Book Review: Jhereg

Cover for the Book of Jhereg omnibus
Source: Goodreads.com

Written by Steven Brust

Published by Ace Books

Motivation

A friend has been raving about Brust. He decided to loan me the omnibus of the same name. While I will read all of three of the books in the collection, this review only pertains to the first book.

The Pitch

Vlad Taltos is an assassin who has a fairly well off organization. However, he finds his position at risk when a council member for the House of Jhereg makes off with 9 million money units (my term). The council needs the thief taken out quickly, before anyone outside the council discovers the theft, else the House will find itself vulnerable. Unfortunately, the fastest way to kill the thief could also cause an incident between two Houses that have a fragile peace.

The Good

Brust did something I did not expect: He crafted a good mystery. The background and motivation of the thief made sense once Brust had built his world. I could follow the clues, and it felt gratifying to figure things out along with (or a page or two before) the characters. I didn’t expect a well-plotted mystery in this book, so that was a pleasant surprise.

The Bad

First person narration can be hit or miss. If you like the character, it is fun. If you don’t like the character, however, it can be tedious. I didn’t like Vlad as a character or a narrator. He wasn’t an unpleasant or despicable character; I just didn’t like him. I never believed him. He felt like a player character from a game, which is not what I’m looking for in novels. On some level, he fits a type of iconic hero trope in that he doesn’t really develop as a character. He is the same in the end as he was in the beginning. There isn’t anything wrong with that, but I just wasn’t in the mood for it. As a result, spending 170+ pages in his head was not engaging. I was far more interested in other characters, such as Morrolan, The Demon, Aliera, and Sethra.

The Ugly

The idea of a wise-cracking, snarky assassin doesn’t sit well with me. Vlad comes across as someone for whom killing is a light thing. I am personally far more interested in the acknowledgement of how killing diminishes the individual or how it causes emotional pain. A character who comes across as carefree about killing as Vlad would not, I think, be as pleasant to be around. You could argue that with the reincarnation and revivification in this world, killing isn’t as traumatic, but I’m not entirely convinced. If it works for you, great, but it doesn’t for me.

Closing

I will continue on with the omnibus for two reasons: It was recommended by a friend and I want to see if Brust’s writing develops more. Although, it is sometimes hard to tell with first person narration if it is the author’s style or the character’s voice that is at play. Regardless, there is a good start with the main plot, but I would have preferred a third person narrative. The humor didn’t really work for me either. From a craft standpoint, I would give Jhereg a solid 3/5, but from a personal preference standpoint, I’d give it a 2.

The Long Walk, Introduction

Cover for The Long Walk

With The Long Walk I return to the writings of Richard Bachman, which at this point in Stephen King’s career means I am reading works written prior to Carrie. Basically, these are pre-Stephen-King novels. You know, Stephen King before he was STEPHEN KING.

The Long Walk was first published in paperback in 1979. According to his afterward in Full Dark, No Stars, The Long Walk was the first novel he wrote. It is a dystopian science fiction novel, although from where I am four chapters in the science fiction elements are minimal. The dystopian aspects are highlighted by the central concept, which is an endurance test undertaken each year by 100 teenage boys. This test, called The Long Walk, is pretty much what it says on the tin—a walk to see who is the last boy standing. Or walking, in this case. They have to maintain a four-mile-per-hour pace. Three strikes and they “get their ticket,” a King-esque euphemism for execution. The entire event is a national past-time. People take pride in rooting for boys from their state. Not every leg of the Walk is broadcast, but parts are. Presumably, places where boys are likely to get their ticket are less likely to have spectators.

Even though it was written much later, think of this as The Hunger Games but with walking.

The protagonist, Raymond Garraty (#47). I don’t know why he is Walking. I get the impression that Walking is a type of choice. Most of the first four chapters consist of build-up, so apart from being introduced to the basic concept and a few additional characters, I don’t have much more to report on the plot or world building so far.

The book is short by King standards: under 400 pages. In truth, I’m wondering how he maintains the pace for what may be a limited time scale for the novel. I expect at some point the boys may turn on each other, unless there are specific rules against this. Even if it is against the rules, I’m sure the pressure will build.

