“The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1” by Alan Moore

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen coverI read The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1 last month, and it’s already fading a little, which is not a good sign.

This is a pretty typical “superhero team assembles” type story, although maybe Alan Moore pioneered it, I’m not sure. There’s the retrieving of each member (in a mini-adventure), the squabbling on the job, the event that unifies them into a team that wants to work together etc. Pretty fun, and of course, I really enjoyed all the literary references, although there were a few I didn’t get. I always love a good shoutout to The Murders in the Rue Morgue, which was the first detective story I remember reading.

It was very well written – witty and tightly-plotted; I’m not sure why I don’t have more praise for it. I’ll probably read Vol. 2 at some point, but I’m in no hurry.

This is book 21 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.


The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol 1. by Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, #1)
America's Best Comics, 2002 | Buy the book


“Uncle Tungsten” by Oliver Sacks

Uncle Tungsten coverUncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood was one of this books I just picked up on a whim, having never really heard of the book or the author. I’ve since found out that Oliver Sacks is a famous neurologist and kind-of-a-big-deal.

This book is absolutely fascinating. It’s about Oliver Sacks’ fascination with chemistry when he was a boy, but it also incorporates an extensive history of chemistry (as seen through the eyes of a young Sacks.) It is also part memoir, more interesting than most because of Sacks’ family – 18 scientist aunts and uncles, each specialising in their own fields, not to mention his parents, who encouraged him to have his own lab and experiment with deadly substances freely, and his siblings, who joined him in many of his scientific endeavours. And all this is set during World War II England, in an affluent Jewish neighbourhood.

Sacks’ passion for chemistry really shines through, and the process of discovering each new fact and deducing new ideas was beautifully demonstrated. His characterisations of his family really brought them to life – each of them seemed to have encyclopaedic knowledge of the field they worked in, but also ardently followed the latest scientific progress, as well as the history of it. I have never been jealous of someone else’s family before, but there’s a first time for everything!

The history sections can get a bit boring, but I’m not sure how much of that was because I already knew a lot of it. I also wished the book’s memoir portion was more chronological – Sacks jumps back and forth a lot. Some things were left unresolved – for example, Sacks describes his brother being mentally disturbed by their stay at a country school during the war, but never follows up on how that ends up turning out.

Despite those flaws, I think the book was well worth it!

This is book 22 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.


Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks
Knopf, 2001 | Buy the book


“The Scar” by China Miéville

After three self-published books, I return to traditional publishing, Miéville and my 25 book challenge.

The Scar is set in Bas Lag, the world of the city-state of New Crobuzon, last seen in Perdido Street Station. Bellis Coldwine, a linguist, is escaping her beloved city of New Crobuzon because of the events of Perdido Street Station (no spoilers, but you’ll recognise some references if you’ve read it) by enlisting as a translator on a colony and prison ship. The ship carries a very disparate group of people, all looking to leave New Crobuzon for various reasons. Then they get attacked by pirates, and recruited to be colonists of an entirely different place – Armada, the floating city.

The world of Bas Lag is incredibly well-realised, and we meet more species and go to far more places than we did in Perdido Street Station. I’ve raved about Miéville’s world-building before, and I will continue to do so in the future. The descriptions of Armada make for spectacular reading – a floating city, built from ships and platforms.

Bellis is an interesting protagonist – she’s an established woman over forty, and I have read very few books that feature people like her. She’s a pretty cold person, but she’s also extremely sad at having to leave her home of New Crobuzon. I wasn’t really sure whether I liked her, but she was certainly a good protagonist. The other characters of the novel were also fun – I liked Silas Fennec and Tanner Sack (in very different ways), and Shekel’s thirst for learning was endearing.

The plot went along at a steady pace, and was pretty engaging. I didn’t see a couple of the twists and turns coming. The ending disappointed me a little bit, because so much was left up in the air.

I have the same problems with this as I have with any Miéville book – it’s a bit cold. I probably would have more to say about this if I hadn’t read The City & the City so recently. Overall, a pretty good book.

This is book 20 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.


