Posts tagged ‘books’

Zoran Živković: Seven Touches of Music

Saturday, February 12th, 2011

I have a list I keep in my head of things (books, musical artists, etc.) that I should love, based on the other things I like, but don’t do it for me. In some ways it’s more interesting than the opposite list, of things that you’d never think that you’d like but you love. The reason I mention it is that, as you have probably guessed, this book is on it.

Every mention I see of Živković makes me think I would adore his work, and it’s not like those descriptions are false. Seven Touches of Music is a group of vaguely related slightly fantastical minimalistic short stories, in which each protagonist fleetingly catches a glimpse into a weirder world (in each of these cases triggered by music), which then (in most of these stories) fades again, leaving an unsettling feeling. Sounds like just my thing! But somehow, as I read each one, it faded from my memory just as these glimpses of alternate reality or deeper connections underlying the world did. I don’t doubt that the fault lies in me; I have the feeling that there were some beautiful subtleties going on that flew under my radar. Perhaps I read it at the wrong time, but it somehow failed to get under my skin the way that I imagine it was meant to.

Steven Erikson: Deadhouse Gates

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010

The second volume of the ten-book epic fantasy series The Malazan Book of the Fallen, which was begun with Gardens of the Moon, Deadhouse Gates is regarded by many fans (though not me) as the best of the bunch. It’s true for sure that you can see Erikson hit his stride here in a way that is new.

For one thing, the plot feels a lot better controlled. There are still a half-dozen independent threads going on, and in fact they don’t even all end up tying together in the way that they did in the first book, but perhaps it is that independence that lets Erikson take each one to a conclusion instead of trying to combine them all in the last chapter. This book also contains the famous Chain of Dogs sequence, which is pretty wrenching and gives the whole book an emotional weight that was less present before.

Once again, all the stuff going on can seem pretty random, most memorably when a ship of manages to go through a series of weird dimensions in quick succession, each crazier than the last. It is easy to regard this as Erikson just randomly chucking in every weird idea he can think of, but as I mentioned before, if something is introduced out of nowhere that seems to bear no relation to the plot, it is likely to be a call-forward to something in a future book. This can be a little frustrating but it certainly does contribute to the epic feel.

I would say that at this point the dimensions of the larger plot start to become clear, but that’s a lie—the most important plot thread in many ways doesn’t even really get hinted at until book 3. But you do start to get a sense of the scope of the thing. That scope will widen even more in the next book…

Andrew Crumey: Sputnik Caledonia

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

I discovered Andrew Crumey a while ago through his awesome novel Pfitz, about which all I really remember now is that there are lots of neat fictional-worlds-within-worlds tricks. I also really liked his next, similar, novel, D’Alembert’s Principle, and his first, more conventional, novel, Music in a Foreign Language. Some part of the appeal additionally came from the fact that his books were often not published in the US (he’s Scottish), or published after great delay, so I’d have to order them from the UK, which made it more exciting, like I had stumbled on a private secret route to great fiction.

So I’ve kept buying his novels as they are published, but the last three just haven’t done the same thing for me. Maybe it’s me; Sputnik Caledonia in particular seems to have been received very well.

Crumey is still doing a lot of the same things I really like in fiction—nested stories, parallel worlds, weird unexplained correspondences between different parts of the story—but maybe I’ve read enough of his books by now that it seems more like a formula than new. There’s also a sensibility that doesn’t always mesh with mine; in Mr Mee a lot of intended humor derives from a senile old man not understanding anything of modern life, which I just rolled my eyes at, and a lot of this book reads like an adolescent fantasy—and the fact that after a while there are hints that it actually is an adolescent fantasy doesn’t really help.

There are still a bunch of ideas in here that I liked, and it was an interesting read with an affecting ending, but maybe it’s time to stop ordering his new books from the UK and go back and reread the ones that excited me originally and which I have forgotten.

Steven Erikson: Gardens of the Moon

Monday, August 30th, 2010

Steven Erikson’s epic fantasy series The Malazan Book of the Fallen is about the most ambitious writing project I can think of short of Henry Darger. It’s not just the number of words in the thing, which is immense enough already (each of the ten books is a doorstop), but also the scale of the conception. There’s a giant amount of detail in there, with a backstory going back thousands of years, the uncovering of which is often just as much of a gasp-inducing plot element as any action sequence. Hints are often dropped which don’t pay off until literally thousands of pages later, and clearly Erikson had the entire thing largely planned out from the start.

