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Another fine mess

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Currently reading

Ottessa Moshfegh
Knife Fight and Other Struggles
David Nickle
Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity
Andrew Solomon
The Good Lord Bird
James McBride
Ancillary Justice
Ann Leckie
Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More (New Edition)
Derek Bok
Dissident Gardens
Jonathan Lethem
Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s
Kim Newman
The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
James Gleick
Complete Novels
Dashiell Hammett, Steven Marcus
You - Austin Grossman Nope. Couldn't stick.

My review would be negative, but I'm not the right target for this novel. So, rather than complain about a meal not to my taste, I'll let others speak up.
A Thousand Pardons: A Novel - Jonathan Dee Not for me.
London Falling - Paul Cornell Full review at Bookgasm -- http://www.bookgasm.com/reviews/fantasy/london-falling:

Paul Cornell has described his new novel as “BUFFY meets THE BILL,” capturing in bang-up fashion its collision of horror tropes and copper attitude.

LONDON FALLING features a special investigative team thrown together by the unexplainable (and bloody) death of a suspect in custody. And, as with any number of Joss Whedon’s ragtag teams, there are traumatic backstories and lots of smart-arsed dialogue, a genuine sentiment flavored by serious narrative consequences, and the whiplash thrills of big action set-pieces and constant screwball chatter.

But the mash-up pitch does Cornell a disservice, too. It may make his effort seem derivative, an easy parlor trick rather than the enthusiastic reinvention you’ll find here. (Cornell has roots with DOCTOR WHO and DC comics, too, experiences which clearly shape — but don’t constraiN — what he accomplishes here.) The novel will delight fans of dark fantasy and gritty crime stories, and countless other sorts of readers, as well. LONDON FALLING is exhilarating and sophisticated entertainment — an excellent stand-alone adventure which primes the pump for future explorations.

The novel opens at a run. We’re thrown right into a pacy, intense depiction of the tail-end of an undercover operation which sets in motion some deeper mysteries while running the cast out on stage for introductions. DI Quill barks over the radio, tracking the trap clamping down on crime lord Rob Toshack; deep-cover officers Costain and Sefton circle one another suspiciously; investigator Ross follows by radio as her critical analysis comes a cropper. You could (will) easily fall right in to the gritty crime story, forgetting that things are about to turn slant.

The team (and plot) quickly shift focus to a mysterious elderly woman, Mora Losley — a season ticketholder for West Ham, and something much more. The plot ticks along in procedural mode, as these detectives faced with things that don’t make sense use good copper instincts to build a case; Cornell skillfully uses the investigation to do some sophisticated history- and world-building, teasing out an alternate London that recalled The Clash’s warnings (the apocalyptic thump of “London calling / To the underworld”) as well as earlier incarnations of a shadow city in Neil Gaiman or China Miéville.

This dense weave of world-building is smartly subsumed in narrative momentum, an escalating series of set-pieces (a riveting raid on a market, a race to find hostages before a deadline passes). The novel’s only weakness is the reliance on some facile emotional beats for character development, although the team members are sketched with real skill — defining a cast readers will care deeply about. And there is some slight tendency, as the novel ends, to slip into conventional bathos (not as effectively, smart-assedly deconstructed as in the Whedonverse).

But, damn, it’s an enjoyable read. Highly recommended.
Matter - Iain M. Banks See related review.
The Hydrogen Sonata (A Culture Novel) - Iain M. Banks I think it's time to admit--with two of the recent Culture novels sitting half-read on myvirtual shelf for anywhere from 6 to 36 months, and pleasant-but-unexceptional responses to the couple that I've finished--that I'm perhaps full up on the series and should set 'em aside. The recent stuff isn't by any means bad, and I loved the first five or six. But I often grow restless with series. That appears to be the case here. For now, any way.
Juggernaut - Adam Baker Full review at Bookgasm:

After a couple of stage-setting, top-secret memos about operations to recover — which become operations to destroy — a mysterious SPEKTR vehicle in a desolate stretch of Iraq, we turn to page one and Adam Baker’s JUGGERNAUT roars out of the gate:

The locomotive roared headlong through a rippling, caramel sandscape. A dust-streaked behemoth jetting black diesel fumes. A plow welded to the forward buffer bar scoured the dune-choke rails in a series of sandbursts, like a speedboat smacking through chop.

