A very interesting summary of 30 years spent with a small Amazonian tribe. Reality consistently does better than the creations of sci-fi and fantasy authors, and reading about the Piraha was fascinating. The book covers the language and culture of the Piraha, as well the author's experiences and anecdotes from his time there. In that spirit, let me just list some of the highlights of the book:
- the absolute folly of taking your family (including your young kids and 100 lb wife) out into the middle of the rain forest
- the author's self-awareness and self-depreciation
- a neat section on how the different sounds of speech are made
- several neat sections about information theory in relation to language
- the Piraha's perfect, 200 year history of having no conversions to Christianity, despite the best efforts of missionaries
- Piraha child raising, or lack thereof
- the numerous anecdotes about the Piraha, their happiness, how they live, how they talk, and how they conceive of the world. This is one of the things I love about anthropologist's efforts, how they give the lie to the idea that there is just one "natural" way of thinking or of being human. As a complete weirdo, I say the more outlier data points we have the better! =)
The Imago Sequence, by Laird Barron
God never closes a door without opening a hole.
If Robert Aickman is a bit too oblique in his strange tales, Laird Barron is perhaps not quite oblique enough in his working-class tales of Mythos-horror. Lovecraft and many of his successors turn away at the cusp of the un-nameable and indescribable, but Barron just keeps on trucking. This is a strength and a weakness in his stories. When it works, you get some genuinely disgusting/clever/memorable scenes of cascading terror. When it doesn't, the scenes come away as formulaic and repetitive and silly, and lose by the extended explication of something that should be alien and beyond us. It is even worse than the usual case where a villain explains their plot, Lovecraft readers are so finely attuned to working off of hints and suggestions rather than detailed plans. There is one point at the end of the first short story, when you think that the hints that have been given by the monster are all you are going to have to work off of. Nope! There are two more pages of explanation after that. And it is like, "Oh, ok, I guess I wasn't expecting a full diagram of what is going on, but sure, go for it."
Anyway! These are horror stories, and involve large amounts of blood, guts, mud, slime, body horror, terrible mutilation, and death. The main characters are thugs, soldiers, detectives, and good-old boy business men. On the one hand I do kind of like this different take on the Lovecraft protagonist; no limp-wristed philologists here! Instead, we have hard men with small minds medicating themselves to death. Seriously, there is a lot of drinking. Most the characters go through the stories in a haze of alcohol and pills; it is a bit like reading _Good Morning Midnight_ all over again. Zing! As an experiment, I went back to the penultimate story in the series, The Imago Sequence. Here are the number of times that a character takes a drink/drug, or talks about doing so:
Page 1: 1
Page 2: 4
Page 3: 8
Page 4: 1
Page 5: 2
Page 6: 1
Page 7: 6
Page 8: 4
Page 9: 8
Page 10: 4
Page 11: 1
Page 12: 0
Page 13: 1
Page 14: 0
Page 15: 2
Page 16: 0
Page 17: 4
Page 18: 4
This short-story is a bit drunker than average, but not by much. (Now we finally reach the other hand...) It gets annoying when your protagonist is completely soused through story after story, and just evaporates when moving from scene to scene.
One thing I did appreciate was that the stories are more interconnected than you usually get from the genre. The main connections are in Bulldozer, Hallucigenia, and Imago Sequence; they are also the best stories and I would read those first if you are wondering if you will like Laird Barron. The worst stories were Black Sloth and Proboscis, both of which left me feeling like I wasted my time. Honorable mentions go to Parallax, which is more melancholy than horror, and Hour of the Cyclops, where Barron takes the piss out of the other stories in the collection. Overall these were bloody and well written horror stories with a Lovecraftian tint; I'm just not sure I actually like such heavy and direct horror stories.
A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 by G.J. Meyer
Probably the best general history of WWI that I've read. It covers all the relevant topics (pre-war situation and concerns, politics, technology, strategy, tactics, art, post-war settlements, etc. etc.) and at a reasonable depth and thoroughness. Side topics are interleaved through the main history at relevant points, and overall it gives a clear and comprehensive overview of the war. I kind of want to write more in this review, but I'm not sure what else to comment on as the book is just a completely solid effort from start to finish.
