Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

2014 Nebula; A Buffet of Tasty Novels to Choose From

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

The slate of nominees for the Nebula for Best Novel is a wildly varied group this year; in a way, a buffet of the SFF world in general. There is an internationally best-selling writer nominated, and two debut novelists. In one case, a global publisher has arrayed its entire marketing apparatus in support of the book. In another, the book is self-published, hyped on the writer’s website, at Amazon and by word of mouth/ social media. In addition to newer writers, there are some who have been publishing novels since the 1990s. It’s a wild bunch, and even though the winner is probably a foregone conclusion, this batch of eight cries out for speculation.

I’ve read five of the eight; I’m reading a sixth and have the other two on order. You’ll be able to tell instantly which ones I have not read. I will post an update when I’ve finished them all.

Here they are:

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. With The Jane Austen Book Club, Fowler made the leap from SFF to literary, and this book was reviewed as literary. It works well as a mainstream novel, but in one sense this is pure science fiction, as it studies the results of a scientific experiment on the family who were its subjects. No one disputes that Fowler is an excellent writer, but she misses the mark for a great many people. I think this is because her endings are often uncomfortable. With this book, I thought she asked the reader to make a huge leap of faith between the first two-thirds of the book and the last third. I was willing to make that leap, but it certainly jarred me out of the book for a nanosecond or two. Beside Ourselves asks hard questions, provides fascinating characters, and is well-written, but Fowler’s pretty far from genre these days, and the book is probably too quiet to be a winner.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s highly anticipated story about the nature of childhood, heroism and memory is winning plenty of awards. I liked this book a lot. I appreciated the voice; a man in his late forties looking back on a time in his early childhood. It’s brilliant but not perfect; for example, because of his POV character, Gaiman has to veer away from what could be the second-most dramatic scene in the book, and have it recounted to the main character later. Still, the only way it won’t win is if the voters suddenly all decide to go contrarian. I will be happy if it wins, but I won’t be heartbroken if it doesn’t. And, frankly, neither will Neil Gaiman.

Fire With Fire by Charles Gannon. This traditional military SF story has an interesting premise and some good action sequences. The “first contact” element is well handled. Characters are a bit flat, and the hero is a “Gary Stu”—a teeth-achingly perfect individual, never wrong, adored by women, adulated by men, admired by diplomats and chosen – or “Chosen”—by extraterrestrials because even they can see his greatness. The writing is good. At over 600 pages, this book is a bit too long for its story, especially since nothing is resolved at the end since this is the start of a series. This could win if the voters decide they want to return to the spaceship-and-raygun days of the 1960s.

Hild, by Nicola Griffith. Griffith’s historical novel about St. Hilda of Whitby has been well-received by literary reviewers, and gobbled up with delight by readers. I have not read it (it is next on the TBR stack). Griffith immerses the reader in seventh-century Britain and the life of this woman. There might be a question about whether it’s fantasy, which would hurt its chances.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. A debut novel, this is space opera that explores, deeply, the nature of consciousness and awareness – particularly, distributed consciousness. Along the way, it meditates on the uses of spirituality and the nature of empire. If Ocean doesn’t win, I would love to see Ancillary Justice pick up the award, because it uses a conventional science fiction framework to create something original and thought-provoking.

The Red; First Light by Linda Nagata. I have to order this one, too, and I will have to order it from Amazon, since it is self-published and not available to my two favorite independent bookstores. It is well-reviewed, also “space opera” or, more accurately, military SF.

A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar. I’m reading this right now. Here’s what I can say; prose that shines like honey with sunlight streaming through it. There is an interesting story as our main character, Jevick, learns the secrets of the culture of Olondria. It could all fall apart at the end, but I’m betting it doesn’t. It’s beautiful, and it would win.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. The other book I wish would win. Yes, I know I shouldn’t wish for two books to win, but I do. Wecker’s debut novel is historical fantasy, a magical immigrant tale that follows a golem and a jinni in early 20th century New York City. The golem incarnates duty, while the jinni, a fire spirit, is all about desire, impulse and freedom. How these two interact is a beautiful tale written in exquisite language, introducing a cast of fascinating characters who share their own immigrant stories. The book, like Hild and Beside Ourselves, pinged literary radar screens and often got labeled “literary” rather than “fantasy”. I don’t know if that helps or hurts the book’s chances. Nebula voters may decide that they are going to have other chances in the future to award a Nebula to Wecker.

