Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

Hype – it invokes both eagerness and dread, and The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch has certainly had its fair share of hype over the last year. Rumblings began in 2005 with a few lone voices like Jay Tomio exclaiming excellence. It peaked in 2006 when and unimpressed reviewer stepped over that invisible line and actually accused other reviewers of taking bribes, invoking a virtual firestorm across the net. Since then, the book has topped many best-of lists of fanboys/girls and bloggers. All the while I’m sure Lynch can barely contain his excitement of the attention his debut has received.

So, does The Lies of Locke Lamora live up to the hype? Was my bribe big enough to make me sing its praises? The short answer is yes to the former and that I’m still waiting for that mythological big payout I’m sure to receive for all the positive reviews I write.

Everybody loves a good story about con artists – and this is a very good story about the Gentlemen Bastards, con artists extraordinaire. We meet the young orphan Locke Lamora and follow him though moments in his childhood as he is trained to become the infamous Thorn of Camorr. In parallel we follow an older Locke, leading the Gentlemen Bastards in a grand scheme as he relieves a noble family of disgustingly large sums of money. As we expect, things get complicated on a number of fronts – a power grab for the rule of Camorr’s underworld and the secret police manage to snare Locke and his brilliantly mischievous gang.

The Lies of Locke Lamora delivers in spite of the hype because it succeeds exactly as advertised – this book is just plain fun. The writing flows decently well for a first novel and the plot grips you early. Lynch taps into that unexplainable sympathy and magnetism we all feel for that loveable rogue – the guy we know is bad, a bastard, but secretly are convinced is actually a nice guy – that guy that the women hate to love and men love to hate. The witty dialogue, while overdone at times, captures that ideal and genuine like for a merry band of thieves sticking it the upper class.

Characterization is present, but to be honest, only one or two characters really come off greater than some paper-machete cliché. It’s the plot that succeeds here. The story that’s told is fun, contains numerous twists that are both anticipated and not, while not being too perfect and wrapping everything up in a neat ‘happily ever after’ ending.

Now, this book is far from perfect – it suffers, greatly at times, from the inconsistency of a first-time novel. The dialogue ranges from witty and realistic to silly and awful – the first time I read the word ‘savvy’, a clear copy right out of Pirates of the Caribbean, I had to put the book down for a while. I could have screamed at a few oversights that were made by a supposedly brilliant gang of con artists that could keep their secret so well and fool everyone. There are also at least one too many instances of survival in a situation of certain death.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is not a book offering new and wondering insights to the human condition. No political statement is made. It is simply a great story – action packed, full of humor, hate and revenge. I couldn’t have put the book down during the final hundred pages if…(fill in the blank with something good).

The Lies of Locke Lamora earns a solid 7.5/10 – the plot should pull it even higher, but the minor annoyances of the first-time novel keep slightly lower. This book is easy to recommend to nearly anyone. As you may expect with such a successful debut, a sequel (actually 6 of them) is in the works (Red Seas Under Red Skies is due out in July ’07), but this book stands on its own for those of us not looking to invest in yet another unfinished series – don’t let the fear of a series stop you from reading this one.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Smoking Poppy by Graham Joyce

What lengths will a father go for the love of a daughter? Smoking Poppy explores this and other aspects of parenthood and self discovery in a suspenseful journey into a heart of darkness.

Danny is a very private guy, keeping the world at arm’s length. Recently separated from his wife of many years, he does not even realize that his annoying quiz teammate and snookers partner, Mick, is actually his best friend in the world. His insular world turns upside down with horrifying news from abroad.

Danny has been estranged from his daughter, Charlie, for the last couple of years as she finishes up a degree at Oxford. One day a call is received from the consulate in Thailand – the love of his life, the eye of his world has been arrested for drug smuggling and is facing a possible death sentence in a distant land. As soon as he can, Danny is on a plane to Thailand to save his little girl, accompanied by Mick (who was not invited) and his other estranged child – Phil the eldest and a literal elder in a fundamentalist Christian church. Things in Chiang Mai don’t go as planned, and the three men find themselves on a journey into the lawless borderlands where opium is king.

