January 21st, 2013

gothic 01

Books 11-12: Heartless and The Mechanical Messiah and Other Marvels of the Modern Age

Book 11: Heartless ((Parasol Protectorate #4).
Author: Gail Carriger, 2011.
Genre: Historical Urban Fantasy. Paranormal Romance. Alternative History. Steampunk.
Other Details: Paperback. 311 pages.

In the fourth in this series Lady Alexia Maccon is tasked with investigating a death threat against the Queen made by an insane ghost. Despite being eight months pregnant and having to deal with zombie porcupines, a sister who has joined the suffragette movement, her lusty werewolf husband and the antics of various eccentric friends, Alexia and her trusty parasol head once more into the fray to sort out threats against Queen and country.

This proved another delightful romp in Carriger's alternative Victorian England with ghosts, vampires, werewolves and the trappings of steampunk. The humour is often based on a comedic view of Victorian sensibilities and I feel that Carriger excels at this combination of wit and satire without it becoming too slapstick. The plot was fast-moving with plenty of interesting twists.

Book 12: The Mechanical Messiah and Other Marvels of the Modern Age (Japanese Devil Fish Girl #2).
Author: Robert Rankin, 2011
Genre: Comedy-Fantasy. Steampunk. Alternative History. Science Fiction.
Other Details: Hardback. 488 pages.

This is set in the same alternative universe as The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions though introduces a new set of protagonists including consulting detective Cameron Bell, said to be the real inspiration for Sherlock Holmes though in appearance he resembles Charles Dicken's Mr. Pickwick; Colonel Katterfelto, who wishes to build a Mechanical Messiah; and Alice Lovell, a music hall performer who in her childhood had a series of adventures in Wonderland. Darwin the monkey butler makes a return appearance from the first novel.

It is hard to say much about the plot as it is quite chaotic though does feature a sinister series of murders, a trip to Venus, good vs evil, religion and magic. There is a cameo from Aleister Crowley, which did set off my trusty timey-whimey detector though I had to remind myself that Rankin quite deliberately inserts anachronisms into his writing.

While I loved The Japanese Devil Fish Girl, this didn't impress me as much. At times I found its humour rather forced and the plot became a little too silly. However, I still plan to read the next in the series as it is still quite a fun read.
  • maribou

Water Wizard

So You Want to be a Wizard, by Diane Duane, read by Christina Moore (audiobook)
I loved this book so much! The story was great! The characters were great! The language is delicious! New York City is incredibly well-described! Anything I say will sound a bit goofy because I am so enthused! Also, the reader did an amazing job. Mostly, I'm just wondering wtf I didn't read this as a 10 year old when I was reading Every Other YA Fantasy The Library Had.... it came out in 1983. I'm so excited that there are 9 more of these, although I realize my inner 10 year old probably can't sustain this level of enthusiasm that long.

The Taste of Water, by Frank Ledwell
Thoughtful and evocative poetry (mostly) about the author's past on Prince Edward Island, and how people there relate to each other, by the Island's poet laureate. I very much appreciated it, but now I am a bit homesick.
(8, O1)
  • Current Music
    watching Todd and The Book of Pure Evil

Overdue wrap-up of 2012.

A belated overview of my past year in reading.[Master list, bests, worsts, milestones]

