Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Books read, 2014

1. Stephen King, Doctor Sleep
2. Terry Pratchett, Snuff
3. Stephen King, The Shining
4. Lorrie Moore, Bark 
5. Jeffrey Ford, The Physiognomy
6. David R. George III, Revelation and Dust 
7. Kim Newman, Johnny Alucard: Anno Dracula 1976-1991
8. Steve Rasnic Tem, Onion Songs
9. Armistead Maupin, Tales of the City
10. Jams Tiptree, Jr., Brightness Falls from the Air 
11. James Tiptree, Jr., The Starry Rift

1. David Sedaris, Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls
2. Octavia Butler, Kindred
3. Altariel, A Game of Chess  
4. Melanie Lamaga, The Evolution of Reptilian Handbags and Other Stories

1. Roxane Gay, An Untamed State
2.  Mary Gentle, Ash: A Secret History
3.  Violet Kupersmith, The Frangipani Hotel
4.  Jennifer DuBois, Cartwheel
5. Lauren Owen, The Quick

1. Polly Courtney, Feral Youth
2.  Sarah Langan, The Keeper

1. Jacob Bacharach, The Bend of the World
2.  Rainbow Rowell, Landline
3. Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, The Fall of the Kings
4. Joe Abercrombie, Half a King
5. Georgette Heyer, Frederica
6. Dorothy Dunnett, Queen's Play
7. Leah Hager Cohen, No Book But the World
8. Kevin Birmingham, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses
9. Graham Joyce, The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit
10.  J. R. R. Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary
11. Robin Hobb, Fool's Assassin

1. Matt Taibbi, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap
2. Theodore Sturgeon, Some of Your Blood
3. Samuel R. Delany, Tales of Nevèrÿon
4. Julie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members
5. Bel Kaufman, Love, Etc.
6. Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, From Hell*
7. P. D. James, Cover Her Face
8. Laline Paull, The Bees
9. Eddie Campbell and Alan Moore, The From Hell Companion
10. Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests
11. Chris Beckett, Dark Eden
12. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics: and Other Essays
13. Philip Sugden, The Complete History of Jack the Ripper
14. Daniel Levine, Hyde
15. Thomas Ligotti, The Spectral Link 
16. Matt Cardin (editor), Born to Fear: Interviews with Thomas Ligotti

1. Nick Mamatas, Love is the Law
2. Deanna Raybourn, Silent in the Grave
3. Alissa Nutting, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls
4. Pat Barker, The Eye in the Door
5. Pat Barker, The Ghost Road
6. Alison Lurie, Foreign Affairs
7. Reggie Oliver, Virtue in Danger
8. Jeffrey Ford, Memoranda
9. Alissa Nutting, Tampa
10. Brendan Connell, The Galaxy Club
11. Philip K. Dick, The Crack in Space
12. Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle
13. Shirley Jackson, Other Stories and Sketches (from the Library of America volume)
14. Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice
15. Georgette Heyer, Venetia
16. Michael Marshall, The Lonely Dead
17. Genevieve Valentine, Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti
18. Brendan Connell, Miss Homicide Plays the Flute
19. Georgette Heyer, Footsteps in the Dark
20. Grady Hendrix, Horrorstor
21. Deanna Raybourn, Silent in the Sanctuary
22. Jo Walton, Farthing
23. Ian R. MacLeod, The Summer Isles

1. John Joseph Adams (editor), The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
2. Caitlin R. Kiernan, Daughter of Hounds
3. Kage Baker, Gods and Pawns
4. Ian R. MacLeod, Journeys
5. Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, Sorcery and Cecelia
6. Sherman Alexie, Flight
7. Sherman Alexie, War Dances
8. Sue Grafton, "D" is for Deadbeat*
9. Jo Walton, Ha'penny
10. Jo Walton, Half a Crown
11. Georgette Heyer, The Corinthian
12. Edward St Aubyn, Never Mind
13. Kage Baker, In the Garden of Iden*
14. Edward St Aubyn, Bad News
15. Edward St Aubyn, Some Hope
16. Kage Baker, Sky Coyote*
17. Kage Baker, Mendoza in Hollywood*
18. Kage Baker, The Graveyard Game*
19. Kage Baker, Black Projects, White Knights: The Company Dossiers*
20. Kage Baker, The Life of the World to Come*
21. Kage Baker, The Children of the Company*
22. Kage Baker, The Machine's Child*
23. Kage Baker, The Sons of Heaven*
24. Kage Baker, In the Company of Thieves