The Scar by China Miéville (Bas-Lag, #2)
Ballantine Books, 2002 | Buy the book


“The City & the City” by China Miéville

The City & The City is the third China Miéville book that I’ve read, each different genres. Perdido Street Station was a steampunk/fantasy, Embassytown was science-fiction, and The City & The City is a police procedural. Each of them is pretty uniquely Miéville, though – his imagination is incomparable, and I love how he dabbles in different genres and manages to retain his voice.

As I mentioned, The City & The City is a detective story, somewhat noir inspired. However, it’s set in the city-states of Besźel and Ul Qoma, somewhere on the edge of Europe. Besźel and Ul Qoma are intertwined cities that are completely independent from each other. The nearest example I can think of is Toll-by-Night and Toll-by-Day in Fly Trap. They are located in the same physical location, but some buildings/streets/locations belong to Besźel and some belong to Ul Qoma. Their culture, language, economic status etc. are very different. Residents of each city are trained to ignore the other city’s sights, sounds and smells. “Unseeing”, “unhearing” etc. are taught to children from a young age. If they break these laws, a shadowy force called Breach descends upon them, and they are never seen again. Tourists and children are allowed some leeway (tourists are deported.)

In this mad world (which is part of our own modern day world), Inspector Tyodor Borlú of the Besźel Extreme Crimes Unit discovers a corpse of a dead woman. However, she turns out to be from Ul Qoma, and seems to have made enemies among powerful people in both cities while investigating the legend of the mysterious, all-controlling third city, Orciny. Borlú can’t resist the mystery and goes above and beyond his duties to investigate this murder.

The worldbuilding in this story is absolutely fantastic. I find it utterly implausible that humans in our current world would put up with the absurd constraints of these two cities, but even so, the world is very well-thought out. I would have expected to have a lot of questions about how the logistics of this worked, but Miéville has laid out a very detailed (and very bureaucratic) world. And of course, there are the obvious unificationists, the hardcore nationalists, the conspiracy theorists, etc. Miéville mentions the myths surrounding the formation of Besźel and Ul Qoma many times, but never actually explains it. I wish that these cities were set on an alien planet (Bas-Lag from his other books, maybe?) or something, the familiarity of our world (email, planes, American embassies) made the cities really jarring.

The murder mystery and the conspiracy were well-thought out and written (although I did suspect the murderer), and I was pretty surprised by some of the revelations (in a “I should’ve seen that! How clever!” way.) I enjoyed the characters, although they seemed to be stock police types from TV shows (with much more profanity.) As usual, it’s hard to empathise with Miéville’s characters – I read the book for the ideas.

I’m still not sure if this book had any fantasy elements – they are hinted at, but I don’t think they were ever made explicit.

The ending of the book left me a bit annoyed and confused – I thought it was a bit of a letdown after the strength of the rest of the book. I don’t want to say more about it, but that’s probably the main reason that I didn’t absolutely love this book.

This is book 19 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.


The City & The City by China Miéville
Del Rey, 2009 | Buy the book


“Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert A. Heinlein.

After my Ringworld foray, I was a bit wary of the other two classic sci-fi novels on my list. Finally, I plucked up my courage and dove into this book.

Stranger in a Strange Land starts off well. It appears to be a fun science-fiction story about a human raised among the Martians that returns to Earth and has a huge cultural shock while having to deal with all of Earth’s bureaucracy. I really enjoyed the descriptions of the Martian civilisation and bow it differs from ours, and the plots of the administration to make the protagonist, Valentine Michael Smith, sign over his rights. Unfortunately, this part only lasts for the first couple of hundred pages or so.

SKIP THE NEXT PARAGRAPH TO AVOID SPOILERS:

Once Valentine Michael Smith gets accustomed to Earth and its strange ways (or as the book says, once he groks Earth), he takes the logical next step of… starting a cult! Of course, this cult is the right one for Earth’s people, one which teaches them awesome mind powers that means work is unnecessary and also gets rid of jealousy and possessiveness. Everyone has sex with everyone else, except of course, homosexuality is utterly wrong. The highest value in his society is “growing closer” through sex, but men get closer with other men by encouraging the women that they have sex with to have sex with other men. (Presumably Michael’s amazing mind powers prevents sexually transmitted diseases, since he seems to be able to control his body utterly.) And in the end, after he sacrifices his physical form and his cult eats his flesh, he’s revealed to be an incarnation of the Archangel Michael!