Skin Game, Dresden Files book #15
An extremely fast and enjoyable urban fantasy read. My previous experience with the Dresden Files has all been via audio book, where James Marster and his dulcet tones have LARPed their way with me through the series. I've really enjoyed the audio books, and they've been an immense help and distraction while taking care of the scut work of moving into a new house. So, actually reading one of the Dresden books and not having it read to me by Marster was initially a disconcerting experience. How am I supposed to get into the action without Marster shouting "Fuego!" in my ear? Do the jokes and references still work without his delivery? Fortunately the answer is yes, and after a ~50 page adjustment period I enjoyed the book-book as much as the audio book. The experience is somewhat different; the audio only goes only as fast as the human voice, while the book reads extremely fast. I've read books that are compelling and that I end up reading in one sitting, e.g. _Annihilation_, but reading Skin Game was different, it was closer to playing Diablo III for 6 hours straight. The story moves extremely quickly, and I basically read 450 pages in a sitting. I enjoyed it. :) The story is the usual mix of super-natural powers, double-crossing, creative fights against terrible odds, doomful deadlines, and magic. It also has a few genuinenly sweet moments (e.g. dog reunion), and a Monty Python reference that is actually funny. I know, I know, I didn't believe it at first either, but there it is in black and white.
Every Heart a Doorway
A counterpoint to _We Are All Completely Fine_. In this book the characters are not survivors of horror movies, but instead are survivors of journey's to magical lands, e.g. Narnia, Wonderland, Hades, Ravenloft, etc. The young survivors are placed in a magical group home where they can share and process their experiences. Unlinke in Completely Fine, these characters generally look back fondly at their experiences, and want nothing more than to travel back to the sub-dimension that they lost.
This was a short and light book, and overall I liked it. If anything my criticism would be that it is too short, and parts of it felt rushed/only half-sketched. The writing was better than in Completely Fine, and while it wasn't always on target (e.g. Jack was a bit too much of a one dimensional character, always the same conversational beats) there were sections that were nicely evocative and heartfelt. I liked the focus on emotions over shotguns. I also liked the main character, who reminded me a bit of the much richer and much beloved tomb girl from _The Tombs of Atuan_.
The Killing Machine/The Palace of Love, by Jack Vance
I picked these two Vance books somewhat at random; it turns out that they are books #2 and #3 of a pentalogy. Doh. Still, it works out ok as they are largely separate stories that can be read independently. This series is Vance's take on James Bond; the protagonist is an investigator/hunter/spy in a sci-fi universe who is hunting the 5 larger than life villain who destroyed his home. Unlike the other Vance stories I've read, the main character is competent, focused, has some integrity, and is moderately attractive to women. There are still bits of Vancian word play and reversals, but there is not a constant stream of them like in Dying Earth. I do like the basic structure of the stories; each 150 page book covers the investigation and hunt for one of the villain as you find out more of their history, psychology, and abilities. The Killing Machine was ok, and in that book the villain is primarily concerned with Terror. You don't find that much out about the villain psychologically, the main reveal is more about the methods & abilities the villain has. The Palace of Love was better. It does have slow sections, but I liked how it is more involved with uncovering the villain's psychology (which is absolutely hilarious) rather than his powers. His eventual defeat is also wonderful, and doubly hilarious.
We're All Completely Fine
A short novel of horror and action about a bunch of survivors from various horror movie-plots who have come together in a therapy group. It's a bit like if a single person had survived each of the scenarios from Cabin in the Woods, and then they came together to talk about and process their experiences. Of course the past is never dead, it's not even past, and a new horror experience starts unfolding in the present.
On the plus side, the book is snappy, has an interesting conceit, and has several creatively creepy bits. On the neutral side, it is a surprisingly recent story. One of the characters is into video games, and he mentions a somewhat obscure indie game that was released like 6 months ago, which was kind of a shock, like "wow, this is hot off the presses.". On the negative side, the writer isn't all that great at writing. He's not bad exactly, but coming down off of Jeff VanderMeer it certainly highlights the difference in their skills. VanderMeer's characters all so vivid and distinct, while I had difficulty just following some of the therapy sessions in this book. That's not to say that the author is actively bad, just that the writing isn't one of the strong suites of the book. Anyway, it was short and enjoyable and creepy.