Baker nailed me to the chair with that slam-bang opening. The staccato prose calculated to seem breathless, too rushed even for complete sentences — but also a particular care for the image that is more than simply a placeholder for the film adaptation.

At its best — and the novel often revs its engines for maximum performance — JUGGERNAUT rockets from one action set piece to the next with a breathless energy, while wit and craft inflect every stray, writerly detail: a popcorn entertainment made with a poet’s eye.

I don’t want to overstate: With (deserved) pride, the book can be summed up in simple pitches like “THE WALKING DEAD meets THREE KINGS,” or “Call it TREASURE OF THE LIVING DEAD IN THE SIERRA MADRE.”

A ragtag team of mercenaries, seeking one final big score before retirement, heads off to a desolate “contamination zone” where a rumored vault full of bullion sits untouched. Their smash-and-grab is smashed and scrubbed by a series of (entirely predictable) discoveries: a “treasure” other than the gold promised; duplicity in the ranks, sparking violent competition for the reward; and an unexpected set of obstacles comprised largely of leathery, undead corpses.

The backstory for the zombies has a few, off-kilter spins, and Baker also manages with deft assurance to make his archetypes less typical. As in his prose, there’s an economy to his characterizations — even if, at times, you wish for a few more complete sentences....
How the Dead Dream - Lydia Millet I was entranced by this book; it's funny, smart, so well-written, moving.

If he could detect an air of arrogant pride in a skinny girl at a swim meet, say, jiggling a bare foot in the bleachers as she stared coolly at the other swimmers, he was pleased; he was reminded of the potential for all shackled beasts to break free of their bonds and rise, their ragged wings beating, into the stratosphere. He clung to a vision of forward motion, the breath of hope that could lift individuals into posterity.

Lydia Millet's novel begins with her protagonist, T., a young boy, enthralled with the abstracted wonder of capital. He seeks to make money, to turn one into two and then twenty--not as some means, no end in mind: accrual is its own reward. Or, rather, the accumulation of all that money seems a way to step away from and master the world, like that skinny girl appraising the competitors. He loves the market as a marker of cool, controlling rationality. The self, shaping the system to his will.

The novel leaps forward in time, and T. becomes quite accomplished. And the novel bends him back to earth in a series of surprising, sometimes small, sometimes shattering events: a coyote hit by a car; an employee's daughter, paralyzed; a fascination with zoos; a dog found and lost; a hurricane. The arc of the novel is often sad, moving--but also revelatory. Because T. over this course of events more fully recognizes, is battered by, and ultimately embraces how fully embedded in the world we are, how foolish the dream of Self above all.

Millet's novel isn't some simple sermon, nor does its casual brilliance about economics and environmental policy drown the reader in information. The sadness is steeped in waves of witty prose: like the excerpt above, lovely images, observations and keen clever phrases cascading like waves between commas. It is often precisely funny. I was reminded of Atwood, Roth, Egan--stylists with a seeming casual facility that belies their craft. But it does have much on its mind. Its vision of the otherness of animals, its venom about our alienation from one another and the world, are a challenge to the reader. Because there is no breaking free, not much to posterity; the inevitable end awaits all. Yet there's a love and vision there, still, even, despite.

You'll leap to such challenges; Millet will seduce you. I loved the novel. It is part of a loose thematic/inter-plotted trilogy, and I dutifully--delightedly--grabbed the second, and then set it aside, wanting to savor it a bit.
HHhH - Laurent Binet For David Kowalski: I just wrote a long review of HHhH, mainly for you... and then goodreads ate it. Fuck. No way am I going to be that thorough again.

I am not sure you'll like it. The stuff on Heydrich's assassination is quite compelling, and I like the method of the telling in many ways--lots of quotes, chapters that noodle about all kinds of elements of the history (biographies of various folks, geopolitical assessments, military assessment, essays on ideology)... but it is also frustratingly undergraduate in its approach to these complexities. All kinds of hand-wringing about the poor author trying to do justice to history, about other writers... as if there hasn't been a long, fascinating debate about the problems of historiography -- or as if there haven't been historical works this intriguingly complicated, this "meta-," so knotted around the interplay of event and context and form. (See, e.g., Hayden White, Natalie Zemon Davis, Carlo Ginzburg.) Binet frequently mentions Kundera--the book opens with a quote and discusison of one of his works--and there's none of that writer's casual, confident calm in mixing essayistic riffs, authorial intrusion, narrative chicanery, and the meat 'n' potatoes of character and desire and affect and plot.

