Goodreads

In my latest move to further build up my social online presence I’ve moved onto goodreads.com. You can find my new profile here. It’s also installed permanently on the righthand sidebar via the  icon.

Those of you who use goodreads, link to my profile and friend me. If you read and haven’t signed up for it, you might want to. Basically it’s Facebook for books. You can easily find rate and review books and then share them with your friends. I posted up about 50 book reviews (mined from this blog) and rated another 70+. Of course I’ve read over 10,000 novels so I’m not about to go back and do them all, but I’ll add them as I see them.

As an author, Goodreads is supposedly a great place to market your books, which is my nefarious ulterior motive in joining yet another social network. Muhaha!

For my book reviews, click here.

For my posts on writing, click here.

Ready Player One

Title: Ready Player One

Author: Ernest Cline

Genre: Pop Science-Fiction

Length: 384 pages

Read: September 13-18, 2011

Summary: 10: buy book 20: read book 30: goto 10

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I read this after two different friends recommended it in the same week. Wow! If you’re one of my (presumably) many readers who love video games. Go buy and read it. This is pretty much the ultimate classic video games novel! And I should know, having been born in 1970, the perfect time to experience the full rise of video games and modern pop culture (inaugurated May 25, 1977). I was so enamored of computers in general and these little beasties in particular that I went and made (and sold) thirteen of them professionally.

But back to Ready Player One. It’s a first person narrative set in a roughly 2040 dystopia where the world has basically gone to shit and most people live inside a gigantic virtual reality video game. It’s creator has died and left his vast fortune to the winner of an elaborate easter egg hunt (think Atari Adventure Easter Egg crossed with the Great Stork Derby). This whole world and contest centers around an obsessive love of all things pop-culture and 80s, particularly films, comics, and most importantly, video games.

In practice the novel is an old school adventure set mostly in virtual reality. But it contains an astounding number of well placed and deeply woven 80s pop-culture references. For me, they were continual fun. I got 99% of them, including some damn obscure ones. I’ve played every game described in the book (except for Dungeons of Daggorath — never had a TRS-80 — but it looks like Wizardry), seen every movie, heard nearly every song, etc. I don’t know how this book will read for someone a lot younger who isn’t up on all this old school geekery, but I sure enjoyed it.

The story is great fun too. The protagonist is likable and all that. It’s not a long book but races along. There are a few second act jitters (the “romantic” period between the first and second keys), but I blew through them fast enough. The prose is workmanlike but unglamorous and there are some cheesy or cringeworthy moments. They don’t distract from the fun. The last third in particular was awesomely rad with numerous 1337 epic moments. When the protagonist faces off against an unstoppable Mechagodzilla avatar and invokes a two-minute Ultraman powerup I felt tears coming to my eyes.

As Science-Fiction the book is a bit mixed. Mr. Cline manages to deftly describe what must to the novice be a bewildering array of virtual reality technologies and concepts. He’s fairly unusual in actually specifying some of the interface elements in his world and he does a credible job with all of this. Nothing stood out as particularly bogus, but was based on decent extrapolation. There are some elements, however, which still exist in his 30-years-from-now future that are already on the way out. Hard drives in “bulky laptops” for example. One only has to look at the iPad and the Macbook Air to see that writing on the wall. Again, I must point out that these minor quibbles do not detract from the book’s extreme fun factor.

Cline is uncannily knowledgable about his video games (and again, I should know), but there is a curious oddity in the biography of the central Bill Gates crossed with Richard Garriot character. He is described as releasing his first hit game (for the TRS-80) in 1987 in plastic baggies. Besides wondering if any TRS-80 game had much cultural impact (Read my own Apple II guy origin story here!), the date is totally off. If he was talking about 1982 that would have been fine. But by 1987 the TRS-80 had gone the way of Allosaurus and plastic baggies hadn’t been seen in years. My first game, Math Jam, was released in baggies in 1984 and that was way late for them. 1987 featured games like Zelda II, Contra, Maniac Mansion, Mega Man, and Leisure Suit Larry. All of these are well after the era venerated in the book. This small, but important, error is odd in a book so otherwise accurate. I can only assume that the author (and his character), living in the middle of the country, existed in some kind of five-year offset time-warp 🙂