My prediction: Of course, I think The Ocean at the End of the Lane will win. It’s Gaiman. It’s cool. It’s another book that crossed genre lines and was well-received for the most part in the mainstream world, while hewing closely to its magical, fantastical roots. That may make it more attractive than the books that are shelved consistently in Fiction (Beside Ourselves, The Golen and the Jinni, Hild.) Beside Ourselves and Hild were published and marketed as literary novels. I don’t know what SFWA thinks about that. Wecker’s book had a more tentative identity, kind of a like a low-calorie snack; “It’s fantasy, but it’s literary! You don’t have to be embarrassed to be caught reading it!”

Of the old-fashioned space books, it’s hard to have an opinion without having read The Red; First Light, but I think the question is whether the story is well-realized enough and original enough to transcend a military SF genre.

The beauty of a buffet is that you can try little bits of new things and not be stuck with only one order. Except, how do you judge a buffet? The Nebula Weekend should be interesting this year.

Right as I Watched

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

“The Dark” is one of the stronger short stories I’ve read recently. In a collection with a number of strong ones (Karen Joy Fowler’s What I Didn’t See) “The Dark” is still a standout.

I don’t know why this story moved me more than the title story, or the strange and wonderful “The Last Worders,” a story about a set of twins who travel to a mysterious European (or Central American?) country to force  a man they don’t know to choose between them. Both of those stories hold elements that recur and are expanded in Fowler’s latest novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. “The Dark” is gentler than the harrowing “The Pelican Bar,” Fowler’s meditation about what North Americans do to children they have labeled “out of control.” Maybe it’s just a more conventional story, more of a fairy tale and less of a puzzle, although it’s hard to call “conventional” a story that blends tales of feral children, plague epidemiology and the tunnel wars of Viet Nam.

The story begins with the report of a couple and their young son, Paul, gone missing in Yosemite in the mid-1950s. Neither they nor their remains are ever discovered, but other campers during the early ‘60s experience theft of food, attributed mostly to raccoons. The narrator is a doctor, an expert in epidemiology – pandemics, specifically. He and his team are studying a case of bubonic plague in Yosemite park. He has interviewed Caroline, the teen-ager who came down with the disease, and she tells him she saw a feral boy in the park. He doesn’t think much of this, until he sees the boy himself. He and his colleagues capture the boy, who can’t be more than thirteen and is small for his age, and turn him over to experts in Sacramento. He visits the boy a couple of times, but when he begins to investigate Paul’s original disappearance, he is told the boy died suddenly of a seizure.

The story shifts to Viet Nam, where the narrator is immunizing American soldiers who go into the network of tunnels between Viet Nam and Cambodia. The tunnels are filled with rats and there is a theory that the North Vietnamese are releasing infected rats, a kind of biological warfare. All the soldiers, who are also “tunnel rats,” have stories about someone called Victor, not Victor Charlie, military slang for the Viet Cong, but a small Caucasian man who appears when a soldier gets into trouble. The narrator is understandably skeptical until, in the tunnels himself, he encounters Victor in person.

Fowler provide fascinating tidbits about how plagues move (killing off rats means only that the infection-bearing fleas move to other hosts, like humans, driving the plague deeper into the human population). It seems as if this shouldn’t have much to do with a modern retelling of a feral child story, until the very end, when the narrator brings in a tale about a German village in the 14th century, bringing the story full circle.

Fowler’s images are powerful for their precision and the lack of fanfare that accompanies them:

“I saw the coyote on the fourth day. She came out of a hole on the bank of Lewis Creek and stood for a minute with her nose in the air. She was grayed with age around the muzzle, possibly a bit arthritic. She shook out one hind leg. She shook out the other. Then, right as I watched, Caroline’s boy climbed out of the burrow after the coyote.”

The voice of the narrator, a wise and good man looking back with regret, perhaps, to a time when he thinks he was neither, drove this story. He stays with me, as he looks back, examining a life that was changed by events he cannot explain.

The Spenser Books

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

Recently Spouse and I donated almost all of our Robert B Parker books to Mockingbird. This collection included nearly all the Spenser books, hardcover and paperback; all of the Jesse Stone novels; most of the Sunny Randall books and a couple of the westerns. We also donated Poodle Springs, the Raymond Chandler fragment that Parker finished.