My Favorite H.P. Lovecraft Stories: A Top Ten

A photo of H.P. Lovecraft
Source: WikiCommons.

For nearly two years I have been reading through a copy of H.P. Lovecraft: The Fiction. I completed it this month, and decided to share my ten favorite stories from the book. There were others that I enjoyed (“From Beyond,” “Herbert West—Reanimator,” “The Picture in the House,” and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward), but they didn’t quite make the top ten cut. I tried to limit my list to stories that I would be likely to read again for fun.

  1. At the Mountains of Madness – Hailed as Lovecraft’s most successful novel, At the Mountains of Madness is gripping and chilling in some places, slow and dull in others. But the scope and ambition are admirable. This story lays out a history of some of Lovecraft’s mythology, all in the guise of arctic exploration gone wrong. I confess this is not my favorite of Lovecraft’s works, but the exploration of the Old Ones is interesting. The arctic horror is awesome!
  2. The Cats of Ulthar” – Lovecraft loved cats, and this story illustrates why you should always treat cats with respect. This story is perfect for a Halloween reading or recitation. It is simple, concise, and it reads like a fairy tale.
  3. The Colour Out of Space” – This story relates the horrific aftermath of a meteorite crash in the backwoods of Arkham, MA. This may well be Lovecraft’s best story. It is clear, concise, and incredibly creepy. I don’t scare easily (when reading, anyway), but this story did it. I remember sitting on the couch at one in the morning, desperately trying to reach the end because if I didn’t finish the story, the cosmic horror could transcend the story and emerge in my house.
  4. The Call of Cthulhu” – This is Lovecraft’s best-known story. Many of the themes and ideas that Lovecraft flirted with during his early career brilliantly come together here.
  5. The Festival” – There is something about the tone and atmosphere of this story that I find fascinating. The story takes place during the Christmas season, and I think that is what works for me. Christmas is frequently portrayed as a magical time; why wouldn’t it be magically horrible as well? What better time than Christmas to learn about the dark legacy of your family?
  6. The Music of Erich Zann” – After “The Colour Out of Space,” this is one of Lovecraft’s more accessible stories. I love the idea of forgotten streets taking someone to hidden parts of a town. I love that music can act as a conduit to the otherworldly. This story is a lot of fun.
  7. Pickman’s Model” – Like “The Colour Out of Space” and “The Music of Erich Zann,” “Pickman’s Model” is a story that is accessible to a general readership. It is creepy and plotted well. In fact, I would say Neil Gaiman’s A Short Film About John Bolton takes inspiration from this story.
  8. The Shadow Over Innsmouth” – Another genuinely creepy story, this novella follows Robert Olmstead, who is looking up genealogical data. He decides to visit Innsmouth, a town that many people in New England tell him to avoid. It is a dying town. If you’ve enjoyed the Silent Hill games, or Stephen King’s short story “Jerusalem’s Lot,” you will enjoy this story.
  9. The Temple” – One of Lovecraft’s best early stories. A World War I lieutenant-commander on a German sub slowly descends into madness as his crew encounters mysterious nightmares and visions.
  10. The Whisperer in Darkness” – This is my absolute favorite story by H.P. Lovecraft. I prefer it to “The Colour Out of Space.” It follows Albert Wilmarth as he corresponds with Henry Akeley, a man who believes extraterrestrial creatures live in the woods around his cabin. As Akeley begins to collect evidence, which he sends to Wilmarth, the aliens begin to harass him. The story is somewhat predictable, although it doesn’t quite work out the way you expect, but the atmosphere and tension is masterfully conveyed. After reading through this story, I coincidentally began listening to Role Playing Public Radio’s actual play of “Convergence,” a Delta Green scenario which features the aliens from “Whisperer.” I highly recommend both.

Now that I have finished Lovecraft’s fiction (well, the non-collaborative fiction), I’m trying to decide which weird fiction/supernatural horror writer to read next. I’ve already read The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers. Ideally, I would like to start on Clark Ashton Smith, but the collected works series I want is a bit pricey. I may read Poe since I already have a complete collection.