Debatable Space, Philip Palmer
An early work by Philip Palmer that is doesn't quite succeed, and seems more like a prototype for what he would do successfully in his later books. Palmer relies on a gonzo energy in his books, with all the dials turned up to 11 and the creativity turned up to 12. Gonzo energy is a dangerous tool though, and if you don't use it correctly, or if it is not quite gonzo enough, it falls flat on its face. Imagine a Gallagher act where Gallagher had the flu that day and was just kind of going through the motions. What is funny and interesting (or I suppose would be funny and interesting, never actually seen Gallagher), instead becomes kind of cringey, kind of creepy. Debtable Space has that problem, as Palmer had not quite got his formula right. There are ~50 page sections which just don't work, and it really doesn't earn its 500+ page length. The dials all seem turned up to 7 or 8, and the book falls in this uncomfortable middle space where the events aren't really believable/sensible but aren't completely wild and energetic either. The book isn't absolutely terrible and it at least reads quickly, but I wouldn't recommend it unless you are a Palmer completist.
Acceptance, by Jeff VanderMeer
The final book in the Southern Reach trilogy. While not bad, the finale was not as good as the previous two entries, and it felt more like an extended epilogue than a true successor. Both of the first two books were at least partially about situations that are radically, radically different than they first appear. They both have multiple moments were the floor just drops out from under the reader. In the third book, I didn't really find that many surprises. It was more an explication and expansion of the ideas and history and lore that are sketched out in the first books. You are more familiar with what is going on, you don't really have a central character any more (instead switching between several characters that you are already somewhat familiar with, filling in their back story), and you don't really find out that much about what is happening or has happened to the world at large. The second book leaves off with the world being consumed by a metastasising infections of un-reality, so it is somewhat disappointing that you find out all of the back story for minor characters, but nothing concrete about the pending apocalypse. :)
That's not to say that Acceptance is bad, it is not; VanderMeer is both fast paced and peaceful, skillful and evocative. I enjoyed his space whales, I enjoyed making more sense out of the ripples in the sky, I enjoyed his double-walled hogs, I enjoyed his character and scenery portraits. And in all three books I enjoyed how the characters are continually bumping off each other, always in a state of moderate bafflement and irritation. Each ofthe characters seems to have their own "meta", and never really thinks about things in the same way as the other characters. It's a neat effect, and further supports this atmosphere of uncertainty and never quite having a full grasp or model of how the world works. Lowry in particular stands out as a great grotesque. So while this book lacked the lightning of the first two, it is still enjoyable and well crafted.
Multiple Choice, Alejandro Zambra
An exciting concept for a book that is let down by somewhat less than exciting execution. The conceit is that the book is in the form of a multiple choice test, with each question on the test acting as a short story or poem. So far so good. As an example of the form, here is one of the cleverer test questions, where you are given a series of statements and need to choose statements to remove in order to eliminate un-needed information.
Question 57: 1) A curfew is a regulation prohibiting free circulation in public within a determined area. 2) It tends to be decreed in times of war or popular uprising. 3) The dictatorship imposed one in Santiago, Chile, From September 11, 1973, until January 2, 1987. 4) One summer evening my father went out walking with no destination in mind. It grew late, and he had to sleep at a friend's house. 5) They made love, she got pregnant, I was born. A) None B) 5 C) 1,2, and 3 D) 4 and 5 E) 2So, it is a tiny story, and depending on which lines you remove you can unpack several other tiny stories each with different meanings/goals. This is neat and I like it! At its best it reminds me of the epilogues in _The Black Prince_. Now though, let's move on to the next test question.
Question 58: 1) I didn't want to talk about you, but it's inevitable 2) I'm talking about you right now. And you're reading this, and you know it's about you. 3) Now I am words that you read and wish did not exist. 4) I hate you. 5) You would like to have the power of a censor. 6) So no one else would ever read these words. 7) I hate you. 8) You ruined my life. 9) Now I am words you cannot erase. A) None B) A C) B D) C E) DIt is not exactly Pale Fire. Read as a statement about an ex, it is cringe-worthy. As a statement about a parent or a dictator, it's a bit better but still not great. So, the book has an uneven quality, where some parts are very likeable while others are much less clever/interesting. Overall I did like it (and the book is only 100 pages, so it is at least short), but it didn't quite live up to its potential.