In the late 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, the Spenser series was one of our favorites. We found the first two or three in paperback. From then on I bought them in hardcover as soon as I saw them.

By the mid-2000s, we were still reading Parker, but they didn’t deliver quite the same rush. Somehow Spenser and his girlfriend Susan Silverman were getting a little bit dated, a little less relevant. As one blogger put it, in a requiem for Parker, “First Spenser was cool, then he wasn’t.”

Spenser in the early books was a breath of fresh air. In the 1980s, women were still fighting for legal equality, for respect, for simple self-determination. Spenser, the very model of a hard-boiled detective, treated women with respect. His girlfriend, Brenda Loring, was smart, assertive, sexually independent. She took charge of her own life. Spenser punched the bad-guys, studied the clues, engaged in pithy banter… and cooked! He had home-made tomato sauce in his freezer, he made fresh bread to help himself think. (He also meditated by working the heavy bag or the speed bag at Henry Cimoli’s gym.) Spenser worked in an interesting place, too – not New York or LA, but Boston.

Brenda moved on and Susan Silverman moved in. Well, not exactly. She and Spenser never successfully lived together. Spenser had a black side-kick, but Hawk was a pretty independent side-kick, at least at first. Hawk was an intelligent thug-for-hire; a mercenary, an independent operator who would help Spenser for money. Sometimes, Hawk and Spenser were on opposite sides of a case, although they stopped short of drawing on each other. They may have been adversaries, but they respected each other. In those early books, Hawk was Spenser without limits.

In 1980, Looking for Rachel Wallace came out. Spenser is hired to protect Wallace, a prominent and outspoken lesbian writer and advocate. Wallace is defensive and distrustful of Spenser at first, expecting Spenser to have a knee-jerk, bigoted reaction to her sexual orientation. Parker uses this book to showcase Spenser’s open-mindedness, but he also created, in Rachel Wallace, a regular person; smart, competent, not evil, neurotic or “misguided.” If you think that’s no big deal, take a look at how John D MacDonald is writing lesbians in the late 1970s, in his Travis McGee books.

Susan Silverman is a high-school counsellor when we first meet her. She is smart, capable and driven. As the series progressed, Susan gets accepted into Harvard and pursues a PhD in psychology.

In those early books, Susan was the woman I wished I was. Hawk and Spenser were like Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder in Blazing Saddles. They shared a bond (war), they were competent and strong. They are the “cool kids.” The plots revolved largely around the Boston mob, and often included forlorn, defiant children of shallow, self-indulgent parents.

Spenser has two other helpers; Boston cops Quirk and Belson. Unlike cops in other detective series of the time, they are smart, and honest. They are also realists. They are uncomfortable with Hawk, because Hawk does work outside the law. They are slightly more comfortable with Spenser, who used to be a cop, although an unsuccessful one. They also know that traditional justice has it limits, and sometimes they look the other way when they know Spenser and Hawk are going to take care of a problem.

All of these things made Spenser fun to read, but Parker’s prose was a signature, and became a trademark. He had a unique style of dialogue. It was sparse, clipped, to the point, using punctuation and timing to create inflection and demonstrate emotion, and a counterpoint to Spenser’s first-person narration, which was often philosophical and sometimes veered toward the poetic.

In a couple of the mid-80s books, the going gets rough for Spenser and Susan. Susan goes to the dark side for a while, but they reconcile, stronger than ever. However, by Crimson Joy, in 1988, things started shifting. They weren’t quite as fresh, as sparkling.


Parker wrote 40 Spenser novels. At his death, he had three series going, four if you consider the “young Spenser” books a separate one. In small ways, we caught up with Spenser over forty years. We all watched The Food Network. Men who were foodies were not new anymore. Spenser and Hawk, with their “cowboy code,” weren’t changing. Parker began adding characters as Spenser took jobs outside of the city. That was good news, as far as settings went. It was bad news in another way as Parker added characters who were just like Spenser and Hawk. It was almost a joke; the Hispanic Hawk; the Native American Hawk, the gay cop who is almost the gay Quirk just for a change of pace. In the Sunny Randall series, we have the Gay Hawk with Sunny’s friend Spike. They all speak in the same clipped cadence that Hawk and Spenser employ. It’s all very cowboy, but after forty books, it started to get tired.

