2012: January in Review Part I
January was a productive month for reading. Thanks to the new Kindle my lovely wife bought for me for Christmas, I was able to blaze through a good eleven books through the course of the month, almost half as many as I read in 2011.
Some books were hits, some were... well, not terrible or anything, but not fantastic. In the following post I'm going to go ahead and run through them as quickly as possible, detailing what I liked about them, didn't like, whatever weird gut feeling I might've had, and probably go on for at least four paragraphs longer than I had intended.
Just like this introduction.
Turn Coat by Jim Butcher
Turn Coat is book 11 of the surprisingly great Dresden Files series. I'd heard about the series before from a friend who had read them all and
had pushed me to take the plunge; as usual, I was hesitant to say the least. In the end, it was nearing the end of 2011 and I only had about 20 books read out of the 50 I had set myself to read by the end of the year. I was desperate, and looking for something to either read or "read" in audiobook format. Dresden Files seemed like it was worth a try. After a brief search on Audible I discovered that it was read by James Marsters (the one and only Spike of Buffy fame), and it was downloaded and streaming from my iPhone.
Turn Coat is around the point where the series starts to get really good. It's very entertaining before this, Butcher does a wonderful job of writing characters that actually grow and evolve from one book to the next. Harry's powers grow, his tactics change in a logical progression from one book to the next which is (sadly) incredibly refreshing. It's a damn entertaining read, offering some pretty excellent story progression and great character work. I highly recommend the series, and this book is a perfect example of all the things that are right with it.
Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
This was a pretty incredibly pleasant surprise. I'd heard good things about the book on io9 and Goodreads, I loved the cover, and I was pretty in the mood for a relatively near future Space Opera that this seemed to be.
Set in the next hundred years or so (I think, I just realized I have no idea when it's actually set), humanity has colonized the solar system. Earth and Mars are fair weather allies, each building up their own navies (Earth having numbers, while Mars has the better ships) for an eventual conflict, and the Belt has been colonized by fortune seekers and the dregs of society looking to make a living on their own. Corporations have taken over the Belt, the distance too great for Earth or Mars to truly care about the rim of the system.
It's a tense atmosphere already when XO Jim Holden and his crewmates stumble upon a mysterious Mary Celeste type ship, and are attacked by even more mysterious military vessels. The story switches between the POVs of Jim Holden (the upright, do the right thing no matter the consequences kind of guy) and Detective Miller (tough as nails detective with a devil may care attitude and nothing left to lose). Honestly, this is one of the best things about the book. As we switch between the two characters, we are treated to two almost completely different styles of writing. Holden is a typical space opera character, Luke Skywalker or Flash Gordon, a man who sees things in black and white while the rest of the world exists in a million shades of grey. Miller is the opposite. His chapters are very noir, he's a bitter man that's seen the worst that humanity has to offer and realizes he's just another guy that's no better than the rest of the scum.
I really, really enjoyed this book. The story is a little cheesy, as all space operas tend to be, but you're not reading this for absolute scientific accuracy or a 100% realistic portrayal of a possible future. It has vomit zombies, so if that's too hokey for you then stay away. Otherwise, if you're looking for a damned fun read with enjoyable characters (and a noir space detective!) then by all means, this'll do the job. I'm really looking forward to the next book in the trilogy.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Ready Player One is Cline's first book, and man does it show. The idea is fun enough: in the future, the world sucks. The world economy is in
shambles, our ecosphere is blown, and we're tottering on full-blown apocalypse. Outside of cities, it's gone totally Mad Max. But doesn't matter, because everybody has access to the OASIS, a VR online game that does everything from normal PvP and MMO level grinding to allowing for a complete education, simulating a completely normal school that apparently works out better than real school.
The concept is neat, I'll admit that. The story is that the inventor of the OASIS has died, and in his will has said that anybody who solves his riddle will inherit his fortune, and the corporation that runs the OASIS (yeah, pretty much Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). The thing is, the guy grew up in the 1980s, and apparently had a somewhat obsessive personality. He was a geek (nothing wrong with that), and just wanted everyone else to
love all of the things that he loved (which turns out to be everything in the 80s). So the contest is that the only way to solve his puzzles is to be as obsessed as he was with the 80s, which causes the world of the future to become obsessed with the 80s. Woo. Our protagonist, Wade Watts, is apparently the best in this. He's poor, and can't even afford to take his character in OASIS off of the starting planet (it requires money, real or virtual, to travel from planet to planet), so he's a pathetic low level grunt until he figures out the first part of the puzzle.
