Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Well of Lost Plots (Book)

Murder by Minotaur. UltraWord. Mispeling Vyrus. Generics named ibb & obb. Footnoterphone. Plot Devices. The Scent of Cantaloupe. A Mindworm. The Union of Sad Loser Detectives. The Witches’ Prophesy. Jurisfiction.

I have not laughed so hard since I read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The Well of Lost Plots, the third book in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, is very funny. The book is set almost exclusively in the elaborate book-world that Fforde has created. Most of the humor centers on fiction and writing. As with the previous two books, Fforde includes just enough sentiment and seriousness to make the book work.

Briefly, The Well of Lost Plots continues where Lost in a Good Book left off. As part of the Character Exchange Program, Thursday Next has taken refugee—and maternity leave—in an unpublished novel. The book may soon be demolished and recycled. Thursday continues her Jurisfiction apprenticeship under Miss Havisham. Aornis has infected Thursday with a mindworm that makes her relive her worst memories yet forget her eradicated husband. In addition, Thursday has to solve a series of murders.

The Well of Lost Plots is a good book for those of us who secretly love trashy detective novels yet want to read something more intelligent. I admit that at times the book seemed sheer silliness, a series of gags strung together. The murder plot did not even begin until 150 pages into the book. I didn’t care; I was too busy laughing. On a semi-serious note, the book was a good refresher on creative writing and basic literature. When Fforde described the plot construction of a detective novel, I actually found myself thinking about all the detective series I had read earlier last year when I was on my mystery binge. The Thursday Next series is a nice balance to some of the longer, more intense science fiction I have been reading this year.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Books as Lifeline (Thoughts)

Years ago, after perhaps the most tragic event of my life, I found a job in a bookstore. I knew almost no one in the city in which I was living. I was emotionally numb, confused, sad, and angry with a God I wasn’t even sure existed. But I had my books, which I could buy at discount no less. The days that I either opened or closed the store and was by myself, I would down from the office perch and feel all the authors and all the stories. It was magical and nurturing. The books helped me survive.

Recently I have begun to seriously clean out my childhood home, which I also shared with my mother the last few years of her life. I never realized I could feel so emotionally raw and vulnerable. I found medical bills from my father, who died of cancer when I was a child. I found a letter my uncle wrote when my cousin was first institutionalized. I am revisiting tragedies, celebrations, parts of my life and my parents’ lives now ended.  My neighbor, trying to be helpful, told me just to keep a box of Kleenex beside me and keep on throwing things out. But I couldn’t cry. Instead I got stupid, overwhelmed, and plain physically ill. Then, I went to the library and took out Jasper Fforde’s The Well of Lost Plots and laughed so hard that I felt like a relatively whole person again. (My comments will come later on in the week when I finish the book. I am savoring every last belly laugh.)

During these past few weeks I have felt as though books have once again thrown me a lifeline. One night when I had incapacitating insomnia, I imagined what it would be like to have someone make me a nice cup of red bush tea, like the characters in Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. Not only was I comforted by my memories from reading the books, but I was also comforted by the fact that I live in a world where thousand and thousands of people want to read about such gentleness and caring. Images from Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book and Blackout/All Clear, Jo Walton’s Among Others, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series, Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, Sharon Shinn Troubled Waters and Clifford D. Simak’s Way Station have also brought me tremendous peace in the past few weeks. 

While I love a great adventure and a cleaver plot, relish a book where I learn something new, appreciate an innovative setting or a fresh way of conveying a story, I sometimes need books that can sustain me through difficult times. Novels can have the power to heal or to keep someone afloat until help arrives. Sometimes I wish there were rating scales for that: May Help Feel Better about the Human Race, Makes English Majors Laugh So Hard that They Forget Their World Is Falling Apart, Contains Beautiful Scenes that Can Be Replayed in Head When Surrounded by Something Really Unpleasant, Helps Feel Courageous and Able to Take on Any Foe.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Nova Swing (Book)

Rickshaws Driven By Annies. Prostitutes Called Monas. Tailors Who Alter Bodies. Nanotechnology. Illegal Artifacts. Accordions. Travel Diaries. Being New. Black and White Cats.