Just a peek at the locations of the books is impressive. The second book drops almost all the characters and plot threads from the first and starts up a giant new collection of characters and threads on a different continent. The third book does jump back to the first book’s location, but then the entire first quarter of the fourth book is the backstory of what had originally appeared to be a minor character from the second book, and the fifth book starts all over again on a completely new continent. After that the threads start getting woven together a little more, which is almost a disappointment when you’re used to giant new vistas opening up every book.

As you might guess, this sort of thing is right up my alley. The sheer size of the worldbuilding, both in space and in time, is amazing, and the revelations that occur regularly are often jawdropping. Plus the guy can actually write, and the themes are largely about real human experience and emotions, and the characterization is pretty good; you can see why I’ve devoted an embarrassing number of hours to reading and rereading these books as they’ve been published. The tenth and final volume is coming out in early 2011, and I’ve started one more reread so I’ll be in place to read it at that time.

All that said, the books aren’t perfect. For one thing, although Erikson is a good writer, he’s not quite as good as he thinks he is, and sometimes passages can be overwritten or unclear. (And the excerpts of fictional poems that open the chapters are often just horrible.) Although there are occasional romantic relationships, he’s not that good at them—it’s generally hard to understand just why characters are falling in love (or, more usually, in lust). And although it’s hard for me to complain about the size when that is one of the things I love about the series, there’s just so much to keep track of, and so much to physically read, that it can be hard to remember it all and sustain my motivation all the way through.

The first book, Gardens of the Moon, also suffers somewhat from being written long before the other ones, before Erikson had really matured, and the violently in medias res nature of it is even harder to deal with as a reader than with the other books, since you’re starting from a blank slate. If you do read these books for the first time, I have one caution: don’t roll your eyes too much at the occasional seemingly completely random plot event or deus ex machina, especially in the first few books. In the context of a single book, they do appear to come from nowhere and have no good function except to tie up plot threads, but in the context of the entire series, they are usually used to introduce key elements that will become very important later in the series.

These books are not for everyone; they’re one of those things, like the band Cardiacs, that I love but am reluctant to actually recommend to anyone. But if this is the sort of thing you like, you may love it. And this is just about the best time to give it a try; it’s wrapping up soon so you can read the whole thing without waiting a year between each book, and tor.com is doing a pretty insightful reread through the whole series, which they just started a few weeks ago.

China Miéville: Kraken

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

Number two in my package of books from amazon.co.uk. As I mentioned before, I love some but not all of Miéville’s books, and this one looked enough like it was right up my alley that I was sufficiently excited to order it from England before the US release date. And… it was pretty good.

My opinion of it sort of went through a U shape. It starts out as kind of a romp. A preserved giant squid has disappeared from a London museum and all sorts of crazy supernatural cults are getting involved. But somewhere around the 25% mark I stopped looking forward so much to picking it up again. For one thing, it just felt kind of overstuffed. There are like six major players, and I kept wishing there were more like four. Although I usually like big messes of books, and I’ve enjoyed Miéville’s unfettered creativity in his other works, here I felt more suffocated by the number of groups involved, not to mention the n-squared issue of keeping track of how they were all interacting with each other.

My other issue is that all of the secret underground supernatural stuff, despite a lot of it being pretty original (e..g, one major villain is a sentient face tatooed on someone else’s back), wore on me after a while. Maybe I’ve just read too much of it, but I spent a lot of the novel feeling like I was reading Miéville’s Neil Gaiman impression that he was tossing off between real books.

But with about a quarter of the book to go, the pace really picks up, there are some awesome set pieces, and most importantly, all of these pieces of the plot actually fit together in a satisfying way. So overall I’d say I enjoyed it — in particular some of that overstuffedness makes more sense in retrospect after seeing where it all leads to — but it wasn’t quite the awesome experience that I know it’s possible to get when I pick up a China Miéville book. I’d put it below Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and The City & the City, but above Iron Council, which I didn’t even finish.

David Mitchell: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Monday, June 14th, 2010

I first encountered David Mitchell through his debut “novel” Ghostwritten, an intricately linked collection of short stories that really tickled my structural fancy. Of course, he is now mostly known for Cloud Atlas, another linked set of stories that span from centuries in the past to millennia in the future with impressive facility. In between he’s written another couple of more conventional novels, which I have not read.

This is his latest, and I was actually excited enough about it to place an order from the UK, since it was released a month earlier than the US and so was China Miéville’s Kraken, about which more in a subsequent post. It’s a historical novel, and much has been made of the fact that it’s supposedly Mitchell’s first, but honestly his previous work already has many historical elements. It takes place around 1800, largely on a small artificial island outside of Nagasaki where the Dutch trade with Japan.