1. Planet Narnia, Michael Ward: While Ward's thesis that each of the Narnia books purposefully reflects the medieval conception of one of the classical planets is intriguing, it's too hit-and-miss, too oddly structured, and way too riddled with apophenia to make its full impact.
2. "The Winter's Tale", Shakespeare: The next time someone tells you that "The Taming of the Shrew" was just meant ironically and was not intended as a straight take on his views of marriage, remind him that he wrote a play in which you're expected to root for a murderous king to get back the wife and child he tried, with precious little dramatic instigation, to put to death; also, that said play was thinly-drawn, tone-deaf, and dramatically lightweight.
3. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Vol. 1 (from A Study in Scarlet up to "The Adventure of the Second Stain"), Arthur Conan Doyle: What can I say that you haven't heard already.
4. Japanese Women: New Feminist Perspectives on the Past, Present, and Future, Kumiko Fujimura-Fanselow, Atsuko Kaneda, et al.: A much-needed and quite enlightening collection of viewpoints by native authors on various aspects of life for women in Japan; would that there were an modern version to shed light on the landscape 15 years later.
5. Alien Hand Syndrome, Alan Bellows et al.: Focuses a bit much on the more nauseating tales and doesn't entirely escape the curse of websites for bite-sized reading not translating quite well to print, but still lives up to its source's Damn Interesting moniker and is a good gift for that person who has everything (provided they can handle a bit of college humor).
6. Maskerade, Terry Pratchett: While the material about theater folk is only a little weaker than the author's usual fantasy-to-real-life satire, the book's kind of oddly morally tone-deaf for a Pratchett, and it has the A.I. problem of an ending that thinks it's jubilant but in reality is quite depressing.
7. Under the Sea-Wind, Rachel Carson: A lushly lyrical recounting of an ocean ecosystem through the eyes of a few of its residents, but the sheer thickness of the imagery and poetic prose makes it a bit inaccessible.
8. The Sea Around Us, Rachel Carson: Much of the geology is outdated, but it's intriguing to see here the origins of the pop science tome, clearly structured and with the basics of marine science well-communicated to the layman.
9. Anno Dracula, Kim Newman: "I got you two tickets to that thing you like!", the novel: you can't make a what-if-Dracula-won story out of nothing but pandering and paper-thin, too-clever-by-half references.
10. Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You, Sam Gosling: What promises to be a fun little lark on the things you can tell about a person from their home & office stuff delivers instead a very shallow overview of the Big Five OCEAN personality traits, with a kind of disturbing failure to grasp the concept of personal space.
11. Thunder Rides a Black Horse, Claire R. Farrer: An overview of the Apache "Changing Woman" ceremony that inspires more unease in me about the role of women in Apache culture than respect.
12. Jewels, Victoria Finlay: A history of a sampling of gemstones, explored through one globetrotting site per gem, that benefits from stronger structure and focus than the author's previous work.
13. Kappa, Ryuunosuke Akutagawa: I wish I had more than headscratching to report from this fanciful tale of an author who visits a society of these legendary Japanese creatures, but, welp.
14. An Upriver Passamaquoddy, Allen Sockabasin: Some interesting material about contemporary Passamaquoddy life, but the amateur writing from a Maine chief inspires a lot a questions it doesn't answer.
15. Watchmen, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons: Yeah, it's as game-changing and deep as you've heard.
16. The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker: Fuck you.
17. The Edge of the Sea, Rachel Carson: This look at ocean ecosystems from Carson, lavishly illustrated with line art by Bob Hines, is perhaps the most conventional of her books on the ocean but still not a bad exploration.
18. Silent Spring, Rachel Carson: Still scary after all these years, and an excellent example of how to take a scientific argument to the public.
19. The Sense of Wonder, Rachel Carson: Short paean to the importance of natural exploration in a child's life; personal, graceful, and a poignant synthesis of beauty with fact.
20. The Mansion in the Mist, John Bellairs: A disappointing young-adult adventure that's more slight than spooky and doesn't due justice to its Edward Gorey cover or the unusual friendship between adventurous boy and tough elderly librarian that I found so charming in The Dark Secret of Weatherend.
21. I'll Be Seeing You, Mary Higgins Clark (abridged audiobook): You're at the hospital, and your own corpse comes in - and thus ends the intriguing material in this wasteful thriller, where no good hook is left unexplored and the heroine's sleuthing has completely no impact on the plot.
22. The Cereal Murders, Diane Mott Davidson: Remember, kids: you can watch movies, but for God's sake, don't think or talk about them: "That kind of smart attitude can lose you some friends."
23. Planet Google, Randall Stross: Uncritical puff piece on Google's self-stated quest to "organize the world's information" (including a lot of your own, whether you want it to or not) is more ominous than heartening, and the author's frequent late-'90's swipes at Microsoft do nothing to distract from the unease.
24. Telling Stories the Kiowa Way, Gus Palmer Jr.: Intriguing exploration of the nuances, interactivity, and untranscribabilty of Kiowa storytelling that's undone a great deal by petty small-mindedness.
