Book Review-O-Rama part two

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Jul 212007

Whoof, a huge backlog to get through here, and I have already added more to the finished stack that I want to mention. So brief reviews this time.

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others DieMade to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die was really, really good. The book is basically about what makes concepts memorable when you present them. The authors outline a very simple formula that lines up well with the various book I have read on cognitive psych (in fact, the bibliography shares a large number of books with A Theory of Fun). Highly recommended — this is one of the best general popsci/business books I have read in quite a while.

The Naming of the Dead (An Inspector Rebus)The Naming of the Dead is the latest Inspector Rebus novel from Ian Rankin. It is also quite good. This time, Rebus gets to see a bit more of the world despite sticking mostly to his Edinburgh stomping grounds — there’s a brief moment when he gets to see President Bush close-up. As usual, he’s in trouble with his own bosses, and as usual, he’s got his organized crime nemesis Cafferty and his partner Siobhan around to help or hinder. There’s not one villain but several, and the plots are skillfully interwoven. If you like detective stuff of the hardboiled sort, Rankin is still among the best.

Heart-Shaped Box: A NovelHeart-Shaped Box: A Novel managed to get all over the bestseller lists without people knowing that “Joe Hill” is actually Stephen King’s son. It reads like King, but only to a degree — there’s a bit less of the writing pyrotechnics that King can pull off when he wants to. On the other hand, it has a higher degree of unity and cohesiveness than King usually manages — so many of his books seem to veer off into non-functional territory towards the end, whereas Heart-Shaped Box stays tight and focused all the way through. If you like horror novels, you’ll probably like it — equal dollops of spooky and grisly.

Obsession (Alex Delaware Novels)Obsession is the latest Alex Delaware novel from Jonathan Kellerman. It’s good to see Kellerman back in form. He’s been really erratic over the last few novels. IMHO, he’s at his best when he is dealing with realism, but he has a penchant for outright unrealistic stuff. The last two books featured an underground torture bunker in the hills of LA and a goofy murder club; this one is blessedly free of that sort of over-the-top thing, and that lets us concentrate more on the characters.

Midshipwizard Halcyon BlitheDragonfrigate Wizard Halcyon BlitheDragonfrigate Wizard Halcyon Blithe and Midshipwizard Halcyon Blithe might appeal to you if you like either the Temeraire series or the stories of Horatio Hornblower. Basically, it’s a British Navy sort of story — a midshipman who happens to be a talented wizard learns the ropes and the customs of the Navy, and discovers truths about himself, etc. Except that the ships are actually built into/out of living dragons. There’s some slightly grisly stuff about how they cut open the dragon and fold back its skin to attach the timbers, but it all works, and makes sense. It was fun light reading.

The Book of Air and ShadowsThe Book of Air and Shadows is by a guy named Michael Gruber. I thought I recognized the name, and I was right; all the earlier Butch Karp books by Robert Tanenbaum all credited him in the acknowledgements. The recent ones haven’t, and they suck. Well, Gruber was the ghostwriter for those books, and he demanded more credit or something, and so he and Tanenbaum ended their partnership. The result is that Gruber went off to write under his own name again, and what do you know, he’s the writer to keep following. I wouldn’t say that this book is as solid as the early Karp books — it’s more of a summer thriller sort of thing — but it’s still way better than the travesty that the Karp books have become.

Mother of LiesMother of Lies is the second (and final) volume of Dave Duncan’s “Dodec” books, after Children of Chaos, which I covered previously. This really should have just been one book. The worldbuilding was what made this story distinctive, as I think I mentioned previously. In the end, the second book wrapped up the story quite well — all the characters pretty much ended up where they deserved, except for a few unlocky ones — but because it was basically the downward slope of the story, it somehow didn’t feel as compelling as the first.

The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day One) The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day One). Ahh. If you want to read one fantasy off this list, make it this one. It’s that good. It’s a mix of a coming of age tale and psychological exploration; we meet a an infamous, extremely powerful wizard hiding out incognito in a small town, and the medieval equivalent of a journalist comes to him to do The Interview, the one that covers his whole life and explains who he is and why he did the things he has done. Of course, everyone else in the book knows why the guy is infamous, but we don’t. Yet. As we go, we learn little tidbits of his legend, and then we also learn the way the legend started, which is often far more mundane and less impressive. In the end, it becomes a story about how the public version of someone is quite different from their real self or their real history, and about the ways in which little choices have big consequences. Totally absorbing, too — I am making it sound portentous and dull, but it’s actually lively and a hell of a lot of fun to read.

