Pending reviews: “The Killer Angels” and “Stupid Wars”

Just keeping track of things here, I hope to post review of two books I’ve read in the past few weeks. The first is Michael Shaara’s Pultizer-Prize-winning novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, The Killer Angels (1974); the second is Stupid Wars (2008), essentially entertaining bathroom reading about obscure and senseless conflicts throughout history. I’m now on the National Book Award-winning The Noonday Demon, by Andrew Solomon, which is a bit of a heavy read.


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Review: “The Dart League King” by Keith Lee Morris (2008)


Finished May 30, 2011

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

The Dart League King, an under-the-radar novel by creative writing professor Keith Lee Morris, is a tour de force of suspenseful writing. While the plot is relatively simple and the characters border on Midwestern archetypes, Morris shows us what can be done if you arrange your pieces just so and move everything to a powerful and affecting climax.

Whether or not this book grabs you as it did me will probably depend on how interesting you find the characters. The action of the novel unfolds in the course of a single evening in Idaho’s Garnet Lake, but there are flashback sequences that round out the story of each character. They are not very likeable people. There’s the town’s resident ne’er-do-well, oafish but handsome jock who has put together the dart league to inject some kind of meaning into his life. There is his opponent in the tournament, a plain, quiet older man who is actually an undercover DEA agent who has wasted half of his life in a sexless marriage. Then there is the crazed 40-something drug dealer who is intent on killing the jock, one of his main clients; the college grad who is haunted by his decision to let a girl drown before his eyes; and the town “hot chick” who has managed to sleep with many of the main characters, and has a child by one (but he doesn’t know it).

In the course of one night, all of these lives intersect in ways that change everyone come the morning. Personally I could not put this book down. Morris does indulge in many cliches to craft his characters, but in this case I found that it made them more believable. I think we all know guys like the jock, Russell Harmon, and the pretty go-nowhere single mom, and the slightly misanthropic but alluring college grad guy. The story was made very believable to me and I found myself very moved by it in the end. I don’t want to give too much away – more people really need to check this book out – but the way things work out for each character in the end is extremely well done. Morris explores everything from love to wasted careers to the notions of success and what “escaping” from a small Midwestern town really means.He does this with well-crafted use of language, from the expletive-laden stream-of-consciousness rants of the drug dealer, Vince Thompson, to the dreamlike picket fence delusions of Kelly Ashton.

All in all, this was a great book, highly recommended. Many thanks to my friend John for turning me on to this.

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Dud – “Gardens of the Moon,” by Steven Erikson (1999)

I'll never find out what the gardens of the moon are.

What a mess this book is. The story goes that it took Erikson 10 years to get Gardens of the Moon, the first of a 10-novel cycle called Malazan Book of the Fallen, published by anyone. On a message board I frequent, there’s a big sprawling thread about the Malazan books, which I hadn’t even heard of before. The conventional wisdom, according to the posters in the thread, was that Gardens of the Moon is not a great book at all, and that in the 10 years between finally getting it published and moving on to the rest of the series, things got a lot better. “Stick with it!” people say – or others insist that you have to start first with books 2 or 3. I’ll never know, because I don’t see myself ever picking up any of Erikson’s other works.

Erikson’s background is in playing D&D and anthropology. As such, his created world, the continent of Genabackis, is obviously something he dreamed up as a campaign setting. There’s a theme I’ve noticed with fantasy writers who come into the novel game with a pedigree of also being DMs: the world-building can take center stage, with very mixed results. Here, we’re supposed to be impressed by the fact that Erikson plops you down in the middle of this huge setting, with various races, nations, factions, gods, systems of magic, wars, poetry and intrigue. And it would be impressive if any of it really made much sense.

There is, somewhere, the opportunity for a good story here. It just gets lost in too many characters, too many flashbacks, and horribly cliched writing. I gave up after one scene where one sorceress confronts another over killing her entire family. The scene is resolved through conversation, is over quickly, and I was left almost laughing out loud – seriously, there is no way such a situation would have been resolved like that. (For those who have read the book, I’m talking about the meeting between Lorn and Tattersail.) It was just silly. “Oh, you slaughtered my family, but you were following orders. And I am no longer the person I was when you killed my family. Let us now quaff wine.”

Of all the duds I’ve encountered lately – and it’s been quite a run, no? – this one was quite maddening. Some of the characters are actually interesting; it’s just that Erikson doesn’t spend enough time on anything. He’s busy building, building, building. So 200 pages in I’ve got such a big cast of characters that I have to check with the list in the front of the book to remember who’s who. That’s not good. When you have to check back to a list of your characters, it means your characters haven’t been made memorable enough to stand out from each other. George R.R. Martin’s books probably have something like 75 major characters spread out across 4,000 pages, but anyone can tell you about Tyrion and Littlefinger and The Hound. Suffice it to say the Malazan series will not be adapted for HBO anytime soon, or even SyFy (wince).

