication is nearly impossible, only achieved by a select few “Ambassadors,” genetically altered and rigorously trained for the task. Though the main thrust of the narrative is a tale of political intrigue, be aware that a significant amount of time is spent pondering the brain-bursting concepts of linguistic and semiotic construction. For example: the native Ariekei are unable to communicate or conceive of anything but that which is is literally true – they are incapable of a lie, and must construct elaborate, surreal tableaux in order to formulate even simple similes or metaphors. (Our protagonist, Avice Benner Cho, is herself a simile, having as a child participated in the creation of the unpleasantly loaded phrase "the girl who ate what was given her.") But what might change for the Ariekei -- and us -- when a communication breakthrough occurs?

In Embassytown, Mieville has mostly jettisoned his tendency to revel in the minutia of the grotesque, as he does in the Bas-Lag novels. Instead he works in simple, elegant prose to consider and illustrate evolution and destabilization of the ways in which thinking beings communicate -- constructing meaning (and misunderstanding) from sounds and other signifiers, and constructing civilizations from those meanings. (Now that sentence gave me flashbacks to grad school . . .) With his latest book, Mieville once again defies genre expectations, raising the bar for thoughtful, challenging science fiction.

Book Review: The Croning, by Laird Barron


The Croning
is a perfectly horrible book, and I mean that in high compliment.

It's rare that a horror story actually scares me these days (and more's the pity), but Barron's first novel is wrong in all the right ways, leaving behind a caul of unease, and a wicked dose of the cosmic heebie-jeebies. (I'm thrilled to admit that when I finished it last night, I left the lights on.) Also? Un-put-downable. The Croning sustains the poisonous adrenaline level of one of Barron's short stories over almost 250 pages; once you open the cover you are done for. But the faint-of-heart be warned: this is a seriously dark and unpleasant ride, with a sucking black hole where some might prefer redemptive resolution.

With each tautly descriptive and hallucinogenic page, the dread level ratchets up another notch, for both the reader and our "hero" Don Miller. Don, a  former  geologist and cave-expert now in his early 80s, has recently come to suspect that his notoriously unreliable memory is finally going for good. As Don settles into uneasy retirement in his wife's ancestral family home in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, he reviews his apparently charmed life: moderate wealth, adventurous travel, family and a 50-plus-year marriage with love of his life,the still-vivacious -- and still-successful -- archaeologist Michelle Mock.

But there is something wrong. Don feels a creeping dread about the house and the Mock family's mysterious history, as well as Michelle's long absences, unreliable itineraries, and violent mood swings. Now, Don's fears begin to coalesce into a pattern of nagging inconsistencies and memory-repression so terrifying as to indeed resemble dementia. This challenging timeline structure leaps back and forth across more than half a century of Don's life, methodically revealing the horrors that have been conspiratorially hidden from him until now, and unveiling the truly nightmarish source of Don's dis-ease -- his brushes with a cthonic cult that has flourished from before the dawn of time, and demands unimaginable sacrifice from its chosen acolytes.

In The Croning, Barron has fleshed out the rumors of "Old Leech" and his minions, who have appeared in certain of his short stories, creating an ancient and bloodthirsty mythology of Lovecraftian scale, but with a stench of cosmic horror that is entirely his own. It's sick, but I want more.

Book Review: The Town that Forgot How to Breathe, by Kenneth J. Harvey


The Town that Forgot How to Breathe was a book I impulsively chose by its cover (and I've seen several reviews that started the same way). Though I had never heard of it, I'm very glad I did, because this strangely charming and incredibly eerie book -- part horror story, part eco-parable, all magically weird -- got under my skin with its vivid imagery and unusual setting.

Formerly a rich fishing ground, the tiny Newfoundland village of Bareneed's maritime industry has collapsed from overfishing, and the town and its inhabitants are slipping into a depression both economic and existential. But something strange is afoot in Bareneed: when several locals fall ill with an unrecognizable breathing disorder (viral? hysterical? fatal?), and perfectly-preserved dead bodies start washing up on the rocky shore, that's only the tip of the iceberg that eventually draws ghosts, sea monsters and military intervention into one -- mostly quite effective -- tall tale.

Harvey constructs TTTFHTB around a rotating set of POV characters, among them a local doctor and a police officer, both capable but out of their depth; a beatific little old lady who knows more than she's letting on; a man-child whose painted apocalyptic visions are coming to pass; and a "townie" fisheries officer with roots in Bareneed, who takes a summer-rental with his eight-year-old daughter. It's a large cast of characters for a small town, but Harvey gives them each a unique voice and perspective on the mysteries unfolding around them.

Only one of the many narrative threads falls short of its initial promise, which left me wondering if it might have been better left out -- but that same thread also offers up some of the most chilling and atmospheric scenes in the novel, so I'll let that shortcoming slide. I have seen very mixed reviews  -- I expect you either like this sort of fiction, or you don't. I'm giving TTTFHTB 4.5 enthusiastic stars. If Stephen King's creepy, insular Maine towns appeal, if you loved the myth and magic of "The X-Files," if you enjoy a dank whiff of Lovecraftian horror, or if you've ever dreamed of seeing a mermaid, this book should be right in your wheelhouse.

Book Review: After the Apocalypse, by Maureen F. McHugh


After the Apocalypse as a title is a bit misleading -- evoking as it does zombies (there are only a few), nuclear winter, or some "Mad Max" scenario -- and yet it's also quite perfect. Because, like Tom Perrotta's The Leftovers, Maureen F. McHugh's thoughtful  collection of stories is really about how we, just us normal people, get up and get on with it after the unthinkable has occurred.

At heart, these are intimate tales about people and their strange new  lives: keeping family safe, finding work, finding food, losing their homes, their minds and their innocence. While some common genre tropes appear (a government "zombie reserve" that doubles as a fight-or-die penal colony; an unstoppable strain of avian flu that takes its sweet, relentless time to turn a human brain to mush; disparate strangers inexplicably drawn to converge in a particular place), the apocalypses -- yes, the plural form is required -- in these stories are equally the result of problems already on our doorsteps: natural disasters; overburdened and failing urban infrastructures; economic meltdowns; and machines that might just be smarter than we are.

With clean, evocative prose, a killer eye for detail, and a sympathetic, humorous (but never indulgent) view into the human condition, McHugh has crafted a work of speculative fiction about what humanity might stand to lose -- or just maybe gain -- when we are faced with the burdens of the end times already rearing their ugly heads. Her characters are not always kind, not always moral. But they are astute, funny and absolutely believable. (And as a bonus, one wears the coolest t-shirt ever: "If You're Really a Goth, Where Were You When We Sacked Rome?")
Overhaul alert!

I have just rescued this blog from the positively antediluvian year of 2007, with the intention of turning it into a book blog. (Good intentions, yadayada.) I will begin the arduous process of adding my reviews shortly.

Stay tuned!