On a deeper level, the novel toys with one of my favorite futurist topics: Will we all get sucked into the computer? I actually think the answer is yes, but that it’s unlikely to happen via 90s envisioned visors and immersion suits (like in Ready Player One). I think we probably will have retina-painting laser visors/glasses at some point. Then neural implants. But the real big deal is when our brains are digitized and uploaded into the Matrix. Muhaha. I’m actually serious, if flip. Eventually it will happen. If not this century then the next. I just hope I make it to the cutoff so I can evade bony old Mr. Grim and upgrade.

In conclusion, I have to agree with the back cover quotes of some other authors I like:

John Scalzi: “A nerdgasm… imagine that Dungeons & Dragons & an ’80s video arcade made hot, sweet love, and their child was raised in Azeroth.”

Patrick Rothfuss: “This book pleased every geeky bone in my geeky body. I felt like it was written just for me.”

So if you have even the least enthusiasm for video games, virtual reality, 80s pop culture, or just plain fun. Go read this book!

For more book reviews, click here.

PS. If you are 5-10 (or more) years younger than me (born 1970) and have (or do) read this book. Tell me in the comments what you think of it. I’m really curious how those who didn’t live it see it.

I couldn’t resist.

Storm Front

Title: Storm Front

Author: Jim Butcher

Genre: Paranormal Noir

Length: 384 pages, 87,100 words

Read: July 5-7, 2011

Summary: Fun read, decent noir redux.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

This novel has the amusing premise of taking the straight up traditional noir detective novel, like The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep, and giving it a modern paranormal spin. Now it isn’t the first book to do this, Laurell K. Hamilton‘s Anita Blake series is more or less on this model, but Butcher clearly read his source material.

It begins with the detective (ahem… wizard) in his office, and the case initiated by the lip chewing lady. Lets first address the success of this book as a piece of entertainment, then we’ll get into it’s loyalty to it’s sources. The book works. It’s a very fun read, catches you early on with the voice, and moves along at a good clip. I’d have sworn it was 250 pages and not 384. It has it’s flaws, but it’s fundamentally a good piece of entertainment. Compare to the somewhat similar Dead Witch Walking which I started recently but stopped halfway.

The voice is fun. Hardboiled, but not nearly as much as Dashiell Hammett‘s masterpiece upon which it seems loosely modeled. Harry Dresden (the wizard/detective protagonist) is observant and engaging, but he lets you know through interior monologue what he thinks about the situation. True hard boiled only implies or tells just a little. They remain much more oblique in terms of the character’s inner life, despite being first person. Now given that there’s a lot of magic and supernature creatures in Storm Front, being upfront probably helped the clarity. Even if it did occasionally leave me with a tiny feeling of too much TELL. The prose is pretty witty too — again not Hammett witty — but good, and very clear.

The characters varied from excellent (Harry, Bob, the mob boss) to just fine. The villain was kind of weak. Actually more than kind of weak. Fairly cardboard. Morgan (the memory of the White Wizard’s council who watches our hero) was a paper thin twerp too. The plot had plenty of good elements, and moved like lightning, although at times it felt contrived to keep Harry in maximum jeopardy. There seemed no reason he shouldn’t have trusted his police partner a bit more, as the only thing doing so would have cost him is a lot of worry and a whole lot of bruises.

The magic system and supernatural creatures were good too. Handled with a deft brevity as this book has plenty of creatures: vampires, fairies, wizards, etc. but they didn’t bother me — and I’m picky here. Although only the amusing little fairy stood out. A lot (like the vampire) were used jump because. The feel of many elements, like the potions and the fairies, was a bit tongue and cheek, but fit.

