Just in the nick of time, all the book reviews from this year are up! I know this will let all my dedicated readers breathe a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, there's some kind of a bug saving the "Link List" on the side of the page. I've spent 15 minutes or so troubleshooting, but since others are reporting similar problems right now, I think I'll just wait for Blogger to update their software.
2012 has been an incredible, dynamic year for The Professor and I. We moved (more than once, truth be told.) Moved out of the tower in The Heights, spent a few months living on the beach, then went on an incredible road trip across the Great American West. After a month of wandering we landed on a hillside in beautiful British Columbia. I now work with some old friends in the valley down below, creating something fresh. We lost two good friends this year, both Mouse and Perci, but we made a new friend, Sir Sam.
I managed to ship a pretty good game along the way, mostly due to the awesome efforts of the creative geniuses at 343 and the hard working kids at CA. I also worked on several books this year: I made good progress on a rather heavy novel entitled The End of the World as We Know It, pushed further into the adventures of Blackhawk, and collaborated with some really bright folks on the games industry analytics front to create Game Analytics: Maximizing the Value of Player Data, to be published by Springer in early 2013.
What does the new year have in store? More books, to be sure! I've got a great stack here beside my desk, and am hip-deep in the middle of four right now, ranging from Camile Paglia to Paladin Press. As mentioned, I've got a few projects in the works as well -- two or three novels and works of fiction. (100 Murders still shows promise, and I promised someone important that I would finish Book 2 of Hunted at some point.) There's been some discussion of creating a revised edition of Social Game Design -- it's a market sector that has evolved rapidly in the last fourteen months -- to focus a bit more on the mobile side of things. And then there's this new game I'm pretty engaged in...
Beyond the creative projects, The Professor and I hope to spend 2013 in Vancouver, and do a little more travelling. I've got one eye on Paris, Busan, and am still itching to get down to Rio at some point...
For now though, off to punish a heavy bag, read a bit, and get ready for tonight's festivities in Gastown.
Here's hoping your 2013 is off to a great start, and filled with commercial, creative, and personal success!
Monday, December 31, 2012
Landsdale has been a bit of a legend in East Texas for more than a decade as the local boy who done good. I’ve always intended to pick up and read one of his novels and thanks to the Senator and KMK’s kind Christmas gift, I was able to read through The Bottoms over two beautiful, relaxing, sunny days in The Heights just before Christmas of 2012.
In The Bottoms, Landsdale has written a murder mystery with a little horror and a lot of southern gothic homage. A black woman is found murdered. The local constable, our hero’s father, begins an investigation. Since this is East Texas in the early 19th century, no one in the white community is particularly bothered by the slaying.
A few more bodies appear, and the small, segregated East Texas towns begin to respond with fear, lynchings, etc. Ultimately, the identity of the killer is predictable, as is the not-very-surprising third act twist, but the novel is still a satisfying little bit of Thomas Harris meets Harper Lee. The writing is decent overall, though the use of truly corn-pone dialect throughout is a bit much on occasion.
The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas
The White Hotel is a strange, unsettling, deeply disturbing book which ends up being a journey which is far more varied and rewarding than its short length presage. The book is structured as a five part sequence, beginning with some incoherent and hallucinatory erotic poetry, a similarly incoherent prose version of the same events, a collection of letters, and some straightforward narrative. The story tells the tale of Lisa, an opera singer, and a patient of Sigmund Freud, and follows her throughout her life, set against (and influenced by) the forty year sweep of history in eastern Europe. The conclusion to the novel is potent stuff, that left me staring out the window of my plane, thinking fresh thoughts about a deeply mined subject…
This is a book I’m very glad I read, though it is deeply troubling, and some of the imagery likely won’t leave me anytime soon.
Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman
Gaiman excels in the short story form. When his ideas get to run amok, but only for a few pages, he comes up with a number of gems. Some work better than others, but the whole treat is still delicious. This book motivated the Halloween 1000 word story challenge that the Doctor and I undertook in October, which resulted in two stories you've probably never read entitled The Altar of Crows and The Dust Man’s Birthday Party. Turns out, writing truly short fiction is a fantastic way of honing craft skills.
The Visible Man by Chuck Klosterman
Klosterman is bright, fun, and funny. His new novel, The Visible Man, is both silly and insightful at times. At worst, the main character is an interesting, creepy prick, who CK uses to make some clever observations about modern middle America. He’s also so playful and borderline DFW in his linguistic byplay, that I can’t help but really enjoying most of what goes on here.
