Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2016: Round One, Part Thirteen

Round One comes to a close! I'm at, I think, 127 books, so I'm breaking the rules and stealing one from the start of November so I have a perfect 128, which will make the whole tournament a lot easier! Starting in two days, we'll start the second round, and my choices will start getting harder.

Living With a Wild God by Barbara Ehrenreich vs. Austerlitz by W.E. Sebald

This is a weird choice. I like Barbara Ehrenreich's books to an extreme degree, but this one didn't get to me as much as some of her others, even though it's a more personal story. On the other hand, Austerlitz was a book I admired more that loved. But even though I didn't love it, it's probably good enough to win this battle.
Winner: Austerlitz

The Third Policeman  by Flann O'Brien vs.  
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Two books that I tried valiantly to love. One of them I have a fondness for, but not a whole lot more, and one, by the end, just annoyed the heck out of me with how it handled a couple of the storylines. The extreme weirdness of Flann O'Brien is much more to my taste, even though I'm still not sure I understand it. 
Winner: The Third Policeman

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick vs. Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

 I'm very sorry, Philip K. Dick. I did like A Scanner Darkly quite a lot. It was trippy in all the right ways, and I liked your take on loss of identity. However, in the other corner is Ancillary Sword, which I enjoyed even more than the first book in the series, and I liked the first book a lot. Leckie takes this world into places more intimate and examines class and sexuality in an empire that seems to avoid mention of either. Right up my alley, and I loved it.

Winner: Ancillary Sword

 Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King vs. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

These are both really good books. The tension of a love affair gone terribly wrong in The Paying Guests kept me reading intently. However, it just can't quite compare to the sheer lyricism and humour wrapped around really difficult topics. King achieved something quite remarkable with Gree Grass, Running Water, and it definitely takes this book to the next round.

Winner: Green Grass, Running Water

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

Image result for dog starsPost-apocalyptic novels can be hard. If done well, they are strong and powerful, getting at what authors think will be left, or worth rebuilding, when all of the infrastructure and connections of daily life have been stripped away. When I'm reading one, I'm always particularly looking for how the author handles women in whatever post-apocalyptic setting they are exploring.

Particularly, I'm interested in looking at whether or not the author has anything more to say than "they get raped and treated as possessions!"

The Dog Stars is better than that, by about a hair. It is primarily a book about isolation, not community or connection. It's hard not to keep comparing it to Station Eleven, which I loved a lot, and I think treads very very similar territory a lot better.

In The Dog Stars, we're many years out from a flu outbreak that killed most of the world's population (as far as we know) and a blood disease that followed in its wake. No one seems to be afraid of the flu anymore, but they are afraid of the Blood. Which is weird - we're in a world that has so utterly broken down that there are no communication methods yet, and yet the main character says things confidently about how other survivors treat those with the Blood - how would he know? He has a few interactions with a group of Mennonites who all have it, but how can he make blanket statements from that?

He has a dog. He has one male friend/survival buddy, who comes off as nothing so much as a war-crazed MRA. (Later, the author tries to add more depth and backstory to him, but it doesn't really change the "kill it before it moves" mentality.)  The two of them fend off anyone who comes near, never trying to talk or communicate - it's all about killing first.

Which...not really tenable as a long term plan, is it? If there are maybe fifty total people you're going to run into in your life, any chance people have of surviving isn't really going to happen if murder takes care of 48 of them. But, whatever, this is about isolation and those others who would definitely try to kill you if you didn't act fast. (I much prefer the more nuanced view of Station Eleven, where some of the settlements they enter may be dangerous to the travelling players, but people have banded together for survival and don't necessarily shoot first. )

So by the time we finally meet a female character, or get to know another human being, it's fairly apparent that she's been introduced to be a love interest for Hig, the main character. Named Cima, she is fleshed out, but as far as the story goes, she's there to introduce that sense of heterosexual hope into the world that is otherwise populated by savage rapists. And we all know how much I love that as a way to denote villainy, don't we?

