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It’s weird being a parent as your child grows and begins exploring the world without you. More and more, my children watch shows and read books I haven’t read. Our worlds are diverging. So one does what one can — we watch cheesy television with them, and we read what they’re reading.
In the case of the latter, I guess I’m raising a kid with good taste…
Sidekicks by Dan Santat
Sidekicks is a graphic novel about an aging superhero, Captain Amazing, who’s feeling the endless creep of years sneaking up on him. He decides it’s time to get a sidekick, and that’s when we learn that his pets, the real protagonists of the story, have been yearning to team up with him forever. There’s an indestructible dog, a static-energy cat, and a hamster with no appreciable superpowers. And an iguana. A few thoughts:
This comic has a really positive message — it encourages us to think about all our gifts, and the way that understanding them as part of our whole selves gives us an advantage far exceeding that of the person who excels at one thing alone.
The hamster/iguana team-up is fantastic. They’re both brave and eminently vulnerable, fighting in a world fraught with danger.
Captain Amazing’s tale of aging and teamwork cuts strikingly close to the bone for me, a father watching his children grow up and acquire their own interests that diverge from mine, and at the same time, want to do all the things I do.
It’s a cute and fulfilling comic. Well worth the twenty five minutes it will take you to read. According to the school librarian’s notes in the inside cover, you will also earn “4 points” for reading it. So there’s that.
The Osiris Ritual (A Newbury and Hobbes Investigation)
by George Mann
Sir Maurice Newbury and Valerie Hobbes are back in another rollicking steampunk adventure in George Mann’s The Osiris Ritual. Like the previous book, The Affinity Bridge, there’s plenty of great action and adventure and nobility and constrained behavior and running around London. The characters of the two protagonists develop a bit more thoroughly in this one, though they end up spending much of the novel investigating two separate cases and worrying about the other. A few more thoughts:
Mann really excels at gruesome description. In the first book, it was automata — in this one it’s a rotting cyborg. Gross and awesome.
The fight scenes in the novel are where it’s at. Great action!
Alas, the relationship tension feels a bit tacked on to me. But I don’t generally enjoy that part of these kinds of stories anyway. Thoughts about feelings? GROSS.
A nice romp. If you liked the first one, you’ll like this one. If you didn’t read The Affinity Bridge, I think you could enjoy this just fine as well.
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larsen; narrated by Scott Brick
When the Lusitania steamed into the waters off Britain in 1915, everyone on board knew the Germans had threatened the ship. But the convergence of politics, military action, timing, and fate made the attack on the ship a startling and gripping event, one that would draw the United States into war–albeit a full two years later. A few thoughts:
Erik Larsen weaves his usual trick here, building the narrative from three primary tracks — the people aboard the ship, the people aboard the U-Boat, and the British government, The resulting network of elements and ideas works very well, creating an intense, moving story.
Larson rather nonchalantly shares the fact that the Lusitania was carrying thousands of rounds of rifle ammunition and some other key munitions components. Apparently, this wasn’t a violation of neutrality. He doesn’t even touch on the common ideas of “conspiracy” that the Lusitania was carrying huge stockpiles of weapons.
The sinking scenes in the book are among the most harrowing sea tales I’ve read. All those Titanic films I’ve seen gave me lots of visual imagery to accompany the tale Larsen tells. Of course, his accounts of what happened are all based on accounts from survivors of the wreck. Amazing.
There’s plenty of blame for the sinking to go around — particularly for the British government, which knew about the u-boat and let the Lusitania sail blithely on anyway. Larsen doesn’t come out and say it, but he strongly implies that certain forces in the Admiralty saw the sinking of the Lusitania as a way to draw the U.S. in to help the British cause. And it turned out to be.
Overall, an excellent book. On par with In the the Garden of the Beast. The audio book was narrated by my favorite golden-voiced reader, the incomparable Scott Brick. He’s the best.
We read this book for my SF group this month in anticipation of the film being released soon. Amazing!
