China Mieville

2012-2013 Summer Reading List: Part One – Bradbury, Asimov, Mieville

So I thought I’d carry on my one-year-long tradition of reviewing the books I’ve read over the summer. Last year, while travelling around Malaysia, Hong Kong and Samoa, I read my first China Mieville and Chuck Palahniuk, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mothertwo books on the brain (Ramachandran and John Medina), the delightful Wicked by Gregory Maguire, and the disturbing  Bell Jar Sylvia Plath. A haphazard book selection at best. This year, I believe my summer reading theme was a little more cohesive…! Stay tuned for Parts Two and Three.

1. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury


After discovering the magic of The Martian Chronicles I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Bradbury’s most famous work. Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which paper catches fire and burns; Montag is the Guy (quite literally, heh heh) whose job it is to burn books. He’s a firefighter. In this dystopian future America, firefighters no longer put out fires — they start them. Emergency calls to the station send firefighters charging out to houses where residents are harbouring those illegal tomes of pure evil: books. These dissentious, madness-spreading texts are quickly lit on fire and charred to dust, sometimes along with the house and its occupants. Yikes.

Bradbury said that contrary to wide review, his is not a story about censorship. It is by his intentions “a story about how television destroys interest in reading literature.” The characters who watch TV in the novel, particularly Montag’s wife, are frightening in their addiction. Their attachment to invented characters and meaningless game shows resonates sickeningly with the modern reader.

An elegant, short novel. I wish it were longer; I closed the book feeling like Bradbury had only scratched the surface of his themes.

PS. Did you know that Bradbury pounded out Fahrenheit in the basement of a library on a rented typewriter, under pressure? I guess when you gotta write, it can really make you write well.

PPS. Extra points if you can figure out where else you can find the names Montag and Faber.

2. I, Robot – Isaac Asimov

i robot

Have you seen the movie? Whether you have or not, GO READ THIS BOOK. It’s almost completely different from the movie and 100x better. I know people always say the book is better than the movie, but this time it’s exponentially more so. I, Robot was a decent movie; the book is a mind-blower.

A collection of nine connected short stories, roughly continuous, featuring recurring characters who are almost as fascinating as the robots that form the crux of the book’s intrigue. The stories are told by Dr. Susan Calvin, a psychologist who studies the robots’ minds, to a reporter, some time in the 21st century. Most of the stories revolve around morality: the moral code of robots and the moral code of humans.

After I got used to Asimov’s extremely simple, straightforward style of writing, the narrator’s voice sank into the background and allowed the plot to take centre stage. The best parts of I, Robot are definitely the many mysteries. How do we prove that a rising world leader is a human and not a robot without violating his rights? How do we find a robot with murderous intent hiding in a crowd of hundreds of other nearly identical robots? Oh my goodness, Asimov! You had me on the edge of my seat!!!

After you’ve read it you’ll never forget the Three Laws of Robots. Also, you could pick up the sequal, Robots and Empire, which is a continuous novel with a more traditional, adventure-type plot. On my to-read list.


3. Kraken – China Mieville

Mieville's covers are damn enviable.

Mieville’s covers are damn enviable.

Well, goodness me. I can’t believe it’s taken me an entire year to get around to my next Mieville book. Time does fly. Tut tut.

Kraken is a book, unsurprisingly, about a Kraken. What is surprising is that it takes about three-quarters of this hefty volume to actually encounter his glorious squiddishness. The blurb sounded promising. Ordinary bumbling 30-something museum curator, of the slightly-geeky sort, gets sucked into a London underground of spells, really really wacky religious cults, creepy assassins that will swallow you like a snake, and more gods than the Greek and Hindu pantheons put together.

Unfortunately I didn’t love it as much as I’d hoped. Mieville’s writing is bizarre and fantastic as usual but his pacing was slow and the plot felt messy. A lot of the time I felt lost in all the allusions, slangs, swearing and subtly hinted references. Some of the cults and spells were wonderfully creative (the Londonmancers reading the entrails of the city) but some of it went over my poor little head.