END SPOILERS

Okay, so I thought this book was a bit absurd. I did think that it was going to be hard sci-fi, and in my opinion, it wasn’t (although I don’t think that’s what kept me from enjoying it.) Heinlein can write pretty well, as shown by the first part of the book, but the book ended up devolving into preachy philosophical monologues (all delivered by the men, while the women say “I understand now, dear! Can I get you some food?”) The character of Jubal seemed like a Mary Sue stand-in for Heinlein; he’s a writer who writes “bad pulp fiction” but knows that it is trash, but he’s also a doctor and a lawyer and the only person that understands Valentine Michael Smith.

Also, I’m usually very forgiving of old books being representative of the prevailing morals of their time, but still, this book is incredibly sexist. Like I said above, the men always need to explain things to the women, the women spend their days mostly in swimsuits (or later, naked), the women are always concerned about providing food to the men (or are rebuked with threats of “spanking”, all in good fun, of course.) There’s a disturbing statement about rape (“nine times out of ten, it’s the woman’s fault”) that’s said by a woman.

The homophobia was also a disappointment. For a story that preaches free love and “sex isn’t just about babies, it’s to grow closer to people” to be so acutely homophobic seemed like a huge cop-out. I’ve heard this book described as visionary for its message of sexual liberation and anti-bigotry, but then it’s homophobic! I would’ve forgiven it if the topic of homosexuality had not been addressed at all.

I’m glad I read it, though. It’s good to read books I absolutely don’t agree with, once in a while. And Heinlein is still a way better writer than Larry Niven.

This is book 18 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.


Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
Putnam, 1961 | Buy the book


“Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books was not the kind of book that I thought it would be. I assumed that it would be the story of the girls that got together to read every Thursday, and that the mention of Lolita in the title was for shock value, since it’s such a controversial book. I should have taken the subtitle (A Memoir in Books) more seriously, since I think it is a great description. The book is Azar Nafisi’s memoir, which includes the story of her Thursday morning classes, and a healthy dose of literary analysis.

Azar Nafisi went from a revolutionary Iranian student in the U.S. to being a professor of English literature at the University of Tehran just after the revolution. She describes how the revolution changed Iran and herself, using liberal comparisons and allusions to the works of Vladimir Nabokov, Henry James and Jane Austen and The Great Gatsby. She is extremely frank about her life, even about her initial naivete and her constant confusion about her life.

Once I’d gotten over my expectations of what the book was going to be, I started to enjoy the book. It was still pretty slow reading; I couldn’t focus on the book for long stretches. I think it was because of a few reasons. The first is that life under the Iranian regime sounded very tough, and I couldn’t take reading about it for too long. Secondly, Nafisi’s writing is very poetic, but also quite disjointed and jumps around a lot. Third, she was analysing a few books I hadn’t read, and it seemed a bit dense to me. None of these reasons is a bad thing, of course.

I think that Nafisi’s way of writing really describes her very well – she frequently mentions being confused about what actions to take next and how to counsel her students, and her writing reflects that. She jumps between different time periods and between her interactions with different people. Her constant allusion to books, passages, quotes, characters, etc. was also really interesting – it is clear that she is a professor of literature through and through. As a person who has read a lot but has never taken a college English class, I found those sections of the book fascinating.

I would have liked to read Henry James’ books and The Great Gatsby before reading this one, since they’re now fully spoiled for me. I would’ve gotten a lot more out of the analyses. I did enjoy the analysis of Lolita, and was disappointed that the “Austen” section didn’t really talk much about her books.

This is book 17 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.


Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
Random House, 2003 | Buy the book


“Kick-Ass” by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.

