Books of 2015, #38: The Cartel, Don Winslow

I am given to understand that this is a big book; I don’t actually know, because it’s the same size as all my other books, because I have more or less given up on reading things printed on paper.

It certainly didn’t feel like a big book, because I zipped through it in, I think, three days—it was more or less impossible to put down.

Its compelling nature is surpassed only by its depressing nature, because this book is bleak as fuck. While not quite an “everybody dies” narrative, it comes pretty damned close (though I’m willing to guess that you’d be surprised by some of the handful of characters who make it out the other side, you will be saddened by many of the ones that don’t).

I think it cements my feeling that David Simon has it correct: if you really want to know what started our society on this careening path of horribleness that we seem to be Hell-bent on pursuing to its end—where incidences of police killing civilians (particularly those of color) occur with distressing frequency, where even the rights and freedoms of even the upper (largely white) classes are abridged as a matter of course by programs of surveillance and law-enforcement overreach, where you have to take off your shoes to fly on an airplane—it’s hard to argue against the War On Drugs as being a significant factor.

I mean, we have a natural experiment at our fingertips: simply consider, today, how many people enrich themselves through the illegal sale of alcohol?

Virtually none, and although the jokes about the questionable behavior of large corporations that are heavy-hitters in that arena write themselves, I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that no one’s doing so in any big, organized way.

When alcohol was forbidden during Prohibition, though, that drove up incidents of domestic terrorism, fostered a culture of pervasive official corruption both politicians and police, inured people to the idea of criminality by making illegal what had long been perfectly acceptable behavior, and generally fucked things up until we came to our senses.

And now we’ve got the War on Drugs—recapitulating all these issues, without even having gone through the process of ratification; simply declared because…well, it’s an interesting question. Presumably nothing so silly as Nixon being pissed off at the Hippies, but you never know.

Anyway, read this novel—so much of which is rooted in and resembles actual events in Mexico—and you have to wonder if there’s any possible way that it could be worth it.

Books of 2015, #37: The Annihilation Score, Charlie Stross

So, the latest of the Laundry Files novels.

The Annihilation Score is certainly of a piece with the others, though it does distinguish itself by having a different narrator— which is, as you could probably infer from my comments regarding the prior books of the series, a fine change in my view.

I think Stross’ recent observation on his blog of the need to move beyond the starting templates he worked with for the first few books—Linux, bureacracy and otherworldly horror—is well taken, and I’m interested to see where things go, but I do not feel immediate warmth toward this installment.

Whether its intended (and it might be, as it is certainly an aspect of its super-hero source material) or not, the narrative’s pace feels…weird. Although we’re told otherwise, it feels like it takes place in its entirety in maybe a week—big things seem built up and then torn down at absurdly superhuman speed. I mean, it’s good to have a narrative that moves, but the pace here is so fast that everything felt somehow…inconsequential.

In terms of the overall narrative arc, some things change, and they’re not insignificant, but it doesn’t feel like it advances that much. Which may be perfectly OK—we are given to understand that CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN is truly starting to ramp up, and it feels like things are going to keep getting stranger before they start getting outright bad. Again, perhaps this is intended to reflect the source material, where you can have a character exist for 50 years without those years ever catching up to them.

I also wonder, given his well-documented problem with tapping into the zeitgeist so thoroughly that others pull the same idea out of the air while he’s in the middle of a book, I do wonder whether he already planned to reference The King in Yellow, or his only-barely oblique reference to True Detective is meant to indicate that that’s why he made the choice.

I dunno; in the end, I would probably put this relatively low on my list for this series. I wonder though whether it’ll stay there—I suspect it will depend somewhat on what happens next; I like many thing about the book, but it is clearly a transitional book, arguably following another transitional book (The Rhesus Chart does some big things to the status quo); if they’re resolved next go ’round, perhaps this book will rise in my estimation.

Books of 2015, #32-36+: The “Laundry Files” novels, Charlie Stross

  • The Atrocity Archive
  • The Jennifer Morgue
  • The Fuller Memorandum
  • The Apocolypse Codex
  • The Rhesus Chart
  • Short Stories/Novellas: Down on the Farm, Overtime, Equoid
I think it had been pointed out to me before, but for the first time I seemed to notice for myself—while being utterly unsurprised—that, in a series of books that mix Technical Neepery–specifically of the Linux variety—Bureaucracy, Lovecraft and Espionage, the initials of the main character’s Nom de Sysadmin are BOFH.

