Reading List 2011 (11/237)

Getting close to done – with the year and the reading list!

  • Heart-Shaped Box, Joe Hill
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain
  • Double Indemnity, James M. Cain
  • Against a Dark Background, Iain M. Banks
  • The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Vol. 1, M. T. Anderson
  • The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Vol. 2, M. T. Anderson
  • The Killer Inside Me, Jim Thompson
  • The Grifters, Jim Thompson
  • The Sibling Effect, Jeffrey Kluger
  • The Crossroads of Time, Andre Norton
  • Quest Crosstime, Andre Norton

tl;dr – Anderson produces some genuinely astonishing work; Cain, Thompson and Hill duke it out for the dark-corners-of-the-soul award; read Kluger as a memoir, not for the science writing.

I’d never heard of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing before a friend recommended it at a dinner party. As she’s the same person who recommended Honeybee Democracy, I knew it was going to be good. I just didn’t know how good. The book follows the life of a young black boy who is raised by a group of philosophers as, essentially, a science experiment. His life is recorded in a series of ledgers – what he eats, how fast he learns, how he thinks – to determine what he, and by extension all black people, are capable of. (Might we call it The Quantified Other?) The early parts of the book are magical and strange, with hints that not all is well in what appears to be a philosopher’s paradise. All too soon, reality breaks in with the lead-up to the American Revolution, disrupting the household with fatal consequences for some of the inhabitants. The second volume follows Octavian during the war and looks at the contradictions of the Americans who fought for their own freedom, while themselves keeping other human beings enslaved. Anderson does a remarkable job of using Octavian’s unusual situation to illuminate the larger issues of the novel, to make popular aspects of the American Revolution memorable, and to make little-known aspects of it dramatic. Highly recommended, but be warned: it’s often a dark and heartbreaking read.

Actually, much of what I read in this batch was dark – Cain and Thompson especially. Yes, they’re icons of American hard-boiled crime fiction. Yes, they really are that good. I think Cain wins the dark-and-gritty contest, though; his characters leave me feeling dirty, while I just feel a strange sort of horrified pity for Thompson’s monsters. If you’re just going to read one of these, read Double Indemnity – but really they’re all very good. No happy endings here, but you won’t miss them.

Heart-Shaped Box, on the other hand, is one of those redemptive horror novels, where all the terrible things that happen to the main character teach him a Valuable Life Lesson. Fortunately, the book is much better than the summary indicates. It follows an aging rock star who acquires a dead man’s suit – and the ghost that goes with it. Said ghost torments him until he faces the demons of his own past, and those of his dead lover. The horror here is (largely) not gory, but rather lies in the damage people do to themselves and to each other as an everyday part of life. There’s also a remarkably funny scene of an interrogation gone wrong, and although it doesn’t end well, I couldn’t stop giggling. The writing is good and I really wanted the protagonist to survive and grow. I might read this again someday, even though I think the plot is the bulk of its charm.

Against a Dark Background, on the other hand, is driven by plot, but plot isn’t the primary reason why I enjoyed reading (or in this case, re-reading) it. The book follows the Lady Sharrow, who is the target of a slightly crazy cult’s obsession. If she doesn’t find and turn over the fabled Lazy Gun, they’ll kill her. Sharrow puts together her old crew for one last adventure, and there are some great action set-pieces as they hunt across multiple worlds for this piece of antique technology. What keeps me coming back, though, are the details of the world-building, the wild inventiveness he’ll throw at a brief encounter or a bit of backstory. The plot is awesome enough that you’ll want to read it fast, but the world is so good you’ll want to read it slow.

Norton’s Crosstime books are rough-and-tumble time-travel adventure. Blake Walker encounters time travelers who are trying to prevent a mad dictator from the future from taking over the world – and discovers his own abilities and talents along the way. I preferred the first book to the second, which is more in the “Heroic Member of the Time Patrol!” genre and wasn’t anything unusual.

Finally, Kluger’s book tackles the topic of siblings. I’ve read a few books about siblings this year, and this one wasn’t the best. I liked the memoir sections, where he talks about his own siblings, and he does a reasonable job reviewing the literature (and pointing out where it’s severely lacking!). The book just wasn’t awesome. The best thing was that it made me reflect on my relationships with my own siblings, but I could probably have done that without the book. Then again, my siblings are so awesome that I’m happy to reflect on them anytime!

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