Everything felt recycled. The stories all seemed similar. We’ve already talked about the characters, but the worst was that the women began to feel recycled; good and bad. Rita Fiore, an attorney, is Hawk with ovaries. Women, who had been realistic in the early books, were now shallow, usually prostitutes. The male main character loves one woman, not unlike Spenser and Susan, except in the case of Jesse Stone, his “one love” is the wrong woman. Sunny Randall, Parker’s female detective, is the “one true love” of a great guy who is the son of a mobster. In the Jesse Stone books, at least, characters are flawed. They screw up. They fall off the wagon. They sleep with the wrong person, or people.

Spenser, and Parker, gave us hours of enjoyment, but these are probably not books we’re going to read again. He created a classic style, and like many classics, lots of writers have copied it, or are, at least, incorporating it into their own work.

We won’t read those books again, but I am still grateful to Parker for his inventiveness, and for the hours of pleasure he gave us. Now those books are going out into the world again; maybe some new, young writer will be smitten by Spenser, or Parker’s prose, and find inspiration.

W is for Wasted, by Sue Grafton

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

In the 23rd Kinsey Millhone mystery by Sue Grafton, Kinsey’s elderly landlord Henry gets a cat named Ed. That is about the most interesting thing that happens in the book. Ed is one of the better characters.

W is for Wasted  is well-named, although Grafton is probably referring to the life of one of the murder victims. It is a disappointment.

The plot attempts to tie together two different murders, while expanding the story of Kinsey’s previously-unknown family. This results in a long choppy book, further fragmented by a choice to use shifting POV. Ultimately, the villain isn’t strong enough or evil enough to carry the weight of this story. The POV shifts mean that we the readers know who the murderer is before Kinsey does, which vitiates the suspense. This is a surprising choice for such an experienced mystery writer, and I don’t know exactly what Grafton thought she could gain from it. The second character’s viewpoint mean that the researcher and her cartoonist husband, who could have powered at least one half of the plot, were basically squandered here.

Part of my problem with the Millhone mysteries is that Grafton set them in the 1980s. The early books were set and written in the 80s, and these worked. Back then Kinsey was a model for feminism, a quirky character who provided a mechanism for social and political commentary. Now she seems quaint, and the tiny period details (headlines from People Magazine, hair styles, car styles) read as if they are gleaned from the internet.

I am not some clever, insightful reviewer having an epiphany. Grafton herself raised a concern about this very issue in an interview in the 1980s when she wondered what it would be like to write Kinsey in 25 years. Grafton is a gifted writer with an interesting life-view. As sad as this is to say, I will be happy when X, Y and Z roll around, and the Kinsey series ends. I’d be interested to see what Grafton does with a 21st century character, maybe a twenty-something, tech-savvy info-elite, who is mentored by her grandmother’s friend, the wise, experienced and comfortably retired Kinsey M.

The Italian Secretary

Friday, January 17th, 2014

The Italian Secretary, by Caleb Carr, was a disappointment. Possibly it disappointed because the premise boosted my expectations. It’s a Sherlock Holmes pastiche involving the brutal murder of David Rizzio, the secretary of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. Tudor intrigue through the lens of a Holmesian puzzle-solving – how could this fail to please?

Well, it did. Part of the problem is ratio; the length of the story compared to the length of the book. This idea was originally intended as a short story for a themed Holmesian anthology, stories with a supernatural aspect. Carr let the story grow into a 316-page book, but the mystery is just not long enough to support that page count.

Our narrator Dr. John Watson starts us off with the cryptic wire Mycroft Holmes sent to his brother. In short order, Watson and Holmes are on their way to the Scottish border, where Queen Victoria is staying. The Queen has two homes in Scotland, Balmoral and Holyroodhouse, which is famous or infamous as the home of Queen Mary, where Scottish nobles brutally murdered her secretary, David Rizzio, practically at her feet. Queen Victoria was having Holyroodhouse refurbished, when two men died in strange and mysterious ways. One body was found in the center of a field the Queen’s window overlooked. Both bodies are strangely mutilated and practically every bone is broken. Mycroft is sure the murders are related to an attempt on Victoria’s life, but Sherlock soon uncovers a different scheme and a common motive for the murders – simple greed.

I liked the atmospheric descriptions Carr gave us of Holyroodhouse and Scotland. He piles on the spooky atmosphere and in the middle of this story, it works. He makes good use of providing the clues and letting the reader play along (mostly) in putting them together, although the reason for the broken bones became obvious a bit too soon, I thought. Carr did a nice bit with the “blood that will not dry;” the supposed pool of blood from the hapless secretary.