Sixty Days and CountingSixty Days and Counting wraps up Kim Stanley Robinson’s near-present tale of the political and personal impact of global warming. As with so much of his work, it gets wonky, talky, and disjoint, as we cover a large cast of characters all of whom talk endlessly inside their head without really getting us to feel for them. As with the actual real-life crisis, the ending is somewhat inconclusive, but there’s a strong thread of optimism throughout.

With Nine You Get VanyrWith Nine You Get Vanyr was like watching a trainwreck. I picked it up because I read a review somewhere that said it was fun and funny and an affectionate look at fandom. Well… There’s this phenomenon called “Mary Sue” that runs rampant in fiction writing, particularly fanfic. Basically, this is where a writer puts an idealized version of themselves into their story. And then typically they make themselves get the hero as a romantic partner, have better adventures than the hero, and actually be better than the hero. Sometimes, a Mary Sue can be entertaining — or at least give a fresh take on the fictional universe in which they are set — Diane Carey, a prolific Star Trek writer, got her start coming up with a female Capt. Kirk clone complete with Vulcan sidekick, doctor pal, and so on. Well, here we have an invented cult TV show with superpowered dudes, and a set of women from a fantasy con who get sucked into the fantasy world, made gorgeous and all-powerful, and then forget to be ironic. What starts out as a wry commentary ends up taking itself seriously — and doesn’t deserve to.

Shaman's Crossing (The Soldier Son Trilogy, Book 1)Forest Mage (The Soldier Son Trilogy, Book 2)Shaman’s Crossing and Forest Mage are the first two books of Robin Hobb’s new trilogy. I am enjoying these, but they aren’t clicking in quite the way that the “Assassin” or “Liveship” books did. If I had to pick a color for the “Assassin” books it would be gray — a northern clime, a magic system that is all about internal visions, and lots of emotionally repressed people. The Liveship books are riotous tropical colors, red and yellow. But These — well, yeah, they are the deep blue and green that are on the covers, and yet we have scenes in deserts, and scenes in deep forests, and scenes in country estates, and scenes in cities, and it just feels not sprawling but a bit disjoint. It also doesn’t help that even more so that in her other books, we are dealing with broken people. That said, to my mind they are still excellent.

The New Policeman (Costa Children's Book Award (Awards))The New Policeman was a pleasant surprise — a highly poetic fantasy aimed at young adults. It’s unabashedly old-school Celtic, complete with jigs players in pubs and small Irish towns, and a malevolent priest. I liked it a lot, even though it might be termed slight.

Wolf Hunting (Wolf)Wolf's Blood (Wolf)Wolf Hunting and Wolf’s Blood finally wrap up Lindskold’s Wolf series, and I have to admit that I almost read them only out of duty. For one, the sheer talkiness of these books has gotten worse and worse. The last one before these felt like a thousand pages long — fortunately, these get tauter again. What’s more, the tone of the series has veered all over the place. Whereas the early books were in one of those ersatz medieval kingdoms where people are named things like Kestrel and places are named things like Bright Bay, the later books show evidence of more thought put into worldbuilding. But all the old stuff is still in there, which feels a bit like a mishmash. By the end, we have a party of heroes that includes a human who believes herself to be a wolf, a giant intelligent wolf she’s in love with, a prophet who is a jaguar, a priest of snakes, an intelligent horse, a couple of ravens, and (maybe) a wizard who died thousands of years ago. It just feels… piled on, somehow.

Childe MorganI started reading the Deryni books back when the Camber books had just started coming out. I was struck by how rich the books were, with their intimate knowledge of medieval history applied to a fascinating world. When I went back and re-read the earlier books in the series, they seemed worse, because they were clearly apprenticeship, so to speak. And later books, well, they just seemed to lose steam, acting more as a way to fill in little gaps here and there in the saga rather than being stories in their own right. But I still buy them, and sure enough Childe Morgan is a gap filler. Absolutely nothing happens in this book that we didn’t already know — it’s just that what was a paragraph of background material elsewhere is here a full novel. If you came to read this series today, and read them based on their internal timeline, it’d probably seem quite nice (though lightweight compared to many others in the series).

The Senator and the PriestThe Senator and the Priest isn’t about the priest. It’s about the Senator. Specifically, it’s about politics. You can think of it as Greeley’s take on how politics are today in America, and how politics ought to be, just as his earlier novels about the Papacy or about being a Catholic parish priest in the days of pedophilia scandals are his way of talking about those issues. As a political thriller, it’s a bit lacking in the machinations and backroom deals that make for a really compelling book of that sort. But that isn’t really what it’s about; it’s more about trying to present a model (which in Greeley’s case, of course, always has to include an Irish-American family from Chicago).

Kushiel's Justice (Kushiel's Legacy)Kushiel’s Justice is the second book in the second Kushiel trilogy. It’s nice to be back in Terre d’Ange. I think this volume was more successful than the first book in this trilogy, but still, the first three books are hard to improve upon, and these don’t, quite. This time around, the emotional notes feel more earned than the did in the first one, but I think that basically, the climactic moments of the third book about Phedre were so intense that it’s really hard to make a whole trilogy about the fallout, and that’s basically what is going on here.

The Margarets: A NovelSheri Tepper can be an immensely frustrating writer. When she’s on, she’s really on, challenging preconceptions and upsetting applecarts. She’s perhaps best-known for tackling sexual issues in a way that many found overly abrasive (one novel featured a villain who literally had a whip for a penis). Well, in The Margarets she’s on, but not really on. It’s a fractured prism of a book that doesn’t try to challenge you with truly huge issues, but instead with a mindbending premise instead — that Margaret, a young girl when we first meet her,has split off at key decision points in her life to literally become different people, different versions of herself. Some of these Margarets are fascinating and stick with you; the old lady matriarch of a troubled clan on a colony world, the timid yet brave seamstress slave. Others are dull, like the princes/queen who is so boring that Tepper quickly hustles her offstage and literally locks her in a room for a few hundred pages so we can forget about her. It’s like a crazy spinning mobile that didn’t actually hold together, but since none of the pieces actually fell to the ground, you forgive the strings that broke.

The Bookwoman's Last Fling: A Cliff Janeway Novel (Cliff Janeway Novels)The Bookwoman’s Last Fling is an airport book — something I picked up because I needed a lightweight thing to read. It’s a mystery novel where the detective, Cliff Janeway, is a rare book dealer. That sounded interesting, but there was remarkably little about books in the story — instead, it’s really a story about the horse racing culture, the world of trainers and owners and hands who tend the racing stock. I may or may not pick up other books in the series — it was good, but not really impressive.

Finally, a couple of oldies that I figured I should finally read:

The JourneyerThe Journeyer is almost the only book by Gary Jennings I hadn’t read (there’s one more I need to track down). Jennings died years back, but he’s best known for writing massive tomes of crazily detailed historical settings, with tons of sex and violence. Aztec is a book that has stuck with me for literally years: a potboiler that isn’t, incredibly rich with character and totally heartbreaking. In The Journeyer, Jennings tackled the journeys of Marco Polo. It’s not as good, but it’s still a mesmerizing trip, because of the amazing windows into the historical world that it opens. I have no idea how much of it is accurate — more so than the other books of his, there’s a sense of stretching or inventing to serve the story — but even a fraction of it would be enough to make most all SF/F look like impoverished imagination.

Rite of PassageRite of Passage is Alexei Panshin’s award-winning novel, a “juvie” as they say. It’s clearly an homage to the Heinlein juvies, through and through. And at that, it’s more successful than say, the fragmentary Heinlein outline that Spider Robinson finished and pushined recently. Some days, I wonder where clean writing like this has gone in the SF world, where too many books seem to be just hard to read for some (inadequate) reason.

Phew. I still have a stack of reviews of recent graphic novels and comics to get through. But not for a while. 😛


  3 Responses to “Book Review-O-Rama part two”

  1. In late July, I noticed a bump in sales and couldn’t figure it out. Sunday morning, for the first time in about two months, I decided to Google for reviews. Lo and behold, on July 21, just before my sales started to rise, Raph Koster panned Vanyr as a Mary Sue. He even said it was like watching a “trainwreck” (sic). That’s the nicest thing he could’ve done for me. Seriously. Within five days, my Amazon sales tripled. The sad part is he’ll never believe my thank you note.

  2. Remarkable list there… I have a new appreciation for your literary knowledge, but no clue how you get any work done.

    Incidentally, I plan to buy “Made to Stick”… it sounds quite insightful, and the preview pages that you can read on Amazon have hooked me.

  3. […] trolling for reviews for the first time since May, I came across a very entertaining notice in Raph Koster’s Book Review-o-Rama.  Raph was kind enough to review Vanyr, even though he hated it.  He called it a Mary Sue […]

  4. Thanks for including With Nine You Get Vanyr in your list of reviewed books. As the former editor of a review site, I know from experience nothing is harder to write than a review of a book you don’t like. But you stepped up to the plate and offered an honest critique with out flaming. Your time and consideration are much appreciated.
    Jean Marie

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