Wednesday, November 20, 2013

So, Sooz, whatcha reading these days?

Glad you asked.

Recently finished:

People have been recommending Markus Zusak's The Book Thief since it was first released, but I've been poky about picking it up. Then I spied a cheap copy at Half Price Books, and there was no longer any good excuse to put off reading it.

The book has an odd conceit: it's narrated by Death, a world-weary yet undying entity whose interminable job it is to collect and gently carry the souls of the dead to their final rest. And although Death is constantly moving all around the world to gather up souls, trying to ignore the grim specifics of the job, occasionally a human being comes along whose life experiences make their mark even on Death. Such is the case with Liesel Meminger, a young German girl who first encounters Death when her six-year-old brother Werner expires of a coughing fit on a train bound for Munich. Through the circumstances of his hurried burial, Liesel finds and surreptitiously takes a book, The Gravedigger's Handbook, with her as a way of keeping Werner's memory alive. With the help of her new foster father, she painstakingly makes her way through the book, which improves her ability to read. Liesel grows up in the Munich suburb of Molching, finding and spiriting away other books -- from a private collection, from a book-burning, anywhere she might happen to discover them -- and developing a deep hunger for their contents. At several points in the narrative she connects again with Death, who has become curiously attached to the girl, wondering about her fate.

Few young adult books about Nazi Germany have anything positive to say about the German people as a whole. But as has been pointed out before, the first people Hitler ever conquered were the Germans. Some characters are depicted as True Believers in the Third Reich, but the majority simply keep their heads down, trying to care for themselves and their families as they wait out the blackness of the current political storm. In addition to crafting some very believable, likable characters, the author does an excellent job of depicting the pervasiveness of Nazism and its chilling everyday effect on rank and file Germans. While they never had to endure the well-documented horrors of the work camps, it doesn't mean that they didn't suffer. The writing is suffused with dark humor, symbolically rich, occasionally pretentious in style, but often lyrically beautiful -- and by the end of the book (appropriately enough, finished on the morning of Halloween) I was reduced to a weepy mess.

(edited) Finished 29 November:

I picked up Newton's Wake: A Space Opera from the library, on the recommendation of my pharmacist after we started talking about SF (have I mentioned recently how much I love living in the swirling vortex of SF fandom that is Western Washington? Well, it bears repeating). The book required a little mental gearshifting before I could get comfortable with the storyline; Ken MacLeod, like many SF writers, tosses his readers into the deep end of the universe he's created and expects them to tread water and pay attention until they figure it all out.

The book begins some time after a singularity event referred to as the Hard Rapture, somewhat reminiscent of the Skynet scenario, where American AIs first became fully sentient with near-godlike powers and started wiping out humanity. Most of the remnant that survived were Europeans and Asians who fled Earth, banding together as colonies or organizations, while others stayed to fight the Raptured. Some human flight from Earth was fueled by FTL starships, while others made use of the skein, a kind of wormhole network known as Carlyle's Drift after the Glasgow-based crime-syndicate family that discovered, exploited and effectively owns it. Death, in this milieu, is temporary for most; technology has advanced to the point that humans regularly back up their brains before going into danger, and if people die their mental backups are downloaded into reconstituted physical bodies, effectively creating an immortal society. But human backups without physical bodies can also be used as "familiars" (read: slaves), in thrall to their masters for a predetermined period of time (one such thrall, Professor Isaac Shlaim, is described as one of the people who caused the Hard Rapture in the first place).

Lucinda Carlyle, the primary protagonist, is exploring the skein as part of a process known as "combat archaeology," making (often violent) contact with leftover Hard Rapture tech, when she accidentally comes across a previously-unknown remnant of humans on a planet called Eurydice; lots of plot-twisty intrigue ensues.

MacLeod demonstrates a playful sense of humor (one group that survived by largely rejecting tech is called "America Offline," and another corporation, which holds huge copyright backlogs, is referred to colloquially as "the Mouse" -- a nice jab at Disney's current efforts to become the grey goo of entertainment). However, most of his pop culture references feel overly dated, referring largely to events in the 1990s, and he seems to have a difficult time developing his characters, especially when it comes to realistic dialogue. (I can empathize; creating believable character dialogue is by far the hardest part of writing.)

It's also a little frustrating when you realize that an author has created a universe with an interesting back history and potentially fascinating tech, but has chosen not to tell the story his readers hoped for; we get a tantalizing glimpse of the beliefs, behaviors and mores of a society where immortality is possible -- our protagonist has an almost visceral bias against prosthetics, against people whose memories are incomplete and had to be reconstructed from history and hearsay, and a fear of experiencing her own death even if it's only temporary -- but MacLeod devotes very little time to following through, seeming to prefer to focus on the overwrought theatrical productions of a Eurydicean playwright instead. It would have been interesting to see in greater detail the horrors of the Hard Rapture up close and personal, rather than obliquely, or to see how the varied pockets of humanity, with their very different moral belief systems (I'm still giggling at "Latter-day Adventists"), ping up against each other. The writing gets more vague during the final third of the book, and the motivations of different characters become more difficult to follow just at the point where things ought to become a lot more clear; there are also a few stray plot threads where Chekhov's gun never goes off.  In some ways it feels like MacLeod bit off more plot than he could chew for a book of this length. With all that said, Newton's Wake is at its best an engaging read, with a raft of interesting ideas for later cogitation.

(edited) Finished 25 January:

My friend Laurence tore through D.J. MacHale's SYLO at superhuman speed. She then recommended it to Carrie, who in turn reports that she read it overnight. Since we've just started a virtual SF/F book group on Facebook and we needed an inaugural title to read and discuss, this turned out to be it.

This book is difficult to classify, especially since it seems to be entry #1 in a YA trilogy. It might be a straightforward government-paranoia thriller, or it might be something else. Spaceship-style craft appear, but are they alien in origin or do they come from somewhere closer to home? People are mysteriously dropping dead on a small island off the coast of Maine, but is it an unknown virus or the result of overconsumption of a strange crystalline substance? And what precisely is SYLO, the military group that arrives to blockade the entire island and uses deadly force to prevent anyone from leaving? The book raises a lot more questions than it answers, presumably to get readers to buy the next installment.

The story is fast-paced and intense, if relatively simplistic (this is a YA novel, after all), with an indifferent writing style. But I'm not sure that lack of style is going to matter much to the target audiences. It bothered me enough that I took a few months to finish the book, because although the story was interesting, the first-person voice (of protagonist Tucker Pierce) was not. I had a difficult time empathizing with Tucker or his problems; the character came across as so bland that he simply didn't provide a compelling reason to keep reading. In many ways this book would have been a better read if the protagonist had been Tori Sleeper, the lobsterman's daughter who is Tucker's love interest.

We'll be discussing this book on the book group shortly. I get the feeling I'm going to be holding the minority viewpoint.

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