Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Reading in January

[Note: I decreased the cover size because the post felt far long, and I don't want this blog to become an endless succession of cover art. If this new format's grotesque, please say so, and I'll change it back.]

Player of Games is Banks at the height of his powers. This novel's deeply intelligent and carefully constructed, but it's also a thrilling book that's consistently amusing throughout. Highly recommended for science fiction fans. Review coming.

The Westeros book of the month.  Beat the Reaper is one of the greatest page turners that I can ever remember reading. The prose drags you on with all the force of a hurricane and the attitude of…well, a Mafioso-cum-doctor, I guess. The book is jam packed with digressions that are generally quite amusing, though occasionally a bit too out there (the holocaust thread feels unnecessary and too disconnected from the rest), but there's not a single moment in the book where the spell is truly broken, and that's a definite accomplishment for an author that goes so gleefully over the top as Bazell does so often here.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is one of the three novels that I've been repeatedly told (since starting this whole Crime thing) started noir. The novel is brutal and bare bones, with the only sympathetic character cast as the antagonist and the amount of descriptive prose throughout the whole thing not being quite enough to properly fill a tea cup.

Goodis's classic crime novel is digressive, character focused, and bleak as can be. Review coming.

This issue of F&SF has actually been in my possession for a while. I got it when I was first considering reading some genre magazines, back when this was the current F&SF issue, and then promptly forgot about that goal – and this issue – until just now. The contents – and especially the longish Paradiso Lost by Cowdrey – were good enough to make me take out a subscription, which led to…

…my first sent-in-the-post issue of F&SF. As can be expected when going into a publication with various authors, there are a few stories more and a few less to my taste, but the magazine is quite powerful throughout and even the weaker tales boast impressive prose and ideas. My favorite story was probably Mathew Corradi's The Ghilish Blade, an engrossing and beautiful fantasy tale. Cowdrey's contribution to this issue, The Bogle, was also high quality and surprising in its genre (compared to his SF Paradiso Falls from the above issue), though the content itself wasn't particularly twisty.

This was the second of the three noir-cornerstone novels mentioned above (the third being The Big Sleep, which I read back in December). The Maltese Falcon is the kind of classic that's still a page turner decades after its initial publication, and the stark and declarative prose has lost none of its impact. This is a novel of complex twists and turns, with numerous characters each with separate agendas, but the plot never feels unfocused or artificial. When it comes to morality and characterization, Hammet is perhaps the least outspoken of the noir authors that I've read so far. We never come to understand Spade, and even at the end there's the question of just what his motives throughout were. It's a testament to Hammet's skills that, upon finishing the book, I was really saddened to learn that Spade, unlike Chandler's Marlowe, does not get his own series.

My thoughts after reading the first few pages of The Scarlet Letter were that Hawthorne could write very good prose. After another few pages, I amended that to good but wordy prose. By the end of the book, my opinion had distilled down to wordy. Hawthorne's writing seems enjoyable in small doses, but this novel is a piece of obviously plotted flash fiction stretched out to an agonizing (though objectively moderate) length. I think it says something that Hawthorne's introduction is forty-five pages of nothing, literally a third of the novel's text.

Under Heaven is a tightly focused and beautifully written epic fantasy. The main characters are immensely sympathetic, the oriental-esque setting is vivid and rich, and the book is impossible to put down. If I'd read this when it was released, I can guarantee that it would have made my list of best 2010 releases.

 Crampton is the screenplay that Ligotti penned with Brandon Trenz to try and get onto the X Files, which was later redone into a longer, un-X files-related version. (I read the original.) Though the themes are familiar to longtime Ligotti fans, this is, by necessity, a different style, with the author's traditionally dense and layered prose replaced with stage directions and dialogue. Different, however, does not always mean bad, and the rhythm that Ligotti manages to establish as the tale builds to its conclusion is extremely powerful – even if the ending itself did not really live up to what preceded it.

My Work is Not Yet Done consists of two short stories and a novella, the latter being the longest continuous piece of fiction that the author has yet created. Though the supernatural is a decided part of the work, My Work is Not Yet Done is far more human-focused than much of the author's output. Review coming.

The Crucible was a powerful play that, in my eyes, deserves its legendary status. The various characters grow sympathetic as the scenes pass, and the town's descent into insanity is both believable and frightening.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman was a sort of odd read for me. The fact that I named After Dark as one of my favorite reads of last year is probably enough to show that I'm a huge fan of Murakami's prose, and this collection of twenty-four stories is as deliciously smooth and thought provoking as always. That being said, many of the collection's pieces, especially towards the beginning, were more beautiful than sympathetic, and, though some of the later tales did succeed to draw me in emotionally, many of the early stories feel more like fascinating displays than immersing experiences. If you're a fan of Murakami's writing, you're unlikely to be disappointed here, but I'd recommend experiencing his novels first.

The concluding volume of K.J. Parker's Engineer Trilogy was a powerful read that made the most of the promises established in earlier volumes. Review coming.

Shock Totem was actually the magazine that kicked off my magazine-reading quest,and the first issue didn't disappoint. Review here.

The second issue of Shock Totem didn't feel as even as the first, but its heights were even higher, cementing the magazine as essential reading in my opinion. Review coming.

The Y series seems to be getting better and better with each volume. I found the ultimate fate of the astronauts a bit of a cop out here, but that's a relatively minor thing when compared with how gripping I found the rest. The characters are continuing to develop, and I'm looking forward to the fourth volume.

(I'll point out here that my review of the first Y was taken down from the list. Looking back over it, I didn't feel like it was up to snuff, and I'd prefer to review the series as a whole once I've finished it. Sorry if you were waiting for the review.)

Snake Agent was a gripping and inventive read, a mixture of bizarre imagination and carefully orchestrated suspense. The occasional twist was too easy to see coming – something not helped by the spoiler-filled back cover blurb – but the novel was enjoyable enough to render any such issues trivial. Recommended.

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