Sunday, July 21, 2013

Books for May/June

The NZ national SF convention has been and gone, the Sir Julius Vogel Awards have been presented.  Despite my best efforts, I didn't manage to get all the nominated works read ahead of time, although that's more down to not being able to lay my hands on them quickly enough than to lack of time on my part.  Readers can clearly see below that I managed to read plenty of other books during May and June.

So basically the key learning for future years is that I needn't expect to be able to read the entire shortlist before voting, and I may as well allow myself to be led by other people's recommendations, by what's available to me at the time, and by my own desire to read other stuff.

To my continuing surprise, the Best Novel award went to what I'd pegged as the worst of the six nominees.  On the other hand, just look at who they gave the Best Fan Writing award to - honestly, they'll let anyone in these days.  Here endeth the self-promotion.

For reasons of brevity, the list below doesn't include SJV nominees that I started but gave up on, of which there were at least three.  For reasons of simplicity, I've just lumped both months' books in together, more or less in order of reading, and then split the SJV books out and put them all up front.


Growing Disenchantments, KD Berry
Comic fantasy, off-the-shelf material but competently used.  Various familiar character types try to get their hands on a painting of a powerful old wizard; the painting, of course, has its own plans.  Unusual inclusion of a time-travelling character, although it's explained in context.  Of the Best Novel shortlistees, I would have said this ought to rank somewhere in the middle.

Don't Be a Hero, Chris Strange
Superhero story set in a world where Auckland was devastated by a nuclear bomb during the tail end of superpowered World War II.  The wealthy live in shiny, futuristic Neo-Auckland, while NZ's superheroes, aggressively regulated by international accords, inhabit the decrepit slums of the old city.  Two of the good 'uns struggle in spite of this to save NZ from the machinations of a mysterious new villain.  This was a fantastic story, great characters, author quite willing to kill off favourites if the story required it, good writing.  One tiny niggling problematic area if I really wanted to be picky, around the use of a transvestite villain character, but it's arguable.  Moreover, this was the only Best Novel nominee that actually related to NZ in any way at all - granted, that's not a requirement for the SJVs, but it's just nice to see.  I really thought this one was head and shoulders above the other nominees, but the voting public at large disagreed.

The Enchanted Flute, James Norcliffe
Nominated in the Best Youth Novel category.  Nominally set in NZ, but could as easily have been written/set in the UK.  Talented girl from not very wealthy family finds a cheap flute in a pawn shop, only to discover that it magically possesses her fingers and will only allow her to play one tune - Debussy's "Syrinx".  (A clue, a clue!)  Despite lack of real connection between turn-of-the-20th-century French composer and ancient Graeco-Roman myth, the heroine soon finds herself transported to Fantasyland and reliving the story of Pan and Syrinx, herself cast in the role that doesn't come with horns or goat feet.  Good modern youth fantasy, with some surprises.


Celestial Battle, Book One: Dark Serpent, Kylie Chan
Review book, and here's the review.  I'm not entirely sure why I asked for this book - it looked kind of interesting in synopsis, but I really should have clocked the warning signs.  This is absolutely, positively the last time I put myself in the position of reviewing a genre-flavoured romantic doorstop written by/for excitable middle-aged women.

The Spiral Labyrinth, Matthew Hughes
Hespira, Matthew Hughes
Books 2 and 3 in the series that began with Majestrum.  Henghis Hapthorn, rational science detective in a universe tilting towards the resurgence of magic, finds himself (and his other self) dealing with megalomaniacal super-sorcerous fungus and a mysterious amnesiac woman.  Once again, tip-top stuff.

Dial H, vol 1: Into You, China Mieville & Mateus Santolouco
So DC have streamlined their monthly output to a sleek dozen or so different flavours of Superman, ditto Batman, half as much Justice League and a handful of other titles.  As part of this spring clean, they've got China Mieville in to write (and Mateus Santolouco to draw) a relaunch of freaky '60s title Dial H for Hero.  This is probably the smartest thing they've done in years; it's kind of a shame they couldn't have taken a punt on a few other unusual writer/title combos while they were about it.  I suppose the world needs its multiple monthly Superman titles, tsk.  Being the politically minded chap he is, Mieville isn't content merely to play with the surreal trappings of the premise - magic dial allows its bearer to temporarily become a superhero, but with no foreknowledge of what the hero's identity/powers will be - but wants to explore the possibilities and ask probing questions.  Does the male protagonist actually need the dial to be a hero?  Is it a big deal if he dials up a female super-identity?  Can he, should he go out and save the day if his super-identity is offensive (example used: grotesquely stereotyped Red Indian hero that actually appeared in the '60s comic)?  Just where do those identities come from?  New favourite comic book title.

Scud the Disposable Assassin: The Whole Shebang, Rob Schrab
Finally, I get to read the rest of the Scud story!  Surreal, fast-paced ("hyperkinetic" is the word usually used) indie comic about a vending machine robot assassin that spots the "will explode after killing target" disclaimer on his back in a mirror and decides to only maim his target, survive and go freelance.  Ran for many, many years with long gaps in publication, and for various reasons I only ever managed to get hold of collected vols 2 and 3 - roughly the middle part of the story.  For that reason I'd previously only been exposed to the wonderful surrealism of Scud, and not the highly problematic gender attitudes that emerge in later issues.  (Schrab went through two breakups during the course of working on the series, which undoubtedly fed through into the story.)  The back end of the book collects four more recent issues that wrap everything up, perhaps a bit too neatly.  I'm glad to have read it all at last, but I'm not sure if I'm better off than I was before.

Diversifications, James Lovegrove
Shelve this alongside Jeff Noon's latest.  Lovegrove is another author whose earlier books I loved - he's got a good eye for wit and wordplay - but where Noon went underground for a decade between books, Lovegrove diverted his efforts to writing serial genre fantasies for younger readers.  Here, for older readers, is a collection of short stories that spans pretty much his entire career - there ought to be more stuff in here that I like, and yet I'm underwhelmed.  It's possible that all the best stories went into Imagined Slights, leaving the second best for this volume.  Or I could just be getting prematurely old and grumpy.

The String Diaries, Stephen Lloyd Jones
Review book.  Short version: I liked it.  A well-crafted character-driven horror story.

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