The world that remains, as Heller sees it, is almost barren of the possibilities of connection, where in a world where honestly, it doesn't seem a struggle to find enough to eat, men are still killing each other whenever they cross territories. (There are a few women too, but we don't get to know them.)

Hig has lost the world, loses his dog, goes out to find himself in a small plane, finds a love, and returns. It's not a complex story. But it irritated me - the first half of the book with nary a woman in sight, although there are plenty of small references to raping women, every time Hig and his survivalist partner run into other men out there.

It's not terrible, but given that much of the world feels similar to Station Eleven, I find it hard to give this book a pass. It's nowhere near as good. It's about isolation, but I don't buy the necessity for such extreme isolation.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2016: Round One, Part Twelve

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Living the Good Life  by David Patchell-Evans vs. Purity by Jonathan Franzen 

Wow. This is a weirdly hard choice, because there's not really a good one. I didn't like either - although I guess I didn't come out of Purity sure that someone owed me a bunch of drinks for having read and reviewed it. Plus, Patchell-Evans' company has laid off a whole bunch of my friends in the meantime, changing my view of Goodlife not in the slightest!  So Franzen, don't take this as approval. It's just that you're not as bad as meaningless exercise-speak.

Winner: Purity

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Rainbow's End by Vernor Vinge vs. Zeroes by Scott Westerfeld

This is a slightly more difficult contest, but not a terrible one. I liked both books, without falling love with either. Although Westerfeld's crew of young superheroes were fun, I think I'm going to give this one to Vinge. There were more idea per square inch, and some interesting twists and turns when you look at old age and new technology.

Winner: Rainbow's End

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Life After Life by Kate Atkinson vs. Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

This match-up, on the other hand, makes me frown. There's no doubt in my mind which book wins, but the problem is that I'm very fond of the other book too. Up against many of the other books in this first round, Max Gladstone's particular blend of fantasy and the law would definitely have won. Unfortunately for the main character, Tara, she's up against a book that I was nearly breathless with anticipation to get back to every day until I finished it. Life After Life is just purely a masterpiece.

Winner: Life After Life

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 Redeployment by Phil Klay vs. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

However, Life After Life wasn't the only masterpiece I read in fairly short order. Right after I read Kate Atkinson's book, my next lunchtime read was Everything I Never Told You, and it similarly blew my mind. I really enjoyed Phil Klay's short stories, and many of them were moving and challenging. But they can't compare to what Ng achieves with her first novel.

Winner: Everything I Never Told You

The Last Theorem by Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl vs. 
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

It seems oddly fitting that in the end, Arthur C. Clarke goes up against himself. Even if I have to reluctantly admit I didn't really like either of these that much. But of the two, at least 2001 has a full story to it, while The Last Theorem tries very hard to avoid any of the major plot points going on around the characters.
Winner: 2001

Friday, 25 November 2016

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2016: Round One, Part Eleven

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson vs.  

I don't know if there's been an easier pick in this whole contest so far.
Winner: Housekeeping

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The Last Colony by John Scalzi vs. vN: The First Machine Dynasty by Madeline Ashby

Also not that difficult, with my apologies to Madeline Ashby. I actually liked vN, more or less, but it's the fact that I have to add that qualifier up against the part where Scalzi's work is just plain fun, and I get on board with healthy indignation and skepticism for colonial authorities.
Winner: The Last Colony

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The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard vs. Afterparty by Daryl Gregory

Jeez, this is quite a series of easy contests. The House of Shattered Wings read more like someone trying to get their Vampire: The Masquerade game down on paper than anything else, and while I was slightly disappointed that Gregory didn't pack more of his wonderful brand of pushing ideas as far as they could go into Afterparty, it was still an intelligent and tense thriller, with a dose of a drug that makes you feel divine presence thrown into the mix.