Unfortunately, a long and narratively bloated train-ride to Scotland at the beginning and too much talking at the end undercut the shivery ghost-tale aspect. At three hundred pages, the solution of this plot is too simple. There is a reason Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did many Holmes stories but few novels, and Carr should have thought of that.

The bickering sibling rivalry between Mycroft and Sherlock didn’t work well for me either. Mycroft is a big favorite of later generations of Holmes story-tellers, in large part because they can bring in secret service-type stories. In fact, he didn’t show up that much in Doyle’s work for a very good reason. Carr portrays two techy geniuses rubbing each other the wrong way, and two brothers struggling to one-up each other. It would probably work if he weren’t dealing with canonical characters.

I was also deeply irked by Watson’s long lecture-y sentences, filled with parenthetical statements, in which he explains, for instance, not once but twice how Queen Mary’s son became James the First of England. Maybe Watson was really impressed by this, or maybe Carr was, but basically if you read it once you’ve got it. You don’t need to see it again sixty pages later. I don’t understand why Watson or Holmes would care so much about a line of succession that every English school child must learn about.

To sum up; the book is too long for the story and Carr did not convince me that he had a handle on these two famous fictional detectives.

When I got to the end of the story I felt a strong desire to reread The Hound of the Baskervilles; a scary, ghostly tale with the real Watson and Holmes.

Shadows Fall, by Simon R. Green: In Which I Judge a Book by Its Cover

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014

Generally speaking, we’re not supposed to do that; judge the book by its boards. I’m going to indulge in some comments and conjecture about this one, though. I haven’t read the book yet and won’t for a while; Spouse gets it first. First of all, some perspective. I found the book at Mockingbird Used Books, and I bought it. However much I may make fun of it here, I paid cash money to bring it home, based on our enjoyment of other Simon Green works.

Spouse calls Green’s Deathstalker Series “good clean kill-everybody fun.” I enjoyed the Nightside stories, even if they did get repetitive toward the end. We both liked his dark fantasy-comedy Blue Moon, and both liked the Hawk and Fisher stories (although the rather sudden origin story about who Hawk and Fisher used to be was patently unbelievable). Green comes out of the fine British tradition where heroes can be brave but not smart; villains can be selfish but courageous; bureaucrats are obstructive but not stupid. Women can have aspirations, dreams and faults, and power a plot just as well as a man. Fun stuff.

I had not seen the book Shadows Fall before, but I had read the name. Shadows Fall is one the territories referenced in the Nightside series. Nightside is the part of  London where it is always 3:00 AM. Shadows Fall was the kingdom where dreams went to die. I don’t remember any Nightside story set in Shadows Fall, but I think our band of heroes cut through it in one book, on their way somewhere else, kind of like jumping the neighbor’s fence and cornering their yard. As I recall, this didn’t go well in the book either.

But here is a whole novel based on Shadows Fall. It is a trade paperback with an android cover, done in shades of cerulean blue, silver and tan. The typeface is a thick, solid serif font with a shadow (well, of course). It looks… authoritative.

There is a blurb on the cover; one blurb. “I think it’s the best book I’ve ever written” — Simon R. Green. Simon R Green? Dude, you blurbed your own book?

Inside, on the first page, is a comment by Locus Magazine:  ”A memorable effort with some brilliant moments. The finale is epic.” Really? Ouch.

The book was published in 2005 by BenBella  Books, and distributed by Perseus Press. I haven’t heard of either of them. Ah, some things are coming into focus now.

Looking inside once again I see that Green’s copyright is 1994, although the first publication date is 2005. By 2005, Green was well established with the Deathstalker tales. Was Shadows Fall a one-off? Was he unsuccessful in getting a book this quirky (fantasy, when he was selling SF?) with his regular publisher?  That seems possible. And 1994… this could one of those books you write first, and usually never publish. In my youth, we used to say it was the manuscript “in the bottom drawer.” By the 90s we probably would have said, “languishing on the hard drive.”

Another thing is clear when I look at the list of characters Green nicely provides at the front of the book; some residents of Shadows Fall moved to Nightside, once that series got started. And why not? I’ve said for years that in addition to being an epic work, Sandman is also Neil Gaiman’s personal treasure archive, where he stored every trope, symbol, allusion and notion he would ever use again; and he just stops by there and picks things up as he needs them. There is nothing wrong with that; it’s your own work. There is nothing wrong with luring the fine citizens of Shadows Fall over to the place where it’s always 3:00 AM with the promise of better wages and original Coca-Cola.