Or maybe what's most frustrating is that there is NO interplay between formal anxiety/play and the subject at hand. What a fascinating book might do is, as in the work of the historians noted above, make the problem of history come alive through the particular dense compelling history at hand--and vice versa. If you are less familiar with Heydrich or the mechanics of the Czech resistance, it is indeed compelling stuff, and particularly at the novel's close the force of the telling has been greatly enhanced by the anxieties and pointillist detail of the whole. But the negotiation of the complexities comes off as narcissism more than technique.
Last Days - Adam Nevill Full review at http://www.bookgasm.com/reviews/horror/last-days-2/#more-23107--

We’ve learned a few valuable lessons from the last 50 years of horror fiction and film:
• When your group enters a strange space and someone hears a strange, unlocatable noise, don’t split up to investigate.
• If an older, wealthy individual hires you to do a task, be aware that the elderly gentleman is no innocent and that the task will spell your doom.
• A camera left on and unattended in a scary house will produce excellent evidence of horrific things. (Also: That film will be seen by the protagonists, but then somehow irretrievably destroyed.)

There is a comfort to these touchpoints, generic stations of the cross that work on fans like the slow, crank-rattling ascent on a roller coaster: Knowing what’s coming can provoke delicious anticipation. The drawback is a dulling of the senses, a reduction of the form into nothing but a sequence of jump-scares — a dwindling of dread into the lesser impact of spectacle.

Adam Nevill’s LAST DAYS locks you into a familiar ride, but there’s an expert craftwork to the dips and turns that relies upon — and, for much of the route, enhances — the reader’s expectations.

Independent documentarian Kyle Freeman is hired to investigate the spaces where the Manson-like Temple of the Last Days evolved from fringe ’60s commune to apocalyptic cult. The last of the cult’s members — those fortunate enough to escape the murders that shuttered the “temple” for good — are dying off with mysterious rapidity, and businessman Max Solomon wants Kyle and his skeleton crew to rush into production.

Solomon initially makes Kyle think “of a small clever monkey with glittering eyes,” “[a] primate rising to its hind legs, dressed in Paul Smith.” (You’d think that the monkey thing would be enough to send Freeman packing, never mind the rule about wealthy investors noted above. But no.) It’s a great image, one of many found throughout the novel.
Swann's Way - Marcel Proust, Lydia Davis I didn't really get the cookie thing. Seriously, dude--just grab some ding-dongs and move on! I think the stuff about the lady Madeline was also confusing. I read maybe fifteen pages before skimming a bunch.
The Antagonist - Lynn Coady Mick Croft was one of the few town punks who actually was a punk, not just a gangly, belligerent, functionally retarded teenager like the rest of us. He dealt drugs, of course, and brandished knives, of course, and had been expelled for kicking the gym teacher, a man with the unfortunate name of Mr. Fancy, in the ass when he was bending over to gather the volleyballs into a canvas sack.

Quite early on, as Gordon "Rank" Rankin has just begun his series of tirades and counternarratives--the epistolary record which makes up the novel--he casually brings up this street-corner punk, the smarmy Eddie-Haskell-ish delinquent Mick Croft. And over a few passages and paragraphs scattered through the novel, he sketches a devastatingly precise portrait which starts as small-town archetype but quickly fractals into strange, uncategorizably messy configurations, a helluva character and not just a cartoon. Rank's empathy--Coady's care and compassion with even the most minor, and dimwittedest, denizens of her character study--shine through even as the prose is barbed, the insights biliously funny.

And in the middle of this digressive sketching of a minor character, another casual aside gives us Mr. Fancy, who disappears in two pages, whose name made me bark in surprised laughter.

The book is full of glorious kicks in the pants: rude low humor, a delight in language from the cheapest Fancy to more precise filigrees, a bubbling rage that can escalate toward verbal (and hints of physical) violence in the emailed rants Rank sends to his former friend, and most startling of all a constantly surprising generosity that recognizes (even as the Mick is mocked, the Fancy is flattened, the fratboy foolishness is on full display) the pain and loneliness and loss that everyone feels, scrambling about, trying to make sense of who they can trust and who will let them down.

And the novel is hard-nosed: everybody lets you down.

But it is also enormously forgiving: no one deserves to stay down.

Rank is an oversized misfit--smarter than his town and his appearance, but burdened with so much internalized anger and self-loathing that he fairly hums from constant exasperation. His voice--the novel is a series of emails from Rank to an old college pal Adam--drives the novel, which flits in and out of time with a casual ease that belies the complexity (and intelligence) of its structure. Adam has written a novel, in which a minor character commits some nasty business, and Rank sees himself there--sees a trust broken, sees his life reduced to cartoon. So he writes back... and the one-sided conversation bends on an arc toward revelation.

I loved Rank. I loved the rants, the warmth, the fury, the feelings. These characters, the small town--I felt, as with the best of Richard Russo's novels, a sense of old home (with all the pros and cons, nostalgia and deep-seated anger, such recognition brings). This is as fine and wonderful a novel as any of Russo's, the best sad/funny novel I've read since Skippy Dies, and Coady is now an author I *need* to read--I can't wait to track back into her work. It's a blast.
Standing in Another Man's Grave - Ian Rankin A weaker ending--but until the last fifty or so pages, an unmitigated pleasure. (And counting those last fifty or so pages, a mitigated pleasure.). Rebus returns, and I'm reminded that this is the one detective series that I've yet to fade on. Normally, I get the hang of the writer's style, her plotting; the central character settles into type. And I move along. But Rankin is a master of the procedural--the accumulation of detail which eventually emerges as mystery and solution. What makes his work stand out is that the observational pleasures--the attention to contemporary Scotland, the fussy precision in every stray character, the rambling lived-in-ness of each book's world--they are not mere means to the end. The books are a delight, regardless of resolution. (The only Rebus novel I found unsatisfying was the first--which seemed far more reliant on the puzzle than the population.)

The Best of All Possible Worlds: A Novel - Karen Lord Karen Lord's The Best of All Possible Worlds seems on its surface somewhat frothy. The venerable critic John Clute dismisses it as "romance", a critique he qualifies slightly--not that there's anything wrong with that--while in the next breath citing with a sneer a passage that does come across all gee-willikers. And some readers may stare stonily at what might seem more Candide than Voltaire -- "LeGuin lite," in Clute's eyes, (ab)using science-fictional tropes to adorn an old-fashioned tale of the sincere lady wooing a distant, but worthy, man.

Lord makes no bones about swiping the skeletal structure of this plot from Jane Eyre and Jane Austen (the guile-free goodhearted protagonist even late in the novel directly accosting the "Reader"). But as in those referenced works, a smooth surface belies the masterful complexity of Lord's allusive, engaging novel. For instance, she also explicitly cribs from Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, another writer whose casual grace can seem naive, whose optimistic sense of wonder sugared often dark, bitter understandings of human behavior, who used the vistas of another world to open up new windows on our own. The novel is polyvocal, singing in all kinds of keys, but such influences never drown out the author's own beautiful voice. The Best of All Possible Worlds is smart, compassionate science fiction, by which I mean smart, compassionate fiction.

The story hinges on an unimaginable catastrophe. An entire race nearly wiped out, more men than women surviving, the remnant population struggling to maintain or revive its culture. A team of surviving Sadiri joins officials from the home planet and sets out on a picaresque tour of disparate communities where, long before, emigrant Sadiri had put down stakes. The novel's attention to the complicated consequences of diaspora is a core thematic thread. However, Lord is fascinated by the shaping of new hybrid communities, not just mapping power dynamics between self and other. Tracing multiple influences, finding new opportunities -- hers is an optimistic but never trite vision of cross-cultural exchange (and such hybridity is embodied through the novel itself).

And it is at core a study of one focused set of relationships on this team, particularly the blossoming respect and intimacy between biologist Grace Delarua and the Sadiri councillor Dllenahkh. Much happens--the pleasures of the "road" novel--even as the core arc toward coupledom is quite familiar. I'll admit that I, too, sometimes stumbled over some obvious devices, fretted with the tonal shifts from light comedy to darker tragedy. But there's a richness--in design and in delivery--that will delight attentive readers. To dismiss it, dear reader, would be a shame if not a scandal.

