Saturday, May 23, 2015

Books for Mark

I've assembled this list for my good friend, Mark, based on his request for "a few good books." This is a dangerous thing to ask me, because you'll end up with me either spilling my guts or writing a long and rambling blog post.

Anyhow, I've picked these out based on what I know of Mark's likes and tastes. These aren't necessarily favourites of mines - well, except in some cases - but they're all good ones. When and where a book is part of a series, I've put the series name in parentheses after the title of the book.

They're in three categories:

Books for Dad and the Kids
These aren't books for a younger audience, really, but rather books that tells stories that are of interest to children. We shouldn't confuse these stories for something "simple" or "easy." They're books on themes that are important to children, and that have characters they can easily relate to.

Books for Dad
These books are challenging - they're genre books, mostly, but most of them either use genre as a starting point for something unexpected, or blend genres in a way that's unique, and sometimes even unsettling. Caution: May contain words. Oh, and some rather controversial stuff.

Books for Dad's Inner Kid
This is the not-meaty stuff. Most of this is solidly in a genre and doesn't step outside it except for effect. That's not to say that they're skeletal stories - there's meat on these bones, it's just been prepared in a manner that a little closer to what you'd expect.

Books for Dad and the Kids
Knee-Deep in Thunder
If Stephen Sondheim's Into The Woods has a moral, it's in the lyric, "Witches can be right, and giants can be good." Sondheim's musical is all about telling classic fable and inverting narrative expctations - the handsome prince is a cad, Rapunzel is a self-saving princess, and the narrator - well, I won't spoil it.
With this book, Sheila Moon accomplishes something that I think is rarer and more precious - she tells a fable with a straightforward narrative that teaches the same lesson.

The framing story is your basic, "Child of destiny gets drawn into a fantasy world and set on a quest," kind of a thing. It hits most of the items on that checklist - unusual companions that initially distrust her, a wise old mentor, hideous antagonists, a reminder of the world she came from, an initial failure followed by a final success after finding a source of courage. You know the basics.

The enemy - The Beasts - aren't to be killed, though. Instead, they're to be rehabilitated. Her allies quarrel about how to go about their quest, but rather than the usual falling apart and coming back together, they talk about their reasons for disagreement and come to a consensus on what to do that compromises all of their starting premises a little bit while moving toward an end they all agree on.
For some reads this can be a bit of a disappointment as we like our villains dark and shadow and our heroes glowing with strength and purity of focus but, let's be honest, that's not how it works.

The Neverending Story
Forget the movie. I mean, don't actually forget it. The movie is just about the Platonic ideal of the 80s kid-friendly fantasy movie. For all it's flaws and needless diversions from the book, it's a pretty good story with some frankly astounding practical effects.

But in this case the book really is better. If you're not at all familiar with it, the basic premise that a lonely boy finds a fantastic book and hides out in his school to read it overnight. As he reads, the story comes to life, quite literally.

It's a fairly common trope in fantasy literature, but it's rarely handled so deftly, and I'm intentionally leaving out some details on how it's used because finding them out while reading is much of the fun. The author does a great job of creating a story that reflects the needs and desires of the protagonist without the narrative yelling, "Look! A metaphor for Bastian's loneliness!", and also creates a rich and engaging fantasy story.

My favourite element of the book is that it really is neverending. At several points, secondary characters walk out of the books narrative with their plotline unresolved, but the author let's us know that their story does continue, "But that is another story and will be told another time." This metatextual acknowledgement that a books world is more complex and involved than just the characters we get to interact with means that how you construct the narrative outside of the main story can change how you're reading the main story, making for a different experience each time you read.

Ocean at the End of the Lane
This might be my favourite book of the last decade. It's a quick read and a quirky one, but most excellent.

It's the story of a man who comes back home - no, wait, that's wrong. He comes back to the vicinity of the building that housed him as a child. Home isn't there anymore, not really, and as the book goes on we come to see that maybe it never really was at all.

There's much weirdness and magical realism in the book - a nanny with supernatural powers, a lake that mores than a lake, vultures made of nothing. There's magic and mystery and peril and all of it leads up to a good, satisfying conclusion.

The Thirteen Clocks
James Thurber is the founding father of modern American comedy. Have you laughed at a Neil Simon play? Thank James Thurber. Enjoyed a classic sitcom? Thanks James Thurber (although that loud wail you heard from lower Manhattan was the sound of his revenant spirit rebelling at the notion).

The Thirteen Clocks is an underprinted, unappreciated work of comedy. It failed mostly because it was seen as a kid's story because it's a book with a bunch of songs in it. Thing is, these aren't silly children's songs, or Tolkein's wordy hymns, these are Broadway-style numbers. In fact, if you can hear the lead character's songs in your head without hearing Danny Kay's voice, you're one of the few.

It's a simple enough plot - an evil duke kidnaps a princess and a handsome, plucky hero goes to ludicrous extremes to free her. Oh, the lunacy, though. The delicious, delightful, dizzying lunacy.

To be read aloud. In many different voices. To as many children as you can muster. And sing the songs. It doesn't have to be good, just committed.

Wee Free Men (Tiffany Aching books)
Though technically part of the larger Discworld series, the Tiffany Aching books really stand mostly as their own series. I should not that it really is a series - if you read I Shall Wear Midnight first, there'll be bits that don't make much sense and totally ruin bits in the earlier book.

Tiffany Aching is a student of Granny Weatherwax and has the potential to become a witch almost as powerful as her mentor. Yes, she's a witch. The Discworld is a place full of magic (that threatens to destroy the universe occasionally) and where you really, really hope the gods are distant because they're jerks. Witches use magic sparingly and wisely, when they're doing it right, and are really more the wise old women of their village, even when they're young, the people who intercede against the strange things that happen in the night and that keep the weird of the world at bay. It sounds dark, I know, but it's not

It helps that despite being advertised as "young adult," and thus redolent of upstart young heroes and heroines drawn with all the depth of a sheet of paper, she's complex - more complex than a lot of "grown-up novel" protagonists. She is by turns selfish, kind, arrogant, emotional, terrified, selfless, stony, impetuous and . . . well, human. And, of course, the whole series is anchored by Pratchetts fantastic wit and riotous use of language, mythology and culture.

A Wind in the Door
You're an English teacher, so I assume you've at least read A Wrinkle In Time. If not, get on that. Now. Stop reading this list, and go and read that book and come back. I'll wait.

A Wind In The Door is a direct sequel with the same core characters, other than Charles Wallace, and has two new cast members - a cherubum, and a farandola. The first is a giant ball of eyes and wings, and the latter is part of the substructure of a mitochondrian. I'd say, "It makes sense if you read it," but that's not really true, but in the most amazing ways. The problem with sequels is that authors seem to think that each new book must have more action, more plot and more drama. In this book, the stakes are roughly as high as they were the last time, and the book does well as a result.

If the book has a theme, it is the discovery that the opposite of love isn't hate, and vice versa. Beyond that, I won't say.

Books for Dad
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Imagine a fictitious account of the birth of the comic book industry intercut with the politics of the 40s and 50s, including punching Nazis, and laced through with insight into the secular Jewish community in 30s Manhattan.

Okay, now make that not boring. That's Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. It's by turns biographical (the comic book stuff is really, really close to being an accurate history of DC comics), narrative and heart-wrenching. There's a great deal of adventure in the book, but it never becomes unbelievable - well, except for one part related to World War Two - and always serves the narrative.

My favourite part of the book is one of the supporting characters: New York. That's both NYC and the state itself. The author put in an incredible amount of work to make it into a completely believable place. At times you really feel like you can step through the page and into the book in a way that's rare and powerful

American Gods
So, I can't really define the genre of "magical realism" as a genre without saying, "this book."
This premise is deceptively simple - all the gods who have ever lived have moved to North America where they've, well, Americanized. And as humanity's faith in gods has faded, so have their powers and area of influence.
There's a lot more to the story - a large portion of it is a rambling travelogue of America, with stops to meet with various gods from the familiar to the strange - but it would ruin it to describe it much further. Read it and let the story unfold like a flower.

The Golem and the Jinni
This book is, in a word, incredible. It's the story of a traditional Jewish golem and a traditional Arabic jinni arriving in New York in the 19th century, at roughly around the same time, and how they first meet and the things that they learn from each other.
In lesser hands, these characters would either feel monstrous and alien or basically like superpowered humans, but in the author's hands, they're sincere and individual. You understand their mythic nature - the golem is driven to serve others and has trouble controlling herself, and the jinni is a wanderer with a fiery temper - but you relate to them so very well.

The rest of the characters are fabulous as well, from the owners of a traditional Jewish bakery to a longsuffering tinsmith to an atheist driven to carry out his old religion's mandate to help his fellow man.

And, again, New York City just springs to life in these pages. The geography of the city becomes key to much of the story, and it, along with these fantastic characters, charges into an unexpected and terrifying finale that I just can't describe without ruining it.

House of Leaves
I'm not fond of postmodern literature, as a movement. The deconstructions almost always feel stale and artificial, but House of Leaves is an exception.

Usually billed as a horror story, it has four separate narrative layers. The first is the framing of the story by the author, the second is by a struggling tattoo artist who introduces the third narrative - a book written by a blind man who introduces the fourth narrative. It's a series of videos taken by the owner of a house who finds a spare room - a space between walls that should be there and that takes the form of a series of rooms so dark that they seem to absorb the light.

The book is, needless to say, densely narrated and plays a lot with the idea of the unreliable narrator.

The book has an extensive appendix that isn't required to understand the story, but does add to it. The text itself actually becomes part of the story as the words squish together, straighten into lines or form into spirals. Of all the books on this list, this is doubtless the most challenging.

Perdido Street Station
Based in the fictional city of Bas-Lag, it's the story of an eccentric scientist fascinated with "crisis energy," his girlfriend and a handful of allies who're trying to destroy a strange, slightly transdimensional moth creature that's tearing apart the city. So far, so normal for a fantasy book, right?

Well, Bas-Lag is a sort of Victorian pastiche that combines some of the sensibilities of steampunk with fantasy elements. It's a grubby sort of police state where criminals are punished by being turned into ReMade. For example, a woman has her torso replaced with a potbelly stove.

Oh, and did I mention that the scientist's girlfriend's head is that of a giant fly, and that she makes art by inhaling dye, mixing it with her saliva and spitting it onto canvas or molding it into statuary? That one of the methods used to stop the monster is the mayor of Bas-Lag trying to manipulate a giant spider that speaks in free verse to attack it by bribing it with scissors.

If you can get your mind around Bas-Lag and its weirdness, though, you'll be greatly rewarded. It's one of those books where, after a long session of reading I've had to blink my eyes a couple of times to make sure my brain remembers that I'm not actually in the book, and the images from its pages have stayed with me for a long, long time.

Books for Dad's Inner Kid
Cordelia's Honour (Vorkosigan Saga)
This is the first book, chronologically, in the saga of Miles Vorkosigan, who's kind of a big deal in genre sci fi. This is, though, the story of how his parents met. And it's wonderful.

The author, Bujold, comes from a family of Navy engineers, and it shows in her writing. She constructs a plot, introduces a failure state and narrates the results. And the heroes win, at a cost, and the bad guys lose, usually, and it's all tremendous fun. The science fiction are fairly light, despite her background - faster-than-light travel just, well, works, and the weapons and armour are described in light detail.

I should mention - this isn't where most people who have you begin this series. In the chronology of the stories, it's the first, but it was written well after we were first introduced to the series' main character, Miles, a dwarven mastermind who's one half Errol Flynn, one half Tony Stark and one half pirate. Yes, three halves. He might be small, but he packs a lot into a very small space.

The Demons at Rainbow Bridge (The Quintara Marathon)
Jack Chalker is a figure of some controversy in science fiction. He likes to play around with the notions of self-identity and personhood in ways that make people on both sides of aisle uncomfortable. People of a more conservative bent are disturbed by the way he redefines the personalities of his characters so readily, and readers of a more liberal mindset don't like how he tends to treat certain things, like gender, as immutable.

This series manages to avoid most of those problems while still playing silly buggers with the notion of self in a way that's entertaining.

The long and short of it is that three great galactic races who like using humans as frontline workers (we reproduce quickly, adapt easily to new environments and are generally useful) who're racing to determine the significance of the discovery of an ancient alien artifact. The plot moves quickly, the characters are compelling and the aliens are just plain weird. I really like this series and have read it several times.

Yes, there really are three Neil Gaiman works listed here. And if I could, I'd also recommend Fortunately The Milk, The Graveyard Book, Coraline, Smoke and Mirrors, Mirrormask, The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish, Neverwhere and, heck, even the book about Duran Duran he wrote back when he was a struggling journalist. He's taken to actually turning down nominations for book awards because he wins so many of them, and he usually deserves it.

Anyway, Sandman. It's utterly fantastic, more of less revolutionized the comic book and served as a gateway for the development of graphic novels for grown-ups.

It has a lot of mature themes and it doesn't shy away from them. Death, dark magic, horror, dreams and demons all play a role in the first chapter of the story, but they're in there to create teh story, not to titillate and shock, and the end result is a complex story told in a rich fictional world that leads you through some of the most powerful characterizations in fiction.

Small Gods (The Discworld Series)
When I recommend a series of books I usually recommend the first book in the series' chronology even if it isn't th ebest book in the series. That's because a series usually develops plot and character over time and so reading a later book can ruin earlier ones.

This isn't a problem with Small Gods. At this point in this very, very long-lived series, it's technically an early book, but you don't really notice.

It's the self-contained story of Brutha, the last remaining worshipper of Om, a storm god who's now nearly powerless from a critical lack of worshippers. I can't say more about the plot without ruining it, but suffice it to say that it's a fascinating conversation about faith, philosophy, democracy, truth and sausage inna bun. It's also quite hilarious.

Storm Front (The Dresden Files)
Harry Dresden is the only self-advertised wizard in the Chicago phone book. If I don't have your attention with just that sentence, then why on earth are you still reading this list?

The Dresden Files is told in first-person narrative by Harry Dresden, a wizard who works the weirdest, most supernatural cases in Chicago. It starts out very much in the mold of a traditional detective series. Femme fatales, gunfights (well, wandfights), crime bosses, hidden motives, lots of people getting coshed on the head, all that sort of thing.

Storm Front is very much in this original framework and makes it work quite well, especially for a freshman novel. The later books expand the background of the Dresdenverse quite a lot until in the most recent book . . . I can't tell you anything, because mentioning anything, I mean the smallest detail I can think of in the most recent book, would spoil your reading of the series.

In fact, of all the series mentioned here, this is the one that most warrants reading in order, and most rewards people who paid attention to background characters and events in previous books. It can still be enjoyed as pure, visceral pulp fiction with fireballs in place of handguns, and ogres in place of mob enforcers - although there are plenty of actual mob enforcers, come to think of it.

Sundiver (The Uplift Series)
You ever notice how in most science fiction books, humanity's the Federation, or the Empire? Humans are usually either the top dog or vying for the title.

In David Brin's Uplift series, not so much. The premise is probably the most interesting part: sentience cannot evolve, it can only be created through thousand and thousands of years of careful breeding and genetic manipulation by a race that's already been raised - "uplifted" - to sentience.

This has been going on for eons before humanity was even aware of it - once species raises others up until they just lose the desire for material existence and their children establish new empires. Humans? Humans are "wolflings," a species that another race attempted to uplift without much success. Unlike most wolflings, humans have actually figured out FTL travel and started some uplifting of their own - chimps and dolphins, mostly. Humans are hated and, in some sectors, actively hunted.

As I said, the premise and its execution is the best part of the books. The first trilogy has a good plot and some interesting characters, but, in my opinion, the second trilogy fails to deliver on the events set in motion during the first. It's still very much worth reading the first trilogy, though.

This is some pretty hard scifi. There are four-page discussions on the merits of various kinds of technology and even longer passages on genetics and animal husbandry. I find those digressions fascinating, though.