crap i have read recently #1

the colour out of space

There will probably be SPOILERS, so be warned!

A Dance with Dragons.  This is the fifth volume in G.R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series and it’s pretty much more of the same.   The events narrated parallel in time those in the previous book so it is a bit confusing at first but the story moves along at good clip and toward the end the timelines converge and some of the characters come back into contact with each other.  The book follows primarily Arya Stark, Daenerys Targaryen, Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, and Theon Greyjoy (who is called Reek through the first half of the book), but also touches on a dozen other characters (including Bran Stark, Quentyn Martell, Asha Greyjoy, Cersei Lannister, and Davos Seaworth) in the usual format of alternating chapters.  Some surprising new characters are introduced and of course some people die rather unexpectedly.  At the end of the novel,  several major characters are in very dire straits and their fate is unknown.

This is the sort of fantasy I like; I’ve  never really been fond of high magic fantasy worlds with lots of elves and orcs and wizards running around.  The world is gritty and realistic, actions have consequences, characters major and minor alike die in blood and dirt.  There’s a lot of politics, a lot of war, some romance, and lots of cowardice, perfidy, bravery, stupidity, luck, and fear.  The atmosphere of the novels is medieval rather than fantastical.  Yet there is just enough fantasy to be interesting, a few dragons, some walking dead, a bit of shape-shifting, hints of foretelling.  What I particularly like is that magic is rarely used as a get out of jail freecard.  People don’t find themselves in dire peril and just whip out a fireball and fix everything.   A lot of the time things don’t go well at all and the book, like all the others before, it is a page turner in the truest sense of the phrase.  I literally had a hard time putting it down; I always wanted to read just a bit more and find out what happened to whoever.  Given that Martin averages about 4  years between books (it was nearly six years between this book and the last one) it will be a long wait indeed before I find out what happens to everyone.  If you haven’t liked any of the other books you won’t like this one but so far these books have not disappointed me.  I highly recommend the series.

Score:  Meh but a good one.

H.P.  Lovecraft Complete and Unabridged:  I haven’t read Lovecraft in many years so when I was at Barnes & Noble a few months ago and found this specialty publication for a most reasonable price I snagged it and settled in to enjoy some long winter nights reading creepy stuff.  I am sad to say that I was a bit disappointed.  Perhaps I have just grown away from this sort of thing or perhaps it was a mistake to read so much Lovecraft all at once, but damn…he writes the same thing over and over.  And over.  And then again.  And some of it, most of it, is just not that good.  I did find the early stories, some written when he was 14 years old, quite interesting and enjoyable, and it helped that they were concise and less given to the excesses of some of his later novellas.  But for the most part, this surfeit of Lovecraft only highlighted the old trope, “when he was good, he was very very good, but when he was bad, he was horrid.”

The stories are repetitive both in detail and structure.  Every town is chock full of  decrepit houses with gambrel roofs; every plot ends with a horror that cannot be named.  Everyone goes mad and Lovecraft cannot discuss the author of the Necronomicon without using the exact phrase “the mad Arab Abdul Alhazrad” every single time.   Some of the stories were just…bad, including The Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath, which went on FOREVER with basically nothing happening.  The story succeeding it in this anthology, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, is a great tale and a much better read.  On the other hand, the very first Lovecraft story I ever read, The Colour out of Space, is just as good as I remember it; the horror and the cloying sense of inevitable decay has not diminished at all in the ensuing years.  Many of the classic Lovecraft stories (in particular At the Mountains of Madness) are actually better than I remember them and I do like the way many of his stories are interconnected, with the same characters reappearing and some of the same places figuring prominently.  His creation of this insular fictional New England centered on Arkham lends a certain thematic continuity and increases the oppressiveness of the atmosphere in the tales.  Of course all this, Arkham, the Old Ones, the Necronomicon, etc. form the basis of the Cthulhu Mythos, which has metamorphosed into a cultural phenomenon that would probably surprise even its creator.  So, again, if you like this sort of thing, this is a pretty good collection for a decent price.  One small niggling caveat though.  The book itself is full of annoying typos, which are completely unrelated to Lovecraft’s sometimes archaic spelling.  These are the sort of typos that  indicate someone just ran a spellchecker and called it a day and there are enough of them that it gets annoying.  Sorry, pet peeve.

Score:  Meh.

Vagabond #1: This manga is a fictionalized account of the life of Miyamoto Mushashi,  a famous samurai who lived in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.  He was particularly renowned for his superb swordsmanship, his habit of roaming around looking for swordsmen to fight, and his development of the Niten-ryū sword style.  This volume is one of VIZ Media’s VIZBIG compilations and includes the first three volumes of the series (which is now up to something like 35 volumes).  The volume opens with teenagers  Shinmen Takezō (Mushashi’s original name) and his friend Hino’den Matahachi on the run after the Battle of Sekigahara.  Their side lost and the winners are ruthlessly hunting down survivors.  Eventually rescued by a thief and her daughter, they are attacked by bandits, and Takezō ends up killing most of them.  Now with a reputation as a killer, Takezō is a wanted man and he heads back to his home village only to find that he reputation has preceded him and he is feared as a “demon”.  After killing a few villagers who attack him he is again a fugitive.  He is captured, he escapes, and in the middle of all this he meets the monk Takuan who, using a somewhat unorthodox approach, convinces him that the road he is traveling will not take him where he wants to go.

Takezō is an angry young man and this is the story about he eventually becomes one of the most respected warriors who ever lived.  Through flashbacks we see his father (also a renowned swordsman) humiliate him when he is still very young, we see him win his first fight against a traveling swordsman (who he kills with a stick), and we see his childhood friendship with Matahachi and Otsū.  We see his desperate, almost incoherent need to be “the best” and “the strongest” fighter and how totally he throws himself into winning.  He is an absolute disaster, unkempt and swordless (he does most of his fighting with a stick), he fights wildly and is unafraid to challenge even those who are obviously his superiors in skill and training.  Even when he is dying he is mouthy and obnoxious.   He is quite obviously headed for an early death.  By the end of this volume, however, he has begun to slowly metamorphose into the man he will someday become.

I am not a big reader of manga or of graphic novels in general because I often get frustrated with graphic storytelling.  The appeal of the conventions of the genre sometimes eludes me and I am not always impressed by the art work or by plot development.  Since they are mostly drawn for serial publications they can drag on a bit.  However, Vagabond is so far proving to be an exception.  The art is finely detailed and much  more realistic than I am used to in manga (given my limited experience with it).  In fact, for some readers it may be too realistic; there are graphic scenes of fighting, rape, and sex.  There is also none of the random cuteness that seems to afflict even the most serious story lines.   The artist/author does a good job of fleshing out the main characters, quite a few of whom are based on real people, although some of them are a bit stereotypical.  Takezō/Musashi himself is interesting, if a bit frustrating.  He’s not a very likeable person.  He is violent and self-centered and stubborn.  He is also entirely unaware of how much Otsū loves him.  But in his own pigheaded way he is true to his ideals and to his goals and his journey wouldn’t be nearly so interesting if he started out perfect.  Both the main character and the story built around him are compelling and I’ve put the next couple of volumes on my wish list.

Bottom line, this is still a comic book but if you like manga and/or samurai, and are looking for something a bit more mature than the usual fare, this might be for you.

Score:  Meh, good side.

Soft Apocalypse:  This book surprised me.  If you could take the world today and imagine most of the current socioeconomic trends continuing, you’d end up with what this book chronicles: the slow dissolution and decay of civilization.  Jasper is a young man like many young men ten years after an economic crisis sets off the “great decline”.  He has a degree in a field that is no longer useful and he has no options.  He and a small tribe of people in the same boat roam the American south doing what they can to get by, usually by bartering fuel cells they’ve filled by using solar blankets or windmills set out by the highway.  Designer viruses have escaped (or been let loose) and people are terrified of anyone who looks sick or who might be a carrier.  Radical groups commit random violence as an amorphous “protest” or just because they can.  Resources get scarcer and scarcer.  People cling to icons of normalcy, cellphones, cable news channels, brand name soft drinks, even as those things become harder and harder to afford or even to acquire.  Anyone with money lives in a gated and patrolled community and the very rich continue to live (as they do now) as if the rest of the world and its problems don’t exist.

The book covers about 10 years in Jasper’s young life (he’s probably in his early thirties when the book starts) and nothing much happens, except that slowly, inexorably over those years the entire world changes.  Unemployment hits 40% and then 60%.   The security guards turn into militias and then into roving bands of armed gunmen.  Gangs control the cities and “the Army” eventually goes more or less rogue as the political situation deteriorates.  Infrastructure fails and resources become scarce.  There are wars over water.  A genetically engineered, deliberately released (and voracious) species of bamboo is forever altering the natural environment.  The story isn’t about these big changes though, it is about how they affect a group of people that we recognize as ourselves: college-educated, middle-class people in a world where the middle class no longer exists.  Basically the world changes and the world forces people to change and to choose.  There are incidents of sudden, random, and shocking violence and also moments of grace and humanity.  One of my favorite scenes  comes early in the book.  Jasper takes a young woman from another tribe they are camping with briefly on a date to a nearby town.   The evening’s festivities consist of the walk from camp to town and back, a shared burrito, a couple of candy bars, a silly postcard and a brief kiss.  Later, after the world has changed Jasper forever, after he’s been forced to see and do things his former life in no way prepared him for, he learns the hard way what love and friendship mean and how important our sense of community is to our humanity.

Some say the world will end in fire and some say in ice, but this books makes clear it will most likely just end.   We’ll see it coming but we won’t be able to do anything about  it.  We say it won’t  happen to us but honestly for most of us, it would only take a little failure here and there and we’d be as homeless as Jasper and his tribe.  What will our choices be?

When choices have to be made between oil to fuel luxury cars and oil for fertilizer to feed starving people, the choice is obvious: the oil goes to fuel the cars.  –Will McIntosh, Soft Apocalypse

Score:  Woot!  (because it’s a debut novel and a good read, and also because I’m not entirely sure it’s fiction)

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~ by gun street girl on September 6, 2011.

One Response to “crap i have read recently #1”

  1. Wow. I think you wrote your review better than I wrote my novel. Please don’t review it.

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