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Bookworm 2013: Winners

Posted on | January 1, 2014 | No Comments

Novels:

David Benioff: City of ThievesDavid Benioff – City of Thieves

Pro: gorgeous, gripping almost-true story of the adventures of two unlucky boys as they search for a carton of eggs during the siege of Stalingrad.

Contra: no spaceships. Every book could use a spaceship or two.

 

Lucius Sheperd - Life During WartimeLucius Shepard – Life During Wartime

Pro: beautiful prose recounting of an odd war that gets weirder as the pages go by, yet manages to remain ever so very human.

Contra: the style may be too florid for some, slows down seriously during the middle bit.

Honorable Mention:

Neil Gaiman - The Ocean at the End of the LaneNeil Gaiman – The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Pro: lovely bit of Gaimanian fantasy reminiscence about childhood, supposed to be an adult novel, but works equally well as a YA book.

Contra: it’s very Gaiman. Some people don’t like that.

Mammoth Series Worth the Effort:

Joe Abercrombie - The Blade ItselfJoe Abercrombie – First Law

Pro: cinematic, poetic, and gritty set of adventures about a fully fleshed out world full of vivid characters that seem real even when they dip into stereotypishness.

Contra: a lot, and I do mean a lot of pages to go through, and once you start, you can’t stop. Oh, and the first book has a few minor technical issues, until Abercrombie hits his full stride.

Precious Collections:

Kelly Link - Stranger Things HappenKelly Link – Stranger Things Happen

Pro: collection of beautiful, haunting tales full of otherworldly weirdness, exquisitely crafted tales brimming with emotion.

Contra: may not be everyone’s cup of tea, really. The stories are weird, some of them have no clear narrative structure. 

Anne C Perry - The Lowest HeavenAnne C. Perry – The Lowest Heaven

Pro: a lovely collection of surprisingly top-notch solar-system themed short stories from a variety of authors.

Contra: a few of the stories are not up to par with the competition.

 

Peter Watts - Beyond the RiftPeter Watts – Beyond the Rift

Pro: a collection of stories by the hands-down best hard SF writer currently active (and if you ask me, best overall SF writer currently active).

Contra: I’m a fanboy. Ask someone else. Oh, well, yeah, it’s dark stuff. Some people don’t dig that kind of thing.

Classic Standing Strong:

Samuel R Delany - DhalgrenSamuel R. Delany – Dhalgren

Pro: gorgeously written chaotic deconstruction of the very nature of novel-like narratives and the process of creation packaged in a slow-moving adventure across a weird city.

Contra: the fact that it was written during the sixties really shows through in quite a few spots.

Bookworm 2013: Reality Check

Posted on | December 31, 2013 | No Comments

Douglas R Hofstadter - Godel Escher BachWell, it almost took a full year. I started reading Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Goedel, Escher, Bach in late July 2012, and finally brought it to an end in late March 2013. In the meantime, I’ve nibbled at it, took it slow, worked through some of the proofs and puzzles, took some short breaks, then took some longer breaks, suffered slight headaches, had a few profound revelations, and was, generally very, very satisfied with the entire exercise. This is one of those books that, should I have been able to read it as a teenager, would probably have turned my world upside down, much like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos did when I was ten. However, I am pretty certain that, as a teenager, I would have had to give it up at some point – it is so far from an easy read, it might just be the most difficult book I have ever plowed through. The fact that I used to be a programmer did help with some of the chapters (some were, even, banal for me – like the concepts of function recursion), other required mathematical and/or cognitive skillsets I do not posess. Though nominally about the proof of Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem, on a fundamental level, if you strip away the silly imaginary dialogues and the occasional Bach metaphor, the book deals with Hofstadter’s concept of Strange Loopsa sort-of recursion-like idea of feedback between various levels of complex systems, and how this gives rise to various emergent phenomena, including our consciousness. But along the way it touches on a myriad different issues that, taken all together, illuminate not only the way our minds work, but also many other natural phenomena – I was particularly intrigued about the bit on ad-hoc problem-solving networks in insect hives, only to encounter the idea, in a strange bit of synchronicity, in one of the SF novels I cut my stint in GEB with. The author does, at times, come off as a pompous arse, full of false modesty and overly insistent on how Bach’s baroque fugues are the pinnacle of music (personally, I can’t stand baroque in general, and Bach in particular), but the thing is, he kinda does back up his pompousness with an excellent, illuminating book chock full of novel ideas.

David Byrne - Bicycle DiariesOf course, not all non-fiction I read is meant to burst a capillary in my brain tissue. David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries are a delightful little romp through a number of cities worldwide, from the perspective of an avid cyclist, full of photographs, anecdotes and thoughts on the future of both city landscapes in general, as well as the future of urban cyclists in particular. A breezy and quick read, this sort-of travelogue does not require you to be interested in bicycles – only in human habitations and habits, art, music, and the world in general.