That said, the best parts of this book are the excerpts from his upcoming book of essays. The bit about Batman and Bernard Goetz made me excited for more Klosterman wit and observation.
Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
Big family style murder by a teenage boy… The protagonist’s older brother. So she goes back to her hometown as the once-famous only survivor of the killings. She returns because she’s broke, but after decades of prostituting her famous-murder celebrity status for pocket money, she ends up getting involved in trying to unravel the case.
Midwestern darkness abounds. The language is good, and the look back at mid-eighties Satanism scare is… shallow. Then the implausible plotting kicks in. How many killers were in the house that night? The whole thing begins to feel a bit like parts of Scream that got left on the editing room floor. But it’s dirty and sordid and “edgy” as KMK once suggested.
I’ll still probably read more of her stuff. I’m like that.
77 Shadow Street by Dean Koontz
Bit of a stinker, this one. Old famous house turned apartment building has evil goin’ on. And… not very likeable sketch characters get eaten by the evil. And… Moving on.
The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
The Angel’s Game is Zafon’s second novel in the not-to-be-read-linearly Barcelona sequence. It’s a lovely mess of a novel, which only really holds together as an explanatory footnote to some of the events of its two more impressive siblings. The language here is usally good, though the diatribes on the motivation behind religion often comes across as a bit sophomoric. The events which occur range from cool to downright silly (the brawling action sequences which dominate one of the latter stages of the novel feel terribly out of place.) The strong presence of the supernatural in the novel all place The Angel’s Game a bit out of step with the other novels in the series, in which the existence of anything truly supernatural is left unclear. Not so here.
Ultimately, I quite like Zafon, and the trilogy of Barcelona novels centered around the Cemetery of Forgotten Books is a treat. But The Angel’s Game suffers from an abundance of plotting and pacing issues, and is without a doubt the least successful of the three.
L.A. Requiem by Robert Crais
At the base of Capital Hill in Burnaby, just east of the East Hastings junkietown sprawl of Northern East Vancouver lies a hidden gem of a bookstore, specializing in crime and science-fiction. According to the current owner it was once a haven for occult manuscripts as well, and the old owner was considered to be a wizard of some renown (!!). After the former owner moved on or passed away (I was never clear which), the new owner quickly tired of the sinister characters who would appear at odd hours with peculiar arcane requests. He sold off the occult collection en masse and refocused the shop on mysteries and sci-fi. I don’t know if I believe this little tale or not, but the store’s labyrinth little corridors and delightful stacks certainly carry with them the dust and odor of arcana and the occult.
LT, the Professor, and I visited this shop for the first time in sunny September. After he told me the above story, I asked the owner to turn me on to the best mystery novel I’d never heard of. Without hesitation, he presented me with LA Requiem.
LA Requiem tells us a tale of serial murder and police corruption in early nineteen-nineties Los Angeles. We’ve got police corruption, hardboiled noir, a bit of sleazy sex, and some hard choices. Good stuff, if you like the modern potboiler detective thriller.
The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Zafon’s third novel, The Prisoner of Heaven, is a far simpler tale than his first two, likely in response to criticism of his second book, The Angel’s Game. The Prisoner of Heaven tells us the story of Fermin’s incarceration and a manuscript written by a mysterious prisoner, David Martin.
I’d not recommend this one unless you are already trapped in the delightful labyrinth of Zafon’s Barcelona, and the multi-generational epic of the Cemetery of Forgotten books, and the various boys and men who grow up wrapped in it’s mysteries. If, on the other hand, you’d love one last visit to Siempre and Son’s bookstore, and a bit more gothic mystery and romance, The Prisoner of Heaven is a treat.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Gone Girl is Flynn’s newest novel, still only out in hardback as of this writing. I devoured the entire book in one setting while driving across the “ Loneliest Road in America” somewhere in Northern Nevada.
Yet again, Flynn writes a tale that explores a mysterious crime, and in so doing, looks at some of the seedier sides of modern culture. Yet again, an adult returns to the scene of their childhood and gets caught up in strange and criminal doings. In this case though, Flynn explores the notion of marriage as a trap, and provides us with a not-particularly-believable mid-game surprise, which leads to yet another implausible novel.
Her language is good, and her eye for the dark and unpleasant make her interesting, but her plotting so defies suspension of disbelief, that as mysteries, these books don’t work for me. Gone Girl is the least impressive of her three so far.
