Friday, 28 November 2014

Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh

This is the second C.J. Cherryh I've read in the past couple of months. I haven't tried her books since I was a teenager, when I stubbed my toe on one of her other books, found it opaque, and didn't try again. I'm glad I have given her another chance now, but I still find her books a bit, well, not opaque anymore, but a bit distant. Her characters seem kept at a distance from the reader, and that's a bit peculiar. However, under all that, they're really strong science fiction books, and if you can keep plugging until you make that connection, they're rewarding.

It took me over half the book to really get into this one. I think I knew what was going on, but it didn't have that drive of story to keep me eager to read more, and the characters remained reserved, so I wasn't reading to find out what happened to them, either. This gradually changed as the book went on, and the last two hundred pages flew by, where the first two hundred had plodded.

So keep that in mind if you're thinking about that one. If you like science fiction that focuses heavily on the procedural, before the plot or the characters kick into high gear, you'll like this fine. If you don't, well, I promise it picks up eventually, but I don't know what your personal tolerance level is.

The major issue with this book is that it does a number of things fairly well, but no one thing really excellently. In fact, most of the time, my reaction tends to be "that's neat - now, could you do something more with it?" There's a lot of surface consideration of interesting things, which are then discarded to bomp along to the next thing that is skimmed over.

Which is weird, given that this is a small story in a large canvas. Or rather, it would benefit from being smaller in scope. There is too much here, and it means many things are given short shrift that have fascinating seeds within them. Picking a few of these things and exploring them would have given a more satisfying experience than throwing the reader in at the deep end of complex politics and not giving a primer at all.

Maybe I'm starting in the middle again. I've read one other book in this universe, from much later, but I still had very little footing. But maybe examples will help. Here are a few things that I wish had been explored in more depth:

Oh, I guess that a brief synopsis might help.

We are in a galaxy where most of humanity that has left Earth lives on space stations, only two planets that can support human life having been found. The economy that has been developed is mercantilist in nature, and the Company back on Earth has little inclination to explore further, or to incorporate their farflung colonies into the profits.

So they rebel, and face off against the remaining Earth fleet of starships, led by a renegade. (I don't know how he became renegade. If the story is told, it's not in this book.) It all comes down to one of the two stations that orbit a habitable planet, Pell Station and Pell. Pell has a race of intelligence life, the hisa. The hisa seem to be vaguely humanoid, gentle, pastoral creatures. More about that in a minute.

There are a few characters whose arcs I wish had more development. The thought processes, the events, many of them seem to happen offstage, and we only occasionally peek in on them. But those seem like the interesting bits! Jon Lukas, for instance, who yearns to wrest control of Pell Station and Pell from the benevolent Konstantins, whom he seems convinced are as mercenary as he himself. How did he get this way? What is his life like? What else has he done in the past? What does he hope for the future? Other than seizing Pell, that is. We see him try to be Machiavelli with limited success, and it's interesting, but it could have been more.

Similarly, the dissatisfaction of Signy, Captain of the Norway, with the fleet, is interesting, but so backgrounded. I could have read a book just about her journey and gobbled it up. How did she get to be the lone captain with integrity in the fleet? Did the rest lost it, or never have it? How did she get the loyalty she has from her crew? Why is she so dedicated to discipline when the rest of the captains are blase about it?

These are the problems - there are fascinating stories here, but as readers, we're not allowed to get close enough to them. We're behind the velvet ropes, and this curator is having none of our shenanigans. It's frustrating, because there is so much here that's good - it's just not concentrated in any one area.

But there is such good stuff here. It's just that it's strung apart, at a deliberate distance from the readers, and I find that frustrating. Not enough to give up on Cherryh. But enough to register my slight annoyance that something that is good isn't better.

Oh wait, I said I'd talk about the hisa, didn't I? There's something brewing in my head that's not quite ready to come out yet, about contact stories with aliens being, in many cases, metaphors for contact with Natives. It's not a new thought, but reading The Inconvenient Indian recently has brought it to the front of my mind. The hisa in this case are gentle, non-violent, storytellers. I don't know what to make with this yet, and at any rate, whatever ideas are bubbling won't be about just one book, anyway. So let's just say that maybe there's a bigger post about colonialism and contact in science fiction composting in my brain, and maybe it'll come out eventually. It's not ready to just yet.

I'd also have to go back and see if all the characters are coded as white. It feels like they are, but I sometimes skim descriptive passages, a fact I admit with some chagrin. 

But as a little note to myself: remember that when you just read Hyperion for the second time, the nastiest colonial impulses of humans are acknowledged, as one character relates the systematic destruction of any intelligent race the humans have come across. Stay tuned.


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

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Dust Cover Dust-Up - Round One, Part Four

Sense and Sensibility vs. Let's Pretend This Never Happened

Winner: Let's Pretend This Never Happened

Sorry, Jane Austen. I like Sense and Sensibility, but I have rarely laughed as hard as when I read The Bloggess' memoir. It may not be a classic, but it deals with her life and the whole topic of mental illness with both sensitivity and side-splitting humour. And it made me want to start collecting weird taxidermy. My husband says no. There was nothing about Sense and Sensibility that made me crave a strange new  hobby, and so, Lawson gets it.

Vicky Angel vs. Changeless 

Winner: Changeless

Neither of these I really loved. Vicky Angel wasn't one of those children's books that really spoke to me. Changeless wasn't one of those fantasy books that really grabbed me. So I have to pick between two books that were only so-so. Of the two, I'll go for the one for adults. I guess. I'm not confident on this one.

Breakfast With Scot vs. Hexed

Winner: Hexed

Not a hard one. I really disliked Breakfast with Scot, both in content and style, particularly its decision to skip over the most important moments in favour of...ellipses...?  And I did like Hexed, although it was much like the first in the series of this 1000-year-old druid in Arizona. But I like the snark. And the dog.

Mort vs. Red Seas Under Red Skies 

Winner: Red Seas Under Red Skies

As much as I like Terry Pratchett, as soon as I remembered back to sitting in a cafeteria, eating lunch, tears streaming down my face as I read the last few pages of this book, the decision was obviously made. This is as good or better than the first Locke Lamora book, and that's saying a lot. I love the new characters, I love the old characters, I love everything. Sorry, Mort.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore vs. Doctor Faustus 

Winner: Doctor Faustus

Classics don't tend to do that well in this tournament, and I find Thomas Mann a bit of a slog, sometimes.  But not as much of a slog as Mr. Penumbra's was a disappointment. There was little actual love for books here, and the deep message at the end was about a half-inch deep. So, Doctor Faustus gets it.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher

Another book that I really enjoyed because of the characters - the main character, Penelope, in particular. The story is another of those sprawling family stories (in both time and space and characters), which in general, I enjoy very much, as long as they are skillfully told and executed.

The ending however, reminded me uncomfortably of the ending of the Bridges of Madison County, which I hated beyond all measure. (The best thing I can say about that book is that it was such a fast read that I had finished it by the time I realized how truly abysmal it was - and the framing narrative around the story was the worst part.) So, whether or not I would have enjoyed those aspects of the ending without having had that prior experience I can't say. I can just say that, thanks to that dreadful book, endings that revolve around "Look how much we didn't know about Mummy, how deeply she loved, etc, etc..." are likely to rub me the wrong way.

But the rest of the book I enjoyed so much. I thought the two non-likeable children were kind of caricatures, but the likeable characters were all so endearing, and the communities of shared food and experience and genuine enjoyment of people's company are themes that I always very much enjoy.

Pilcher was at her best writing about her slightly bohemian and loveable characters, and fortunately, that was most of the book.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Dust Cover Dust-Up - Round One, Part Three

Some easy choices, for the most part, in this edition of the Dust Cover Dust-Up!

The Winter Palace vs. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Winner: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal

The Winter Palace was fine historical fiction, but really nothing particularly special. I didn't mind reading it, I barely remember it. On the other hand, Jeanette Winterson's memoir is half memoir as usual, but then in the second half, it takes flight into something else entirely. Something else that's very special about mental health, breakdowns, and the stifling universality of adoption stories as they are told.

First Among Sequels vs. Burn Me Deadly 

Winner: First Among Sequels

Two books that are later in series. Both series I quite enjoy. So, how to pick? Literary metafiction or noir fantasy? I liked both, while neither set my world on fire. I think, from the remove of most of a year away, there are a few things that stick more in my mind from Fforde than they did from Bledsoe, particularly the part about Thursday's youngest daughter.

Redshirts vs. Left Neglected

Winner: Redshirts

Easy choice in this particular battle. I didn't like Left Neglected very much, with an irritating main character and illness-exploring plot without anything new to say or reveal. I did like Scalzi's Redshirts, and his books are compulsively readable. I can't say this is my favourite book of his of all time, but when it's up against an "issue book," it wins, hands-down. Both hands. Right before a redshirt gets shot.

Dark Currents vs.  The Computer Connection

Winner: The Computer Connection 

Another easy one, although The Computer Connection isn't a patch on Bester's best work. It's a very weird little piece of science fiction. But still, this story of immortals fighting it out over the U.S. is a darn sight better than mediocre fantasy. I haven't been that impressed with Buroker's series, and that makes this an easy one.

Lean In vs.  Tooth and Claw

Winner: Tooth and Claw

I did not know that I wanted to read a book about Victorian society but with dragons. I did not know that it was something I craved. Then I read Tooth and Claw, and lo and behold, I discovered that this was something I wanted to read very much. I was delighted by that book. In contrast, while Lean In has some good tips, most of it is all about the individual part of success, while acknowledging while simultaneously downplaying structural issues. It was bothersome. Plus, Facebook sounded like a truly nightmarish place to work. 

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2014 - Round One, Part Two

Round One, Part Two! Let's see what happens....

Titus Alone vs. The Recognitions

Winner: Titus Alone

I don't think anyone is more shocked than me. I was not expecting Titus Alone to make it past the first round. It definitely wasn't one of my favourite books. But here it's up against one of my least favourite books of the year, the one that had me looking askance at 1001 Books To Read Before You Die. I'm sure it's a classic. I didn't like it. And I liked Titus Alone a little more. That squeaks it through.

The Fall of Hyperion vs. Clementine

Winner: The Fall of Hyperion

Ooh, a no-contest. I like The Fall of Hyperion nearly as much as I liked Hyperion, and I've been raving about the first one since I read it. In fact, I'm making my book club read it now! I didn't like Clementine very much, and was bothered by its insistence that race had nothing to do with the Civil War. So, no question. Fantastic science fiction that ripped my heart out definitely wins out over problematic steampunk.

Inferno vs. Feed 

Winner: Feed

This is the section of easy battles. I really didn't like Inferno - in fact, looking at my review, it's the point at which I decided I'd read enough Dan Brown in my lifetime, thank you very much. In contrast, I really loved Feed, which surprised the hell out of me. Zombies, not really my thing. It is to Mira Grant's credit that I kept reading this zombie/political conspiracy thriller even when it started keeping me awake at night.

