Category Archives: Books

Book Interlude: Low Town – Daniel Polansky

I am not pleased with this book after about 50 pages and am going to return it. It feels awkward, jumbled, and it lacks cohesion for me. I didn’t feel any satisfaction or curiosity as I read the book.

But, the biggest thing that annoys me about it is that the main character talks about this set of peoples that live in a specific slum, immigrants from another country. They’re described as short, squat, swarthy, and heathens. Then the protagonist talks to one of these immigrants in their language. It’s broken, and the author romanizes the language with (translations) and the language is Chinese.

And with that, I am done. Just, done.

He could have used broken English to line out how the protagonist doesn’t know the language well, but he opted to use Chinese. If he used romanized Hindi, Arabic, or something else I wouldn’t recognize, this might not be a big deal to me. I realize this is two-faced. But I recognized it, and I’m annoyed. It’s not a fantasy book anymore and I am really angry.

Returning the book this weekend and using the money for another book I’m sure I will enjoy more.

The Girl With All the Gifts – MR Carey

I hate buying books in hardcover. The dust jackets are easy to tear or dent, they’re are too unwieldy to read with one hand while grasping a strap on the T, they can’t be placed in with paperbacks by author because it wrecks my nice even line of books. Oh, and they cost more. Drives me nuts, but I still purchase hardbacks when I am too excited to wait.

Our most recent visit to a bookstore had this book on display, and I had to get it because I was almost positive that MR Carey was Mike Carey, who wrote a lot of comics but most importantly to me, the “Lucifer” comic and the Felix Castor series. Turns out it was him.

“The Girl With All the Gifts” is a post-apocalyptic book whose reason for being post-apocalyptic is a spoiler. I don’t want to say too much because all the reveals are important. This means I can’t really talk about the book.

Let me just say that I felt compelled to finish reading the book. I don’t want to say “enjoyed” because there were a lot of things that made me uncomfortable, things that I acknowledge as being something governments/people might do. I had to see what the conclusion would be, and was satisfied. I accept that it’s a viable ending, but I didn’t love it. To love it would mean that I was happy at the end, and I was not happy.

I don’t know if I would recommend it to anyone I know, not because I think it’s bad, but because it’s very different from what my friends like to read. It’s a post-apocalyptic book about survivors fighting monstrous things, whether it’s themselves, their ideas, or the thing that made the world fall. There’s not a lot of hope and light in it.

Final thoughts: Would read and put on a shelf. Probably would not re-read, but definitely would not sell/donate it.

Rivers of London (series) – Ben Aaronovitch

I picked up the first book, “Midnight Riot” (UK release is named “Rivers of London”) because it was in a list of recommendations from Daniel O’Malley in the back of his “The Rook: A Novel”, which I greatly enjoyed. Initially, I wasn’t sure if I liked “Midnight Riot” or not, but then I missed my T stop because I was too busy reading and that settled it.

I went to Porter Square Books the following day and picked up the next books in the series, “Moon Over Soho” and “Whispers Underground” in addition to enough cookbooks to overload my bag. I feel that this bookstore merits a specific naming because it had every single book I was looking for that day, and how cool is that? It’s a magic bookstore that has books that I want to read.

So this series is an urban fantasy set in London, and is the cap on my belief that the best (English language) urban fantasy nowadays is not written by Americans, but the English (and Australians… and Canadians). I should just say non-Americans?

Another thing this series brings up is the lack of racial diversity in the other urban fantasies I’ve read. First off, the man character is obviously ethnic and this fact is brought up constantly. He interacts with a lot of different races and religions because it’s always going to happen in an urban area, and everyone will act and dress differently. I like it. At first, I thought the author was tossing the racial difference of the protagonist around a lot, then I decided that it was important.

It shows a shocking lack of reality when urban fantasies in the USA feature characters that are uniformly white, or interact with mostly white characters. Look at Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Washington DC. How is it possible to only interact with Caucasians, or even people who haven’t lived in the USA for generations? And then apply that to books. How are the only people you see, know, etc white? It’s not logical, and it could possibly indicate some race issues in books and our reading habits.

Is it because we’d rather read about characters that are white? Is it the set default we imagine when we picture a character, even if we’re not white? I feel a sense of complicity in this … white washing is too strong of a phrase and not quite right, but I cannot think of another… of the genre because I mostly read books with a European (specifically, Irish) fantasy bent. Generally, I do not read a lot of urban fantasy with Asian myths in it, but I cannot decide if it’s because it was neglected in the genre or if my strong feelings against exoticism result in me selecting against it.

Anyways! The “Rivers of London” books are great reads. The protagonist, Peter Grant, is a police officer that gets thrown into the midst of magical dealings when investigating a police case. Interestingly, his superiors know that magic is possible (and they dislike it), and push him off to be apprenticed to the last known English wizard, Lord Thomas Nightingale, a relic of a by-gone age made even more apparent when the reader learns that magic was supposed to be on a serious decline.

Lord Thomas Nightingale handles the supernatural part of law enforcement, and had not been called into duty for years until the case, and Peter himself, was flagged. From then on, Peter begins his schooling (and his experimentation) in the subject of magic, whether it is casting spells, meeting the human personifications of the rivers of London, seeing the effects of previously unknown dark magic users, or experimenting in methods to blend his previously modernized life with his new one.

As it turns out, magic and technology do not get along.

The plots were intriguing, and the tie-ins with history and pop culture references were always good for smile and wikipedia moments. My favorite one involves Peter asking Lord Nightingale about the largest object he used a spell on. The answer was, “A Tiger”, but it’s not the feline kind; it’s a Panzerkamfwagen. (There was a special joy in this reference because M loves history and has been playing “World of Tanks” for the past year. He got the reference immediately.)

I think what I enjoyed the most about these books is that I felt like I had not encountered all of the ideas before. It felt good to read them and think, “Oh, I like this idea a lot” as opposed to skimming over bits that match another plot or world.

There weren’t any overflowing descriptions that seem to have become the staple of urban fantasty, and I loved the sparser wordings. I am not a fan of an outpouring of descriptive words, akin to word vomit, and so I was pleased to enjoy imagining the world as I read without having to read overblown efforts to describe everything.

I cannot wait for the next book to come out. My only dilemma is, do I buy it in hardback for immediate gratification, or do I wait for the paperback so it matches the rest of the books on my shelf?

Snuff – Terry Pratchett

I’d like to thank co-workers A and B (‘A’ for the American and ‘B’ for the Brit, god I am so clever) for having a conversation a few months ago that enlightened me enough to understand a joke that came up in “Snuff.”

The conversation went something like this:

B: What’s a “fanny pack”?
A: Those little bags old people wear around their waists.
B: They’re called “fanny packs” in the US? That sounds really bad.
A: Why?
B: “Fanny” is slang for… uh… female genitalia.
A: Oh. Yeah, I can see that. What are they called in England?
B: They’re called “bum bags.”
A: …. that does not sound much better than “fanny pack.”

Now I need to ask B if there’s something about cheese prices in England, because I’ve read 2 books that cracked jokes about the price of cheese in England. This cannot be a coincidence.

Anyways, “Snuff” is about Commander Sam Vines and a vacation in the countryside where the manor of his wife’s family is located. This is the first book I’ve read with him in it, so I didn’t recognize any of the characters, though Terry Pratchett’s writing makes everything seem comforting and familiar if you’ve read any of his other books. I just dove in and read.

I enjoyed it a great deal, with its concerns with class and race distinctions as well as the jokes inserted along the way. Clearly there were some related to genitalia.

What else can be said about the book? It’s a Discworld book! That pretty much sums it up. The main character goes on to experience things, deal with issues that can be applied to present-day life, and there are puns and ridiculous jokes abound.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – John le Carre

I enjoyed the movie so much that I decided to read the book itself in spite of it not featuring dargons, plate mail, or magic. I did enjoy the book, but it took me a long time to finish reading it. There are several reasons for that.

    1. I only read it during lunch or while on the subway.
    2. The paperstock was heavier than a usual paperback and I kept turning back a page, thinking I turned 2 pages instead of 1.
    3. Seeing the movie before reading the book lead to visualization problems. I kept reading descriptions of characters and stopping to try and picture them, only to have the movie depictions get in the way.
    4. M borrowed the book and never gave it back.

Seeing the movie before reading the book leads to some issues, most obviously the one where I know what happens. Another is that I am double guessing myself, wondering if so-and-so’s actions were a hint of what was to come.

There are other things that slowed me down, such as my inability to picture where the mentioned cities are located or get a grip on references. This is where my limited geography and history schooling showed a lot. And the fact that I have no idea where anything in England is located. It would not have been a problem if I had a laptop with me to look up maps and whatnot, but I never read it while I had access to a computer.

I suppose that this is an issue if you’re used to reading fantasy books. No need to know where things are! Just use your imagination.

I don’t think this is a con, per se; it is a reminder that I need to read things that are based in this world. This does not make it more likely for me to read fiction, and I do not feel lessened by this admission.

Anyways, it was a good read that was undoubtedly influenced by my enjoyment of the movie. Some times, I say, “Ricky. Ricky Tarr” in what is undoubtedly the worst imitation of Gary-Oldman-being-Smiley when Smiley sits down to talk with Ricky Tarr. M doesn’t get the reference right away, which saddens me.

It’s a very different style of writing compared to what I am used to, florid and what feels like run-on sentences without actually being run-ons, although I think there are definitely run-on sentences. When I read it, I imagined an older white man with pock-marked jowls and a bulbous nose, spotchily flushed with burst blood vessels, describing his hey-day. Perhaps with a bit of spittle.

That is how the book reads. (To clarify, because M said I was being mean to poor Smiley, the writing feels that way, definitely not Smiley.)

There are some confusing turns of phrase in the book, specifically anything referencing pink.

“In the pink.”

“When everyone was a little pink.”

As far as I know, there are 3 uses for “being in the pink.” Being in the pink of good health, being slightly pink in boys’ boarding school days for homosexual activity, and being a pink for Communists. All of those could have been applied to any of the uses of “pink” in the book and it gave me pause because I wasn’t sure which one was being referenced, especially with pink in reference to school days. I was under the impression that sexual and political experimentation ran rampant back then, so I wasn’t sure which one the described character was dipping his digits into.

That aside, I enjoyed this florid book. I will read the rest as soon as I figure out where M put them.

(So tempted to back-date this since I read the book about a month after the movie came out, but I am slack on these attempts to write about books and I might as well own up to it.)

Book Interlude: The Silvered – Tanya Huff

I feel tricked. The blurb on the dust jacket mentioned mages and war, and I was unsure about purchasing the book. But eh, it’s Tanya Huff and I’ve always enjoyed her books.

And then I find out it’s a werewolf book.

Nothing wrong with that! I should have guessed from the title and the big black dog, sorry, wolf, on the cover.

I find myself skimming more than anything, not because I think it’s bad but because I am not sure I like the book. Mostly, I want to find out what happens and then decide if I want to read the book more slowly. It’s a bleak, depressing world full of imperialism and dubbing individuals “abominations,” and I am not sure I can enjoy the book without first realizing that it ends happily.

House of Many Ways – Diana Wynne Jones

I have had a taste for books that poke fun at fairy tale norms ever since reading The Enchanted Forest series by Patricia C. Wrede. There aren’t many books that do this and are fun, but not ridiculous, to read. I can only think of the Tiffany Aching books by Terry Pratchett and books by Diana Wynne Jones.

“The House of Many Ways” is a continuation of the “Howl’s Moving Castle” world. Strangely, has a description that says “The House of Many Ways” is the second in the series, but “Castle in the Air” is clearly the 2nd in continuity, followed by “House of Many Ways.”

This book takes place in Norland, and it’s main character Charmain Baker is the daughter of a baker and a woman whose sense of propriety has resulted in Charmain staying inside to read and eat pastries because doing just about anything would be improper. In fact, reading all the time might be improper too.

Charmain’s overbearing paternal aunt sets up the story by having Charmain go and be a housesitter/caretaker for their great-great-x-uncle in his strange house, and Charmain furthers it by writing a letter to the King of Norland, asking to be an assistant in cataloging his enormous library. Whilst attempting to work as an assistant librarian, deal with her great-uncle’s strange house, and unravel myths and mysteries, Charmain learns that her previous existence ill-prepared her for her life and that she must first want to take care of herself before she can, well, take care of herself. When she finally starts wanting to be capable, she becomes more likable.

I enjoyed this book but I am unsure why I did, which is why it took me so long to complete this review.

Here’s the thing: I didn’t like Charmain, but I enjoyed the book. Perhaps enjoyed it because it’s a Howl and Sophy book, the last as Diana Wynne Jones sadly passed away last year.

Also, I didn’t enjoy Howl’s appearance in the book! Normally, I find him hilarious. This time, he was just grating. Sophy was not effective in this book either, which made me sad. She didn’t do things in her oddly effective way like in the previous books, and she kept saying, “Doh!” It made me think of Homer Simpson.

What I did appreciate was how Charmain realizes she is useless, and how she makes steps to try and be more useful. It takes her a bit to realize it, and she goes about adjusting herself in a roundabout manner, all the while unearthing strange things about her uncle and her country.

The world itself is more disturbing than in any other Howl book. There, potential violence was on the periphery, but in House of Many Ways, it was right there in the front. It took me aback.

I am going to keep this book, but I’m not sure I will reread it. I miss the omnipresent whimsy and bizarre fairytale touch in the other Howl books that did not appear here.

Moon Called – Patricia Briggs

Several months ago, M. looked down at his armful of books as we walked to the cashier and sighed. “I hate it when I get books that are clearly marketed to me.”

I looked at his selection of alternative history and sci-fi battle books, and looked at my stack of steampunk romance books (The Parasol Protectorate by Gail Carriger) and replied, “I know what you mean.”

That is how I feel about urban fantasy books. Or, as they are categorized by some, “Supernatural Romance”, to which I say, what the christ?

Back in the dark ages, I loved urban fantasy books. Sadly, there weren’t many urban fantasy books and I had to dig a bit to find them. Now, there are too many of them and I can’t stand reading them. The biggest reasons are because they are poorly written and contrived, and I dislike how many of them are based around sex, romance, and sexy romance with supernatural critters. With that phrasing, I think people who fantasize about sexing up vampires or werewolves can be related to furries!

It’s not just that the books tend to be terrible. It’s also that the covers are terrible. Please, think of the commuter-reader who doesn’t want people to see her reading a book with scantily-clad anythings on the cover.

Those things contributed to me not wanting to read the Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs: suspicion of the content and irritation with the cover. The heroine is supposed to be a mechanic. Would a mechanic unbutton her shirt to her boob line, roll her shirt up to said line, wear long dangly earrings, and leave her hair lose? This is an embarrassing book to be seen buying or reading, but hey, at least she’s not wearing some sort of taffeta number with wings or dripping mascara.

“Moon Called” introduces nothing new to the urban fantasy genre. There are werewolves, vampires, and faeries. They don’t like each other. Also familiar is how the main character, Mercedes, is none of these but interacts with all of them. It cannot be helped! The local werewolf leader is her neighbor, and her stepfather was a werewolf! Vampires shake her down for protection money, and the previous owner of her shop (and her car mentor) is a faerie.

Mercy is a skinwalker, the only one she knows of (qualifying her for Special Snowflake heroine status), who doesn’t know her father, was raised by a werewolf, and left the werewolf pack to live on her own. Currently, she works as a car mechanic in her own shop, and goes about her la di da business until a werewolf she knows isn’t a part of the local pack comes and asks her for work and she learns that he was an illegally made (by the werewolf pack standards) werewolf that escaped from people experimenting on him. She brings this to the attention of the local pack leader, and hijinks ensue. People get hurt, infighting and subplots come to light, all 3 supernatural factions get involved, and we learn more about Mercy and how the factions work.

I’m not going to say this book was horrible; it’s not. It is also not worth buying. The writing is a bit clunky and awkward, and the world-building is nothing special. It’s not that a book has to have something Super Special to make it worthwhile, but there most be something compelling about the first book in the series that will convince me to buy the rest of the books.

I don’t see an overarching good vs. evil battle coming up, nor do I feel empathy or curiosity for any of the characters. The organization of the factions isn’t interesting yet, and none of the characters have been given enough depth to be interesting.

What I’m saying is that this book is a fast read for a boring day. You’ll want to finish reading it, but once you’re done, it won’t occupy your mind. You might be curious about the sequels, but you will also realize that each book is $7.99 and you could buy a burger or a bowl of ramen that would be more enjoyable.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother – Amy Chua

Everyone knows of this book, whether it’s from the New York Times review, or from NPR, mothers, Asians, etc. It is also likely that most have formed an opinion without reading the book.

I really did not want to read it, partly because I do not want to read books about Asian-American experiences, but mostly because I thought this book would make me furious. However, someone read it and wanted me to read it and talk to her about it because she was amazed at the child-rearing tactics. “We do not do that in France! The school system is so different from America’s! Were you raised like this?”

Indeed, reading the book made me furious, and I often stopped to yell about it to M., who bore this both stoically and with laughter, but mostly with side-eyes. I had to stop reading several times because my brain was going to explode. As a result, it took me a week to read this little book, and it should have taken a few hours.

This book is a recount of Amy Chua’s tactics of raising her kids to be smart, brilliant, and admired so that she can congratulate herself and pat herself on the back.

Okay, so that last bit is my interpretation of the situation, but I feel that it is an accurate one. The entire book is how everything is related to her: the interpreted slackness of American child rearing, being an immigrant child in America, raising children, her family’s situations, etc. Perhaps this should not be unexpected, as this book is written from her perspective. Nevertheless, the degree to which she makes the world revolve around herself is appalling, and combined with the pervasive feeling of smug, self-superiority, this book is palatable only in small doses.

Chua is against the so-called American easy-going attitude, and she was going to make sure her children did not get this American attitude by drilling them ceaselessly in math, music, and whatever else she deemed to be appropriate. The main focus of the forced drills is music, likely because it is the source of the majority of the clashes she has with her family.

Chua is that Asian mom that other kids look at in horror. The one that flipped out at your friend for getting a 98/100? The one that called your classmate worthless for placing 3rd in that music competition? The one that told you, “You are a disappointment and a failure. How can you shame me like this!” It makes the book very difficult to read.

The gist I’m getting from this book is that Chua believes herself to be refined, superior, and always right. After all, she is the daughter of a known scientist, a Harvard graduate, a Yale Law professor, and mother of musically gifted children. She did everything right by her family and children, and she will tell you that in her book. Even her so-called comeuppance isn’t a comeuppance. For that to be true, she would have to believe she was in the wrong. At the end of the book, it is difficult to see if Chua alters her standpoint enough to realize she is not the sole arbitrator of what is right.

This book does not accomplish much outside of a cathartic exposition for Chua, as it neither proves nor disproves her methods. People who already believe in Chua’s methods will use this book to support their beliefs, whilst those who are against her methods will use it to support theirs.

Personally, I did not enjoy this book. I do not feel like rereading it, nor do I want to buy myself a copy. I found it grating and offensive to read, and do not recall any passages as ideas or stories that I should remember.