Monday, 30 June 2014

61 Hours by Lee Child

Let's get this straight - this isn't deep. It's not literary. But when I wanted a light read at my in-laws over Christmas, this was just about perfect. It's not taxing, but neither is it the incredibly short chapters and no-mystery-at-all of a James Patterson book. In fact, Child pulled off the difficult trick of making me think that my first instinct about the bad guy was wrong, and then having it be true after all. That's a good move - the staple of J.K. Rowling, when it came to Snape.

And the misleading was subtly done. I was quite appreciative when things became more clear.

So yeah, solid thriller/mystery. Jack Reacher gets marooned in a small Midwestern town in the midst of a terrible winter, just a new prison has been built, and a local witness is under threat from a faraway drug lord. Also, there's a mystery military bunker outside of town that the bikers have set up shop outside of. Reacher ends up pulled into the world of the local police to protect retired librarian Janet Salter, whilst trying to figure out what the military built that has been so utterly forgotten, and what possible importance it could have to those occupying it now.

And again, I didn't see either of those two answers coming, but they were satisfactory when they came.

Reacher is an interesting character, and the people who populated the small town were well-written and distinct. The notion of a travelling hero is an intriguing one, and I think it worked very well in this book, although I have no idea if it's getting a bit repetitive.

I've now read the first Jack Reacher book and this one. I'll probably delve into reading more - not with any haste, but if they come my way, I'm more than happy to pick them up and devour them. Unlike James Patterson books, which have been relegated to the "thanks but no thanks" pile, which is reserved for authors I don't hate, but couldn't care less about.

And of course, the book ends on a cliffhanger, which intrigues me, but doesn't fill me with any sense of urgency to pick up the next book. It's one where the outcome is totally dependent on how the author feels about the series, and I'll probably find out eventually, but in good time. Lee Child sits solidly in the interesting, but not addictive category.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

There is a kind of book that is exactly the right thing to read when you got up at 5:20 AM to catch a bus to a conference, and have since, without having a nap, listened to six academic papers, and need something to read while eating and before bed.

But which can't be taxing in any way. Preferably light.

This is that kind of book.

I normally enjoy Terry Pratchett without being terribly invested in his books. I've read a handful, enjoy them when I pick them up, rarely search out more.

This one, though. I can't tell if it's actually even better than that, or if that's the exhaustion talking. But I just enjoyed the heck out of Guards! Guards!, from the dissertations on secret societies, the ailments of swamp dragons, the peevishness of the continually overlooked, or the million-to-one-chance-that-might-just-work.

Anyway, a dragon appears, and flames oppressive vegetable shops, and the remnants of the Watch are joined by a new overachieving young human who thought he was a tall dwarf until recently, and find out that maybe it's worth upholding the Law after all. Although perhaps not healthy.

Read as part of the BBC Big Read

Friday, 27 June 2014

Packing For Mars by Mary Roach

I generally quite enjoy Mary Roach's books, even though sometimes they are too much information to be read while eating. (Stiff) So when I saw this one, about one of my favourite things in the world, space travel, I was excited. Even more so since I'm running a roleplaying game set on Mars right now, although much further along than the first tentative preparations Roach is talking about here.

It's hard not to be charmed by her enthusiasm for space, as it's something I share. I like to think I'd be equally incoherent with delight if I ever got a chance to go on a Vomit Comet. And she does a good job of capturing both the delights and the grinds of the experience, although towards the end, the grinds do slightly overshadow the delights. But still, let's go to Mars. Please.

This is not so specifically about Mars as it is about the nitty gritty details of spaceflight, even though the eventual orientation is towards that hypothetical Mars trip. It goes through the days of spaceflight, the first animals sent up (including a fine debunking of some of the myths about Enos (The Penis) the Chimp, one of the first two American space chimps.)

It also covers in great details all the physiological things doctors thought could go wrong with the body in microgravities. (I think she uses zero gravity, but I'm just pedantic enough to go with the other term.) Many of them seem hilarious to us now, but they're also a good reminder of how little idea we had about how any of this worked, in gravity or weightless.

And of course, there are the problems of eating, losing bone mass, defecating, showering, and oh, the smell. I hadn't thought about the smell much before, but it makes perfect sense that, particularly on the earliest capsules, there were no facilities for cleaning. Up to two weeks of two people developing their own particular body odours. Urgh.

After that, the problems of having sex in orbit (not to mention tensions between people on long-term exploration/colonization efforts), seems, well, less appetizing. Still interesting, but less appetizing.

I was sort of amazed that most of these weren't the stories I've heard before. Roach goes after the more mundane, and therefore, the less discussed. It's a great tack to take, and that really makes this a must-read for anyone who likes Roach's books, or is interested in the stuff that's left out of most reports on what a mission to Mars would look like.

The deromanticization of space flight is definitely a theme. But there is enough excitement, enough people saying that they'd go back, they'd go to Mars, that it balances it out. I enjoyed the sections on astronaut temperament for long space voyages particularly. A girl can dream, can't she?

Voyagers II: The Alien Within by Ben Bova

Oh, Ben Bova, where did you go wrong with this one?

Oh yeah. When you decided to make it all about teaching the alien inside Stoner's brain all about humans, and everything that he learned as a truth about humans was reductionist evolutionary psychology. And not good evolutionary psychology. Just that stuff that reifies all the gender things, and more or less says that men and women have interacted with each other the same way across all of human history. And men with men. And women with women. Culture? Nah, that doesn't play a role. It's all about mate selection. Always. And that always happens the same way. Societal norms have nothing to do with anything.

"You're not just a baby machine" is not a phrase guaranteed to endear you to any women, in case you're wondering, men. Unless you're the main female character, who it positively makes swoon.

I'm glad you got over this evolutionary psychology phase, Bova. I don't remember this in any of your later books. But man.

This is also one of his books written just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, where the USSR coming to an end peacefully is absolutely unthinkable, and I always enjoy reading the Cold War view on what the future would be. Not for its accuracy, certainly, but what it can tell us about people's hopes and fears in that time period.

In this book (I haven't read the first), Keith Stoner is brought back to Earth after freezing himself in suspended animation in an alien spaceship so that humans would have to mount a rescue mission. When he is thawed, he apparently brought along another visitor - the dead alien in the spacecraft. Most cannot believe that it doesn't have ill intentions. Some want to control Keith and the knowledge from the spacecraft, others to kill him. He escapes where he is being held, and proceeds to teach the alien about humans.

In the most reductionist gender terms ever. Blargh.

Also, he does this thing that I've seen before, and it's often gendered, and I don't understand it. I just simply don't. The idea that men are all trying to attract women (probably true, but women aren't try to attract men as well? Or most people aren't trying at some point to attract a partner of the gender they prefer?) and women line up the men and choose the best mate, leading to frustration and rejection among the men. One, that tends to put all the power on women and their choices, and a cursory glance at gender history and the way courtship and marriage have worked across various time periods would put the kibosh on a) inordinate power on women's side and b) that it always worked the same way.

Two, it also supposes that men are putting themselves out there for women, and women simply have to choose. And that rejection is a uniquely male experience. Really? Because there have only been a couple of times in my entire life that the man I was attracted to was attracted to me. (Luckily one of those times was my wonderful husband.) I've pined, unrequitedly, over guys. I've been rejected, overtly, and subtly. Why do some people persist in thinking this is a male-only experience?

Seriously, we've pretty much all tried to attract the attention of someone, only to have it fail utterly. The power isn't on one side. And I'm disappointed in this book. The bits not about evolutionary psychology were very interesting. The parts where every woman falls in love with Stoner because he's the best choice for father of their children, which is all all women really care about? Ugh.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Connor

This little book very nearly blew me away. I say very nearly, because there's one incident right near the end that upset my own sensibilities - but more than that, I've been mulling it over, and I can't for the life of me figure out what it adds. Except for that, though, this is an astounding look at obsessive faith - in religion, in rationality. About those who who cannot allow for nuance, for degrees, for any amount of doubt, for it would shake their self-knowledge to the core and possibly kill them. Take the schoolteacher, and the fear he has of his love for his son, because that love could shake his intense faith in rationality.

Much of the rest of the family has put their extreme faith in God - or at least, the crazy old uncle who considers himself a prophet, kidnapped the schoolteacher and baptized him when a child, then came back and kidnapped the next generation to baptize him, and ended up raising him.

That third generation, Tarwater, after the death of the man who raised him, fights against his destiny to come back and baptize the child of the schoolteacher, and thus take up the mantle of obsessive testifying and religion. There's a voice in his ear - whose it is, I leave you to decide.

This struggle between the generations, between a man and his soul, or the simple struggle to negotiate foreign worlds or to walk familiar paths - O'Connor's writing is gorgeous and compelling and absolutely impossible to look away from.

But because this is so much internal, so much focused on Rayber, the schoolteacher, and Tarwater, the nephew, and their interactions and battle for supremacy, not so much of ideology but just of simple will, the book has a hypnotic element, and you watch things go down paths that can't possibly turn out well, no matter what happens. But I think it is best when the focus is maintained on that struggle, and so much of the book is that.

