Lexifabricographer For when the right word just won’t do…

March 7, 2012

Books of 2012 – February

February was a bit of a lean month for reading, particularly by comprison to the rich bounties of January, but I did manage to get a few titles under my belt. I haven’t had any time to sit down to write proper reviews of any of them yet, but I will give a few thoughts and recommendations here. Somewhere down the track I intend to do more fleshed-out reviews of at least a couple of them.

Quick observations: everything I finished this month was an ebook, consumed through the gaping word-maw of the ever-hungry Kindle. I have been reading a paperback as well, but very patchily – I don’t know if I will perservere with it or abandon it and come back to it later. (Yes I do – I almost never abandon books, and this one shows great promise, so I will keep going. But dammit, there are about five things in my reading pile that I know I’m going to enjoy more than this one. I suck.) This month I also read two short story collections, which is something that I am finding the Kindle lends itself to nicely. I have a couple more anthologies lined up in my Amazon wish list. I reckon I’ll be picking those up before too long. It’s good to rediscover a taste for short stories after a long time away from the form.

Also (shameless tease alert!) I read one book this month that I kind of hated. Love controversy? Read on!

Tales of the Far West by Various; edited by Gareth-Michael Skarka (ebook version). This is a collection of short stories based on a magic-free fantasy setting mashing up the mythical tropes of westerns, wuxia and a smattering of steampunk. Despite not having a great affinity for the Old West as a backdrop for honour-fantasies, I am right in the target group for genre mashup stories. There’s something about the I-presume-post-modern predilection for plucking the interesting bits off a couple of different outcrops of literature and smashing them into some new shape that works for me. On top of that writer/designer Gareth-Michael Skarka has been blog-developing this setting (the original plan was to create a roleplaying game or setting book) for years now. So when he kickstarted it last year, I was there. This short fiction collection is the first major release for a transmedia juggernaut that will eventually include a game, a webseries and probably a bunch of other stuff.

And that’s more than enough background – what did I think of the stories? Well, like probably every collaborative fiction anthology ever, it’s a mixed bag. I’m happy to report there are no real duds, though there are a couple that didn’t particularly move me or show me anything new. Those are the minority though – most are solid stories, well told, focusing on the expected themes of  personal honour, obligation, revenge and being a murderous badarse zen master. A couple of them are just superb though, so I’ll just call them out. Scott (The Lies of Locke Lamora, Red Seas Under Red Skies) Lynch’s ‘He Built the Wall to Knock it Down’ is the first, longest and by far the best of the lot. It’s a mayhem-packed action piece with a surprising core of uncompromising philosophy; violent, funny and thoughtful. Tessa Gratton’s ‘Paper Lotus’ depicts the beautiful final act of a haunting melodramatic tragedy.  Will Hindmarch contributes a spectacular revenge-fuelled duel aboard a crashing airship in ‘Errant Eagles’, which I would kill to see on film. Ari Marmell’s ‘Railroad Spikes’ adds an unexpected dash of steampunk-themed torture porn, executed with clinical efficiency. Those are my favourites, in a collection I enjoyed a lot. It’s a setting ripe for evocative and dramatic storytelling, and one I’d be happy to see more of.

Fractal Despondency by Trent Zelazny (ebook copy) – Lushly descriptive prose poem wallowing in misery and regret, not in any way apologetic for its more or less complete absence of plot, narrative surprise or accessible characters. In many ways this book, about the emotional self-demolition of a grief-strickenand probably delusional loser in Santa Fe, is a triumph. It conveys mood and setting with compelling power and measured conviction. What it doesn’t do, for me at least, is suggest even the slightest reason why I might take an interest in the troubles of the self-absorbed narrator, who leaves ‘unsympathetic’ several lengths back in the race for character. Nor does it go to a lot of effort to describe an interesting narrative path – even a couple of instances of extreme violence are just two more things that happened before the thing that happened at the end. Zelazny has a real command of description and a rare ability to set out a character’s emotional state, but I simply could not care about the story. No, let me restate that – I hated the book, and I was a little disappointed in myself for finishing it. I pressed on, in stoic anticipation of the moment when the story would actually go somewhere interesting or reveal something unexpected. It never did. But it was, to its credit, not that long, so at least I didn’t feel as though I had wasted too much of my life. Let my folly be your warning.

8 Pounds: Eight Tales of Crime, Horror, & Suspense by Chris F. Holms (short story collection, Kindle version) One of the upcoming novels on my expanding stack of hotly anticipated Angry Robot Books publications is Chris F. Holms’ Dead Harvest (about a grim reaper who goes off the reservation). While I wait for my book budget to regain some mana, I figured I would try out this very reasonably priced collection of short stories. I was not disappointed. ‘Seven Days of Rain’ and ‘The World Behind’ are clearly descendants of Stephen King’s (non-supernatural) best – one a grim past-that-won’t-stay-buried tale, the other a coming-of-age fable not a million miles from ‘The Body’ (aka Stand by Me) territory. Most of the rest are gruesome yarns, some of them buildups to killer punchlines and others moer content to let the story tell itself. ‘The Well’, one of the former, reads like a joke Ramsey Campbell might tell over a quick pint (I mean that as a compliment. I loved it – short and nasty), while a couple of the others would not be out of place in Roald Dahl’s body of work. The stories are about evenly divided between crime and horror; all of them have a good dash of suspense. Reading 8 Pounds has just jolted my anticipation for Dead Harvest.

500 More Ways to Be a Better Writer by Chuck Wendig (Kindle copy). So I’ve already kind of plugged the last few collections of Wendig’s writing advice blog here, here and here. I’ve recommended them all. I recommend this one too, and for all the same reasons – it’s funny, it’s insightful and it’s refreshingly crushing in its bluntness. Follow the link above to get a full list of the essay titles (each one a list of, duh, 25 things to consider about some aspect of writing, editing, publishing or dealing with the business of being a full time author). Not all of them are useful or relevant to every reader, but most of them are funny, clever and/or inventively revolting. And frankly some of them, like ’25 Things I Want to Say to So-Called “Aspiring” Writers’, ’25 Things Writers Should Start Doing (as Soon as Possible)’ and ’25 Things You Should Know about your “Finished” Novel’ were simply excellent advice. And ’25 Reasons Why Writers are Bug-Fuck Nuts’ is great, if not necessarily great advice.

Cocaine Blues (Introducing the Honourable Phryne Fisher #1) by Kerry Greenwood (Kindle copy). And last but not least, here’s another Australian woman who writes, just in time to be included in the Australian Women Writers Challenge. As it happens, I had three separate recommendations for the roaring 20’s escapades of adventuress Phryne Fisher, almost immediately after which I heard there would be a television series adapting the novels on the ABC. I know a bandwagon when I see one, so I picked up the first three books as an ebook bundle.

In Cocaine Blues, heiress Phryne Fisher’s become bored with life amongst the English upper crust and decides on a whim that she might have a go at being a crime-solving sleuth on the mean streets of Melbourne. That sounds pretty screwball but in practise it’s not especially outlandish. Phryne is wealthy, super-confident and quick witted, and for the most part she more than has the measure of the various Communist taxi drivers, bored socialites, hapless police inspectors, drug barons and Russian dancers that swirl about the plot. I did suspect partway through that she was going to prove to be just a bit too good at absolutely everything, so I was pleased to see her make two or three monumentally careless decisions in the latter stages that pulled her back to earth a bit. The story is told as a light-hearted romp, though there is a quite grim subplot concerning an illegal abortion racket that in retrospect feels slightly tacked on.

All in all it’s an excellent tale: the historical setting is well described, the characters are fun and the action moves along at a jaunty pace. BUT! I would caution readers like myself with less refined sartorial inclinations: this book should come with a Classification Board label reading “Mainly concerned with clothes”. Seriously. Phryne Fisher works her way through a lot of outfits, all described in immaculate detail, using words for garments that I have never heard before in my life. It is in its own way quite educational and it never quite detracts from the flow of the action…but my word it’s a close thing.

2 Comments »

  1. […] dashboard. Anyone wanna hazard a guess about which link I added or trigger-word I used in the Books of February post to attract a dozen brand new spam commenters? (All tragically deleted now, and may the good […]

    Pingback by Spamwave and Linkage! (They Fight Crime) « Lexifabricographer — March 8, 2012 @ 4:21 pm

  2. “I hated the book, and I was a little disappointed in myself for finishing it.” <– I don't think I could ever have written this. Weird. I could write "I hated the book, and thought well of myself as a macho martyr type for finishing it", or "I hated the book, and was a little disappointed in myself for skipping ahead and just reading the bit with the wild dolphin sex".

    I seem to have scored six books in February. 1 Classic Penguin bought new at a traditional bookstore, 2 Kindle e-books and 3 from the $1 discount pile at the secondhand bookshop I told you about.

    Comment by The Once and Future Dr Clam — March 8, 2012 @ 5:23 pm

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