As far as plot, Gardens of the Moon seems to be about the Malazan Empire’s wars of expansion, and what happens as they’re about to conquer the last of the Free Cities, Darujhistan. I think what this series eventually starts to hinge upon is the involvement of gods in the affairs of men and wizards, but that is so muddled in this book as to be nearly incomprehensible. The action is split between the goings-on in Darujhistan and the aftermath of the fall of the city of Pale. It’s poorly executed, poorly paced and packed high to the rafters with too much window dressing, and not enough substance.

Gardens of the Moon disappoints because of the supposed potential of the larger Malazan series. For those who have read it, many claim that it’s a great series of modern fantasy, one that stands as its own important body of work. I’m left unconvinced.

This ends my sci-fi/fantasy run for now. I’ve moved on to The Dart League King, which is looking to be fairly awesome, and then I might swing back into non-fiction. I’m still in the stage of reading stuff around the house.

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Up Next, “Gardens of the Moon,” by Steven Erikson

So, what’s one to do after reading three crappy books than dive in to a 10-part, highly complex fantasy series? Hi-ho!

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Review, “Kraken,” by China Mieville (2010)

Fried calamari, anyone?

Finished: May 13, 2011

Score: 1 star (out of 5)

Well, my luck’s been shit lately, hasn’t it? Third dud in a row, only this one I stuck with until the bitter end, and really I have absolutely no idea why I did. It wasn’t worth it.

Kraken is supposed to be China Mieville’s “funny” novel, his version of Good Omens or, more appropriately, Towing Jehovah. I should have been a bit more honest with myself going in to Kraken, since I couldn’t get past the first 50 pages of the two books I just mentioned. But I was willing to give Mieville a chance. Maybe, I figured, funny Mieville would agree with me.

Mieville is an author who has some equity built up with me. He rose to fame through a trio of books – Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council – set in a gritty, dystopian, quasi-steampunk fantasy world called Bas Lag. Now Bas Lag is clearly the creation of someone who played a lot of D&D growing up as a kid, and Mieville has freely admitted that his fantasy novels are set in a world with races and such originally intended as a campaign setting for gaming. And those three books are compelling stuff, filled with a very evocative setting, interesting characters and political structures meant to mock many of those in the real world.

Iron Council was criticized for being “too political,” a position I find to be incredibly stupid and intellectually boring. Iron Council ostensibly tells the story of a kind of political rebellion that ends in tragic failure. After the release of Iron Council, it was as if Mieville started to focus too much on his critics. That, and he obviously has aspirations beyond what Margaret Atwood describes as “the ghetto” of fantasy and science fiction. This is how we got terms like “speculative fiction” – fantasy/sci-fi carry too much baggage of elves, dragons, robots and spaceships for anyone to consider such books “literary.” This is another stance that I find stupid and shortsighted – Gene Wolfe’s fantasy isn’t literary? – but there is some truth to this as far as book sales are concerned. There aren’t too many George R.R. Martins out there. It takes considerable skill to cross over into the mainstream with a straight-up sci-fi/fantasy work.

Mieville opted to leave Bas Lag entirely, and with 2009’s The City and the City, he began his foray into modern fiction. The City and the City is still a fantasy novel is some aspects, but more along the lines of how The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is a fantasy novel. I won’t go into depth here about the book, but didn’t like The City and the City for a number of reasons (or The Yiddish Policeman’s Union), and put it down by page 75.

So, Kraken.

Kraken is a story about…well, there isn’t much of a plot, really. There’s a giant squid put on display at a museum in London. Someone steals it. A taxidermist working for the museum who worked on the preservation of the squid is pulled into a series of events to find the animal. In the process he stumbles into an “unseen” London filled with living Tattoos, golemists, teleporters, wizards who “read” London and derive power from it, an ancient shabti who organizes a strike for the familiars of wizards, and a special arm of the London police who battle the occult. Oh and gods are everywhere. Almost everything is worshiped as a god and has its own church/cult.

The setting, while not exactly unique (it smacks of a modern Johnathan Strange & Mr. Norell, another book I hated), is really interesting. The characters, with the exception of the shabti Wati, are not. In fact they’re developed with such laziness that I found myself wondering why Mieville even bothered including some of them. The occult cops, in particular, were a total waste of time.

