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Move over Neil Gaiman…Here Comes China Miéville November 29, 2010

Posted by pupfiction in Book Reviews, Of Interest, reading.
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If you’re like Dataduchess and me, you often wonder what all the hullabaloo surrounding Neil Gaiman is about. I liked Coraline (graphic novel version) and The Graveyard Book (both more than Dataduchess), but still didn’t see what the BIG DEAL was about. Similarly, American Gods left me with the feeling that Gaiman was reaching for something that he never quite grasped. While I do think his literature is something to be read and lauded as truly unique, I don’t think he deserves the numerous awards that have been bestowed upon him.

But this post isn’t about Neil Gaiman. It’s about an author who reminds me of him, but who excels exactly where Gaiman starts to flounder, an author similarly bestowed (but more deservingly) with numerous literary awards, an author dabbling in both Young Adult and Adult fantasy – China Miéville. While Miéville distinguishes himself from many of his colleagues by considering his writing “weird fiction”, Wikipedia’s definition of the genre sounds like an exact description of Gaiman’s writing as well: “weird tales often blend the supernatural, mythical, and even scientific.” So what impressed me so much with Miéville besides the fact that he looks like a pirate while actually being a Dungeons and Dragons-playing British socialist? Two books: The City & the City and Un Lun Dun.

At first, I was wary about The City & the City. When my library emailed me that it had arrived I had forgotten why I had requested this detective novel. Usually, in the heat of the moment, I request a book after seeing some blogging buzz or write-up in American Libraries, or its high-placement on some inconsequential “Top Ten” list that I believe reflects my highly nuanced taste. But I digress. The detective story on which the entire plot revolves plays second fiddle to the setting – two cities (Besźel and Ul Qoma) that co-exist “grosstopically” and the way that the citizens of the two cities run their lives so as not to wrongly enter into the other city. And by co-exist, I mean just that – the two cities are so interspersed that often houses next-door to each other are in the other city. Both cities’ denizens distinguish each other as fellow citizens by demeanor and dress. They learn to survive by “unseeing” the people and places in the other city. Should citizens of Besźel want to visit Ul Qoma (or vice-versa), they may, but only by crossing the international border in Cupola Hall (which exists in both cities) and with proper paperwork. Should a citizen accidentally or purposefully interact or even look at part of the other city Breach, a highly secretive force outside of both cities, quickly sweeps in and remedies the situation, usually by obliterating the existence of the offender. The forces that keep citizens from “breaching” into the other city, part actual threat from the menacing Breach and part psychological, are so strong that, a police officer from one city is not allowed to apprehend a criminal from the other city even if he is standing right beside him. Instead, he must “unsee” him. It is problems like these, amid many others, that make this murder-mystery far more than a detective novel.

Salon.com writer Laura Miller describes Un Lun Dun as “a sooty, street-smart hybrid of ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and ‘The Phantom Tollbooth,'” which is exactly the reason I requested this book, The Phantom Tollbooth, being one of my top-tens for as long as I can remember. The book starts with two best friends who find their way into another world – UnLondon, and saddled with the task of defeating the indomitable Smog. At first I was bothered with UnLondon’s lack of consistent rules. While I’ve always like Fantasy books, every realm has its set of rules that creatures must follow. Not so in UnLondon. The world of the “abcity” (a term for all of the “other cities” such as No York, Parisn’t,  Lost Angeles, etc.) seems to use the limits of imagination as its only guideline. And this, once accepted by the reader, works. It is particularly reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland and The Phantom Tollbooth in this respect, and thus the reason that it’s a children’s/young adult book, and not an adult one. Deeba, the underdog-cum-hero, is accompanied on her mission to defeat the Smog by a half-ghost boy named Hemi, a tailor whose head is a pincushion and whose clothes are made of books named Obaday Fing, “utterlings”, creatures in various animal-like form made from speaking new words named Diss and Bling, and various other characters at other times. While Miéville often seems to throw obstacles at Deeba willy-nilly for the sake of creating the “quest” that the fantasy genre is known for, he is at the same time, having fun with the reader. Deeba is not your usual heroine. In fact, she is known as the unChosen, because she is only mentioned in a book of prophecy as the Chosen One’s “funny sidekick”. She is also given a number of tasks to complete before she can defeat the Smog. But after completing one, Deeba realizes that the quests themselves are pointless and that she can just jump to the last task. It is in these small ironies that the true genius of the book resides.

