Time to try again?

So since the original Bunch of Authors reading project, I've gone quiet. Well...quiet on here, I mean. But perhaps 2013 is the year I try again?

The Choose Your Book Adventure was a good idea, but I feel like leaving the selection entirely up to other people was a bad idea. It felt a bit too random. Perhaps the problem was I just took the first suggestions, whereas it'd be better to select from offers. Maybe I shouldn't decide the whole year in advance? I could theme each month, perhaps?

Or I could find another list. Yet I have so many books here on shelves I've not yet read. I have two on the go at the moment - I'm almost finished The Hobbit (my first re-read of it in at least 20 years), and I'm also planning to finish George R. R. Martin's A Clash of Kings before the next season of A Game of Thrones appears.

I don't think I can manage to go back and write up the books I read in the interim (I kept a list of stuff I read but hadn't blogged, right up until it had about ten things on it), and there were some great ones in the last two years; some highlights include all three Hunger Games books (loved them right to the end), Jasper Fforde's Shades of Grey, and (finally!) a new Pirates! book from Gideon Defoe. I've tried to keep track of most of them over at Goodreads (which almost makes this blog redundant), but there's something I like about the theme and the freer experiential writing about the books I do here.

Let's say I count The Hobbit for January; then I can start writing about at least one book a month after that. As for what they will be... Maybe I will give you a few options, and you can vote to decide? That's more like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, anyway. Hmmm...perhaps I will choose two random books from my "not yet read" pile, and get you to pick which one I read next. That's getting a bit reality television...it'll need a new name. Watch this space! (For now posts for it are tagged "2013 project", but I'll come up with something better.)

In the meantime, so you know I've not been idle (even if I have neglected this blog), you might like to check out my new Doctor Who podcast, Splendid Chaps. It's my main year-long project for 2013: a series of eleven live shows discussing Doctor Who with my friend John Richards (creator of ABC gay sci-fi fan club sitcom Outland) and special guests. Each show covers a specific Doctor, and also a broader theme. They'll be released on the 23rd of each month, January through November.

"I'm evangelical about it for a reason!"

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Minotaur has tried settling down in North Carolina. He's staying in a trailer park trading his expertise as a mechanic for rent, and working as a line chef at a local restaurant, Grub's Rib. It's not a bad existence for an immortal being out of myth, but thousands of years of experience have taught "M" that nothing lasts forever - especially peace and quiet.

Wow, I need to keep up. I haven't even finished the catch-up stuff and now I'm a couple of weeks late on writing up the first Choose Your Book Adventure book. (I'm having second thoughts about the name, and I'm not above changing it. Isn't that the beauty of a blog? That you can change whatever you want?)

Anyway...I finished The Minotaur Takes A Cigarette Break a couple of weeks ago. When I told Elaine (who suggested it) that I was enjoying it, she reiterated her evangelism, and I've already recommended it to a couple of people. I tried to avoid all mention of what was inside before cracking open the cover, and except for the basic premise - the legendary beast of Greek mythology is now living in modern-day America, working as a cook - I went in not knowing what to expect. What I found was a beautiful, melancholy story about the loneliness of being an outsider.

There's no denying that a sad story appeals to me, but one of the truly beautiful things about Minotaur is that it's not all sad; there's a core of hope in the Minotaur's existence. Though his existence is mundane - he lives alone in a trailer park, filling his days with work and chores to stave off loneliness and boredom (something I can certainly identify with) - he finds solace in it. Even though he knows things must go wrong eventually, and he will be forced to move on - is even surprised when it does not happen as quickly as he expects - he can't help but try to forge relationships, make connections. As is so often the case in these stories, the inhuman character is a conduit for something essentially human. Though he's a monster, the menace and horror once commanded by the Minotaur has been worn away by the millennia separating him from his years devouring virgins and slaying heroes in the labyrinth. He's now a stand-in for anyone who doesn't fit in.

More than that, he also represents those whose inner life does not match their outer existence. "M", as the Minotaur is known, has the same desires and needs as any human, but his peculiar form prevents him from making this known: he finds it hard to talk, his vision is bad, his horns sometimes get in the way. His is also a story of disability: he gets odd looks, children ask impertinent questions, bullies target him and he finds life in a world of "normal" people more difficult than the rest of us. But he does his best, and in his own way, triumphs a little. Most importantly, we're always empathising with him, even when what his actions don't seem quite right from a "normal" point of view.

This is magical realism at its best, I think; Sherrill doesn't try and build a realistic world and context for M. To the modern world, creatures of myth are just another kind of outsider, treated as a minority by a society who has no need for them any more. Stylistically, and I know I've said this about quite a few books reviewed on these pages, but the prose here has a poetic quality. It's not archaic, but it evokes a feeling of immortality, of age, through a rhythm all its own.

In short: I loved it. Maybe you will too.

I'm already a about a quarter of the way through The Big Sleep, which is next by dint of library availability; Coburg are still trying to find a copy of The Ghost Map, but I've managed to get The Big Sleep, At Swim, Two Boys and A Dictionary of the Khazars. My secondary objective for this round is to get every book from a library; so far I haven't had to stray further than the local Moreland Libraries, but I have cards for half a dozen or so Melbourne libraries, so that could end up an adventure in itself!

The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill
Library: Moreland (Coburg branch)

The Title: appears in the text on page 198.
Fun Fact: there's a movie in development, listed for release this year. I don't think this will translate well to the screen as is, so I expect it'll be more the concept that's in use.

Comics! And the Choose Your Book Adventure begins

I've been to the library, and I'm now halfway through the first book of the new challenge: The Minotaur Takes A Cigarette Break. I won't say much yet, except that I'm loving it.

I also borrowed some comics from the library, for the first time in a year or more. None were terribly memorable, except Sam Kieth's Batman: Secrets, which was weird, and Green Arrow: Year One, which was pretty great. I've no idea what the original Green Arrow origin was like, but this version of the playboy-to-hero story - by  Andy Diggle and Jock of The Losers fame - is very good. When written well, GA is one of my favourite DC characters, so it was great to see him broken and rebuilt at the start of his career. Based on this I might give The Losers a go, though it never seemed my cup of tea.

I now have a second pile, and have finished both the second hardcover collection of Preacher, and the first hardcover collection of Grant Morrison's JLA from the late 1990s. JLA is full of the usual big character team-up nonsense, but other than that it's okay. Preacher...well, I read it in one sitting. It's great stuff. Hopefully I can find the next one somewhere soon. I'm also looking forward to the second collection of Mouse Guard, which is next in the comics pile.

I'm also getting close to finishing the catch up series; three or four more books to go. I'll try and get those done before I finish The Minotaur, though I'm enjoying it so much I find it hard to put down for long. It's making me fall behind in my podcast listening on the daily commute!

Interlude: The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

Kate Schechter is running late for her flight from London to Oslo when her check-in desk at Heathrow erupts in a ball of flame. As Kate recovers from her injuries in hospital she briefly encounters the strange Nordic man who had held her up in the queue, miraculously unharmed despite being at the centre of the blast. Meanwhile Dirk Gently, holistic detective, sleeps in and misses an early appointment with his new client, a man convinced a green-eyed monster with a scythe is coming to collect on a contract - a man who has been decapitated in a locked room...

This was a quicker read than the first Dirk Gently book, possibly because there are fewer plot threads. There's one main storyline, though just like in the original, they don't all get resolved and combined until a handful of pages from the end.

Let's be clear: I like this book. It's fun. But it feels unfinished; there's a plot in here, yes, but there's not really a story with a beginning middle and end. Ideas are introduced and then forgotten about: early on Dirk discovers his deceased client has a young boy living in his attic, who breaks Dirk's nose, but we never find out any more about the boy. He discovers a vital clue - an envelope - at the same time, and then for no particular reason waits for most of the book to open it. Then, too, there aren't many clues as to the nature of some of the mysterious objects encountered; they're explained at the end, but there's no way to determine what they are by yourself beforehand. The main antagonists are almost throwaway characters, given exactly one scene of any substance and then dispatched (again in the last few pages) without ceremony.

Dirk at least shows up early this time out, and since he's actively investigating the events, has a much more active role than in the previous book. He's almost as unlikeable, but much more relatable; his tricks and misdirections much more commonplace.

Thankfully we have Kate Schechter. She's an interesting character, a good example of Adams' ability to write interesting women without resorting to cliché; she's likeable, has quirks we can get a handle on, and frankly investigates things in a much more satisfying manner than the actual detective in the book. She doesn't have any other women to talk to (all of Adams' books fail the Bechdel Test for the same reason), but at least she doesn't fall in love with either of the male leads: she is wary of Dirk, and though is intrigued by Thor (the actual god, and the man at the check-in desk) she's never taken in by his charms.

But even Kate is abandoned once her part in driving the narrative is done, though that part seems a little arbitrary. It's never clear why Thor seeks her out, and he leaves her behind when he rushes off tofinally confront his father Odin - but then that doesn't really pan out either. I said the book doesn't have a beginning middle and end; what it has is a beginning, which is good, a middle, which is good, and then an anticlimax, which technically explains most of what's been going on, but leaves you unsatisfied.

The Dirk Gently books are a stab from Adams at writing a more traditional narrative, and remain laced with his great humour and clever ideas, but really they're probably the best evidence that as a novelist, he made a great writer of non-fiction. I love his work dearly, but I can't honestly say this is a great novel; it's very funny, and has great ideas, and I'll read it again some day and enjoy it, but the detecting is too slow, the resolution too sudden, and the bits left out too annoying for it to be on top of anyone's reading list.

But I still miss you, Douglas. I would love to know what you'd have written next. Well, aside from Mostly Harmless and (possibly) The Salmon of Doubt, I mean.

Catch Up - Kraken

Billy Harrow has a gift for putting specimens in jars, his job at the British Museum of Natural History, where the star attraction of the behind-the-scenes tour is a preserved Giant Squid. One day he brings in a tour group only to find it impossibly gone, tank and all. As weird as that seems, things only get weirder as Billy is drawn into a London underworld of cults and magicians he never knew existed. To some of them, the squid was a god - and its theft may herald the end of the world...

I'm new to China Miéville, so I thought I'd start with the one that appealed to me the most. Being a lover of all things Pelagic and Cephalopodan (I must have read an abridged version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea about 100 times as a kid; happy birthday for earlier this week, Jules Verne!), after the first chapter I really thought this was a book written specifically for me.

As it went on I was less sure of that. Kraken has some great ideas, and I wanted to know more about all of them; the problem is that there are so many ideas none of them really get a great amount of page time. Billy, our protagonist, is one of those types all too often found in modern fantasy: an outsider to the world of the strange, who takes seemingly forever to succumb to his new world and admit there's more in heaven and sea than dreamt of in his lack of philosophy. He had me at "I work in a museum", though, so I forgive him a bit, though it is frustrating that to the reader it's clear that he's got something special from very early on, and it felt like I was waiting for him to catch up so we could get on with it. This feeling is made worse when in the second half we go through it again with Marge (short for Marginalia), a friend of Billy's. She's an interesting character, because like Billy she finds herself drawn into the world of occult London, but unlike him she doesn't find she actually belongs.