But I am always open to more suggestions. I’ve enjoyed Lovecraft. Who else should I check out in the weird tradition?

Doctor Who: A Big Hand for the Doctor

Cover image for A Big Hand for The Doctor.
Source: Eoin Colfer web site. Copyright 2013 by Puffin.

Who Wrote It: Eoin Colfer

Official Blurb (from Amazon): Eleven Doctors, eleven stories: a year-long celebration of Doctor Who! The most exciting names in children’s fiction each create their own unique adventure about the time-travelling Time Lord.

London, 1900. The First Doctor is missing both his hand and his granddaughter, Susan. Faced with the search for Susan, a strange beam of soporific light, and a host of marauding Soul Pirates intent on harvesting human limbs, the Doctor is promised a dangerous journey into a land he may never forget . . . .

First Line: “The Doctor was not happy with his new bio-hybrid hand.”

A Big Hand for The Doctor isn’t so much a book as a short story with chapters. It draws heavily from Peter Pan and even drives that point home in the epilogue. And while I don’t know that I would say Colfer captured the feel and tone of the First Doctor era, I do think he captured a quasi-Target novelization feel. In fact, Colfer admits that he came to Doctor Who through the Target books. So it is actually quite fitting that he write a Doctor Who book for younger readers.

The Hartnell Doctor is one of my favorites. I’m actually quite critical of portrayals. I don’t know that Colfer completely nails it, but at the same time, I can just about imagine the Doctor of this story hasn’t yet become the darker, more suspicious figure that we meet in An Unearthly Child. Colfer’s Doctor is one who is safer for the kids—maybe The Doctor from the third season rather than the first–but still a bit grumpy.

Typically, I don’t enjoy stories that are set prior to An Unearthly Child. These stories tend to have too much awareness that they are pre-series. The only one I have enjoyed is Quinnis, but then Marc Platt writes the First Doctor and Susan quite well. But with A Big Hand for The Doctor, I’m actually willing to cut Colfer some slack because he isn’t making a big deal about the pre-series setting. We aren’t in 1960s England, tied to Foreman’s Yard and Coal Hill. We are in the early 1900s, and The Doctor is fighting space pirates who steal the souls of children. And I can just about see the First Doctor risking his neck to protect children from evil creatures such as these because I think William Hartnell would improve.

And that’s the bottom line for me. A Big Hand for the Doctor may not reflect the 1960s stories as they aired, but it reflects something I think William Hartnell would have liked: a protective, time-travelling grandfather. Isn’t that kinda what the First Doctor is, after all?

Final Verdict: Unpretentious and not weighed down with gravitas. A Big Hand for the Doctor is a quick read and a nice little tribute to Doctor Who as seen through the Target books. At just under $3, it is well worth the price.

Doctor Who: Frayed (Telos Novella)

A review of the novella by Tara Samms

From the back (or blurb or whatever): On a blasted world, the Doctor and Susan find themselves in the middle of a war they cannot understand.  With Susan missing and the Doctor captured, who will save the people from the enemies both outside and within?

Opening Line: “I like to stare into the sun.”

I’m fairly certain that it is unrelated, but twenty minutes after finishing this book I was coughing up blood.  This probably had more to do with allergies than the quality of the story, but it still seems oddly fitting given some of the gore in the book.

Tara Samms is a nom de plume for Stephen Cole, and I’m certainly glad I didn’t know that going in to the novel.  I have yet to read any Doctor Who stories by Cole that I would classify as compelling.  For the first twenty-five pages or so, I genuinely thought this was going to be a fun story.  By page fifty, it became a drudgery as I realized the characters were not going to do anything interesting or be at all memorable.  Sure, they were all given motivations, but they pursued them with as much enthusiasm as some of my lazy co-workers.