Winner: After Party

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Skin Game by Jim Butcher vs. Saga Vol. 6 by Brian K. Vaughn

We continue the easy choice streak - again, while I liked Skin Game more than I expected to, I felt like Saga really got back on track with this entry, and I enjoy that universe more.
Winner: Saga Vol. 6

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Clockwork Lives by Kevin Anderson vs. Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon 

Okay, this is officially the easiest edition of the Dust Cover Dust-Up so far this year. Yet again, one I didn't hate, but didn't really like a whole lot, up against a book that was an enjoyable romp. I'm opting for the one that's a kid's book and not the one that disappointingly did not pull together its story threads.
Winner: Castle Hangnail

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo

I am sort of at a loss for how to write this review. I wanted to like Cereus Blooms at Night, but I found it curiously weightless. I can see what it's striving for, but as far as I'm concerned, it never comes near to reaching it. It's hard to put your finger on what exactly is missing, but it feels like it's ticking a lot of the literature checkboxes, without ever doing anything more to become a living breathing urgent tale.

Given that this is a tale of incest in a hot climate, it sort of feels like it could go one of two ways. This could either by an "issue" novel, written for easy consumption and using all the textbook reactions to a situation to define each of the characters, or it could be going for the status of literature, taking its subject and writing about it lyrically or starkly, presenting difficult subject matter in such a way that it is more than just a straightforward narrative.

Mootoo certainly seems to be aiming for the latter, the problem is just that not all attempts at creating literature end up anywhere near the "great" end of the court. Many more are those that try and fall short, and while they may still be worthy efforts, there's just something...missing.

That's how I feel about this book. There's something missing. Several somethings, actually. Most of it, I think, is that it feels too formless. The characters, by the end, are still largely not much more than the brief sentence I would come up with to describe each one. They never made the leap to vivid individuals for me. It's hard to say what exactly could be done to reach that level, but Cereus just never quite gets there. Tyler is never a whole lot more than "gay male nurse." Otoh than "transgender son." We only ever know Mala, the main character's mother and mother's lover in backstory, so Sarah and Lavinia remain ciphers. Mala's sister runs off young, so we don't know her either.

And Mala we get to know, sort of, but are kept at a distance by her mental illness and opacity as much as she has kept everyone else in the story away. There is so much distance here, and so little connection.

Mala's story is ugly, and I just don't know that Mootoo does service to it. There are moments of stark brutality and they are difficult, and moments of fear and hiding, but somehow it still just never reaches the level I wanted. I don't have a prescription for what would have made it better - each piece of literature has to redefine what that means on its own terms. But this doesn't feel like a success.

The one moment that did work for me, and I wish more had been like this or done with this, was the moment when it is revealed what happened to Asha, Mala's sister, after she ran away, and why she had never communicated to Mala after her departure. It's a powerful moment of seeing how community disapproval can contribute to further victimize those who already needed help, but it's so brief that it disappears. Mala as a character is not able to respond in such a way to let us know what that knowledge does to her.

It's not terrible, but it just feels more like Mootoo is checking off the boxes in "what you need to write a literary novel" instead of discovering her own voice. The characters are not specific enough, and failed to come to life for me. It's a valiant attempt, and not every attempt succeeds. There's enough here for me to want to know more of what this author could do, but ultimately, I was dissatisfied with Cereus Blooms at Night.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey

Four books in, I'm still hooked on this series. I've enjoyed it from the very first book, and have been eager to pick up each new one. With Cibola Burn, we've moved outside the bottle episode into a suddenly vastly enlarged space, with all the pitfalls that might involve. Humans are expanding into a perilous time, but all most see are opportunities.

With this book, refugees from Ganymede break the cordon (because how could you hold that idea in vast three-dimensional space?) and emerge on the other side of the gate, settling a new world. Then that world is chartered to a company that wants to mine it, and they arrive to find settlers not only entrenched, but desperate to stake out this claim as theirs. Sabotage follows, then retaliation.

And when this looks like it's going to get increasingly sticky, the various powers that be decide to send Holden and his crew on the Rocinante to broker a deal. It feels like a mission designed to fail, and perhaps it is, but as Holden arrives on the planet, it soon becomes apparent that not only does he have to negotiate between settlers and scientists/corporates, with blood on both sides, but also that the planet itself was once wiped clean by whatever destroyed those who build those massive gates - in other words, a civilization vastly more powerful than ours was once wiped out, entirely and completely, by something else. And while the former residents are no longer around, their tools may be. And so may be the source of their destruction.

