This week in book reviews.
Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow (Finished March 10, 2008)
This book was a lot of fun. I'm a big fan of near-future sci-fi stuff, in which the world of the book resembles our own, except with a little bit more technology than we have right now. I'm also a big fan of the cyberpunk aesthetic, in which characters bend the world to their will through subversion of technology. This book combines those two approaches, in a way that reminds me that a technology-saturated world, in which both Big Brother-style observation and manipulation of the world and subversion of that world through hacking of one's daily life ar possible, is closer than it might seem. The book had a bit too cheery of a tone at many points, but I was inclined to forgive that on the basis that it's aimed at teenagers rather than adults. Also, it's pretty obviously a piece of propaganda, if an entertaining one, in favor of the message that "information wants to be free" and that one can take one's life back from continuing encroachment of corporate control. This might bother me if I were not in full agreement with this approach, so this book is probably not for conservatives. And the almost-relentless upbeat tone is probably not going to sit well with cynics either. On the whole, though, I really enjoyed this book, despite any drawbacks that may have come about as a result of its message and target demographics.
Feint Of Art, by Hailey Lind (Finished March 11, 2008)
At first, I really liked this book; at least, as much as I could see myself liking any book in this style. By that, I mean that it's the sort of mystery that places ultimate value on the puzzle inherent in the plot of the novel. A lot of people who read generic mass-market mysteries like these really only care about being entertained while they try to guess "whodunit" before they get to the end. And considering that this book has multiple murders which are committed by multiple murderers, I suppose in the end it's reasonably creative for the generic whodunit genre. However, those kinds of things aren't what I read books for, so I'm never going to like this sort of book but so much. At first, though, I thought it was going to be better than it ended up being. The main character started out interesting, and at first her character-related subplots were pretty neat. But of course, by halfway through the book, she was making more and more idiotic judgments and decisions, and the subplots had all devolved into vaguely romantic ones. I've read a good many books like these, just because I work at a mystery bookstore, and there are some trends I've noticed. First of all, female protagonists are often bumbling idiots who get into trouble that some big strong man (generally cast as a love interest) has to get them out of. Generally, whenever these big strong men are not in the act of saving the protagonist, their behavior towards her consists of, to put it bluntly, dismissive scumbaggery. This book is no exception--by the end of the book, the two scumbag dudes who showed up towards the beginning are being cast as love interests. And of course, the narrator, who has needed to be saved by both of them at one point or another, is willing to make irrational, poorly-considered decisions in favor of these scumbags, and in favor of spending time with them, despite the fact that she generally ends up in a horrible position every time she does so (one of the scumbags manages to strand her penniless and miles from home on two separate occasions, yet it's he whom she ends the book flying to Chicago to visit).
Let me put it plainly--this kind of writing disgusts me. And I meet a lot of middle-aged women who love these sorts of stories. I guess maybe they reinforce the messages they get from society: i.e. that women like them are flighty idiots who need big strong men to keep them out of trouble. And that those men will be dismissive of them in most situations--and rightly so, since they are, after all, flighty idiots. It's some kind of social-reinforcement feedback loop, I guess. Whatever it is, I hate it. And while I thought this book was not without redeeming qualities, and while I even enjoyed the first 60% or so of it, I gradually grew to hate it, and would not read another by this author.
This is just another in the long chain of books that make me think that the cozy/chick-lit subgenre is largely irredeemable, whether it's showing up in mainstream fiction, mystery, fantasy, or whatever other genre in which it might make an appearance. It makes me sad to see how well this shit sells.
Money Shot, by Christa Faust (Finished March 16, 2008)
So far, I've been a big fan of everything I've read that Hard Case Crime have released. They have a purposefully retro aesthetic, and are trying to bring back both the lurid appearance and dark, intense style of the pulp crime novels that were popular half a century ago. If the sales at the bookstore where I work are any indication, this is a popular idea. It's certainly something I'm into. It could be a total failure if the books weren't good, but all of the ones I've read so far have totally delivered on their aesthetic promise.
"Money Shot" is no exception. I was especially interested in this book based on its premise, it being the story of a porn star who is beaten and left for dead by crooked movie producers, but lives through her ordeal and comes back for revenge. Most of the book works really well, and it's obvious to me that Christa Faust knows quite a bit about the history and the behind-the-scenes workings of the porn industry (and yes, I say this as someone who is also pretty well-informed on such things. I'm not afraid to admit it). There were a couple of points towards the middle of the novel in which I found the direction of the plot a bit worrisome, as it would sometimes appear that the author was going for an easy, even cliche, plot development. Such developments aren't all that bad when they seem at least somewhat realistic, but in these situations, the cliche plot development would always have seemed like a cheat. Fortunately, Faust ultimately avoided all of these choices, and went for more creative, less predictable developments. I don't want to give away the ending, but I will say that I was glad it didn't involve any simple happy-ever-after resolution, as this would also have seemed like a cheat. I feel like a few plot points could have been improved, but "Money Shot" isn't the sort of mystery-related novel that's written like an intricate puzzle, so some weakness in the plot is a relatively minor point when compared with its overall success in telling a character-based story of vengeance. This is a very good book, on the whole.
Severance Package, by Duane Swierczynski (Finished March 17, 2008)
I flew through this book and enjoyed every minute of it. It's an action-packed story about a finance company that's actually a front organization for a black ops anti-terrorist squad. Apparently, the orders have come down for the entire squad to be liquidated, and the book begins with the boss telling his entire managerial staff that the reason he called them in for a Saturday morning meeting is because he has to kill them all (and himself as well). He's booby-trapped all of the exits from their offices on the 36th floor of a Philadelphia high-rise, and he would prefer that they all submit quietly to the quick, painless death he's offering them. They, of course, do not, but rather than banding together to get out of the situation, the employees instead demonstrate agendas of their own, some of which are in direct conflict. By 1/5 of the way through the book, the situation has become a bloody battle royale in which every person must fend for themselves and no one is what they seem.
This book is relatively short--only 250 pages--and almost all of it is devoted to straight-up action. The author almost certainly had to make a conscious choice to keep backstory and character development to a minimum. This choice could have hurt the book as a whole if it weren't for the fact that its incredibly fast-paced narrative was both creative and attention-grabbing. "Severance Package" is such a page-turner that you don't even miss the character detail that you're not given. In fact, it helps to keep the plot enjoyable despite the fact that the characters are all pretty much doomed from the start. If you cared about them too much, the many brutal things that happen to them over the course of the book might make the read less enjoyable and more of an ordeal. As it is, "Severance Package" stays fun despite the brutality. It's the sort of nihilistic, blackly humorous romp that the best post-modern action movies are made of. If this book isn't sitting on Robert Rodriguez's desk right now, it should be.
OK, there you go. More in a week or thereabouts.