Saturday, July 29, 2006

Big Old Pile of Books

I mentioned this a while back - It has been getting harder and harder to get to my desk in the home office because of a growing pile of books. These are not research books, but rather books that I've read and I've been meaning to talk about on this journal. So my options are either to review 'em, or to throw a big blanket over them and make a fort, and we can sit under the blanket eating Girl Scout Thin Mints and telling ghost stories.

Mmmmmm. Girl Scout Thin Mints.

So here's the summarized versions of a buncha reviews for your general entertainment, just so I can get these off my floor. Some have spoilers. You've been warned.

A Meal to Die For by Joseph R. Gannascoli with Allen C. Kupfer.
This is the one that started the pile - I got an advanced reading copy from a friend in New York, who knew I was a foodie. And I read it and enjoyed it for the most part, with one big hitch, but the street date (day of release) came and went and I didn't get around to it and it's been on the floor next to my desk for longer than I would like to admit. Oh, yeah, Gannascoli is an actor who's on The Sopranos but I don't get HBO so that part doesn't really matter to me.

Anyway, it's subtitled "A Culinary Novel of Crime" and it has a really nice conceit - it takes place over the course of a meal that Benny Lacoco, a mobbed-up chef, is cooking for the a meeting of the local outfit. He knows at least one of those present isn't going to make it to cigars and brandy. He's worried that the target may be him. The plot is built around the menu, and each item on each course gets a brief recipe. And we switch between Benny acting as host and him flashbacking through his own life.

It's a good conceit and a good plot, but there's a point where the wheels fall off on Benny's character. For the early flashbacks, he's got his reasons and rationalizations for what he's doing. He's helping the family, he's helping a friend, he's trying to make up for a mistake. Typical mob thinking. Then around the meat course he's knocking over butcher trucks just for the heck of it. OK, Benny's so far in he's stopped justifying, but there's not even a hand-wave at his ethics falling awa. Its a jarring point for a character that has otherwise been built up as sympathetic. Months after reading this, it still stays with me.

Old Man's War by John Scalzi.
This one I tuned into because of the Monkey King, who was flisting Scalzi's blog (flisting = Putting it on his Friend's List for those who were thinking it was something dirty). I was a Powell's and picked up a copy.

Its a neatly-written little book, a Heinlein juvenile with more sex. A good a response to The Forever War as that book was to Starship Troopers. Here's the central concept - when you get old, you volunteer for the space corps, the CDF. They give you a young man's (or young woman's - hence the additional sex) body and you fight against a universe with more unreasonable races than reasonable planets. If you survive your two year hitch, you get a homestead on a new planet. You don't ever get to go home.

So this book out-Heinleins Heinlein in that not only because you are dealing with an all-wise military organization, but that military organization is three steps ahead of you at the get-go, but doesn't mind explaining to you that it's already thought about the problem and has a pretty good solution. There are no bureaucratic screwups from the homefront, no Gallipolis, no Battles of the Greasy Grass, no My Lais. There are massacres, but you get a better idea of the hows and whys. Human error is still there (though not from the commanders), along with the problems of radically different tech levels. But I didn't see any where where the CDF bombs a wedding party, or gets caught in its own friendly fire. So it posits a place where we get the art of war down to a more advanced science.

Anyway, here's a danger of taking your damned sweet time about these reviews. This book's up for a Hugo, so most people already know about it, what good is a review? (and the voting closes Monday, so if you're on the fence, start reading).

Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson.
I picked up Darwinia when it first came out because it was the only new book on the shelf that wasn't part of a series, wasn't a license, and wasn't by a dead author. And I liked it a lot, and kept with him through Bios and Chronoliths and his short story collection, Perseids, which has one of the creepiest stories I ever read, since it logically proves that I am immortal (and you are too). But Blind Lake went onto my abandoned book pile for the longest time before being rescued.

You read enough of an author and you pick up his tendencies. With a Wilson story, the odds are good you will be dealing with isolation, in that a group is cut off from the rest of society. You'll also have an initial mystery, and about two thirds of the book Wilson will reveal what is REALLY going on, and you'll find out, though it wasn't something you were expecting, he was playing fair with you the reader all through the book.

And all that is in Blind Lake. The name is the place of scientific research facility, who, through science that just dances off my fingertips, out of grasp, is watching an alien life form on another planet. Suddenly the facility is cordoned off by the military, with no explanation. Did they find something? Did a sister facility, watching another planet, find something? Is there an invasion going on? In the midst of this are a trio of reporters, a twitchy administrator, his scientist ex-wife, and their creepy daughter. And Wilson does deliver and explain everything and you feel at the end the author played fair with you. Sort of the M. Night Shymalan of SF.

So why did it sit on the abandoned pile for so long? I stalled out. The twitchy admin who has been doing some nasty stuff was about do some truly nasty stuff and I didn't want to follow him there and I put the book aside. Which is a pity since exactly two pages AFTER I bailed, everything pulled together, the true mystery began to surface, and the book worked.
Mores the pity since I didn't pick up Wilson's next book, Spin, is ALSO up for Hugo this year. And I haven't even gotten to it yet, but I've been told it deals with isolation and its really, really, good.

Oh, and The Scar and The Iron Council, both by China Mieville, are worth hunting down and reading. I already raved on Perdido Street Station and this is more of the high-class, steam-fantasy, politically ept, incredibly well-written fiction you would expect. And Charles Stross is rapidly becoming the new Larry Niven/John Varley with his future-verse featured in Singularity Sky (which I finished and enjoyed), continued in Iron Sunrise (which I'm reading) and into Accelerando (which is, of course, up for a Hugo).

OK, that's a chunk of the pile. More later,