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Three Rip-Roaring Good Reads

If you’re looking for a few books that beg to be plowed through, here are a few that fit the bill. I had almost forgotten what it was like to tear through page after glorious page staying up late to find out what happens next.

The best part? There’s more to these books than just compelling story lines. Each is a reflection of our current existence and the oddities/frustrations/questions that go with it.

But rather than me trying to tell you, here’s the list. Go and read for yourself.

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Under the Empyrean Sky

A lovely story of the heartland set in a world of genetically modified crops and wealth inequality gone horribly awry. Part of the Heartland Trilogy by Chuck Wendig. The second book, Blightborn, just came out today.


 

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Annihilation

Unease. Insidious. Lingering. Strange. Annihilation conjures all these feelings and more. The first book in the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer. The second book, Authority, is already out and the final book, Acceptance is out this fall.


 

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Lexicon

Max Barry’s novel about the power of words hit the mark for me. Inventive, disjointed and fun. Bonus: Once you’ve read Lexicon, go take this quiz. It’ll leave you … well, wondering.

So get out there. Read. Have fun.

Cronin the Barbarian, Usurper of Titus Groan

I know, so many of you, as usual, are wondering what the hell I’m talking about. I’m not quite sure myself. All I know my friend Mike since sixth grade (*waves* Hey Mike!) was gracious enough to send me his copy of The Passage by Justin Cronin.

Mmm. That sounds good. I'll have that.

Suddenly my doorstop of the Gormenghast novels was on the floor next to my bed amid the dog hair and dirty socks.

It was like I had been dating this nice, but weird girl that I wasn’t even really sure I liked and then the girl I had a crush on for the last year not only noticed me, but asked me out. Hello The Passage. It all happened so fast, I didn’t even bother changing my Currently Reading widget in the sidebar.

I wasted little time tearing through Cronin’s first foray into speculative fiction. Six days later I emerged.

Cronin’s writing reminded me of Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy mostly. For me, that was a good thing as I find both of those writers eminently readable as well as engrossing. The first 200 pages turned everything up to 11, bringing on viruses, experimental human subjects, prostitutes, punk frat boys, otherworldly children, nuns. The only thing missing was a Federal agent who was too good at his job. No wait, there was that too.

And then Cronin hit me in the face with a frying pan, forcing me to regroup. I was a little resentful, but eventually fell into the story that picked up almost 100 years after the events from the first part of the book. I read one review that essentially called those 200 pages a prologue.  Ah.

Once it got rolling again, I could not put it down. I’ve read a review that called the middle section baggy (to be fair, the reviewer loved the book). While I don’t disagree, it didn’t bother me at all. I didn’t want to leave the story. Fortunately, The Passage is the first of a planned three post-apocalyptic vampire novels. I’m in.

Now normally I don’t go for vampires. Twilight sort of reaffirmed my stance, but I’ve never gravitated toward the vampire story, except maybe the whole Vlad Tepes thing behind Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But this Justin Cronin guy, he does it all up right. There’s no sparkling, no suave Tom Cruise guy. This is more Nosferatu meets 28 Days Later: Creepy ass, fast moving, and brutal creatures.

But The Passage is more than gore and horror. Cronin sucks you in deep with his characters. And for me, I very much enjoy the Iowa Writers’ Workshop sheen to it all:

Amy’s father was a man who came in one day to the restaurant where Jeanette had waited tables since she turned sixteen, a diner that everyone called the Box, because it looked like one: like a big chrome shoe-box sitting off the county road, backed by fields of corn and beans, nothing else around for miles except a self-serve car wash, the kind where you had to put coins into the machine and do all the work yourself. The man, whose name was Bill Reynolds, sold combines and harvesters, big things like that, and he was a sweet talker who told Jeanette as she poured his coffee and then later, again and again, how pretty she was, how he liked her coal-black hair and hazel eyes and slender wrists, said it all in a way that sounded like he meant it, not the way boys in school had, as if the words were just something that needed to get said along the way to her letting them do as they liked. He had a big car, a new Pontiac, with a dashboard that glowed like a spaceship and leather seats creamy as butter. She could have loved that man, she thought, really and truly loved him. But he stayed in town only a few days, and then went on his way.

There Cronin’s just getting started, but you get the idea.

There’s been much made of the quality of Science Fiction and Fantasy, most of it pointing to the substandard presentation of story in exchange for cool space ships or monsters or worlds. Those who read those genres widely are well aware that there is plenty of what writers and publishers would call “literary” speculative fiction.

I thank Justin Cronin for listening to his then-8-year-old daughter’s suggestion that he write a book about a little girl who saves the world. And for not being afraid to utilize old vampire and dystopian post-apocalyptic tropes. You just don’t mind going over the well-worn ground because, after all is said and done, his writing carries the day.

Finch

Finch

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A noir thriller/visionary fantasy set in the failed state of Ambergris, 100 years after Shriek: An Afterword. The gray caps, mysterious underground inhabitants, have re-conquered Ambergris and put the city under martial law, disbanding House Hoegbotton, and controlling the human inhabitants with strange addictive drugs, internment in camps, and random acts of terror. The rebel resistance is scattered, martial law is in place, the gray caps are using human labor to build two strange towers. Against this backdrop, John Finch, who lives alone with a cat and a lizard, must solve an impossible double murder for his gray cap masters while trying to make contact with the rebels.

Nothing is as it seems as Finch and his disintegrating partner Wyte negotiate their way through the landscape of spies, rebels, and deception. Trapped by his job and the city, Finch is about to come face to face with a series of mysteries that will change him and Ambergris forever.

The cat and the lizard watch intently. Something is about to happen. And they both want to know: who is Finch, really?

At the heart of Finch lies a detective story. But like the city of Ambergris, in which Finch is set, the story is encrusted with layers of history and deception and flat-out weirdness. Oh yeah, and all manner of fungus, too.

I’ve been following Finch and its author Jeff VanderMeer since I got wind of the book. From video interviews, blog interviews, book reading videos and VanderMeer’s blog I got the impression that Finch would be not only novel (heh), but also layered and complex. Even though I usually try to dial down my expectations for books, I convinced myself that Finch would be a book I would love. The cover alone offered promises of grim weirdness and surreality draped over the familiar noir detective novel.

As I began reading, I realized I was waiting for my expectations to be dashed even though I found the story compelling and the writing superb. I worried for no good reason. Finch worked for me from start to finish. Even in those moments where I wondered what was going on, I reveled in my ignorance of things and the let the story explode into my brain the like the spores that have infected Finch’s partner.

There is an overlay of grim despair on Finch, Ambergris, pretty much everyone and everything in the story. Even so, Finch plods forward to unravel the mysteries of his past and the double homicide.

Along with the cast of human and humanoid characters, Ambergris the city shines as a character. Brilliant fungi in countless forms cover the city. Some are just fungi, but some function as spy cameras or dispensers of some kind of opiate to calm the masses. VanderMeer does a great job of keeping the boot of Ambergris’s humid fetor on your neck throughout the story:

Finch’s apartment was near the end of the hall. Had to negotiate a hothouse wetness to get there. Tendrils and caps of red-and-green fungus sprouted from the walls. Gray caps only cared about keeping the streets clean. No help from his next-door neighbors, either. Almost like they thought it gave them camouflage.

Fungus of all hues infiltrates the city, the story, the characters and your mind:

Fungal Beauty by Hawk Alfredson

In the apartment, the bodies lay much as before. Except that each had sprouted a thick, emerald-green stalk topped by a nodule. The detectives called them memory bulbs. No one could pronounce what the gray caps called them. Sounded like a word between loam and leer. An aqua-colored nodule for the man. Bright orange for the gray cap.

or:

A spotlight of lavender and crimson painted itself across the far wall of his apartment, then leapt away. Once, Finch had seen a shoal of spores take the form of a huge, bloated green monster. Spiraling red eyes. It had bellowed and dived into a neighborhood to the north. Smashed itself into motes against the ground.

My only complaint was that I hadn’t read Shriek: An Afterword or City of Saints and Madmen before reading Finch. Not because I needed them to understand Finch, but because I felt like a newcomer to a cool, underground party that had been going on for hours without me. I shall remedy that as soon as I can.

Do yourself a favor: Read Finch. If you like noir detective stories you’ll recognize the underpinnings, but your mind will be significantly stretched by the time you finish this. If you’re not a big detective story kind of person, there’s more than enough in Finch to fascinate.

The Name of the Wind

Back in August of last year, I went to my first Gen Con in Indianapolis. I was but four months into writing full time and excited to check out the pageantry, the games, and the writers. Upon visiting Author’s Alley, what I found were authors sitting at tables with their books and little else. It was less than impressive.

Unfortunately, I let that shape my opinion of the rest of the writerly things at the convention. Patrick Rothfuss was the guest speaker and I blew it off and thought little more about it.

Now that I know more, I wish I had gone.

Heading into Christmas, a blog buddy expressed incredulity that I had not yet read The Name of the Wind. She even generously offered to send me a copy. I declined, but I did put the book on my Amazon Wishlist and got it for my birthday.

I finished the book about a week ago.

The story was pretty good, mostly the retelling of a young man’s story, although there are events going on that hint at a larger story to come.  The missed opportunities and angst of the young adult relationship wore a little thin, but I still wanted to see how it worked out. He explores the familiar ground of education in fantasy — well traveled by the likes of Rowling, Hobb, and T.H. White — but keeps it fresh and engaging .

My biggest complaint is that it lacked the feeling of depth, of a larger, complex world in which the story takes place. That didn’t keep me from plowing through the story and I’ll read The Wise Man’s Fear when I can get my hands on it, but with some trepidation.

I think if I had found this book on my own, I might have enjoyed it for what it was: a good, fun story that entertains.  Unfortunately, the blurbs on the back cover and the recommendation raise my expectations considerably. Here is an excerpt from a Strange Horizons review that echoes my thoughts on The Name of the Wind:

But here’s the thing: it’s a fundamentally cosy book. It flatters the reader. It winks at her, promising her the real thing rather than some sanitised storybook version, at the same time sanitising anything that might genuinely unsettle, or unnerve, or wrongfoot her readerly expectations. It, like many works of contemporary fantasy, panders to a sort of imaginative tourism, a safe entry into an escapist imaginative space defined by its reassuring familiarity.

I think any disappointment stems more from my expectation of a more complex adult novel than anything else. In truth, The Name of the Wind feels more Young Adult to me. That said, where the story leaves off, there lies the promise of weightier matters. I will read The Wise Man’s Fear at some point and hope that Rothfuss’s writing will deepen. With the work and time he’s put into The Wise Man’s Fear, I would imagine that will be the case.