Samedi the Deafness by Jesse Ball
4.5 out of 5
The Short Version: When James Sim comes upon a stabbed man, his life is upended. Who (or what) is Samedi? Why are people following him? What is the horrible plan that will happen on the seventh day? Can his own mind be trusted?
The Review: Ball’s earliest novel is in some ways his most categorizable. It reads like a thriller in the mold of John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps or Hitchcock’s mistaken-man tales (North by Northwest, in particular) – but it is also distinctly a Jesse Ball tale: mnmeonists, terrorism, a strange house, mistaken identities, layered tales and tricky reversals.
It’s interesting to read this book today, in light of so many recent events: the men, dispatched by Samedi, to commit suicide in front of the White House… it’s the stuff of fiction, or at least the stuff of other countries, and yet it feels entirely plausible. Perhaps even more so than it did when Ball wrote this book. It’s also interesting to read it in light of having read the rest of Ball’s oeuvre. It is the simplest in some ways but it also provides some of the most tangible pleasures. It is skillfully plotted and delivers a one-two punch at the end, destabilizing the reader as they stagger back into the daylight and wonder what’s just happened. I wonder what it would’ve been like to read this as one’s first Jesse Ball experience. I imagine I would’ve been hungry for more and excited by the ways he would adapt and grow. As it was here, I instead got to see (with similar joy) where he started and to trace various things he would continue to work with back to this auspicious beginning.
Consider Phlebas (Culture, #1) by Iain M. Banks
2.5 out of 5
The Short Version: The war between the Culture and the Idirans rages across the galaxy. When a rogue sentient computer goes missing – on a planet where none can go – a roguish anti-hero must lead a team to recover it… but for whom? Horza, this anti-hero, thinks it to be one side… but perhaps it won’t matter much at all.
The Review: I was so excited to start Banks’ Culture series – I’ve never read any Banks before, to my chagrin, and I was looking for some great sci-fi adventure to fill my post-election days. But while there are absolutely moments of great promise in this novel, I found it bordering on unreadable at times. Banks barely gives any of his characters much more than a sketch of an outline of a, well, character and the novel jumps around between places and concepts without a sense of where it’s going. Tremendous set-pieces (like the Damage game or the assault on the temple) don’t end up having much purpose other than to be cool set-pieces – and when the plot finally does kick in, I didn’t so much care what ended up happening. Even more confusingly, there’s an epilogue at the end of the novel that lays out the history of the Culture-Idiran war, including how it ends. Mostly, all of this adds up to feeling like a damned mess.
Except… in those moments where the innovation on display was matched by the joyfully intelligent prose, I was enraptured. I will give another Culture novel a try, mainly because I believe that the Banks I’ve heard tell about is out there – and I’m excited to see what he can do when he’s really firing on all cylinders.
The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum
4 out of 5
The Short Version: A young human is rescued by a wood sprite, who is allowed to nurse him to adulthood. That boy becomes St. Nicholas, the hero of children all over the world – and this is the tale, told as part of the larger Oz cycle, of how he came to be.
The Review: I read this once upon a time, many moons ago, and was overjoyed to re-read it for So Many Damn Books. I’d forgotten, for example, that Baum’s Santa Claus is a part of the Oz universe. I’d forgotten about Baum’s rapid prose, his child-centric and yet there-for-everyone style, and the way that he sits (or he should, anyway) with the great fantasy authors of our time. You could even see how Baum might’ve influenced the likes of Lewis and Tolkien in this particular novel, in ways that the Oz books might not make so clear.
But all in all, he puts his own stamp on the mythology around Santa Claus – and while it is largely different from the stories that’ve become popular about the jolly fat man, it stands up as a worthwhile take on the story. An alternate history, if you will.
Cibola Burn (The Expanse, #4) by James S. A. Corey
3.5 out of 5
The Short Version: After the opening of the Ring Gate, new worlds stand at humanity’s feet. But already, rogue colonists are facing off against UN-sanctioned missions on “New Terra” – and so James Holden is sent with his crew to keep the peace. But New Terra (and the protomolecule’s masters) might have something to say about all of them…
The Review: It is one of the more exhausting legacies of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire that we have these epic series whose books rotate between a handful of narrators and often, in the course of the series, introduce new ones with each go. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Bobbie Draper and Avasarala… but I found myself utterly annoyed by Elvi and Basia, two new introductions into this series. Even Havelock, making a welcome reappearance after Leviathan Wakes, was frustrating as a narrator… mainly because Holden and his crew are so damned interesting. It’s hard to keep introducing new characters to dedicated readers when you’ve got such great ones already there and welcomed. It’s doubly a shame because the back half of this book is one of the most complex and frightening traps I’ve seen in this series so far. I genuinely didn’t know who would survive (if any) and, if they did, how they’d do it. Space is a damned scary place – but it’s also so tremendously exciting. Here’s hoping we, as a species, survive long enough to get out there… and that we don’t bring our pigheaded ignorance and bull-in-a-china-shop lack of care once we do…
As to the series itself, I will say this: they’re really getting to expand the universe of these books rather excitingly. The chapters with the “Investigator” reveal a bit about the Miller-molecule and there are definitely some great big question marks around the protomolecule’s masters, but also what else is out there in space. I’d just rather see Holden & co. as the ones who lead us through it instead of continuously introducing new folk.
Normal by Warren Ellis
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
The Short Version: When futurists and tech-prognosticators need to get their heads screwed back on, they go to Normal Head – a wilderness retreat, essentially, to reacclimate to the world without tech. But Adam Dearden arrives to find a missing person – and the idea that nowhere is tech-free anymore…
The Review: I love Warren Ellis’ techno-presents and techno-futures, these strange and dark and oddly funny looks at how we as humans engage with technology and how that technology engages with us. His Transmetropolitan is a masterpiece and Crooked Little Vein probably deserves a re-read in light of the 2016 elections. I was excited to see his latest novella – which had been serially released by FSG Originals over the summer – hit my shelf… but I found it ultimately a little disappointing. It doesn’t have the same intensity of focus or attention that his other work does – and while there are exciting moments (the central mystery is a corker, Agatha Christie by way of The Matrix), there are also quite a number of rambling digressions on futurist thoughts. These digressions are interesting but feel oddly out of place, sometimes awkwardly running up against the storytelling as though they were two separate pieces spliced together. It’s this disconnect that makes the book ultimately unfulfilling even as the warnings about surveillance and insidious microtech are only increasingly urgent.
If You’re Not Yet Like Me by Edan Lepucki
Rating: 4 out of 5
The Short Version: A young woman, sharp and perhaps also insecure, tells her unborn child about the courtship she had that led up to her getting pregnant.
The Review: My girlfriend is sitting across from me as I write this, reading Lepucki’s upcoming novel Woman No. 17. We both loved California and it was her who found this little “Nouvella” while we were visiting that state this past summer. It’s an interesting little piece and I wonder what it might’ve been like to encounter as one’s first introduction to Lepucki. Joellyn, the narrator, is one of those listless and a little annoying women in the Hannah Horvath mold: as she speeds towards an inevitable wreck, you want her to make better choices but know, already, that she will not and you can’t quite look away. It’s that sort of story, told relentlessly and unflinchingly. There is awkward sex, relationships that aren’t fulfilling, and a young woman caught in the midst of a bad situation. It also reads in about a half hour – so it’ll get you your nihilism fix and get you out the door again and on to other things.
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Rating: 3 out of 5
The Short Version: Robert Jordan is a young American dug in with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. He’s sent to blow up a bridge just before a major offensive – and while he’s with a group of guerrillas in the woods, falls for a young woman named Maria.
The Review: This isn’t getting a full review because I don’t think I gave it a full read. I’ll talk about this more next week in my Hemingway2016 recap post – but this was a difficult book to read now, at this time. Hemingway can be difficult to read at even the best of times, because of his terse prose and his unwillingness to embellish – but this book caused me to struggle. I’m not sure it’s entirely the book’s fault (again: I didn’t particularly want to read something like this, post-election) but it’s not entirely my fault either. The book is the longest of the Hemingways I read this year and it feels that way: characters flash back or run through their heads at significant length, except their thoughts never really feel like people’s thoughts. They feel like Hemingway writing about how a Hemingway character would think – and while that’s okay, I suppose, in the sense that it’s Hemingway’s book and he can do what he likes, it’s not the most pleasant reading experience.
Like I was back in college, I skim-read this book – and while there were passages that caught me, slowed me down, forced me to read all of… the energy and excitement that I come to Hemingway for wasn’t there. But perhaps that’s because I’ve read his better war novel, and his better novels in general – and this one, for those who like to read about the bleakness of wartime, might be a hit… but for me, it earned a shrug. Maybe I’ll come back to it someday, but probably not.