The rest of the cast suffer from being too numerous to get much limelight as well. There are so many good characters, but only a few get a real look-in. Dane, the security guard who turns out to be working for the Krakenites, is oddly sympathetic when you consider that he is essentially a fundamentalist soldier in a religious army, but as the driving force for our protagonists he's very effective. His friend Wati, who represents the familiars as a union leader, is a bit of a surprise; when getting his origin story I assumed it was far too hardcore to be a character we'd spend much time with. Then there are the occult cops; they're well drawn while still managing to exploit a few clichés (something they also do literally in the book), but we only really get to know Kath, the young talented magician with an attitude who's hard-as-nails. It seemed worryingly likely she'd end up as a love interest for Billy, but thankfully that particular cliché was one too many for Miéville.

Is it any good, though, I hear you ask? Well...yes. Story wise it has possibly too many strands, but they're all fun strands and worth having around for the laughs. Oh yes: it's funny too.

Many people said I should have read The City and the City as my first Miéville, since they think it his best work; to them I say nonsense. Why start with a book that means every other I read by the author is less good? I enjoyed Kraken, and I'll come back for more Miéville.

Interlude: Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

Richard MacDuff, the software genius behind a program that turns corporate accounts into theme music, returns to old college at the behest of Reg, an eccentric old professor. He is startled to find a horse in the bathroom of Reg's rooms, then horrified that he forgot to pickup his girlfriend Susan, sister of his employer, and finally moved to climb up the wall to Susan's flat and sneak in to steal the answering machine tape on which he's left an embarrassing message. But all of that is just the beginning of a strange web of coincidences which will require the services of a certain holistic detective.  

I was inspired to read this again by the upcoming BBC series, and also recently re-reading the first Hitchhikers novel for the first time in years. On a recent trip to visit my parents I retrieved my 1989 paperback edition from my grandmother's shed, along with a bunch of other stuff I intend to get around to re-reading, and all my various editions of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. (At last count, I own five (soon to be six) of the first novel, three of the second and third, and two of the last two. Add an extra if you count the first volume of the terrible comic book adaptation; I don't.) I first read this book around the age of 10, and I was a bit young to take it all in properly, so it was a great pleasure to revisit.

Things I noticed this time around:
  • The plot is much more coherent that I recall, though a few bits - notably the electric monk and the murder of Gordon Way - seem a little left in the cold compared to the main narrative. The main bits are still clearly cribbed from two of Adams' Doctor Who scripts - mostly City of Death, with a bit of Shada thrown in for flavour - but it's really just the skeleton that's been robbed.
  • Dirk himself isn't mentioned until Chapter Six, where we get Richard's version of his backstory; we don't encounter him at all until Chapter Fourteen, when he's a voice on a telephone; and we don't meet him in person until Chapter Sixteen. Once he arrives, however, he is the force that propels us to the conclusion, though frankly it's hard to get a handle on him and Richard is the real protagonist, inasmuch as the book has one. Dirk's fun, but it's hard to imagine him being the main character; I'll have to re-read The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul to remember how he fares there.
  • While there are some great funny lines in here, the book is remarkably serious; this is much less frivolous than Hitchhikers. Whole passages are amusing but grim, or amusing but poignant, and the greater grounding in reality gives the characters more weight. It's not just Arthur Dent rattling about reacting to an insane universe; there are only two truly eccentric characters, and everyone else is real and flawed.
  • The conclusion feels...rushed. Even knowing the basics of it, it seems half-finished, and I was amazed to find myself 20 pages from the end before a climax. And indeed, the conclusion seems to skip the climax entirely, going from crisis to having tea after the resolution in the space of a paragraph or two. Indeed, how the protagonists save the day is merely hinted at; the specifics are not revealed. It's a terrible way to end an otherwise excellent book.
So great fun, but flawed. I can't imagine, based on the novel, how a television series about Dirk can possibly work, unless they invent new stories using just the idea of the character. Even then we're going to need someone who isn't Dirk around, because - while enjoyable - he's more-or-less an insufferable prat, despite his dubious talents. But I'll leave you with my favourite gag, from page 109:
What kind of tie would you wear if you were a private detective? Presumably it would have to be exactly the sort of tie that people wouldn't expect private detectives to wear. Imagine having to sort out a problem like that when you'd just got up.

Catch Up - The Chronicles of Amber

Amnesiac Carl Corey awakes in a private hospital, and soon senses he is not like other men. He eventually recovers his identity as Corwin, lost Prince of Amber: a member of the royal family who have walked the magical Pattern and gained the power to walk among the infinite shadow universes that echo the one true reality of Amber. But as Corwin reunites with his brothers and sisters, both friend and foe, and makes his own claim for the throne left vacant by his father, it soon becomes clear much more is at stake: a traitor wishes to destroy Amber and everything it stands for...

Long ago, in my university days, I was introduced to the world of Roger Zelazny's Amber - as I suspect many were - through the roleplaying game. Amber Diceless Roleplaying is something of a touchstone, an indie game before there were really any other sort; as the name suggests, it uses no dice, with the game master deciding all outcomes based on the narration of the players. Famously it also involved an auction, in which the players - portraying a new generation of the royal family of Amber - bid points to rank themselves in four attributes.

This all seemed to work pretty well, but reading the game book it was clear that it was all based incredibly closely on how the author - and indeed Zelazny - felt things worked in the fictional world of Amber. Now, more than a decade later, I've finally read the series that inspired the game.

I'm going to do all five of these in one go, since they form one big story, and they're all pretty short novels. They're written in an odd style; Amber and its denizens are very much cut from the cloth of medieval fantasy, with castles and doublets and swords, but Corwin - who tells the entire story in the first person - often uses modern vernacular (well, modern for the 1970s). This works just fine in the beginning, since for the first half of Nine Princes in Amber Corwin has no memory of his true identity and has just spent centuries on the shadow that is our Earth, but once he regains his memories and identity it puts him at odds with the rest of the world he inhabits. It'd also be fine if it was a character decision, but it's just a stylistic one; he acts as you would expect a Machiavellian prince to act, but then describes those actions in the same way someone would in Starsky and Hutch. It's a little off-putting; hearing characters like Random, Oberon and Merlin spoken about in what one imagines to be a New York accent seems kind of weird.

As a protagonist, Corwin is more-or-less an anti-hero; he starts off ambitious and scheming, seeking the throne for its own right, but even then his time on Earth seems to have softened him a little. Like most of his brothers and sisters, he's also presented as much larger than life; he is superhumanly strong (but at a pulp fiction level rather than superheroic: he can lift a car, not throw a battleship) and a masterful fighter and tactician (he can best any mortal in combat), though his main attribute is just being tough: he survives and recovers from incredible hardships. He and his siblings are also constantly comparing themselves to each other, which makes the ranking system and attribute auction from the roleplaying game seem like a logical conclusion rather than a bit of genius game design.

Of the five books, the first three are the strongest; though many of the truths and secrets behind the story are not revealed until the last two, they lack the pace and interest of the beginning. Zelazny never spells things out to his readers; this is fantasy, a magical universe whose rules are known but not necessarily understood. You pay attention, picking up how things work initially through Corwin's re-learning of his world, and then through his education in how it came to be, something previously kept hidden. With so many brothers and sisters, all larger than life and with important (if sometimes small) roles to play, it was tempting at times to refer to the RPG for guidance, but using Corwin's voice was a smart move on Zelazny's part, since he always reminds us who's who through his opinions.

It's a clever, fun, and not too deep but deep enough story; I enjoyed it but wasn't swept away in it, though it's easy to see how people became obsessive enough to turn it into a very true-to-the-source roleplaying game. It does show its age a bit - mostly in the language, but also no-one ever uses a computer or a mobile phone, which seems odd given the Amberites can find anything they can imagine in shadow - but that's easily forgivable. Most fans agree the follow-up series, involving Corwin's son Merlin, is much inferior, but I'd be willing to give it a shot some time.