Fifty Shades Darker by E.L. James
Picked up the sequel to Fifty Shades in a charming little bookshop on Main Street in Durango Colorado, and read most of it in a bar on a rainy afternoon. Fifty Shades Darker loses most of what makes the first book interesting. After deciding that Grey’s obsessively controlling behavior and fetish for hurting women isn’t so bad after all, our heroine decides she needs to get her some mo’ of that.
Dumb plotting and tepid sex scenes ensue. I didn’t read the third one.
Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
On a long and glorious road trip with The Professor, I decided it was time to see what all the fuss was about. I understand that these pieces started as actual Twilight fan fic. I suppose the Bella / Edward relationship is here, to a point. But there’s no vampirism or supernatural action of any kind. Instead, what we get is an interesting rendering of a wealthy, skilled manipulator of vulnerable young women.
At its best moments, Fifty Shades of Grey is a portrait of a predator that has enough truth to it that, as a reader, I must assume that E.L. James knows whereof she writes. (I'm regularly reminded of Gavin deBecker's warnings when reading about how Grey treats our heroine.) The “contract” was interesting; I’ve never read one before, though I’ve heard about couples who employ them. And I actually quite liked the ending.
At its worst, the book is everything else you’ve heard about it: poorly written, smutty, frustrating, and dirty without being particularly titillating. Needless to say, if words like “butt-plug,” “sadomasochism,” “cum,” or “erection” make you feel uncomfortable, this probably isn’t a book for you.
The Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
Mark Lawrence writes a snotty adolescent boy’s fantasy novel, with enough adult meanness to do George RR Martin proud. The Prince is smart, nasty, and works surprisingly well as an antihero you can easily hate but still want to keep reading about.
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Shipbreaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
I enjoyed The Windup Girl sufficiently that when LT kindly loaned me a copy of Mr. Bacigalupi’s newest, I eagerly gobbled it up over a quiet weekend on the Third Coast.
Ship Breaker is set in a not-so-distant future Earth in which the petrol has run out, the seas have risen, and the delta between the rich and poor has continued to increase to near third-world levels everywhere. In the ruined beaches near the wreckage of Orleans, Nailer and his friends work as ship breakers, stripping valuable copper and metals from the carcasses of derelict ancient tankers. Their existence is a hard, cruel one, where the strong take what they can from the weak and only the lucky or clever survive for long. Many cyberpunk staples appear, from rampant amphetamine abuse to organ harvesting syndicates, though the networks and AI that likely exist somewhere out there are far beyond the reach of Nailer and his illiterate village of scavengers.
When a massive “City Killer” storm deposits a strange bit of scavenge int.Nailer’s world, he is propelled into an adventure. The novel has a bit of young adult bildungsroman learning and growing, and likely has only about a PG-13 rating, but is still sufficiently violent to feel gritty.
Good world creation, good sci-fi. I’m looking forward to his next novel, The Drowned Cities.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Sharp Objects is the first of Mrs. Flynn’s novels I read. It’s also probably her best, in my opinion. Sharp Objects tells the tale of a Chicago reporter to returns to her Midwestern small-town girlhood home to write a story on the death of two young girls. Returning home, she quickly gets caught up in the small-town madness infecting the town.
Flynn uses language effectively, often choosing just the right word to convey her sordid meaning and misanthropic portrait of… everyone. (She is particularly hard on women; the attention-seeking collection of weak-willed evil creatures, and a few of the scenes which fill this novel make the writer come across as a bit of a misogynist. Were she male, I would have lumped her in with the likes of Al Goldstein.) The world she presents is unsettling, dimly reminiscent of Chuck Palahniuk in its grimy post-industrial, post-modern dysfunction.
The mystery itself is compelling, but unfortunately, the plot quite runs away from the novel and ends up being nearly ridiculous at points. It turns out, from my perspective, this is pretty much a common thread throughout all three of her novels; the actually events that occur end up being so ridiculously unbelievable and out of character that the novel falls apart.
Still, I found Sharp Objects an interesting enough first novel that I was eager to read her followup, Dark Places.
Harbor by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Lindqvist writes atmospheric, moody, and mildly cerebral horror set in Sweden. After his excellent work, Let the Right One In, I was eager to read more. I read Harbor in early summer, mostly while sitting beside the ocean in a place where the population has exactly the kind of abusive loving relationship with the sea that the residents of “The Harbor” enjoy.
The remote village of wherever in Sweden sits on an isolated island, far from the bustle of Stockholm. The residents are mostly fisherman, Coast Guard, lighthouse keepers, or smugglers, all of whom make their living from the sea in one way or another. And it seems that the sea is extracting a toll for its bounty…
The characters are less sordid than those in Let the Right One In, but no less tragic, brokedown shells. The writing is breezy, even in translation, though I cannot recall anything particularly inspired in Lindqvist’s language.
I like the Swedish darkness and the superb way in which Lindqvist uses setting to establish a consistent tone and theme. I’m eager to read more of what he writes, and I need to remember to ask my new friend, The Viking, about how Swedes perceive his work.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
What a delightful surprise! Zafón has resurrected the gothic mystery, and brought all the darkness and mystery of Barcelona together in a fine debut novel. The Shadow of the Wind may plod a bit at first, but once Daniel, Julian Carax, Fermin, and the rest get going, the novel’s four-hundred odd pages fly by. It’s all here, from illicit romance, evil policemen, leather masks, trapdoors, foggy nights, sinister hunchbacks, beautiful women, and more than a few verbal high-jinx.
Perhaps my favorite of the novels I read in 2012. Highly recommended.
The Crowdfunding Bible by Scott Steinberg
Quick little overview of the Crowdsourcing scene circa summer 2012. This might be interesting to you if you are trying to find a way to get funding for a small software or creative project. I am uncertain if there is a print version of this book; the copy I read was a .pdf.
Procession of the Dead by Darren Shaw
Procession of the Dead is a surreal novel of strange criminality set in a fictional version of Mexico City. A young man is introduced to the underworld and becomes a puppet of The Cardinal, who runs the city. People surrounding the Cardinal start disappearing, as if they had never existed. A strange and flawless killer begins stalking the young man, and he has a few weird sexual encounters. Then stuff gets a good bit stranger and more metaphysical.
Procession of the Dead was a strange, corruption-flavored snack, which I quite enjoyed over a few nights on the beaches of South Texas. Had I not followed it so quickly with the far more masterfully done Shadow of the Wind, I would probably have more glowing words for Procession. A fine book, but not overly memorable.
Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell
Winter’s Bone is a pitch perfect bit of rural noir set against the backdrop of the meth-cooking hillbillies of the Appalachian mountains. A young woman must go in search of her father, in an effort to prove that he is dead, so the bank doesn’t foreclose on her family home. Alone the way she visits an ever expanding web of distant relations, all of whom are secretive, slightly scary, and live out their lives by a different code than most of modern North America.
The language is tight, sparse, with highly believable dialog. A movie of the same name won several awards, I believe. While it was beautifully directed and very well acted, Mr. Woodrell deserves the lion’s share of the credit; Winter’s Bone is a superb piece of work.
What the Night Knows by Dean Koontz
What does the Night Know? I can barely remember… This little piece of popcorn was amusing, and I tore through it in about 48 hours of planes and hotel rooms.
Oh yes! The Night Knows that a killer’s spirit is possessing people and seeking to recreate a series of brutal serial murders. It’s also trying to get back at the detective who put an end to its original kill spree a few decades before.
Koontz writes a tight airport-bookstore horror novel. His style is sufficiently USA Today to be readable, and none of the shadows he summons linger long enough for the following night to recall them.
Starhammer by Christopher Rowley
I’m told that Starhammer is the basis for the Halo mythos. Luckily, Jason Jones and the Bungie team managed to go far, far beyond their original inspiration when crafting their sci-fi epic franchise. For while Halo is a tale of heroism and military fetishism in a galactic struggle against various alien races, Starhammer is not.
Instead, Rowley gives us a strange, highly dated bit of intergalactic sci-fi in which a race of sexually sadistic blue people hold dominion over the human race. One guy, and… a girl… and… a prophet type…. and some other people find some artifacts that lead them to an ancient spaceship, which takes them to some dustball planet where they activate… The Starhammer!
Worlds are smashed, wicked blue alien genocide ensues. The whole affair is a messy and occasionally perverse bit of “fight the man” science fiction, in which humans are the good guys.
Perhaps if I’d read this several decades ago, or as a much younger man, I’d have been sufficiently titillated by the “Rape Room” and sufficiently riled up and eager to fight aliens that I would have been inspired by this one. Maybe then I would have created a majestic science-fiction franchise and would be worth a bazillion dollars.
As it is was, I found Starhammer uninspired and almost indistinguishable from the hundreds of other .99 paperback sci-fi novels that crowed the shelves at Half Price Books, hearkening back to a particular subgenre of early eighties pulp.