Saturday, April 09, 2011

Book catch-up: December

Well, it's been a few months since I blogged, and the reasons for this are many and predictable: work, other interests, things 'n' stuff, you know. With a new series of Doctor Who on the way, now looks like a good time to get those backlogged book blogs out of the way.

I've actually been keeping track of my reading since November and writing the occasional paragraph here and there, so this shouldn't be as hard a job as it might seem. Anyway, here's December's books.

City of the Snakes, Darren Shan
Waaaaay, way back in 1999, Orion Books published Ayuamarca: Procession of the Dead by Darren O'Shaughnessy. This was one of the last books in the 1990s wave of city-centred fantasy novels that I've previously mentioned in this blog, and like its forebears it was under-promoted and quite probably not printed in great quantities to start with. It was subtitled as The City Book 1, implying further commitment on the publisher's part. Hell's Horizon, aka The City Book 2 followed a year later, but then, silence. And this was a shame. The two books - actually set within the exact same time period - formed a closely twined and satisfying duo, but more from the author if not in the series would have been nice.
The year after that, in 2001, Pan published China Mieville's Perdido Street Station, and woops, suddenly fantasy with an urban flavour was marketable. But by then O'Shaughnessy was concentrating on an extremely popular series of children's horror stories he'd started writing under the name Darren Shan around the same time that Ayuamarca came out. He's only recently used that popularity to relaunch The City Trilogy, as it now is, with City of the Snakes the newly published third volume in the series.
It's set several years after the first two books, with the heroes of both struggling to maintain the public personae they've assumed. Capac Raimi, the immortal successor to the Cardinal, was created to rule the City and enjoys doing so, but is losing control over the City's criminal gangs. He's also threatened by the blind villac priests who created him, but whom he's been working to overthrow. Al Jeery, former security guard, has taken on the persona of his father, legendary serial killer Paucar Wami, in an attempt to catch the man who ruined his life in Book 2. This is something he's done largely unwillingly, but he finds it increasingly difficult not to act the part. The apparent reappearance in the City of the real Paucar Wami heralds big problems for Capac and Al.
There's quite a difference between the feel of this book and my memory of the first two, which could be down to my memory or to a natural shift in Shan's writing style in the intervening decade. It'd be interesting to get hold of the re-released, re-edited first two volumes and compare them to the two I've got just to see how much they've been changed, if I only had the time. Ayuamarca and Hell's Horizon never really felt (at the time, anyway) as if they were leading towards a final third volume, and it's a bit weird to now read a book that ties everything up when it didn't previously seem to need tying up. It's a bit weird to read a book that picks up the stories of two moody, atmospheric, almost nightmarish books and turns them into a dark but rather more straightforward thriller with a proper resolution. (Again, could be my memory playing tricks.) Still not entirely sure how I feel about this book, but I wouldn't deny that it was an entertaining read.

Three Men in a Boat/Three Men on the Bummel, Jerome K Jerome
Tom Selleck, Steve Gutenberg (the famous printer) and Him Off Cheers find a boat left outside the flat they share, and hilarity ensues. Or is that Three Weddings and a Bummel that I'm thinking of?

To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis
And this is what spurred me on to read Three Men in a Boat - recommended to me by a couple of SF fan friends, it's a whimsical time travel romance that claims (through its title, at least) to have been inspired by Jerome's book. In the event, the three men (to say nothing of the dog) make a brief cameo appearance, but the stories intertwine no further. In fact To Say Nothing of the Dog owes far more to the detective novels of Dorothy L Sayers. So my preparatory reading was wasted with no sly Jerome references to pick up on; but I am still extremely glad to have read Three Men in a Boat, a fantastic shaggy dog story and a new personal favourite.
Willis' book starts with the narrator and his colleagues on a scouting mission to Coventry Cathedral the day after the bombing. Oxford University is the centre of time travel research in 2057, but the rich American who's funding the research is obsessed with restoring Coventry Cathedral to its pre-Blitz state, and uses her influence as purse-string-holder - and her Bracknellian personality - to commandeer the facilities and staff for her own purposes. The narrator is suffering from time lag from having been sent on too many missions in quick succession, and is packed off to the Victorian era to recuperate. Here he blunders through the middle of a colleague's mission, and the two of them spend the rest of the book trying to force history back onto its expected course while in pursuit of a crucial and uniquely ugly piece of statuary.
It's a light and jolly read, with an apparently diffuse plot that pulls neatly together in the final chapters. The author has one odd stylistic quirk - possibly only applicable to this story, I wouldn't know - that involves repeating phrases and moments throughout. Slightly jarring at times, but not damaging. All in all it's a thoroughly good book.

