What I’ve Read: 2012

No Traveller Returns by Paul Park (* ½)

The last week of the year is here, so rather than starting a full novel, I’ve decided to fish a random novella out of my library that I’m confident I’ll have finished before the ball drops. I closed my eyes, dug in and came away with No Traveller Returns by Paul Park.

I have absolutely no clue what this is about. I received it in my Mystery Box from PS Publishing a couple of years ago and it has been waiting patiently to be read ever since. Thanks for helping me close out the year, Mr. Park!

VERDICT: Well, this isn’t the way I was hoping to end 2012. I mean, it was better than a Mayan doomsday, but not by much. No Traveller Returns is about an aimless young man who bums around the far east and climbs mountains. When he comes home to visit a professor and mentor who is dying, he gets lost in the woods and stumbles into a surreal landscape populated by mountains, foul smelling, yeti-like creatures and Russians with dogs who demand to see his papers and the like. There are some women in there as well, along with introspection and regret. Only none of it is especially creative or interesting, and the “reveal” at the end feels more like a cheat than anything else. This is the third selection from my Mystery Box that I didn’t care for. I don’t like this trend… Happy New Year!

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The Last Revolution by Lord Dunsany (*)

I found this Lord Dunsany title in California a couple of years ago. My wife and I got lost in Sonoma Valley and stumbled onto a quaint town with a terrific book store. I picked up this purported first edition copy of The Last Revolution along with three other rare Dunsany books that day. I’d get lost more often if it would guarantee hauls like that.

That being said, I have absolutely no idea what this book is about. After a cursory glance at the frontispiece, I get a Rise of the Machines type vibe—a popular SF pulp topic, especially in the 1950s. This was published in 1951. Dunsany is usually a good bet, though, so I’m not worried.

VERDICT: I should have worried. This one hurts. I’m firmly on Team Dunsany, but The Last Revolution is a pretty big stinker and no way around it. It was indeed a story about machines threatening to take over the world—in this case, spiderlike robots with superior electronic brains and 100 hands that are learning to turn machinery against humanity. I’ve since learned that it was Dunsany’s only foray into Science Fiction. Based on this book, that’s probably a good thing. It’s not just that the concept was tired even back in the 50s; it’s also just dreadfully written, with the narrator repeating ad nauseam the same fears about machines taking over and casting humanity aside, with the scientist who built them proclaiming that it will be The Last Revolution (caps are Dunsany’s) about every page and a half. Worst of all is the story’s reliance on ascribing malicious intent and pent up resentment to mechanical devices, which we have enslaved to do our work for us. What? I didn’t know my can opener was clamoring for equal rights. Stay away from this one, folks.

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The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum (* *)

As a studier of all things Santa, I was duty-bound to pick up The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus when I came across it at my late and long-lamented neighborhood book store many years ago. I used to love Christmas shopping there, what with the Dickens readings and the complimentary eggnog liberally spiked with whiskey and the free wrapping of all the books I’d get for my nephews. But where was I? Ah yes, Baum!

Baum is most famous for The Wizard of Oz, but he published this Santa biography for children in 1902. It starts out with an infant Claus being abandoned to freeze to death in the woods, rescued from the jaws of a lioness by a wood nymph and raised among all the immortal creatures and beasts of the forest. It’ll be interesting to see how Baum’s creative spin on the familiar Santa mythos plays out.

VERDICT: Baum’s Life and Adventures of Santa Claus is undoubtedly unique, and puts the jolly old elf in league with the elemental forces of nature to explain his more magical aspects. But while I can appreciate this as a little-referenced addendum to traditional Santa folklore, we’re still dealing with a 1902 children’s book drowning in treacle and condescension. I doubt even very young kids today would enjoy it. This one is best left for Baum fans and Santa completists.

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The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (* * *)

I dug my old copy of The Hobbit out of my library so I could re-read it in advance of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation. The cover price on my “Special Silver Jubilee Edition” paperback in an astonishing $2.50! That’s cheaper than a comic book these days.

I honestly can’t remember if this is the third, fourth or fifth time I’m reading this book. I can remember reading it twice for certain, but after that it gets hazy. I can’t imagine that I haven’t read it at least one more time after that, though. It’s irrelevant in any event. I’m just glad to have this book—which I bought in middle school—right at my fingertips after all these years. Libraries are the greatest things ever.

VERDICT: C’mon! It’s The Hobbit! Of course it was as wonderful as ever. As a result of this reading, however, I did go back and check out the appendices of The Lord of the Rings as well as a story in Unfinished Tales to get a sense of the events occurring in Middle Earth at the time of Bilbo’s adventures, and just why Gandalf chose the unlikely Hobbit to join Thorin’s quest to The Lonely Mountain. I’m glad I did, because this is the stuff Jackson used to give his film adaptation some of the same gravitas of his earlier Rings trilogy and I think the movie works exceedingly well at blending these elements into a broader narrative.

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A Christmas Blizzard by Garrison Keillor (*)

I was pleasantly surprised when I found A Christmas Blizzard at the bookstore a couple of weeks ago, and since I’m getting all Christmasy, I figured what better to kick off the holiday season than Garrison Keillor’s folksy, nostalgic humor?

Well, so far A Christmas Blizzard is extremely absurdist and rambling, even by Garrison Keillor standards. And it’s not even a Lake Wobegone novel. Protagonist James Sparrow dislikes Christmas and dreams of spending the holiday in Hawaii. But when he gets word that a beloved uncle is dying, he instead heads back to his hometown of Looseleaf, North Dakota, to face down his yuletide angst on the frozen prairie.

I’ll reserve judgment, but it’s not looking to be one of Keillor’s better efforts…

VERDICT: This is quite possibly the dumbest thing by Garrison Keillor that I’ve ever read. Meandering and derivative in every sense of the word, this novella feels like a series of outtakes that weren’t quite good enough to make it into the Lake Wobegone stories Keillor presents weekly on his radio show. Not quite as bad as Love Me, but hoo boy…

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Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are
by Sebastian Seung (* * *)

I bought Connectome shortly after producing DeFlip Side #125: Immortal Thoughts, in which I explore the process of tissue plastination, and its implications for achieving immortality. The logic goes that if you could plastinate your brain upon death, down to the cellular level, then the technology will one day exist to perfectly recreate your thought patterns in a virtual environment. But a key component of that recreation will be the ability to map your connectome—much like your genome—which is basically a model of how every neuron in your brain connects to and interacts with every other neuron.

Needless to say, this a daunting task. But author Sebastian Seung is among the scientists leading the charge, and he’s convinced that work like this will finally teach us how the brain really works and usher in cures to afflictions like Alzheimer’s, autism and schizophrenia. Oh, and there’s that whole immortality thing…

VERDICT: Sebastian Seung is undoubtedly a better scientist than he is a writer. He tries to illustrate many of his scientific concepts through the use of simple metaphors. Unfortunately, those metaphors get more tortured as the subject matter gets more complex, ultimately serving to distract rather than illuminate. He should’ve just presented a series of declarative ideas and concepts that built upon one another as the text progressed. Anyone interested in this book will have at least a passing familiarity with the concept of the conncetome and intelligence enough grasp the bigger picture. Now that my inner editor has been appeased, I’m free to say how much I enjoyed this book. Seung has a good sense of humor, and Connectome is an interesting and informative read about the current state of brain science. Seung’s fascinating research into the brain’s wiring tells us just how little we really know about how the mind works, but tantalizes us with the seemingly limitless potential to enrich our lives and increase our longevity once we finally crack the code.

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McDowell’s Ghost by Jack Cady (* *)

I always keep an eye out for books by the late Jack Cady, which are mostly out of print. I found McDowell’s Ghost at a used book dealer’s booth at the last I-Con, which I told you all about here.

I’m going into this one cold, so I don’t know what it’s about and really have no idea what to expect—except maybe a character named McDowell who either is a ghost or has a ghost. The only other thing I know from the cover is that it’s a novel of the border south, whatever that means. It’s an odd way to approach a book, but I like Cady and trust him to deliver.

VERDICT: Okay, maybe I trusted too blindly here. McDowell turns out to be Dan McDowell, a middle-aged traveling salesman who has been seeing a ghost on the road on and off for years. But when he gets called back to his hometown to deal with his estranged family, he starts seeing the apparition more frequently, and he learns that it is one of his Civil War era ancestors.

I really don’t know much about Cady, but this novel strikes me as a touch autobiographical and indulgent, being that he was born in Kentucky and worked as a trucker for a good part of his life. More than anything this is a treatise on American decline and the nuances of Southern culture and society, and the often contradictory ideals of the modern Southern identity. Which is fine as far as it goes, I suppose. But I’m not Southern, so I really couldn’t relate and much of the rest of the narrative wandered a bit too close to a “Why back in my day…” style lament. Another problem is that McDowell is not very good at identifying his emotions or expressing his thoughts. So Cady’s quietly powerful, poetic voice is subsumed by a character who stumbles and flounders his way through even the most banal observations. Do yourself a favor and read The Hauntings of Hood Canal instead.

UPDATE: According to Wikipedia, McDowell’s Ghost is one of Cady’s most lauded novels, putting him on par with William Faulkner for exploring the Southern psyche. Shows you what I know… But I still wouldn’t recommend it.

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Motherless Child by Glen Hirshberg (* * *)

I had the pleasure to exchange a couple of e-mails with author Glen Hirshberg last year when I alerted him to my review of his collection The Janus Tree and Other Stories. He was gracious and actually thanked me for some nice things I wrote here about another of his novels, The Book of Bunk (his best IMHO, a fantastic book). I wish more people would discover him.

Motherless Child appears to be an extended version of his short story “Like Lick ’Em Sticks, Like Tina Fey” which appears in Janus Tree; it’s about two young women who have recently been turned into vampires, coming to grips with the fact that they’ll probably never see their children again. It’s a good story. It’ll be interesting to see how Hirshberg expands it.

VERDICT: Some compelling—and gory—work here. Hirshberg expands on the headier and more troubling themes of his original story in poignant, disturbing and musical ways. The fuller treatment is certainly warranted and welcome. Listen to a longer review here. My only gripe with Motherless Child is that it’s really a novella masquerading as a novel—which is really no gripe at all because it’s a handsome edition all the same and equally worth buying and reading in any event. You’d better do so quickly, because Earthling Publications says they’re selling out fast.

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What I Found at Hoole (A Western Lights Book) by Jeffrey E. Barlough (* * *)

It’s always a delight when I arrive at the radio station and find a package from Gresham & Doyle Publishers waiting for me. It can only mean one thing: the new Jeffrey E. Barlough book has arrived! What I Found at Hoole is the seventh volume in Barlough’s Western Lights series—a string of unique, stand-alone fantasy mysteries set in a shared, pseudo-Victorian universe. The books might also be classified as supernatural occult(ish) comedies. So yeah, they’re kind of hard to pigeonhole. I’ve reviewed all but one of the previous Western Lights books, so if you’re new to the series, start here.

But for fans, What I Found at Hoole is kind of a tangential follow-up to The House in the High Wood, telling the tale of a character who appeared only in the opening and closing chapters of that story. This excites me, since House is my favorite Western Lights book, almost a straight horror. Here’s hoping Hoole is written in the same vein—though it’s not yet clear, since I’m only three chapters in. But I’m already enjoying the heck out of it. Full review to come!

VERDICT: I had some slight issues with this book, but all in all it makes a terrific companion piece to The House in the High Wood and a wonderful addition to the Western Lights series as a whole. Check out my full review here, or you can listen to a shorter version here. Please keep ’em coming, Mr. Barlough!

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Operation: Montauk by Bryan Young (*)

I specifically requested Operation: Montauk for review from my friends at The SF Site. I was practically duty-bound to do so, both as a time travel fan and as a Long Islander. And if the title is any indication, the plot will have something to do with The Montauk Project and (by association) The Philadelphia Experiment, both of which I explored thoroughly in DeFlip Side #103: Mysteries of Montauk. So I definitely have a vested interest in any (intentionally) fictional take on those whacked out conspiracy theories. Of course I could be totally wrong. This book might have nothing to do with any of that.

But the one thing I am sure of upon reading the initial chapters is that the writing in Operation: Montauk is a bit melodramatic, two-dimensional and apparently geared toward teen boys. To give you a flavor, lead character Jack Mallory (an army grunt) is on a time travel mission to kill Hitler when he wakes up with most of his crew dead or dying, facing down a hungry velociraptor, which he starts shooting in the face. Yeah, it’s that kind of book. I can tell Young is trying to strike a pulp vibe, but it remains to be seen whether it turns out to be intentionally clever camp or just a derivative shoot-’em-up. Full review to come…

VERDICT: Ugh. If that’s not enough, read my full review.

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The Grin of the Dark by Ramsey Campbell (* * ½ )

The Grin of the Dark is a book that I got largely by happenstance, thanks to a sale a few years ago at one of my favorite small press outfits, PS Publishing in the UK. I wrote all about that book haul in the Latest Editions entry entitled Mystery Box. So it’s a fairly safe bet that I would not now be reading this book if it hadn’t been thrust upon me (figuratively, anyway).

To which I say, thank goodness for my compulsive book binges, because I’m only about 42 pages in and Grin is growing from subtly menacing to downright eerie and engrossing. Unemployed (and currently unemployable) film columnist Simon Lester gets a lucky break that may revive his career when given the opportunity to write a book about forgotten comedic silent film star Tubby Thackery. But as he digs into the mystery of Thackery’s abrupt fall from popularity and the subsequent loss of just about all of his films, he begins to unravel a bigger, more menacing mystery regarding the truth about Tubby’s legacy—or anyway, that’s where the book seems to be heading. A troupe of creepy clowns seems to be somehow involved too. It’s a slow reveal, and Campbell is building the horror so gradually and deftly that I can’t figure out exactly how or when the book got so disquieting. If this is what the first few chapters has in store, then it should be quite a ride…

On a side note, I absolutely love this cover. Thank you PS Publishing for the care you put into all of your editions.

VERDICT: As much as I loved the premise of this novel, the execution ultimately left me flat. The eerie build of the initial chapters just kind of stalled into a somewhat disjointed story that read increasingly like a fever dream. The writing was effective and in places very clever, but the obtuse narrative progression got a bit tedious and repetitive, and I knew where the story would end up long before main character Simon Lester did. So not exactly a miss, but I don’t think I’d readily recommend this book unless you’re a fan of fiction that relies heavily on moody implication and nefarious insinuation.

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Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut ( * * ½ )

Yeah yeah, Vonnegut’s great. That’s why I read his books. But that’s not really why I’m reading Cat’s Cradle at this particular point in time. For that we need to blame both my new found appreciation for the beach, and my longtime compulsive book buying sickness.

Okay: whenever I’m at a garage sale, I search for used books that I wouldn’t mind ruining—something good to bring on vacation or to the beach. Some months back, I dropped 50 cents on paperbacks of Cat’s Cradle and Bluebeard, only to discover that I already had trade editions of both in my library. The thing was, I knew I had recently picked up two Vonnegut trades, but I couldn’t remember which. So it just stands to reason that out of his 14 novels, I find the exact same ones…

Now fast forward to a few days ago. My wife asks me to go to the beach with her. And thanks to Banana Boat “Baby 50” sunscreen, I’ve discovered that not only can I venture onto the beach without bursting into flames, but that I can actually stick around and enjoy it. So I grab the first crappy garage sale paperback on my disposable book stack and head out for the sand and surf. And that’s why I’m reading Cat’s Cradle. I initially had no idea what it was about (I frequently go in cold with authors I trust, not even reading the jacket flaps or cover blurbs for fear of spoilers). But after reading half of it before drizzles drove us off the beach, I can say this: it’s pure Vonnegut, baby!

VERDICT: Ever since reading Breakfast of Champions, it has always been my intent to read Vonnegut’s novels in chronological order to chart how his writing style evolved into that glorious gonzo prose masterwork. But best laid plans and all that… Cat’s Cradle is his fourth book and has more in common stylistically with Sirens of Titan than BoC. However, you can see the germ of Vonnegut’s irreverent first person narrator on display here in the main character John, a writer working on a book about what the scientists who developed the Atomic Bomb were doing and feeling on the day it was dropped on Hiroshima. His correspondence with the three children of one of those scientists leads him on a surreal journey from Illium, NY (a thinly disguised Schenectady, my ice-fishing, dart-shooting, beer-drinking home away from home), to the tropical island Republic of San Lorenzo, where he converts to the outlawed religion of Bokonoism and becomes president—that is, until the world ends. As I said, pure Vonnegut, baby! And, as usual, Science Fiction features heavily in the book’s plot. In this case, the SFnal MacGuffin is a substance known as Ice Nine, which rearranges water molecules so that they remain frozen up to about 120 degrees Fahrenheit. True to form, Vonnegut skewers every conceivable social institution in Cat’s Cradle (the title itself a clever metaphor for our willing belief in all manner of invisible lies), and while it doesn’t have the narrative urgency of Breakfast, it’s probably best read like other Vonnegut books in my experience: in one or two uninterrupted sittings in order to appreciate the cumulative effect of the prose and story.

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The Apocalypse Codex (A Laundry Files Novel) by Charles Stross (* * *)

Charles Stross is one of my favorite authors, and I most enjoy his Laundry novels. The Apocalypse Codex brings us the fourth outing of computational demonologist turned quasi-reluctant spy Bob Howard, set about a year after the devastating events of The Fuller Memorandum. After some much-needed convalescing Bob has returned to light duty at the Laundry—the secret agency that protects Great Britain from all manner of grisly extra-dimensional threats—only find that he’s being groomed for management. In order to test his mettle, Bob is put out on loan to a super-secret arm of the Laundry to assist (and if necessary subdue) a freelance operator who is investigating members of the British government who are strictly off limits to the occult intelligence agency.

I’m about three chapters into The Apocalypse Codex, and it’s always great to catch up with Bob, despite his increasing nihilism and disillusion—though I guess that’s entirely understandable after all the heavy shit that Stross put him through in the last book. And it’s even more understandable when you factor in that the Laundry universe is counting down to an unavoidable, reality-shattering catastrophe codenamed CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN. If I knew for a fact that something like that was coming, I might be a little bummed too. Still, Apocalypse Codex represents a chance for Stross to bring Bob to the next level as a character—something I have no doubt he will do in a thoroughly entertaining and unexpected fashion.

VERDICT: That next level thing? I was dead on. Things have significantly changed for Bob by book’s end, on a couple of major fronts. He will indeed be a somewhat different character moving forward. But the entertaining/unexpected part is a little trickier. Is Codex fun and enjoyable? Of course. It’s no Jennifer Morgue (what is?), but all the signature elements that made you love the Laundry series are here (though the technobabble is a bit downplayed this time out). For all that, however, The Apocalypse Codex veers slightly into been-there-done-that territory, as the extra-dimensional threat Bob faces is one we’ve seen before. I have no doubt that Stross did this deliberately, as Codex contains the most frequent and overt references to Bob’s past adventures of any book in the Laundry series—as if Stross is taking stock of where we’ve been, showing us that Bob is more than ready to move on and saying goodbye before shifting the paradigm in book five. And for ushering in this shift (and all the new and interesting Bob Howard stories it portends), The Apocalypse Codex nudges itself into 3 star territory.

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A Dance with Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 5)
by George R.R. Martin (* * *)

So far, A Dance with Dragons has been well worth the wait! I’m about halfway through and I can’t put it down. Jon Snow, Tyrion and Daenerys are finally back front and center, showcasing Martin’s hallmark story/characterization/tension.

The caliber and scope of the story here convinces me more than ever that A Feast for Crows is just a filler/placeholder that Martin released to clamoring fans while he was trying to figure out how best to tell the rest of the story. I don’t begrudge him that, since it was probably his best possible move in a less-than-optimal situation. Dance proves that A Song of Ice and Fire is in no danger of veering into Wheel of Time territory.

The only negative: a friend blurted out a MAJOR spoiler, so I know where one of the characters is headed already. How much it may be compromising my reading experience and ultimate enjoyment of the book I’ll never be able to know, which saddens me. I FUCKING HATE SPOILERS!!!!

VERDICT: Yeah. Not only was it a spoiler, but it spoiled the last chapter reveal for what amounts to the MAJOR event in this novel. The one that’s supposed to make you gasp and say “NO!” and wail and gnash your teeth in anticipation for the next book. C’est la vie. Despite that, A Dance with Dragons is a fine entry in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. Though it doesn’t pack the narrative punch of A Storm of Swords, it does lead the story and characters in some unexpected directions and I look forward to The Winds of Winter. I’d love to go into greater detail of the book’s particular strengths, but that would necessitate spoilers, and you know how I feel about those…

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Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (* * ½)

“Hold up a second bub!” I hear you saying. “What about your A Song of Ice and Fire re-read nonsense? Hasn’t it all been leading up to A Dance with Dragons? What could possibly make you hold off on it for another second?”

Well, I’m actually going on vacation in a couple of days and I’m going to save A Dance with Dragons for when I get back. I have reservations about lugging a 1,000-page hardcover around a cruise ship and have decided to bring some lightweight, I-don’t-care-if-they-get-ruined-poolside paperbacks instead. In fact, I picked up Neverwhere at a garage sale (for a quarter!) specifically with my cruise in mind. I’ve waited more than six years to read Dance. It’ll keep for one more week.

In the meantime I get to carry on my Neil Gaiman vacation book tradition. I read Stardust last year on my trip to California. We’ll see how Neverwhere fares in Bermuda….

See ya on the high seas!

VERDICT: It was good. Of COURSE it was good. It’s Neil Gaiman. But the most remarkable thing about Neverwhere is just how unremarkable it seemed in the end. An unfair assessment, perhaps, since it’s Gaiman’s first novel and I’m coming at it having read most of his later works, which overflow with his confident, firmly established, wonderfully charming voice. In Neverwhere, however, Gaiman seems to be desperately trying to NOT write like Douglas Adams—and completely failing. Main character Richard Mayhew is pretty much Arthur Dent traipsing around the sewers of London Below instead of tooling around in the Heart of Gold. And I just learned (two weeks after finishing the book) that Neverwhere is actually a novelization of a BBC series that Gaiman wrote (Netfilx here I come!). So it has even more in common with Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy than I thought. Suffice it to say, if you like Adams and H2G2, you’ll like Neverwhere.

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A Feast for Crows (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 4) by George R.R. Martin (* * ½)

My A Song of Ice and Fire re-read continues! It’s astounding how little I remember about A Feast for Crows. It’s almost as if I’m reading it for the first time. I think that has a LOT to do with the characters Martin features in this one—or rather the ones he doesn’t: the absence of Tyrion, Jon and Daenerys is sorely felt, as they tend to drive the action in the series.

Still I can respect Martin’s choice to provide all of the story for only half of the characters, rather than half of the story for all of the characters, and I’m perfectly content to stick to the events in and around King’s Landing for this outing.

VERDICT: Now I remember why this book was so forgettable. In the absence of his heavy hitters, Martin took the opportunity to introduce the new characters and plot threads that will help take the story into its next phase. There’s some frustration in this, because I’d rather be reading about Jon on the Wall than some scheming princess in Dorne or an Iron Islands kingsmoot. Still, it’s a testament to Martin’s writing ability that the story was as enjoyable as it was–helped immensely by the presence of Sam, Arya and Brienne. And he pulled an especially neat trick with Jaime, turning him into a sympathetic villain. I’m confused. Do I root for him or not? Damn you, George R.R.! The only genuinely tedious character is Cersei and there’s an unfortunate amount of time spent on her pettiness and paranoia. But I’m sure it’s all in service to the larger story and I’m more eager than ever to dive into A Dance with Dragons.

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A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 3) by George R.R. Martin (* * *)

My A Song of Ice and Fire re-read has at last commenced! I’ve been dying to read A Dance with Dragons (book five in the series) ever since it came out last year. But it’s been six years since I finished the fourth book, A Feast for Crows, and I’ve forgotten a lot of the plot particulars.

So why am I starting way back at book three with A Storm of Swords, you ask? Ignoramus! Everyone knows that A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons are just two halves of one very long book. Which means that even though Dragons is book five, it picks up right after the events depicted in Storm (book three), and happens concurrently with book four, Crows—only it (book five, Dragons) focuses on the characters not featured in Crows (all my favorites, actually, which is another reason I’m dying to read Dragons). So that’s why I’m first revisiting book three, A Storm of Swords.

That clear things up for ya?

VERDICT: As good as I remembered it, though not as intense a read as the first time around, since I knew everything that was going to happen. But it was a great reintroduction to the plot and characters and I’ve been thoroughly sucked in once again! On to A Feast for Crows…

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Railsea by China Mieville (* * *)

I just received an advance reader’s copy of this new China Mieville book and intend to tear through it as quickly as I can so my review coincides with the book’s mid-May release. Railsea is Mieville’s second YA novel, making me wish I’d read his first one, Un Lun Dun, just for a better frame of reference. But if wishes were horses, we’d all be eating good tonight. And completing this will mean I’ve read seven out of Mieville’s 10 books, so I think I can do it justice.

Railsea is apparently a retelling of Moby Dick for young readers; but instead of taking place on a ship at sea, it takes place on a train traversing a jumbled landscape of rails that extend in every direction as far as the eye can see. And the quarry isn’t a white whale, but a giant burrowing mammal called a “moldywarpe.” So far I like what I’ve read. Mieville is unfettered and playful with his use of language. And as his young protagonist Sham wears a wombat-fur vest, it’s already officially the coolest book I’ve ever read.

VERDICT: What a terrific book! Meiville is clearly having fun with this far-future tale, taking a break from the more heavy-handed themes he’s been exploring lately and simply reveling in his own creativity and love of the written word. His writing hasn’t arrested me on such a visceral level since I first picked up Perdido Street Station, many moons ago. And While Moby Dick was a clear inspiration for this book, it wasn’t by any means the only one. Railsea is a rollicking adventure book for boys, and liberally plies the classic tropes of many a swashbuckling romance. But this is no hack-job pastiche; it’s Mieville firing on all thrusters and proving once again how smart, funny and creative he can be in any genre. Read my full review here!

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I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb (* ½)

This title is quite a departure for me, but I’m reading I Know This Much is True at the insistence of my friend Sarah, who says it’s really good. See Sarah, I’m keeping my promise, despite the fact that I’ve had Spandau Ballet and/or Steve Buscemi’s closing scene from The Wedding Singer stuck in my head ever since diving in.

I usually stay away from modern mainstream fiction as it tends to be about messed up people floundering through their sad lives. And so far IKTMIT is no exception, a veritable cavalcade of mental illness, abusive families and dysfunctional relationships, all in the first 70 pages. Only 830 to go… Take it away Steve!

VERDICT: Some years ago, horror fans coined a new phrase for ultra-gory movie franchises like Hostel and Saw—“torture porn.” Well, I Know This Much is True can be just as aptly classified as “pity porn.” Lamb leaves no stone of misery unturned for this 900-page tour-de-force downer of a novel, with just about every horrible, dysfunctional thing that you can think of happening to our downtrodden protagonist Dominick Birdsey—from a self-mutilating schizophrenic twin brother, to a mentally and physically abusive childhood, to a cheating HIV-infected girlfriend—and let’s not forget the unrequited love for his estranged wife and his dead baby daughter. Some of the featured sideshows include child abduction, rape and murder, multiple suicides, wife-beating and implied incest. I’m leaving out a whole host of other things, but you get the point.

This novel is ludicrous. And the unrealistically miserable life and family history of its main character are weak devices to set up the unrealistically happy ending. When you pile misfortune upon misfortune you have nowhere to go but up, after all. But Dominick went to therapy and excavated himself, see? He did all the work necessary to understand who he really is and how he ticks. So isn’t it just natural and logical that he will get every single answer he’s ever needed and go on to lead a happy, productive, fulfilling life because of it? After all, that’s what Oprah has been telling us all along, isn’t it? ABSURD!

I ranted against this species of book many years ago in my article “In Defense of Dead White Males.” I Know This Much is True proves every single point I raised in that column and further cements my distaste for this kind of horseshit. Gaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!

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The Furnace by Timothy S. Johnston (* *)

Considering the reading year I’ve been having thus far (witness the wreckage below if you dare), I’m really counting on Timothy Johnston to pull me out of the doldrums. The Furnace seems tailor-made to do so, promising intrigue, action and twists, all going down in a hard SF setting.

Touted as a locked-room mystery updated as horror Science Fiction, reviewers have compared it to The Thing (I hope John Carpenter’s) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (I hope every incarnation other than the lame Nicole Kidman remake).

I’m surprised that no one has invoked Alien, considering the space horror angle; but if The Furnace lives up to its cover blurb, I’ll be a happy man.

VERDICT: I gather a couple of things after reading The Furnace: first, that it’s Johnston’s first book and, second, that he published it himself through a print on demand outlet, as I can find no mention of a publisher anywhere in the book or the promotional flier that came with it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however, and Johnston’s writing is serviceable enough. But if The Furnace proves anything, it’s the importance of a good editor. The first rule of good writing is “show, don’t tell,” yet Johnston does both throughout the novel, with his first person protagonist backing up every bit of dialogue and action with unnecessary and overly-detailed explanation. If Johnston had had the confidence to let his characters’ words and actions speak for themselves instead of relentlessly spoon-feeding motivation to his readers, he would have come closer to producing the pager turner he was aiming for. Read my full review here.

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The Islanders by Christopher Priest (* *)

I read Priest’s The Prestige a few years back and loved it. So when The SF Site offered this one up for review, I jumped on it.

But my first attempts to get into The Islanders (yes attempts, plural) were futile, mainly due to the book’s central conceit. Priest sets it up as a gazetteer, or guidebook, of a world-spanning chain of islands–the Dream Archipelago–which have fantastical properties. To this end, the book starts out in a very dry, workman like tone, and you have to soldier through a few entries, gathering salient details that start to reveal a bigger picture and lead to a more unified narrative. On top of this, Priest deliberately includes confusing and contradictory facts, along with some unreliable narrators, placing greater onus on the reader to parse the real story.

Normally, I LOVE stuff like this. But as I first picked up The Islanders during the busy Christmas season, I just didn’t have the time or inclination to indulge the prosy shenanigans. I was more annoyed than entertained.

But I’m happy to report that calmer times and attitudes have prevailed, and I am now thoroughly enjoying the book. In fact, it really picks up almost immediately after where I gave up on it the first couple of times. So let that be a lesson in patience or something…

VERDICT: I’M FINALLY FRIGGIN’ FINISHED!!! This has to be some kind of record. It took me nearly five weeks to get through this book, and that was after the false starts mentioned above. So, in all, The Islanders has been plaguing me since late October, when The SF Site sent it to me for review. I’m sleeping easier for the fact that it no longer darkens my nightstand. Oh, and that place where the book “really picked up” that I mentioned above? It really fell down again right after that. Short review: Read it only if you’re an indulgent Christopher Priest fan. Otherwise, your reading time can be better spent! Read my full review here.

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Shatnerquake by Jeff Burk (½ star)

A reality bomb is detonated at the first-ever ShatnerCon, bringing to life every character William Shatner has ever portrayed on the small screen: Captain Kirk, T.J. Hooker, Animated Series Kirk, Denny Crane, Rescue 9-1-1 Shatner, Singing Shatner, Priceline Shatner and many other Shatners–all intent on killing the real William Shatner!

How can you go wrong with a premise like this????

Well, a cursory glance at this 82-page novella has already revealed a typo and some clunky humor, but they have done nothing to dampen my enthusiasm. C’mon! It’s an orgy of all things Shatner! I’ll keep reading even if it sets my eyeballs on fire!

VERDICT: As I already indicated, five stars for premise, but zero stars for execution. I admire the flash of inspiration that gave Burk this idea, but he failed to do anything even remotely interesting with it. He never even attempts to capture the unique voices of Shatner’s many characters and play them off one another. Instead they all go on a murderous, one-note rampage that makes even a meager 82 pages seem like too much. And what the fuck does Captain Kirk need with a lightsaber? EPIC FAIL. But you should STILL buy it. Find out why in my full review.

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The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (* * ½)

Funny things happen when you collect books. I was glad to find my first edition copy of Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl last year, as it had by that time won both the Hugo, the Locus and the Nebula Awards and has seen subsequent printings. I’m positive the first edition will appreciate as Bacigalupi’s reputation grows.

But here’s the weird part. When I retrieved the book from my library and opened it up, I found it signed by the author, with the following inscription: “To Chris—I hope your future is better than this one!” It was a little thrill because I have absolutely NO memory of getting it signed. Odds are that I gave it my buddy Phil, along with a stack of other books, to get autographed at one the many author cons he annually frequents. But still, it was a nice way to kick off 2012, reading-wise.

And I hope the inscription is true because The Windup Girl takes place in 23rd Century Thailand, in which oil and global expansion are distant memories, poverty is rampant and food plagues have turned calories into the world’s chief commodity. The real-world setting is as odd and immersive as any exotic alien planet, and doubly intriguing for being all too plausible…

VERDICT: This is an odd one. I feel I should give it three stars because Bacigalupi posits a future Thailand that is richly and realistically layered and wonderfully executed, and I really loved the ending. The book deserves every considerable accolade that has been heaped upon it. But it took me FOREVER to get through it. I basically spent seven weeks on Windup Girl, which makes me lament reading time that could have been more productively spent, therefore knocking off half a star. The book should share at least some of the blame for my short attention span. This has happened to me before, as I discuss in DeFlip Side #24: Quest for the Great Book.