While I would like to do a more in-depth comparison of Gaiman and Miéville, it’s been a while since I read American Gods and Coraline and I’m loath to revisit them for the sake of a blog post. All I can say is this: Miéville has me requesting his entire oeuvre from the public library, while Gaiman, on the other hand, has not inspired such.

Book Review Monday: The View From Saturday August 4, 2010

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I have been on a Young Adult book kick lately. I borrowed a whole pile of books for the summer from a nearby middle school. I happen to be on good terms with the librarian – so I had no limit and no late fees!

It was fun exploring the shelves, remembering books I loved when I was a kid and finding new books by beloved authors, such as the one reviewed today. E.L. Konigsburg is the author of one of my most favorite YA books. I was so excited when I found her other books, that I borrowed 3 of them!

The View From Saturday is a Newbury Medal winning story about a group of students who form an Academic competition team and how they came together as a group on their own terms. They each have their own story, but in that “what a small world” kind of way, their stories intertwine with each other through extended relatives, new marriages, new jobs, and school bullies on the bus. One of the young boys takes the initiative to recognize there is something special about each of them, and knows just how to appeal to each one in a way that starts the group on its way to becoming the close friends club they call The Souls. They are each incredibly intelligent, eccentric individuals with just the right life experience to facilitate excellence in academic competition. Like any well-crafted novel, you get the feeling their whole lives have prepared them for this one moment, and what a moment! It’s no spoiler to point out that you know the whole time they must win the competition – but the climax of the story coincides with that moment, at which they win not only the competition, but also the hearts of their audience, their teachers, the reader, and each other. They may be an odd bunch, but they are odd together and you will love them for it!

Monday Book Review: Storm Front May 3, 2010

Posted by dataduchess in Book Reviews, Uncategorized.
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We haven’t been blogging much lately, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been reading! As of yesterday I was in the middle of 4 different books! I finished one though so I’m down to 3, and have one to review for you today: Storm Front by Jim Butcher.

Storm Front is Book One in The Dresden Files, a series of books about Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, a modern-day wizard. It’s hard to describe what this book is about without making it sound really cheesy… and yet there is nothing cheesy about it. While the main character, Dresden, is indeed a staff-carrying, robe-wearing wizard in contemporary Chicago, he is also a Private Detective and consultant for the local Police Department, called in when crimes occur that are unexplainable by any known laws of nature. The two aspects of this character are so completely intertwined that the novel reads like a hard-boiled detective noir, all the way down to the mysterious dame who comes with her yellow dress and breathy voice, looking for his aid – because only he can help. Then come the fantasy aspects of the story – the toad-like demons spewing acid and melting holes into furniture, love potions, talking skulls (actually this was entertaining, the wizard stores all his data in a spirit that inhabits a skull, like a little google bot you can converse with and ask questions), rapidly-growing poisonous scorpions, all mixed with the typical noir characters: close-mouthed barkeeps, tough nosed mobsters protecting their turf with block-headed thugs, and the just-can’t-shake-her tabloid journalist who will do anything for an outrageous scoop about a wizard.

Overall, not badly written, pretty entertaining even if predictable, and a great mash-up of genres. I wouldn’t recommend the story to anyone who doesn’t appreciate a good supernatural yarn, since there is nothing realistic about these. However, despite the other-worldly setting and circumstances, the formula boils down to a tightly-knit private detective story that has you wondering if the wizard can figure out the puzzle before he’s condemned for the crimes.

P.S. The series has also been serialized in graphic novels, and on television as a series for SyFy (Season One available now on hulu).

Monday Book Review: The Cheese Monkeys April 20, 2010

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Chip Kidd is a multi-faceted graphic designer who has turned his talents from designing the art around a text into designing and writing the text itself. The Cheese Monkeys is Kidd’s first novel, and a spectacular one at that. As if worked in paints or pencils, the characters are vividly drawn, and love ’em or hate ’em, you know exactly what makes ’em tick.

The novel has been accurately described as a coming-of-age tale, as our protagonist, Happy, has left the nest for his first year of college to major in Art. He quickly learns how to deal with roommates, professors, friends and dive bars, while struggling with where and how he fits into this new life.

I found the novel to be unique, witty and thoroughly enjoyable until the last few events which while fitting for the disingenuous Cheese Monkey universe, were just a tad too outrageous for my taste. This was a fascinating glimpse into the kind of friendships I imagine the competitively “artsy” people in college might have had, each day trying to be more creative than the last, no matter how off-the-wall they might seem. The kind of insincere creativity that is outrageous just for the sake of being more “artistic” than the others, and ends up being more phony than anything else.