The planet starts to stir, and Holden guesses right away that this is going to be very bad, but events transpire to end up with he and Amos trapped down on the planet, Naomi on board an enemy vessel, and Alex and an ostensible prisoner on the Roci. When your people are separated, how do you bring them back together? What if you bring in death slugs that kill with a touch?

There's a theme in these books that comes back again and again that I always particularly enjoy. It's not necessarily about doing what you believe is right - the point is made over and over that that can lead to massacres and injustice just as easily as it can lead to the triumph of truth and right. But there's an accompanying belief in taking responsibility, even for unintended consequences. If they did something, these are characters who will take responsibility. Those who deny responsibility are more often on the side of sketchiness. (Although the main sociopathic security chief does take responsibility for his actions, in that he doesn't disavow it. It's just more like he doesn't really know what that responsibility means. He treats his acts as trivial when they shattered lives.)

Yet again, the two authors who make up Corey ramp up the tension to almost unbearable levels, giving us new viewpoint characters and surprising (and deadly) twists and turns. It's not a surprise that I'm in to see what happens next. At some point soon.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2016: Round One, Part Ten

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie vs. The Murdstone Trilogy by Mal Peet

Some of the choices in the first round have been so agonizing that it's good that there have been many more really easy picks to balance them out. This one is one of the latter. The Murdstone Trilogy wasn't badly written, but it was a little too contemptuous of its forebears for my taste. And I really enjoyed Americanah. As a comedy of manners in a couple of different countries, with considerations of race intertwined, it was right up my alley.

Winner: Americanah

G by John Berger vs. Red Rising by Pierce Brown

This is one of those match-ups where it's hard because I didn't love either book. Both were a little too just-men focused, with the latter throwing in some superfluous rape, in case we didn't get that the bad guys were the bad guys. However, it was also the livelier story, with a lot more going on. Don't expect it to go too much further, but this round goes to Pierce Brown.

Winner: Red Rising

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear vs. Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

Karen Memory is a book I remember particularly fondly because it broke a streak of books that had not been that much fun. It delivered enjoyment in fistfuls, wrapped in steampunky caramel. So, while I liked Garden Spells, there's not really a way it can outdo Bear in this round.

Winner: Karen Memory

Abaddon's Gate by James S.A. Corey vs. Blindsight by Peter Watts

Also an easy choice. Blindsight was a book that may have been for some people, but was really, really not for me. In almost any way. And in the other corner we have the third book in the Expanse series, a bottle episode in space, where everyone is trapped in close corners and things could go drastically wrong at any moment. It was exactly for me.

Winner: Abaddon's Gate

Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear vs. Being a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz 

This one almost isn't fair to Alexandra Horowitz. Her book was fine, but it was nonfiction of a variety that isn't the kind to reach out and grab me intensely (although it was interesting.) But in the other corner, we have the last book wrapping up an Elizabeth Bear trilogy that I enjoyed quite thoroughly. I think these books got better with each one, and Steles of the Sky was a great ending, and definitely wins this match-up.

Winner: Steles of the Sky

Saturday, 19 November 2016

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow was just, well, it was just one of those books. One where it isn't a commentary on whether it is good or bad, but one where I found I could only read a small bit of it each day. It got down to a chapter a day after I had a mostly sleepless night worrying about what was going to happen. I wanted to plow through and find out, but I also wasn't willing to let myself get as engrossed as I could have been, if that was going to be the outcome. 
Part of the problem is that Russell does far too good of a job at creating tension, at letting us know the horrific end of the story without context, letting us make our own judgements, just as some of the characters do, without knowing the whole story. I imagine part of the shock people had at the end comes from how they, like the Jesuits questioning him, interpreted the sparse known facts about Sandoz and his actions.  