Kick-Ass coverKick-Ass follows Dave Lizewski, an ordinary high-schooler and comic nerd that dreams of being a superhero, and then decides to actually become one. He discovers that it isn’t really easy to fight crime as an untrained sixteen year old, but he perseveres.

I watched (and loved) the Kick-Ass movie a while back, so I knew almost exactly what I was getting into with this book. The movie captures the feel of the book very well, even though the events in the book are somewhat different. The movie treats the characters more idealistically than the book. The book reminded me of Watchmen a bit, except that the scale is not so epic, and the mood is much less melancholy and much more optimistic.

I always feel a bit nervous about reviewing graphic novels, because I treat them just like any other book, and I’m not sure if I’m supposed to. I know that graphic novels have their own conventions etc., but I don’t think I’ve read enough of them to be aware of them yet. I really enjoyed the way Kick-Ass was structured, but I’m not sure if that’s just a function of the medium.

Anyway, I did really enjoy the book – it’s hilarious, the characters are fun, and even though Dave is extremely foolhardy; I can’t help but admire his perseverance. And of course, Hit-Girl is my favourite character, simply because she is such a badass (I sincerely hope that she never exists in real life, though.)

I should warn potential readers that there is a lot of violence and profanity from children etc, but overall, Kick-Ass is a very well done black comedy. I can’t wait to read Kick-Ass 2.

This is book 16 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.


Kick-Ass by Mark Millar & John Romita Jr. (Kick-Ass, #1)
Marvel Publications, 2010 | Buy the book


“Anathem” by Neal Stephenson

Anathem coverI’ve had several false starts with Anathem; I found the beginning pretty hard to get into. There is a lot of new terminology, and it seemed a bit dense. However, once I finally got going, I couldn’t stop reading.

Anathem is set on the planet Arbre, in the Concent of Saunt Edhar. Concents are similar to monasteries, but are staffed by people called avout who are dedicated to research. We follow Fraa Erasmus, a young avout as he prepares to see the outside world for the first time in ten years. As this is happening, people around him have started acting mysterious, and he’s a pretty curious fellow. I don’t want to say much more for fear of spoilers, but he goes on a pretty epic journey, emotionally, philosophically and physically. The book is plotted tightly and has a very apt ending.

I’m not sure how much my academic background helped me understand this book – I was familiar with a lot of the concepts. The philosophical arguments (or “Dialog”), the rhetoric and the explorations of the nature of the universe/consciousness were pretty breathtaking.

The worldbuilding was extensive – we learned a lot about the history, geography and culture of Arbre, and how it differed across the world. I loved the detailed history of the various chapters and concents within the mathic world (the avouts), with sound philosophical backing. It was an extremely immersive experience to read about them. I much preferred the orderly world of Anathem‘s avout to the more gritty worlds portrayed in Neal Stephenson’s other novels (Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash.)

The characters were well-rounded, and a lot of fun and the relationships between them extremely touching. By the end of the book, I felt like I knew Fraa Erasmus’ friends almost as well as he did. It’s always extremely satisfying when a book can balance a consistent and reasonable story with actual heart, and Anathem did a great job, especially considering it deals so much with ideas and debate. It would have been really easy for the book to come off as cold, academic and dry, but it never even comes close.

I’ve failed my book challenge miserably, since I’ve acquired a lot of books (and read a bunch of those) since making that post. However, I’m still keeping track of it, for consistency’s sake. Anathem is the largest book on the list, so I’m pretty happy with finishing it.

This is book 15 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.


Anathem by Neal Stephenson
William Morrow and Company, 2008 | Buy the book


“The Poisonwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood Bible is not the type of book I usually read. Generally, most of my reading is escapist – where the world is exciting and people are having a more interesting life than I am, and I want to switch places with them. (I assume they’d probably want to switch places with me too, since they don’t know that they’re in a book and everything’s going to be okay at the end.)

