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Book Recommendations and Reviews: Mysteries (Sci-Fi/Fantasy focus)

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#1 LaughingTree



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Posted 05 June 2010 - 08:41 AM

Hence begins Laughing Tree's inconsistent book reviews. Since I tend to read a lot more fiction than I probably should I thought I would share some of my favorite reads since we are all waiting for Martin to finish Dances.

I begin with a theme that has been interesting to me lately, off beat mysteries. In my quest for something different I was looking for a sub-genre that was kind of the opposite of the whole "Epic" aspect of novels like Game of Thrones or movies like Lord of the Rings/Star Wars/Matrix. After an assignment on classic Film Noir, I was on a mission to find some updated takes on the whole theme of noir mystery. I will present these reviews spoiler free so reading them will not ruin any plot of the books


The City and The City by China Mieville (2010)

Philosophical Noir

This book has one of the most fascinating premises of a book I have ever read. It takes place in modern times where there is a "City" that is actually two different cities Beszel and Ul Qoma. Essentially two different conceptual cities exist in the same geographical location. Residents raised in these two cities are taught which subtle color schemes distinguish the residents of Beszel from the residents of Ul Qoma. Residents of one city must learn to "unsee" the residents of the other city.  The main plotline revolves around a murder that challenges a Beszel detective's whole perception of the dual cities/city he was raised in.

I am probably not explaining this concept with any justice but reading this book is very thought provoking in the way the premises teases out so many concepts that relate to things like identity and how perception shapes reality. Its rare that books can so eloquently illustrate philosophical concepts in a way that is more accessible than trying to read Foucault and Merleau-Ponty prose. This book is currently up for a sci-fi book of the year award (which was won last year by Neal Stephenson's Anathem, a true classic work of sci-fi literature) and in my opinion it definitely deserves the nomination.


When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger (1987)

Speculative Noir

I picked this up because the cover had a recommendation from George RR Martin. What is interesting to me is that this book was written in 1987 and takes place in a 22nd century Islamic city. It is very interesting to read a futuristic fiction written long before all the current media issues surrounding radical Islam of the past 10 years. In one sense it is enjoyable as it provides an interesting cultural look at what a future Islamic city might be like without any baggage of the last 10 years influencing the writing. 

Because of this, I feel this novel is able to be enjoyed solely for what it is. It doesn't have to provide social commentary it can just be an interesting work of speculative fiction. Again this novel has some interesting ideas for the future (such as personality "moddys" which allow individuals to adopt personality of fictional characters, like James Bond for instance). Like the rest of the books in this review, it also revolves around the investigation of a murder that does not make sense at first but has greater implications as the book goes on.  This is a relatively short, fun mystery that was good to start reading right after this semester of University ended.


Finch by Jeff Vandermeer (2009)

Fungal Noir

I begin this review with a warning. While Finch is a stand alone story, it is the third book that takes place in Vandermeer's Ambergris city. While not a trilogy in any classic sense (like Thrones or Star Wars), there are most certainly "Easter Eggs" in Finch that will be hands down more enjoyable if the reader is the type that is interested in Vandermeer's themed city. Earlier books are City of Saints and Madmen (a three story anthology) and Shriek: An Afterword. I personally have not read the first two and I am up in the air over whether I wish I had. I do intend to eventually read those two earlier novels. Finch is certainly enjoyable without them though.

Finch also has a very interesting premise. A race of fungal "mushroom people" called Grey Caps. This is fascinating as the Grey Cap culture is highly developed by Vandermeer and is such a break from the traditional fantasy/horror "Races" of Elf, Dwarf, Orc and Vampire, Werewolf that to anyone that values original concepts Finch and the Ambergris novels are highly worth it. Grey Caps are fricking cool. 'Nuff said.

The other thing that is apparent is Vandermeer's mastery of the English language. I have skimmed both the other Ambergris novels and Finch is written in an entirely different style. Vandermeer truly emulates the classic noir style of writing in sentence fragments:

"A maze of ruins there. Ideal for ambush. No cover. No way to retreat." 


But this does not mean the writing is of poor quality. In fact, I have never seen such a who's who of sci-fi fantasy writers from Stephen Donaldson (Thomas Covenant) to Richard K Morgan (modern cyperpunk) recommend Vandermeer as a writer and after reading Finch I can see why. He is really an "author's author". If that makes sense. I would probably gleefully read any Vandermeer book after the brilliance of Finch. Again this book's plot revolves around a detective investigating a murder that is confusing at first.


Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

 1960s Noir

Ok I almost did not include this because it is not really sci-fi fantasy at all but what the heck, I need another mystery or two to include. There really aren't many sci-fi fantasy "mysteries" sadly so I had to put this in. I really like Pynchon. The Crying of Lot 49 is a great little book and I am about 100 pages into Against the Day  at the moment (which would go in a different themed review). This is probably the easiest read of any of Pynchon's books.  It is also very clearly a take on whole 1940s classic Noir style of Raymond Chandler and Chester Himes.

This book takes place in the 1960s Southern California. Not really any fantasy elements here just some of Pynchon's skilled pacing and plots applied to a more light genre than he is used to writing. It is probably more a "pop culture-ish" book than any of Pynchon's other ones. Unlike the other books this one begins with a more nuanced investigation. Pynchon's protagonist is Doc Sportello and he is some mix of a classic Noir detective and Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Pynchon is great at crafting funny scenes out of seemingly strange and unrelated plot developments. That skill makes this book a fun break from his denser and more serious works of fiction.



And that completes the first installment of my irregular book reviews. I'd like to write up another soon but I am not sure when. If I could edit this post I would add more Mysteries here as I read them but unfortunately I cannot do this.

#2 JerusalemJones



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Posted 18 June 2010 - 03:30 PM

If you are looking for another type of sci-fi genre murder mystery, check our Sharon Shinn's Wrapt in Crystal. It's romance-mystery. I've read lots of her books (beginning with her Sumaria series, which are great sci-fantasy, and the romance isn't the traditional Harlequin style romance. It develops over the story, kinda like how James Cameron weaves romance into his stories. She's an amazing writer who doesn't get enough recognition.

I read When Gravity Fails about 18 years ago, and I thought it was okay. Interesting to hear it still holds up over time.

And thanks for the blurb about The City and The City. I love China Mieville's books, and I'll have to put this one on my list.

#3 JackT



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Posted 11 January 2011 - 10:37 AM

I can recommend Patrick Rothfuss' excellent "Name of the Wind" for anyone looking for something in the Fantasy genre. The sequel is due out this March.

In Sci-Fi, read Neal Asher if you have not already. The Ian Cormac Polity novels are great reading.




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