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Wed, Jan. 23rd, 2008, 03:32 pm
Reading List 2008 (7/12)

This week’s reading:

The Corner, David Simon & Edward Burns
The Hounds of the Morrigan, Pat O’Shea
N is for Noose, Sue Grafton
Earth Abides, George R. Stewart
Wastelands, ed. John Joseph Adams
The Terror, Dan Simmons
Darwin’s Blade, Dan Simmons

For those who are curious how I’ve managed to read so little this year, there are two answers.

The socially-acceptable answer is that I’ve been reading like a madwoman for my dissertation. It takes me about five times as long to get through an academic book as through a fictional one, so really I’ve read an additional ten (okay, okay, eight - but I’m planning to finish Metacognition: Process, Function and Use today) books.

The less-acceptable, but more accurate, answer would be Mass Effect. I played through that whole damn game from start to finish, plus managed to finish every single side quest, and I’m ready to start playing it a second time tomorrow. Yes, there were some pretty extensive sections where you’re running around doing RPG-style “Get this thing, bring it to that other dude” quests, and I really wanted to be shooting people. But the designers did a really nice job of making the runny-aroundy bits meaningful, and of integrating the narrative with the combat systems. I rarely finish games - I’m too busy - and I never play through this sort of game twice, so please take my obsession as the high praise it is. Next playthrough I’m going to explore the glories of the sniper rifle. Rock.

That said, the reading I’ve been doing has actually been pretty great. I was on a post-apocalyptic kick, which started when someone recommended Earth Abides. According to the Connie Willis introduction (!!), the book was one of the first post-apocalyptic scenarios out there. Knowing that helped me get through the not-so-great book itself. Maybe it wasn’t terribly inventive, but if no one had done much with the everyone-is-dead thing before, I can cut Stewart a lot of slack. Plus if Connie Willis liked it, I ought to learn to.

I was much more of a fan of Wastelands, which collects a variety of mostly-very-good stories about the end of the world. Sadly, I’d read a number of them before in other anthologies, which meant the new-to-me material was limited. Still, the volume was worth the price of admission for the Butler (what if humanity lost its ability to speak?), the Langan (magical and horrific), and the Dimenstein (hope, imagination, and … bicycle repair?) pieces alone, and there were plenty of other delightful treats to round it out. Jack McDevitt does Winston Churchill! Elizabeth Bear does the devil! The only story I really didn’t enjoy was George R. R. Martin’s, but I’m told that fantasy is really his metier. Yes, I really will read those books when a few more of them are out.

I finished off my survival-horror kick with the new Dan Simmons, which was unspeakably good. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best thing he’s written since the Hyperion/Endymion series by quite a bit. He captures the physical, mental and emotional trauma of being stuck in the Arctic ice with amazing detail and compassion. The horror elements of the story are rarely horrific for their own sake, but rather grow naturally out of the characters he’s established and the hostility of their environment. My only complaint - and I recognize it’s a small one - is the chapter he devotes at the end to Explaining What’s Been Going On. I’d rather have seen his mythology spread more through the book, instead of administered in one great chunk.

Of course, then I made the mistake of reading Darwin’s Blade, because I was all, “Hey, how can Dan Simmons go wrong?” Four hundred pages later, I was very clear on how it might happen. His accident-reconstruction specialist spends his time alternately dodging bullets, making stupid decisions, and encountering scenarios lifted directly from the Darwin Awards. I might have been able to enjoy it as a not-particularly-original thriller, especially because I liked the accident-reconstruction angle, but I found it really hard to enjoy the clever scenarios he invented when I knew they weren’t invented by him at all. I wanted to shake him and tell him, “Dude! PEOPLE USE THE INTERNET!”

Sue Grafton, ironically, managed to put together a far more intelligent and interesting mystery/thriller/thing. All her books have been solid, but I thought she managed to capture a particular breed of California noir that made this volume stand out from the pack. Everyone’s got a secret or two - though, okay, I wish more of the secondary characters had had better secrets - and the one our heroine’s after is the blackest of the bunch.

The Hounds of the Morrigan was a re-read, but a delightful one: ten-year-old Pidge and his sister Bridget go on a grand adventure through Irish folktales and myth. The characters are believably childlike without having to be made passive. Bridget’s fiery temper and five-year-old refusal to be intimidated by anything, and Pidge’s sense of responsibility and thoughtfulness, clearly inform their choices throughout the book. Even though there’s a lot of “Hey, the random thing you need is right here in front of you!” the kids still have meaningful opportunities to showcase their character, and the random-thing-appearance feels mythic rather than like authorial intervention. On the re-read, I picked up on a lot more of the allusions, too, which was really fun!

I’ve left The Corner for last because it was so hard to read, and even harder to talk about. How do you respond to reading a book about poverty, addiction and despair? And how do you respond when you know the people are real, and their choices are real, and the life described in this book is still going on, and as an individual there isn’t much I can do about it? Thanks to this book, I’m in the process of signing up to mentor low-income kids; that may be the most powerful and profound recommendation I can give it.

See you next week with more books, folks - unless I start playing Mass Effect some more!