Much of the book is spent with Billy blundering around this very strange London discovering all kinds of weird shit, meeting people who don’t have the giant squid and don’t know where it is. This goes on for hundreds of pages. At the middle the book begins to sag from its complete lack of direction. Finally, Mieville opts to turn several boogeymen into villains, throws in some cheap twists and a deus ex machina here and there, a very bad habit of his that has carried over from Perdido Street Station, and ends things with a weak kind of “taadaa!”

A few things are obvious about Kraken. One, it was written quickly. Two, it seems like it was done in too forced of a style to be interesting. Mieville himself says that Kraken is the last book he will write in this style, and I can only think that this is a smart move on his part. Critical reaction to this book is sharply divided, which I find interesting. Obviously there’s something here that other people dig that I don’t. Part of me wonders if Mieville is just another Neil Gaiman, a British author who develops his own devoted following of readers who think the guy shits brilliance onto the page with every novel.

All that said, Mieville did give me three amazing books that I enjoyed immensely. So he’s got three strikes built up. His new book, Embassytown, just came out. It’s his first attempt at pure sci-fi, and it’s getting pretty good reviews. I’ll pick it up when it hits my local library, and then we’ll see if Mieville can redeem himself.

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Books On a Plane: China Mieville’s “Kraken”

For some reason I tend to read China Mieville when I go off on (incredibly infrequent) vacations. This time around, it’s Kraken. I wanted to wait a bit before I dove into this one, because I actually did not like The City and the City at all and darn it, once ya burn me, I’m careful. Since I’m such a grim and serious person all the time I tend to stay away from books that are reviewed as “funny,” but hey, let’s see what this is all about. Mieville’s newest, Embassytown, comes out next month and I may get a copy and a meet-and-greet with the author in Brooklyn.

OK China, second chance. Don't fuck this up.

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Dud: “Revelation Space,” by Alastair Reynolds

We have no idea how we got here, either

Oh, but this one was disappointing. Unlike The Curse of Chalion, Revelation Space actually has a great concept buoying its beginning. Archeologists are racing against a ferocious “razor storm” to protect a dig site of an alien civilization on a remote world. These aliens, the Amarantins, were wiped out in a massive Event just as the species was about to achieve spaceflight. What happened? Did they do it to themselves, or did something else happen – something that could happen again to precious humans?

Problem No. 1: Reynolds’ cool concept is not kept central in the pacing of the book. In fact, nothing really is. Big problem No. 2 is that Reynolds, here in what was his first novel, demands the “total immersion” method from his readers, meaning that names, places, histories, technologies and factions are going to whiz by you with minimal or, more often, no exposition whatever. You’re supposed to go along with the ride with the hope that eventually it will all make sense.

Thing is, this doesn’t work for hard sci-fi. And so we get to the same problem that I had with Chronicles of the Black Company, only amplified. This time around I’ve got a huge cast of characters, yet only a few are developed enough to make you know or care anything about them. There are various factions of humans doing things offscreen that somehow affect the plot, but you’re never told really who they are or what they’re about. Reynolds mentions Inundationists a dozen times in about 50 pages, and he had me fuming – “Seriously motherfucker, you can’t toss me a single sentence as to what these people are? Argh!”

So, 230 pages in, the plot is a sloppy spaghetti bowl of characters who have been frozen and unfrozen in cryosleep (or reefersleep as Reynolds call it, with no explanation) to the point that the timeline of everything is a complete muddle. Things happen, you think you have a sense of where things are going, and then everyone gets on board a big spaceship and 20 years pass. Maybe this is scientifically accurate, but it doesn’t do anything to tell the story, and isn’t that why we all pulled up a seat and ordered a drink?

By the time I gave up I had completely lost interest in the motivations of the main character, who turns out to be a clone of his father, who himself has two kinds of “simulations” that may or may not be akin to digital immortality (a play on Stross’ transhumanist ideas, done poorly). If you got lost by the end of that last sentence, I don’t blame you! There’s also an assassin who is kidnapped by one faction to kill the main character, while another faction has an implant in her head to keep her from falling under the control of one person, but she falls under the power of another. People get married but are killed during the ceremony by poisonous peacocks. Something happens where a mysterious entity takes control of a weapon that might possibly destroy planets, but who knows how it got into the ship, and…yeah, fuck this.

Several trusted folks online recommended this one, but I think it struck out for me mostly because of very poor narrative structure (some reviewers on Amazon have pointed this out too) and the demands of an immersive setting in which nothing is explained. Let’s face it, such a set-up really just involves coming up with cool names for random things and throwing them around willy-nilly. Anyone can do that, but what’s the point? It’s only fun if there’s an actual story going on that makes all the funny made-up words make sense.

Now I’ll never know what a fucking Inundationist is. Oh well.

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