Through a cascading set of mishaps, Mark Whatney is left for dead on Mars by his fellow astronauts. This novel tells the exciting and harrowing tale of attempt to survive. A few thoughts:
While I didn’t find this particularly difficult to read, many of my SF group expressed befuddlement at much of the science in the novel. It is a very “hard” SF book, meaning that it spends a lot of time on technical details.
The storytelling is terse and straightforward, which lends a lot to the drama of the moment — things unfold very quickly, but always told in the past tense (as they’re being written by Whatney in his mission log / journal).
I love the interplay of Whatney on the planet, the astronauts in the ship flying back from Mars, and the ground control folks. Excellent.
My only complaint about the book is that there are a few too many near misses – it feels a bit contrived in that regard. But like JAWS getting blown up by an air tank, it works because the story has you from go.
Books and stories to consider alongside this one: Robinson Crusoe, Apollo 13, Survivor.
Overall, an excellent, very good book. If you can get over the technospeak, this is a book for you.
Station Eleven is a literary, level-headed look at life after the apocalypse. It’s not a comet, nor a zombie plague, but a simple especially-lethal influenza. Imagine 1918, but far, far worse. St. John Mandel tells the story of several people, all united by their common acquaintance with one man who dies at the beginning of the novel. It’s a solid character study with a compelling through-line and expertly-crafted people. Reminds me of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake or Colson Whitehead’s Year One. It’s literary apocalypse, and very compelling.
A few thoughts:
The novel imagines the apocalypse in much less horrific terms than many of the books that I read, but it’s all the more chilling for that. The common struggle for survival puts us way back into the dark ages, at least for a time, and people find both the good and the bad in themselves.
The mix of present-day and future storylines also works well, giving depth to the future with excursions into the past. St. John Mandel even works out an effective way to tie the younger characters (born after the flu) into the older storylines.
My only complaint is that the novel gets a bit too cleanly tied up in the end. It’s fair to say that the story is being told in a way designed to wrap up when the narrative demands it, but it feels like there’s an awful lot of coincidence at work in the final shakedown. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (Dickens did it, after all), but it feels a little too on-the-nose.
Also, I’d like to read the (fictional) comic book from which the novel’s title is taken.
When Siggy gets a job at an interplanetary supermax prison, she doesn’t know she’s going to become a conversational pal with a pair of serial killers. Or that this relationship will hinge on the fact that she’s one of the few people who has encountered time pockets more than once. Also, ballroom dancing.
Broken Time is an odd book, with lots of interesting ideas but not tight enough to work well. A few thoughts:
There are a bunch of great ideas and sketches of great ideas that the book doesn’t follow through on. Among the ideas we don’t learn enough about: a Lost Fleet that is trapped in time, showing up occasionally to attack a planet long after the war is over and an interstellar economy that’s brutal and punishing but we only hear about a little bit at the beginning of the novel. The book also features an alien species, the speedies, who move far more quickly than we do. It’s a cool premise that could also have had more attention.
I like the novel’s focus on Siggy’s interest in ballroom dancing, and it has a nice payoff later. The novel also takes some solid narrative steps to give Siggy the skills and ideas she will need later.
The references to differences in planets gives the book the feel of grandeur, but in practice the planets don’t get enough descriptions to really show how they’re different. Siggy might just as well have been in two different cities or countries on Earth.
I like the insight that in times of war, we will do whatever it takes, including science that destroys the people it aims to help.
Last, it’s a little off-putting how much Siggy’s job in the supermax prison feels like The Silence of the Lambs. From the hallway she has to walk down (passing rude and awful prisoners to get to the most horrible one) to his temperamental interest in her to his habit of standing very still, one can’t help but see that famous film. Adding just a few touches to make it feel different would have helped this part of the book a lot for me.
Overall, this wasn’t my favorite. It took a long time to capture my interest (I actually said “If I don’t like it a lot more tonight, I will put it down”), but the main character is nicely developed and the book focuses more on her character than on techno-wizardry.
Chimichanga – The last few times I’ve been to cons (C2E2 2014, SDCC 2014, C2E2 2015), I saw Eric Powell, the smart and friendly writer of The Goon. I usually buy a new comic from him and ask him to sign an old one. This time around, I bought Chimichanga, a bizarre comic about a bearded girl from a circus who befriends a monstrosity that reinvigorates the circus’ flagging attendance and generally makes friends with her. There’s a side plot about evil pharmaceutical companies too. It’s generally enjoyable in the way that the Goon is. Worth reading.
Kabuki, vol 1 – I also read volume 1 of David Mack’s Kabuki, which is about an assassin in a dark-future Japan where a public-secret cabal keeps the people in line, but really works to keep the balance between the corrupt government and the vile gangsters even. It’s a good comic, but hampered by its age and style, which feels distinctly 1994. It feels of a piece with Snow Crash and, perhaps, some 1980s comics like American Flagg. Mainly, its art is a bit exploitative in a way that was completely standard in the 1990s but would be limiting for the comic today.
Locke and Key, Vol 2: Head Games – The adventures of the Locke family kids and the monsters haunting them continue in this edition. While some bad things happen here and there, the protagonists don’t quite realize how the villains are lining up against them, so Volume 3 looks like it will be especially terrible. The side story about the teacher from the school is great, giving depth and feeling and some drama to an edition that’s chock full of creepy ideas but not that tense.
Last, I read the first issue (not trade paperback, but good ol’ single issue) of The Fiction Squad, which wasn’t very good. It was about nursery rhyme detectives investigating — wait for it — the murder of humpty dumpty (an idea that’s done much better in both The Big Over Easy and Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse). On top of that, many of the female characters are drawn in the worst style, with pneumatic breasts and tiny waists. I won’t be reading more of this one.
Directive 51 by John Barnes; narrated by Susan Eriksen
What would happen if all the people who hate the “big system,” for the many, many different reasons that people do, decided that their differences of opinion about why they hate it were irrelevant, and all bonded together to do something about it? Technological apocalypse, that’s what. Barnes tells the story of a worldwide technological meltdown, brought about by a concerted sabotage campaign among tens or hundreds of thousands of activists around the world. They seed the world with rubber and plastic-eating nano machines, and things very quickly fall apart. The tale is told from many perspectives (nearly all American), and traces many paths people might take through the chaos. A few thoughts on the book:
The book feels like it has a significant Libertarian bent, though it takes care to recognize the dangers in extremes of any political philosophy. There was an awful lot of “smart people would do just fine, but dumb people would die off quickly” attitude, and often the ‘dumb people’ part equated to urban poor. So that part grated a little bit.
But there’s hope at the heart of the Libertarian mindset, the idea that people will work hard and, when the system gives them a chance, will do well. The “regular people pulling things together and doing it right” part of the book was downright nice.
I also really liked Barnes’ approach to politicians, skilfully interpreting the old canard that power corrupts, and viewing how easy it is for well-intentioned leaders to push us into war.
Last, one of the concepts of the book is the idea of a “system artifact,” a collection of ideas that gain power and a kind of agency despite not being steered by anyone in particular. It reminds me of two things: first, Dawkins’ original idea of ‘memes,’ as sticky ideas that evolve like genes in our collective intelligence matrix; and second, like the smart spam in Maelstrom that evolves in the information ecology of the new web.
Susan Eriksen does a nice job with the narration, using a few kinda-voices to add some depth, but generally hitting it straight and clear. Overall, a pleasant diversion, if you like your stories with apocalyptic megadeaths.
Shea’s novel is a light romp through a dark future where most of the Earth has been ravaged by economic and environmental collapse. Many people live in floating cities high above the Earth, and a few others vie for the limited slots among the global elite. Just making her way in the world is our titular vicious mercenary, who has been working as the owner of a brothel for the last few years. Alas, her past comes back to haunt her and she must make a run for it.
Koko is an enjoyable adventure, if a bit light on the plot arc. The main character is empathetic in as much as someone who used to be a mercenary can be, but the future Shea describes is so bleak that we need not worry too much about particular bleakness facing individuals in the world. Yikes.
One of the plagues of the floating cities is a kind of suicidal depression that’s diagnosed as an incurable disease. There’s an implication in the book that this sort of depression is just in one’s mind, which could imply some deeper readings of Shea’s view of modern mental health issues, or it could just be the view that the overlords of the future might employ a cynical terminal diagnosis to control population growth. (And thus, I just realize, I build a link between this novel and the under-rated Tom Hanks / Meg Ryan film Joe vs. the Volcano.)
Shea seems to have an equally dark view of corporations of the future — global capital has not been all that good for people in the world. That said, there’s an implication that the world collapses under some other malady and it’s only global capitalism that gets us going again, so maybe these vicious corporations are good? I would love to read another book written with a Margaret Atwood-ian seriousness in this particular world. (Actually, without too much tweaking, you could see this as a version of the Oryx and Crake world.)
This book comes as close as I’ve found to the edge of the nickel. It doesn’t offer enough, to me, to push it onto the recommended pile, but it has a few enjoyable facets that make it hard to recommend against. It’s a fine beach read, but that’s about it.
Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film
by Patton Oswalt
Patton Oswalt is a really good memoirist. He has the deft touch of a seasoned comedian, a keen eye for metaphor and the important detail, and a strong sense of storytelling. Silver Screen Fiend imbues his early standup years with a strong narrative arc, one of artistic stagnation and malaise, a lesson he learned and a cautionary tale for us. It’s also damn funny. A few thoughts:
I couldn’t help but recall Steve Martin’s amazing Born Standing Up in light of this book. Martin spends much more time on his thoughts about technique, whereas Oswalt does so mostly in service of the larger questions about artistic endeavor generally.
I love Oswalt’s metaphor of the Night Cafe. He relates the story of Picasso’s first venture into work from memory rather than from sight, and how painting that vibrant red room made him into a different artist. Oswalt calls these moments (or rooms or experiences) “night cafes,” and explores how his own such experiences shaped his life as an artist. It recalls Gregory Ulmer’s assertion of the guiding image, an idea that shapes who we are and how we work as a creative or intellectual person (see Internet Invention).
I love the inside-baseball stuff about the comedy scene in LA in the late 90s. One of the overwhelming impressions I have of L.A. is that people circulate in their own bubble there, and we have no sense of how it works. The tales about how the one particular comedy club insulated and ruined comics were a great sense of how Oswalt maintained his sense of perspective.
The one negative thing I have to say is that Oswalt occasionally gets a little too elaborate with his comedic metaphors. They overflow the first half of the book like a clogged toilet in a punk bar.
The audiobook is especially good because, as a performer, Oswalt knows the nuance and flow of the work, and knows how to make the beats land well.
This remarkable, entertaining horror novel has a simple premise: a haunted IKEA. It’s not actually the Swedish flat-pack behemoth, of course, but an also-ran called ORSK, a fictional store designed, the narrator asserts, to copy IKEA as closely as possible. The tale follows Amy, her supervisor Basil, and a couple other employees as they stay late at the store one night to catch the vandals who have been sneaking in at night, breaking merchandise and messing up the place. Of course, it turns out to be something more horrible.
A few thoughts:
The novel builds on the way familiar places can seem frightening when they’re shifted out of their usual place in our minds. When Amy and friends stay late, the massive store becomes otherworldly, and the gleaming expanse of the showroom shifts into a frightening wasteland of modest furniture.
The novel’s design is its most compelling feature — the cover looks like an IKEA catalog, and each chapter starts with a blueprint drawing of an ORSK product with a name like Brooka or Kjërring, and a description consistent with IKEA’s rhetoric. As the story grows darker, the chapter drawings do too.