Monday Book Review: Wait Till Next Year April 6, 2010

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Springtime is a wonderful time of year for lots of reasons, but one of the best things about Spring is the return of BASEBALL! In honor of the opening of baseball season this week, I’m reviewing a book I read a number of years ago, but think about each year at this time. Wait Till Next Year, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, is a memoir focused on a young girl’s life growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950’s, her relationships with her friends, mother and especially her father with whom she shared a special bond of love for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Ms. Goodwin is a presidential historian, author of numerous accounts of historical events, and is a frequent guest on a variety of political and current event news and commentary programs. Her father taught her how to score a game when she was only 6, and she can still recount games she heard on the radio that summer. The tale focuses on a time when even Brooklyn was a small town, and families and communities were brought together around radios or new-fangled televisions to watch and hear about current events – things that were changing and shaping our country in the tumultuous post-World War II era. But the best memories of this girl’s childhood center on her obsession with the Brooklyn Dodgers, (even forsaking all other teams and players, including greats like Mickey Mantle who dared to play for the Yankees!) and the whole neighborhood’s hopes that the Dodgers would win the pennant, maybe next year.

The memoir is incredibly well-written, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in 1950’s suburbia, family relationships, father-daughter relationships, and most of all, baseball.

Monday Book Review: Alan Moore’s Top Ten March 29, 2010

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The book being reviewed for this week’s book review is a little different from our usual picks: it’s a graphic novel. I happen to love graphic novels, and have a modest collection of both series and stand alone stories. Although I occasionally pick up a Batman or Spiderman comic if I’m interested in the writer or artist for that particular issue, I generally don’t normally choose the comics about superheroes. I can’t tell you anything about the mythology of Superman or the X-Men.

Anyway, despite my aversion to superhero stories, upon a recommendation, I picked up Volume 1 of Alan Moore‘s Top Ten, a graphic novel about Neopolis, a city full of “science heroes” – people or beings having enhanced or supernatural abilities. Even though the premise is about what life would be like in a city where everyone is a superhero – the story and plot unfolds like any other dramatic comedy. To be more specific, the “Top Ten” of the title refers to the nickname of the Police Precinct that enforces the law in Neopolis, and the story is told in a Law and Order style Police Procedural, following a few subplots based upon the investigations and personal lives of a group of science-hero police.

The art was great, lots of details in each drawing, filling in bits of story to support the dialogue balloons. Volume 1 collects about 8 series comics, the complete set of the first story arc. Volume 2 is shorter, and tells another story. There has been at least one spin off, a prequel about some of the earlier science-hero cops in Neopolis, when the city was still new.

I’d recommend these graphic novels to just about anyone. Good stories, great characters, tight plots with plenty of clues and details, and pretty good artwork. These are very well-done, and I hope there will be more!

Monday Book Review: Point Omega March 22, 2010

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One might ask, “what is Point Omega?” Is it a book, a novella, a collection of unexplainable moments in time? One might also ask, “what is Omega Point?” The answer to either question is just as circular and elusive as the other. DeLillo bookends this short work with an unnamed character watching Hitchcock’s movie Psycho slowed down so that the frame changes only every few seconds. Between these bizarre, thought-provoking scenes is the story of an amateur filmmaker who has traveled to the desert to convince a scholar and government war adviser to be the only person in his documentary. What entails is pages of playful, thought provoking philosophical discourse between two reticent men. The action, if it can even be called that, occurs when Elster’s (the scholar) daughter comes to visit and then mysteriously disappears.

While this book was not unpleasant to read, I would not describe it as a page-turner. If anything, it is more like a fable or an allegory, in that the ideas behind the story are far more important than the story itself. Alexandra Altar, writing for the Wall Street Journal, made an apt point–that the novel is “…a meditation on time, extinction, aging and death, subjects that Mr. DeLillo seldom explored in much depth as a younger writer” (Wikipedia). But perhaps it is just this abstruse exploration of such heavy subject matter that DeLillo meant to convey. Omega Point is, “a term coined by the French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to describe a maximum level of complexity and consciousness towards which the universe appears to be evolving” (Wikipedia). And DeLillo certainly depicts a complexity in the brief, succinct discussions that occur between the two protagonists. Though their conversations could be taken as polite and superficial, the kind of conversation you would expect two men to have over whiskeys in the desert, the conversations always allude to more complex and universal ideas.