Anyway. Over at Amazon, of the 32 people who wrote reviews, 26 gave it 4 stars or better. Many of the them hate the ending (that epic finale), but loved the world and found it genuinely original. This was before Green started colonizing it heavily for Nightside, I think. People love his witty dialogue and his broad cast of characters.

When all is said and done, we will probably like it. Even if he blurbed it himself.

Spook Country, by William Gibson; a Smidgen of Justice

Saturday, January 11th, 2014

It’s hard to find a sense of justice these days. Certain people seem immune to consequences of their actions, and those consequences often devolve onto people lower down on the food chain. CEOs and bank presidents are briefly vilified in the media for their actions, then collect their bonuses and go on, while thousands live without jobs or even shelter because of those actions. A prominent college has a long string of championships “expunged,” scholarships reduced, and is banned from bowl games because of child sexual abuse, while the upper echelon of the college, who were told about the issue by the coach years earlier, are, except for some fund-raising difficulties, untouched. Second-tier political aides fall on their swords and resign, while the responsible elected officials remain untouched.

It can be disheartening. This is why re-reading Spook Country, by William Gibson, is so emotionally fulfilling. Admittedly the book is largely fantasy-wish-fulfillment, but it’s good fantasy-wish-fulfillment, as a trio of strange men plan and implement a “prank” of large proportions on a group of people who are usually untouchable. One bemused woman, Hollis Henry, is allowed entre to their audacious plan. The story is wholly satisfying.

If this book were nothing more than fantasy wish fulfillment, with a strange and plucky band of rebels challenging the entrenched wealth machine and winning – like The A Team, in other words – and William Gibson wrote it, it would still be worth a read. Because Spook Country is written by Gibson, though, it is so much more than that. So much more insightful, so much stranger, and so much more fantastical. In one way, the objective of the secret group almost gets overlooked because of the gems Gibson’s scatters along the way.

The book weaves together seemingly-unrelated stories of three unusual characters:

Hollis Henry, lead singer and songwriter of a cult band called The Curfew that broke up a few years earlier. Needing money, Hollis has accepted a freelance assignment from a European-based magazine to write about “locative” art. The article seems a little strange, and the magazine even stranger. Soon Hollis discovers that there is more going on that VR three-dimensional art installations in Los Angeles.

Tito, a young man who was born in Havana, is living in New York and ends up in Vancouver. Tito is one of a large extended family, filled with uncles and cousins, all of whom, it seems, emigrated from Cuba. Tito is working for a mysterious old man who knew his father in Cuba. Tito’s father was in Cuban secret intelligence; the old man is believed to have been with the CIA. Tito is athletic, and his gymnastic skills are enhanced by the orishas, the deities of Santeria, who help him when he needs it.

Milgrim, a gifted linguist who can translate Russian and has an addiction problem. Milgrim has been grabbed and is being held captive, basically, by a man named Brown. At first Milgrim thought Brown was DEA or police. Then he decided he must be part of a government security agency. Now, he’s not so sure.

There is another character whose gravitational pull affects the orbits of these three  characters and that is Hubertus Bigend. It’s supposed to be pronounced “bee-jond,” but Gibson makes sure we all see it as Big End first. Bigend is a mystery, a man of deep wealth, unlimited power and low profile, whose only appetite, it seems, is that of curiosity. It isn’t long before Hollis figures out that she is working for him, and not long after that, Bigend arranges a meeting and reveals a little bit more about the “story” Hollis is allegedly covering. This takes her on a quest that introduces her to one of Gibson’s tech wizards, a man with a grasp of the Global Positioning System that is unmatched, who is so paranoid that he marks out a GPS grid on the floor of his warehouse and sleeps in a different square each night. VR “art,” wartime corruption, government contractors, and parkour all meet in a swirling eddy of story in Vancouver.