The supernatural element that arises is pretty well-crafted and thoroughly creepy, and will certainly show up in my subconscious next time we wander out to IKEA. It’s not the scariest book I’ve ever read, but it’s got a good eerie factor, and solid characters.
Overall, Horrorstör is a solid creepy novel with an innovative design that fits the novel perfectly. Worth a read.
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin
by Erik Larson
Months and months ago, I started In the Garden of Beasts and while it was good, the slow ramp up to the intense story didn’t quite grip me. I stopped about sixty pages in, just, as it turns out, before it gets really good. Writing about Hitler and Germany in the run-up to World War 2 isn’t easy, I suppose. It’s a subject that’s been covered widely, and with skill. But Larson’s angle–the travails of the inexperienced US Ambassador to Germany during the early 1930s–works well. The story of Ambassador Dodd and his family navigating the icy waters of pre-war Berlin is gripping and frightening, and helps explain old stories in a new light. A few thoughts:
The excellent second story that Larson finds here is the tale of Dodd’s adult daughter, Martha, a divorcee who was briefly the toast of the town and enjoyed liaisons with many men, both foreigners in Berlin and Germans herself. Reading about her shift from admiring to fearing the Nazi regime is strong.
Dodd, we now know, was one of the few people in the American administration who really knew what was what. While his competitors in the Diplomatic corps were focused on lavish parties and status, Dodd saw the evil and senselessness in the Nazi regime from the beginning.
Hitler himself only makes a couple appearances, but they’re stunning. As a haunting figure hulking over the entire story, he shows up once in Martha’s story at a cafe, and in two meetings with Ambassador Dodd. Otherwise, we only learn about him in the larger moments of action described outside of the Dodds’ direct experience.
I haven’t studied the pre-war Nazis very closely, so I was unaware of how fractious their early reign was. Part of the reason so many people dismissed the Nazis early on is that there was so much inner suspicion and in-fighting that outsiders had trouble believing Hitler would stay in power. The sketches of diplomats in Berlin depict people waiting for Hitler to fall so they can deal with a more rational successor.
I was also unaware of the nature of the “Night of Long Knives,” in which Hitler and Goebbels used a supposed coup conspiracy to solidify power by killing, well, most of their adversaries. Larson explains that the official tally of those killed without trial (or even arrest, really) was probably in the hundreds, but the government officially acknowledged 77.
As always, Larson’s book is a winner. The impending doom of the historical fact hangs over the book from the beginning, but the run up is still a bit slow for all that. Worth a read, certainly.
What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe; narrated by Wil Wheaton
If you don’t read XKCD or Munroe’s weekly “What If?” column over at xkcd.com, you’re really missing out. This book collects some of the best What If columns, plus adds a bunch of new ones. It’s a simple premise: people ask Munroe questions like “Can dropping a steak through the atmosphere cook it by means of the re-entry burn?” or “What’s the highest a person can throw something?” or “How long could I swim in a cooling pool storing nuclear waste before I died?” And he answers the questions in very funny ways.
The best part of the book is the repeating feature “Disturbing Questions from the What If? Inbox,” in which people ask things like the best way to chop up a body or how many nuclear bombs it would take to wipe out the US. I imagine they think these are innocent questions (and they probably are) but Munroe rightly recognizes the problems with them, and pokes fun.
There’s not a lot else to say about the book. It’s great, very entertaining. And Wil Wheaton’s narration is great, though it’s pretty “Wil Wheaton-y,” so I imagine that if you didn’t like Wheaton or his performative style (as seen on, say, Tabletop), you probably wouldn’t like his narration. The other down-side to the audio book is that you don’t get to see Munroe’s great pictures, of which there are many in the physical book.
