Recent Reading: January 4th, 2013

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From the top down: A Lover’s Discourse, Roland Barthes; This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz; Tart, Lauren Dane; Return of the Thin Man, Dashiell Hammett

So here’s the thing about my reading habits: I tend to do things in lots of four. On novel by a male writer, one novel by a female writer, one non-fiction book, one short story collection or anthology. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule; ebooks tend to fall outside this reading pattern at the moment, since they’re largely things I read on my phone. Books people lend me tend to get read fast too, lest they fall into the vast pit of my to-read pile and never emerge. Poetry gets read whenever I want, ’cause I’m much more likely to dip into a collection and read a poem or two than I am an entire book.

For the most part, though, the pack of four is my approach of choice. I have personal rules built up around it, the same way I have personal rules built up around eating out (when there’s pork belly on the menu, order the damn pork belly), buying drinks at a bar (always order the drink that comes in a tiki cup), and going to SF conventions (follow other people to panels they’re going too instead of picking the ones that interest you, ’cause that way you’ll actually see stuff that’ll surprise you). The logic of these rules isn’t always apparent, or even applicable to other people, but they’ve built up over time and work to ensure that I make sensible decisions that make sense to me.

This year I’m adding a new rule: blog about each four-pack of books when you finish them. Not ’cause I want to write reviews – I’m a fucking terrible reviewer – but ’cause I’m generally the kind of guy who responds to books and enjoys talking about them and really enjoys sharing the stuff I read with other people. And ’cause, in some ways, I actually miss having classes full of university students I can inflict books on when I want to talk about them.

Presumably this will be the last time I post a long explanation before I do this. In any case, this set of four, in the the approximate order that I enjoyed them:

This is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz (Short Fiction Collection)

Realistically, I should just carve my affection for this book into the side of a tree with a pocket knife, rendering PMB Hearts This Is How You Lose Her in bark for all eternity and/or until the tree grows enough to heal the wound. ‘Course, I don’t like trees that much, and I don’t actually own a pocket knife, so I’ll settle for just saying it here.

Junot Diaz is just one of those writers, you know? I came across his first short story collection when I was still at university and picked it up pretty cheap. I’m still not really sure why – odds are it was just one of those impulse buys you made when you were a writing student on the Gold Coast and the local bookstore was selling an actual, honest to god short story collection. Drown was fucking phenomenal too, although after that Diaz seemed to disappear from the radar up until he released Oscar Wao a few years back.

‘Course, this was all in the days when the internet was a thing I used for an hour or two when I went to university, and people having email addresses was still shiny and new, and you had to stay up late to watch Rage on a Saturday night in order to see your favourite video clips ’cause no-one had figured how to make something like Youtube work yet.

These days Junot Diaz has a goddamn website where you can find out what he’s up too and when his new books are coming out, and seriously people, screw the flying cars, this is the kind of thing that makes me happy I live in the future. I would have killed for this sort of shit when I was nineteen. KILLED FOR IT.

If you like short stories, read this book. It’s that freakin’ good.

Tart, Lauren Dane (Novel)

So here’s the thing: I spent years trying to find romance novels that I really enjoyed. Seriously, years, ’cause once you spend enough time studying genre fiction and seeing the class/gender divide at work in determining what got classified “good fiction” and what got classified “pulp”, it’s just the next step along the trail to start thinking “well, maybe all those years I told myself I hated romance, I was just being something of a sexist dick.”

And lo, somewhere along the line, I discovered the truth of that statement. A bunch of friends suggested Heyer too me, and Heyer was fucking awesome. Then I did my big request for female writers to read in 2010 or so, and someone suggested JD Robb/Nora Roberts, and she was fucking awesome too. Then I got linked to a bunch of romance review sites like Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and Dear Author in 2012 and I was off to the races. Suddenly my RSS feed was full of smart, funny reviews of books that sounded interesting, and for the better part of last year I started picking up the ones that sounded like my kind of thing and discovered they were (side note: one of the highlights of 2012? Hosting Sarah Wendell of SBTB at GenreCon. This is why my dayjob fucking rocks)

Which is, more or less, how I came across Tart and added it to my reading list, cause the idea of a menage/poly romance seemed pretty interesting and the review I read was entertaining enough to convince me it was worth buying.

‘Course, if I’m honest, I really hated the first third of this book. It was pretty firmly not my thing in terms of the approach to storytelling and characterization  and I started fretting a little, ’cause I’d been having a pretty good run of picking up romance novels I was really digging ’til that point.

Fortunately Tart pretty much stormed home with the last two thirds of the book, which I devoured in the space of a day once my Holiday break began. It’s readable, it’s engaging, and it proved to be way more endearing than I expected after the set-up. Probably not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and I’m sufficiently ish-ish about making blanket recommendations that I don’t do it; I will, however, post a link to the review that originally convinced me to give Tart a try so you can make up your own mind.

A Lover’s Discourse, Roland Barthes (Non-Fiction)

I’ve blathered plenty about this book prior to this, so I won’t bother to repeat myself here. Suffice to say that there are bits that are brilliant, bits that are less brilliant, and bits that are so obstreperously dense that I couldn’t really be arsed trying to decode them.

And seriously, given that I kinda adore semiotic theory, that’s saying something.

Still, I’ve finally read the entire book, and the second half is just as heavily dog-eared as the front half, with plenty of notes taken to use as the basis of stories at some later date. I’m pretty sure I’ll come back and re-read this again in a couple of years, after I’ve had a chance to pick up and familiarise myself with a bunch of the work that serves as the basis of Barthes’ analysis.

Return of the Thin Man, Dashiell Hammett (Novel)

So I kinda adore the first Thin Man novel Hammett wrote, and the movie that was made from it. It’s a smart, funny piece of hardboiled detective fiction from one of the icons of the form, and it’s all the more brilliant for shucking off the weary disillusionment most hardboiled protagonists feel and replacing it with a couple who a) actually like each other, b) enjoy what they do, and c) have some of the best goddamn banter in fiction.

Return of the Thin Man advertises itself as a collection of the two novellas that served as the basis for the second and third Thin Man films, and objectively you can’t really argue with that. Subjectively, though, that isn’t really what your getting – the novellas were put together by Hammett under contract with the film studio, fleshed out enough that they could serve as the basis of a script, and the result is that you’re looking at something that feels like a framework rather than a polished piece that’s enjoyable in its own right.

Which isn’t to say that I regret picking this up – its fascinating as a historical document and a chance to see a work in a formative stage. It’s just that the book I got wasn’t the book I was expecting after reading the back cover blurb, and it proved to be the toughest read of the four (which, given that this four-pack included A Lover’s Discourse, is saying something). I just kinda wanted…more. Or a different presentation of the content, that enhanced the historical enjoyment a little more.

Next Up

Gods only know how long it’ll be before I post the next one of these, but the four books on my list that I’m hoping to get read before the end of January are:

Moxyland, Lauren Beukes
Sacred, Dennis Lehane
Midnight and Moonshine, Angela Slatter & LL Hannett
A Horrible Experience of Unbearable Length, Roger Ebert

My goal is to read 104 books by the end of 2013, not counting re-reads.

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