Once I started reading M. John Harrison’s Nova Swing, winner of the 2007 Clarke and Philip K. Dick Awards, I was convinced that I wouldn’t like it, yet I was motivated to continue reading out of curiosity. After finishing the book, I feel quizzical—Can a person feel a question mark in their mind like they feel a tiny gas bubble in their gut?— The book is definitely surreal. I know that there are parts of the book that I will think about for a long time (see quotes at the end of the blog). On the other hand, I am not sure how to neatly describe the book and I am certainly not sure that I would recommend it. The book is what I sometimes describe as experiential, in that it requires the reader to vividly imagine the setting and what is taking place. This experience is perhaps more important than the plot.

Briefly, Vic Serotonin describes himself as a travel guide to the Saudade event site, which is never neatly defined in the book. It is like a dangerous, living dreamscape. At the beginning of the story, Vic takes a woman into the site and loses her. Later on, she desperately wants Vic to take her back into the site. Vic also illegally sells an artifact from the site. The artifact physically bonds with the courier and begins to turn his body into something strange. Later, it does something similar to the crime boss who procured the artifact from Vic. Another major character is Len Aschemann, a detective who is obsessed with his dead wife. At first he is wants to catch Vic doing something grossly illegal. Later he wants Vic to take him into the site. Len is accompanied by an assistant, who is never given a name despite her importance in parts of the plot. There are assorted other side plots.

Nova Swing is the Sequel to Light, which I did not read. Based on what I have read on the internet, I am not sure it mattered. I think books like Nova Swing are an acquired taste. Part of me wants to bury my head in traditional books and never come out again. Part of me is glad that I had this experience.

I found two beautiful quotes amongst all the surrealism:
Not many people get two chances to be new.
That was how life went. A single moment seemed to extend forever, then suddenly you were snapped out of it. The forward motion of time stretched whatever rubbery glue-like substance had fixed you there until it failed catastrophically. You weren’t the person you were before you were trapped; you weren’t the person you were while you were trapped: the merciless thing about it, Liv discovered, was that you weren’t someone entirely different either.

The Valley of Fear (Book)

An Encrypted Message. A Murder. A Brand on a Wrist. A Moat. A Missing Dumb-bell. A Missing Wedding Ring. An Old Secret. An Abandoned Bicycle. The Order of Freemen. The Pinkertons.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Valley of Fear was first published in book form in 1915 and is his last Sherlock Holmes novel. Like A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four, it has two main parts: the Sherlock Holmes mystery and the backstory that describes the motive for the murder. The Sherlock Holmes section was fun to read because it contains so many details that may or may not be relevant and the story has a nice twist. The backstory is almost equally interesting, and part of me likes it because it is such a guy’s story.

Briefly, Sherlock Holmes receives an encrypted message. Shortly after he deciphers it, a detective comes to his door with news of a murder, confirming what was in the note. The detective explain that there is something strange about the murder, and as Holmes and Watson investigate, it gets stranger still. The backstory takes place in America and involves what I would describe as a corrupt labor union.

After The Hounds of the Baskervilles, The Valley of Fear is a bit of a let down, although it is still an interesting story. Most of the Sherlock Holmes saga is told in the 56 short stories of the series. I feel that I have just begun to catch a glimpse of the character of Holmes.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Hound of the Baskervilles (Mystery Book)

One of Sherlock Holmes’s defects —if, indeed, one may call it a defect—was that he was exceedingly loath to communicate his full plans to any other person until the instant of their fulfillment. Partly it came no doubt from his own masterful nature, which loved to dominate and surprise those who were around him. Partly also from his professional caution, which urged him never to take chances.
A Suspicious Death. A Mysterious Warning. A Terrifying Legend. Two Missing Boots. An Escaped Convict. An Inheritance. Hounds from Hades. A Deadly Moor. A Burgeoning Love.

I find that writing anything about The Hound of the Baskervilles, billed as the greatest mystery ever written, is a bit intimidating. My initial reaction to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s masterpiece, which was first published in book form in 1902, is that it is so much like a modern novel, unlike the other three novels, in which Doyle wrote a long backstory after the murderer is known. This novel builds to a terrifying conclusion. It includes multiple suspects and misdirection. Doyle plays on the reader’s fear of the supernatural and creates a terrifying setting, the moor that can swallow up a whole pony. The story is dominated by Watson, who is a much more relatable character than the aloof Sherlock Holmes. I am left wondering how Doyle went from writing a very good stories to writing a brilliant story.

