The Nickel and Dime Decade: American Popular Culture During the 1930s, by Gary Best

This book is pretty awful.

So I was looking for social histories of the Depression for… no reason. Certainly not because I was researching the life and times of Steve Rogers, nope. >_> Although… hypothetically speaking… if anyone wanted to chat about this stuff, you might possibly find me a very enthusiastic willing ear.

And this book does indeed have a lot of relevant and interesting information, but it also has some of the most dishonest scholarship I’ve seen since I picked up an Ann Coulter book.

Strap in, friends, we’re gettin’ political!

Under the Dome, by Stephen King

under_the_dome_640x360

With a writer as prolific as Stephen King (or Anne Rice, John Updike, etc), there reaches a point where it’s hard to judge each successive work on its own merits — the impulse becomes to judge it against the rest of the writer’s oevre. Is Pandora better than Tale of the Body Thief, but pales in comparison to Interview with a Vampire? Is this book perhaps good in its own right, but rehashing themes that the author’s already done? Is To the End of Time the actualfax worst book that Updike has ever written? Is Under the Dome on par with King’s early classics, or just one of his potboilers?

Well friends, I have no idea, because I don’t actually read Stephen King! The only other book of his I’ve read was The Dead Zone (oh right, and The Gunslinger, ages ago, but I’ve been told that’s quite different from King’s usual style), so my experience with Under the Dome was largely uncolored by his previous books. And in a nutshell, my experience was:

Stephen King does Battle Royale, and does it fuckin’ aces.

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Dead of Winter, by Lee Collins

S’okay.

Summary: Cora and her husband Ben are bounty hunters who make their living by killing various supernatural shit in the old west. I fuckin’ love supernatural shit in the old west.

It’s rare to see established relationships in fiction, so I was curious to see how he would handle it — answer is, unfortunately, not particularly engagingly. It’s a hard thing to pull off, since the quickest shortcut to audience-engagement in a romance is unresolved sexual tension. Barring that, it seems like the best way to sell an audience on an established relationship is to give them an excellent team dynamic (ala Zoe and Wash in Firefly, or Rickey and G-man in Liquor), so that the reader gets a clear sense of why these two people like each other, how they work together as a unit, and how staunchly they’ve got each other’s backs. I didn’t get much sense of that here.

Partly it’s because Cora is an asshole. Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally okay with that — she’s arrogant, aggressive, impulsive, and a full-on alcoholic, which would make her a tired stereotype if she were a man, but it’s a combination that takes on a very different (and rather interesting) feel in a female character. I just wish we’d been given more to like about her, in addition to all her less savory qualities.

Anyway, I read Dead of Winter because it turned out that She Returns From War was the sequel to this. I’ll give SRFW a spin later too.

Plot – 4/5 (brisk, with action and stuff)
Prose – 3/5 (utilitarian)
Characters – 3.5/5 (Cora is not lovable, but she is somewhat different)
Novelty – 3/5 (can “Supernatural in the old west, but with less drama” be called novel?)
Emotional engagement – 2/5 (nope, not feeling it)

Counter-recs, if you’re lookin’ for more weird west: The God Eaters by Jesse Hajicek or A Book of Tongues by Gemma Files. (But only if you like a side of hot gay sex with your supernatural shit in the old west. And if you’re not — friend, you are reading the wrong books blog). Territory by Emma Bull, not queer but with interesting atmospherics; think magical realism in the Weird West.

On literary criticism

So I haven’t updated the gay fiction booklist in a very long time, and part of it is that I hadn’t (until very recently anyway) been reading all that much fiction, my time getting eaten by school and more school, but the other part is that I’ve become increasingly introspective about what the role of the critic should be, how to distinguish what I like from what is objectively good, and whether it’s even possible to quantify the quality of a book.

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Outlaws of Sherwood, by Robin McKinley

BORING.

McKinley is rapidly joining the ranks of authors that I have really really liked in the past, and would really really like to keep liking, but whose recent works have been on a one-way track to uninspired-town. (Tanya Huff and Neal Stephenson are also on that list.) The first of McKinley’s books I read was Beauty, which I reread not long ago and still highly recommend, a retelling of Beauty and the Beast that is immediately absorbing and has a wholly lovable protagonist. My other favorite of hers is Sunshine, which I enjoy far more than I have any right to, given that it’s a product of the “age-old vampire x teenage girl” genre popularized by Twilight. And yet.

My recent forays into narratology have left me better equipped to analyze what, exactly, it is about a text that makes it succeed or fail, and on the subject of Robin McKinley, my conclusion is this:

1) She’s far better at creating character via first-person narration than third. (Although it’s no guarantee — her first-person Dragonhaven was a solid dud as well.)

2) Outlaws of Sherwood suffers from too much summary and too little scene. Seriously, I was 13% of the way through and there had been all of one actual scene — as in, dialogue and in-the-moment action — and the rest had been the narrator summarizing what they’d been up to. Boring as balls. Give me character subjectivity, or give me SOMETHING ELSE TO READ. I persisted up to 33%, then quit to go replay Dragon Age: Inquisition.

Counter-rec: Beauty if you want ye olde medieval fantasy, Sunshine if you want decent urban fantasy.

ETA: Apparently this came out in 2002?? Then why did I drunk-kindle-buy it last October and it was like, Congratulations on pre-ordering Outlaws of Sherwood! Whatever.

Republic of Thieves, by Scott Lynch

…is grate!!

So this is his third in the series that began with Lies of Locke Lamora, a book that made quite a splash some years back for being extremely clever and just so damn fun. (Think Robin Hood crossed with Ocean’s 11, with banter and camaraderie that Joss Whedon would envy.)

Unfortunately, when the next book came out, Red Seas Under Red Skies, it was… disappointing. It’s been years since I read it, so I don’t remember it well enough to analyze why it failed, but it didn’t have anywhere near the same verve as the first one. I, and a lot of other readers, concluded that whatever perfect storm had produced LoLL, Lynch didn’t know how to make it strike twice. Repeated delays on the release of Republic of Thieves seemed to confirm those fears, cuz books don’t get delayed when the author is on their game and writing like a house on fire.

…Or maybe they do, because Republic of Thieves is a gem and a joy that lives up to all expectations set by Lies of Locke Lamora. The dregs of RSURS‘s tortured plot get flushed away in short order, and our bold heroes Locke and Jean are back in the game. The game this time is to steal an election — and across the table, their opponent is Sabetha.

Oh yeah, you heard me. She’s finally in it. And because analyzing failure is more instructive than analyzing success, I’m going to spend the rest of this post turning a magnifying glass on the fly in Locke Lamora‘s ointment: Lynch’s weaknesses with women.

That most strange and terrible of beasts, The Female Character

The Grim Company, by Luke Scull

Waste of money.

So… the title probably should have tipped me off that this was GRIMDARK GRIMDARK, but all the cover blurbs (from reputable sources!) raved about how it was “fun” and had a “great sense of humor,” so apparently I’d concluded that the title must be sort of ironic.

Yeah no. Clumsy prose, laden with telling-not-showing, punctuated by tedious infodumps; a monotonously grim and dark setting; every character going out of their way to be unlikeable; seasoned with a dash of sexism and homophobia. I’d pick out examples of what is evidently supposed to constitute a “great sense of humor” but it’s pretty cringe-worthy.

Apparently I have the same problem with grimdark that I have with urban fantasy — that I can’t stop myself from reading it, but never like it much when I do. And I haven’t worked out entirely why that is, though I’ve been circling that question for a while now. Cuz I like the Ye Olde Medieval Fantasylandia setting. I like magic and mayhem and plots with Epic Stakes, I like dystopias. I’m not a prude, about sex or violence, though I find them both pretty uninteresting without context. I don’t have the triggers that grimdark tries to set off about once per page. So why do they never deliver what I want?

I realized while I was writing this that I never got around to finishing up the post I’d started on Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, which is not grimdark, but might be considered a foil to it. It sparked the beginnings of a revelation on what it is specifically about this modern crop of novels — the ones that inspired the coining of the term “grimdark” — that makes them different from earlier fantasy stories with a similar body count. Saving my thoughts on that for a longer, more organized post.

Anyway, at 20.6% of the way through Grim Company the plot was finally starting to become mildly interesting, but not enough to merit slogging through all that other bullshit, so I abandoned it.

Libriomancer, and first-person smartass POV in urban fantasy

(Current excuse for not reading much fiction: thesis-writing. Jesus H Christ.)

I’m not much of one for impulse-buying books that I haven’t read before, particularly not new, because they’re expensive and I’m broke and choosy. But this weekend I went nuts and bought five of them, which hopefully I will read, and then hopefully I will write about:

Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines
River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay
She Returns from War by Lee Collins
Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch
Grim Company by Luke Scull

As usual, these are not book reviews, just me chatting about what jumped out at me as notably good, bad, or unusual.

First up: Libriomancer