Told entirely through the eyes of Danny, the journey grows literally and metaphorically into one of self-discovery, revulsion, joy, and ultimately, healing. Whether they believe in a hell or not, Danny, Mick and Phil all experience it a visceral way as they are forced to confront the darkness they hold inside and the limits they are willing to go. It takes all three to free Charlie from the internal and external prison she is suffering in.

Smoking Poppy is a journey, as well as an adventure. The prose is tight, yet evocative, and at times intensely gripping. Motivations of the characters beyond Danny remain elusive, as we see the world only through his eyes. I was left wanting more, but realizing how that just couldn’t be.

Smoking Poppy is a well written expression of a father’s love and the endless limits of that love, in spite of his own shortcomings. It also functions well as a suspense thriller, and unfortunately would probably work well as Hollywood fodder. The powerfully realized novel has no obvious weakness, ranking 8 out of 10. While, it’s not really a genre book, it’s well worth reading for fans of any genre.

Friday, January 19, 2007

A Bit More

In my review of Fast Forward 1 edited by Lou Anders, I made extensive reference to the Introduction – well it’s been posted on-line here. In the very least, it’s a good essay on the place of science fiction in the world. On a related note, this interview with Anders came out today, and he talks about editing at Pyr, science fiction, and a bunch of other stuff.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Crossing Over to the Dark Side

Mixed emotions often follow ‘big’ announcements, and my emotion is in the minority (or seems to be) for one of the latest. As anyone who is familiar with the name George R.R. Martin has surely heard by now, it has been announced that HBO has picked up the rights to film Martin’s landmark A Song of Ice and Fire series – and it seems that things are progressing rather quickly in terms of production. Translation: this sounds like it’s for real. So, what’s the reaction from Martin fans – shouts of joy, unintelligible glee, proclamations that HBO is the only place that can do it ‘right’, etc.

My reaction – irritation, some anger, and now disappointment. While there are loads of good arguments for why it’s good when a work of one media crosses over to another, I’m ignoring them all and concentrating on how I feel about this. It saddens me that what people are treating as the greatest thing to happen to this series is its cross over to visual media – it will be watered down, loose its magic, and ruin my imagined interpretations and people scream in joy. What is it saying about books and the written word when such a reaction occurs? Is this indicative of people believing that a work is ‘incomplete’ if it’s only in the written form? Has imagination been monopolized by the huge, visual media conglomerates? Could these joyous revelers survive a week, or even a day without their TVs and video games?

As most of you know, I’m a regular poster at several message boards. One – Wotmania OF, where I’ve been a member for a long time now is the perfect example of how the written word seems to be fading in significance. Over the past 5+ years that I’ve been active in some form at that board I’ve seen it regress from a place of great discussion to one where a forum originally intended for book-talk has the majority of its activity talking about TV shows. What the fuck is up with that! TV shows? Come on, even the best TV show can’t stack up against a merely mediocre book. It seems that the visual media market has made the imagination an endangered species, and is working hard towards its extinction. I know there are others who think the same – speak up. Write, talk – be more intelligent and eloquent about it than I am (or less – whatever works).
I think I'm starting to get a handle on why the internet and such scares the publishing industry so much.

Saddened has grown to real anger, so I’ll stop here. /rant

PS – These related posts talk about books that just can’t be made into movies.

Related Rants: Can’t a Book Be Just a Book?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Fast Forward 1 Edited by Lou Anders

Lou Anders has a very ambitious goal – to start a new anthology series in the tradition of past landmarks like Damon Knight’s Orbit and Frederik Pohl’s Star SF. I have not read those series, but it’s safe to say that Anders is on the right track with Fast Forward 1. This start to a knew series contains stories by such genre big names as Gene Wolfe, Larry Niven, and Mike Resnick and hot, newer voices such as Kage Baker, Robert Charles Wilson, Justina Robson, Paolo Bacigalupi, Ian McDonald and many more.

In the Introduction: “Welcome to the Future”, he provides another essay in a long tradition of essays lauding the importance and relevance of science fiction to our world. Honestly, it doesn’t say anything really new, but reiterated much of what others have said, however, he does say it well.

Anders speaks to science fiction’s ability to show us something new, to make us think. He goes on to remind us that so many important people behind advances in our society don’t just stand on the shoulders of previous scientists and engineers, but also on the inspiration provided by early science fiction writers. Science fiction is critical thought, it is skepticism, and it is rationalism. In that spirit, I’ll let Anders’ own words from the Introduction speak for themselves.

Here, then, are twenty-one windows on the future, as seen through the imagination of twenty-three different talents. Their collective visions take us from the far future to the day just after tomorrow. In their hands, science fiction is indeed a tool for making sense of a changing world. It’s not the only such tool, but it is an amazingly effective one. Who knew enlightenment could so much fun?
Each of the twenty-one stories accomplishes these goals in some way, each in their own way. “Small Offerings” by Paolo Bacigalupi shows us the poison of our society and its direct affect on the next generation in a dark, highly symbolic story that is so disturbing because we can envision it happening. “Aristotle OS” by Tony Ballantyne provides an equally saddening view of what our world could be, if only just…

Humanity of the far future is visited in “Plotters and Shooters” by Kage Baker, “Time for the Snake” by A.M. Dellamonica, and “The Terror Bard” by Larry Niven and Brenda Cooper. Humanity of a less distant future is visited in others.

Consequences reign for many – whether it’s the rather obvious consequence of rescuing a genetically derived saber-tooth tiger in “Pride” by Mary A. Turzillo or the less obvious consequences of the world’s greatest swordsman in “The Hour of Sheep” by Gene Wolf.

Consequence’s eternal companion, choice, follows right along. In “Solomon’s Choice” by Mike Resnick and Nancy Kress a doctor is faced with two unacceptable choices – is their a third? Will humanity choose to accept help from an unknown origin in “Settlements” by George Zebrowski, or will simply nuke the perceived enemy?

Elizabeth Bear brings attention to the teen ‘choking’ or ‘pass-out game’ in an interesting combination with quantum computers. Robyn Hitchcock provides two poetic interludes and “Sideways from Now” is beautifully told novella of love lost and telepathy by John Meany.

What science fiction anthology could be complete without satire – it’s no surprise to me that my favorites of the collection would be here. “Jesus Christ, Reanimator” by Ken Macleod relates the story of Christ’s second coming through the eyes of a reporter covering the event all the way to its inevitable conclusion. Anders appropriately chooses to conclude the anthology “Wikiworld” by Paul Di Fillipo. The wonderfully witty prose and plotting allow the anthology to end in a humorously satisfying stalemate.

Short stories are always difficult for me to review, and collections even more so. Certain stories always exceed those around them, and others can be total failures. Anders has done well to avoid the failures, though some are as forgettable as the page number. Of course others still keep me awake at night. Fast Forward 1 is better than most – 7.5/10.

EDIT: A short update post and a link to the Introduction.

Monday, January 15, 2007

2007 Hugo Nominations

I am not a member of the WSFS and therefore not eligible to vote or nominate for the Hugo. This doesn’t bother me much, but I've decided to share what I would nominate if I could. I don’t feel I’m qualified to speak for nominations in categories other than best novel, so my comments are limited to best novel only.

It is very important to note that there is a very good rule change this year according to Kevin Standlee. I’m quoting this from comments he gave at William Lexner’s Hugo post.

…the Business Meeting may (and in 2006 did) pass a eligibility-extension resolution providing that works originally published outside the United States of America and first published in the United States of America in 2006 shall also be eligible for Hugo Awards given in the following year. Therefore, those works published previously in the UK and Australia are eligible for the 2007 Hugo Awards if their first US publication was in 2006.

If a book that was released outside of the US previously got a Hugo nomination (such as River of Gods by Ian McDonald) it is not eligible for a second nomination (which makes sense).

The following are books that I would nominate (or consider nominating) for best novel.

Vellum by Hal Duncan. With the rule change this is eligible, and would get my vote to win, no matter what it’s up against. It’s an amazing work. (review)

His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik. A very fun and new approach to dragons – definitely a recommended read and deserves a nomination, but not the win. (review)

The Thousandfold Thought by R. Scott Bakker. This is the best fantasy series to come around in years. Bakker deserves the nomination for this conclusion to his excellent trilogy, and I certainly wouldn’t complain too loudly if he won (though I don’t think he has a chance in hell of even getting nominated – too bad). (review)

Infoquake by David Louis Edelman. A new twist on sci-fi as the corporate board room of the future takes center stage. This is an excellent debut novel and should appeal to usual Hugo-voting crowd. (review)

Mappa Mundi by Justina Robson. A great hard sci-fi thriller that will make you think. It’s another book that should appeal to the Hugo crowd, and has earned the right to be nominated. (review)

The Crooked Letter by Sean Williams. This is dark fantasy as I’ve not seen it before. Another work deserving of nomination. (review)

So, those are the books that I’ve read that I feel deserve nomination. There are a few that I haven’t read yet, that I trust do indeed deserve nomination. These include:

So, nominate books if you can, and vote when the finalists come out. If you're like me and can't, know that the above books are probably worth reading.

EDIT: For those that are members of the WSFS and are going to nominate for the Hugo awards, you should read this post by Patrick Nielsen Hayden which points out some important errors in the nominating form.

Friday, January 12, 2007

It’s National Delurking Week

I saw this by John Scalzi at Whatever – apparently it is National Delurking Week (who knew?) where lurkers everywhere are encouraged to step forward and reveal themselves (please don’t take the word 'reveal' too seriously unless you should ;-). So, please take the time to post a quick comment if you're interested – take the opportunity to offer any suggestions or other general comments, introduce yourself, or just say hi. I only censor blatant advertising comments – which I might suspend for this post since they should technically be allowed. We’ll see.

Also, am I the only one who thinks that ‘delurk’ sounds like one of the curious sounds heard while in the bathroom?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Vellum by Hal Duncan

Every so often a book comes along that goes beyond entertainment, beyond literary value, and becomes a work inspiring awe. Everything about Vellum does this – the prose foremost, but the construction of the narrative, the amount of research that had to be done, the extraordinary characters and so much more are just as awe inspiring. With a mix of science fiction and fantasy that grows into a kind of magical realism, Vellum transcends typical genre classification. It’s simply amazing that such a complete novel is Duncan’s first.

To describe what this novel is about is not a trivial matter to do in the length of my typical review. This is a story of war, or more correctly the story of a few individuals who are involved, whether they like it or not, in not just any war, but the war we would call the Apocalypse. These individuals are more than human – they are unkin, the angels, demons, and gods of myth, legend, and religion.

The story progresses in a very non-linear fashion, jumping from character to character, through time and worlds, all told in first person narrative with Duncan’s dark, witty, profane, and simply beautiful prose. The construction of this novel could be a barrier, the number of character point of views, use of nicknames, and changing of names through time and space could (and does) become confusing; but the shear talent apparent in the prose makes Vellum a joy to read in a way I’ve never before experienced in a book. I’ll repeat – it’s awe inspiring, transcending, and at times it could blow the mind of Hunter S. Thompson.

Some characters succeed more than others, some hit at a primal level, a punch strait to the gut, an arrow through the heart. Jack Flash is fiery, feisty, engaging, and terrifyingly psychotic, but in a good way. Thomas Messenger, destined to suffer in each and every life, never gives up. The eternal Seamus Finnan runs from war and destiny, from guilt, and always trying to never awake. Phreedom-Anna, as young as she is ancient, vengeful and impetuous, what will she do next?

At times Duncan uses Vellum as a soap box, ranting against war, discrimination, and hate. At times Duncan uses Vellum to extract a karmic revenge against what ills society. At times it’s merely an outlet – of what I can’t precisely say. It never becomes preachy and is always wrapped in his extraordinary prose – Fookin’-A is what I have to say!

Vellum is not for everyone – the buzz around the internet indicates it’s a book that you love or hate, with very little middle ground. My recommendation: read it, tell your friends to read it, tell your relatives. If my enthusiasm is not yet clear, on my 10-point rating scale, Vellum is a 9.5 – folks I don’t rate books higher than that.

Vellum is not whole in and of itself – it is part of a duology. The sequel, Ink, is out in February, 2007, and I can’t wait.

Hardbacks, Paperbacks, Authors, and Dollars

This post about hardbacks versus paperbacks and the bottom line for authors by Brandon Sanderson is getting a bit of discussion around the blogosphere and genre message boards. I found it to be a rather well done explanation of the typical author's situation (rather than the big-time sellers we can easily assume all authors are), and not preachy or pushy – he walked the line very well. I don't know if this will actually change my buying habits, but it is making me consider it.

Right now, I spend somewhere between $500 and $750 per year on books (yes, you read that correctly). I love books and I'm almost compulsive about buying them – combine that with the desire to keep my book budget to a 'reasonable' level, I often hold out for used, remaindered, or otherwise heavily discounted books (exceptions happen when my pseudo-collector personality kicks in). I can often find 4 used hardbacks in good shape for the price of 1 new one – gee what's a guy to do. But I do want to support authors – especially the newer authors who have a day job to support their writing habit. I may need to slightly alter my buying habits.

A main exception is gift season –my b-day and Christmas are within a week of each other and everyone knows to get me gift cards to bookstore (this year one was even to a local indie bookstore ). This is when I often catch up with new books (and I don't like mass market paperbacks, so it's either hardcover or trade paperback). This year was about $150 in gifts to bookstores, and with sales and coupons I was able to extend that to the equivalent of about $200. New hardbacks (and trade paperbacks) were the majority of the books I purchased.

On a related note, this reminds me of a blog I wrote last year - a rant about a 'letter to the reader' that a publisher put in the back of the book. It was similar to what Sanderson wrote, but done in a more inappropriate way, and it really pissed me off.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

I Hate Making Lists!

I am very bad at making lists, and this is nothing new. Ask me what my favorite of anything is and you’ll probably get a vague, non-committal answer. A list is just another form of an absolute for me – it’s either part of the list, or not – it’s absolute, it’s certain. I don’t deal well with things that way (ironically, some of the more keen observers may be able to make a connection between opposition to absolutes in an inclusion in one of the lists at the end of this post). I’m even worse when I’m asked to rank things in lists.

Lists just don’t allow for the expression of different moods, different times, different audiences, different circumstances, what I haven’t read, what I don’t know about, etc. I almost want to list all the reasons I hate lists, but I know I’ll leave something out – do you feel my pain here people.

I’m a bit better at making lists when it’s from some finite group of a reasonable size. For example – I was able to make this best of list for books I read in 2006. But even that was a struggle.

Several years ago as part of a detailed personality test that I got to do as part of pre-marital counseling I found out that my dislike of lists goes strait to my personality (INTP for those who are curious). This came up fairly often since several of the exercises were making and ranking various lists – basically I would find ways to eliminate things by making them irrelevant. In the end this would make that particular exercise almost useless since my ranking method was totally incompatible with the scoring system.

So, I was asked for a top 10 list for books and a top 5 list for series over at Fantasybookspot. As an associate review for them, I can see why, but it just chafes – in a really uncomfortable place. If I were asked to make this list in a week, it’d probably be different. If were for a different audience – it’d be different. I’ll look at the list a year from now and wonder what the hell I was thinking. I hate these lists. Anyway, below are those lists – I at least got them changed from Top 10 to Recommended Books or Series (and notice the lack of numbers - they are in no particular order or rank).

Be assured that there are reasons for the books and series making these lists and they are of course personal to me – they are my lists, however much I hate them. Comment, criticize, ignore…whatever. I’ll back up why it’s on my list if you want, but I just can’t bring myself to do a more detailed explanation of each item at this time.

Recommended Books

Recommended Series

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Amazon Pricing

I saw this LA Times article via SF Signal. The excerpt copied below sets the stage:

Imagine this: You go to a bookstore, browse, choose a couple of volumes. But you don't want to carry the books around. So you ask the clerk to hold the tomes until Saturday, when you'll come back to buy them.When you return, the bookseller hands you the items but advises you that he's raised the prices. "I knew you were hot to buy them," the clerk says, "so I figured I could make a few extra bucks."

That's what it feels like online bookseller Amazon.com Inc. has been doing to me.
I find this a bit disturbing, but not terribly surprising. Caveat Emptor!


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