Wednesday, August 21, 2013 02:26 PM
Book Report Roundup
 by Fëanor

The Cuckoo's Calling
This is that detective novel J.K. Rowling wrote under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. I have to admit, I had not even heard of it until the true identity of Galbraith was leaked, but having picked it up, I found I couldn't put it down. A great read and a fascinating mystery with some wonderful characters. I thought I'd figured out who did it before I got to the big reveal, but I was way off-base. Interestingly enough, the book is about some of the same things the Harry Potter books are about: fame and family. Although there's a lot more sex and expletives; I imagine Rowling enjoyed being able to let loose as far as that was concerned. There also seemed to be a lot more Britishisms, some of which left me a bit puzzled, but hey, it's a British book, so that's only fair. Definitely looking forward to more books from "Galbraith," and more books about Detective Strike and his sidekick Robin.

The Arabian Nights: Their Best Known Tales
Somehow I have never read The Arabian Nights. Sadly, I still cannot say I have, really, as this is an abridged "best of" collection which was the only audiobook version I could find. It doesn't even include the frame story with Scheherazade telling the tales to the King to stay alive. But it does include the story of Aladdin, "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," and Sinbad's voyages, among various other tales - some of which are mighty odd.

I don't know if it was just the translation, or if this is the case in the original text, but the language is often extremely belabored and repetitive; it seems like the author(s) never said something in one sentence if they could use five instead. I almost stopped listening to the book many times because of that, but I stuck with it, and I'm glad I did. There's a lot of neat stuff in here - plenty of magic, adventure, and madness. I recognized some of the basic story structures and elements from other collections of folk tales I've read, but there was still a lot new to me here. There's a very religious bent to many of the tales, with many exhortations to trust and believe in the one true God, and many examples of the terrible punishments visited on those who did not. The story of Aladdin is quite a bit different from the Disney version. For one thing, this Aladdin is really a bit of a jerk, although he does change for the better as the story goes on. For another, the genies (there are numerous) are never given personalities, and there is never any talk of freeing them. A few slaves do get freed in the course of these tales, but in general slavery is something that's accepted and taken for granted. There's also, unsurprisingly, a pretty conservative view of sexuality and gender roles and a good deal of blatant and unapologetic racism. The morality is also of a violent, eye-for-an-eye sort. All that being said, the female characters are as well drawn as the male and never feel like less than whole people. It's also a woman who is the real hero of "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" - the young female slave, Morgiana. She is brilliant, brave, loyal, and a deadly enemy, and her story is one of the best.

I also enjoyed Sinbad's adventures, although as with Aladdin, there was almost no connection between them and any Sinbad movie I've ever seen. Each story is just a random series of crazy events which almost always involve Sinbad's ship getting wrecked and all his fellow crewmates getting horribly killed (as poppy said when I was describing these stories to her, you'd think people would stop going on voyages with Sinbad after a while). Sinbad rarely has any over-arching mission, beyond a quest for adventure, and money - he is, after all, a commercial traveler; a trader. He admits himself that after his first or second voyage he really should have just stayed home and enjoyed his wealth, but he always got bored and headed out again. Like Ishmael, he either had to go to sea, or start knocking people's hats off in the street.

My journey through Neil Gaiman's bibliography continues. I saw the BBC TV movie version of this at Movie Night ages ago, but never read it until now. The audiobook I got was a good one, with creepy sound effects, neat musical interludes, and a reader with a nice strong, appropriate accent. It's a fast-paced fantasy adventure of the "average guy pulled into a secret magical world that has actually always existed invisibly all around us" sort. In this case, the magical world is London Below, a mostly underground, upside-down version of London that exists in the basements, sewers, and rooftops of the city we know. London Below is a wonderfully realized setting with fantastic atmosphere, populated by a host of fascinating and colorful characters, many of whom are archetypes of one sort or another. Door is an opener, Hunter is a hunter, Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar are a pair of awful, demonic destroyers - a fox and a wolf. Famous London landmarks appear either personified (Old Bailey, The Angel Islington) or twisted into strange, literal interpretations of themselves (Knightsbridge, Earl's Court, Blackfriars). It's a short, fast-paced tale that includes a murder mystery, surprises and betrayals, and a quest to retrieve a magical artifact. It's good stuff.

The Neil Gaiman Audio CD Collection
This fantastic collection of children's literature includes three short stories, a poem, and an interview with Mr. Gaiman conducted by his daughter, Maddy. One of the stories I'd read before: "The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish." It's a surreal, funny piece that's about exactly what it says it's about. "The Wolves in the Walls" might be even better - a fantastic, hilarious, faintly creepy tale that had me smiling and chuckling throughout. "Cinnamon" is a story about a tiger, a princess who won't speak, and a bunch of silly adults. It's quite wonderful. "Crazy Hair" is an amusing poem that reminds me a bit of Shel Silverstein. And the interview at the end is great.

The City and the City
I'd heard a lot about China Mieville but never read anything by him. I grabbed this audiobook with no idea what it was about; it was just the only Mieville audiobook I could get my hands on. Well, I'll be seeking out more stuff by Mieville soon, because this blew me away. The book contains a double mystery: the murder mystery that is the plot, and the mysterious pair of cities that is the setting. (I enjoyed having both mysteries slowly revealed to me by the author, so if you'd rather go in completely ignorant like I did, stop reading now.) The cities - Beszel and Ul Qoma - are apparently somewhere in the Eastern Europe of a parallel Earth that is otherwise very like our own (so much like our own that it's sometimes very jarring; you'll be reading about some entirely alien facet of Beszel's history, and then someone will mention The Terminator, or Van Morrison). Economically, Beszel is on the downswing, and Ul Qoma on the up. They have their own languages, their own politics and laws, differing relations with the world's other major powers, their own ways of seeing the world. The weird thing about them is that they exist on top of and within each other, sharing many of the same roads, buildings, and parks, but they are kept separate and inviolate by carefully maintained differences in architecture and fashion; by just as carefully maintained cultural taboos; and by the mysterious and terrible Breach. The populaces of both cities are trained from birth to unsee, unhear, and even unsmell their neighbors. It's an absolutely fascinating concept, and one which Mieville explores in depth, with lively intelligence and astonishing cleverness. In one scene, a man chases another man down the street, but cannot look at him, because technically they are in different cities. In another, a man walks his way carefully through the crosshatches of the two cities, dressed and moving in such a way that no one can tell which city he is actually in, and so all carefully unsee him, and the police of neither city can take him - he is effectively invisible and untouchable, a non-entity.

The first part of the book takes place in Beszel, the second in Ul Qoma, and the third... in between. The main character is a bit of a mystery himself: Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. We learn little about his thoughts or his past, but come to know him almost entirely from his actions. These reveal that he is passionate, determined, and dedicated to his job. In each part of the book, he finds himself partnered with a member of the police force of whatever city he's in, and he drives each of those partners to become just as dedicated as he is to solving the mystery.

After getting us acquainted with the two cities, Mieville introduces the haunting ghost of a third city, that exists in the spaces between these two - a hidden city out of folktales that might be secretly controlling everything. On one level, The City and the City is an engrossing police procedural, with plenty of conspiracies and political intrigue, but on another level, it's a novel about the delicate, invisible, and insane ideas that all our lives are built and depend upon. I finished the book some time ago, but I can't seem to stop thinking about it. It's utterly brilliant.

To Be Or Not To Be: A chooseable-path adventure
This book is the product of a Kickstarter I helped fund! It's William Shakespeare's Hamlet, rewritten as a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book. Which you have to admit is a pretty brilliant idea. The author is Ryan North, who is also responsible for Dinosaur Comics, a web comic I enjoy. I guess you could say I've "read" this book, insofar as I've followed it through to the end a couple of times, although on the other hand, it's really the kind of book you can't ever say you've really "read," as there are so many different possible paths you can take it would be almost impossible to follow them all. North's style - which is light, conversational, and jokey - can grate a bit in large doses, and some of the ideas in here really seem to come out of left field (how did this become a book about inventing central heating?), but it's still generally entertaining, and I'll probably pick it up and run through it again a couple more times some day.
Tagged (?): Book Report (Not), Books (Not), Neil Gaiman (Not)

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Welcome to the blog of Jim Genzano, writer, web developer, husband, father, and enjoyer of things like the internet, movies, music, games, and books. For a more detailed run-down of who I am and what goes on here, read this.

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