I would definitely not want to switch places with Orleanna Price or any of her four daughters. The Poisonwood Bible follows Nathan Price, a zealous and uncompromising Baptist missionary who drags his wife and daughters to the Belgian Congo. They are totally unprepared for what that means, and all sorts of unpleasant surprises ensue. Most of this arises from Nathan’s total refusal to let Africa bend him to her will (as he thinks of it – I’d call it being adaptable.) In addition, the Congo is in the midst of gaining independence from Belgium, and major world powers are very interested in controlling the valuable resources of the fledgling new nation.

This book is definitely going to stay with me for a while. I think Kingsolver did an excellent job of depicting life in Africa, although you should take that with a few grains of salt since I’ve never been there. It did ring true, though. All the characters – Orleanna, Adah, Leah, Rachel and Ruth May also seemed like real people, and all very different. I didn’t have to look at the chapter headings to see whose viewpoint it was. Ruth May was charming in the way she reported things without understanding what the meant, Adah made a lot of sense as the “crippled” girl that was actually the keenest learner, Leah’s devotion to her father was pretty heartbreaking and Rachel was also believable, although I didn’t really like her from the start.

I identified most with Adah – her limp, her palindrome poems and her quirky but organised mind made a lot of sense to me.

I didn’t know very much about the history of the Congo/Zaire, so the background of the book was fascinating. However, Leah and Rachel seemed to embody extremes on the political spectrum, and although I liked the contrast, I wouldn’t take either of their opinions as fact. (I think that they are plausible opinions for the characters, though.) I’ve seen criticisms that the author was being preachy, but I think it was just Leah’s character being preachy and Rachel being a little underdeveloped at the end. I kept hoping that Rachel would redeem herself, but she didn’t ever seem to.

There is no neat little bow of an ending, and the characters remain flawed in the end, even though they grow up noticeably. That’s why I don’t read books like this (general award/prize winning books) often – even though I appreciate them and I think they are masterfully done, they leave me very sad. Please note that I don’t mean to insult The Poisonwood Bible by lumping it into an arbitrary category – I think it was unique.

This is book 14 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.


The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Harper, 1999 | Buy the book


“Dark Lord of Derkholm” by Diana Wynne Jones

I returned to my 25 book challenge with Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones. I’ve been meaning to read more of her books, I really enjoyed Howl’s Moving Castle, and I’ve had this one for a while.

Dark Lord of Derkholm is about a fantasy world that has essentially been turned into a theme park by the evil Mr. Chesney from what seems to be our world. Every year, Chesney’s Pilgrim Parties, packaged tours for adventure-seeking people, devastate the world. Basically the entire economy of the world revolves around these tours, which consist of staged adventures including a battle between the Forces of Good and the Dark Lord, attacks by leathery avian creatures, bandits and pirates, a Glamorous Enchantress, treasures guarded by dragons, etc. The inhabitants of the world spend all year trying to make this happen, but resent it thoroughly. However, Mr. Chesney has a powerful demon on his side, and they do not know how to end the contract with him without risking doom.

The Wizard Derk is chosen to play the Dark Lord this year, and the book follows the adventures of him, his family (his wife, two human children and five griffin children) and his menagerie of unusual animals as they struggle to pull it off.

This book is absolutely hilarious, but also makes you feel pretty touched in places. Derk the wizard was a really fun protagonist – I thought he was going to be pretty ineffectual (as did the rest of the wizards), but he dealt with everything really well, despite all the setbacks he kept running into.  I loved the unusual family that he has – humans and griffins that consider each other siblings and are treated equally. All the characters were really fleshed out and charming in their own way. This applies to the supporting characters too – Querida the High Chancellor was a lot of fun to read about (I imagine that she looks a bit like Dame Maggie Smith), and so was Scales the dragon.

I thought the concept of the book was pretty awesome, too. It allowed the author to affectionately satirise common fantasy tropes and our perceptions of them, while remaining true to the fantasy genre. I loved it the same way I loved The Princess Bride.

Howl’s Moving Castle was pretty great, but after reading this, I’ve realised that Diana Wynne Jones definitely deserves her reputation.

This is book 13 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.


Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones (Derkholm, #1)
Greenwillow Books, 1998 | Buy the book