I’ve read my fair share of old science fiction. (By old here, I generally mean things written before 1980.) I acknowledge this line is relatively arbitrary, but so am I. Some old sf gets dated pretty quickly, and feels foreign and a little weird. The Cosmic Computer comes to mind. Some old sf holds together pretty well, remaining both entertaining and illuminating its age well–The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, for instance. And then there are sf books that age badly–they don’t comment on their own era except by accident and their storytelling style stales. Just putting this out there.
Fritz Leiber’s The Wanderer disappoints in far more ways than it pleases. It’s got a killer hook — what if a hyperspace-traveling planet showed up on our doorstep, closer to the moon than we are? Chaos would rule on the Earth, where tidal forces would go bonkers, earthquakes would wrack the land, and people would die in droves. The Wanderer uses multiple plots to follow the experience of people all over the Earth over the course of the first three days after the mysterious planet shows up next to ours. Awesome premise, terrible execution. I don’t know how this book won the Hugo.
A few thoughts:
As an end-of-the-world tale, The Kraken Wakes is far better, using many of the same tropes a decade earlier and doing a better job of it.
The casual misogyny famously part of the SF boys’ club is on a rampage in this book, with women being either flighty or harlots, but always being condescended to. Despite the book’s setting in the future, Leiber fails to imagine any change in cultural norms about, say, race or gender.
The cat person is amusing, but petulant and childish too. Oh, and it’s the only representative we have of the alien race. It was pretty hard to distinguish the character’s flaws from Leiber’s sense of how women act.
The people in this novel have sex at the strangest times. And often it’s in the vein of women who don’t want to have sex being convinced by an eager man.
All the casual misogyny and racism aside, the book is boring. It’s too long for the tale it tells, and several of the storylines don’t change or grow at all.
Spoiler alert: There is one aspect of this particular tale that deserves a bit more discussion — it turns out that the traveling planet is part of a huge coalition of space entities that have a set of rules about what you can and can’t do as an interstellar space faring race. The people on the Wanderer don’t like the rules, so they’re on the run from the agency. I’m not sure if Leiber was criticizing a rising nanny state idea (it feels like he was), but the society they’re running from reminds me a lot of The Culture from Iain F. Banks novels, in a good way.
One more note — the cover above is the one on the edition I read. It’s very confusing, as there is no large spaceship like the one in the picture in the book. Also, the wandering planet is quite clearly described as being gold and purple, so the planet at the top isn’t even the right color. Each of these other covers fit the story better, and the ones with the cat person are particularly amusing:
Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line
by Michael Gibney, narrated by Fred Berman
Sous Chef is part detailed explanation, part memoir, part battle narrative. It recalls a day in the life of the assistant chef at a mid-level “star rated” restaurant in New York. Gibney does a great job explaining both what the day is like and why it’s like that. The book mixes some philosophy of cooking in with science and restauranteurship. Very enjoyable. A few extra thoughts:
I used to think a “sous chef” was in charge of sauces. Turns out it means “assistant chef,” a second in command, but more like a chief of staff than a vice president, to use a political analogy. Calls the head chef “Chef,” and is called “Chef” by those under him.
I like the smattering of Spanish throughout the book, given without translation. I didn’t understand it, but it fits the sense of the world better.
The level of intensity required of chefs in restaurants is crazy. I suspect this is why so many shows focus on kitchens — they’re intense places to work. My favorite part of the book is when the second seating on the Friday night takes place, and the narrator (who speaks in second person, making you the sous chef) gets into a flow state. Check out the clip below.
Like the other restaurant book I enjoyed, Waiter Rant, Gibney slips into poetic language occasionally, creating city tableaux. It works okay, but some of his prose gets a little purple.
I love the early discussion of the way teamwork and cohesion function as part of a good kitchen. I’d think this book is required reading for any aspiring chefs, both as warning and as guidebook.
Fred Berman does a good job with the book, bringing a gravelly bark to the tale and handling the variety of languages skillfully. Worth a look, or listen. (Caviat – I haven’t read any other chef memoirs before, so I can’t compare it with those.)