The historical stuff works well. It’s a very interesting time and place, and the writing is the sort of historical fiction that I like, demonstrating the setting with a nice amount of detail without hitting you over the head with it. The plot and structure are pretty odd, though. I don’t like to spoil much in these reviews, but I will say that the entire focus of the novel changes fairly radically multiple times, each of which caught me by surprise, and one of which made me pretty uncomfortable for a while. I guess Mitchell’s tendency to divide a novel into contrasting parts dies hard, even when writing a book that is more unified on the surface.

But it really does end up being one story, and once you get through the slower scene-setting chapters, it’s a pretty gripping one. I would still recommend Cloud Atlas or Ghostwritten before this one, and they will probably stick with me longer, but it was still an excellent book and I’m very happy to see that it’s already been a bestseller in England.

Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall

Saturday, May 15th, 2010

This novel takes the all-too-familiar career of Thomas Cromwell and turns it inside out, revealing an unexpectedly thoughtful and empathetic character. What’s that, you’re not familiar at all with the career of Thomas Cromwell? Well, neither was I, and I suspect that that made my reading of it much different from the intended one, as I ended up reading it purely as a historical novel and not as some great reimagining. But it was a really good historical novel.

Thomas Cromwell was born a commoner and rose to become one of the must trusted advisors to Henry VIII (the one with the six wives — we just get the first two of them here). He seems to be regarded by history mostly as a villain, largely based on his standing as the chief nemesis of Thomas More, who opposed the king’s declaring himself the head of the church. Mantel turns Cromwell into a real person, who is not perfect but is generally always trying to do the right thing.

Her writing style here is intriguing; it’s very restrained, avoiding much emotion or florid description, and you get the feeling that it is meant to reflect Cromwell’s own character. Cromwell himself, although present in every scene (as far as I can remember), is hardly ever mentioned explicitly by name, but is just called “he” unless it is really necessary to distinguish him from another man in the scene. There is pretty much no “As you know, Bob” exposition; the characters talk to each other as if they already know the subject they’re discussing, which can make it a little hard for the reader to catch up, but is rewarding once you do, making it feel a bit like you’re in on a secret.

The plot moves fairly slowly, and I think I might have been happier with it at 400 pages instead of 550, but it remained very interesting all the way through. I imagine that part of the slowness for me was that Mantel wanted to visit and reinterpret a number of important historical incidents, none of which meant much to me.

So I feel like I didn’t get everything out of it that the author put in; it’s sort of like hearing a cover of a song without knowing the original and thus not being able to hear what original aspects of the song the new performer kept or discarded or reworked. If you are already familiar with 16th century English history this book is probably revelatory (and in fact it has won all sorts of prizes); if you’re not, it’s still an excellent read.

Sergio de la Pava: A Naked Singularity

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

A couple of months ago I got a random email saying (paraphrased) “Love your Infinite Jest notes, love your blog, can I send you a free copy of this novel that appeals to a lot of the people who like Infinite Jest?” I looked it up and saw that it was self-published, which is not a great sign, but a few pages on the net did praise it effusively, and I figured that there was no downside, so I said sure. I wasn’t planning to read it any time soon, but a few weeks ago I picked it up and read a few pages, and then read a few more, and then I read the whole book, and damned if it wasn’t really good.

The novel is A Naked Singularity, and it is a big mess, but luckily for de la Pava, I love big messes. Infinite Jest itself, Gravity’s Rainbow, Sandinista!, Zen Arcade — if it’s some gigantic work that overflows its banks and doesn’t know when to stop, chances are good that I’ll love it.  It’s a 700 page book, but we’re at about page 300 before the plot even really gets started; most of the beginning of the book is filled with a depiction of what it’s like to be a public defender, as the narrator is, in between a bunch of entertainingly digressive dialogues dealing with subjects ranging from abstruse philosophy to pop culture.

Actually, once the plot really gets started and the book gets more focused, it gets a little less interesting and more conventional, but it never stops being entertaining. Most readers would likely disagree, but I almost wish that the novel was even more of a big mess. It’s already 700 pages; why not add a couple hundred more and keep the second half of the book as crazy as the first?

Back to the good points about the book. As I said, the writing style itself is super entertaining. For example, even though about 5% of the the book is taken up by the narrator going on about the professional boxing scene of the 1980s, I didn’t mind. And learning about the life of a public defender was very educational, and naturally enraging as well. There were a bunch of interesting stylistic experiments (there’s one great chapter in particular that keeps jump-cutting back and forth between different scenes during one day) which I would have been happy to see de la Pava take even farther.

A Naked Singularity is self-published but it’s not that easy to tell; the physical book and its layout are very professional, and the only thing giving it away to me was a larger-than-usual incidence of typos. I’ve seen other reviewers wish that it had been edited down some, but as I said earlier, I kind of wish it had been edited even less. I don’t know how hard de la Pava looked for a publisher — it seems hard to believe that no one would have taken a chance on this being the breakout hit of the year. Hopefully his next book will find a wider audience. I’ll certainly read it.

P.S. I am required by the FTC to disclose (as I already did, but here it is again, explicitly) that I received this book for free.

Richard Taruskin: The Oxford History of Western Music, volume 1

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

One of my 2010 projects is to read this 4000 page, 5 volume history of Western classical music. It got outstanding reviews when it was published in 2005, and last year it was released as a reasonably-priced set of paperbacks, and when I finally got to browse them in the bookstore I was impressed enough to make the investment in time and money.

I’ve just finished volume 1, which takes us up to 1600, so I’m pretty much on track to finish this year (I figure my pace will go up once I get to the music I’m much more familiar with, about halfway through volume 2). It was very interesting, especially since I didn’t know a lot about the early evolution of classical music already.

Despite the fact that the work as a whole is thousands of pages long, Taruskin clearly intends this to be read front to back as a narrative; it’s not a reference, or even really a textbook. This has many advantages and a few disadvantages. One nice thing (to me) is that it is clearly written with some subjectivity; although of course he is writing a history, the author isn’t afraid to inject his own opinions on occasion, which makes it a much more interesting read than it could be. The biggest disadvantage to me is that it’s not as easy to use as a reference as a textbook would be. If he introduces some new term, it’s not going to be in boldface or set off in a sidebar; if you run into it again later and forget its meaning, you’ll have to flip around looking for its definition (and it’s not always in the index). This was a real issue for me in this volume because I’m unfamiliar with most pre-1700 musical jargon. On the other hand, I’m reading it for pleasure, not so I can pass an exam, so it wasn’t a huge deal.

He makes a big point about this actually being a history of written music, which is very different from being a history of music; we really don’t know a lot about pre-literate performance, or even a ton about the performance of the works we have scores of. And of course a lot of written music has been lost, or even intentionally destroyed (grr). So it was neat to read about the ways in which we have to piece together knowledge about what music was really like during this period.

The material itself I found really interesting. I wish I got a slightly better sense of the evolution of certain musical vocabulary from a more theoretical point of view. For example, somewhere during the hundreds of years covered by this book, harmony gradually changed from being mostly just a succession of consonances into having semantic meaning on a more “sentence-sized” level. Taruskin points to some individual examples of this, but I found myself wishing for a higher-level overview of how the shift occurred. Of course, the individual composers who made this shift happen probably didn’t think about it that way at all, so any attempt to impose some sort of teleological post-facto history on it is going to be pretty artificial anyway.

In any case, so far the series has been very entertaining and informative, and I’m not regretting my time spent with it at all. On to Monteverdi!

Michal Ajvaz: The Other City

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

This is a short Czech novel from 1993 that just got translated into English last year and showed up on lots of SF/weird readers’ 2009 best-of lists. The genre is magic realism, which is to say highly-literate fantasy that takes place in the real world. The narrator (I don’t think he ever gets a name) starts discovering clues to an alternate fantastic city that exists in parallel to Prague (shades of China Miéville’s The City & the City). And this other city really is fantastic, full of arresting poetic images that don’t make much rational sense.

Those images, at their best, are really gripping and memorable — two scenes that come to mind are a fight to the death with a shark on top of a tower and a bushwhacking expedition through a library-jungle — but just as often seem more random, as if the author was picking words from a dictionary and then trying to connect them in some sort of Oulipian manner:

“Of course it was all in vain, you fool,” she said disdainfully. You purged geometry of polar animals… You’ve forgotten that the first axiom of Euclid states that there will always be one or two penguins in geometrical space? Wasn’t it you who tattooed that sentence on my thigh in your automobile of ice? […] You turned us against you when we discovered you on the lavatory squeezing oranges onto a pocket calculator. We don’t like you and find you ridiculous.”

Which rather than making me savor each crazy image makes me just skim until I can find something that makes a little sense again.

So although there are some reoccurring images and themes that do give the book some structure, I sometimes had the same experience I have with David Lynch movies, where, after a bit of seeming to have some strange internal logic that is tantalizingly just beyond the reach of my rational mind, the work just goes off the rails entirely. It was short enough and cool enough that I am perfectly happy with the time I spent with it, but overall for me it didn’t fulfill that top-ten promise it started out with.