While this was one idea I toyed with, it is important to note that DeLillo named his work Point Omega and not Omega Point. Why did he reverse the word order of this singular idea? Was it to negate the whole idea that the universe is moving towards one global, complex consciousness? Was he really trying to say the opposite–that the world is increasingly chaotic and senseless? While the dialogue between the men would seem to support the idea of an Omega Point, the actual action of the book, Elster’s daughter’s incomprehensible disappearance, would argue for the latter.

I don’t know what DeLillo meant for sure with this complicated work, but I do know that I wish I could read it in a Literary Criticism class and that I would suggest it for anyone who likes an intellectual challenge.

Monday Book Review: Crossworld: One Man’s Journey into America’s Crossword Obsession March 15, 2010

Posted by dataduchess in Book Reviews, Book vs. Movie.
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In my opinion, crossword puzzles are a fun diversion from the stresses of every day life. I first started doing the New York Times Daily crossword puzzles during high school, when, through some newspaper readership program, stacks of NY Times were delivered to the school for students’ use. Always a lover of games and puzzles, I was instantly attracted to the Times’ crossword, a perfect balance of challenge and the satisfaction of achievement. Over the years, my obsession with the NY Times puzzle waxed and waned, depending on the availability of the newspaper (and whether I could get a copy for free!).

In 2005, I found Marc Romano’s book, Crossworld: One Man’s Journey into America’s Crossword Obsession in the “New and Interesting” Display at my local library, and immediately upset the composition of the display by borrowing it – and though I felt bad about leaving the empty space, I knew the librarian would be happy someone was interested in what she had put out. I didn’t get a chance to read the book before its due date, so I dutifully returned it for the next reader, and stopped at the bookstore to buy my own copy – which in the last 5 years, I have picked up and put down at least a dozen times.

I kept giving the book another chance, because I truly love doing crossword puzzles, and there were more than a few bits about the history of puzzles in America, Will Shortz’ personal puzzle ephemera collection, and tips about crossword puzzle construction and solving. I was also curious to read about the author’s first-hand account of a rookie’s experience at the American Crossword Tournament, for which he had trained by doing over 2,000 puzzles. Unfortunately, I despised the tone of the author, and could only handle reading his extremely arrogant yet still somehow self-loathing babble for so long. He brags about how cool it is of him to take his Thomas Pynchon novel down to the bar rather than make conversation with any of the introverted tournament competitors, and drinks a neat scotch and soda while awaiting the “cool kids” to arrive in the bar. Oh – and let me not forget to mention, the “cool kids” crowd, or “Cru” (a take on crew, from “cruciverbalist”, a designer or aficionado of crossword puzzles) is headed up by one of the author’s favorite young constructors, Brendan Emmett Quigley, upon whom Romano can barely conceal his massive man-crush. The entire section of the book about the tournament itself was spent either noting what a bad idea it was to take so many anti-anxiety pills and thus be floating around in a cloud, or mooning over where is Brendan now, and how is Brendan scoring and look at all the groupies Brendan has, and on and on.

Several years ago, I learned that Will Shortz, editor of the NY Times Crossword Puzzle, has been coordinating the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament since 1978. The 33rd annual tournament was held just a few weeks ago in Brooklyn, NY, and the event has grown to be a weekend-long expo-like extravaganza, with vendors hawking all kinds of crossword-themed paraphernalia, game-related activities, receptions and ceremonies. The Tournament was the focus of a 2006 documentary, Wordplay, which undoubtedly led to the increase in the tournament’s popularity which precipitated a move from the Stamford Marriott venue which had hosted the tournament for 30 years, to the larger Brooklyn Bridge Marriott. A solid documentary, Wordplay was an intriguing peek into the world of crossword constructors and solvers, though possibly, only because I was already interested!

Even if you are interested in Crossword Puzzles, or the Tournament, you ought to skip this book and rent the movie. Wordplay was a great documentary that covered substantially the same ground, minus the attitude.

Monday Book Review: The Feast of the Goat March 8, 2010

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The Feast of the Goat (La Fiesta del Chivo) by Mario Vargos Llosa, is the fictionalized account of the last days of the Dominican Republic’s tyrannical dictator, Rafael Trujillo, in 1961. The story is told primarily from the point of view of Urania Cabral in 1996, who has returned to the Dominican after over 35 years of self-imposed exile to the United States where she has become a highly successful, though lonely and hermetic, lawyer. The story jumps repeatedly in time from the present, to the night of Trujillo’s assassination, to the days before, to the falling of the regime afterward. Though a fictionalized account of the fall of Trujillo’s regime, the names and basic actions of both Trujillo’s inner circle and his assassins are historical facts, and thus Llosa paints an important picture of the Dominican in the early 1960’s.

