Sunday, February 01, 2009

Books read in January

This seems to be an easier way of doing things than occasionally blogging about every fifth book I read and then trying to remember them all at the end of the year. Of course, it does depend on me blogging at least once a month, and - with any luck - this year's blogging (and possibly reading) will be completely disrupted by us moving out to New Zealand, so we'll just have to see how it goes.

The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, Stephen Hunt
Christmas book #1, pretty much straight out of the wrapping paper and into my eyes. More energetic remixed adventure fiction from the author of The Court of the Air. In this one, two second-tier characters from Court take centre stage and lead an expedition into the heart of deepest, darkest Liongeli to find the lost city of Camlantis. As well as the dinosaurs that are pretty much expected in this sort of story, they have to deal with the intelligent plant gestalt that encompasses the Liongelian jungle and assimilates any animals it can get its tendrils on, and a tribe of wild cannibal steammen. Most chucklesome scene is probably the moment near the end when a portly male character in late middle age takes on a shape-shifting Scarlet Pimpernel in a martial arts scrap and wins. A good read all round.

Two (of seven) chapters of Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny
Widely acclaimed science fiction classic. The first generation of human colonists on an alien world hoard the cloning and mind-transfer technology that allows them to live as-good-as-forever and set themselves up as rulers over the following generations. They base their new identities on the gods of the Hindu pantheon and engineer divine powers for themselves. One of them, Sam, starts to find this objectionable and tries to foment a revolution, using the principles of Buddhism as a political weapon and setting himself up as the (false) Buddha. There's nothing wrong with this book but somehow it just hasn't grabbed me. However, it's still on the shelf and may yet make a reappearance.

A Christmas Carol, words by Dickens, pictures by Mike Collins, published by Classical Comics
Christmas book #2. Yes, the company that wants to make classic literature more accessible to schoolkids has recently published this seasonal treat. Mike Collins mentioned his part in this at Armadacon in Plymouth last November, and it seemed a natural addition to the Christmas list. I think I've found Statler and Waldorf in the crowd of ghosts floating through the Victorian sky, but damned if I can see the other Muppets. Anyway, here's a faithful adaptation (Muppet cameos notwithstanding) of Dickens' tale, with some lovely artwork, particularly the characters, and a couple of informative essays at the back. A nice complement to the original book.

Ex Machina vol. 7, Brian K Vaughan
Christmas book #3. The continuing comic book adventures of Mitchell Hundred, formerly DIY superhero the Great Machine and now mayor of New York. Some Manchurian-Candidate-esque intrigue as Mayor Hundred accepts an invitation to visit the Pope, but overall this volume just seems to be marking time. The whole idea of the mayor of New York being personally invited to fly to Rome and talk to the Pope seems a little contrived, and any chance of digging into the religious/philosophical aspects of Hundred's quasi-divine ability to talk to machines is overrun by a perfunctory action plot. Outside of that, not much happens. The art style is also starting to bother me slightly - the illustrator is one of those who likes to have people model for him, which means nice realistic facial expressions, but quite often the expressions and gestures exhibited by the characters don't match closely enough with what they're saying. It can jar. Still looking forward to future volumes, though, in the expectation that it'll pick up again.

Fables vol. 11, Bill Willingham
Christmas book #4. Not the end of the series, but for my purposes it'll do as a leaving point. The story of fairytale characters in exile in an American suburb, trying to reclaim their old lands from a ruthless Emperor, has run its course. There's still scope for more, and more is promised, but I like stories to have endings and don't see why I should exempt comic books from that. Vol 10 had more of the impact and emotional weight of an ending, but here the loose ends are tied up and the Emperor is actually toppled. There's never really any doubt that he will be, but what the story lacks in complexity it makes up for in charm. There's something to be said for seeing the Big Bad Wolf leading a military assault into a magical kingdom via a giant beanstalk.

Memoirs of a Master Forger, "William Heaney"
Christmas book #5. Anyone who wants to know who the author of this novel really is can easily find out online. I'm still not sure whether they've used a pseudonym purely in keeping with the book's theme of forgery, purely as a ploy to recapture that "debut novel" buzz by deception, or a bit of both. William Heaney - the protagonist - is a civil servant with an estranged wife and three kids who, in his spare time, writes poetry that his gay ethnic friend can use to scam lottery funding, and fences antique first editions that his talented but troubled geezer friend forges. He does all this to raise funds for a homeless drop-in centre that his civil service colleagues keep trying to close down. He can also see demons, which has caused him a lot of trouble in the past and is about to cause him still more. Anyone who's read this author's work before but still doesn't know that he wrote this one should at least recognise the style. It's good - I'd say better than his last one, but not the one before.

Vermilion Sands, JG Ballard
A couple of years ago I got hold of a load of Ballard anthologies - well, he is one of the big SF authors - and last summer I tried to read them all in one continuous chain. There does, however, come a saturation point. This is the last of the Ballard anthologies. I've found that his short stories, with perhaps a few exceptions, fall into one of two broad categories - the imaginative stuff, and what I affectionately think of as post-colonial wank. The good news is that one or other category will generally dominate an anthology, so it's not been too hard to separate out the ones I want to keep and the ones I don't. This collection, all set around the future chic resort of Vermilion Sands, is one to keep. It has a strong running theme of self-creating art forms - the musical sculptures that grow wild in the sands, the photoreactive canvasses that paint themselves, the poetry machines that churn out verse on demand. There is some regularity (and hence predictability) to the stories - protagonist (in more than one case, a pilot with the surname Parker, but not the same one each time - the flying Parkers tend to pop up a bit in Ballard's shorts, so to speak) meets an aloof high society woman with pale skin and blond hair and an interest in the art form he practises, they start an affair but it ends badly, he subsequently returns to the scene of the affair to try to relive the old times. Still 'n' all, there are some good strong ideas in here.

The first half of Air, Geoff Ryman
Which I'm still reading, so thoughts can follow in the February round-up.

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