Bellwether  vs. Wolf Hall

Winner: Wolf Hall

I like Connie Willis quite a lot, but I didn't think Bellwether was one of her best. It was fun but slight. On the other hand, Wolf Hall was intriguing, challenging, and one of the best historical fiction books I've read in a long time. One of the archivists I work with urged me for a long time to read this. She was right.

Within A Budding Grove vs. Palimpsest

Winner: Palimpsest

Sorry, Proust. While I do like the richness of description and the capturing of small elusive moments, these books are worth a read, but not likely to be ones that I'll rave about to friends. Palimpsest, on the other hand, I keep pushing on people as one of the few books I've ever read that takes sex seriously, not just as titillation or obligatory, but which explores sex in such interesting and multiple ways. And a passport to the city that is passed on as an STD? There's nothing quite like this, and nothing quite like Valente's prose. Expect to see a bunch of her books make at least the second round, since I read three or four this year.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King

I have never read any of Thomas King's fiction. This is a curious omission, given how much I've liked the other media of his I've run across, from the Massey Lecture The Trouble With Stories to the halcyon days when the CBC Radio ran The Dead Dog Cafe. (The episode where Gracie and Jasper were writing political slogans will always be near and dear to my heart. I still know the Stockwell Day one off by heart.)

I don't know why I haven't read his fiction. Given that his first novel in years just recently hit the shelves, perhaps it's time to fix that. Because I like his voice when it comes to nonfiction and radio comedy. I'm betting I'd like his other books too.

Which brings us to The Inconvenient Indian. This has been on my radar since it came out, and spent a gratifyingly long time on the Globe and Mail bestseller lists. While I think it's a very good book, it wasn't quite what I was expecting. I also think it should be required reading for everyone in Canada and the United States. Full stop. It should definitely be read before trying to argue about what Indians "deserve" from federal governments.

(Sidebar, to do some naval gazing: As a very, very white woman, I'm never quite sure about what terminology to use, and tend to settle on Native. But for the review, I'm using Indian, as that's in the title, and King's noun-of-choice.)

We've all had those arguments, I think. They make me want to pound my head against the wall. I'm sure Thomas King has had exponentially more than I have, since they just happen my way every once in a while, and, he actually is Indian, and has to listen to toxic rhetoric far more often than I'd like to think.

We're doing very badly at this, people. Very fucking badly.

And as much as I'd like to say that I could just take this book and give it to people who are making incredibly bad arguments, that would presume that that's where my responsibility stops. And it's certainly not.

It's's a lot wearier than I expected. The Truth with Stories had an energy to it that this doesn't. It feels like the weight of this history, these arguments, the repetitive nature of the way nothing changes, drags the book from sparkling anger to weary rage. That doesn't mean it's not a good read. It's just that it's not quite what I was expecting.

But King is a great storyteller, so it's an excellent read. Things are clear, lucid, and well-argued. I also like the recurrent rhetorical device where his wife appears in the narrative challenging him on something during the writing process, and how that has been incorporated into the text. 

The Inconvenient Indian is about interactions between Whites and Natives, over centuries of history, through treaties and popular culture, Live Indians, Dead Indians, and Legal Indians. It's an excellent summation both of what has happened, and how what's happening now bears eerie reminders of what has already gone before.

You don't get trust by just saying "Aw, come on! This time you can trust us!" And it's sad how much of the history seems to come down to that, and then acting confused when Indians don't extend trust based on totally real reassurances. This time. Totally.

The adjective inconvenient is sorrowfully apt. Why should we have to think about them? Take them into consideration? Do more than observe that the problem lies with them? Why, it might disturb our comfort if we start to think that the problem lies with us!

Well, good. It does. And it should make us uncomfortable.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2014 - Round One, Part One

Is it really that time again? Time for the second annual tournament to determine my favourite books of the year! I'm starting a little earlier this year, with the intent to post five battles twice a week. That should get me through the first round by just after the New Year, when I will actually have read all the books I'm going to read this year.

So, let's find out what I liked to read this year! 

Railsea vs. The Areas of my Expertise

Winner: Railsea

Oh good, an easy battle to start off with. A book I loved, loved, loved. Made me swoon. I didn't know I'd have that reaction to a Moby Dick riff with giant moles and philosophies and trains. Mieville made that happen. Whereas, while I found The Areas of my Expertise made me smile, it never made me laugh, and it certainly never made me weak in the knees. 

Shipbreaker vs. Committed

Winner: Shipbreaker

While Shipbreaker wasn't the best thing I've ever read, it was still an excellent young adult post-environmental collapse science fiction novel. Committed was okay, and I liked it more than I thought I would, but still. My predilections are clear. Given two books that didn't change my world, science fiction is going to win.

Elantris vs. A Wanted Man

Winner: A Wanted Man

I liked Elantris on first read, but since then, it's sort of soured in my memory a bit. The lapses stand out more starkly. Not enough to ban Sanderson from future reading, but enough to say that he's on probation. A Wanted Man was not a book that stands out in my memory either, but it was more thoroughly enjoyable. Jack Reacher is more fun in this case than fantasy. So Lee Child gets it.

Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do vs. Inkheart

Winner: Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do

This round is just full of match-ups that I don't really love either book. Don't expect the last few winners to make it through the second round. But still, I have to make a choice. In this case, I think I remember the story of a middle-class black woman rebuilding her life more than I do what was really a disappointing children's book that came my way accompanied by a lot of hype I didn't find it lived up to. Perhaps it's that disappointment colouring this contest. That's the way it is.

In the Night Garden vs. Sapphique 

Winner: In The Night Garden

An easy one to start this part, and an easy one to end. I didn't really like Sapphique that much, and Catherynne Valente is fast becoming one of my favourite authors. While I thought at times that she almost lost the thread of stories-within-stories, this was still a great book about fairy tales and storytelling and fables and legends. Sapphique's disappointing end to a couple of books that were only okay definitely takes it out of the round.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

About halfway through this book, I didn't like any of the characters very much. But by the end, although I'm not sure I would have liked any of them any more, I kind of loved them. The first half of the book dwells so much on the Berglunds' foibles, on the ways they drive each other away and grate on each other and don't say the things that need to be said.

And yet, as the book goes on, more and more is revealed of why, of the issues standing in the way, and the ways that they truly, awkwardly and often badly try to overcome divisions that have torn their family apart. The characters who know what they want to do with their lives flounder in excess, and those who don't flounder in confusion. No one knows what to do with the freedom they have to live their lives the way they want, and yet, by the end, some of them have figured it out. And the answers have tended to be small.

Along the way, there are some digs at people who want to Change The World, in ways I was uncomfortable with, but lots of love for people who are trying to figure out how to change their own worlds to become places where they can live and work.

Work is an important issue - finding it, avoiding it, taking on morally suspect jobs for money, or a cause, with good intentions or mercenary ones.

I didn't adore Freedom. But I did enjoy it, in the end. It was just in the middle I was a little uneasy.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch

This is a great return to form. Look, I always love the Peter Grant books, but the last seemed a bit uneven, and the back cover referred to a plotline that wasn't in the book. This led my husband and I to speculate that it was taken out because it wasn't working, and that was why the rest was a bit clunky. It was still readable, but not as good as the first two Peter Grant books. So I am pleased to report that this is a great return to form.

Also, regarding the end of the book - eep!

For those who are just joining this particular party - go read the others. We'll wait. Because this is a really excellent British urban fantasy series. The writing is great fun, the stories entertaining, and Peter a really fun lead. And I'm very glad to be seeing it come back to full fighting form.

In this one, Nightingale, Peter, and Leslie are quite the formidable team. And by that, I mean, DAMN, Nightingale! We get to see him in full action at last and it's pretty freaking impressive. Peter, in the meantime, is coming along nicely in the magic, and so is Leslie. But then a whole bunch of cases end up in their laps, and they can't possibly all be connected...can they?

Let's see...there's the old man who blew up his grandchildren's birthday party. There's the serial killer caught with magic and blood all over his car. There's the city planning officer who jumped in front of a subway. And there's a stolen book, which leads Peter to a German architect who apparently was interested in the, ahem, "Industrial Uses of Magic," which sounds even more ominous in the German.

Which leads to a housing development built by that same architect, which may be more than just a housing development. Also, it has a dryad. This is where we get Leslie and Peter undercover, with Toby along to really sell it, of course.

There are also more goings-on with the various Rivers of London, including a grand ceremony with Father and Mama Thames. Peter's sometime junior apprentice Abigail comes along for that. I'm not sure what Abigail will have to do with the overall story at some point, but it's fun to see Peter deal with some of the exasperation I'm sure Nightingale feels every day.

Oh, and then the end. I will not give it away, but it ups the stakes in the series big time, and was quite upsetting. Took me entirely by surprise, too, but it made perfect sense once it had happened - the best kind of reveal, even if it sort of breaks your heart.

I was so happy to be better satisfied by this entry into a series I love very much. Lots of plot threads up in the air still, but since I know Ben Aaronovitch has contracts for the series through book 9, I think it is, I'm happy to wait to see how they'll play out. But still. Ouch.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay has created his own little niche - books that are part historical fiction, moved slightly to the left, and part fantasy. That is to say, he researches the hell out of a particular time and place, and then writes in a fictionalized version of that setting, frequently with some magical elements, and almost always with two moons.

There was only one moon this time. It threw me off slightly. Until one of the poets wistfully said that he'd always thought it would be nice if there were two moons in the sky.

Under Heaven is set in Kitai, a fictionalized China of the 8th century. It is a story of imperial machinations, revolt, and the journey of one man, Shen Tai, who has lived apart from the world for two years, and must rejoin it at top speed, as he is given a gift that is at once both extremely powerful and extremely dangerous. He is thrown back into the imperial dance, and must learn what the steps are while staying alive (and, not incidentally, avoiding assassination attempts.)

This is a complex book, with many different strands, and I am not going to even remotely try to summarize them here. What I would like to say, more than anything else, is this:

Guy Gavriel Kay is a master at setting up moments that are exquisitely tense and heartbreakingly inevitable.

He writes his characters so well that when a moment balanced on a knife's edge comes, I feel it like all the air is sucked out of the room, and I am observing the scene from inside a crystal. And then someone does something, says something, and my heart breaks and I think, yes, that is exactly what that person would do. It's heartbreaking, it's terrifying, but it is perfect. I didn't know it until this moment, but there is no other way this could have gone. I would never have imagined this happening, but now that it has, it is clear and perfect and painful. And sometimes clear and perfect and lovely.