I had mixed feelings about this book until about halfway through. Llosa keeps you turning the pages for two reasons. First, the reader wants to know why Urania fled the Dominican and why she is so angry at her father who everyone else believes was a great man. All we are told is that he was one of Trujillo’s right-hand men who fell out of grace right before the assassination. We are also made aware that Urania fled the Dominican on a scholarship provided by local nuns and never made an attempt to communicate with any family members since. Secondly, the reader is brought to the night of Trujillo’s assassination where conspirators Antonio de la Maza and Antonio Imbert Barrera, among many others, wait tensely for “The Chief” (one of Trujillo’s many pseudonyms) to pass by in his car with the hopes to kill him. Though I was intrigued by both scenes, the digressions into politics became at times lengthy and trying to understand and keep straight the dozens of political characters that Llosa introduces really slowed the pace of the action. Once I realized that Llosa’s primary goal was to depict Trujillo’s character and myriad of moods in exhaustive detail and I stopped focusing on keeping every minor character straight, I found that I could enjoy the book a lot more.

The historical character of Rafael Trujillo has interested me every since reading The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, as well as In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. Both are phenomenal books. The latter chronicles the lives and murders of the Mirabal sisters, Dominican dissenters in Trujillo’s time. Their murders were one of the impetuses to assassinating Trujillo and they are mentioned repeatedly in The Feast of the Goat. Llosa’s connection to true historical events was definitely one of the draws of this book. But the way he made Trujillo, such an iconic character, come to life, is even more impressive. Llosa, without seeming to manipulate you, makes you hate and fear Trujillo, and also, strangely, admire him in some ways–clearly the mixture of emotions that the Dominicans of his day felt. Llosa’s manipulation of time is also unique and laudatory, killing Trujillo in one chapter, only to revive him repeatedly by drawing on the past. Just when we think Trujillo has finally been buried, both physically and emotionally for the Dominicans, Llosa revives him once more in the climactic last scene and Urania’s confession, conveying the lesson that the most vile of offenses is usually the most personal, and explaining why she abandoned everything she knew, save, like myself, an obsession with Trujillo-era Dominican history.

Monday Book Review: Lamb, The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal February 22, 2010

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Christopher Moore is hands-down one of the funniest writers of fiction I have ever read. His books are truly unclassifiable, mixing elements of science fiction and fantasy while dealing with realistic drama and tragedy in an absolutely hysterically comical way. I have read several of his novels, and in each one, the main characters react in a completely realistic way to utterly unrealistic situations. As I have said before, when I find a book I enjoy, I recommend it to my fellow readers, and this is one I have recommended countless times.

LAMB: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, is a hilarious take on what Jesus might have been like, as viewed by a contemporary friend. One of my favorite scenes is from the very beginning, when Biff first encounters Joshua (as Jesus was called by his family and friends) while Joshua is playing with his younger brother (apparently the Bible left out all kinds of details about Jesus’ everyday life, including his brothers). Anyway, Josh’s brother plays with a lizard until the lizard is about to bite him, and then, instead of getting bit, he smashes the lizard’s head with a rock, and hands the smooshed lizard to Josh. Josh put’s the lizard in his mouth, and a moment later takes a wriggling, and very-much alive lizard out of his mouth and hands it back to his brother. The brother plays with and smashes the lizard’s head, and again gives it to Joshua to be brought back to life. Not exactly the kind of game you’d imagine Christ playing, but exactly what a kid with Christ’s powers would do! Biff is fascinated while he watches the lizard live and die over and over, and soon, they are best friends.

Biff accompanies Joshua on his metaphorical journey through childhood and adolescence, and on a literal journey to find God’s purpose for him, through difficult areas and meeting incredible characters and having exciting and frightening adventures along the way.

I cannot repeat enough, this book was laugh-out-loud funny. I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t enjoy this story, except maybe a member of the clergy – but even then… if they have any sense of humor at all, they can appreciate this story for what it is: a tongue-in-cheek take on what happened during all the gaps in Jesus’ life that are not covered by the Bible (and a few alternate theories on how those stories happened too!)