True to it’s noir roots, the book is pretty dark, with grisly murders and (off screen) sex. But by being supernatural, and more importantly campy, it looses that black edged moral ambiguity that the best classic noir had, making it just a fun read, free of any real comment on the human condition.

For more book reviews, click here.

The Maltese Falcon

Title: The Maltese Falcon

Author: Dashiell Hammett

Genre: Detective Noir

Length: 217 pages

Read: May 25-26, 2011

Summary: Pure awesomeness.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

There are so many reasons why this is the archetypal detective novel. It’s pure pleasure from start to finish.

Let’s start with the writing. The prose is lean, but it has a way of sparing with the reader, a delightful economy and turn of phrase. Things are handled in a straightforward sequential manner. Simultaneously spartan and luxurious. There’s actually a surprising amount of description. Nearly every character is detailed on first meet, often with a good full two paragraphs. But they’re worth it (more on that later). Spade‘s actions are spelled out in exquisite and exhaustive detail — there must be at least fifty cigarettes rolled and smoked in this tiny book and countless details of dressing, moving from place to place, etc. Somehow these don’t drag, not at all. Action too, is quick, but handled in a kind of cold clear detail. What there isn’t, is one whit of interior monologue. The closest we get is the occasional, “Sam’s expression contained a hint of smugness” or “her hands twisted in her lap.” And more than anything, the prose is fun to read.

Plotting. The story is byzantine, and involves no one knowing exactly what’s going on, but Sam being a damn good judge of what’s likely to happen. There’s perhaps a bit too much action happening off screen, and a little too many coincidences or startling reverses. And for a book with so many shootings and double crosses, it’s mostly filled with dialogue scenes. But that isn’t a problem because…

The dialogue rules! Oblique, snappy, it crackles back and forth like a gunfight. The rules for writing quality dialogue could have been modled on this novel alone. Characters interrupt, they’re impatient, they lie (and lie again), they argue, they betray. They do a lot of talking. I enjoyed every minute of it.

Characters. Hammett really shines here. The villains are a bit over the top, but I adored them. The sinister (and limp wristed — oh so pre-politically-correct) Cairo, the fatman, the kid. The author uses a combination of amusing descriptive characterization (Gutman’s bulbs of fat — “He waved his palm like a fat pink starfish!” — or Cairo’s effete details — “when slapped he screamed like a woman”) and highly distinctive dialogue. Gutman’s is a real riot. Overblown, threatening and complementary at the same time. Sam himself is an interesting figure. Tough, incredibly competent, but also prideful, belligerent, and self interested.

Atmosphere. This is nailed, nailed cold and hard like a corpse left out in January. It oozes late 20s San Francisco. The dangerous dames, the cartoony gangsters, the police always one step behind. The tension in the way that the backstabbing moxie Brigid uses her feminine wiles eerily foreshadows basic instinct and countless followups.

The book’s been a classic for 80 years, and with good reason.

For more book reviews, click here.

Sophomore Slump – Delirium

Title: Delirium

Author: Lauren Oliver

Genre: Dystopian YA

Length: 114,500 words, 441 pages

Read: May 17-21, 2011

Summary: Big disappointment.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

Earlier in the week I read Lauren Oliver’s debut novel Before I Fall and loved it. So I eagerly downloaded her second book, Delirium, on my Kindle/iPad and set to reading. Ick.

She’s a very good writer, and the prose style is nearly identical, being first person present from the POV of a 17 year-old girl. For all it’s flaws (I’ll get to those), the voice is still very good, and makes for compelling reading at first. Oliver’s still great at inner monologue.

But everything else falls pretty flat.

Let’s begin with the premise. First of all, it feels like someone told Oliver that “dystopian is hot” and she jumped on the bandwagon. As far as I can tell, she shows no knack for it whatsoever. And worse, she pushes in this direction at the expense of her considerable talents elsewhere. This version of America exists an ill-defined period in the future, probably around 2050-2075. The central premise of the society is that LOVE has been diagnosed as a disease and the source of all societal ills. But fear not, a cure exists, some kind of magic brain surgery that gets rid of most feeling and desire. Everyone gets this at 18, because conveniently, that’s the age “the cure” works at.

Now besides this ludicrous premise, which involves a drastic about face of human tenants consistant since the dawn of time, we have to accept that in 50 years almost no technology has changed. Sure there are a few nasty totalitarian rules and such, but they still use cell phones, they still text. The book has absolutely NO description of anything different other than attitudes. Hell, there was probably more innovation between 1300 and 1350 than shown here! I just completely didn’t buy the world. Not one bit. There’s no way we could get from here to there. And it’s been done to death before. Better. Delirium is like a lame The White Mountains crossed with Uglies. Both books are far better (particularly the first). The whole thing felt entirely forced, like it was all derived from the high concept premise without any other consideration.

In Before I Fall, Oliver showed herself adept at painting peer groups. This is hard stuff, and fascinating when done well. But we don’t have it here. We have a protagonist, who isn’t bad, albiet a little generic, but then we don’t have too much else. Next up we have the romantic interest and best friend — both okay also. But that’s it. The other characters are like cardboard cutouts. I find this hard to jive with her first book where even the minor characters are deftly drawn.

Also in her first book was an intricate and cleverly woven progression of plot and character, while not perfect, it formed a lovely little puzzle unfolding across the length of the novel. And most importantly, giving a sense of emotional depth.

So what happened? I’m forced to conclude that either: 1) she spent much much longer writing her first book and really polished the hell out of it (nothing wrong with that) or 2) that she should have stayed more firmly rooted in the familiar early 21st century as the complexities of world building (even this minimally) sucked her focus.

Or both.

Still, I do have to give her credit for prose skills. They pulled me enthusiastically through the first third, then groaning and moaning through the rest. If it hadn’t been for this I would have chucked it in the middle and you wouldn’t have seen the review (I rarely review the many books I give up on — doesn’t seem fair).

I’m sad. It could have been so much better. I have nothing against dystopian — I am after all a hard core sci-fi reader — I’d have read nearly anything she gave me and enjoyed it if she just provided some reason to care.

For a review of Before I Fall, click here.

Before I Fall

Title: Before I Fall

Author: Lauren Oliver

Genre: Magical Realism YA

Length: 117,000 words, 470 pages

Read: May 16-17, 2011

Summary: Very very good.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

This is one of the best YA books I’ve read in a long while. Part Groundhog Day, part The Source Code, part Judy Blume, part The Lovely Bones — all itself.

We start with a high school girl, Sam, who dies in a car accident, and is doomed(?) to repeat the last day of her life again and again. Seven times to be exact. Sound like a recipe for repetition? It’s not.

First of all the writing is lovely. Really lovely. I’ve read perhaps 50+ first person girl narratives in the last year alone and this one had the best voice. It’s fairly well tied with Mary E. Pearson in that regard for recent entries (Judy Blume still wins for lifetime achievement). It’s funny clever without the annoying Snark. The voice is so good that it just drags you through the entire book, and it’s a pretty long book for YA. Lauren Oliver really is a lovely writer. The dialogue is good, the narrative description and interior monologue are amazing, and even the flowery interstitial description that glues together connected days is short but evocative. The Lovely Bones also had great voice, and a tremendous first half, before it fell apart into an abysmal mess of moral apathy. Before I fall is better.

There are some things worth noting. The characterization and the high school realism is top notch. I was reminded a bit of a modern Freaks and Geeks in that there was that kind of insightful tragio-comic realism. These girls felt pretty darn real. Even the minor characters had some depth. It’s this more than anything else that echoed the master of all YA: Judy Blume. Blume uses dialogue more liberally, as it’s her main method of characterization. Oliver prefers interior monologue and narrative description. The net result is similar. There’s a lot of detail here too, but the voice manages to make it interesting. Sam and her friends are popular girls, and more than a little bitchy, but they don’t extend into characterture. They are a little bad, but not too bad — realistically so. This is no melodramatic Gossip Girl. There is plenty of drinking, rudeness, etc. The sexuality is muted. Handled well enough, but perhaps a bit tamer than it could have been.

Now as to structure. Oliver does a really first notch job repeating the same day seven times without ever being dull. Sam makes different choices, and on some days this plays out very differently. One time she doesn’t even go to school. Still, even when the same scenes are repeated, and they are, different angles are shown, revealing and painting from different directions. This is hard to do, and must have taken considerable planning and rewriting. I’m actually facing a bit of this myself in my second novel, which is a time travel book and involves overlap and revisiting.

I’m going to stop for a second to pontificate on writing this kind of fiction. One of the things that makes this work in Before I Fall is the loose structure of the high school day. Sam’s day includes: getting up, driving with her friends to school, various classes, lunch, ditching, hanging out after school, and the party. These events flow from one to the next because of the inherent structure. If she skips lunch, or English class, she can pick back up on the schedule, because it’s immutable and set at a level greater than herself. This it has in common with Back to the Future I and II. There the structure of the dance forms a background on which Marty can play. In my own story, I have been trying to revisit a complex action scene multiple times. The whole scene — even the first time — folds out from the actions of the protagonist without any background structure, which makes altering that flow… complex.

In any case, in Before I Fall there is a also a very strongly structured arc, like, Groundhog Day, the protagonist has to learn a series of lessons from the failures of the first and subsequent trials. Much like a video game level, she gets to play it over and over again until she gets it right. This is very satisfying to read. Too bad real life doesn’t work like that.

The seven day structure also helps avoid the dreaded “reveal” problem. There is no giant structural reveal, the premise is setup in the first couple pages, and so the book does not suffer from the first half being better than the second. It races right on to the end. But there is an end, and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. Given the options, Oliver chose a pretty good one, and it does leave one with a deep sense of catharsis. So it was probably the right choice. Still the looming shadow over the entire affair left me with a deep sense of sadness not unlike that caused by reading The Time Traveler’s Wife (the excellent book, not the mediocre film).

For a review of Oliver’s second novel, Delirium, click here.

The Postman Always Rings Twice

Title: The Postman Always Rings Twice

Author: James M. Cain

Genre: Crime Noir

Length: 116 pages

Read: May 15-16, 2011

Summary: Taut.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

For my second novel I’ve been trying to adopt a sort of hardboiled style, even though it isn’t a crime or a noir. So I figured I go back to the beginning and read some of the classics.

This 1934 novella just breezes on by. The first half (act I) is like watching a train wreck unfold. I greedily devoured the setup. Seedy drifter, sexy unhappy wife, and loser older husband. Plus it’s a crime novel. You know things aren’t going to end up good. The style here is lean and mean. It feels fully modern, dated perhaps only by certain phrases and actually it’s utter bare bones quality, devoid of really deliberate voice. My only complaint here was that it’s so sparse on dialogue tags that I often got confused as to who said what and had to back up and count. That’s too few tags.

Not that it detracted much. So then mid book, the crime itself happens (not counting the aborted first attempt) and the gears shift a bit into legal territory. This middle section I found had a bit too much “tell.” It breezed along, but it reminded me of the second half of The Magician. Then we get to the third act. This was back more to the mater-a-fact what happens, but it did feel a little fast, perhaps resorting to a bit too much forced plotting.

Still, I enjoyed the book immensely, and it seems best as I can tell the blueprint for countless crime stories where greed/lust/whatever drives everyone to an inevitable bad end. Some great movie entries in this genre would be Body Heat, A Simple Plan, or the very recent The Square.

Another interesting thing about this story is not only could you set it in any era, but the exact text could pretty much serve from 1920 through to present day. The only difference now would be cell phones and better police investigatory techniques.