One of the only things I knew about this book before I sat down with it was that it was science fiction about Catholicism, and that peaked my interest right away. One of the many ideas I'm developing for a science fiction/fantasy directed reading group is a set of books about either religion and science fiction, or if I can find enough, specifically about Catholicism and science fiction, so I was more than eager to sit down to read this.

And now I'd be happy to include this book in that grouping, difficulty and all. Russell has written sensitively and interestingly about assumptions, religious and non-religious, and the proportionate and disproportionate results of misunderstanding. 

Earth has picked up recordings of music bouncing off the moon of a nearby (in astronomical terms) planet, and as a Jesuit priest was present at the discovery, they become interested in quietly launching a mission (made up of about half Jesuit priests and half laypeople) to meet those who transmitted it. Sandoz, the lone survivor, is found there many years later, in circumstances that provoke outrage and blame without full understanding. He returns to Earth broken, faith twisted, body betrayed, to face more or less an inquisition. 

And yet, there are such moments of joy and humanism here amongst the assumptions, and at their core, all the Jesuits do want to understand, even when they thought they had already understood. Jumping backwards and forwards, we know the expedition goes horribly awry, but no real idea why or how. We meet the other members of the expedition, most of whom come to vivid life, and are the types of characters it is easy to love.

We see them arrive, meet some of the inhabitants of the planet, and see as they stumble towards understanding a vastly alien culture, unable to entirely notice all their own underlying assumptions. Knowing what will happen, but no idea how to get there, gives everything an underlying horror, as you wonder what if what is happening at any given moment was the precipitating factor, or whether it is truly innocuous.

Russell is exploring faith and the idea of being guided in complex and devastating ways. Different kinds of religion and relationships to the Divine are under the microscope, tested to the fullest as they try to incorporate the alien. 

Still, I couldn't read large chunks at a sitting. That's a testament to this book's power, not a complaint.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2016: Round One, Part Nine

Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon vs. Eifelheim by Michael Flynn

I'm writing this segment the morning after the American election, and it feels somehow frivolous to be continuing with this tournament, but on the other hand, this is keeping me from brooding over the results non-stop or bursting into tears, so on we forge!

I really didn't like Eifelheim. Not so much the history, the view of people in the past - most of it just got under my skin and irritated the hell out of me. Fortunate for me then that it's up against an older science fiction book that may not have rocked my world, but certainly gave me a great deal of enjoyment. Her new species and their first contact with an older woman left behind after a colony vacated was definitely better than how medieval towns dealt with aliens.

Winner: Remnant Population

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin vs. Don't Bite the Sun by Tanith Lee

This is a weird match-up. Stark slices of Berlin's life and viewpoint in short story form vs. fun but very traditional 1970sish science fiction with an underlying message that cities and leisure mean stagnation. I'm going to have to go with Berlin - these aren't easy stories to read, particularly those that have to do with alcoholism, but they are powerful and stark.

Winner: A Manual For Cleaning Women

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie vs. Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Oh, ouch. This is a difficult choice. I really really enjoyed Ancillary Justice and what Ann Leckie was trying (and succeeding!) to do there. But...on the other side is Lila. This is a book that just about broke me.  I get inarticulate when I try to explain why it is one of the most moving pieces of art that I have ever read, but realize that everything I say seems to trivialize it. I can't knock it out of the competition. It has barely left my mind. 

Winner: Lila

Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem vs. Step Aside, Pops by Kate Beaton

These two books really couldn't be more different. I mean, you've got a sensitive-young-man-coming-of-age up against decidedly irreverent hilarious comic strips. Step Aside Pops seemed a little sparse in comparison to Beaton's first volume, but still, she's going to take this one easily. When laughs are hard to come by, you turn to the ones that send you into fits.

Winner: Step Aside, Pops

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins vs. The Iron Council by China MiƩville

Another very, very easy one. You can read my review of Hawkins' book for all the reasons I found it upsetting and unpleasant. Iron Council was by no means an easy read - it's got complicated politics and sexuality, all wrapped around a revolution on the rails. But man, did I ever enjoy it more.
Winner: The Iron Council