Spook Country was published in 2005, which means Gibson probably wrote it in 2003-2004. I read it when it first came out. Like most people, I was struggling with indignation over how badly our government had responded to the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, and the “objective” of the old man (and Tito’s parkour stunts) held center stage for me. This time, I found myself captivated by something else entirely; Gibson’s casual assumption, expressed by three different characters during the course of the book, that the NSA monitors domestic conversation and e-mail exchanges. At one point, Milgrim wonders why his captor, Brown, doesn’t just have the NSA do the spying that they are doing. Bigend and Hollis both worry about it at least once. Bigend is not an American, as such he would be fair game to the NSA, but Hollis is an American born citizen, who can’t overcome the trickle of paranoia she feels. This isn’t news; thriller writers have been using “The NSA is listening!” for a few years now, and Gibson doesn’t even bother to make it part of the plot, it’s so basic.

I was more interested in the fact that this was an “everybody knows that” kind of thing in 2005, given the big whoop-di-do about it in 2012 and 2013.

That’s a digression, though. At the end of the book, some justice is meted out to people who enriched themselves at the cost of young American lives. Bigend does not get his question answered, directly, but he makes a small fortune in another way. Milgrim embarks on a life of scholarship and Tito joins a band. All of these ending are the right ones. Hollis may have a new career, and she has had an adventure that changes how she views the world.

Along the way, the book shares moments of Gibson’s rock-star style. His attention to objects, like the small blue vase Tito found and dedicated to the orisha Oshun, the Blue Ant figurine Hollis gets, and a set of magnetic disks, makes the reader stop and experience those items. His flights of fancy, such as the eat-standing-up drive-in restaurant Hollis knows of in LA, where everyone is welcome, make us think about cities, neighborhoods, and pockets of connection that happen around us every day.

Writing/reading was the first virtual reality, and Gibson is its god. This is still true; Spook Country is an immersive and refreshing now as it was in 2005.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: An Ode to Geeks Ascendant

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a paean to  geeks – every kind of geek. It celebrates science geeks, stats geeks, conspiracy-freak geeks, secret society geeks, data-viz geeks, modeling geeks, gaming geeks , fantasy geeks, typeface geeks and even Peter-Jackson-Betrayed-Tolkien-‘cause-There-Was-No-Female-Elven-Warrior-In-The-Hobbit geeks. Geeks who read it will raise their eyebrows, nod slightly, and give a slight one-side-of-the-mouth smile. Those of us who were never quite in the geek clan but hung out at the same library carrel will feel embraced and welcomed by Robin Sloan’s sweet, funny book.

Sloan’s novel came out in 2012. It’s set in San Francisco, a year or two earlier. Clay Jannon, our hero, is a design-school geek whose dream job as the media arm of the “perfect bagel” company NewBagel, evaporated in the wake of the 2008 recession. Clay is becoming desperate about finding work. One day as he is out walking in San Francisco, he goes into a shop with a Help Wanted sign in the window.

“Inside: imagine the shape and volume of a normal bookstore turned up on its side. This place was absurdly narrow and dizzyingly tall, and the shelves went all the way up – three stories of books, maybe more.

“… it felt like I was standing at the border of a forest – not a friendly California forest, either, but an old Transylvanian forest, a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight’s reach.”

Mr. Penumbra, the store’s eccentric owner, hires Clay for the night shift. There are some specific requirements for the job; certain documentation. Some of the people who come into the store do not buy books; they exchange books for others. Clay must log those exchanges in a specific log book, along with his observations of the customer’s clothing, behavior, and general demeanor. He is also told not to look into the books in a certain section. He doesn’t, at least, not until his friend does first. The books are not filled with regular text, but with groupings of letters that look like code.

There is a secret here, a secret that goes back to the first days of moveable type. Clay assembles his own Fellowship of the Geeks, including the gorgeous hacker-girl who appears in the book at just the perfect moment. Kat, the girl, works at Google. Google is shown at a time before its “Don’t be Evil” reputation had begun to fray, and it is a high-tech Rivendell, the Empire of Magic in Clay’s reality.

Even with the vast computing power of Google, though, some secrets can’t be unraveled, and this fact leads Jannon on a quest that pays homage to the final scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Along the way, he asks a question and gets the perfect Information Age answer:

“A first-grader with bright red hair runs up to the front desk, giggling and choking herself with a tangle of green yarn… She grins and jumps up and down.

“‘Hi there,’ I say. ‘Let me ask you a question.’ She giggles and nods. ‘How you would find a needle in a haystack?’

