January 7th, 2020

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Super Overdue Review


Hey,

My reading pace has been kinda shot this past year. Not entirely sure why that is. In any event, I have been reading books but have yet to deliver the verdict on them to you. More egregiously, I haven't even done a 2019 round up (which is at least as much for my benefit as yours -- what was that one book I read years ago?).

So, I'm going to try and get caught up. Hopefully in one long post but maybe broken up into a couple of them.

Thus, the final reviews of 2019:

First up: The Meaning of Luff and Other Stories by Matthew Hughes.  Mr. Hughes is an obvious fan of Jack Vance having written a number of stories set in the Aeon just prior to the one of the Dying Earth series.  This book is a collection of stories featuring Luff Imbry -- an art thief, forger, con man, and all around criminal mastermind as he goes after another big score in order to sustain his gastronomic lifestyle.  The prose is, obvoulsy, reminiscent of Jack Vance, but I've been reading Mr. Hughes stuff for several years now and over time, he's made his "just before the Dying Earth" setting his own.  This was particularly notable in his previous novel "A God in Chains".  This collection of stories ranges over his career so you can see him carefully exploring his setting to see what he can make his own without losing that Vancian flavor.

One of the main features Hughes retains is the way in which the plot is just a simple scaffold for exotic description and dialog that volleys back and forth in baroque turns of phrase and surprising amounts of philosophy and introspection where you wouldn't expect it.  Maybe not quite as vocabulary expanding as Mr. Vance's work, but it captures the flavor nicely.  If you're expecting a set of clockwork heist stores, this really isn't it.  If you're looking for some bubbly, fizzy stories that occasionally make you go "huh", this might be for you.

Next, we have Made Things by Adrian Tchaikovsky.  This is a short story about a young street urchin Coppelia is just trying to get by in Loretz, a city of wizards and magic users and for those who have the magic, life is pretty sweet and for the rest...well, Coppelia is just trying to get by.  Lifting a few small magic trinkets can bring big bucks selling them on beyond Loretz.  But now, she's got a new angle and a new crew of sorts.  A small colony of magically animated beings.  Made of wood, metal, paper, or even wax, these creatures are seeking out magical items for their own reasons and tryin to keep their heads down.  It's a fun little story and the backstory on the animated people is interesting and well thought out.  If you're looking for something on the short side, this is pretty good.

Earlier this year, I read Edges by Linda Nagata.  It was a high-concept transhuman sci-fi story about a group of humans looking to return to the interior of human space most of which seems to have been silenced by some sort of unknown disaster.  In that book, the humans accidentally freed Lezuri, a post-human way above their tech level and barely survived the encounter.  Now they have to chase down Lezuri before he reaches his home, an artificial system Lezuri built with the help of an interdimensional blade of sorts.  

So obviously, there was going to be a sequel.  What surprised me was that it dropped in the same year the first book came out.  That book is called Silver and it's every bit as good as Edges.  Urban, one of our main protagonists from Edges is hoping to reach Lezuri's system early to prevent Lezuri from accessing his full technological might.  After a rather bumpy landing, Urban meets up with the locals who are just trying to survive the world's haywire technology -- each night a low, silver fog comes up and...changes things.

Again, the book deftly balances amazing technological ideas and genuine human interactions.  It was a fun read and I'm hoping for some more books in the setting.  Again, if you like Ian Banks and the like, you'll get a real kick out of this.

After that, I decided to tackle some stuff on the periphery of my wheelhouse.  In this case, I'd read an article about Daniil Kharms -- a Russian author of the 30's and 40's who mostly wrote nonsense poetry and prose.  You might think of him as a Soviet Ogden Nash or Shel Silverstein.  I was curious to see more of his work so I finally picked up, Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms translated by Matvei Yankelevich.  I mean...yeah a bunch of poem and stories that carefully go nowhere.  A collection of shaggy dog stories that turn out to be shaggy kitchen blenders.  There wasn't anything in there that really blew me away, but I do enjoy some high-literary weirdness from time to time and this really fit the bill.  You can find a few of his works on-line if you want to get a sample before diving into the book.  It's clearly not to everyone's taste, but I thought it was interesting.

As long as I'm getting some poetry, let's go all in.  I also picked up Fire to Fire a collection of poems by Mark Doty.  

Oh.  Oh man.

I'd first noticed his work in a physical copy of the book I perused in a bookstore.  I turned to the poem Tiara and I was blown away.  When I finally got my own copy and read through the rest -- amazing.  

How good is this book?  I got a copy on my Kindle because that's how I read books now, but this book, this book was good enough that I decided I needed a physical copy.  That's pretty much the only literary award I hand out -- "so good I wanted the dead tree version".

I feel like poetry is even more subject to personal taste than prose, but if Tiara up there speaks to you, go grab this one.

Finally(!) there was another short story: In the Stacks by Scott Lynch.  Between this and "A Year and a Day in Old Theradane", I think he's better off in short stories vs. long novels.  Not that his novels are bad, far from it, but he seems to be a more prolific in shorter stories and I really like his stuff.

So for this book, a group of wizard students at the University of Hazar are about to undertake their one and only fifth-year exam -- literally the only thing they have to do to pass fifth year.

Return a book to the library.

But it's a wizard university so the library is an Escher-like space full of not-quite-sentient books gathered together just short of critical mass.  The books don't mind being borrowed, but they need to be returned or there will be Trouble.  Normally, the brave librarians venture into the stacks to return the books, but to impress upon students the effort that goes into retrieving and returning the books, fifth-year students have to return one book to see what's involved.

Anyway, it's Lynch so you've got tight, snappy dialog and a bunch of neat world building ideas on display.  A short, fun ride.

Annnd....that's it.  I'm caught up with the 2019 books.  I'll have a round up here soon, promise.

later
Tom