Dresden Files, Books 2-14
In my review of Water Born, I did not have any negative points to make, as I thought the author did a great job in everything he set out to do. In Black God, you still have the good qualities of Water Born. However, they are alloyed with some actual flaws (or what I considered flaws), which make Black God moderately less enjoyable than its predecessor.
On the positive side the author continues to build out the magic systems, myths, cultures, and history of his world. And this continues to be enjoyable; at many points it reminded me of Avatar in that by the end there is a complex dance of systems that have all been slowly introduced and built up. You also find out some neat secrets in the world-history and architecture, some of which made me laugh, other of which I found very clever. So, the good stuff from the first book is still there.
On the negative side, this book felt about 200 pages too long. Some of the character beats become repetitive, some of the reversals happen too often, and some of the danger of the first story seemed gone. A second major flaw was that to a certain extent, I did not care who actually won the climactic contest. The first book had a more focused ending, centered around whether the princess would live, die, or something else. That was fine, and it is carried by the fact that you actually care about the protagonist and don't want to see Princess-Hermione die. In the second book, the contest is about a much more abstract cause, and I could see good arguments for letting either of the factions win. It is a bit like if you had the Wheel of Time story, but rather than being a struggle between Good and Evil, it was a struggle between Lawful-Neutral and Chaotic-Neutral. The story and plot are still interesting and suspenseful, but the proposed conflict is less so.
So, my fundamental apathy about the ending combined with the extra 200 pages made this a much less taut of a read.
An enjoyable and well written fantasy adventure. The author has detailed and crunchy world building, neat mysteries to unravel, likeable and interesting characters, and a plot that ends nicely. It is not an absolutely amazing story, but it reliably does very well on just about everything you could want a fantasy adventure story to do.
The world building is a bit like Glorantha, in that you have farmers/hunters/gathers/herders who live in day to day contact with the mythic, with the minor gods and heroes of their land. A farmer might make a dozen prayers in a day, one to the goddess of the stream that goes through his land, one to the god of his pasture, one to the old great oak of the grove, etc. etc. And the minor gods of the land in turn play a key role in the success of his farming, and will talk with or advise or even inter-marry with the farmer and his family. This system is built out in a dozen different ways, and is combined with the different cultures the author has built up for his Viking/Native-American/Mongolian analogs. And as with Glorantha, in addition to these low tech-cultures and their godlings, there is a separate culture that is more advanced and organized and more populous, a Chinese-flavored city culture that worships a single monolithic River deity. And by river, we are talking along the lines of the Amazon. The River is enormously powerful and enormously hungry, and it swallows up and devours any godling that comes within reach of its waters. Fortunately, the River is also sleepy, and it has stayed within its banks for centuries.
So! That is at least the outlines of the world building. For the story, one thread follows a young princess of the River god's bloodline, as she tries to figure out why some members of her line disappear at puberty while others go on to be part of the ruling elite. The second thread is of a young barbarian cattle-man, who falls in love with a stream-god and vows to fight the River-God in her name. The two threads flow together until they finally intertwine at the ending. I liked it!
The Dragon Masters, by Jack Vance
Shut up! Don't make fun of me because of the title, this is *serious* literature. It won a Hugo award back in the 60's, and was the next Vance book that looked appealing. As always, Vance is swift and immensely inventive. Vance has a wonderful skill at creating names for people, coalitions, creatures, spells, weapons, etc; he is the anti-Atwood in that regard. The story here is not as light hearted as the Cugel stories, and is a bit more involved in its developments and characterization and patterns. It also kind of makes me want to make a card game out of the different dragon classes and their combats. Notable features include the Tand, a neat reification of cultural thought and transmission, and an involved and ongoing combat between four vastly different minor powers. It's like a bite-sized version of Dune.
Lud in the Mist
One time after I won a StarCraft match, my opponent insulted me by saying "you played so bad it confused me." He had a point, and I was reminded of his words while reading this book. The book isn't bad, but it does have stretches that seem too twee or too staid, and because of that I was blindsided by some of the more interesting things that the book does and the adeptness with which the author moves. In particular, it was only after finishing the book that I realized it was written nearly 100 years ago. Because of the book's modern cover and recommendation quotes, I thought it was a relatively modern book, and the fact that it was able to pass as such is a testament to how well it has aged. The tweeness or staidness were really unavoidable given its time period/author.
So, what is the book about? It is a somewhat ambiguous, family friendly, story about magic-fairy subversion. A few murders too. As wtih _A Delicate Truth_, I was disappointed/disgusted by the main characters not taking serious threats seriously enough, but the book's age is a good excuse for that. The writing is well done, though a tad meandering and as I mentioned, too plaid.
A Delicate Truth, by John Le Carre
The second audio book I listened to while moving, and unfortunately it is also a secondary or lesser Le Carre. On the plus side, I like the things Le Carre does with chronology and his increasingly free-form way of ordering the plot of his stories. As always the characters are well drawn, and they have some surprisingly emotional and well done pay-offs in the third act. I'm also pleased to say that 80 year old Le Carre has kept up with technology to an impressive degree, and that in general he is a real inspiration in being able to write and produce like this at his age. Even more generally, I like this book as one in a sequence of Le Carre books that paint a continuing or evolving picture of Britain and of the West. He reminds me of Everclear (bare with me here), in that consuming the whole of their work adds a dimension that any one individual work lacks. It is neat to hear Everclear's songs evolve over a 20 year period, and it is neat to see Le Carre's thoughts on his society evolve over his X-decade long productive career.
My complaints about this book are mostly the same as with the Constant Gardner. This is mostly because the plot is way too much like the Constant Gardner. As a long time Le Carre reader, the arc of the story becomes increasingly clear about midway through the book. And as with Constant Gardner, there is a sort of martyr fetish which focuses more on being morally pure than on being effective or avoiding obvious pitfalls. The injunction is to be "as wise as serpents and innocent as doves", and I feel like Le Carre is forgetting the first part. For instance, there is a key moment late in the book where the main character could simply *lie*, but does not think of it or chooses not to. It would have made him much more effective in his mission and avoided all sorts of trouble, but eh, then it doesn't have the pathos that Le Carre wants. And I feel that ultimately that it was not true to the character, who should be adept at lying, or to his motivations, which are not so dire or baked-in as they were with protagonist of The Constant Gardener. Hmmm. Or maybe I am wrong, maybe a high-level civil servant like that would not be so willing to just straight up fabricate. But he should be, if he was taking the situation at all as seriously as it warrants. Anyway. If Le Carre is reading this, please have a more skilled and clear-thinking protagonist in your next book.
Three Body Problem, by Cixin Liu
An interesting sci-fi novel that has bright spots and smart ideas, but that ultimately fails to rise to greatness.
First though, some disclaimers. The novel was originally written in Chinese, before being translated to English, before being read to me by a rather un-inspired audio book reader. The reader voiced the main character a bit like Kevin McDonald does his nerdier characters, e.g. Kids in the Hall. And then when the aliens show up, they all get re-treads of the human voices, including the Kevin McDonald voice. So the book had to pass through a few lossy encodings, and that might the reason the it did not grab me like it did the Hugo committee.
The basic setup of the book is a reverse _A Deepness in the Sky_ situation. There are aliens, the aliens are at an advanced but not god-like level of tech, and the aliens are manipulating the technological and social development of earth through the subtle use of their technology. This is neat! Also neat is the alien home-system, which has three suns and gives rise to the title of the book. The three suns provide some of the alien psychology and also the most apocalyptic and visually stunning parts of the story. There are numerous other clever bits of the story which make it clear that the writer is technically skilled and intelligent and grounded in the concepts of computing and astronomy and quantum mechanics, and is not just throwing around tech-concepts around the way that J.J. Abrams would. Another potentially interesting aspect is the way that the Cultural Revolution was mixed into the history of the book, though this might have even more resonance with Chinese readers. Oh! And there is a neat scene with carbon fiber, and another neat scene of the intersection of the Communist Party bureaucracy and SETI, and so on.