When I read a classic or a novel that has received almost all glowing reviews, I find that looking at what the book stirs up in me is almost as interesting as the book itself. With The Hound of the Baskervilles, I can imagine Dr. Watson using his umbrella as a sort of magic wand to open my eyes to inspiration. I can hone my observational skills when I read other novels. I can also think more like an author when I look at the world around me, looking for the seeds of a plot twist, a setting, or a new legend.

Friday, July 15, 2011

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (Book)

A Time Machine Repairman. Present Indefinite. A Computer Program with Low Self-Esteem. Universe 31. A Boy and His Dad. Regret. A Science Fictional World. Grammar. Time Loops. The Chromo-adventurer’s Survival Kit. Boxes Within Boxes. Buddhas. Causal Loops. Chromodiegetic Experiments.

A nominee for the 2011 Campbell award, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu is the type of novel that pushes the boundaries of what we normally think of as a story. We —well, at least I—normally think of novels in terms of threads: woven, intertwined, looping back, loosely gathered, etc. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is more of a collage, with layers. One of those layers consists of a story about a boy and his dad trying to build a time machine. An overlapping layer is the grown boy, now a time machine repairman, shooting his future self and then getting caught in a time loop. Some of the layers are incredibly literal and sensate. Other layers are mostly metaphor. Humor is interspersed with deep psychological insight. At times the novel reminds me of a prose poem.

The novel works for me. The story feels familiar; I have lived some of those moments. The novel has expanded my way of thinking about how to construct a novel. As much as I adore The Dervish House, I wish that How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe had won the Campbell award simply so that more people would be encouraged to read it. I am a firm believer that we need to continue to expand the way we think and the way we express ideas.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Sign of Four (Mystery Book)

How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” [Holmes to Watson]
Pearls. Watson in Love. A Murder. A Secret Pact. Stolen Treasure. Blow Darts. A Missing Boat.

The Sign of Four, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s second Sherlock Holmes novel, was originally published in 1890 and has had numerous film adaptations. Like A Study in Scarlet, this is a masterfully told story. When I originally began to read the Holmes novels, I thought that Holmes would take center stage throughout each story, but in fact the backstories, which explain the motives for the murders, are almost as well-developed and interesting.

Briefly, a pretty young thing, Miss Mary Morstan, asks Holmes and Watson for help. Ten years earlier, her estranged father, who was trying to reestablish contact with her, had unexplainably disappeared. In Mary’s keepsakes from him there is a cryptic reference to a sign of four. After the father’s close friend passes away, Mary begins to receive pearls, one each year. As the story begins, Mary has received a letter from an unknown man, who wants to meet with her in order to right a wrong that has been done her. Holmes and Watson accompany her to the meeting. When the group goes on to meet with the man’s twin brother, they find that he has been murdered. Another message referring to the sign of four is left near the body. Who murdered the brother and why? What is the sign of four and what does it have to do with the murder?

After reading A Study in Scarlet, I was actually less impressed with The Sign of Four, although it is still a good book. This morning, after finishing the book last night, I thought to myself, “I am not sure I would want to use this book with young children.” It starts off with Holmes taking drugs because he is bored and continues on with some fairly pronounced racism. —Mind you, In a Study in Scarlet, Holmes tests a possible poison on a local dog—I know I know, Doyle is a product of his times, and a good English teacher would use these as teaching points.

Off to some science fiction books that I just took out from the local library.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Study in Scarlet (Mystery Book & Thoughts)

I must thank you [Watson] for it all. I might not have gone but for you, and so missed the finest study I ever came across: a study in scarlet, eh? Why shouldn’t we use a little art jargon. There’s a scarlet thread of murder through the colorless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.
In solving a problem of this sort [unraveling the murder], the grand thing is to be able to reason backwards…There are few people…who, if you told them a result, would be able to evolve from their own consciousness what the steps were that led to the result.
“You are going to read Sherlock Homes.” I heard the thoughts in my head as loud as I heard that I was going to read the Hugo winners over a year ago. I have no idea whether this idea is from my subconscious, my intuition, or some literary divine guidance [or the high humidity and insomnia making my synapses fire oddly]. All I know is that the thought has been very, very insistent. I don’t remember reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. My neighbor-sister, who is two years older than I am, insists that we had to have read it in school. I admit that we probably read some short stories, but I don’t remember the novels: A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, The Hounds of the Baskervilles, and The Valley of Fear. So, I begin a four novel mini-adventure, with at least five mysteries to solve: the mystery in each book and the mystery of why I feel so driven to read them.

