Somewhat delayed on account of World Fantasy.
The Great Zoo of China, Matthew Reilly. This book can basically be summarized as “Jurassic Park, with DRAGONS!” Which, y’know. Kind of put it squarely in my field of interest. And it was a moderately entertaining read — but I kept being thrown out of the story by the fact that the author seemed to be watching the movie he hopes they’ll make of his book, and writing it as if it were that movie. This means a pov that wanders around aimlessly between close third and a camera-eye omniscient (complete with lines like “if they could have seen the vehicle from the outside, they would have seen X”), and choppy little not-even-scenes that are the textual equivalent of rapid camera cuts. See our heroine clinging to the outside of the truck! See the driver of the truck stomp on the brakes in a three-line “scene”! Cut back to our heroine barely holding on as the truck skids to a halt! That kind of thing works in audiovisual media; in text, it just keeps yanking me away from any engagement with the characters. I appreciated the fact that the heroine is a facially scarred herpetologist who basically saves the day with her knowledge of crocodiles, but she never really came alive for me. Also, while I’m fine with the idea that Chinese bureaucrats and soldiers might do all kinds of underhanded shit in pursuit of building an enormous dragon zoo with which to impress the world, the story really could have used more in the way of sympathetic and competent Chinese characters to counterbalance the bureaucrats and soldiers. (Not to mention the fact that the dragons are apparently all Western-style, even though the story gives a relatively clever explanation for why dragons are a real worldwide phenomenon.) Overall, I’d say give this one a miss, unless you are absolutely dying to read Jurassic Park with dragons.
The Last Airbender: Zuko’s Story, Dave Roman and Alison Wilgus, art by Nina Matsumoto. Picked this one up because I met Alison Wilgus last World Fantasy and really enjoyed talking to her, and also because I’ve been reading various Avatar tie-in comics. This one feels thinner than the others simply because it’s filling in a minor hole from the show, rather than exploring new territory; it’s the tale of what happened with Zuko between the agni kai against his father and Aang turning up. So, while it’s well done, I didn’t engage with it quite as much as with the sequel comics. I should note, though, that it also includes a section at the back which compares the comic script to the rough sketches. If you’re interested in what a script looks like, and how the vision can change from the script to the roughs to the final version, it’s quite useful.
Murder Must Advertise, Dorothy Sayers. Still working my way slowly through the Wimsey novels. I came up with a much more convoluted answer to this one than turned out to be the reality, reading too much significance into a particular detail. Wimsey undercover was pretty cute, though I feel I might have done with just a bit less exploration of the advertising industry; his interactions with Dian Momerie were . . . interesting. Not entirely sure what I think of them, though once again, it gave me a chance to see just how big an influence Sayers must have been on Dunnett.
Violence: A Writer’s Guide, Second Edition, Rory Miller. Yoon Ha Lee recommended this one, and I second the rec. When I put together Writing Fight Scenes (which is part of the 2015 NaNoWriMo StoryBundle right now, plug plug), I was very aware that I don’t actually have any personal experience with being in a real fight. Miller won’t tell you anything about how to put a fight on the page, but he has personal experience in spades, and says a great many interesting things about what being in a fight is like, what kinds of violence people engage in, and how people experienced with violence tend to behave. The book does have its flaws: it could use better organization (especially since he repeats himself occasionally) and it’s mostly concerned with violence in a modern society like ours, making it less than 100% applicable to premodern fantasy societies. In fact, I feel Miller is at his weakest when he tries to talk about historical situations; at one point he basically declares that before about 1800, the only possible responses to a violent crime were to a) go get revenge with your own two hands or b) suck it up and go on being a victim. Uh, the rule of law may have been imperfect in the past, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist, and that legal remedies were never available. Furthermore, at one point he says “unless you can not only write things like the mass slaughter at Halabja, but write from a point of view where slaughtering Kurdish men, women and children to test chemical weapons just made sense, your fiction will always be missing something. It will always be two-dimensional,” which I feel is overstating his point with a vengeance. Having said that, he’s got a really fascinating perspective on sex differences, focusing not just on the socialization regarding violence but the less-obvious consequences of that socialization, and also on biological differences in how adrenaline gets processed. I’m very curious to know whether that latter point is in fact true, because if so, it’s really helpful information.
Yak Butter and Black Tea: A Journey into Tibet, Wade Brackenbury. Dear lord, this book. I’ll say for starters that I read it for the first-person account of what it’s like to tramp around at high altitude across rugged terrain, and on that front, it delivered admirably. But it’s also the story of a couple of guys who decided they wanted to go to the Drung valley, in territory the Chinese government had put off-limits to foreigners, for no better reason than because no westerner had ever been there. They weren’t anthropologists; they weren’t journalists; they weren’t serving any higher cause whose worthiness and importance we could debate. They just got a wild hair up their asses and decided to do it. At one point Brackenbury finally arrives at sufficient self-awareness to think that, hey, maybe he and his traveling companion were really screwing over the people they dealt with while sneaking around trying to get to the valley: those officials they lied to or got into arguments with might have been terrified of losing their jobs, those people who were reluctant to sell them food might not have had much to spare, etc. But on the whole, they seemed to feel that “we want to go” was sufficient justification for them to break the law right, left, and center. So if you want to read about people tramping around at high altitude across rugged terrain, this book may be useful to you — but don’t pick it up unless you’re prepared to deal with some amazingly self-centered assholes.