And then the part I have an issue with, what seems completely arbitrary, and what's more, unnecessary, homosexual rape. I don't get what it adds. Tarwater is already on a collision course for his destiny, and this little section completely pulled me out of that inexorable path and into bewilderment. It doesn't amp things up for him, it distracts. Plus, it requires a belief that gay men (with lavender eyes and sweaters, no less) are cruising around the backroads with drugged whiskey, looking for young male hitchhikers to pick up, drug, and rape. The homophobia of that bothers me extremely. And the way that it detracts from the thrust of the story makes it so superfluous.

I don't get it, I probably won't ever, and I am sad, because it was the one moment that felt entirely wrong in a novel of perfectly intense and tight-knit inevitabilities of violence and horror.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Saga, Vol. 2 by Brian K. Vaughan

First and second volumes, read is very short order! That makes it difficult to say anything new.

Except that, to this motley crew of Romeo and Juliet-like parents, both soldiers from differing sides in an intergalactic war, their baby, and ghost babysitter, we add the grandparents! And this was actually a brilliant move. Grandpa is reasonably quick to accept his son's marriage and his baby granddaughter, Grandma, not so much.

The origins and perpetuation of hate are touched upon, as we are shown some of how the main male character was taught about the war and how to despise the other side. Comparing atrocities, in all its absurdities, yet the hurts it rests upon, is also in here.

And I really loved the Grandfather. Right off the bat, he was an appealing and interesting character, and I loved the way the baby looked in the little sleeper he made for her.

Lying Cat is still around, and his master, and to that crew is added the main male character's ex, who is definitely not there out of disinterested motives, and a little slave girl that the bounty hunter is bent on rescuing from a horrible life.

I think this volume upped the ante even more, and I'm very much enjoying seeing where this will go.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Double Act by Jacqueline Wilson

Oh, what I will read in the chase for that elusive and dubious honour of having read all the BBC's Big Read books. (I have 13 more to go!) If not for that, I probably never would have discovered Jacqueline Wilson - I missed these books when I was young, and they're not the sort of things I would have otherwise stumbled upon as an adult.

As children's/almost young adult books, they're fun. They tend to deal with real issues, but in an accessible way. In this case, two twins who are very different, but struggle against that. They're also dealing with the death of their mother and the new relationship of their father. These are all real issues. (The other one I read was about a girl in fostercare.) But for all that, they're fairly light, very fast reads, and while I wouldn't worry about kids reading them, they're not really deep.

But Ruby and Garnet are appealing. Ruby wants them to be actresses, but Garnet is terrified of getting up in front of people. Ruby hates their new life and new school, but Garnet starts to make friends. Ruby takes the lead, Garnet follows, even if she disagrees. And Ruby is so headstrong she tries to drag them into being actresses, without ever listening to her sister.

The characters are lightly drawn, but nicely complex. Their dad's new girlfriend is both exasperated and understanding. Their beloved grandmother is also a little nitpicky. Their dad is trying hard, but coming apart a bit at the seams. Nobody in this book is a monster, even the town bully.

And the twins eventually learn that maybe doing things apart isn't as bad as they thought. It's a good light read for children, but I don't know how long it would stay with them. When I think back on the books from my own childhood that have stayed with me, they're the ones that are more complex, that challenged me with ideas and adventures beyond the commonplace. I guess I never much cared for straight-up fiction as a child. That came much later.

Read as part of the BBC Big Read

Friday, 20 June 2014

"The Soul Master" by Will Smith and R.J. Robbins

Hey guys! Did you realize that the Gutenberg Project has old science fiction? It does! (I don't know why this surprised me, but it did.) So, hey, why not read some of them and review them? Not to poke fun at the old science fiction, although there might be a little of that. No, I'm more interested in looking at what this old science fiction tells us about the worlds that were being imagined at the time. What did they think about science? Gender? Race? The eventual fate of the world?

Magazine: Astounding Stories of Super-Science, March 1930

New authors to me! I can't find anything out about them! (Well, not from a quick Wikipedia search, anyway. It's nothing I'm losing sleep over.) And how was the first story by them? Um, okay? Not worse than most. A lot of hilarious things, and a few ethically troubling ones. Evil mad scientists and pretty frail white women who need saving. Pretty much par for the course at this point.

Of course, this story does have a donkey that thinks it's a chicken, so there's that.

The mad scientist is both mad and evil, like most scientists in the stories I've reviewed so far. Man, scientists do not come off well at this point (at least in this publication), do they? They're one maniacal laugh away from supervillainy. Other, more "manly" men must face them down.

You know, like reporters.

Yes, reporters are the heroes here, those stalwart defenders of journalistic integrity and...what? They kill a guy and replace him with someone else's consciousness in this story without any thought that that might be a little ethically dubious? Even the police officer is cool with it? Ah, 1930s science fiction. If there's one thing I've learned here, it's that I would not want to be around these dudes when heavy shit was going down. They're far too quick to leap to the ends justifying the means. Or just "I felt like it."

At any rate, two journalists get sent out on a story to cover a scientist. The scientist doesn't want them there. And after siccing the donkey that thinks its a chicken on them, not to mention the dog that thinks it's a cow, (the snake that thinks it's a cat comes later. I'm not kidding), he invites them in, way too cordially. Having apparently mislaid their skepticism, they go in, and eagerly smoke his cigars!

Surprising no one, the cigars are drugged.

One journalist is killed, and his consciousness is somehow displaced into the other journalist, not that anyone realizes for quite a while, journalists being as interchangeable as they are. So interchangeable that when the alive journalist stumbles back into his editor's office, drugged, saying his partner is probably dead, the editor's first reaction is not to call the cops, but throw another journalist at the problem! If he doesn't report in for 24 hours, then they'll call the cops.

Those journalists. A renewable resource, amirite?

 The new journalist - honestly, I don't remember any of their names - heads back, and also runs into the raving mad scientist. But not before he discovers the obligatory woman in danger, her "beautiful face now so wan and white." Who of course he falls in forever love with, and vice versa. But the scientist has killed her father, who must be avenged! Of course, the new journalist, knowing full well that the scientist has been making people pass out left, right, and centre, finds a small vial and decides sniffing it is the right thing to do.

Journalists! *sigh*

This leads the new journalist, the editor, the old journalist, and a police officer to the lair of the mad scientist, and there, they find out that the mad scientist has been switching minds of different creatures. (Possibly through the power of vibrations? It's hinted, but not really said.) For his last experiment, he destroyed the body of the one journalist, and took his mind and stuffed it into the mind of the second journalist. To see if he could, of course.

When he is captured, he offers to put the mind of the disembodied journalist into the mind of the beautiful young women. Because she's not using it? He seems surprised that they all gallantly tell him he's nuts. But then they start to look around appraisingly, and decide that the aged mad scientist body itself looks pretty good. And who needs arresting, a judge, jury, or legal system? They could just execute him right now! And his body would be alive, so they'd all get off scott-free!

When the police officer's comment on the situation is: “Is the old party croaked yet?", you know it's not going to go well for the mad scientist. So much for due process.

And all's well that ends with killing an old guy, (well, he was a scientist, so that pretty much means evil, right?), transplanting another guy's mind into his body, (for the few remaining years that decrepit old thing will last), and the third reporter riding off into the sunset with the girl, who seems remarkably unfazed by the murder of her father about an hour previously

The END!

I'm exhausted. That was quite the rollercoaster!

So, my topics? Science is still scary. Women are still there mostly to be as pale as possible and need saving. No one of colour. I feel like I'm checking off boxes, at this point.

So, the verdict? It's not a terrible story. It's overwrought and ethically troubling, but not terrible.

A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin

It pains me to drop to three stars. It really does. I'm in this series for the long haul, not least because I am a Very Stubborn Woman. But there are reasons why, while I defended A Feast for Crows vociferously, A Dance With Dragons dragged.

Part of that, I am sure, is that this and the previous book were supposed to be one that grew, and grew and split into two parts. But while A Feast for Crows felt like the ominous pause before the storm, one book of pause was enough. Two is self-indulgent and undercuts all the tension.

I am not knocking George R.R. Martin's writing! I always enjoy it, the complexity of his characters, the breadth and depth of his world. But I do have a few specific gripes. Specifically, I'd like to see him stop (or at least use with more discretion,) the following tricks. Because they have become just tricks.

1) Once in a while, when someone sets out to go someplace, could they bloody well get there? Having people be waylaid on the way and diverted from their eventual destination is one thing, but never having anyone get anywhere they're trying to go? It's gotten to the point that as soon as we cut to a chapter where someone is travelling, I know they're going to get kidnapped, enslaved, attacked, or otherwise prevented from getting to their immediate destination.