Einstein talked about standing on the shoulders of the scientist that came before him. Many contemporary mystery and some science fiction writers stand on the shoulders of Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes series. As I was reading A Study in Scarlet, I had flashes of the many detective TV shows that I have watched over the years, particularly Monk who shares Holmes's gift of observation. After reading how Holmes uses “young scoundrels” to help him research his case, I was reminded of how the detectives in Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May series –one of my favorite series of any genre– often use various unsavory individuals to help them solve a case. In thinking about this, I am reminded of how a skilled winemaker can describe the grapes used in a wine that he has tasted for the first time. I am sure that an astute reader can identify the influences of a particular author.

In A Study in Scarlet, originally published in 1887, Watson first meets Holmes. Both men are looking for a roommate. Watson originally is derisive of the concepts on which Holmes builds his discipline. After Holmes takes Watson on a case, his opinion quickly changes and he becomes one of Holmes's biggest fans.

Very briefly, Holmes is called in by detectives to help them solve a case. The body of a man is found in an empty house. The body does not appear to have any signs of trauma and any obvious cause of death, but there is blood on the scene. On the wall are the red letters RACHE. As the story progresses, the detectives first choose the wrong suspects, and, of course, Holmes finds the killer.

The novel has two parts. At the end of Part One, Holmes identifies the killer. At first, Part Two appeared to be a totally unrelated story about a man and a little girl who are dying in the desert and rescued by Mormons. I wondered if the book actually was two separate stories. Finally, I realized that this was the backstory that explains the motive for the murder(s). If A Study in Scarlet were written today, I would expect the author to alternate the storylines until they came together. Even when I thought there were two separate plots, I was very impressed by Doyle’s ability to tell a good story.

I am feeling a vague sense of reverence while I read these classic novels. I have a 900 page, annotated compilation of the four books out from the library, adding to the mystique. I adore Holmes power of observation and his ability to “reason backwards.”

Monday, July 11, 2011

Lost in a Good Book (Book)

Coincidences. Prose Resource Operatives. Eradication. Pink Goo. Armageddon. Neanderthals. Great Expectations. Cardenio. Mammoth Migration. Jurisfiction. Nanomachines.

Reading the Thursday Next novels by Jasper Fforde should be listed alongside running and acupuncture for its ability to produce endorphins. I find myself laughing aloud, smiling, and basically in a very good mood. The second book in the series, Lost in a Good Book, won the 2004 Independent Mystery Book Seller’s Dily Award. Like The Eyre Affair, it is an alternate history, fantasy mystery. The novel is funny, clever, and somewhat intellectual.

Lost in a Good Book continues where The Eyre Affair left off. Thursday Next is a celebrity, after she stopped the evil Hades and accidentally rewrote the ending to Jane Eyre. She is now trying to avoid the publicity and settle into married life with her husband, Landen. Early in the story, Thursday, as part of her responsibilities as a literary detective, is called in to examine a possible manuscript of Shakespeare’s Cardenio. Also, Thursday happily discovers she is expecting. Unfortunately, Thursday begins to have a string of bad luck, her fugitive, time-traveling father informs her that all living things are about to be turned into pink goo, and the evil Goliath Corporation eradicates Landen from Thursday’s time-line as a way to blackmail her into retrieving the evil Jack Schitt from “The Raven”. Because Uncle Mycroft’s Prose Portal has been destroyed, Thursday must find an alternate route to enter literature, and she becomes an apprentice to the book-traveling Miss Havisham. Will Thursday save the world and be reunited with Landen? Who is responsible for all of Thursday’s bad luck? With Landen eradicated, who is the father of Thursday’s baby?

I have a feeling that readers either love the Thursday Next novels or can’t relate to them. So far, I am a huge fan. Lost in a Good Book ends with a bit of a cliff hanger, and I am definitely looking forward to reading the next Thursday Next book.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Kraken (Book)

A Kraken. The Fundamentalist and Sect Related Crime Unit. Cults. Magic. Londonmancers. A Tattoo. Union of Magicked Assistants. Shabti. Familiars. Ink. Angels of Memory. Eschatological Terror. A Phaser. Apocalypses. Chaos Nazis. The Sea. Katachronophlogistan.