Frayed is a pre-Unearthly Child-base-under siege-soporific masquerading as a novella.  The story takes place on the planet Iwa where a human-run base called The Forge is being assailed by foxes.  Naturally, these are not ordinary foxes; they are aliens that seem to fall to pieces every few minutes.  Their siege is rather inconsistent as a result.  Regardless, their attacks are quite brutal when they do manage to pull them off.  As near as I can tell, the foxes are symbolic of what humanity will eventually become should they not cease genetic manipulation.  Yes, The Forge is a base for the potential criminal.  Those who are deemed to have the correct genetic template are tossed in The Forge and experiments are conducted on them for good measure.  And did I mention that the prisoners are telepathic children?  Nothing like dumping a bunch of ingredients in the pot and seeing what congeals.  And this is one of my problems with the concepts in this novella: there are too many for the allotted space.  There is not enough room for any one of the ideas to breathe and grow into a compelling plot with some meaty moralizing.

Given the number of ideas here, combined with the Doctor Who formula of needing a mystery to slowly reveal, something has to give, and Cole has chosen the characters.  We have the base leader who has become a coward, the love-struck one, the insurrectionist, the lustful base chef, and a handful of characters that never even attempted to reach the heights of the aforementioned ones.  The best a reader can hope for in keeping the characters straight is to read the book in a single setting.  Otherwise, they will bleed into an unmemorable mass.

The Doctor and Susan are adequate.  Some reviews I’ve encountered say the duo are portrayed excellently, but I disagree.  Sometimes I can hear William Hartnell in The Doctor’s dialogue, but most times I can’t.  At best, I would say the leads are inconsistent.  Given that this story takes place before we officially meet The Doctor and Susan, perhaps a bit of grace is in order.  Cole does float the idea that The Doctor and Susan acquire their names in this adventure, an idea that I hope sinks and is forgotten.

Successful dialogue:  ‘You’re a romantic, my dear.’ He squeezed her hand. ‘Mostly these humans are thoughtless and savage, with outmoded ideas about practically everything.’ He chortled. ‘Yet, they may merit further study.  I marvel that they have survived as a species to reach into space.’
‘Because they dream,’ she said.

Final Verdict: If you are a fan of Stephen Cole, I’m sure you will like this one.  Otherwise, this is a book only for the completist.  At the current price of $20, I think it a good one to skip.

The Hunger Games (Spoilers)

Written by Suzanne Collins

From the Back:  In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. Long ago the districts waged war on the Capitol and were defeated. As part of the surrender terms, each district agreed to send one boy and one girl to appear in an annual televised event called, “The Hunger Games,” a fight to the death on live TV. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she is forced to represent her district in the Games. The terrain, rules, and level of audience participation may change but one thing is constant: kill or be killed.

My wife’s family had their Christmas get-together this past weekend and I was given the chance to continue reading The Hunger Games.  I had started it just before Christmas, but only had a handful of days to read it and those days were quite busy, so I was forced to return my borrowed copy.  This past weekend, however, was ideal and I tore through the book in a couple of days.  It is hard to dismiss the hype.  The book is fast-paced and the plot does not thematically wear out its welcome.

As far as youth fiction goes, the thematic material is surprising to me.  First of all, it involves children killing children.  Often we are hyper-sensitive to this subject in the U.S.  I remember about a decade ago when Warren Ellis wrote an issue of Hellblazer which dealt with a school shooting.  It was tastefully done as it dealt with the aftermath and John Constantine was brought in to discover what sort of evil would have caused this tragedy.  The answer came down to a superficial society and indifferent parenting.  The issue was cancelled due to concerns over sensitivity.  Curiously, this past television season saw the debut of American Horror Story on FX.  This show portrayed a school-shooting that was obviously referencing a Columbine-style shooting.  Has the climate in the U.S. changed so much that this subject is now digestible by the mainstream, able to be included in youth fiction without a public outcry?  It seems that the biggest controversy surrounding the novel is its similarity to the Japanese novel Battle Royale (a criticism which is largely ridiculous, in my opinion).

A second theme that caught me off-guard was the genetic manipulation of the children who were killed in the games.  Near the end of the game all those killed returned as mutated wolf creatures, a hybrid of wolves and humans.  While the book does little but portray the shock and action surrounding the revelation, I found this one of the more disturbing elements of the novel.  It doesn’t dwell on it, however.  In fact, this could be a perceived weakness of the story as Collins does little in the way of social commentary.  The reader can make links to the real world, but I don’t see attempts by the author to do so.  This isn’t a grievous crime, however.  The story is still entertaining.

