The City & The City, by China Mieville (2009) K

Date read: 6.03.09

Book from: Personal Collection

Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

The City & The City is dark, brooding, and meticulous. It is the story of Inspector Tyador Borlu who investigates a mysterious and highly delicate murder case. “Highly delicate” for Borlu soon discovers that he must invoke Breach, a mysterious judicial force that governs disputes in the rare case that they involve a crossing of the cities, Ul Qoma and Beszel. However, help is not so easily found and Borlu must undertake this investigation himself. Using not-exactly-by-the-book methods, Borlu uncovers mysteries of the murdered girl, the very archaelogy of these two odd cities, and Breach.

Review

Mieville pulls the reader in with promises of the same great and dark fantastical adventures of his previous novels– we concoct a terrible conspiracy in our minds when first confronted with the murder, we imagine the city divide must have come about as a result of a great otherworldly battle, we provide ancient magical powers for each mention of a mysterious artifact… and although these theories are shattered one by one as the novel progresses, we still imagine the epic Big Reveal will, in fact, prove all our thoughts to be correct. Instead, The City & The City is cold and harsh, and there is never a magical solution. There is definitely a depressing, suffocating atmosphere that comes from knowing that every death, every misunderstanding, every unnecessarily gruesome fact of life is caused for humans, by humans.

I have to say I harbored this niggling disappointment each time a plot turn indicated that there was in fact no magic. I was naive– I should have paid closer attention to the genre titles “noir fiction” and “weird fiction”, but Mieville has always had a way with enchanting the story no matter what genre. I found the mentions of Myspace and Chuck Palanhiuk highly jarring, but undoubtedly genius. These references really made the reader think and realize he was reading about a country off somewhere in the Middle East that existed in the same world at the same time, that if he travelled far enough he would perchance bump into the city of Beszel. This effect was definitely unnerving and brought the story closer to home.

In many ways, I found Beszel and Ul Qoma to be the darkest of any of Mieville’s cities to date. Beszel and Ul Qoma encapsulate the grimness of today’s most rundown urban centers, without the usual gems of beauty that one can find in Mieville’s other works. While New Crobuzon was covered with filth, death, and corruption, the reader was still made to understand the powerful potential of inner beauty– Lin’s amazing (although admittedly grotesque) artwork, the majestic surrealism of The Weaver, the slowly nurtured romance between Bellis and Silas– and in the end, the Baslag books were just as much about the good as they were about the bad.¬† And of course, the London underground setting of King Rat also contained an edgy artistically musical appeal. I didn’t see any of this hope or light in these cities– whenever I uncovered more about a good person or a seemingly magical concept, there was simply only… dirt and muck underneath. Basically, I didn’t come away seeing promise dangling on the ends of story threads in the same way I did for other Mieville works. This, perhaps more than the downward spiral to nowhere, frightened me the most and in many ways, made the story as a whole less appealing.

This is not to say that The City & The City isn’t another great work of art created by China Mieville. I was so accustomed to floating along in the waves of Mieville’s greatly fantastical settings and characters, only to find myself rudely shoved into a hard and entirely unforgiving setting. I am under the opinion that this novel is extremely mislabeled as a fantasy work…there is an explanation and a science behind everything plot turn, and ultimately, my point is do NOT walk into The City & The City expecting fantasy. Although I have not read much detective noir fiction, I can confidently say The City & The City must be among the cream of the crop– as usual with Mieville, you can see the literary quality dripping off the edges of each page and feel the weight of a great imagination.

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China Mieville

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman (2008) K

Date read: 11.8.08

Book from: Personal Collection

Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Nobody Owens (Bod) lives in a graveyard, has ghosts for friends and family, and a mysterious neither-living-nor-dead guardian. As he grows up, he has to learn both the ways and secrets of the large graveyard as well as deal with the outside world. This foreign world is extremely dangerous place for Bod because the assassin of his family is still on the prowl. Throughout the journey of his childhood Bod basically learns about growing up– girls, beings which are neither living nor, and slowly, how to function in the outside world.

Review

Way to go Neil Gaiman! All those months of meticulously following the progress of The Graveyard Book on his blog certainly paid off– the day it was released, I headed over to my local bookstore, plucked one brand spanking new copy off the display, and settled into an armchair to read for the next couple hours. I read it all in one sitting, and in about a week, after procuring enough monetary funds, I immediately bought the book.

I have to say The Graveyard Book was spot on in so many respects– character development, pacing, storytelling… to name a few. Sure Bod lives in a graveyard, but his childhood frustrations and adventures¬† are so relatable. He has his own quarrels with his guardians, fighting against the constraints of the graveyard much like children do their own homes. The imagery is simply splendid, especially Bod’s adventures beneath the graveyard and all the different fantastical creatures. And, who doesn’t like ghosts, vampires, and other such creatures? I definitely felt transported into another world through that imaginary magic portal every child wants to travel through. Above all, I was definitely caught up in the snowball effect of the novel– you’re reading and the suspense and developments keep piling on until suddenly, you realize you haven’t been breathing for several pages. That is the feeling I’d been longing to experience again, that same thrill of reading Patricia Wrede or Brian Jacques or J.K. Rowling as a child with breathy light-headedness.

The Graveyard Book has replaced Coraline as my favorite Gaiman YA fiction. It is fantastical, yet down to earth at the same time, and strikes a wonderful balance between barreling trains of action and meandering scenes chock full of character development. Quite honestly, one of my recurring gripes with Gaiman’s works is they typically feel a bit cold, despite being terrifically written and crafted. I usually enjoy every minute of a Gaiman novel or comic, but come away feeling a bit dissatisfied, as if it didn’t successfully speak to me on a deeper level. The Graveyard Book, however, was warm and honest, and definitely a great read for any child or even adult.

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Neil Gaiman

Looking for Jake, by China Mieville (2005) K

Date Read: 2.17.06

Book From: Personal collection

Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Looking for Jake is Mieville’s first published short story collection, containing tidbits of every lustworthy genre– weird and urban fantasy, sci-fi, noird, horror, and of course, baslag. The collection is an extremely welcome contrast to Mieville’s previous works– one, his first novel, and the other three a sprawling epic trilogy. Mieville definitely clings (and I suspect will always cling) to the urban setting, which in my opinion, is the best type of backdrop to broil all types of conspiracies, folklore, and war. In the case of suspense and horror literature, I feel the urban setting also lends itself very well to relatability, and while you as the reader might find yourself soaring to distant lands and imaginations with high fantasy, urban fantasy brings the weird and excitement directly to you. My reactions to the stories in this collection range from indifferent to eyes-glued-to-the-page drooling– here I have some thoughts and mini-summaries of each story:

Continue reading Looking for Jake, by China Mieville (2005) K

Freakonomics, by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt (2005) K

Date Read: 1.7.07
Book from: Boston Public Library
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Levitt and Dubner explore several unorthodox theories behind crime and parenthood using their own statistics.

Review

I started reading Freakonomics with *a lot* of expectation from all the hype and word of mouth. It was an incredibly short read, and in the end, I felt like I had just finished a really long newspaper article instead of an engrossing book. It was enjoyable, but I really wasn’t impressed. First of all, I expected the concepts and economics to be… deeper? I felt like there wasn’t enough “intellegence” or solid insight to the chapters. Most of the book read like a statistics report, and while statistics were certainly crucial, I felt like the book as a whole was a bit of a cop out, relying on filler reports and less on thoughtful extrapolation.

Freakonomics is often seen as a melding of pop culture and economics. And in support, Levitt and Dubner argued points like how Roe vs. Wade was responsible for the last decade’s decline in crime, that parents actually do not matter in child development, and discussed teaching methods in school using statistics as proof. Basically… it was all fine and dandy to read and enjoy but it was all rather vague and I felt like it was simply another sensationalist story “supported” by statistics which you can never be sure are accurate. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just the super skeptical mathematician within me speaking. But don’t get me wrong– it was still a fun read.

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Steven Levitt
Stephen Dubner

The Millenium, by Upton Sinclair (1924) K

Date read: 12.24.08

Book from: Personal Collection

Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

(Copied from the back of the book). The year, 2000; the place, Central Park’s 100-story Pleasure Palace, built expressly for the “pleasure of the ruling class.” Shortly before the opening ceremony a radiumite explosion kills everyone in the world … except for the eleven people already inside the Pleasure Palace. Most of the eleven survivors are wealthy and can’t imagine living in a world without servants or luxuries: “No more quail in aspic, no more theatre parties, no more tailors,” they moan in unison. As the group battles to exist in a chaotic world without rules or structure or money, three of the survivors, led by Billy Kingdom, the poor yet resourceful outsider, go off to build a new utopian society, the Co-operative Commonwealth, on the banks of the Pocantico Hills of the Hudson River, north of new York City.

The Millennium was first written as a four-act drama in 1907, after the collapse of Sinclair’s own “Co-operative Commonwealth” in New Jersey. Its production on Broadway was delayed over and over until all copies of the play were lost. In 1924 Sinclair rewrote the story in novel form.

Review

Well, pretty much all you need to know is actually on that back cover summary– it tells you exactly what you’re getting yourself into. Overall, The Millenium was exactly how it sounds– a funny, informative, quirky, and insightful read. It is painfully clear from the dialogue (dramatic, very exclamatory), static settings, and narrative that the work was meant to be a drama and the style is rather enjoyable as long as you are expecting it.

The Millenium is a humorous dose of… everything that goes wrong with every form of government. Basically, after the explosion, the survivors cycle through all sorts of governments including Socialism, Communism, Captialism, Feudalism, and plain Survivalism. It was incredibly funny to see each form of government build itself up around one ridiculous product (nutrient pills, which in this futuristic society were the only form of sustenance) and the workings of the “economy”. You also get to see these intense, miniature forms of government comprised of 2-6 people clash against each other and watch one muscle its way to victory.

There really is not much in terms of character or setting development– the characters were very apparently only tools for Sinclair to use. And, well, the moral of the story was that governments suck and utopias rule. But what else can you expect from Sinclair?

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Upton Sinclair

M is for Magic, by Neil Gaiman (2007) K

Date Read: 7.4.07

Book From: Borders piracy

Reviewer: Kakaner

M is for Magic is a collection of short stories written for children. I had been eagerly anticipating the publication of this collection because I find Gaiman’s writing tends to come across warmer and his characters more relatable in his children works (Coraline, Wolves in the Walls, etc.).

I am sorry to say that this collection was sorely disappointing. First of all, I had already seen about half of these stories in other collections, for example, “Troll Bridge”– for the third time– and “Sunbird”. The first story in the collection, “The Case of The Four And Twenty Blackbirds”, was abysmal. It literally hurt me to read it. It was incredibly contrived, and each paragraph seemed to end with a terribly joke or pun. To top it off, the story was also filled with sexual innuendos written in a childish manner, a clear attempt to transcend the boundaries of the age bracket of the genre through clever humor. I couldn’t believe I was actually reading children’s literature or Gaiman’s work for that matter.

“The Case of The Four And Twenty Blackbirds” certainly spoiled the rest of the collection for me. There was no spark and nothing remarkable in the rest of M is for Magic. Despite the overall lackluster appeal of this collection, I still have great respect for Neil Gaiman and am still looking forward to his new works.

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Neil Gaiman

Author Event: China Mieville overlays The City & The City (June 2009)

Author: China Mieville

Date: 6.03.09

Book: The City & The City

Sponsor: Harvard Book Store

Venue: First Parish Church; Cambridge, MA

Reviewer: Kakaner

China Mieville is a master. Until you meet him or hear him speak, he is the demigod, the big black ominous fog of Un Lun Dun, the dark force that lurks behind the pages of Perdido Street Station and stares piercingly at you from the back cover so that one can’t help but notice his rippling tatooed biceps, striking piercings, and generally intimidating presence. So naturally, I walked into my first China Mieville author event expecting to cower in the front row before this great Socialist figure (politicians scare me).

I was completely taken aback. Within a couple minutes, and even more so as the evening went on, it became apparent that Mieville was actually rather carefree and … jovial… I might say. A lot of cool and amazing things were said throughout the event. I think I’ll make do with a bit of description and then try to relate some of the highlights of the evening.

Continue reading Author Event: China Mieville overlays The City & The City (June 2009)

Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion (2009) K

Reviewer: Kakaner
Date Read: 3.15.09
Book From: Personal Collection

Summary
A zombie in a post-apocalyptic desolate landscape befriends a rare living girl and finds himself being transformed by his relationship with her. An extension of a short story by the same author: I am a Zombie Filled with Love.

Review
This was… sadly underwhelming and disappointing given Marion’s previous works. I was initially very excited to read this because 1) ZOMBIE FICTION MOG! and 2) the short story was pretty amazing. The first chapter opens up with the original short story, a very poignant 1st person zombie narrative describing the thoughts, feelings, and actions of the narrator during one slice of a day. There is emphasis on the zombie’s inability to think coherently, speak, or process thoughts quickly. The zombie’s outlook on the world is extremely complacent and only slightly quizzical, but it is apparent the zombie brain cannot handle being inquisitive.

In order for Marion to tell the story he wanted to tell, he had to break away from the narrative restraints he set up in the short story by giving his narrator a larger capacity for thought and purpose. However, the result was a rather obvious discontinuity between the first chapter and the next couple chapters in narration, and the subsequent abrupt change in atmosphere and storytelling wasn’t handled very well. Overall, the characters and story were rather predictable, and as ashamed as I am to say this, the story was just cheesy. All of Marion’s works are very romantic, and usually he manages to either avoid cheesiness or fully embrace it and turn it into something special. I lost interest about halfway through Warm Bodies, frustrated by the narrative inconsistencies and the plot.

Although The Inside wasn’t perfect, I think it suited Marion’s style and storytelling better. There was a lot more confidence, atmosphere, and passion in that novel. I guess Warm Bodies still makes for an interesting casual read because it is still zombie fiction for once NOT presented in graphic novel form.

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Warm Bodies (2009) [E]
Isaac Marion
Some words (and exploding high-fives) with Isaac Marion