Friday, 26 September 2014

Magician: Apprentice by Raymond E. Feist

What to say about this book? I get why it has been popular. It's well-written, the characters are good, the story bounces along.... Except for the part where there's nearly nothing really striking about it. It's good, but I can't think of a single category in which it ascends to greatness. So I'm left having enjoyed reading it, but not in any way enthused about Feist's writing or reading more. (I will read the second half, so I can check this off on the BBC Big Read, though.)

It's hard to write about a book that is really very skillful generic fantasy, but still absolutely generic fantasy. I get that this may have been one of the groundbreaking works - was it? - but now this is ground that has been retread so many times that all I'm getting from reading it is a Tolkien-homage. Not as close a Tolkien homage as some others, but Tolkien's world drips all over these pages.

The idea of a fantasy world being invaded by another fantasy world is interesting, and that's the premise of the books, as warriors from another dimension keep popping up and attacking, possibly trying to create beach-heads for a full invasion.

There are courtly politics around this, and a young emperor who is sitting happily in denial about anything going on for as long as he can.

The two viewpoint characters are two young men, one a warrior-in-training, the other a magician-in-training. The magician has magic the likes of which have not been seen in ages, or perhaps ever.

He's in love with the princess of the place where he lives, or rather, she's in love with him, and he's not quite sure how he feels.

I am running out of things to say already. There isn't an urgent dramatic push in this book. It meanders through an invasion, and the tension is rarely high. In fact, as far as I can remember, no named characters die, so the stakes are certainly not as high as they are in, say, a George R.R. Martin book, which has perhaps spoiled this kind of high fantasy for me.

The female character gets to be tempestuous and spoiled, and later to mellow, and discover that she likes it when the guy she has feelings for orders her around to keep her safe. Even if she doesn't always listen. 

There are dwarves, and elves, and a dragon sleeping on his hoard. There are master magicians. The evil all comes from elsewhere. It's a fun read, but it doesn't seem to have anything more to say.

Read as part of the BBC Big Read

Thursday, 25 September 2014

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

I finished The God of Small Things yesterday, and decided to sleep on it before I tried to write a review, hoping that might make it clear what I wanted to say.

And I still don't know. I don't know what I thought about this book. I didn't love it - it's not one I'll rush out and tell all my friends about. Yet it was full of felicitous turns of phrase that I enjoyed very much.

The God Of Small Things is about a family in India in the mid-twentieth century (if my quick wikipedia search about Indian communism leads me to guess the right time period), their wounds, the things they say and don't say, the ways they conform to expectations and defy them, and the consequences, both direct and sudden and unexpected.

The story is very much a spiral around a tragedy, circling in tighter and tighter until the complete picture is revealed, which in the early book is hinted at, but it takes time before different elements interconnect.

And through the spiral cuts the straight line of malice from one character who acts with such petty viciousness that it turns a tragedy into a monstrosity.

This novel is full of damaged characters, all of whom were touched by at least one of the two major events, none of whom has fully come to terms with their actions or inactions. Anything Can Happen To Anyone, and does.

And yet, this is a small story, told by the God of Small Things, with the larger societal and political tragedies populating the background. In a way, the small things that happen in the book happen because of the Large Things, yet they are important to the characters because of their immediate impact, not their larger significance. And none of them can move past the Small Things. And so, in a way, they absent themselves from the Big Things, in ways that remove them from active participation in the world. (Estha's silence, Rahel's remoteness, Baby Kochamma's TV, Chacko's emigration, Ammu's eventual fate.)

This is a difficult book. It isn't light. But it does reward thought. And I think I liked it more than I realized.

Read as part of the BBC Big Read

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Grass by Sheri Tepper

I was so behind book reviews for a while, and now I'm almost caught up. However, that means I'm now trying to review books I read a couple of weeks ago. I'm not sure how that will change this review. Let's find out!

Sheri Tepper has never been my favourite science fiction writer. I've only read two of her books, and while I thought The Gate to Women's Country was interesting feminist dystopia/utopia, I really disliked The Fresco. I thought the solutions in that one were very deus ex machina, (although the bit about impregnating right-to-life male senators with alien babies was very amusing), and that if you need to have unbiased aliens to come fix all your problems, and they'll do it perfectly and be perfectly understanding, you've just reintroduced the idea of God in alien clothes.

Grass is, I believe, from earlier in her career. So I wasn't sure what I would think of it when an online science fiction group I'm in and co-moderate decided to read it. And actually, I like it. I don't love it, but there are some interesting ideas here.

Marjorie is a Catholic on an Earth (and a galaxy) now dominated by what appears to have formerly been the Mormon church. As such, she's caught between two religious patriarchies, one of which controls her environment, and the other of which constrains her soul. Got the metaphor? Or the...symbolism? At any rate, she's caught, body and soul, in believing in a system that does her, as a woman, no favours whatsoever.

Of course, the third representative of the patriarchal trinity is present in the form of her husband, who wants complete emotional surrender, but allows her no space to be herself. So she holds herself aloof in order to salvage some threads of self.

Marjorie and her family are sent to the world of Grass, a strange human colony that seems the only one not affected by a plague sweeping through all of human civilization. The humans who have lived on Grass for a very long time have created a mock-feudal society, where the nobility spend much of their time in fox-hunts - but not fox hunts as we know them. These are much more sinister, and the creatures they ride and hunt are more than dumb beasts.

Outside the faux-feudal structure, the "peasants" have a much more interesting society that they simply fail to inform the "nobility" about. The Mormon-equivalent in this fictional universe, Sanctity, has a monastery for failed priest-trainees. Some of the work they do is to excavate alien ruins that are found all most known worlds.

The book centers on Marjorie's husband's attempts to insinuate himself into noble culture, which seems to be strange in ways completely unguessed. And on her much more successful efforts to get to know the commoners. The role of the "horses" in the hunt, the abilities of the "foxes," and the disappearance of young women during hunts all play a role in the subsequent events.

This is supposed to be a commentary on patriarchy, I'm sure, but given that we're not given any indication that the indigenous animals are gendered in anything like the same way humans are, it does strike me as curious that they pick young women exclusively. There's no indication what would make human female young more useful for their purposes than young men would be. It's a weird assumption of gendered roles that is in other ways not supported.

It's also a weird theme in two of the three Tepper books I've read that the human women can only find true emotional and sexual satisfaction from non-humans. Men seem to be constitutionally incapable of not oppressing the women around them, and aliens have none of that baggage. Of any sort of baggage related to gender or anything else that would make up our present ideas of intersectional identities. That's the idea, anyway. It's even there in a much different (non-alien) form in The Gate to Women's Country. Men are incapable of change, incapable of being partners, incapable of seeing women as equals. Pessimistic, and a bit depressing.

I'm also skeptical that we'd meet aliens that are blank slates and so totally understanding and fulfilling at the same time.

But for all that, this is a pretty solid book. The aliens are interesting, the galaxy under the continued thumb of religious patriarchy a bit heavy-handed, but intriguing for all that. It was definitely worth a read. And didn't frustrate me the way The Fresco did.


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

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

I feel like I read this book too close to A Game of Thrones to write a really good review about it. It does just feel like a continuation of the previous book, without anything to really differentiate it in my mind.

That is not a complaint! I loved the first book! I just don't have any new reasons why I love Clash of Kings. Everything I can think of is a "I continue to enjoy...."

I continue to enjoy the shifting narrative perspective, and the way that helps Martin avoid simplistic motives, or clear differentiations between "good" and "evil" characters.

I continue to enjoy the frigging complexity of these books.

I continue to enjoy the way that Martin is unafraid to break his toys, always with good reason, but frequently unexpectedly!

I continue to enjoy how the entire balance of power will shift over the course of the books, not once, not twice, but frequently, and always convincingly.

I continue to absolutely love Tyrion and Arya. (Dany, my third favourite, was not as big a presence in A Clash of Kings.)

It only gets four stars because it lacks that feeling of wonderful discovery of this world and its inhabitants that the first book gave me. But I did love it. I may wait a while before I crack open the third, though. Pace myself.

Monday, 22 September 2014

The Maze Runner by James Dashner

*So Many Spoilers*

This, then, brings us to the young adult novel I didn't like. In fact, this is one of the rare books in which I was hard-pressed to find any redeeming features. I feel bad about this, because I know I have friends who loved it. I'm very sorry. I hated this one. You may want to skip this review.

Where do I start? The ludicrous plotline? Well, maybe. I don't actually have huge problems with the plot, such as it is, until the end, and then I start to have some major concerns. This book fails at one of the basic tasks of young adult dystopiana - there has to be a good reason why whatever is going on is affecting teenagers instead of adults. In fact, this is a basic task of all children's and young adult literature, period. Often the reasons are a little sparse.

But here, they are frankly ludicrous. If, at the end of all this, what you want is a cadre of smart, resourceful people to trek across a desert and survive, what you don't need is a bunch of ignorant teenagers that have no idea what they're getting into. What you need is well-trained, well-prepared adults. There's no reason for secrecy. There's no reason for elaborate plots. You don't have to have a maze to convince people not to give up in the name of survival. This giant scientific "experiment" makes literally No. Sense.

Plus, if you're going for smart and resourceful, why would you throw your final group untrained into combat against machines at the end. I don't know what you think about unarmed, untrained kids being thrown into combat, James Dashner, but I can tell you that what you're likely to get at the end is not necessarily the best and the most resourceful. You're as or more likely to get the simply lucky. The kid who was your best chance at survival? You probably just killed him with a robot. And proved nothing.


Also also (am I in Monty Python and the Holy Grail?), why would I believe that Thomas is the first kid in years to see "WICKED" written on all the machines and the omnipresent "World In Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department" plaques all through the maze and make the connection. If these are your best and brightest, Thomas could be pretty damn dull and still look like a diamond.

I am also skeptical about funding for anything labelled "Killzone Department."

So that's the plot. Oh, hey, how about the characters? I feel the ranting bile rising up again, ladies and gentlemen. The characters are terrible. Fucking terrible. They're all erratic as hell, and rarely if ever have a logical reaction to anything. They'll be happy one line, angry and resentful two lines later, sympathetic three lines later, and it gives me emotional whiplash! What's worse, these reactions never make sense! They're irritated at things that aren't irritating. Touched by things that aren't touching. Has the author ever met a human being? Spent time around them? Rarely a page went by that I didn't stop and think "why the hell did that character just say that?"

Oh, and of course, the one female character. (Seriously. You are in desperate need of the best and brightest kids around - despite my skepticism of that premise - and only one of them is female?) She doesn't get to do anything. Not really. She gets to be unconscious and cryptic. And supposedly smart, but locked up. Oh, and wait. Inexplicably telepathic with the main character.

That's right, inexplicable telepathy! I'll chalk that up right next to the Flare, which apparently was a solar flare bad enough to scorch the earth and destroy vegetation, but not necessarily electronics, and thus made the earth largely barren. And infested with a new disease? These are the categories of "what the hell kind of science are you using anyway?" that this book falls into.

I am sure there are other things I could rant about. I am absolutely positive there are. Instead, I'll just sum it up with I couldn't think of a single redeeming feature. This is a terrible book. The characters are awful. The plot is ludicrous. No book should make me this angry reading it or writing a review about it. About the only thing good about it is that it was such a fast read that I was done before I realized how angry I was.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

If the Chronicles of Narnia are C.S. Lewis' attempt (and a wonderful one) to write Christian children's fables, then this trilogy seems to be his attempt to write Christian science fiction.

Although I am not Christian myself, this doesn't bother me, as it seems to bother others, particularly in reference to the Narnia books. I love those books with a deep and abiding passion, and really never even noticed the Christian iconography until I was much older.

The reason why it doesn't bother me, I think, in both the Narnia books and this one, is that's it's not a preachy evangelical Christianity. C.S. Lewis' beliefs were not rigid or dogmatic - to him, (from his fiction, not having read his nonfiction) God truly is love. And that is all that is important.

So, Aslan in Narnia, Maleldil in this trilogy, the fact that Jesus is immanent as a presence, not really an issue for me.

So how does it stack up as science fiction? It's old-fashioned, for sure, reflecting nicely the age it was written in. There were certain echoes I caught of a short story I read by H.G. Wells - I can't remember the title. But the adventure, and then the discovery of a new planet, and particularly the idea that Earth is the benighted backwards planet in many ways, were all very enjoyable.

And his descriptions of the fullness of space (as opposed to the emptiness) were something I'd never seen before, and I always enjoy it when science fiction turns whole ideas on their heads.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Room by Emma Donoghue

*This is one of the first book reviews I wrote*

I really want to commit to writing reviews of books I've read previously, as well as ones I've just read. But this is the second time I've picked a book and stared at the screen. I was pretty happy with what came out of the God of Small Things review, though, so we'll see what happens this time.

I picked this up as a popular book this year (I try to balance my books between new and popular and classic or off-the-beaten-path, mixed with a healthy dose of SF.) I'd also added it to my library hold list shortly before hearing the author talk at a conference about the research for her next book (which sounds fascinating, let me say that now.)

Room is a hard book to know how to write about. Like God of Small Things, it's not one that moves me to become evangelical about it. Yet I enjoyed it. If someone asked if they should read it, I'd probably say yes.

Of course, the subject matter is in and of itself difficult, and the fact that the narrator is five only highlights the horrors. I did enjoy the narrative voice, which was neither too precious, nor too knowing.

But still, I didn't love it. And it's hard to say I "enjoyed" it, but I'm not sorry I read this book. That space between loving a book and respecting it is a large one, and I do respect this book, and what the author was trying to do - I don't think she shied away from taking the harder choices, from making freedom come at too cheap a price.

Okay, this review was a lot more confused. I may come back to it.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The Time-Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

The Time Traveler's Wife is beautifully written. I enjoyed the writing style, in and of itself, immensely.

What I didn't like was the structure of the book. Vignette followed vignette followed vignette, with little connection between them, and no real feeling of flow.

When I talk about this book to my friends, I say that if an editor had said "you have 30 pages to write this story," it might have been the best short story I'd ever read. It feels like there is about a short story's worth of ideas, stretched out into hundreds of pages.

I'm also not a huge fan of "twist" endings - when they are done well, they work fantastically, but when the fact that there is a twist is advertised in 20-point type across the face of every character, it's more annoying than intriguing. The best twists I don't even see coming. One of the main "twists" in this book I guessed the first time a pregnancy was mentioned.

I was disappointed. I wanted this book to be better. I wanted to love it.

As it was, I was almost continually frustrated as I read it.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

The next two reviews I write will both be for young adult novels. One of them I loved, and thought it was full of great characters, exquisite tension, and great story. The other I hated, with terrible, erratic characters, nonsensical plot, and atrocious writing. Thankfully, this review is for the book I loved. It made the flaws of the second book stand out so much more keenly when I'd just finished this and could compare the two.

I've never read Laini Taylor before, but a good number of my book reviewing friends have raved about this book, so, eventually, I picked it up. I found myself completely engrossed in this world. (This may have been aided by reading it at my in-laws, often out on their deck in the early morning air, while hummingbirds came by, sounding like tiny motorcycles, fighting each other and the bees to get at the feeders. Such a setting can add much to any book.)

But the book itself is worthy of praise. It gets so many things right. The main character, Karou, is fully formed, interesting without being flawless - indeed, her flaws are often the most interesting things about her! She is beautiful, artistic, secretive to a fault, stubborn, and a bit selfish. She has grown up all over the world, but now attends (sort of) an art school in Budapest, where her notebooks full of fantastical and grotesque creatures are much admired.

Except they're not fantastical. These are the creatures who brought her up, in the middle of a mystical store that connects to many different doorways all over the world, chock full of teeth, including human. Brimstone is as close as she's known to a father, and she has no memories about her past. She has brilliant blue hair, but that's from a wish, for that is what Brimstone trades in, with hunters in return for animal teeth, graverobbers for human. Karou is repulsed by the traders but somewhat fascinated by the teeth.

The story unfolds slowly, but the pacing is just right. Taylor parcels out information at satisfying intervals, and we discover as Karou does, the new contours of her world, as stunningly beautiful and inhuman humans start to walk the earth, marking the doors to the store with burning handprints. Their shadows have wings.

There are angels and demons in this book, but Taylor has taken cosmology and made it topsy-turvy, using it as a meditation on war and the dehumanization (dedemonization?) of the enemy. The ways in which societies perpetually at war distort themselves, the ways those who are brought up in them cannon escape them.

But here's where it really shines. Many YA novels have the couple that is meant to be together. By "meant," put in "insta-love." They are kept apart, mostly, by the flimsiest of excuses, reasons that would dissipate if two characters talked honestly. This is the worst kind of drama.

Here, we have two characters who are instantly and deeply attracted to each other. (Not in love. This book realizes falling in love is trickier and takes longer.) The reasons they're attracted to each other are good. The reasons they may not ever be able to be together are stunning. And they come out of talking honestly, piercing the characters on a truly terrible dilemma, turning actions into atrocities and grief into pain. I was breathless by the full scope of what they have and had meant to each other, and what that had meant for the worlds they inhabit. At the end, while I'm hoping they might work it out eventually, I am awestruck by how truly difficult that would be.

This book doesn't shy away from difficulty. It hangs its characters out on the horns of a truly terrible dilemma. The writing style is definitely for young adults, but Taylor does not make the mistake of being patronizing. There are difficult issues raised here, genuine pain and sorrow. Young adults deserve nothing less. And they certainly deserve better than the next book I'm going to review. This may not be the one being made into a movie, but it's the one that deserves to be. Even though its very complexity of thought, if not of prose, make it unlikely.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

This is a very different outing from the previous two David Mitchell books I've read. Instead of interconnected tales, spanning time and space and genre, it's a very straight-forward novel about growing up in England in the 1980s. It's really good at what it does, though. Even if it did keep popping Adrian Mole into my head.

Let me explain that a little bit. This book is nothing like Sue Townsend's comic masterpieces. This is much more serious, much quieter, much more complex. But strangely, it takes place around the same time that some of the Adrian Mole books were written, so although the foregrounds are nothing alike, the backgrounds are surprisingly similar, from the mentions of names of stores and candies and the material culture of England in the 1980s, to the way children were exposed to and responded to the Falkland War.

In the way Jason, the main character, was following and initially supported the Falkland War, I was reminded of Adrian Mole and his interest. But since this isn't comedy about a gormless young man, it becomes part of how Jason realizes that what he's told isn't always the same as the way things are. It also brings tragedy home to this small town in a way this generation was unfamiliar with.

Now I'd like to put the Adrian Mole comparison aside. It was interesting to see how 1980s English culture soaked through both books, but Black Swan Green is something quite different. I'm finding it hard to put my finger exactly on how to describe it. It's a novel about growing up, but it isn't simple or saccharine. It has an interesting way of drifting through a year or so in this town, without feeling the need to hit every event.

It's the story of a boy trying very hard to assert his place in a hierarchy of boys who can be swift, sudden, and cruel. There are insights here about how children treat each other that ring true even while they are unsettling. Oh, but I'm not doing well. I'm making this sound like an issue book when it isn't.

I suppose it's also about finding your voice, but again, take that in the least facile way possible. The main character stammers, which haunts his days at school, knowing full well what would happen if it becomes apparent. (There's a discussion here about the difference between stuttering and stammering.) Jason is also making first steps towards writing poetry, and, thank heaven, at that he's better than Adrian Mole, although it's apparent that his initial works are promising but nothing like precociously good.

Behind all that is the slow disintegration of Jason's parents' marriage, which is painted in in light but unmistakable strokes. This is the year where everything changes and nothing changes. Where the biggest events are sometimes the smallest, although the newsworthy tragedies also loom large. Mitchell just puts his finger so astutely on the rhythms of life that it's kind of staggering.

Thanks to my friend Rob for the loan of the book! I haven't yet found a David Mitchell book I don't like, and it was great fun to be handed this one.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Clockwork Prince by Cassandra Clare

*Warning - Major Spoilers Below*

I didn't enjoy this as much as I did the first book in the series. Maybe it was my mood, peeking out from underneath stacks of exams and essays to mark. Maybe it was because I've had so little time to read the last few weeks, and I wanted whatever I read to be spectacular.

Maybe it's just because this book spent too much time on the love triangle, which I find the least interesting part of the story Clare is trying to tell.

Part of what I liked about the first book was that, although there were some hints of attraction, that wasn't the focus of the book. This time, everything focuses around that.

And yet, I find everything else that's going on so much more interesting! The political machinations, the world she's creating, the non-romantic interplay of characters.

But the biggest problem with the book is that it ends in pretty close to the status quo that the book started with. Nothing much really happens. They're no closer to finding Mortmain, and in fact, barely try. Tessa does nothing new with her powers. Charlotte's leadership is threatened, but finally reaffirmed. The person we always knew would betray them does. (Hint: for the revelation of a spy within the organization to be shocking, it has to be someone you'd never expect.)

Plot, I demand that you move forward! But instead, the book focused around Tessa feeling attracted and conflicted about two different men. The position at the end was mildly interesting, but by then I was too bored to really care.

I might try the next book when it comes out, but if it disappoints me too, then I'm done.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Moscow But Dreaming by Ekaterina Sedia

This is an uneven collection of stories that has more good points than bad ones. There were stories I was absolutely enchanted by, many stories I liked a good deal, some that were only so-so, and at least one that I thought was truly terrible. But as a writer, Sedia is growing on me. I was only slightly enthused by her steampunk book, the name of which escapes me at the moment. But there were moments in Moscow But Dreaming that were stunning.

This is a collection of short stories, most of which are either set in Russia, or a former part of the USSR, or are about expats in other countries. A couple, though, are not, and those confused the heck out of me. Thematically, they were just jarring. I spent far more time than I should have trying to find the connection to Russia. They weren't bad stories, but neither were they terrific stories that were worth breaking the theme.

Some of these reminded me pleasantly of the things Catherynne Valente was doing with Russian folklore in Deathless, although without the truly superlative prose. Still, I enjoyed reading them.  There were some truly spooky ghost stories mixed in there, from an old woman helping find coins for the eyes of dead soldiers, to a man who guarded a house where many young women disappeared to feed the horrific appetites of the leader of the secret police, to two men finding they can steal memories from recent corpses with the help of a jug of alcohol.

But it was a story that had nothing to do with ghosts that was the one that really made me sit up and take notice. "The Bank of Burkina Faso" is, quite frankly, brilliant. She meshes together the plaintive letters from scammers we all receive in email with a story about being an expat and and the supernatural in a truly charming way. This story was worth the whole collection alone.

I wish I had a list of the stories, but I can't seem to find it, and the Kindle I read it on is just enough of a pain that I haven't gone back to dig it out. Many of these were published in other places as well.

At their best, these are stories that weave together fantastical elements (often horrific) with mundane reality, often against recent Russian history. They explore what it is like to stay, what it is like to leave, and how folklore could enter ives in unexpected ways. Most of the stories are very good.

The one about the puppet and the autistic boy, however, is terrible. It's like she decided to try an experiment, and then followed through in absolutely no way. You don't call something a "play" when all you are doing is putting "Act One" (or Two or Three) at the top of each section, giving one italicized line of setting, and then go on to write it just as you've written every other story, in the same sort of first-person narrative. It's not a play! It's not formatted as a play! It's not written as a play! There are no lines, no stage directions. It isn't even a monologue. It's just a first-person story. Why would you bother to call it a play? And the story isn't that good either.

Just...don't. If you're not going to follow through, don't. Why?

Other than that story, the rest are at least interesting, with a few real jewels sprinkled amongst them.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Pandora's Star by Peter F. Hamilton

I quite enjoyed Pandora's Star, and the vast universe Peter F. Hamilton creates. Where many science fiction writers take one significant technological advance and write about how their world would change around that, Hamilton has explored numerous game-changing advances all at once, and tried to see what wormhole travel/body rejuvenation/memory download would together do to a rapidly expanding human Commonwealth of planets.

And for some authors, that might be all. But no. Add in to this one two species of alien that humans have uncovered, and the main mystery of the novel - the enveloped systems of Dyson Alpha and Beta. When an astronomer discovers this envelopment happened instantaneously, the Commonwealth is convinced that they must finally build a FTL ship and send it out to investigate whether those shields were erected to keep something dangerous out or to keep something dangerous in.

With an enormous cast of characters, Hamilton juggles them with ease, and it is a credit to his characterization that I always knew who he was talking about, and what had brought them to this moment.

One faction within the Commonwealth are regarded as insane fanatics, as they believe a hostile alien crashlanded on Far Away centuries ago, and since has been controlling events. As the book goes on, whether or not they may, in fact, know more than the rest of humanity becomes an open question. (I'm certainly not going to tell you!)

But one thing that did bother me was one conversation where all the participants conflated homosexuality and transgendered identity. It's nagged at me since.

I wasn't enthralled by this book, but I always looked forward to sitting down and reading more of it. For me, it lacked that emotional punch that the best books bring. But I enjoyed the speculation, the worlds, and the characters. I'm looking forward to reading the next book, particularly since this one ended on a cliffhanger. Almost literally.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre

Goodness knows that I know pretty much nothing about existentialism. I've read The Stranger. Now I've read this. That's pretty much it. And I have to say, I'm not sure, based on those books, that it's a philosophy so much as a pathology. Or perhaps just a mental illness. I described the main character of this book to my husband, and he told me that it just sounded like clinical depression.

I was so glad to hear him say that, because it's exactly what I was thinking! I am not convinced by Nausea that there is anything about this character that is deep. Instead, he cut himself off from other people, almost entirely, lives an isolated life in the middle of a town, does work he doesn't care about, and yeah, no shit he's not happy. I'm not sure that proves the meaninglessness of life.

The other aspect that I can tease out reads  that because there are gross bits to life, ewwww, life.

Maybe there are deeper meanings here I'm not getting. But I just wanted to smack this guy across the back of the head, and tell him to get help. Not to love each and every person, like the humanist he so disdains. Just, you know, have some connections. With some people.

Maybe being independently wealthy and not having to work can mean you drift. But the character seems to have deliberately chosen to sever himself from all ties, and pick work that has no drive to it, with no external influences on anything he does. He's lost in his own head. Of course he finds that hollow company.

He knows nothing of the people in the town, so he follows them around to dismiss them. He runs into the Well-Read Man, who also goes to the library he goes to and is working through the collection, and is dismayed to find that he's a humanist, and dismisses the very idea of loving people, in the aggregate and the specific.

I'm sure there is actually more to the philosophy. But it really doesn't come across as a philosophy here. Just as a profoundly unhappy man who may be in the grips of a serious depression.

Also, there's that disturbing dismissal of the seriousness of pedophilia in the last chapter or two, which comes completely out of left field, and nearly made my jaw drop. Let's see, the child was scared. Yes, it didn't go as far as it could have, but, so? Where is that an excuse? No, I don't think I'm a prude for thinking so, Sartre.

It was truly flabbergasting. And troublesome. And ended the book with a sick feeling in my stomach.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

A Feast For Crows by George R.R. Martin

This, I was told, was when the series started to lose its focus. And I can definitely see it. The plot feels a bit stalled, not as many things happen - or rather, not as many things happen that are world-shaking. And, of course, it's only about half the characters.

And yet, it somehow worked for me. I was personally interested to see what characters on the fringes were thinking about the world-shaking events occurring, and what I was reading was interesting enough, the lack of forward-moving plot didn't really bother me. The world remains richly drawn, the characters fascinating, the aftereffects of a civil war that isn't really over stark and unsettling.

I am not saying this is a perfect book. But I didn't have the issues with it that some seem to have. I think I'm just fine with meandering, as long as I'm interested in what's going on. And this book felt a lot like the lull in the storm, with the clouds on the horizon.

Specifically, though, I wanted more Arya, but I always want more Arya. I never hated Sansa, but I'm more interesting in her story now than I used to be. Arianne is a great new character. Dammit, I keep liking Jaime. That hasn't changed.

But I found Cersei's descent into paranoia possibly the most interesting - we get to see every bad decision, every time she decides that because she can imagine a conspiracy, it must therefore exist. We see her misinterpret (I'm pretty sure) a prophecy, and base her activities on that. And through it all, she keeps telling herself she must act like her father, while instead lashing out at all those around her. Since I dislike Cersei, there was a certain amount of schadenfreude in watching her actions.

And here is where I differ with my husband most - I was okay with Tyrion not being in this book. Don't get me wrong, I love Tyrion, but if you had to break the book up in the way that was done, this was the right choice. When we don't know what happened to Tyrion, every time Cersei thinks he's hiding in the walls, he could very well be. I doubt it, but that uncertainty made her uncertainty more interesting. There's a little bit of menace to that mystery.

I look forward to having him back, but in an odd way, I think his absence worked.


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

Friday, 5 September 2014

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith

I wish I knew what I thought of this book before I knew it was written by J.K. Rowling. It was obviously important to her to fly under the radar, at least for a while. And my reaction is undoubtedly coloured by that knowledge. The first fifty pages felt a little forced, compared to the rest of the book, which flowed on smoothly from about that point. If I hadn't known, would I have found those first 50 pages less to my taste? Would I have given the book less of a chance?

We'll never know, I guess. But in the end, whether or not it was influenced by my knowledge of who the author was, I thought this was a very solid mystery. I am looking forward to the second one, and have recommended this first one to my mother and mother-in-law, both heavy mystery readers.

So while I did find the first fifty pages or so a bit jarring to read, it settled down into nicely readable prose, which is something Rowling tends to excel at. It's not overly literary, it's not cloying, it's relatively straightforward and enjoyable and does not call attention to itself.

More to the point, Rowling also weaves in quite a bit about class in English society into the narrative, although not, obviously, to the degree that she did in The Casual Vacancy, and her commentary on the topic is always fascinating. It's this presence behind everything, and she is thoughtful in how she pulls it out, how people react to others based on perceived class, how it continues to operate in society.

Right, the mystery. And the detective. Those two vital elements in any mystery series. A supermodel falls to her death from her balcony. The police rule it suicide. Her grieving brother believes it was murder, probably by her junkie on-again/off-again boyfriend. He hires detective Cormoran Strike to investigate.

So, the detective? Other than the fact that my brain wanted to supply a concluding "t" to his first name every single time? He's a war veteran, missing part of a leg. He's the illegitimate son of a famous 70s rocker who wants nothing to do with him. His beautiful upper-class fiancee has just broken up with him. Again. He has few private detecting jobs.

Luckily for him, the temp agency sends Robin to be his new office assistant, and she is thrilled at the idea of working for a detective, although her fiance is not. Rowling strikes a good note here between having Robin be smart and capable, but not having her immediately become a brilliant detective. She helps out in important ways, but she's not a Watson, nor is she an unbelievable natural mind at the detective trade. Much of it seems to be learned.

Strike takes the case because he badly needs the money, although he believes that the model probably did commit suicide. Slowly, he changes his mind. I won't, of course, even hint at who the killer is. It's not a bad solution to the whole matter, though.

But it's the minutiae that shine here, the slogging through the days, the recalcitrance of witnesses, and cushioning of money. Most of the people involved have the power to decline to participate, and many do. It's no mistake Strike gets to talk to the police, the model's driver and the building security guard before he does the lawyers, the film producers, or the fashion designers. Those people all have people meant to bar access.

I can't say this was a revelation. It's certainly nowhere near on a par with Louise Penny, who I think is the best mystery writer writing today. And perhaps for a long time. But it's fun, it's solid, and it's satisfying. That's enough.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

Some Spoilers Ahead

I enjoyed Rendezvous with Rama immensely, and also plowed through it in two days, despite reading two other books at the same time. Arther C. Clarke creates an engrossing world and populates with interesting mysteries - and to me, the most interesting was the utter lack of interest in humans, the complete irrelevancy of our actions to Rama itself. It struck me that alien contact might be like that. We always assume we'd be the centre of anyone's universe, but we may not be as interesting to others as we are to ourselves.

Another important aspect of the book to mention is the complete rationality with which all the characters act (with the possible exception of the Hermians.) Even the religious character acts swiftly, decisively, following the chain of command, and with a mind to issues larger than himself. The commander embodied this, making decisions that put peace and science above mere survival.

I might like to think First Contact would be handled like this, but somehow, I doubt it. But it is interesting to read a book premised on that idea.

This wasn't an action-based book, but I found it both fascinating and engrossing.


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

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Maus I and II by Art Spiegelman

Writing a review about a book about the Holocaust is tricky business. The sheer emotional horror overwhelms critical senses, as it probably should. We approach it with trepidation, and worry, and perhaps those are entirely justified burdens. And yet, we keep trying to grapple with the most unimaginable horrors through art, and through commenting on art. This is one of those places where perhaps it's good if it's difficult. That should never, ever be easy, because struggling with it is the least we can possibly do.

Other thoughts, as I was sitting this morning out on my in-laws back porch, enjoying the early morning of the first vacation we've had in a very long time. (All four days of it, and all involved with visiting family.) It's hard to reconcile that, and the bunny that hopped by, and the hummingbirds, and the brief moments of peace, with the Holocaust. It unweights every calculation. It's sometimes hard to find balance, to recognize and reconcile the horrors that went on with the small pleasures of life. And that's just for those of us who have never come closer than a book or a movie. What does it do to those for whom the horror is nearer and sharper?

In a way, that's the tack Maus, in its two volumes, takes. Not so much the contrast between horror and peace, but between horror and mundanity. Experiencing the unimaginable and then trying to exist. The struggles about how to even tell the story. Spielgelman skips back and forth between his father's story and his own, about dealing with a father he may not like very much, even if he loves him. There are, in each volume, pages about how Spiegelman is worried about portraying his father as a stereotypical penny-pinching Jew, even though that's how he really is. He keeps saying, to ward that off, that none of his father's friends who also survived the Holocaust are like that.

I don't know that I have much to say about the core conceit of the book, where the Jews are mice, the Germans, cats, the Poles, pigs, Americans, dogs. It's effective and makes it easier to tell the untellable, and also perhaps to put things on the page that could not be accessible if we had to see them being done to humans. Is brutality made more palatable in this way? Or is it a clever way to sneak past defences and really sink home the dagger of the past?

There's one way he draws mice in despair that is heartbreaking to behold, with their heads tilted back and all you can see is their mouths.

Other than that, it sounds callous if I say that the book is good, and affecting, but that I still felt a distance from it. Whether it's that I've heard these stories in other ways and my mind is throwing up defences, or that the frequent breaks back to the present serve to undercut instead of emphasize the horror, I'm not sure. Getting away from horror, even to bits about how it's impossible to get away from horror, at least for those who survived it, what does that do to the tale?

On the other hand, this is truly something I've never seen from a graphic novel again, and I'm reading it decades down the line from when it was published. As an experiment, and a testament, and a story, it is powerful. And should be grappled with.

Monday, 1 September 2014

The Shadow at the Gate by Christopher Bunn

All right, decision time. I've now read the second book in a series that I am not enthralled with. The first book grabbed me just enough to make me go on to the second. This is where I decide if I finish the trilogy out, or let it lie right here.

And, you know? Yet again, it didn't set my world on fire, but yet again there was just enough to squeeze out a place for the third book in my future reads. It's hard when it's not much more than okay, but there are little sparks, and things I'm interested in enough.

It may be damning with faint praise, but it didn't piss me off. That, more than not making me enthusiastic, is what makes me drop an author. But oh, I want these to be just that little bit better that would really make them sing. As they are, they're mostly a mash-up of old fantasy tropes, and bring little new to the party.

Also, the big reveal? Was so obvious from about the first 50 pages of the book. As soon as they started to tell the story of this mysterious guy who had disappeared, I knew who it was. There was nobody else it could be, and no reason to bring up the story AGAIN and AGAIN and AGAIN if you weren't going to pay it off. Subtlety, Bunn. It might help.

The other part of the story is the emergence of evil back into the world where the four guardians of the elements have been quiescent. That's the part that keeps me interested, although it feels like maybe it's getting a little rote by this point. I'm not as interested in the children characters as I am in the avatars themselves. What must that be like? Those small glimpses of power hidden, lives lived, that's what I'm staying tuned for. But it is not the author's main focus.

The evil was a bit too scattered and disparate, too. This guy is evil, and maybe that guy, but he'll be dead shortly anyway, and oh, the evil thing is overtaking its controller over there, and it was just messy. Tighten up your evil. Or make that a main focus of the story, the chaos of evil, and how much that makes it more threatening or easier to fight. Go further one way or the other. That's all I ask.

And that's really my main complaint. This book strides down the middle path every time, and doesn't make any audacious moves. It would be far more interesting if he chose one aspect and committed to it, rather than trying to juggle the stories of the avatars with the street-rats with the crime lords with the swordsman with the academics from the magic academy with the nobility. It's too much, and as a result, nothing gets the attention it deserves. Either make this a longer book and spend more time, or, better, pick one or two of these aspects and focus the whole story.

It's not bad, it's just unfocused and pedestrian. But not bad enough to make me quit. I'll stick it out now - there's only one book left to go. There are small glimmers here of something more.