There are so many of his characters I love, who are on different sides and have different agendas,and sometimes who do terrible things - but because I know who they are and why they do what they do, I still feel affection for them. (With one exception, in Under Heaven. One man's pettiness leads to falls I would have thought unimaginable, and for that I cannot forgive him.)

In a couple of his last books, he has combined this intricate and controlled sense of character with ways of looking at the story from outside, using methods that I have loved. In The Last Light of The Sun, the story will sometimes spin out, for a page, telling us what happened to an extremely incidental character whose life was touched, for good or for ill, by the story going on around them. In Under Heaven, particularly near the end, chapters will often start with how history will regard the events we just witnessed, in a few skillful paragraphs showing how what we just saw will be remembered, and how it will be changed in the remembering.

In the same two books, he has also been playing with the theme that sometimes actions can be heroic and meaningful - and yet change nothing at all. Shen Tai can try to rush into the city on a heroic mission, and yet, in the end, it changes nothing. Opportunities pass by, chance plays a hand, and sometimes things do not happen. Nothing is inevitable. The vagaries of life get in the way.

It was a joy to read this book, even when it hurt.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

In the Garden of Beasts by Eric Larson

It was a coincidence that I ended up reading two Eric Larson books in such short order. One popped up on my friend's Kindle, the other I ordered as part of a long-term effort to read some bestsellers. So I'm in a good position to compare the two, as Devil in the White City is still so fresh in my mind. Trying to take the perspective of a non-historian, how do they stack up?

Well, In the Garden of Beasts benefits greatly from being about one topic, not two. I think Larson may have thought he was writing two stories again, the stories of the father and of the daughter, but given that you can lump both together as "the experiences of an American diplomat and his family in Nazi Germany," it hangs together as one story better than the two that only had geographical propinquity in common.

That being said, I was more bothered this time by the way he tackled history. I appreciate the quotation marks, telling us what was a direct quote. But then I'd notice details that weren't direct quotes, and for which there would be no proof, like Hitler's facial expressions and movements during a meeting. I know this is popular history, and it doesn't have to be as circumspect in how it is written, but it was a niggling thought in my mind, repeatedly: how does he know that?

I remind myself again, popular history. Still, it nags.

But it is a more coherent narrative this time, looking at a man who was an academic tapped to be a diplomat, who clashed with the career diplomatic staff, and gradually came to see the full menace of Nazi Germany, even though it took him a while. That's actually the most interesting part, how everyone starts out skeptical that the Nazis can really be as bad and effective as they are, until they've seen it themselves. And there are a lot of people who don't see it themselves, who keep believing that it must be isolated incidents. As a study in how people normalize this type of atrocious activity, it's fascinating.

The daughter's ventures into society, and her same trip through dismissal to outrage when people she knows are affected, are a much better counterpoint to the main story than the serial killer was to the Chicago World's Fair.

Larson's purpose seems to be to rehabilitate the image of Dodd as one man who recognized early the threat of the Nazis and was ignored, as opposed to being seen as an ineffectual diplomat over his head. I get the feeling, however, that he might have been both, simultaneously. He can have accurately perceived the threat of the Nazis and not been the greatest diplomat. He might also have been unfairly undermined by the career diplomats. All of these things can be true. It isn't an either/or.

At any rate. For popular history that takes fair liberties with events and reactions (or, as a friend put it, about Devil in the White City, historical fiction), it's interesting. The stories hang together much better than they did in the other one of Larson's books I've read.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The Women's Room by Marilyn French

In one of those odd synchronicities, I was midway through the first half of this book when my husband and I watched the second-to-last episode of From Earth to the Moon, The Original Wives' Club. What struck me about the women in the episode was that, although the show painted it as the extraordinary sacrifices these women made to support their astronaut husbands, most of what they showed was exactly mirrored in The Women's Room as the things that most suburban housewives did.

I have to say that I fell in love with this book, with the sprawling cast of characters, and their struggles and difficulties in a time that in some ways is so different from my own, and in deep, unsettling ways, so similar. Surely every woman in the 1950s and 60s cannot have had it as hard as every character in the book did, but many did struggle to hold up their end of a deeply unequal bargain.

I also love the joy, and newness and discovery of creating a community, and I never loved the character of Val more than when she expounded on her idea for a utopian community, and at the same time acknowledged the ephemeral nature of community, the value of impermanence, of making things better for individuals, knowing that what you build may not last.

But because I loved the characters so much, it hurt when horrible things started to happen, when that impermanence made itself felt.

I also enjoyed the varieties of experience the book explored, the choices different women made, and why some decided to compromise, some stood their ground, some were driven into extremism.

I imagine most men would find this book deeply uncomfortable. That is, of course, their right. But that's not my problem.

And one of my favourite quotes: "Isolde sighed. "I hate discussions of feminism that end up with who does the dishes," she said. So do I. But at the end, there are always the damned dishes."

Monday, 10 November 2014

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

Ah, Kurt Vonnegut. I wouldn't say this one is his best, but I do enjoy his work. It's hard not to feel wry and comfortable in his company. Human nature, he seems to say, is well and truly messed up. The universe doesn't give a rat's ass about us. But instead of that making us bitter, it means we need to love each other more, be kinder, be connected. It's hard not to be affected by that.

This doesn't, however, have the brilliance of Slaughterhouse Five, or Cat's Cradle. It's a little more uneven than that. But still, well worth a read. If you like wry senses of humour and things happening out of left field. I happen to like both quite a lot, and so I am happy.

This is a weird one. It concerns the luckiest millionaire playboy in the world, whose father checked into a hotel and spent the next twenty years picking the right stocks and never leaving the room. The maid who cleaned that room had a child, eventually, and the secret to stock-picking was passed on to that child, Malachi Constant. He continued his father's streak until he ran into a man and his dog who only appeared on Earth every 50-odd days, having been scattered in a wave across the solar system, and only occasionally having his wave intersect the planet.

That man told Malachi he was destined to travel the solar system, and marry the dispersed man's wife. The wife wasn't too impressed, having striven to keep herself apart from society for years.

Of course, resolutions don't mean much when you're kidnapped away to join the Army of Mars and have your memory wiped. Which both of them are.

This one veers wildly from the Army of Mars, to the army attacking Earth disastrously, to Malachi (now called something else) getting sidetracked to Mercury, and eventually returning to Earth to find himself the symbol of feckless indulgence in the new religion of God the Utterly Indifferent. From there to Titan, and finding out why everything on Earth has happened the way it has, and very briefly, the meaning of life.

The plot is not the point here, of course. It's the pleasures of the prose, and the inventiveness of Vonnegut's mind. And the meaning of life is a pretty good one. You could certainly do worse.  And that is always Vonnegut's pleasure - that a sense of being alone in the universe does not alienate him from people. It makes people dearer. God the Utterly Indifferent is no excuse for Humans the Utterly Indifferent. In fact, it makes being kind more imperative, more essential, more necessary.

The plot meanders, though, and the story isn't as pointed as some of his other books. This one is about the universe, and less about human nature. So I don't think it's as good or engaging as his other books. But it's still fun, if you like this author. And I do.


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

Friday, 7 November 2014

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield

It was a no-brainer that I would get to this book eventually. It only took so long because I was very far down the hold list at the library, and waited patiently while reading other books for it to arrive. A book written by Chris Hadfield? Canada's best known astronaut (at least these days), who made life on the ISS exciting for so many more people than those who had been interested in space for years? Count me in.

I've long been a space nut. I'm not sure I could have escaped that, given that my favourite author is Spider Robinson, who evokes such a sense of wonder around space, weightlessness, and looking beyond ourselves to the stars. I cry at shuttle launches. Going on the space ride at Disneyworld broke me down into happy tears for the entire thing. Visiting Cape Canaveral was similarly weepy. Chris Hadfield's song recorded with one of the Barenaked Ladies and children's choirs does me in.

You understand, then, that I am coming to this book with certain baggage. And was intrigued by what I found. This isn't a great book. But it is a good one. But I'm not exactly sure what it is. It's a strange beast, an amalgam of memoir and self-help. I'm trying to think of a better word than self-help, because this is not the pablum that such things usually are. In fact, the pieces of advice Hadfield has are often in direct contradiction to many of the messages such books would hold. It is, however, undeniable that much of the book is a how-to for thinking like an astronaut, and while it doesn't push ways to use those techniques in everyday life, it certainly leans that way.

This is curious. I'm not sure it entirely works, but it works well enough, and for a book that came out not long after he made it back to Earth after commanding the ISS, I'm happy with what I got to read. It's an easy read, and by far and large, and an entertaining one. How closely does it adhere to actual circumstances is a good question - either Hadfield really is this generous and able to let things roll off him, or he's taken his PR duties to heart. I'd understand either one - he obviously wants to promote the space program, and it's hard to fault that. Even though healthy self-criticism of a program is necessary, it's hard to say that this book written and marketed for a huge audience is the right venue for it. And if Hadfield is to be believed, self-criticism is a lot of what NASA does. Interesting.

(I would, of course, have questions about where that self-criticism is centered, and if aspects of organizational culture other than the nitty gritty mechanical details are held up to the same kind of scrutiny. Such as gender. And race. And class. But that's me. I love space, but I refuse to let even my sacred cows go without scrutiny. Things I support don't get a pass. In fact, they need more investigation.)

Anyway. That is not this book. This is Chris Hadfield's journey to becoming an astronaut, and to becoming the first Canadian commander of the ISS. It is, as presented, a remarkably conflict-free path, and there feel like omissions. But the lessons he learned along the way are interesting, and some of the advice about the ways in which he views the world actually very helpful. I've been sweating the small stuff since I read it, and feel more relaxed.

The descriptions of the first time he got to go into space nearly wrecked me, in that way I referred to earlier. There were a few tears. I can't help it. And the description of the time on the ISS was fascinating and made me so happy.

In summation, this is a fairly surface book, without a ton of depth. As that, however, it's very entertaining, and about one of my favourite topics, and has interesting little tidbits about how Hadfield approaches the world. Well worth a read, if not a book that knocked me on my ass.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare

I wasn't expecting to like this book. Indeed, my expectations were pretty much in the basement, as much of the Young Adult fiction I've dabbled in recently has ranged from mediocre to abysmal. And Victorian steampunk YA? With a handy love triangle outlined in the liner notes? Blargh.

And then, and then, and then...I found myself enjoying the book. The romance elements were there, but never the most important part of the book - the female character seemed to regard staying alive and saving her brother to be more important than falling desperately in love! Remarkable! (Although the brother does conform nicely to that image of the Victorian wastrel I've run into in at least a couple of books so far.)

Tessa Gray comes to England to meet her brother, only to be kidnapped, forced into discovering her supernatural power, escaping, being saved, and learning to negotiate a new world as a being she never knew could even exist.

Maybe it's just that the book pleasantly reminded me of the Victorian Buffy game we've been playing, on and off, for the last year or so. My husband did a ton of research for that, and this book had much of the same flavour.

Maybe it's that, although there are ass-kicking women around in the book (and I do love kick-ass female characters), this time, the main female character had a non-combat related superpower. It required more thought, and sneakiness.

Maybe it's that the characters were interesting, and consistent. And had reasons for doing what they were doing. (Libba Bray, you could learn from this.) The main character might have started out sheltered, but after she had had a painful exposure to the world-as-it-is in this book, she never, several chapters later, seemed to have entirely forgotten everything that happened to her.

Okay, that last is really praising-the-bare-minimum, but given that so many books do have characters that seem to suffer from isolated amnesia rendering them incapable of remembering important experiences they will recover mere pages later, it seems to bear mentioning.

So yes, it's a paranormal Young Adult semi-romance. But it's a good one, at least. It's the first book by this author I've read. And I enjoyed it. I feel like I shouldn't admit that. But here I am, doing it anyway.

Note - this is not great literature. Not even close. But for a light, fluffy read, this is the sort of thing I actually enjoy.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Reamde by Neal Stephenson

In my head, this book is very much lumped together with the recent Greg Bear book, Vitals, that I read. Both are by authors that I have previously enjoyed. (Well, my reading relationship with Stephenson started out a little rocky, but it's gotten better of late.) They are both authors whose previous works have thrown off ideas like candy, been provocative and engaging. And they both turned in books in this round of reading that are mere technothrillers. Well-written technothrillers, but I want more.

I know they can write books of ideas and so I am disappointed. There's an additional caveat to this one, though. Both are well written. Reamde is always easy to read and interesting. However. And it's a big however.

Greg Bear pulls off his technothriller in about 300 pages. Reamde takes over 1000 pages to do much the same thing. With very few ideas to enrich this, it's more or less 900 pages of a chase around the world. That's probably about 600 pages too many, and that's being generous.

This is frustrating, because Stephenson is an entertaining writer. It wasn't that there was ever a section that was itself bad. It was just the collective weight, as I slogged on and on, that started to wear me down. I started to wonder why all this detail was even in here, and that's another issue.

Oh my god, there is a lot of detail in this book. Well-written detail. It's not turgid, it's not just lists of things in the environment. He's not making rookie mistakes. They're pretty much mastercraft mistakes. That doesn't make them excusable.

In some of the combat/hiking scenes, or actually, in any combat scene, I was suddenly very sure that Stephenson had been out there, acting out each piece of movement, to make he got it exactly right and could duplicate it, blow by blow, muscle movement by muscle movement, on the page. In combat scenes, the level of detail jumps to a point where I start to glaze over. Perfectly outlining every heartbeat of a battle is not good writing. It becomes realism at the cost of story.

I would have much preferred fewer but well-chosen and placed details to make those scenes really crackle.  The frustrating thing is that they're not terrible. It's interesting, the first few times. But then you look up, and realize you're only 300 pages into the book, the other 600 pages are still to come, and you start to feel fatigued. Do we need this level of detail for every moment? Is extreme realism really that interesting? (Hint: Often, no, it isn't.)

I realize I haven't even said what this book is about. That's because it's a daunting task. It's about this game designer, who designed the greatest MMORPG ever built, and built into it real-world economics that encourage gold-farming. His niece gets involved when her boyfriend makes a stupid deal with the Russian mafia, and gives them a USB stick infected with ransomware aimed at players of the MMORPG. The Russians wing the niece and her boyfriend, along with another hacker, off to China, where the Russian leader is intent on murdering all the hackers responsible for the virus. Did I mention there is a British secret agent watching the same building in China? Maybe it's too soon.

At any rate. In the process of trying to track down the hackers, the Russians stumble on a black Welsh jihadist making bombs. (I am seriously about to give up on this synopsis.)

Oh, for goodness sake. Okay. The upshot is, a lot of people get involved, well above a dozen, and through meticulous detail they all converge on a little piece of land in northern Idaho (I think it's Idaho. My geography is wretched, and I was tuning out on the details) where the jihadists are trying to cross the border into the United States. Near the cabins of some seriously serious gun nuts.

It's a crazy plot. The problem is that it's mostly fun, but the fun gets undercut by how hard it is to get there. Too much detail. This crazy book probably still needed to be long, but could have been 600 pages instead of 1000. Stephenson is too good a writer to be boring. Instead, he wears his readers down by attrition, until you roll over and surrender, and when you finish the book, you're not exhilarated. You're exhausted.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

The Turning by Jennifer Armintrout

Ugh. This book is terrible. The author never met a stereotype she didn't like (not just for vampires), and it is just full of sloppy prose like soft carpets that cut the heroine's skin like razors. Rug burn, I might believe. Razors? No.

The main character is a driven doctor, her boss is a hard-assed emergency doc, she walks among the quintessential hipsters and goths, her mother was a "career feminist," whatever that means, her father was a Freudian psychologist (or was it Jung? I don't really care enough to go back and check.)

And then the vampires. There's the evil-overlord-barely-human vampire (hey, the Master from Buffy!), his evil vampire son (nowhere near as interesting as Spike) and the tormented good-guy vampire (and look, it's Angel!) Oh, but he's Scottish, so throw some Highlander in the there. Much of this book reads like the author loved Buffy, but never got what made it great.

So yes, new resident Carrie Ames is attacked by a vampire in the morgue one night, after being told by her hard-assed attending that maybe she's not cut out to be a doctor (not even just "not cut out to be an emergency room doc" - you can switch residency programs, you know.) Then she becomes a vampire. Then she is not killed by sexy good vampire Nathan, who works for the extermination of all vampires. But Carrie's not going to be controlled, so she goes to find her sexy evil vampire sire. (Wait, that's the only other option you can think of? Really?) There, he abuses her sexily and she hates him and loves him and hates him and loves him and fights against THE HUNGER. And then hates him, and helps plot his downfall, and sides with the good vampires, sort of. Sort of! See, it's complex! Wait, no, it's not.

Look. It's vampire romance, published by a Harlequin subsidiary. I knew this going in. But I at least wanted competent vampire romance published by a Harlequin subsidiary. Heck, Mercedes Lackey has published fantasy romance under this particular imprint, and those books are great!

This is how bad this book is. You know that hackneyed romantic comedy convention where everything, literally everything could be cleared up by one sentence? This book has a moment where the heroine thinks "I could clear up everything with one sentence, but I'm not going to." Aaah! Because false drama is so much more interesting than real drama.

So yeah. If you're looking for vampire romance, stick with Charlaine Harris. They're not great books, but at least they're readable.

Monday, 3 November 2014

The Company of the Dead by David Kowalski

Some Spoilers Below

This is, it appears, a first novel by a medical doctor. I'm not sure that the doctor part comes across in the book, but some of the inexperience does. As it stands, this book has promise. It also has terrible pacing, and needs more fully developed characters to take advantage of the admittedly intriguing ideas he's throwing out there. In summary, it's uneven.

There, review done! No? I normally write at least a page? Fine!

This is an intriguing alt-history science fiction. A time traveller gets thrown back in time to 1911. What does he do? Tries to stop the Titanic from sinking! However, he only manages to delay the sinking and change some of the survivors. (I don't think that counts as a spoiler - that's in the first chapter or so. I figure the first chapter or so is fair game.) Most of the book takes place in the world that creates, a dire world where Germany and Japan carved up the world after the First World War...I think then, yes? World War II doesn't seem to have happened, or at least not in the same way.

The U.S. was also riven by another civil war, it appears, or at least a successful secession, and exists again as the Union and Confederacy. By 2012, civil rights never advanced, pretty much anywhere in the world. Nor did the feminist movement. (I find both of those assumptions a little questionable - at least, as written it seems like those movements never even happened, not that they just weren't successful.)

There are still dirigibles in 2012. Huge and slow computers. No visits to the moon. Hitler was only ever an artist. Technology lags far behind. (Again, really? No German rocket scientists? No Japanese manufacturing? I realize that he's saying there isn't competition, but given that the main conflict is between German and Japanese empires, whaddya mean there isn't competition?) Nuclear devices have just been discovered.

I have a friend who complains about time travel stories that they're always about NOT. DOING. ANYTHING. Don't touch it, don't change it, don't break it. Hold your breath. Uphold the status quo. Make sure everything turns out just the way it did turn out, because what did happen is obviously what should have happened. Wouldn't it be more fun, he asks, if we explored time travel in a headier and more exuberant storyline, where messing with the fabric of space and time could and did happen?

This is not that book. This is a book where the world has been changed on an epic scale, but only for the worse. But even those who have grown up their entire lives in this new world somehow just know that their world is not the real one, and are working to change it back and pretty much kill everything they've ever known. I mean, yes, their world is pretty dour, and on the verge of nuclear war, but that seems like an extreme response. Or rather, seems like a response that would be hard to get a group of people to agree on. I have no problem with a lone nut believing pretty much anything.

Which, fine. It's not like I'm going to hold this author to account for following the prevailing motif of most time travel stories. What I do have a problem with is his pacing, and his characters. And these feel very much like first novel problems. There are some intriguing ideas here. If the pacing had been better, I think I would have liked this quite a lot. As it is? It was frustrating.

Here's an example. I read this on a friend's Kindle, so I don't know page numbers, but at around the 40% mark, I could see where this had to be going. That's cool!, I thought. Neat! But then we don't actually get to do the cool thing for another 40% of the book. It's 40% of trying to get to the place where they could do the cool thing and then, once they're there, waiting on a very large old computer to calculate the things they need so they can use the time machine. I get what he's trying to do. ENIAC computers are slow. But stretching "waiting for the computer to calculate" over about 15% of the book? Too much! Too boring! Nothing else going on!

There is just no pacing to this, and this should be a ripping yarn. But this guy mistakes delay for suspense, and it's not suspenseful. It's just annoying.

To accompany that, the characters are merely serviceable. They're not terrible, don't get me wrong. But they could have made up for the pacing problems by being really interesting, and they're not. So these problems compound each other.

Other things are just not well enough explained. In the new world, they keep referring to the old time traveller as a homicidal megalomaniac, and I couldn't figure out why. The portion of his journal the author lets us read doesn't bring that across. And no one really says why. It wasn't until the very end of the book when they finally run into him that I realized that all these characters thought that he'd purposefully sunk the Titanic on a whim. Which is weird, because there's nothing in those journal pages we got to read to lead you there, and I have trouble believing he didn't mention once that he was trying to save the ship from an iceberg. In fact, I thought he had. If you want everyone who reads the journal to come to that conclusion, at least give us an ambiguous paragraph so we can be in on the assumption. Seriously.

In the end, there are interesting ideas here. Big ideas. And it's not terrible. But the pacing is awful, and there are other first-novel problems. I hope he improves in future books, because I think there is potential here.