The story is incredibly formulaic, the only interesting things being the sheer amount of pop-culture that Cline crams into each page. That would be fun, normally. I love 80s pop culture. I love seeing little references to things like AD&D or Robotech or Transformers, but unfortunately for every reference he slides in he follows it up with a complete explanation as to what he's referencing. Like an encyclopedia. And it's every. Single. Time. Which makes the storytelling tedious, at best. Also, the character building is almost masturbatory, with Watts becoming the super-best ever just a few pages after figuring out the first puzzle, and flies around in a Firefly class starship (yeah, from Firefly) or his X-Wing, even better, a Delorian with the Ghostbusters logo on the side, the KITT flashing light on the hood (and the computer to boot), and with the license plate ECTO1. Again, this all could be neat if any of it was actually used, but it isn't. The Delorian is mentioned once, and the other ships are just conveyances.
And then there's the writing itself. Unfortunately, that's the worst part. Reading the dialogue is actually painful. Nobody talks like that. Nobody. It's like the dialogue was actually developed by watching Saved by the Bell reruns, and throwing even more "ooh! Burn!" and highfives. Maybe I'm a little hard on the book, because despite all this I didn't hate it. I'm not even sure if I completely disliked it. It was fun. Cheap, corny, stupid, popcorn fun. It's not much better than a fanfic, to be honest, and I have no idea how it garnered the attention that it has. I'm as geeky as the best of them, and I honestly thought some of that was almost insulting. This book was a lot like the Big Bang Theory, in that if you have a passing knowledge of the subjects it might be hilarious. Or it might be bordering on offensive. Depends on the subject. For me, it was a little bit of both.
At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft
And we arrive at a peculiarity of mine. I love Lovecraft. The Cthulhu mythos are amazing, the world that he has created is something I am continuously fascinated with. Unfortunately, I don't love to read his writing.
I know, it's weird and shameful and I hate myself for it, but it's true. I eat this stuff up in theory, but when it actually comes to reading his works, it takes me forever and a day to get through it. I hesitate to mention it here for fear of reprisal, but I have a similar problem with Robert E. Howard's works. Conan the Barbarian is one of those things I love, but I've read an embarrassingly small amount of the stories.
But I should get back to this review. One of Lovecraft's seminal works, At the Mountains of Madness is one of the longest stories in the Cthulhu Mythos, and as far as I've read, one that explains the most. This might actually be my biggest problem with it. What I've always loved about the Mythos, and most of Lovecraft's stories is the mystery of it, the sheer otherwordly terror that is inspired by the fact that we have no damned clue what is out there. The Colors Out of Space, Call of Cthulhu, et cetera present these horrors that are glimpsed and forever seared into the unlucky soul's mind for all eternity. Nothing is explained. Nothing is understood. Terror is all that is left.
Mountains changes this, and offers a history of the Old Ones and the Shuggoths and other races that inhabited the primordial Earth, long, long before man. It's all pretty fascinating, and I like what he came up for it, but I think I was happier not knowing.
The format for the story is the biggest hangup, though. Conversely, it may be its biggest plus as well. It's written as a letter documenting an expedition that went horribly awry, as a plea to keep others from attempting to mount a similar expedition. Because of its fictional audience, it is written with a scientific understanding in mind, detailing things like geological peculiarities that the team had been researching. This does a great deal to create a reality to the story that would probably be lacking otherwise, but it also makes it dry as hell for the majority of the story.
According to my Goodreads profile, I started the story on March 9, 2011, then finished it on January 10th, 2012. I got about 80% through before I just had to put it down, then only picked it up again out of a sense of duty/completion. It's Lovecraft. If you love his writing and his pacing, you'll love this. If you don't, then it may be a rough time getting through it. All in all...