Steampunk, ed Ann & Jeff Vandermeer
An anthology of about a dozen pieces of moderate length that the editors class as steampunk. The most common format for the sub-genre is a pulp adventure story with a counter-cultural protagonist using modern (or even futuristic) technology in a 19th century setting - brass fittings and steam power generally considered a must. As a showcase for steampunk, the content of this volume is somewhat broader, including stories set in industrialised fantasy worlds and tales of anachronistic technology in ages other than the Victorian. It also includes a couple of rather skeletal essays that offer overviews of steampunk in pop culture and in comics.
Stand-out stories for me included Mary Gentle's "A Sun in the Attic", a Renaissance-esque fantasyland piece in which a tradition-bound city council tries to suppress the invention of the refraction telescope; Molly Brown's "The Selene Gardening Society", a charming piece in which the women of a small American town devise an ingenious plan to solve the town's waste disposal problems and make the Moon a desirable property at the same time; and Ted Chiang's "Seventy-Two Letters", a story that takes the once popular theory of preformation (the idea that all future generations of a species exist preformed inside the sperm cell) and a parallel Industrial Revolution based around golems, and spins off into a wildly imaginative apocalyptic tale. In fact, Chiang's story was far and away my favourite of the lot, and I didn't waste any time borrowing an anthology of Chiang's short stories from a friend - see January's book review.

Yellow Blue Tibia, Adam Roberts
His most-recent-but-one novel. The narrator is a Soviet SF writer who is brought together with a handful of other writers in secret and told by Stalin to plan out the story of an imminent alien invasion. The idea is that, following America's inevitable collapse, the Communist states will need a new enemy to unite against. The plan is drawn up but it goes no further - then, in 1986, the narrator starts to see Stalin's secret alien invasion story come true.
I found this a pretty similar experience to reading Roberts' other novels: great ideas, great prose, great story, then about three quarters of the way through one of the tyres on the narrative bursts but it generally makes it home on three tyres and burnt rubber, and I tend in hindsight to overlook the blow-out in view of the overall qualities of the book. This book has a bigger blow-out than most and some additional flaws - flaws in the peripheral material of the story rather than in the core plot, but sufficiently large and many to drag the book down. I still enjoyed it a lot, but I have to acknowledge the shortcomings.
For example: one major character consistently refers to the narrator as "Konsty", which is not the Russian familiar form of "Konstantin"; several characters are given neurological conditions that are completely irrelevant to the story, for no obvious reason except to add surface interest; one of them supposedly has Asperger's Syndrome several years before Dr Asperger first identified it, and his symptoms are really OCD with some Asperger's on the side; and the narrator's American love interest's obesity is really, seriously over-laboured in the final quarter, especially the section where she survives a potentially lethal stab wound by virtue of being so god-damned fat, which might not go down at all well with some readers.
But that's pretty much it. On a positive note, Roberts does a very good job of imitating the characteristic dry Russian wit - for the most part, this felt like it could plausibly have been translated from a Russian original, but I suspect Roberts has got that from reading some actual Russian books in English translation, an obvious and easy way to get that particular prose flavour. I also don't see any glaring problems in his portrayal of Soviet Russian culture in general. By and large, it's a fine book, let down by the final quarter.

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