China Mieville’s Kraken, the 2011 Locus Fantasy Award Winner, is an urban fantasy populated with ingenious characters. In my opinion, they are the reason to read the book. Kraken is partly a mystery, and the ending is intellectually satisfying. Because this is only the second book that I have read by Mieville—I read The City and the City—I was not sure if this book was representative of his style. He uses the “f” word more than any book I have read in recent memory, but at the same time his vocabulary is robust. This is an intelligent, action-filled, well-written book.

Briefly, a kraken is unexplainably stolen from the British Museum of Natural History. The theft is discovered by Billy Harrow, who had originally been responsible for preserving the kraken. Who stole the kraken and how? Why did they do it? How does the theft tie in with an apocalypse by fire? As the story progresses, Billy goes from a quasi-victim to a heroic figure. Also prominent in the plot are Kath Collingswood, a sort of urban-witch detective, and Marge, the girlfriend of Billy’s best friend Leon. The plot is filled with various cults and magical characters.

Kraken is the type of book that makes me grow as a blogger as I try to describe my experience as a reader. The book is on the side of dark, yet not depressing or frightening. Rather than finding the book blatantly funny, my brain tended to register this is really cool and quirky. While I wasn’t emotionally attached to the characters, I was intellectually invested in them. I did have brief moments when I had had enough of all the strangeness and wanted to get on with the plot. This morning, after finishing the book late last night, I still am amazed by how clever the book is.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Feed (Book)

Blogging. Presidential Campaigns. Ratings. Zombies. The Bond Between Sibling. Conspiracies. Viral Amplification. Betrayal.

I confess that when I found out that a zombie book was one of the nominees for the Hugo Award, I put off reading it. I was almost to the point of saying that I would only read it if it actually won the Hugo Award. I am now glad that I didn’t wait. Feed by Seanan McGuire, written under the pen name Mira Grant, is a really good story. The explanation of the Zombies is believable. The characters are likeable. The plot is fast moving. The book is well written. And yes, I was on the verge of tears at some points.

Briefly, the story takes place in 2039/40 during the presidential elections. Georgia and Shaun, adopted siblings, are bloggers who have been chosen to be embedded in Senator Ryman’s campaign for president. The siblings and their colleagues have lots of high tech gadgets, including cameras and microphones. Their world is different from ours. Since 2014 everyone has had to deal with the threat of the Kellis-Amberlee virus, which causes large mammals to reanimate after they die, an adaptation that helps the virus to spread. In order to keep the living safe, people constantly have their blood checked for viral amplification. At first Georgia and Sean are focused on blog ratings. As the story progresses, there are unexplained accidents, which might be acts of terrorism. Will the bloggers risk their lives to uncover the truth? Most of the story is told from the first person point of view, which offers an interesting twist. (When I described the book to my neighbor, she told me it sounded like epidemic fiction, which I have since learned is a whole sub-genre.)

I am not about to start reading more zombie books, but I do think that Feed is a worthy contender for the 2011 Hugo Awards. I have now completed reading all the 2011 Hugo Award novel nominees. The Dervish House is still my favorite. Feed is in my tie for second place.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Hallowed Hunt (Book)

A Wolf. Murder. Spirit Possession. A Panther. Sorcerers. Geases. Shaman. A Dying King. Warriors Dead Four Centuries. A Polar Bear.

The Hallowed Hunt is the third—and so far last—book in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion Series and was nominated for the 2006 Locus Fantasy Award. I enjoyed the original plot, interesting characters, and fresh world, although the story was a bit of a letdown after Paladin of Souls. At times, I felt tangled up in the details of the story’s magic. I also didn’t find anything ponderable, which I often do with Bujold’s books.

Briefly, Lord Ingrey, who has been possessed by a wolf spirit every since his father performed a botched ritual, is sent to transport the body of the murdered Prince Boleso and return the murderer, Lady Ijada. We quickly find out that Lady Ijada murdered Boleso not only to preserve her virtue but also to prevent dark magic from being performed. As the story unfolds, we learn that the threads of the murder and the spirit possession are intertwined.

The Hallowed Hunt can be fairly easily understood without reading the other books in the series. The novel takes place in the same world as the other books and continues to include the five god religion but does not continue the storylines.