Tuesday, July 31, 2012

James S.A. Corey “Caliban’s War” (Orbit, 2012)

So by now you’ve all right “Leviathan Wakes” right?  Right?  You in the back, shaking your head no…. leave & get that book read.  Come back once you’ve finished.
“Caliban’s War” picks up soon after the end of “Leviathan Wakes”.  Things have not gotten better.  If anything, the overall political situation is more unstable.  There’s an incident on Ganymede, & suddenly the solar system is at the brink of war.
All the elements you liked from “Leviathan Wakes” are back.  Fast plotting, lots of action, a deep vision of the political and social culture of the age.  Corey adds a couple of new POV characters which add more breadth to the universe.  You’ll get to know some familiar characters a bit better, and will enjoy meeting the new ones.
“Leviathan Wakes” was one of the most entertaining books of 2011.  “Caliban’s War” is a worthy successor, perhaps even better than the first book in the series.

Elijah Wald "How the Beatles Destroyed Rock & Roll" (Oxford University Press, 2011)

Relax boomers – this isn’t the 300 page takedown of the Beatles that you’re ready to hate.  What it is then, is a unique history of American popular music in the 20th century.  A sequel, of sorts, to Wald’s “Escaping the Delta”.

The argument in this case is that around 1965, music became more segregated, with black performers continuing the traditional interest in dance music, while white performers became more interested in art music designed for listening, not movement.  His claim is that this was to the detriment of both strands of music.  

Wald’s approach is somewhat unique.  The usual approach is to construct a critical narrative.  From a position of hindsight, various figures deemed important and/or influential are highlighted to provide some sense of progress.  Wald views himself as a historian, rather than a critic.  Using sales charts and radio playlists he constructs a vision of what people were actually listening to, rather than what they *should* have been listening to.

The advantage of this approach is that it provides a more accurate reflection of what the times were actually like.  Yes, apparently Doris Day & Perry Como really were that popular!

And that leads to the downside of Wald’s approach.  There are long passages devoted to performers such as Paul Whiteman who is of little to no interest to contemporary listeners.  While Wald’s writing never falters, the fact that these performers are quite simply of lesser importance to modern ears makes these portions of the book drag.

The discussion of the 1950s was of particular interest to me in light of the current state of the music industry.  The split between albums and singles, both among audiences and performers, seems to mirror the emerging state of the recording industry.  Perhaps in a few years we’ll again find ourselves in that same situation.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Paul Doiron “The Poacher’s Son” (Minotaur Books, 2010)

Often contemporary mysteries seem to use the plot device of a murder as more of a macguffin than as any actual whodoneit.  In this case, there’s a murder whose investigation allows for the exploration of the setting and the characters of the novel.
I found the setting to be very interesting and well developed.  The world of northern Maine, and the routines of a Game Warden there, makes for unusual and intriguing reading.  Doiron does an excellent job bringing the reader to this area that almost seems to exist in another time.  Its physical remoteness necessitates a sort of living in the past, as so many modern conveniences either won’t work, or are simply impractical in this environment.
I found myself less satisfied with the protagonist.  He’s a terrible investigator.  He doesn’t seem to be particularly good at his actual job (Game Warden).  He consistently makes terrible decisions.  And to top it off, he’s a jerk to everyone.  Several characters try to reach out to him (his estranged girlfriend, his boss, townspeople), only to be pushed away.  At this point I was not as surprised by his actions as much as I was by theirs.  Why bother with this guy?  His only redeeming feature seemed to be that he was the protagonist.

Alastair Reynolds "Blue Remembered Earth" (Ace, 2012)

It’s strange to think of a story spanning the solar system to be intimate, but in many ways that’s how this felt.  Its primary focus is on a family mystery, grandchildren trying to unravel the legacy and mystery of their grandmother’s life.  There are eventually implications for the entire system, but primarily their objectives and motivations are personal.
Reynolds develops a wonderful sense of the push & pull of life.  Our protagonists, Geoffrey and Sunday, try to pull away from their family, yet are bound inextricably to it.  Similarly there is the sense that as humanity leaves the Earth to explore and to live humanity is still attracted to its home planet.
If you are looking for space battles or lots of thrilling action sequences, this is not the book you are looking for.  If you want a response to the recent plethora of future dystopias, then the world of BRE will give you a vibrant vision a future full of possibility and wonder.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

John Scalzi "Redshirts" (Tor, 2012)

If the title didn’t tip you off, Redshirts is Scalzi’s  loving parody of Star Trek.  All the familiar characters and tropes are there, even if the names have been changed to protect the (not so) innocent.  I found it to be a fast and hilarious read – if anything I kept having to stop to read portions to my longsuffering wife.  The 3 codas add a nice balance to the book with their poignancy.  Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Aliette de Bodard "Obsidian and Blood" (Angry Robot, 2012)

De Bodard uses the tropes of a classic procedural mystery to take us through her fantasy Aztec world.  Our protagonist investigates a murder, which proves to be the string that eventually unravels plots and machinations that extend far beyond the obvious fatality.  Think Chandler or “Chinatown”.
Her vision of Aztec society is fascinating.  The gods and monsters are all too real.  Cruel beings which at their most compassionate must be bribed into allowing human existence.  Sacrifices of blood and pain are necessities to ensure the survival of the world itself.
“Obsidian and Blood” is an omnibus collecting all three of her novels in this mythos, as well as some short stories.  It is very very bloody and horrific at times.   If that poses no problem, these books are highly recommended for readers looking for something outside the common faux European fantasy settings.