Final Verdict: The Hunger Games is a great weekend read.  Suzanne Collins does some great world-building, creates a compelling scenario and characters, and keeps the novel moving along at a near-perfect pace.

2011 Book Review Part 4

And here it is, the final post on what I read this year.  I’m cheating just a bit because some of these I have reviewed more extensively, so why recreate my thoughts?  Just a word or two and a link will suffice.  I also hate to admit that I did not meet my goal of 28 books because I failed to finish Mr. Midshipman Hornblower prior to midnight.  You see, 2011 and I did NOT get along, and it saw fit to strike me will illness these last few days.  I’m glad to see the end of this year and am putting high hopes on 2012.  It will be different, at the very least.

The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth was the shortest book I read this year.  It was the winner of the 1931 Newbery Medal and it deserved it.  Set in Japan, the story chronicles the work of an artist as he attempts to change his fortune by painting a work based on the life of the Buddha.  He attempts to put himself into the stories of the Buddha to understand how the Buddha related to the various animals.  And as he paints, his newly adopted cat grows more and more sad as cats are deemed to be evil for cats rejected the religious leader.  It is a beautiful story and has the feeling of a folk tale.

Another children’s book read this year was C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.  This wasn’t the first time I read it.  I must admit that each time I read it, I enjoy it less.  This isn’t to imply I think it bad.  Quite the contrary.  But I’ve always been more of a fan of Middle Earth than Narnia.  That said, the BBC versions of The Chronicles of Narnia will always hold a special place in my heart as they were my introduction to Narnia.  And Tom Baker will always be Puddleglum to me.

I have reviewed The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan elsewhere.  I had hoped for more from this story, especially as Richard Hannay is part of the adventurer genre of Britain.  Unfortunately, very little of these stories grabbed me.  It improved with the introduction of a villain, but until then it was somewhat forgettable.

About Time Vol. 1 is an in-depth analysis of the first three seasons of Doctor Who.  It is written by Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles and it is mind-boggling in its detail.  It was so much fun to read as I made my way through the Hartnell era last year.  It gave connections between episodes and real-life events or cultural phenomena that may have inspired stories.  This is the kind of analysis I enjoy, taking pop culture and analyzing how it is indicative of the culture and times that spawned them.  A great deal of fun if you are a fan of the classic era of Doctor Who and television history.

And while we are on the subject of Doctor Who, I re-read Doctor Who and the Unearthly Child.  A full review can be found here.  It was a decent read, and quick.  Both are positives.

I have also reviewed A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin elsewhere.  I was drawn to this book because of the HBO series which quickly became unwatchable due to the pornographic nature of the series.  Not that Martin shies away from the adult content in the novel, but it is easier to skim over those parts in prose than to skip past them on TV.  The book is an amazing story and was possibly the most fun I had reading this year.  Certainly my favorite new find, edging out China Mieville by a slight margin.

This brings me to the final book read this year, Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut.  This was the story of Billy Pilgrim whose consciousness travels back and forth through time.  We learn of his experiences as a civilian before and after World War II as well as his time in an alien zoo.  It is certainly an interesting and thought-provoking novel with many amusing moments.  My main problem with Vonnegut is that I intellectually understand his humor, but find it depressing at the same time.  I love his narrative voice, I love his style, but I come away from all his books wanting to cry.  I’m not sure why I keep reading his books.  Maybe it is similar to what compelled me to watch footage of the Japan earthquake over and over earlier this year.  It was hard not to watch this force of nature completely lay to waste human progress, despite knowing the death toll was very high.  So it goes.

I think that about wraps it up.  Having missed my goal by just one book, I feel somewhat satisfied.  For 2012, I will shoot for completing another 27.  I’ll probably be too busy for anything more than that.  I’ll continue working on Mr. Midshipman Hornblower and Don Quixote, but also hope to participate in the January Vintage Science Fiction read.  Here’s to another good year of books.

2011 Book Review Part 2

Today I continue reviewing my reading list from 2011.  I’ll start this second post with In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan.  I don’t often read health books, but this one was recommended and it was rather compelling.  The basic premise is that we have stripped our food into component vitamins and minerals.  In doing so, we don’t really understand how these vitamins and minerals work together in their natural state (in food) and we have over-processed what we eat, thinking by infusing the correct combination nutrients we will improve our health.  In reality, our society seems to show the opposite.  We are overweight and unhealthy with chronic diseases becoming the norm.  It is an interesting book.  Well worth checking out.

A few years ago I read the description of Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.  I thought it sounded like just the thought-provoking material I needed being a Christian in a quick-serve society.  The very idea that being obedient over a long period rather than quick spiritual fixes seemed refreshing.  Unfortunately, I found the book to be quite dry and dull.  There were a few moments that captured my imagination, a few concepts that made me excited, but these moments were just that: few.  This was only my second time of reading Peterson, and I was sorely disappointed as I enjoyed the previous book quite a bit.

On the subject of sophomore disappointments, Why We Love the Church by Ted Kluck and Kevin DeYoung was a letdown from their previous book Why We are not Emergent.  I found the latter to be interesting and informative while the former was a bit dry and had some heavy Reformed theology leanings.  While I don’t have a problem with Reformed Theology, per se, those who propound it can come across as narrow in their focus, espousing their view exclusively and dismissing other voices.  This particular leaning aside, it isn’t a bad book, just be aware of this going in.

Then there was Love Wins by Rob Bell.  I’ve debated what to say here, as I’m trying to be brief and this book can’t really be discussed in brief.  Suffice it to say, I think Bell is trying to make a point about Christians rigidly defining our view of Heaven and Hell, but in doing so, he carelessly implies views that are not only unorthodox but not really scripturally based.  Rob Bell writes as an artist and he is throwing his hat into the theological arena.  He needs to be clear and he needs to build good, strong arguments.  I don’t believe he does this.  Perhaps the lesson to take from this book is that Christians need to be thoughtful when establishing what they believe, rather than blindly accepting what leaders tell them is the truth.  They may end up believing what church leaders say, but it is far better to own your beliefs because it helps you to be sensitive to those who are not yet convinced.  You understand the struggle and the questions better.

A spiritual search was the focus of Peter Gilquist’s memoir Becoming Orthodox, where Gilquist chronicled his journey from evangelical Christianity to Eastern Orthodoxy.  I read this because I wanted to understand more of this branch of Christianity.  I have often had difficulties with the expression of visible mainstream Christianity in America, so I admit that this book was one that aided my particular search.  I enjoyed Gilquist’s writing and appreciated his explanations of various tenants of Eastern Orthodoxy.  While I still find aspects of it appealing, I am not in any place to consider a conversion.  Anglicanism, however, does seem a bit appealing, which brings me to my next book, Simply Christian by N.T. Wright the former Bishop of Durham.  I have been a fan of Wright’s work for a couple of years now, and found Simply Christian to be accessible yet challenging.  He recreates a view of Christianity that sacrifices nothing, but gives a fresh way of looking at the faith.  I also appreciate that Wright is willing to meet readers where they are.  He confronts current ideas and attitudes and shows how they reflect the broken nature of our world, then explains how Christianity confronts these ideas.  If Christianity seems stale or overly familiar, this is a good book to visit.

2011 Novels in Review, Part 1

A few years ago, while in a particularly sadistic mood, I resolved to read 52 books a year.  For the first two years, I succeeded in this.  Every year since then, however, has been marked by failure to meet this goal.  For 2011, however, I decided that it would be better to have a more realistic goal for my current place in life.  So, I counted up the books read in 2010 and added 20% to that total.  Twenty-percent seemed like a decent amount of growth to me.  Thus, my 2011 goal was to read 28 books.

For the final blog posts of the year, I want to look back over the year of books and see what I liked, what I didn’t, and what I learned (if anything).

Source: Wikipedia

We will start by going back to January.  Snow was on the ground and I was lamenting my lack of boots.  I had the day off work due to the snow so I was able to progress through The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy.  This was a novel that couldn’t have had a setting that stood in greater contrast to Missouri.  The book took place in Los Angeles during the summer and had a brief interlude in Mexico.  The story concerned the investigation of the real-life Elizabeth Short murder over the course of the late-1940s. I was brought to this book because of a film-noir kick that I was (and still am) on.  I had watched the Brian De Palma adaptation and felt that the film had an interesting story at its core but was poorly told.  The novel was much better and the themes of obsession that hounded the main characters were much easier to see and believe in the book.  The book was compelling and well-written, but the content was quite disturbing.  Truth be told, given the details of the Elizabeth Short murder, there would be no way to tell this story without disturbing content.  Suffice it to say, this is not a light read.  But it is an excellent example of the neo-noir genre.

Source: Wikipedia

A second noir entry from this year was Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.  I had heard some of the old Philip Marlowe radio episodes with Van Heflin and Gerald Mohr but this was the first of the Marlowe novels I had read.  The prose was quite enthralling.  Marlowe is a great narrator and his observations are witty and sarcastic.  This book was definitely genre-defining as I could see many of the influences in later films and novels traced back to here.  The mystery, one of blackmail and later murder, is compelling and it works.  There are very few leaps of logic for this story.  I was also amazed at how Chandler wrapped up some peripheral mysteries along the way.  The red herrings weren’t as unrelated as we had been led to believe.  Excellent stuff.  Also of note is the BBC Radio 4 adaptation that aired early this year.  It condensed the storyline into an hour and a half drama without skimping too much.

Source: Wikipedia

A third noir novel was The City and The City by China Mieville.  What made this novel unique, and one of my favorites of the year, was the ambiguity of whether or not this story was strictly realistic or a fantasy.  I reviewed the novel in more detail here, but for brevity’s sake, I thought it was a well-crafted murder mystery with some amazing philosophical depth that could be used to analyze just about any culture that has things it wants to ignore.  The two cities of the novel overlap, either topographically or dimensionally, and must “unsee” one another or risk invoking breach.  In truth, the potential sci-fi elements of the novel can be completely ignored and it can be enjoyed as a murder mystery involving a politically inconvenient investigation.  This was my first time to read Mieville and it will not be my last.

Source: Wikipedia

For quite some time the bookshop where I worked would store overstock books in the employee restroom.  The temptation to read on the toilet was quite strong.  It’s only fair, I feel, as many of my co-workers play on their cellphones or text in the bathroom, what is the problem with me reading, so long as I don’t take too much time.  Besides, sometimes the bowel movements are not very cooperative.  Anyway, over the course of 2011, I read A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Reptile Room two or three pages at a time.  While it was amusing in many places, I can’t say it was a book I would purchase.  I truly want to enjoy the series, especially given the dark humor, but having now read the first two books, I find the series somewhat underwhelming.  I contemplated reading the third book, but when I saw Count Olaf returned for the third time, I started fearing the series would grow formulaic.  I may return to it some day when my “to read” piles have seen more progress.

Source: Stephen Lawhead's website

Sadly, another underwhelming book was Stephen Lawhead’s The Skin Map.  It started from an interesting premise, basically that reading the ley lines could transport people to alternate realms of existence, other times and places.  Honestly, it seemed a bit Doctor Who to me, and that is a good thing.  But as I read, I didn’t find the main character very engaging and found the sub-plot about his girlfriend starting a coffee shop in medieval Prague the most interesting part of the novel.  With all the action, adventure, and mystery of the novel, and I gravitate toward the food service sub-plot.  The must be something wrong with me.  I truly want to like this series, but at the moment, much like A Series of Unfortunate Events, I’m putting it on the back burner.  I love many of Lawhead’s Celtic books.  His retelling of the Robin Hood mythology as Welsh history was particularly engaging.  But with The Skin Map, I almost felt as if his writing style had been simplified.  Perhaps he wanted to make the book more accessible to those reading him for the first time.  Perhaps the shift was unconscious.  Regardless, I felt that, while the concept was great, the execution lacked something.

I think this is enough for part one.  Look forward to part two soon.