“The first-grader pauses, pensive, tugging on the green yarn around her neck. She’s really thinking this over. Tiny gears are turning; she’s twisting her fingers together, pondering. It’s cute. Finally, she looks up and says gravely, ‘I’ would ask the hays to find it.’… ”

Penumbra’s adversary (“villain” is too strong a word) is caricatured rather than developed, but he is a good caricature. Sloan’s writing is nothing like William Gibson’s, but, strangely, this book reminded me of Gibson. The Hogwarts Special, for instance, could have come right out of one of his books. Sloan’s characters are endlessly curious, fascinated with detail and with objects (his room-mate, Mat, is a miniature modeler for ILM, who brings his passion home with him and there is a growing Matropolis in the apartment’s living room); this passion and need to have answers is part of what makes them geeks, but it’s what makes us all human, and Sloan understands that. He writes about friendship and loyalty, curiosity and politics; he understands fantasy, secret codes and the human desire to give things (events, objects) meaning.

Lots of reviews have discussed whether Sloan thinks paper books are going away. I can’t tell from the book what his opinions are. A clue might be in the title. The word “penumbra” is associated with an eclipse; it is the edge of a shadow or the secondary shadow that gets cast by an object that is fully shadowed. Are books going into an eclipse, overshadowed by e-readers? Or will the light shift, and paper books and e-readers continue to peacefully coexist? I know what one of the Googler characters thinks, but Clay and Mr. Penumbra seem to hold a second opinion. And after all, who really knows what will happen? There are secret histories everywhere, and the world can change tomorrow. That’s one of the joys of this book.

The Books We got for Christmas: 2013

Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

Here’s a nice thing about working in a used bookstore; you can pick up some unusual books for the holidays as well as the best sellers. We got a bit of both this year.

Spouse got two gift cards; one for the used bookstore in question, Mockingbird Used Books, and one for the Four-Eyed Frog. His haul of actual books was quite small; basically two, or two and a half, since one of these is for both of us.

Here’s what he got:

California Sabers by James McLean

This all-volunteer unit from California was the only California unit to fight in the east, as part of the Massachusetts 2nd Cavalry in the American Civil War.

Leningrad by Anna Reid

The siege of Leningrad grabs the imagination. Whether it’s the courage and indomitability of the residents, the sheer inventiveness of both the citizens and the Russian soldiers, or Stalin’s breathtaking callousness to his own people, it is a powerful symbol, and Reid’s book looked about the best of what’s out there. She is supposed to have gotten access to some previously unavailable documents, which makes the book even more tempting.

For both of us:

Wilderness Writings by Theodore Roosevelt

How can you not love Teddy Roosevelt? He was a president, a war hero, a big game hunter and a writer; he loved taxidermy and he started the New York Museum of Natural History. The really annoying thing about him is that his writing is good! This slim book contains a wealth of detail about various trips, including his passage down a then-unnamed river in Brazil.

I got:

The Italian Secretary by Caleb Carr

While I liked The Alienist, some of Carr’s other books made me yawn. This one, a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, contains two favorite, if morbid, elements; Sherlock Holmes, of course, and the savage slaughter of Queen Mary Stewart’s (Mary, Queen of Scots) Italian secretary, David Rizzio, by a group of brutish Protestants. They killed him at Mary’s feet, almost literally. I am curious to see how Carr ties together this event with a double murder in England, separated from Rizzio by a political border and nearly two hundred years.

Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Everyone I know who has read this has loved it. I started it Christmas afternoon and I’m about one-third through it. (UPDATE: finished it, loved it… Now I’m reading JUST MY TYPE by Simon Garfield, about typefaces.) I think it’s great; I do wonder if you have to be a Californian, or even a northern Californian/Silicon Valley person to truly appreciate it. Sloan creates a personal, engaging narrative voice and from the beginning when we find out that our hero, Clay Jaddon, lost his web-design job with NewBagel, the “perfect bagel company,” it is laugh out loud funny.

The Land Across by Gene Wolfe

I ordered this myself, at the Four-Eyed Frog, after reading a review done as a conversation between Kat Hooper and Bill Capossere on They intrigued me so much I have to try it. I had trouble getting the title right when I called. “It’s the Crossing Land, by Gene Wolfe,” I said. “Or Crossing the Land. Or Crossing-Land. Or something.”

“Never mind,” Jeremy said. “We’ve got it.” And they did.


IO9′s List of Essential SF&F We Haven’t Read Yet

Friday, December 6th, 2013

Read? I haven’t even heard of some of these books: