Monday, April 4, 2011

March's Reads



Another month, another book list. It was a slower reading month than the last two, but there were some real gems here, in particular Wendy Williams' Kraken (see purty picture at right), Sam Kean's The Disappearing Spoon, and two very different re-reads: Van Reid's utterly charming turn-of-the-century romp Cordelia Underwood, or the Marvelous Beginnings of the Moosepath League and Warren Ellis's hilariously grotesque Crooked Little Vein. Without further adieu, here are my March reads, in alphabetical order:

Anderson, Jodi Lynn Loser/Queen
Cammy is unpopular; not scorned so much as ignored. When school queen Bekka publicly humiliates her, Cammy receives a mysterious text promising to help her get revenge. As she makes use of the material given to her by the mysterious WhiteRabbit, she gets more and more popular, finally becoming one of the in crowd. Along the way she loses her best friend, breaks her grandparents' trust, and realizes that her pranks have evolved from mean-spirited to dangerous. When she refuses his next suggestion, WhiteRabbit turns on Cammy, threatening to expose her. An interesting moral dilemma and good characters, but it never quite sings.

Atwood, Margaret The Year of the Flood
While not exactly a sequel, this book is intimately connected to Oryx and Crake. Where Oryx presented the story of the scientists who killed off most of the human race, Flood is the story of some of those surviving humans dealing with the destruction that the virus caused. Fascinating characters and a lot of humor mix with the sadness, and leave us, ultimately, with hope.

Cholodenko, Gennifer Al Capone Does My Shirts
In 1935, Moose & his family move to Alcatraz where his father has taken two jobs to try and support the family while Moose's sister goes to a “special” school: Natalie is autistic. Natalie's illness (and the family's various reactions to it) completely control the family dynamics, and Moose is getting tired of a father who's never around and a mother who only seems to care about his sister. When Natalie's future is endangered, Moose calls on the only person he can think of to help: Prisoner AZ 85—Al Capone.

Ellis, Warren Crooked Little Vein
One of the funniest (and foulest) books that I've ever read, & holds up well on re-reading. Mike is a down-on-his-luck detective who attracts bizarre clients and even more bizarre cases. He's approached by a powerful politician and asked to track down a missing book: an alternate US Constitution. Things quickly go awry in the most horrifying and hilarious way possible. Not for the squeamish or easily offended.

Flanagan, Richard Wanting
Flanagan's short meditation on desire and what it brings us (as well as what thwarting it brings us) is told through the connected stories of Sir John Franklin and Charles Dickens and the emotional, spiritual, and physical ruin they caused to those they claimed to love. Devastating.

Gehrman, Jody Babe in Boyland
Nothing new plotwise: girl, seeking to understand guys, pretends to be a guy and finds out that guys are just as sensitive/communicative/civilized as girls. Hijinks ensue when girl falls in love with guy and guy's sister falls for girl-in-drag. A fast, breezy read, but not much else.

Hijuelos, Oscar Beautiful Maria of My Soul
Hijuelos returns to the characters of his novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, this time telling the story of Maria, the muse who inspired Nestor Castillo's famous song. An interesting look at remembered characters and situations through new eyes, but turns far too cutesy at the end, where Hijuelos writes himself in as a character.

Hoffman, Carl The Lunatic Express
A guy who makes his living by traveling to remote or dangerous places to write about them (or the people who live there) embarks on a quest to travel the world via those methods of travel deemed most dangerous: South American buses with a history of sliding off of cliffs, Indian commuter trains so over-packed with people desperate just to get to work that there are several ways to die, Indonesian ferries over-populated and under-regulated with a disturbing tendency to sink in crocodile-infested water, etc. The story of the travels themselves and of the people Hoffman meets there are both interesting and fun. Hoffman's tendency to make the whole venture a metaphor for his own disconnected-ness, complete with whiny self-indulgence, not so much.

Hunt, Stephen The Rise of the Iron Moon

Focusing mainly on characters introduced in The Court of the Air, Hunt's third book set in the kingdom of Jackals is his riff on science fiction. The plot is just as convoluted as the other two books: aliens are attacking and wiping out the planet, so enemies must band together to fight. There's the last Queen of Jackals, an Arthur-like figure, complete with magic sword & the ability to call on long-dead warriors to save the Land, blue-skinned vegetarian aliens, & a dismissed military man who talks to a package he keeps hidden away. There's still some humor, but it disappears under the weight of the political commentary. Fun, but not as much as the previous two.

Kean, Sam The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements
Chemistry and I have a long and unpleasant history going back to my college days, so a book about chemistry that's actually informative and enjoyable is a rarity (like Oliver Sacks's Uncle Tungsten). Kean's book is not so much a history of the periodic table as a collection of odd and interesting stories about the various elements and the men and women who discovered them. Outrageous, salacious, thoughtful, and even poignant, with lots of great suggestions for further reading.

Kramon, Justin Finny
As a child, Delphine Short, aka Finny, is a force of nature—she doesn't understand her family and they don't understand her. Just after she's found Earl, a boy who does understand her, her parents find out and ship her off to boarding school. The rest of the book follows Finny from her teens to her thirties as she grows and changes and Earl comes in and out of her life. Finny is an awesome character, and spending time in her head is a treat.

Moody, Rick The Four Fingers of Death
An odd book that I just couldn't let go of. Part 1 is the introduction of Montese Crandall, who has written a novelization of the 50s horror movie The Crawling Hand. Part two is book one of that novelization, and occurs entirely before the events in the movie take place. Part 3 is the novelization of the movie itself, and then there's a brief afterword where Crandall returns. Dense, funny, baroque, gothic, satirical and at the end, surprisingly thoughtful and moving.