Based off the above, there were points in the book where I was ready to fall in love with the author. This promise kept being betrayed though by stretches of mediocre plot or writing. The characters were frequently wooden, and often just served as card-board cut-outs to move the story to the appropriate place. One glaring instance of this was with the main character when you find out he is married and has a kid. His family is only in a single scene for one particular technical reason, and then they play absolutely no role in his emotions, character, or plot for the rest of the book. It was profoundly weird when you find out about his surprise family, and equally weird when the family is forgotten about for the rest of the novel. There were also issues with the aliens, who turn out to be dis-appointingly un-alien. More generally, the book has this consistent problem where it will have a neat idea but then fail to develop it or think about its ramifications. So there are aliens who should have been truly different, but instead are just like humans with a flat affect. Or the aliens are trying to manipulate human scientific development, but they really only have one trick, and it is not a particularly sensible trick. Or the alien's colonization efforts in general, which seem to be going about things all wrong by trying to colonize an already inhabited planet. Or with the basic setup of the book, where there is a lot of potential interesting ambiguity about the alien's motives, but in the end it just turns out to be a bog-standard invasion. Anyway, Three-Body is not a bad book, but it is not the coming of the next Iain M Banks either.
Tales of Dunk and Egg, by George R. R. Martin,
A low key but enjoyable and highly readable set of short stories set in the Game of Thrones universe. They remind me a bit of the Witcher series in that you have somewhat standard fantasy scenarios that rapidly veer into new and interesting plots. And they remind me a lot more of the other Game of Thrones stories, with their emphasis on complex ties of kinship and fealty mixed with deceptions and the occasional burst of brutal violence. That being said, these stories are more light hearted than Game of Thrones. The two characters Dunk (a strong, dumb, and good hearted knight) and Egg (his clever but out-spoken squire) are both highly likable, and I read the entire set of stories over the course of one evening.
The City and the City, by China Miéville
A well written but slightly silly mystery novel. The conceit is similar to a Vance short story, that the population of a city has split into two cultures which are physically intermingled but pretend not to see each other except in very formalized circumstances. Kind of like liberals and conservatives on FaceBook. The conceit is interesting and Mieville spends a lot of pages filling out its myriad practical details, but in the end I think he spends too much time on it. I enjoy the details, but when the idea is examined a bit more it does tend to fall apart rapidly. The conceit is also a little bit too familiar, both from Vance and from numerous video games which have a Light and a Dark world, or something similar. On the flip side, Mieville is a skilled writer and does a good job with the Eastern European politics and characters and the mystery itself. I think I would have preferred a straight up mystery novel from him rather than a mystery which plays with fantastic elements.
Solomon Kane, by Robert E Howard
Reviewing this book presents a dilemma. Exactly how many stars do you remove from a story for being incredibly racist? For now I've settled on 1.5 stars. The stories in this collection are pulpy and actiony, and represent a kind of failed and mis-shapen attempt to create a Conan the Barbarian type hero. The hero Solomon Kane has the same sort of problems that Conan does, e.g. wrestling with giant snakes, killing slavers with swords, dueling pirates and stabbing sorcerers. This aspect of the stories is fine, and it provides competent action adventure with occasional scenes that rise to being quite good. Solomon's attitude though does not work at all. Instead of Conan's amoral and whole hearted attempt to be the best barbarian that he can be, Solomon tries to be the ultimate white knight. He spends years tracking some random captured lady across seas and jungles, kills dozens to free her, and then is like "No milady! I could never accept a kiss, now I will be on to my next quest!". And then he wanders back off into the jungle. I don't exactly get it, except as the author trying to pander to people who are deeply uncomfortable with any form of sexuality. And in general, the hero simply isn't a very appealing/attractive/identifiable character. He ascribes to a sort of sentimental and romantic morality, and whenever that is threatened he erupts into extreme violence. It is just a very weird fantasy hero to create. And as mentioned above, there is the constant racism, which belongs more to the year 1730 than 1930.