Bookworm 2013: Bucketful of Childhood

Posted on | December 30, 2013 | No Comments

Neil Gaiman - The Ocean at the End of the LaneDue to the timing of this overview and my reading the book, Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane will end up in a post by itself, although, to be frank, it would probably have deserved at least an honorable mention among the best books of the year (particularly since it is one of the few books on this overview actually published in 2013). First off, and to prevent unnecessary further efforts, if you don’t like Gaiman’s writing, you will not like this book – it is very Gaiman. The novel is marketed as his return to more adult fare, but I feel this is not quite right – it does offer a bit more depth to adult readers, but it is not too different to Coraline, provided our hypothetical young reader can take some slight sexual content and some (relatively) light violence. The main protagonist is an adult, but as he rediscovers the plot of land where his childhood house used to be, and the neighboring farm where some rather otherworldly adventures unfolded, we regress back to his childhood and the story unfolds from this perspective.

Perhaps the only problem with Ocean is that it’s plot is relatively linear, betraying its origins as a short story that somehow-or-other got expanded into a novel-length narrative, with some of the protagonists being godlike creatures which necessarily leads to a slight deus ex resolution of certain plot points. But as is the case with much of Gaiman’s work, the emphasis is not on the intricate, convoluted plot, but on his style, and the emotions evoked by his words, capable of evoking melancholy reminiscences about my own childhood despite the fact that I was born in a different country, in a different culture, and a different environment.

 

Bookworm 2013: Worlds of the Undead

Posted on | December 29, 2013 | No Comments

Max Brooks - World War ZThe undead were unusually thin on the ground this year, mostly because the market currently seems glutted with increasingly cheap and increasingly amateurish fare. However, I could not go a year entirely zombieless, and so I picked up one of the modern classics, Max Brooks’ World War Z. First off, slow zombies. That is always a plus, since fast zombies are clearly werewolves in disguise. A lot of people had a problem with the form of the book, although it is clearly advertised as interviews with the survivors. Yes, this means it removes some of the drama, since the people being interviewed, obviously, survived. Second, many of the stories contained in the book are not really stories in the classic sense, representing, instead, snippets of events in the greater story unfolding globally. If I had to complain about anything, it would be the stereotypization of characters, particularly regarding the non-american bits of the story.

JL Bourne - Day by Day ArmageddonThe same might be said of J.L. Bourne’s Day by Day Armageddon, with the lone marine turned survivalist pont-of-view character being oddly rational and calculated and professional in the face of, well, the world going to hell. However, for a book born from a Reddit thread, it flows amazingly well, to the point where it had me intrigued enough to pick up the sequel, Beyond Exile, but there is only so much to be done with a linear survival narrative before it becomes repetitive and uninteresting enough to call it quits on the rest of the series.  However, if you like reading survival horror with odd coincidences and events arranging themselves just-right for our intrepid heroes to survive, you will probably enjoy the hell out of the rest of the books.

Joyce Carol Oates - ZombieOddly, in Joyce Carol Oates’ Zombie there are no zombies. Okay, I knew this before I started reading, but I still felt a twinge of disappointment throughout, as I followed the adventures of our paedophile-psycho killer as he looks for the perfect subject for his zombie experiment. The book itself reads like a successful literary experiment, written in first person from the perspective of a, well, mentally divergent person, and it succeeds in the whole thing feeling real. The only problem I have with the book is that the many machinations, plans and adventures of our intrepid “hero” are followed by a rather abrupt ending, leaving a sense of incompleteness, as if Oates simply got bored of writing and stopped.

Bookworm 2013: Crunchy Collections

Posted on | December 28, 2013 | No Comments

Anne C Perry - The Lowest HeavenMuch as Strahan’s collection of short stories was a hit-and-miss affair, leaving an overall sour taste (the hits came early, the misses later, for a downward spiral effect), Anne C. Perry’s The Lowest Heaven collection of stories set around the Solar System was, for the most part, absolutely brilliant. The stories are arrayed in a more-or-less linear fashion, moving from the Sun out towards interstellar space, tackling the various heavenly bodies. There is one that I’ll admit to being unable to finish, simply because it was, in fact, historical Americana needlessly masquerading as sci-fi (Ashen Light, set on Venus), and a few others that felt weak compared to the competition (most notably Magnus Lucretius, with a quasi-Roman colony built around Jupiter), but overall the quality of writing is really incredible, particularly with standouts like The Krakatoan about an astronomer’s daughter and the crackling fabric of the world around her, We’ll Always Be Here about a decrepit and decaying orphanage in the Pluto-Charon subsystem, or Enyo-Enyo, a delirious story set in the farthest reaches of the system, around Eris and Dysnomia. The only thing that kind of poked me in the eye a bit is that an unusually high number of stories dealt with the tragic fate of homosexuals – I am all for gay rights, but this felt like intentional hot-button pushing on the part of the authors, and as such, somewhat forced.

Peter Watts - Beyond the RiftThe other short story collection I should talk about is one I can’t really talk about coherently. I’m such as screaming piss-my-pants-with-euphoria fanboy of Peter Watts that whatever I may say about Beyond the Rift will probably sound suspiciously like insane babbling of a gibbering maniac. Simply put, he is the writer I wish I could be. If you like your science fiction hard, if you like it when it requires use of your brain, and if you like it just ever so slightly dark (okay, I may be understating that a bit), you will love Watts, and this collection of his short work is an excellent place to sample his work and see if you should move on to his dammit I can’t control myself absolutely fucking brilliant novels. Gahh. Well. There you have it.

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