Moore, Terry Strangers in Paradise: David's Story
Taking a break from the Francine/Katchoo angstfest, we turn to Yousaka Takahashi, otherwise known as David Qin, and finally get his story. Running a Yakuza gang in Cali, Yousaka administers a beating to a 15-year old boy, who is rescued by his sister. When the boy later dies, Yousaka is crushed, and even though his Yakuza father gets him off for the death, Yousaka can't live with the guilt. He turns his back on the Yakuza and takes the name of David Qin as a reminder of how he wants to live his life. It's continually amazing how Moore can find these heartbreaking, just-right stories and work them in to the story we already know so seamlessly. Amazing.

Moore, Terry Strangers in Paradise: Tomorrow Now
Katchoo is trying to move past Francine and has her first big art show, which is a riotous success, including having security escort an enraged Freddie Femur out of the building. Francine's mom is outed as Mary Midnight, so she & Francine talk and actually make progress. Sara, Katchoo's disappearing model, reappears with agent Walsh and admits she's with the FBI and they're going to arrest her. Katchoo calls Tambi, who offers to turn herself in if they'll give Katchoo immunity. The government agrees, hiring Tambi & her team as an off-the-books hit squad, now working for the good guys. As Katchoo gets the news that she is finally (supposedly) safe (again), she's told that she has a visitor. She goes down to find David waiting for her. I'm really not sure how Moore is able to make this soap opera work, but work it does, painfully, hilariously, and beautifully.

Nesbo, Jo The Redbreast
Assigned to protect part of the route for the visiting US President, occasionally recovering alcoholic Harry Hole shoots a secret service agent who is not where he is supposed to be. To cover up the mess, Harry is promoted and assigned to read reports on neo-nazi gangs in Norway. He discovers that a hugely expensive sniper rifle has been brought into the country and ends up enmeshed in a convoluted saga with its roots back in WWII and those Norwegians who enlisted and fought for the Nazis. Nesbo has a real gift for character and dialogue and brilliant, damaged Harry Hole is a fine creation.

O'Malley, Bryan Lee Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life
Scott Pilgrim is 23, “between jobs,” in a band (Sex Bob-Omb!), and dating a 17-year old high school girl. But this girl keeps appearing in his dreams: Amazon.ca courier Ramona Flowers. When Scott meets Ramona in real life, he falls for her, only to find out that in order to date her, he'll have to fight her seven evil exes. O'Malley nails the geek/slacker dialogue & fuses that realism to the almost video game concept of the story seamlessly.

Perez-Reverte, Arturo The Painter of Battles
A photojournalist who specializes in images of war has given up photography for painting, moving into an old lighthouse and creating a mural of historical images of war. The subject of one of his more famous photos shows up and promises to kill him. The two discuss war and horror and humanity as the painter continues his work before eventually heading out to meet his fate. A fascinating insight into art and how to read it, as well as into horror and the human heart. Not an uplifting read, but a good one.

Rabkin, Eric S. The End of the World
A study of apocalyptic literature focusing mainly on authors generally considered to write science fiction. Some interesting stuff, but dry, dry, dry. Darned academics. Stableford's essay was the most accessible.

Reid, Van Cordelia Underwood, Or the Marvelous Beginnings of the Moosepath League
Quite simply, one of the most charming books I've ever read: funny, adventurous, and sweet. Once you've met the denizens of Edgecomb, Maine circa 1896, you'll never forget them.

Rothfuss, Patrick The Name of the Wind
This book was all the rage when it came out, and I can see why. Even with my suspicion of epic fantasy and my general irritability with “part one of some indeterminate number,” you simply can't get around the compelling voice of Kvothe, telling his own story. Truthfully, I'm surprised there haven't been calls for his head for the delay in getting out book two. Once you're under his spell, you're well and truly hooked.

Saramago, Jose The Gospel According to Jesus Christ
Saramago's gospel hits all the main stories, and presents a very human and pious Jesus, but he clearly has some issues with God. In this version, Jesus is a well-meaning dupe, the Devil is trying to help, and God is a vain, double-talking bastard who set this whole Jesus-on-the-cross up so that he would have more followers in the future. Funny in places, but pretty bleak.

VanderMeer, Jeff Monstrous Creatures
A collection of VanderMeer's non-fiction (a companion to Why Should I Cut Your Throat?) essays and reviews of/about fantastic literature. Some have been previously published, some haven't. I love seeing the process of VanderMeer's thinking about genre and about writing. He always makes me think and he often makes me laugh.

Whitty, Julia Deep Blue Home
This thematically-linked series of essays gives a simple and compelling portrait of some of the various animals that either live in the sea or rely on it for sustenance, and of what their eventual disappearance will cost us, both economically and scientifically. Whitty's sense of wonder is contagious, and it's impossible to read her words without getting caught up in them.

Williams, Wendy Kraken:The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid
A lovely, easy-to-grasp overview of squid and why they are so important to us. Could it have used more pictures? Sure. Could it have talked about more types of squid? Of course. But for the author's purpose—showing us how the study of squid has directly benefited humans—she covered the right bases. Heck, she even interviews a professor from my alma mater (Dr. Purdy, for all you curious SU alums), who I had no idea was studying cuttlefish (it was regular fish when I was in school). To sum up: squid=awesome (although more pictures=awesomer).

Willingham, Bill Fables 10: The Good Prince
War plans proceed apace, but the Fables have a stronger ally than ever they knew. Flycacher, having finally remembered the horrors The Adversary wreaked on his family, vows revenge, and takes it through his purity of heart and of purpose. He raises the ghosts of all those thrown down into the Well of Souls and offers them a chance to live again if they fight for him.

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