Thanks to DelRey and to NetGalley for providing an advance reader's copy in exchange for an honest review.

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic - David Quammen Outstanding.

Every couple pages, in passing, details and facts that amplified the sense of awe that--more than the fear inherent in the history and all-too-likely future of viral pandemics--fuels this book:

One in every four species of mammal is a bat.

The narrative threads a lushly-digressive exploration of the fecundity of ecology and evolution, a grounded procedural intent on practitioners at work, periodic explications (as much celebration) of how science works, precision-tooled travelogues of location and culture... in a style that is rich, readable, often beautifully funny and alive:

The sooty mangabey (Cercocebus atys) is a smoky-gray creature with a dark face and hands, white eyebrows, and flaring white muttonchops, not nearly so decorative as many monkeys on the continent but arresting in its way, like an elderly chimney sweep of dapper tonsorial habits.

And then there's the core content: an often brilliant examination of how viruses jump species--how it's happened, what it portends.

It's strange to say about a book focused on the threat of major pandemics, but a fantastic read.
Red Moon - Benjamin Percy Full review at http://www.bookgasm.com/reviews/horror/red-moon/#more-22760

When I heard the pitch for Benjamin Percy’s RED MOON, my leg began thumping frantically, as the story seemed to scratch an itch I didn’t know I had, provoking involuntary muscle spasms and drooling excitement.

It’s a brick of a novel, epic in scope and ambition, which weaves a thickly defined alternate history where werewolves are carefully policed and contained in — or violently resist — human culture. Lycans have long tussled against or alongside humans, but in the 20th century, they learn to control their transformations, move into our neighborhoods, become civic leaders, emerge as an assimilated minority.

The parallels to other minority groups aren’t ever subtle. Explicit hat tips to the civil rights struggles of the ’60s and more recent debates around immigration and radicalized Islam energetically aim to discomfort readers of any political stripe. There is also a Lycan territory occupied by American forces — a plot device that doesn’t just tap you on the shoulder to direct your attention to the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, but beats you about the head and neck with a stick.

It isn’t the lack of subtlety that leads me to qualify my appreciation. The counterfactual can work whether slipping in a shiv or bludgeoning you with parallel events. In the best cases (Philip K. Dick’s 1962 classic, THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, or Kim Stanley Robinson’s more recent, brilliant, post-9/11 intervention, THE YEARS OF RICE AND SALT), counterfactuals are like great cover songs: You constantly hear echoes of the original, but the alternate version — even a slavish, obvious repetition — makes you hear that original in utterly new ways.

That doesn’t happen here. RED MOON is too often content, in rethinking the history, to simply find and replace. All sorts of events get retooled via the simplistic insertion of Lycanthropes: Iraq, the Holocaust, the Occupy movement. Very rarely does Percy engage in any substantive play with the implications of that substitute history — the werewolf is less a vital metaphor for how we might examine those histories, listening anew to the old songs, and more just a neat high-concept bit of shtick.

My frustration is intensified because Percy is a really damn good writer. His 2010 debut, THE WILDING, took the tired tropes of the man-becoming-a-man-in-nature tale and made them fresh and exciting as hell. Such talents are amply on display in RED MOON, too. Whenever he steps away from the past and into the present tense, the guy will take your breath away...
Darth Vader and Son - Jeffrey Brown Max loved this in a bookstore this summer--sat on the floor and read the whole thing. And then--huzzah!--it popped up as a special gift from him this xmas.

His review:
It was a well-written parody of Star Wars, with Luke Skywalker making it harder and harder for Darth Vader to make an empire. Every single page has a different joke related to different hard work with parents. Like one page with Luke swinging, instead of a baseball bat, a lightsaber, and the baseball breaks in half. Dealing with all the hard parts of parent life, Darth Vader manages to be half-annoyed and half-happy at the same time. I got it for my dad because he deals with all these hard things of parent life. And he also likes looking at funny things. And he likes Star Wars. So I decided to get it for him. It took him 10 minutes to read it. It took me 15. He's faster at reading than I am. I liked the book because I like graphic novels, and Star Wars, and with the element of comedy in it, I liked it even more. Even if not comedy, I'd still have read and liked it--because of the stuff with Darth Vader having a son.

That's good.


He is now copy-editing this review. He's mad that I transcribed the "That's good."