Anyway, this re-reading was all lead in to the new release, The Annihilation Score.

Having not previously read all of these books in quick succession like this, I must say, I was ecstatic to have new narrator for the latest installment, because, taken in a big gulp, one becomes painfully aware of all the verbal tics of the narrator that make annoyingly consistent appearances in the prior installments.

I realize that at least some of it—the endless callbacks to the nature of pure mathematics relationship to magic, the origin of the Laundry, etc.—is intended to let people start in the middle of the series without being totally lost, but I’m not convinced that that is necessary or beneficial to restate so many things almost verbatim—I’ll point to Steven Brust’s Taltos novels as an example that does not display this behavior—or at least not quite so baldly.

I still enjoy them, but I will have to remember to pace myself should I ever undertake a front-to-back re-read again.

Anyway, I would say that the low point for me is definitely The Jennifer Morgue; the Bond referentiality just doesn’t quite work for me. The Fuller Memorandum and The Apocalypse Codex are probably the best of the list, with everything else occupying a still-enjoyable middle ground.

Books of 2015, #31: The Blue Place, Nicola Griffith

I guess this falls in the same basic genre as Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” novels, though I’m not 100% certain what that genre is: Crime Fiction? Thriller? Vigilantism?

Regardless, having plowed through Child’s oeuvre last year—and it being the only real example of the genre I’ve read—I cannot help but make comparisons between Aud Torvingen and Jack Reacher.

Both have that air of almost-super-human competence coupled with extraordinary physical conditioning and a capacity to absorb punishment. Both have a companionable attitude toward violence. Both are situated so that there are few long-lasting consequences to their actions; Reacher by being rootless and drifting, Torvingen by being independently wealthy.

The difference, I would say, is that as would seem to befit a male character in this category, Reacher is effectively amoral. He is less a character than a force of nature. He does what he does, with little consideration for other human beings, positive or negative—if he aids someone it is because it pleases him, not because of any particular notion of right or wrong.

Torvingen, on the other hand, gets involved. Things become personal. Is it a cliche that a woman would become attached? Perhaps—I guess it will depend on how it ramifies out through the two following novels whether it ends up seeming necessary.

The prose is generally well done, but it is a first-person narrative, and there are very few authors who can pull off such a thing without annoying me at some point or other—and Griffith isn’t one of those, at least not in this book. If absolutely nothing else the sex in the novel—whether necessary or not—reads just as eye-rollingly overdone as any Reacher novel: it is, almost by definition, somewhere the narrator inevitably ends up telling rather than showing. I don’t know what’s going on in your head when you’re having sex, but I hope for your sake it’s not narrative.

I guess, in the end, it was good enough that I’ll stick around for the next two, to see where it goes, but if I were a less compulsive reader, I might just say this was enough.

Books of 2015, #30: The End of All Things, John Scalzi

So, John Scalzi and Tor decided to once again serialize his latest Old Man’s War novel—as they did for The Human Division a couple of years ago—though into rather fewer installments this time; 4 versus 13. So I really started four weeks ago, and just finished this past Tuesday.

As you might expect given that I re-read the entire series in the run-up to the release of this new book, I find them enjoyable.

They’re light, but not necessarily fluffy: some of the questions the narrative asks are not easy questions, and some of the answers that some of the characters give may take a form that surprises you, even if the general thrust of those answers is entirely expected

Some minor characters take some unexpected turns…and there’s one moment that just didn’t work for me. At all. Not because it was beyond the realm of possibility, or out of character, but because it seems to me to require blinders on a lot of characters to succeed. My suspension of disbelief goes far, but not that far.

Still, all’s well that ends well, and I think this dials back the conflict that has been central to the last four books in the series, such that the next book—for one has been promised—can focus on other things. It will be welcome.

I’ve started another novel, but now I’m wondering if I need to re-read The Laundry Files series in anticipation of the release of The Annihilation Score next Tuesday…