1. Angela Pneuman, Lay It on My Heart
2. Edward St Aubyn, Mother's Milk
3. Edward St Aubyn, At Last
4. Charlotte Mosley (editor), The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters
5. Martin Amis, The Zone of Interest
6. Ha Jin, A Map of Betrayal
7. Matteo Pericoli et al, Windows on the World
8. Avi Steinberg, The Lost Book of Mormon
9. Jonathan Carroll, Bathing the Lion
10. William Gibson, The Peripheral
11. Kim Newman, An English Ghost Story
12. Michel Faber, The Book of Strange New Things

1. Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence
2. Jane Smiley, Some Luck
3. Maeve Binchy, Maeve's Times: Selected Writings from the Irish Times
4. Jill Lepore, The Secret History of Wonder Woman
5. Deanna Raybourn, City of Jasmine
6. Chuck Palahniuk, Beautiful You
7. Gregg Herken, The Georgetown Set
8. Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem
9. Alice Munro, Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014

1. Laurie R. King, Dreaming Spies
2. Joan Didion, Salvador*
3. Joan Didion, Miami*

1. Jose Saramago, Skylight
2. Matt Karlov, The Unbound Man
3. Nicholas Bourbaki, If
4. Joan Didion, Where I Was From*
5. Laurie R. King, The Beekeeper's Apprentice
6. Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet*
7. Laurie R. King, A Monstrous Regiment of Women
8. Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of the Four*
9. Laurie R. King, A Letter of Mary
10. Kelly Link, Get in Trouble
11. Jon Ronson, So You've Been Publicly Shamed
12. Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

* indicates rereading

Monday, December 22, 2014

If: a novel

The author supplied a review copy of this book.

The best that can come of ambitious literature adopting the forms of popular fiction is work that combines the sheer narrative appeal of the latter with the subtle thoughtfulness of the former. Such a novel is If, by a writer working under the playful pseudonym Nicholas Bourbaki. The horizons of American fiction these days are so narrow that the phrase "experimental novel" doesn't mean much, but the format of If is certainly unusual: it's one of those choose-your-own-fate books, where you're given options at the foot of a page and turn to a different section based on what choice you make. But you, the second-person protagonist, aren't facing robots in a futuristic wasteland or escaping from a haunted amusement park: you're just growing up, in middle-class northern California around the end of the twentieth century. Your decisions are about sex and love, education and employment. Some are large, some are small, but they all have unexpected, and unintended, consequences.

This sounds like a gimmick, but it's actually essential to one of the novel's thematic concerns: what the author described in a recent interview as "how contingent our lives are, but also how some parts of our identities are stubbornly resistant to change." And If succeeds in no small part because the protagonist does indeed have a consistent identity despite his wildly varying choices. "You" might wind up a homeless drug addict, a pillar of the community, or something even stranger, but certain traits will endure: insecurity, passion for grand ideologies, perhaps an over-reliance on mild-altering substances. There's something tragically likable about you, even though you can be a real jerk a lot of the time. You want, like everybody else, to be happy, and you associate happiness with freedom. But pursuing freedom tends to leave you unhappy.

And make no mistake, "you" will be unhappy for much of this book. Most pick-a-path titles have obvious good and bad endings; If doesn't break down that easily, but let's just say there aren't many turns of the page that will give "you" a deep sense of personal fulfillment. In that sense, If is rather a bleak meditation on the consequences of the unstructured pursuit of happiness. But it's subtle about that. A lesser writer would make much of the fact that doing the right thing can lead to a bad ending; Bourbaki takes that for granted, and has a less mechanistic sense than many writers of the way we are and aren't shaped by our decisions. The way the protagonist's life evolves acknowledges the seeming randomness of existence without denying the possibility that art can still illuminate meaning in that chaos.

This makes the book sound like heavy going, and for readers expecting the adult equivalent of Prisoner of the Ant People I expect it will be. Some of the protagonist's fates slip from straightforwardly realist contemporary fiction into more stylized and unsettling forms; he's artful about unleashing it, but Bourbaki has a real gift for intense, psychologically suggestive experimental prose. And yet for readers accustomed to long sentences, prose poetry, and highly fractured stream of consciousness, this novel will be the farthest thing from difficult: it will be a genuine page-turner. I myself picked it up to skim the first few pages, and wound up reading long into the night, impelled by the same curiosity about the consequences of a choice that draws children to the famous gamebooks, and by the psychological acuity of Bourbaki's characterization. The next day I couldn't wait to go on my lunch break and continue following the protagonist's forking paths. If is a novel that manages to be experimental yet accessible, compelling yet quietly intricate, and it deserves to be read by a much wider audience.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Unbound Man

The author supplied a review copy of this book.

The continent of Kal Arna was once dominated by the great empire of the Valdori. Now only ruins and fragments remain of that greatness. But even fragments can be dangerous. There is a mysterious urn. Arandras Kanthesi has it, but is interested in it only for the clue it might provide to the identity of the man who murdered his wife. Clade Alsere wants it, for the help it might offer in his escape from the god who dominates his existence. Eilwen Nasareen knows nothing of it, but will soon become caught up in events surrounding it, events that threaten to ruin her life with the Woodtraders Guild and reveal her most terrible secret. As scholars, sorcerers, and merchants struggle for power, these three lives will intersect, and their shared desperation for freedom will have terrible consequences.

If the premise of Matt Karlov's first novel sounds broadly familiar, that isn't misleading: this is a novel very much in the tradition of contemporary epic fantasy with a gritty edge. But familiar doesn't have to mean derivative, and The Unbound Man manages the difficult feat of fitting into a subgenre without being trapped by it. The key to this, I think, is that Karlov's protagonists are less aggressively amoral than in some of the epics that label-loving readers have called "grimdark." Fantasy was dominated by heroes and then by anti-heroes, but Karlov's characters are neither: they're ordinary people, struggling to balance their desires and their morality. They do bad things, they justify them, but they're aware of the weakness of their justifications. This makes their moral struggles easier to relate to than those of murderous queens and sadistic knights, though the thematic points being made are not dissimilar. Karlov is interested in the line between appropriate and inappropriate moral certainty, in the way the perception of oneself as righteous can lead to just as much destructive behavior as conscious cowardice. That's not to say, though, that the book declines into facile moral relativism. The three protagonists of The Undying Man are drawn with empathy (and even in the world of gritty epic fantasy it's striking to find a novel lacking an out-and-out human villain), but their dramas are weighty precisely because it matters whether or not they're doing the right thing.

If there's a downside to Karlov's themes and characterization, it's lack of subtlety. The reader is constantly being told what the characters' emotional states mean, even when it's obvious from their current and previous behavior. At one point a character has a thematically-charged dream, and the text notes, "The dream's meaning was plain enough." Indeed... but the text goes on to explain it anyway. These explanations can feel especially grating because the characters' moral and emotional dilemmas are basically unchanging throughout the book, so that their implications would be obvious even with no hand-holding, let alone a constant stream of it. The climactic action in particular feels bogged down with on-the-nose statements of points that were already implicit. But the thematic resolutions are satisfying enough that they work despite being overplayed.

The themes are perhaps the strongest aspect of The Unbound Man, but no aspect of it is less than competently done. The prose is clear and readable, with diction that is only occasionally too contemporary for a pre-modern fantasy setting. The world-building is rich in detail, concerned largely with the daily life of the two major cities in which the novel takes place, but also suggesting a wider world that will likely come into focus in the two remaining volumes of the trilogy. Karlov's world-building is less atmospheric than that of the very best fantasy writers, less likely to produce a vivid mental picture or a sense of wonder, but it's enough to make the setting feel real and weighty. The magic system strikes what seems to me a good balance between "mysterious and inexplicable" and "so detailed it belongs in a role-playing game."

The plot is, it must be said, a slow-building one even by epic fantasy standards. The mysteries of the characters' backstories make the opening sections compelling, as readers begin to puzzle out how it all fits together, but once the general outline is clear, it takes a while for the action to kick into high gear. Part of the novel's emphasis on realistic characters rather than heroes is that the stakes are not at first enormously high, and the intrigues are less complicated than they might otherwise be. It's only in the last third of the novel, as the plotlines directly intersect and long-held plans are enacted, that events take on the usual feel of epic fantasy. But there's enough going on throughout to satisfy readers who don't demand superficial action every step of the way. And the denouement is both a satisfying resolution of this novel's conflicts and the beginning of a larger story that promises to extend this one's themes in intriguing and emotionally resonant ways. I'm certainly looking forward to the next book, and I suspect that, once they've experienced The Unbound Man, many other readers will be too. This is a fine debut novel from a writer with a great sense of how to use the tropes of epic fantasy in thoughtful and entertaining ways.