25. Trial by Ice: The True Story of Murder and Survival on the 1871 Polaris Expedition, Richard Parry (unabridged audiobook): Tale of murder on an Arctic expedition and the calamitous fallout hundreds of miles from civilization takes a bit to get going but is utterly gripping when it does.
26. Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports from China, James Fallows: Surprising and illuminating in parts, I guess (at least the parts where the author isn't banging on about his Presidential speechwriting not being properly credited on Wikipedia), but I wish we weren't still relying on self-absorbed white dudes to tell us about the ~mysterious, unfathomable Orient.~
27. Sailing Alone Around the World, Joshua Slocum (unabridged audiobook): A surprisingly personal account of what it says on the tin, and chummy, sunny reader Nelson Runger takes much of the edge off the account's archaic qualities.
28. Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck (unabridged audiobook): John Steinbeck single-handedly wins the civil rights movement by mildly telling off a racist hitchhiker; also, the sky is falling because America is becoming too sanitized, part 1,000/infinity.
29. Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes: A tale of learning to live in the rhythms of nature that overflows with lush prose and is one of the most sheerly beautiful books I've read - and nothing like a rom-com.
30. When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron: Uncomfortably vindictive and enamored with suffering for a Buddhist work, particular for one supposedly about how to recover from grief and loss.
31. The Job, Douglas Kennedy (abridged audiobook): Would-be Grisham knockoff that forgets to have a plot until the book's three-quarters over, additionally hobbled by a protagonist with an extraordinarily bad sense of decision-making.
32. Glock: The Rise of America's Gun, Paul Barrett: Insightful enough in revealing how Glock leveraged a savvy PR strategy unique in the industry to market dominance, and provides a side of corporate intrigue that's satisfyingly venal and honorless, but too fanboyishly enamored with the raw power of firearms to tackle the big questions of gun ownership it unwisely decides to settle Once and for All.
33. Japanese Religious Traditions, Michiko Yusa: Slim but efficient primer on Japanese religion with enough flavor to bring the subject to life.
34. The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, Thich Naht Hanh: Warm & heartfelt primer on Buddhism that's a bit overwhelmingly dense and might run down too many concepts too quickly for beginners.
35. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Nicholas Meyer: Killer premise - what if Dr. Watson had to use Sherlock Holmes' own tools of ratiocination against him to save him from cocaine addiction? - that tragically turns into the dreariest of self-insert fanfics a third of the way through.
36. Why We Make Mistakes, Joseph T. Hallinan: Attractive test layout; forgettable and unilluminating contents.
37. Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer: Intriguing look at the factors that supposedly foster creativity through a handful of well-known case studies (Bob Dylan, Pixar); I don't agree with all of Lehrer's conclusions, but the material is fresh and genuinely challenging.
38. Flourish, Martin Seligman: I think Seligman's genuinely onto something in this enhortation for everyday proactivity in one's search for happiness, but his argument is weirdly childish and snake oil-slick at times.
39. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Vol. 2 (from The Hound of the Baskervilles to The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes), Arthur Conan Doyle: Yeah, there're still some classic tales here and The Hound of the Baskervilles ain't bad, but Doyle's quality control kind of wandered off for the last couple collections, didn't it.
40. The Dark Half, Stephen King: Ably written but far more ashcan than scary.
41. Round Ireland with a Fridge, Tony Hawks: Hey, sorry, I got drunk and passed out; was I supposed to do something interesting for this book I'm writing?
42. Bella Tuscany, Frances Mayes: Falls into the trap avoided by its predecessor Under the Tuscan Sun of being a celebration of wealth and privilege rather than a celebration of nature and country living.
43. Impaired, Gaia Faye: Post-bad-end Silent Hill 4 fic that suffers from an unsatisfactory finish and lack of agency for the protag but has admirable ambition and good character moments.
44. How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill: Infantilizes the Irish instead of lauding them, and is far more interested in the Romans and St. Patrick than its premise; poorly paced and disingenuously argued.
45. Nemesis, Agatha Christie: Meh Miss Marple missing memorable moments.
46. Worlds of Power: Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, F. X. Nine: Remember: "They are all Draculas."
47. Some Good Will Boys, G. W. Hinckley: Turn-of-the-century collection of supposedly true stories of orphans at a outdoors-camp-slash-reform-school that seems both suspiciously scripted and lacking in a coherent point.
48. Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer, Wooden Leg: Excellent first-hand account of the Battle of Little Big Horn and Cheyenne life before and after reservation internment, written by the eponymous warrior, from an eminently readable and relatable first-hand perspective.
49. Water Shows the Hidden Heart, Roma Ryan: Allegorical odyssey through the stages of grieving by Enya's lyricist that boasts some evocative imagery but is raw, self-indulgent, and, at points, shallow.
50. Alphonse Mucha: Masterworks, Rosalind Ormiston: Collection of Mucha art with a surprisingly lengthy biography and exegesis of his works that could've used a bit less repetition and more insight in the latter portion of the proceedings.

Best books this year:

1. Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer, Wooden Leg: I wish more history were this personal, readable, and plain-spoken. The everyman's view of events at Custer's Last Stand (and before, and after) really give you insight into how the decisions were made that led to the event - on both the Indian and the U.S. sides.
2. The Sense of Wonder, Rachel Carson: Beautiful marriage of both Carson's ability to make science approachable to the layman and her capacity to craft lyrical prose, coalescing into a short but extremely effective and poignant paean.
3. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Vol. 1 (from A Study in Scarlet up to "The Adventure of the Second Stain"), Arthur Conan Doyle: But you knew about this.
4. Watchmen, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons: You knew about this, too.
5. Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes: Surprisingly rich and celebrant, with gorgeous prose; nothing like a rom-com. (But the sequel is problematic.)

Worst books:

1. The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker: Truly vile rape apologia under the guise of empowerment, prefaced with one of the most blatantly evil acts to which I've been witness in a book. I don't care how many friends or bloggers have recommended this book to you: stay far, far away.
2. Anno Dracula, Kim Newman: A thin and often howlingly dumb Mary Sue fanfic with the author trying his clumsy best to name-check every vampire and Victorian intellectual property in creation, to absolutely no positive effect.
3. How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill: Doesn't address its ostensible premise until 2/3 of the way through, and then dwells on it for only half a chapter; spends most of its length into detours on the author's pet subjects; fails to inform the reader on the big picture regarding ; insults the very people it was purported to honor. An example from several angles on how not to write history.

I also don't know where to rank this, but though I don't feel When Things Fall Apart was written necessarily with malice in mind, it came across to me as a singularly nasty book, obsessed with demeaning the individual and with the only answer to suffering being more suffering. It's not Gift of Fear-level bad, certainly, but it was Up There in my list of unpleasant reading experiences.

Pleasant Surprises: Japanese Women was a much-needed exploration of right from the horses' mouths; would that there was a up-to-date version. Jewels had a few ugly moments but found its author more aware, on point, and genuinely informative than in her initial outing. Trial by Ice was a gripping and well-spun narrative of survival in the face of sabotage by human pettiness and stupidity.

Disappointments: Planet Narnia has an interesting theory but needs a better-organized, less apophenic author to argue it. Masquerade lacks confidence in its lead character and as a result finds its way to an unsatisfying ending. The Mansion in the Mist was a sedate letdown after reading its predecessor, a spooky kids' adventure hinged on an intriguing friendship.
Single biggest disappointment: The Seven-Per-Cent Solution had a smashing premise explored really well for the first third of the book, then was tossed aside for derivative self-insert fanfic that existed to debase the character of Sherlock Holmes. WTF, man.

Weird: Water Shows the Hidden Heart, with a lyricist trying to make a novel wholly out of imagery. An intriguing concept, but not one this particular author could sustain at full length, and the book as a whole seemed vanity-press raw. Kappa, for being Kappa.

Best quotes: When we confronted with life's difficulties, let us remember the immortal words of Worlds of Power: Castlevania II: Simon's Quest: "They are all Draculas."

Milestones: Finally read a Stephen King book; read through Sherlock Holmes. Finished the 50-book challenge, yay!

Dismal Percentages: Books by female authors: 18/50, or 36%. Books by nonwhite authors: 7/50, or 14%.
Number of times I was actively disappointed in a book: 27/50, or 54%.

For this year's challenge, I'm going to try to address some failings in and make my reading more...well, useful to me:

  • I'm going to try to read 7 books about Japan.

  • 7 books *in* Japanese. I need to step up my reading comprehension. I hope I will not rely too heavily on manga for this.

  • 7 classics I've been meaning to get around to.

  • 7 Earth Science books.

  • 7 books about Native Americans.

  • And these goals aren't besides the above, but rather running concurrent with them: Regardless of genre or whether they fulfill the above departments, I'm going to try to read 21 books in my possession that have been lying around unread for a good long while. I'm also going to shoot for 45% female authors (hopefully, the Native American and Japanese reading will help make up for my poor nonwhite-author percentages). Also, I'm going to try to make it to 60 books this year.

So that's it! Good luck in 2013!
alien me

Book 13: Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru

Book 13: Gods Without Men.
Author: Hari Kunzru, 2011.
Genre: Contemporary/Period Fiction. UFOs. Religion. Mystery. Drugs. Native American Culture. War.
Other Details: Paperback. 386 pages.

In 'Gods Without Men' Hari Kunzru takes you on a trip to the Mojave Desert, where things are not always what they seem... A small, autistic child goes missing. A British rock star goes quietly mad. An alien-worshipping cult is born. An Iraqi teenager takes part in a war game. In a remote town, near a rock formation known as The Pinnacles, lives intertwine, stories entangle and echo, and the search for meaning, pattern and connection in a dying universe continues. - from UK publisher's website.

The novel opens with modern folk tale about a coyote who takes his van out into the desert in order to cook some crystal meth. Following this intriguing start its chapters recount events in the past from 1775 to 2009 with its main focus on the desert setting and how it impacts on various people that either live there or visit. The longest sections take place in 2008 and set up the disappearance of a small child and the resulting media frenzy that recalls various real life cases.

This was a novel full of interesting ideas in terms of the nature of reality with a mystery at its heart about what has really been going on at The Pinnacles rock formation in the Mojave Desert. Again it reminded me of 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' given the themes of an isolated rock formation, mysterious lights and the disappearance of an innocent that has repercussions on the lives of various characters. The UFO cult established in 1947 does also bring to mind the events in Roswell, New Mexico as well as New Age philosophy.

The appearance of Coyote, the shape-shifting Trickster, does indicate this is a novel in which things may not be what they seem and Kunzru always allows his reader to make up their own mind up about the experiences of various characters. The characters throughout are well-drawn and it is easy to become entwined in their stories. Some only make short appearances in the background stories though pop up again in later references.

As the title suggests there is a religious aspect to the novel in addition to the UFO cult and this is mainly expressed through the responses to issues of culture, religion and faith by its two main characters, Jaz and Lisa Matharu, and how this impacts upon their marriage both before and after their son's disappearance. Kunzru also uses the novel to explore issues of cultural imperialism touching upon the subjugation of the Native American peoples and the war in Iraq.

What surprised me most after finishing it was learning that Kunzru is a British author. He so effortlessly taps into the counter culture of the USA and in critical reviews drew comparisons with notable American novelists such as Thomas Pynchon and Tom Wolfe. Indeed one review called it a "frisky stab at The Great American Novel from a non-American".

I really didn't know what to expect from this novel but found it just fascinating as well as intellectually and emotionally satisfying.


July's posting began with high hopes for completing the Fifty Book Challenge for 2012.  January has almost passed, and only now, the lack of progress report for the second half of the year.  The links at the dates point to the reviews posted at the Challenge.  Some books are particularly good (+) and others, particularly bad (-).

  1. Thunder in the East: The Nazi-Soviet War 1941-1945, 12 July 2012 +).
  2. Race, Class, and Gender in the United States, 13 July 2012 (-)
  3. Man of War: My Adventures in the World of Historical Reenactment, 15 July 2012.
  4. The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless, 25 July 2012 (-).
  5. Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance, 8 August 2012 (+).
  6. No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama bin Laden, 4 November 2012.
  7. War on the Waters: The Union & Confederate Navies, 1861-1865, 18 November 2012 +).
  8. Bloodlands, 22 December 2012 (+)
  9. Pearl Harbor Christmas: A World at War, December 1941, 23 December 2012.

Although it might appear from the gaps in Book Challenge posts that the day job is getting in the way, it is more accurate to note that the model railroad is crowding out the internets during down time.  That, and the Orange Bowl excitement ...

For this year, there is a first quarter report at Cold Spring Shops and at the Fifty Book Challenge, and a second quarter report filed on the first of July, also at Cold Spring Shops and the Fifty Book Challenge.

The bookworm ended this year a little shorter. Blame it on the drought.


There are a few books awaiting review, although those reports carry no presumption of making the fifty in 2013.

Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.