The denouement was also a bit of a let down. The City and the City was a tighter, more restrained and more rewarding story. Kraken is weird and wonderful but I’m not sure it was worth 500 pages of my time. Perhaps it would have been better as a 300 page book. Nevertheless, Mieville’s writing is still amazing and I’ll keep reading his stuff.

To come in Part Two: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Blood: A Southern Fantasy, Wool, The Time Machine…


Summer Reading List #1: Mieville, Amy Chua, Palahniuk

During December and January I had the good fortune to travel to Malaysia, Hong Kong and Samoa. Over the course of my travels I went a little crazy with the spending and the eating, which was somewhat uncharacteristic of me–the spending, not the eating (I have a weakness for foods in general. I go a bit manic at buffets).

In between all that degustation, digestion and dispensing of dollars, I surprisingly managed to chow through a decent selection of books!

Since lengthy reviews are a pain to read, I thought I’d do a synopsis of my summer in books. I’ll post up short comments on each book over the course of several entries. Here goes!

The City & The City – China Mieville

I’ve been intending to sample Mieville for a while, ever since I stumbled across an article on him in the Age and discovered that he looks like this and he writes, in his own words, “weird fiction.” After reading The City & The City, I have no doubt that I will hunt down the rest of his books. Basically, The City is a strange existential thriller/fantasy set in a brilliant and bizarre locality: the twin cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma, which occupy the same four-dimensional space but are separated by politics, culture, history and the sheer perceptional willpower of its respective citizens.

I can’t believe no one thought of this before, right?!? Or maybe they did, but they just knew they wouldn’t be able to pull it off. It’s an impressively complex premise which Mieville tackles with practicality and verve. The story follows Tyador Borlu, a detective of the Extreme Crime Squad, whose investigation of the murder of a woman in a shady part of Beszel forces him to confront the sinister secrets of his city. I adored the dark, gritty, Eastern European feel of this book. I loved how the nature of the dual metropolis becomes apparent gradually, even though Mieville never explicitly spells it out. The City won a whole bunch of prestigious awards which you can look up, and I’ll stop raving here because this synopsis is becoming an essay. In summary: a new favourite.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother – Amy Chua

Picked this up in a bookstore in Hong Kong–ohemgee, I could not believe how cheap books are in Hong Kong. Battle Hymn is a delectably easy read; skimmable in a few hours. In essence, Asian Mum talks about how she raised two talented, civilised, cultured girls by whipping them China style. She does this with a strange mixture of arrogance and self-deprecation. I think Chua is able to recognise the extremes of her behaviour and her obsessive tendences, but at the same time she is immensely proud of what she has spurred her daughters on to achieve. This book will probably outrage you in some bits, which is why it has been so successful, I suppose.

Tell-All – Chuck Palahniuk

Tell-All is the first Palahniuk book I’ve attempted. At under 200 pages, it’s a surprisingly easy read. Palahniuk’s acrid prose and pan-faced descriptions of increasingly ludicrous circumstances make for enjoyable reading.

I have watched Fight Club the movie. So I expected Tell-All to be a roundhouse kick to the skull of F-bombs and violence. But Palahniuk proved himself more subtle: he delivered a disquieting but witty story about the extravagance and decrepitude of Hollywood life.

Tell-All begins strangely and only grows more excessive. Through the eyes of devoted lifelong assistant, Hazie Coogan, we meet Katherine “Miss Kathie” Kenton, the golden girl of all golden girls. With Hazie’s indespensible help, Miss Kathie has survived multiple husbands, career ups-and-downs and cosmetic surgeries to maintain herself as a perennial Hollywood star. Trouble arrives when Hazie discovers a manuscript hidden in a new suitor’s luggage that details Miss Kathie’s impending death. Dun-dun-dunnnnn.

I kept trying to second-guess the ending, but it was only several pages from the end that everything fell into place. Palahniuk’s likes to parody each extravagance by amplifying it to the point of ridiculous. Tell-All is not regarded as one of his best books, and I can see why. It’s a little too bizarre, and he drops in wa-a-a-y too many names and references. Might be better to start with Fight Club or Choke.