Sometimes this works. Other times, it seems like having someone actually freaking get where they're going would be the more interesting option. I personally think that Tyrion getting to Dany and seeing what would happen then would have been far more interesting than three successive setbacks.

If I'm ever in Westeros, remind me to travel between the chapters.

2) Stop ending chapters with a character under attack and apparently dead. This worked the first few times you did it, George, because it created suspense. But you've gone to the toolbox for this particular wrench far too many times. Three out of four times, they're not actually dead. And you've done this in every single book, and at least four or five times in A Dance With Dragons alone.

It no longer creates suspense. It now creates, in me, at least, a weary resignation. Well, that person might be dead. But I can't trust it, so no point in getting worked up. This seems to be the opposite of the reaction you are going for.

3) I love your wide casts. I do. I don't even mind you introducing a few new important characters every book. But at this point, someone needs to exercise some goddamn editorial control and tell you to dial it back. There are now too many characters, and the problem is that they're slowing the story down.

Let's take the Sand Snakes, for example. I actually love the Sand Snakes. I would like to see an entire book about the Sand Snakes. But in a story already jampacked with characters? Not to mention the rest of the Martells, their household staff, and envoys to Dany? TOO. MUCH.

If they're that cool, plan another book just about them for later. You can't pack every neat idea you have into these books, because they're becoming unfocused. I like meandering, but this is becoming meandering at the expense of story. And you're damned good at story, so get to it!


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Worth Dying For by Lee Child

I enjoy the Jack Reacher books. I've dipped into the stream here and there, and I'm pretty sure I read the book right before this one, as the events he has just come from sound very familiar. And this is another fine entry. Child writes very enjoyable mystery thrillers. They aren't deep, but they are twisty, and Reacher is an entertaining hero. He gets less character time here than in some of the others, though.

It feels like his personality in this one can be summed up in one word - implacable. He's always been dogged, but it almost gets taken to a new level here - or maybe because there's so little else. Maybe it's always been that way, but it felt more obvious.

In this one, he's rather beat up. More than usual? I'm not sure. But he's hitchhiking his way across the northern Midwest, when he gets let off in a small town entirely under the thumb of one family, who does all the trucking for the farmers in the area, and enforces their will with a matched set of former football players.

Just trying to get a room, he ends up getting involved. (Naturally.) There's a domestic abuse call for the doctor, who has been told not to see to her. Reacher persuades him, and drives him, and then goes and breaks the abusive husband's nose. The abusive husband is one of the powerful family.

He can't leave town now, as the powerful family has put out the word. And everyone obeys. They have since a little girl went missing decades earlier, was never found, and the family was cleared of all suspicion.

So of course this is the kind of situation Reacher can't leave alone. He picks at it, and picks at it, leaving an impressive pile of crippled football players in his wake. He looks at the police work for the cold case. He befriends the locals. And he evades the three sets of errand boys for various mobs who have been dispatched to make sure the next shipment of whatever shady thing it is the powerful family are also shipping, along with the wheat, makes it through.

When what the shady business is is revealed, right at the end, it's difficult. While Reacher books are generally a bit hard-boiled, this one was almost too much. It makes sense with everything that's gone before, but still.

There isn't a damn thing that's new here, but it does what it does well. If you like the series, you'll like this one. If you're looking for something innovative, look elsewhere. But for a straightforward thriller, this is a competent and enjoyable one. Even if it did get a little too serious for me there at the end.

Perfume by Patrick Suskind

A dreaded three-star review. They're the hardest books to review, the ones that didn't inspire me to glowing praise or angry ranting. I find it so hard to quantify, sometimes, why a book falls into the "meh" category. Something about it didn't grab me, but the author never made me angry, either.

So, Perfume. Three stars. Story of a serial killer, sort of. In France. In the 18th century. A boy is born with no scent, but the best nose in the world. Somehow, this makes him utterly disconnected from humanity. Or maybe he's just a born psychopath. Who knows? He rises to become a journeyman perfumier, but becomes obsessed with the scent of beautiful young virgins, and wants to bottle it. Hence, the killing.

Here's a question though - do beautiful people have a naturally better smell than non-beautiful people? The book certainly makes that equivalency, without comment. Every girl he kills is of a certain beautiful, buxom, just blossoming-into-womanhood type. I suppose, as a literary gimmick, the young virgin part might make sense (maybe), but why are they all beautiful? The author goes out of his way to tell us that Grenouille doesn't notice anything he sees, just what he smells. But somehow, everyone who smells beautiful, is beautiful. But why does A = B?

I found that jarring - wouldn't the threat of a serial killer be more profound if he didn't have a type, as visual senses would define it?

And I'm not that fond of serial killer-related writing. Only my quest to finish that bloody BBC Big Read list made me pick this one up. Perfume didn't give me the creeps, luckily, and I slept last night.

The world Suskind creates is interesting, the prose interesting, but in the end, it all seemed a little thin. What really does make him different from everyone else? Or even from other serial killers? Yes, he's fixated on smell. So?

Read as part of the BBC Big Read

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

I am not a summer person, but this book makes me wish I was. The lazy days of summer, of enjoying the heat instead of feeling oppressed by it. Running all over town with my friends, disbelieving that the adults around me ever did the same. Bottling dandelion wine against the winter, when each day of summer will be drunk and remembered anew.

While not laboriously set up as a collection of short stories, that is nonetheless what this is. The stories flow into one another, as the days do, but there is definitely a short fiction feel to it. As to genre? Well, it's not science fiction, with the possible exception of one story. It's not really fantasy. But fantasy and science fiction sort of hang around the edges, and the stories that are being told could have a bit of a magical realism tinge to them, or they could simply be how a twelve-year-old boy experiences the world.

It's a small town kind of lazy summer, in the era when streetcars are being decommissioned and replaced by much less romantic buses. When the happiest man in town decides to build a happiness machine, but his wife isn't interested.

There is also the time machine that the kids can ride in by listening to the reminiscences of the retired military man in town. Or the way that same military man transports himself to locations he hasn't visited in many years, much to the distress of his nurse. There's the old lady whom the children can't believe was ever young like them, and they start to making her doubt it too.

There is a bittersweet romance between a young journalist and a much older woman. There is the threat of violence in this small town, as women disappear in the Ravine and are found dead. There are the stories of the main character Donald, realizing that he's alive at the start of the summer, and the accompanying discovery later that he will die some day. There's the junk man, bringing just what people need from far away. Best friends move away.

These are lazy sorts of stories, that just exactly fit the weather they're describing. They might be menacing, sad, melancholy, or bittersweet, but never hurried. Bradbury is bringing his best prose to this work, and it shows.

I recommend reading this one out on your own porch (please tell me you have a porch. I do not have  a porch, and feel the lack). On a hot sunny day, drinking a glass of lemonade and letting the hurrying world slip beyond the edges of your vision and you expand into the day and drinking in it, the lemonade, and the book.

Or in the depths of winter, to recapture a warm flush of what summer was like, has been, and will be again. Taking a sip of the dandelion wine, and remembering.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

I started collecting comic books when I was 12 years old. Like most 12-year-olds, I wasn't particularly discriminating, picking up whatever I could afford with my allowance at the local convenience store. If it was a Marvel team book, and there, I probably bought it. (I was never as much interested in the single-person titles.) It wasn't until much later, when I met my husband, that he started to introduce me to specific authors, instead of specific titles, authors we would follow across titles and sometimes companies.

So while my early collection is nothing to write home about, it was an important part of my late childhood and early teen years. (And not just because I was the only girl I knew who collected comics.) Although, as I said, I bought whatever was there, I did have my favourites. And my favourite character, Shadowcat, who I remain passionately fond of to this day. I mean, she had glasses. And was incredibly smart, but felt that she wasn't pretty and would never have her feelings reciprocated. We even turned 15 in the same year. (Yes, I know comic years are malleable, but this was incredibly significant to me at the time.) She was the smart, awkward female nerd I felt myself to be - I just didn't have the superpowers. (Plus, that whole time period when she couldn't control her powers at all was one of my first introductions to the idea that this shit could be complicated.)

All this to help me say - I know a bit about comics. And I care about comics. And perhaps that's one of the reasons that I was blown away by this book. Michael Chabon gets it, the messiness, the complications, the Golden Age, the first few hints of the Silver Age, the Wertham crusade. How comics were escapist, and why that was seen by some as a bad thing. How they held a distorted, child-aimed mirror up to contemporary concerns. How Superman was initially a hero for the little guy, an enemy of the capitalists.

And, specific to this book, and these characters, how the Escapist might express the feelings of rage and impotence one Jewish boy who managed to escape Prague had towards the Nazis.

But it's not just about the comics. It's also about three characters. Joe, the Jewish artist who escaped, and burns with the desire to smash the Reich all by himself, and the shame of having been the only one in his family to escape. His cousin Sam, the idea man, who helps create a character who transcends physical limitations (which Sam shares, having had polio as a child), and tries to find where he fits into the world. And eventually finds himself hauled up before the Commission spawned by Wertham's crusade, defending the scandalous practice of giving superheroes sidekicks. Joe's girlfriend Rosa, also an artist and bohemian. And how none of them really fit in. And how they pass, and how they come to want to proclaim who they are to the world. I'm trying really hard not to give anything away, because one of the great pleasures in reading this book to me was the way things unfolded.

I don't know how to explain my emotional reaction to the book. When I finished it yesterday, I didn't cry, but I trembled on the verge of tears for over an hour. And I'm not entirely sure why. I just know that that was the effect. And that I loved it, and will be reading it again, someday. And certainly more books by this author.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

The Hawk and His Boy by Christopher Bunn

Given all my complaining about fantasy these days, I was all prepared to dismiss this book. The title made me think of C.S. Lewis' Horse and His Boy, and that's my least favourite Narnia book, so my hopes were not suffering from any inflation.

But then, while this book didn't blow me away, it did sneak inside enough to keep me interested, and make me eventually concede that somehow, this was a bit different from all the other fantasies I've been reading. Or that the writing was good enough to set it apart a bit. I'm not sure exactly what it was, but I ended up enjoying this a great deal more than I was expecting.

The young streetrat thief and his adventures weren't particularly what grabbed me, not even when he robbed a house for a thieves guild, succeeded, opened the magical box in the process, and then was poisoned and thrown down the chimney by the thief he was with. I didn't find Jute that compelling. But I did like the hints of magic world that had mostly faded. And the incarnations or avatars of the varoius elements starting to awaken is probably what caught my attention the most.

This book is largely world-building for further books, so not tons happens, other than to set the scene. But these incarnations or avatars or whatever are gradually becoming aware of who they are and who they have been, and that awakening was interesting.

At any rate, this isn't a revolutionary entry on the fantasy scene, particularly not in its vaguely young-adult trappings. But the stories of the adults around Jute, the main character, were far more interesting and complex, and I will want to see if further books hold up to that promise.

Monday, 16 June 2014

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

This Review Contains Massive Spoilers

 This book is creepy as hell, for several different reasons. My skin crawled on several occasions. At times I had to think about putting it down and walking away for a while. Given that the edition I was reading was only 88 pages, that's saying something!

What is mostly the freakiest is what is implied, not said. The potential for ghosts is all on the top, as is the potential for madness. What is strongly implied but not ever quite said is the most upsetting. And anyone who doesn't want to read about or discuss sexual abuse of children should probably take a break from this one.

Because that's definitely the implication that's hanging in the air. And the main character's reaction is possibly the most upsetting thing to me. Once she comes to these conclusions (rightly or wrongly - it's certainly what the housekeeper thought was going on, but the children don't really ever quite do anything that backs it up - the letter from Miles' school might be indicative and it might not), she vacillates between seeing the children as poor victims and seeing them as newly evil creatures that she cannot save.

It is this that I find the most disturbing, as it's what the book dwells on in the most detail. On finding two children who might have been abused, her reaction is to regard them with revulsion and suspicion. At times, anyway. The view that this now means that they're unutterably corrupted, beyond redemption, in any way at fault, well, that turned my stomach. We don't know that that's the way everyone would regard them, but it's certainly the tack the governess takes. The housekeeper is not nearly so extreme.

And this horrific possibility definitely unhinges the governess, whether to madness or sheer horror, it's hard to tell. What, after all, is the evidence? She carefully avoids ever broaching the subject to either child, to asking them about it, to doing anything that would in any way involve the children or gauge what they are actually thinking or doing. It's this dehumanization that haunts me far more than the ghosts.

So yes, this is an incredibly creepy story, even all these years later. It makes my skin crawl just remembering it. I don't think I'll be revisiting the story, but it certainly was effective.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

This is a very solid young adult book, with not too much romance shoehorned in. (That is to say, there is some romance, and it feels very shoehorny, but is on the brief side. This book in particular feels like it could have skipped the burgeoning of the feelings without in anyway detracting from the book.) I am waffling on the three or four stars right now - because I liked it enough to be interested in further books in the series without in any way falling in love with it.

But it is interesting, and there are real flashes of something exciting here. I am still undecided, and I retain the right to come back and tinker with the star rating later. Or after I'm finished writing the review and have figured out what I think.

So, it appears that the looming Great War in the this book is not just between the imperial alliances of Austria and Germany vs Britain/France/Russia. It is also between biology and engineering. The Germans, of course, have efficient machines - huge mechanical landcraft that strike my imagination something like a Star Wars walker. And in Britain, Darwin not only wrote about evolution, but pioneered genetic engineering, so the English battlecraft are giant living beings, sort of like flying jellyfish. And bats that poop razors.

Two young people are in the middle of this - Alex, the son of Archduke Ferdinand, suddenly in the crosshairs of dynastic politics. And Deryn, who passes herself off as a boy to join up as part of a flying crew. As the world lurches towards war, both have to fight in battles, and in the end, join forces.

It's not a deep book, and some things made me raise my eyebrows a bit, and oh, the flowering of new romance felt so unnecessary. But the ideas are interesting, and the characters may be a little flat, but they push the story along nicely. The world, though, that's what holds the most attraction. This is an interesting place.

Friday, 13 June 2014

How The Light Gets In by Louise Penny

This is a very special series, and Louise Penny a truly remarkable mystery writer. I read mysteries, on occasion, but they're not books to which I get greatly attached. Generally, they are light fluff. I'm not sure you could have convinced me that reading a mystery would reduce me to big soppy tears for most of the last two chapters.

But that's what happened here.

First off, the warning. Do not read this series out of order. There are few mystery series where I think that would matter, but it does matter here. Start at the beginning (you won't regret it) and work your way forward. Because there is an overarching story that is only hinted at in the first couple of books, but becomes more and more apparent as the series goes on.

How The Light Gets In is the culmination of the long arc, and it is worth the trip. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the trip has uniformly been so excellent, so perceptive about people, with mysteries so intriguing and characters so rich. But this is where it's all been headed, and that hit me like a ton of bricks.

Where do we go from here? There are strong hints that this is not the end of the series, but it is the end of the overarching plot about a creeping corruption in the Surete de Quebec. It's rare that I've seen a mystery series with that kind of long-term goal in mind, and one that is parcelled out so perfectly over so many books that the emotional impact when we got to this point nearly broke me.

We're back in Three Pines for this one, which is welcome. I've missed this cast of characters, in their roles as witnesses, suspects, and killers. The crime took place in Montreal , but the victim was on her way to Three Pines for Christmas, and perhaps was killed to keep her from getting there. When Gamache, Chief of Homicide, gets the case, he soon finds out that the woman was one of the famous Ouellet Quints. (Think Dionne quintuplets, with large amounts of artistic license.)

Who would have wanted her dead? The answer is satisfying, but really, the story in this book is the culmination of the Surete storyline. It centres around Gamache's decimated homicide department, dispersed and filled with jackasses, as those above him try to discredit him. It's about who he can trust. And it's about the heartbreaking relationship between him and his former second-in-command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir.

There's a point in this book with a duck that started the tears running down my face, and they didn't stop until I'd finished. I'm not going to say any more than that. Those who have read the previous books can guess who the duck is, but I'm guessing they didn't see this moment of grace coming.

Gamache has long believed that kindness and love are stronger, in the end. He investigates those moments when they've turned into their opposite, but he is a fundamentally optimistic and compassionate man. Are those qualities rewarded? I'm not telling, but you owe it to yourself to find out.

I don't care if you're a mystery reader or not. If you are, you'll love these. If you're not, you still ought to check them out. These are something truly special. And as we reach the end of that storyline, if not the series, I am so glad I've been on board for most of the run. The emotional impact was staggering.

Scarpetta by Patricia Cornwell

Spoilers Below. Also, trigger warning for discussions of sexual assault.

 This is my first Patricia Cornwell, starting 16 books into the series, which is probably not optimal. Earlier books may be better. I may try them some day. I may not.

I did, however, come in with a bad attitude towards the author and her knowledge of how detective work might work, given her ludicrous TV special on Jack the Ripper, in which she based her conclusions on two pieces of "evidence" (both DNA evidence and handwriting analysis failed to turn up anything):

1) That the artist she thought was the serial killer had used the same kind of commercially available stationery as the person who sent the Jack the Ripper letters to the newspapers (which the police never thought were written by Jack the Ripper anyway)


2) She didn't like his paintings.

I'm not kidding. So my views of what she thought was good evidence were extremely dim. However, the biggest issue with this book is that it's far too obvious. Pretty much the first time she introduced one character, I knew they were the killer. To be more obvious, Cornwell would pretty much have to have had "perpetrator" tattooed on their forehead. I also guessed by the halfway point who was behind the gossip column.

I never guess whodunit, so trust me, this was very painfully obvious.

Being able to guess who the killer is is not necessarily the death knell for a book, as long as there is still enough there to keep the reader engaged. In this case? There were a few interesting things, but no, not really. So a mystery, it was a bust.

This next section is about sexual assault, which was very troubling.  I take it an assault occurred in the previous book, when Scarpetta's partner attacked her. In the whole book, much more of the concern was for him than for her, and every time she took the blame on herself for the attack, in the present, or in flashbacks, no one contradicted her. Everyone insisted it hadn't been an actual crime, since it wasn't an actual rape.

Wrong. And just once I wanted someone to grab Scarpetta, who as a character is a bit of a opaque cloud devoid of quirks or personality traits, and tell her "You know what? Doesn't matter if you weren't assertive enough in every situation. The punishment for that should not be attempted rape!"

And her boyfriend's reaction being to protect the assailant's career and avoid the issue? Blech.

Also frustrating was the book's confusing conflation of consequences and vengeance. If you weren't the serial killer and thus irredeemably evil, having any consequences happen was seen as being vindictive. I'm sorry, Scarpetta. Reporting the psychiatrist who leaked confidential information about your attempted rape to the medical college is not vindictive, it's actually an obligation. It is a requirement, if regulations in the U.S. are anything like they are here, for a doctor to to report such huge lapses in professionalism in a fellow doctor.

If someone tells me the earlier ones are better, I may try them. If not, this is where I get off the Patricia Cornwell train, for good, after only one book.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Eugenie Grandet by Honore de Balzac

Eugenie Grandet is a quiet tragedy.

The eponymous character is the quiet and industrious daughter of a miser. His entire life is devoted to making more money, even faking a stutter to put other people off their guard in business transactions. Eugenie has known no other life - every day, she and her mother sit in their freezing sitting room (the fire can only be lit between November and April), mending and sewing. For her, this is not unusual, and she accepts at face value her father's complaints that they are poor and need to scrimp.

Those around her, however, have a fairly good idea how much money Monsieur Grandet has amassed, and plot to have a son or nephew marry her. Then her cousin appears on her doorstep, penniless and fatherless, and she gathers him to her heart, not knowing enough about the world to see his Parisian manners as a true expression of his shallow callousness.

Eugenie's life is ruined by money, by her father's love of it, by her neighbours' focused energy on it, by her cousin's consideration of monetary gain. Eugenie loves, truly, and her love is misspent. Money, having it, not having it, and others consideration of it taints the entire world Eugenie must live in.

Although Eugenie is shown as good and pious, Balzac does not let her off the hook, either. Hamstrung by money and a provincial outlook, she dwindles even as her fortune swells.

The prose is powerful and merciless. The story steps lightly along, building towards a climax that is not powerful but quiet. The uneventful nature of her fate is even more wrenching than a tempestuous tragedy would be.

In this book, everyone falls under Balzac's eye - the selfishness of Parisian youth, the ambition of provincial powers, the miserliness of Monsieur Grandet. Because of this, I'm not sure if anything could have changed to make Eugenie's fate a happy one - not if she was raised in Paris, not if she was given more materially, not if she interacted more with her society, not if she retreated from it.

Money is the root of all evil, in this world. And Eugenie's family has far too much of it while enjoying none of it.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

The Osiris Ritual by George Mann

This series is growing on me. The first book I thought was merely serviceable, with a bit of a revelation at the end that made one of the characters much more interesting. Either the author has gotten better at plotting, or the tension has been amped up, or I was just in a better mood to enjoy Victoriana. I think perhaps all three, and the end result was that this was quite enjoyable. Not revelatory, but fun.

Our lead detective, Sir Newbury, is exploring his growing opium addiction, moving from laudanum onto the hard stuff. This concerns both his lovely assistant Veronica Hobbes, but also the Queen herself, and his friends at Scotland Yard, who have far too vivid memories of the last time one of Her Majesty's investigators went to the bad. It led to human experimentation and atrocity. No wonder they're keeping an eye on him!

In the meantime, two, no, three, mysteries have reared their heads. One involves the fad for mummy unwrapping parties among the fashionable - the mummy proves most unique, and the next day, appears to have led to murder. Newbury must investigate this while also tracking down a former agent who had been killed by his murderous predecessor, yet brought back to a grotesque half-life by a doctor whose work seems dodgy. Even if he is keeping the Queen alive.

At the same time, Veronica is increasingly obsessed with the disappearances of young women, and has traced those disappearances to the stage performances of a magician. All this, while worrying about her younger sister, whose trances seeing the future are becoming more frequent, and the asylum where she's confined less than hospitable.

The surrounding characters are entertaining, if not particularly deep, and the fraught relationship between Newbury and Hobbes, complicated by opium and personal loyalties, interesting.

These mysteries are each satisfyingly dealt with, and Mann is better in this book about having things have tension and real consequence. At least one character dies who I had not expected to! The chase scenes are satisfying, the answers to the mysteries interesting, and the examination of a vaguely steampunk world, where Queen Victoria is being kept alive by strange machinery, better drawn. And I'm just a sucker for a good mummy party reference.

Mann also has a knack for a good closer - it was the end of The Affinity Bridge that convinced me to continue with the series, and the end of this book was similarly tantalizing. Even more so because he seems to be getting better at putting the lives and emotions of the main characters on the line, and if this continues, the third book should be very interesting indeed. I wonder if it's out yet.

Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai

I believe I read Selvadurai's second book first, and am now reading his first book second. Not that they need to be read in any order, but I'm wondering about his progression as an author. Also, is there a third? Because I liked Funny Boy more than Cinnamon Gardens. And looking it up, looks like yes, there are more of his books to explore.

Funny Boy is a series of connected short stories, centered around the character that the title refers to. Funny Boy, however, does not refer to his sense of comic timing. It refers, instead, to the feeling his family has that he may be a bit "funny" - for funny, read queer. And he is, although that realization is slower coming to the character than it apparently is to those around him.

But this tale of self-discovery and sexuality is interwoven with Sri Lankan politics, and specifically, tensions between Tamil and Sinhalese groups, tensions that can erupt into violence, and in which, the main family find themselves as members of the wrong ethnic group at a very dangerous moment. The political and the personal are interwoven here, and inability to be yourself on a personal level (and this goes beyond the main character and includes stories about his aunt and mother) are linked, sometimes intimately, to it being dangerous to be yourself on a political level.

This is yet another of the recent set of books I've read where speaking out at the wrong time about the wrong thing, or, in this case, simply being the wrong thing, can lead to sudden and horrific acts of violence. Selvadurai does a really amazing job of mingling the smaller events in the life of Arjie with the larger political atmosphere and eventual diaspora. At his young age, often the smaller events loom the larger, and perhaps they should be.

The difficulty in becoming oneself in an atmosphere that punishes such selves violently is explored through the eyes of a very young man, and because he has not the ability to understand entirely why such perceived trespasses are policed so drastically, there is little place for the reader to hide. The prose is straightforward and effective, and it is hard not to ache for Arjie.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

Almost the only thing I don't like about this book is the title. It's just too nondescript, and I kept forgetting what it was. I kept telling my husband about this great Elizabeth Bear book I was reading....uh...what's-it's-title. I can remember the titles for the next two in the series much more easily, for some reason. But this one kept escaping my brain.

Everything else, though, was great. This is a thoroughly engrossing fantasy, set on the steppes, of, presuming this world has any kind of equivalency to our own, parts of Asia, set shortly after the time of again, presuming equivalency, Genghis Khan. But it is a world all its own. There are multiple cultures, landscapes, even skies.

Oh, the skies. I loved this aspect of the magic of the world, the idea that the sky over your heads was literally different depending on what kingdom's sphere of influence you were in. Also, the moons that represented the descendants of the Great Khagan, which disappeared from the sky as the people they represent disappear from the living. Makes it easy to see if your enemies are dead, when families turn on each other.

One such survivor of a civil war between his brother and uncle is Temur, who travels with a caravan of the survivors, hiding his identity. They are attacked by ghosts, and the woman he has been forming some kind of unclassifiable relationship with is taken. In his efforts to find her, he runs into two other women, one a newly-minted wizard, Samarkar, another a woman who underwent the necessary sacrifices to become a wizard, but found no access to her power. They are looking into a city that has been ravaged by ghosts, all the inhabitants taken. It took a great and evil power to do that.

While riding back to Samarkar's city, they are stalked/approached by a giant tiger-woman, Hrahima. The adventures take them back to the city, and then fleeing from it, as power struggles within Samarkar's family reach a boiling point.

This book is obviously the first in a series, as it does not so much come to a climax as set up for the next book. There is a big and thoroughly interesting fight at the end, but it is very obviously a "the journey was just beginning" moment. And with fantasy like this, that does not upset me in the least.

One thing that does delight me is the sheer number of female characters in this book! They are all distinct characters, which I should not have to mention, but somehow still do. Heck, two of them are pregnant. And that's done in interesting ways, bringing into consideration the vulnerabilities that pregnancy brings, and giving pressing reasons for why they must get involved anyway.

Temur and a mute monk are the only two of the group of travellers who are men, and the rest are women, as are the rulers of at least two places they stop along the way. And yet, this isn't a simplistic look at gender. It's complex, and each culture has its own rules for women and how they should behave, and dress, and what place they play in dynastic succession. It is refreshing to have a fantasy book that has more a token male than a token female in the group of brave adventurers. (Well, two. And a bunch of the background characters.) But when you're talking about those in the shadow of power, and what that does, it makes perfect sense to focus on women.

This was a breath of fresh air in the fantasy world, with vivid characters and a situation that does put most of the characters under extreme pressure, and we get to watch as they try to get themselves out. I am very much looking forward to the next two. And the recently announced ones that will be forthcoming eventually.

Spider Bones by Kathy Reichs

This is the first Kathy Reichs I've read, and, well, I didn't hate it. (Unlike the Patricia Cornwell I read last year.) But neither am I really grabbed by it. Will I read more? Only time will tell, and whether or not one of my lists coughs up one for me to read. I certainly won't avoid it, but I know there's at least one mystery writer writing forensic anthropology mysteries that my mother likes more. Maybe I'll search him out.

Also, I watched the first two episodes of Bones and hated, hated, hated them, so that might explain why I avoided these for so long. I knew the books were probably better than the show, but the association lingered. I've also been told the show got better, but I've never gotten back to it.

Temperance Brennan is doing her thing with a drowned body in Quebec when the fingerprints throw up an American, long dead in Vietnam. So she is requested to go and disinter the recovered remains of that vet from his family cemetery. And then she is requested to go to Hawaii. This requesting go on a lot? While interesting, it did leave the story feeling a little fractured - oh yeah, there was this story back HERE we haven't talked about in a while.

So she goes to Hawaii where the task force for finding American military remains and repatriating them resides. And where she used to work. And there, she finds more relevant bodies than you can shake a stick at, and some surprising DNA matches and lack of matches.

I'm all for unlikely medical twists, but there were two in this book, which feels like one too many. When you have two conditions or events, for each of which there are only one or two recorded precedents, including both does strain credulity.

It also puts this book into the category of pulling out left-field information to solve the murder, something the reader could not possibly have guessed. I don't have a huge problem with that, but I do tend to classify such books mentally as thrillers, rather than mysteries. (I'm looking at you, James Patterson!) But this book has enough actual mystery, and a few bits where I could speculate on what had happened, to keep it in the mystery camp.

The family drama was fine, but didn't add a ton to the story - it felt like it would be largely the same story without it as with it. But as a mystery, this was fine, if not great. I doubt it will linger in my memory for long, but I never got angry with it.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

I came out of this biography glad to have and enjoy my Apple products, but equally glad I never met Steve Jobs. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have liked him if I had.

On the other hand, out of such sheer assholery have come some products that I'm very glad to own. Made by a guy who had no compunction about being a jackass. I get the feeling there are a lot of driven geniuses who are also complete jerks.

This is a delicate balancing act, but Isaacson does a good job of holding the two in a kind of equilibrium. It's not a hatchet job, but neither is it a hagiography. And one side of him is never far from the other. Indeed, the perfectionism that drove the creation of great products (sometimes) also feeds into his utter disdain for social niceties.

I've long been of the opinion that there are distinct audiences for different types of computers. PCs are great for people who want to be able to customize absolutely everything, to fiddle and get things to work together. Macs are for other people, like me, who couldn't give a crap about the fine intricacies of computer design and just want something that works, seamlessly, and fails to irritate them.

While there are ways in which I'm uncomfortable with giving up the control over so many decisions that might affect my life, when it comes to computing, I don't have the time to learn what I would need to to make them. In that fairly limited case, and with the right reserved to complain loudly when they make bad decisions for me, I'm happy to let Apple handle making my computer not make me want to throw it out the window.

We'll see how long that lasts after his death. I am unsure.

But of course, Jobs was always so sure he was right that that meant that when he was wrong, he was very wrong. And hard to dissuade. That's not a small problem.

Isaacson has done a good job conveying a complex figure, who exasperates at the same time he inspires. It can make great products. It can also cause huge problems. I'm not sure what else to say about it. It certainly makes me feel conflicted about the man and his legacy. This is one of those classic cases where the biggest assholes do incredible things. Things for which I'm very grateful, like my various Apple devices and the Pixar movies. But knowing they were created in the atmospheres they were, that does change something. Not everything, but something. It makes me more critical. 

The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross

Dudes, I finally did it! I finally read a Charles Stross novel that didn't leave me feeling vaguely disappointed that I didn't enjoy it more! Apparently this is the series for me, of his work. So far.

I should have guessed. I may not be into Cthulhu as a general rule, but Cthulhu plus bureaucracy? British secret service meets red tape? Horrible summoning rituals and literally trying to make an omelette without breaking eggs?

Yeah, of the Charles Stross books I've read so far (this is number 4), this is definitely my favourite. I like the lightness of tone, and although some of the computer speak goes over my head, it isn't enough to throw me off. I always got what he was driving at, although the physical mechanisms may have been a bit fuzzy.

(Sorry, I have to pause for a minute. An orange cat is sitting on the desk next to me, purring like his life depended on it, and looking at me. Pats are necessary. This cat thinks he's my muse. Sometimes he's right. He is not, however, getting a coauthor credit on my dissertation, no matter how cute he looks.)

Okay, I'm back. The purring continues.

Bob Howard is a computer guy, who works in the department of the British civil service you get pulled into if you, say, almost by accident opened a portal between our dimension and one filled with things that cause the word "gibbering" when you were younger. Funny thing is, Bob sort of believes in what he does. He certainly believes the world would be a better place if monsters that can swim behind your eyeballs and eat your soul were not wandering around, causing havoc. And he's just been upgraded to field service.

His boss, however, is not pleased. That time he got knocked out on assignment and another government shipped him back to England by plane? He didn't get that approved, in triplicate, ahead of time.

That's the general feel of the book. Throw in some Nazi plotters, a bunch of holes to places you do not want to go, a beautiful linguist, and a cow turned to stone, and, well, you may not have the idea, but hopefully you're intrigued.

This book contains a fairly short novel, The Atrocity Archives, and a really ripping short story, "The Concrete Jungle." I'm very glad I read it and particularly glad I found a Charles Stross book I like as much as his twitter feed.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

What knocked me out about this book was not the science half of the story, which was great, but the depth of the characters Wilson creates, and varied situations that occur and the breadth of the possible responses people have to a literally incomprehensible change in the way the world works.

Look, I love science fiction, I love the literature of ideas, and I read those books all the time. But sometimes where some of the genre falls down is in creating characters that are not made out of cardboard, not just mouthpieces for the latest idea or bit of science. This is not one of those books. The three main characters, and many of the minor ones, remain vivid in my mind weeks after reading the book. And it is because I care about those characters, about their struggles and attempts to adapt to a fundamentally different reality that I really enjoyed the book.

Not to mention that when the reason for the Spin was revealed, it blew me away. I was convinced that we might never find out why it had happened, and I would have been okay with that, because it was not necessarily the point of the book. However when the answer was revealed, it was the best kind of reveal - it made perfect sense with everything that had happened so far, and yet I never would have guessed it.

I will be seeking out much more Robert Charles Wilson to read in the future.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Thursday, 5 June 2014

The Book of (Even More) Awesome by Neil Pasricha

Prepare for some classic damning-with-faint-praise.

This book is okay. There are mild smiles of recognition, occasional vague warm fuzzies, some confused "huh?s" Why I bothered to pick it up after the first one, I'll never know, because it is much of the same.

On the other hand, this book didn't irritate me the same way the first one did. Maybe I was in a better mood, maybe I'd gotten used to the style, I don't know. It's certainly not because it's substantially different.

But what is up with the random bolding of two or three words at a time? I could never make out a rhyme or reason for them, and they were incredibly distracting.

This and the book before it go on my list of things that should have stayed websites. It strikes me that this is exactly the sort of thing that might be fun to read once a day as you surf on by - but as a compilation, there's not enough there to make it worthwhile to read in a huge gulp. Some things should be just what they are - small blog posts. (I know, I know, where's the money in that? And far be it from me to tell that blog author to turn down a chance at publication.)

The author tries too hard to be universal most of the time. The times when he related actual stories or actual occurrences I enjoyed much more than the generic "putting on warm socks out of the dryer." If there was more of the author in the stories, there might be more there to read. More context, more content. Something. Embrace your particular situation!

So this is fine. It's probably a classic gift book for someone you don't know very well. And while I fully believe in appreciating the small things in life, of actively looking for moments of wonder, this book didn't really bring me inside why these were the things that made the author's day.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Whispers Underground by Ben Aaronovitch

It has been well established that I am a big fan of the Peter Grant series. Huge. So take that into consideration when I found this particular book in the series not quite as much fun as the first two. Still fun, still worth a read, but somehow, a little lacking.

My husband found the same thing (and he's a fan too), or else I would start to suspect this was because I read Whispers Underground in a very unusual way. That is to say, all at once. I haven't done that in years, ever since I realized that when I read a book all in one day, it fades much more quickly in my memory than one I read over several days. I read very quickly, so I arbitrarily started to put limits on how much of a book I would read in a day. (As a general rule, not much more than 100 pages.) This meant the number of books I was reading simultaneously started to balloon. But I have been remembering more. Reading over more than one day allows characters and plot and prose to seep into my long-term memory, to be built upon the next day by the next installment.

All that is to say, I was proctoring an exam this week, brought this book along, and before the evening was over, had almost plowed through the whole thing. So I'm not entirely sure if the way this book is slipping away from me more quickly says something about the book, or about how fast I read it.

At any rate, this was still a fun entry. I liked many things about it! But somehow, it wasn't quite as engrossing. And weirdly, the back cover blurb promised a conflict that was in no way present in the book. From an earlier draft, perhaps? But it's weird when you're expecting evangelical Christian dislike of Peter, and it never ever shows up. I didn't really want it, wasn't disappointed to not have it, but when I was all steeled for it, it was a little weird.

I was glad Leslie was back! Not enough Dr. Walid, though. Or Toby, really. And was it just me, or was Zach pretty much just a slightly less reputable Ash? I liked the new cops, and Abigail.

In this one, a young art student is found dead on the tracks of a subway tunnel. Stabbed, repeatedly. And the murder weapon has a distinctly magical aura about it. So Peter gets called in, along with Leslie, to see what they can find. I quite enjoyed the straightforward mystery in this one. Turns out the student is the son of an American state senator, so a lone FBI agent is sent over to poke her nose in where it isn't wanted. She becomes distinctly suspicious of Peter, although without the promised Christian prejudice, this is a little out of left field. But in the end, I liked her.

At the same time, Nightingale and Peter and Leslie are all trying to track down the Faceless Man, starting with whoever may have trained him. I won't give away how that progresses in this novel, but it was interesting. And the new magical beings introduced in this one are an intriguing addition.

So, in the end, I still liked this entry into the series quite a lot, but not quite as much as the first two. I am looking forward to the third, though!

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin

I want very desperately to see what others have seen in this book. I reread it this month to find out if I had just missed things on first readings, if my frustrations and disappointments and distance would fade away on a second visit.

But no. I remain disappointed. I continue to think that this book tries valiantly at something very difficult and amazing, and fails. I am not grabbed by the characters. Goodness knows I want to be. I loved The Dispossessed. Why don't I love this?

It's a very lonely feeling, to sit out feeling mediocre about a book that has generated such raves and such love from other people. I want in on the party!

So, why do I have problems with it? The issues are twofold:

1) I think she fails at portraying genderlessness. It's a very difficult thing, I fully admit that! It might have been miraculous had she succeeded. But to me, she never did. Instead, this book constantly read (both times) to me, as a book about a planet full of men who occasionally had babies. That would be interesting, if that was what she was going for. But I don't think it was.

For every time she added Genly saying something about how the person he was talking to was somehow a bit like a woman, there are dozens and dozens of male pronouns. And despite Genly's assertion that "he" is a gender neutral term, I call bullshit. It isn't. It has never been. The gendered assumptions packed up in such a tiny word may be unacknowledged, but they exist. If "she" is a bearer of meaning that includes gendered expectations, so is "he."

Every time someone has tried to come up with a gender neutral pronoun, the results have tended to be inelegant and strained. But I think that might be what she needed here. She could have made up a Gethenian pronoun and used it, and that would have brought the gender issue to the fore, instead of hiding it behind the male.

But even worse is the part where, even when perfectly good gender-neutral words existed in English, LeGuin chose not to use them, using instead the specifically male forms. Gethenians are not parents, they are fathers. Their children are not children, they are sons. Siblings are not siblings, they are brothers. Parents, children, siblings. Why not those words?

Males who occasionally get pregnant.

I will omit the part where every time someone first interacts with a non-Gethenian person, whether as an image or the reality, the example always starts with someone finding the female form strange and offputting. It's going to be a bit repetitive, given what I've already stated.

If LeGuin had just set this on a world that, instead of genderless, was gendered entirely male, I wouldn't be having these difficulties. It wouldn't have mattered if their masculinity was far different from the ones I know. Masculinities are rarely constant and never universal. I hoped beyond hope that I'd be swept up in the story this time, that her use of pronouns and nouns would bother me quite so much. It never happened.

2) Once the above started to get under my skin, there wasn't enough emotional attachment to the characters or the story to override it, and allow me to get immersed. It was too restrained, too cerebral, and I never really cared very much about what was going on.

The Dispossessed captured and held me. The Left Hand of Darkness left me cold. I wanted to care about Genly, about Estraven, about their world and their struggles. But whether it was my brain getting stuck on pronouns and refusing to budge, or that there wasn't enough there for me to grasp on to, I was adrift.

I didn't mind reading it. I think it is a magnificent attempt at something incredibly difficult. But for me, it never succeeded at its most basic premise, and there wasn't enough else to become enraptured by.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

"The Brigands of the Moon" by Ray Cummings

Hey guys! Did you realize that the Gutenberg Project has old science fiction? It does! (I don't know why this surprised me, but it did.) So, hey, why not read some of them and review them? Not to poke fun at the old science fiction, although there might be a little of that. No, I'm more interested in looking at what this old science fiction tells us about the worlds that were being imagined at the time. What did they think about science? Gender? Race? The eventual fate of the world?

Magazine: Astounding Stories of Super-Science, March 1930

This was a bit of a pleasant surprise. Only a bit, but that's enough. The first story I read by this author was eye-rolling in its use of purple prose. This one is quite a bit more restrained, and it's not a bad science fiction story. Not a great one, either. I'll take the improvement.

Whereas the first story was a thinly disguised fantasy story masquerading as science fiction, courtesy of a machine that vibrated the protagonists into a medieval fantasy world, this is straight-up science fiction. It's on a cruiser to Mars and back, but this particular cruiser has a secret. On the way past the Moon, they picked up a transmission from a government scientist there, saying he'd found treasures on the moon. I think maybe gold, but I started this story a while ago and have forgotten. Let's just call it MacGuffintonium.

The Space Marine-equivalents on board the cruiser were waiting for this message, and must shepherd it back to Earth. That's not going to be easy though, as a group of revolutionary Martians and sympathizers from Earth are plotting to seize it, through any means necessary. Our stalwart young military man must fend them off, while suffering a personal and not entirely convincing lost, many wrong turns, until finally, the conspirators strike and take over the ship. The story ends just as the main character is mostly isolated and about to go all Die Hard on the ship.

It will be continued in the next issue!

It's not deep. At all. In any form. And there is some truly wince-worthy stuff here, mostly around gender. But it's not that bad. At this point, I'll take that.

Except when it comes to gender and race. Oh lord, except when it comes to gender and race. Two things. First: there is literally a part where an interesting but very, very white and thin and frail woman bemoans her lack of options in her life, and the main character, who has fallen in insta-love with her tells her:

“You have greater wonders to achieve, Miss Prince,” I said impulsively.
“Yes? What are they?” She had a very frank and level gaze, devoid of coquetry.
My heart was pounding. “The wonders of the next generation. A little son, cast in your own gentle image––”

And of course, this is so romantic that she instantly falls in love back with him! As opposed to kneeing him in the nuts. And that gives rise to the main character constantly romantically musing over the son she will give him.

Then mourning, because she dies, because her apparent plot purpose is to make the main character mad and swear revenge. Great. (Or does she? Dun Dun Dun!)

She is juxtaposed with the other woman I'm becoming quite used to in these stories. If she's the pale white virgin, oh, do we ever have the vaguely racialized, aggressively sexual, physically large woman who lusts after the main character, who always regards her with contempt. She's Martian, which is the "other" in this story, and the terms in which Martians are described make it not too hard to read this as an analogue for race.  And not in flattering or good ways. (The previous story I read by this author, you may recall, had the none-too-subtle virgin/whore dichotomy with characters named, I shit you not, Blanca and Sensua.)

The Martian woman falls for the protagonist, hard. And thus prevents her brutish Martian brother from killing him, after he'd already tried to seduce/rape the virginal woman and killed her in the process. (See? Does this make you think of any tropes of brutish black rapists? Can I sigh heavily now and perhaps start weeping?)

So yes, gender and race, they are issues. As is the entire thing where the Martians are revolutionaries working for a free Mars, but painted as all crazy lunatics. Because who would want to revolt against government interference from across the sea of space? Ooh, hitting a little home?

I'm picking on this part perhaps unfairly because I'm running a Drama System game right now using Emily Care Boss's awesome Colony Wars setting, and am having a whee of a time sending hardballs at my players about the brewing rebellion on Mars, the role of government, when rebellions go too far, and the importance of autonomy. My mind is often on a revolutionary Mars at the moment, as I try to think of even more difficult situations to put them in. My amazing players are giving me a far more nuanced view of what an incipient revolution might look like. So I reserve my right to nitpick this story.

Can I be done now? This story is sort of okay, if you can ignore what it has to say about women, race, and self-governance. Oof.

Prisoner of Tehran by Marina Nemat

How do you review books about trauma? I've been thinking about that a lot the last few days, as I was trying to figure out what I wanted to say about this book, and also the two I read around the same time. I've said the universe sometimes throws me books in clumps? Well, this time it was three about traumatic experiences under authoritarian governments. Two fiction, one non-fiction.

And the non-fiction is probably the hardest to review. When someone is relating their life story about horrific events, as, in this case, the author's story about being arrested in post-revolution Iran, sent to prison, tortured, sentenced to death, having that sentence commuted to life, being pressured into marrying a prison guard to get some semblance of freedom, and so on. It's not an easy story, and I applaud Nemat's ability to get it down on the page.

What about literary value? How do you even assess that in this type of story? In this case, the prose is spare and not particularly descriptive. Maybe that's the only way to get these words on the page - you can relive it, but even for that, there's a limit. So as a literary achievement, it's impossible for me to say good or bad. If it were a novel, I'd critique it more heavily. As a direct expression of trauma, it is a difficult read. And that probably should be the point.

There was some controversy a year or so back, when one of the panelists on "Canada Reads" accused this book of being untruthful, but I just did a google search, and I can't find anything specific about that, no specific accusations or individual claims of untruth. So that judge may have been talking out of her ass, but it raises what is almost always with us with nonfiction these days, particularly memoirs. After James Frey and the Three Cups of Tea controversy, these types of books are under more scrutiny these days, and that has good points and bad points.

But even if there are inaccuracies, which I'm not sure that there are - at least I can't find any records of people picking out specific things - I'm reminded of a story from one of my more theoretical drama classes, "Geographies of Emergency." The prof told us a story about collecting testimonials from Holocaust survivors, and in particular, a story one woman told about Jewish resistance at one of the camps, and her very clear memory of three of the smokestacks blowing up.

Except that we know that only one smokestack blew up at that particular camp. So what do we do with her testimony? It cannot be simply dismissed because, in the middle of trauma, she didn't get every detail exactly right. For one, it is testimony to something that we never think of connected with the horrors of the death camps - active resistance. But yet, obviously, memory is inherently faulty, and those accumulated during trauma even more so.

It's a difficulty I continue to struggle with. But I believe these stories have to be told, and even if some details are wrong (and again, I don't know that any are), that doesn't immediately invalidate a story. Everything has to be assessed for what it is, and with understanding of context and history. I know incredibly little about Iran, and I should know more.

I feel like I've talked less about the book, and more about the thoughts that I had to get out of the way before I could write a review. Somewhere along the way, the two merged. But my final thought is that this is a good book, not a great one. And I think it will have done its job if it causes people to explore more, rather than read one book and stop.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Learning the World by Ken MacLeod

All right, let's try to write this thing. I'm still feeling sleep-deprived, so it may not be coherent, but here goes:

This was pretty darn good. Not exceptional, not rocking my socks off, but solid, and interesting, and trying new ideas I'd never quite seen before. And the new ideas are subtle. The writing style is serviceable, but won't set the world on fire any time soon. It was never quite a page-turner, but wasn't hard to pick up either.

MacLeod starts from some interesting base assumptions, and then does some interesting things with them. The book starts in the year 14,000 and change. I was perplexed at this, at the start, as his people don't seem that different from people now, or any extrapolations over the next few hundred years. Why go so far in the future? What was the point?

And then the reason for this started to dawn on me, due to one of the core conceits of the book - that humans had been out there in the stars for so long and had never encountered another race. How long would it take for it to become an article of faith that they never would, that they were truly alone in the universe? Hence, I think, the extreme far-future setting.

But then they do, a race of winged bipedal humanoids. The book shifts back and forth between the colonization ship that had been coming to this new system, and the winged people on the planet. Both have their worldviews shaken, both have to start "learning the world" anew. Core concepts are examined, and many of the problems stem from those who don't even realize that the playing board has changed, and try to react as though what they have always known is still true.

On the ship, one young woman, Atomic Discourse Gale, realizes the full extent of the change, and becomes a major force in the debates splitting the ship. On the planet, Darvin and Orro, scientists both, first discover the ship entering the system, and later, with the help of Darvin's squeeze Kwarive, a biologist, discover some of the ways the humans are gathering information on their world.

The world of the winged people is, as far as the people on the ship can perceive, backward in many ways. They live on the brink of an industrial revolution, and keep members of a similar race as slaves. From these facts, the humans act on assumptions based on their own far history. This is a mistake.

First contact stories often depict us being the ones who are right. If we don't intervene, it's from some higher morality that prevents us from imposing our own values on them. This doesn't mean that those values, "our" values, aren't shown to be right, always. The poor deluded saps have to work through their own problems, until they finally grow up enough to be welcomed into our enlightened family.

That is not what we find here, and it's so refreshing. I'd never examined first contact stories (where we're the ones doing the contacting) in that way. Assumptions of a higher morality exist, and are entirely wrong. We all just blundering our way through, and the human way may not even be the best.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

I've known far too little about Nelson Mandela. I knew who he was, of course, and some of the bare outlines of his life. But I think I'd fallen into knowing little more than what Cornel West, after Mandela's death, called the "Santa-Clausification" of the South African leader. By that, he meant the process of turning Mandela from who he was into a harmless, strangely apolitical grandfatherly figure that could be used as a symbol by left and right alike.

Mandela's autobiography is a welcome corrective to that. Although sometimes the story lags, the arc of his radicalization, the momentum of the ANC, and the developments while he was in prison all fight against an easy depiction of him as a figure in the movement and a person. The continued defense of the movements the ANC's offshoot made towards using violence as a political tool is interesting and challenging.

It is also a very readable account of the various laws that were put in place as the basis of the apartheid system in South Africa, their implications and the ways in which they were carried out, with a parallel story of how the ANC responded to these laws as they were implemented. There are some lovely "gotcha" moments in the government's first ham-handed attempts to suppress dissent and protest, but the story grows more dire as the police and government care less and less about finding reasonable justifications for their actions.

It's a very straightforward narrative, although there are parts where interpersonal conflicts are somewhat glossed over, probably deliberately. It's his prerogative, but it does add distance to the narrative when it comes to the personal. The political, however, is fascinating.

The years in which Mandela was imprisoned take up a huge chunk of the book, and are incisive in their examination of incarceration, the struggles in prison for fair and equal treatment, side excursions into what rights prisoners should have, and how political prisoners in this instance reacted to their circumstances.

At the end, I feel like I know a great deal about the political struggle, and somewhat less about the man. Not that there isn't anything, but there is that reserve and reticence about personal issues. Again, totally his prerogative. Also, his entire life hangs together as a unified arc, and I can't help but wonder if that means that there is some messiness being elided by the smoothing out of his political path into one where his later viewpoints are almost completely harmonized with the ones he held at the beginning of his struggles.

This was an interesting read, although in some areas it raised my curiosity more than it communicated. But as a look at the struggle against apartheid, and a memoir of years spent as a political prisoner, it was fascinating.

Past Master by R.A. Lafferty

Past Master reads like a lesser The Einstein Intersection, which was published a mere year earlier. Both are looking at future societies, and attempting to integrate myth and legend into the stories they tell. But what Past Master lacks is the lyricism of Samuel L. Delany. Similar figures, archetypes of myth and Christian legend, are present, but Lafferty tells these stories in much more prosy prose, and having read and loved The Einstein Intersection earlier, I couldn't help but be disappointed by the story told here.

It's not bad. It's just that if you're looking for a successful integration of myth and science fiction, go with Delany.

In this book, on the golden world of Astrobe, human society has reached its zenith. Or so they thought. But more and more humans are rejecting the life of ease and comfort to live in a hardscrabble settlement, Cathead, just outside of the main city. No one can understand why. Machines live side by side with humans, and can indeed even interbreed with them. Programmed Killers stalk the streets, to take out anyone who interferes with the Astrobe dream.

In the midst of a society that seems perfect, yet is being rejected by increasing numbers, the Circle of Masters decides they need a new candidate for President. One who can be manipulated. But is honest. They pick Sir Thomas More, and pluck him forward in time. Once on Astrobe, Thomas sees the similarities between this new Eden and his own Utopia, which he insists was written as a satire rather than a practical plan. Despite this, and despite the urgings of his own disciples, Evita, the female embodiment of, well, femaleness, and her brother Adam, doomed to die again and again, More falls in love with the Astrobe dream, and vows to save it.

But is his will his own?

But while Past Master was interesting, the writing didn't live up to the promise of the ideas, and it was never a book I was eager to get back to. I didn't mind reading it, mind, but it never really grabbed me. Delany's a far better bet. Too bad for Lafferty his great idea coincided with a much better delivery of the same sort of themes.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees