Wednesday, 27 June 2018

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

I love the His Dark Materials books. Love them. I got into the series near the end of the very long wait for The Amber Spyglass, while working at a bookstore where we had to field sad questions for years about where the last book was. (I feel you, bookstore workers dealing with upset George R.R. Martin fans. I've been there.)  I was just head over heels in love with all of them, and I still am. Hmm, maybe it's time for a reread....

And then I went on to read Pullman's Sally Lockhart books, and I loved those not quite but almost as much. They were so good and deep, surprisingly incisive in looking at Victorian adventure and history, and at least one of them made it hard to breathe with how terrible the core dilemma was.

So to say that I was excited to get a new Philip Pullman book would be an understatement. Guilty admission: I never did read Lyra's Oxford, even though we own it. I think at that point the trilogy was so perfect in my mind, I didn't need to add to it. I might have felt the same way about this book, except that it was nominated for a Young Adult WSFS Award at the Hugos this year, and so of course I then had an extra reason to pick it up.

After having read it, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it, and yet was a bit disappointed that it wasn't as deep a story as I've come to expect from Pullman. None of that made this less fun to read, but I wanted more, those deeper connections to ideas, to history, to conflict. This was much more surface than I thought I'd find.

Lyra is not really a character, because she's a baby. If you've read the main trilogy, there are of course hints of who she will become, but she's pre-verbal, and while pretty damn adorable, not her own person yet. Instead, we follow Malcolm, a boy who lives across the river from the abbey where Lyra is first sheltered after the scandal with her parents and her mother's husband. His parents own a local pub, and Malcolm goes to school and works there, while also helping out on occasion with the nuns.

He falls protectively in love with the baby as soon as Lyra is bought there, and becomes immediately aware that there are those around who wish her ill, and might even stoop to kidnapping a wee one to further their own agendas - including a new wing of the church that surveils children and removes them from their parents, encouraging children to bring charges of heresy against everyone around them.

Malcolm also becomes aware by chance of a secret service dedicated to the government and limiting the Church's power, and is used as a source by an agent of theirs, a young woman who studies with the nearest alethiometer, in between doing readings for the agency she works for.

Along with the young woman who works for his parents, Alice, Malcolm tries to negotiate a suddenly risky world. He and Alice do not get along, but join in caring for Lyra when a flood threatens, and a man with a hyena for a daemon follows them, wanting things that no one knows, but are horrible to contemplate. Doing so sends Malcolm, Alice, and Lyra on an Odyssey of their own, including a trip to the land of the dead.

The gyptians make a minor appearance, as do the witches, and a new delve into the world of the fae. It's an entertaining journey, and I really quite enjoyed it. But still, it felt like Pullman has done better. It's very good, but not his personal best.

Monday, 25 June 2018

The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller

I had different reactions to this book depending on where I was in it. For a while, in the middle, I was frustrated at the main character. Not necessarily at the author, but the main character was being such a clueless judgemental asshole that I found it hard to spend time with him, fictionally. I always felt like the author knew that, and was trying to dig deep into something to portray it, but while it was effective, it was also unpleasant.

By the end, though, Miller pulled it off, and I was much happier, and the specific thing that was getting under my skin was called out by the main character's older sister in ways that sounded a lot like my own issues with a particular other book, and that was all good. I found it very moving.

And yet...I wonder. I am not a teenager anymore, never a teenage boy, let alone a gay teenage boy struggling with an eating disorder. The difficult parts of this book seem to come from the author's own experience, and as irritating as I found the main character sometimes, it felt true. The ending, though. The ending was good and satisfying, and showed him turning a corner in a way that I'm sure summed up parts of recovery, and yet I wonder...would the ending ring as true to teenagers? Would they enjoy the first part of the book but find the end too pat, too adult, too much like an adult looking back rather than a teenager still in the throes of it?

I liked the ending, let's make that clear. But was it written for adults to feel like this turned around in the right way? To show the eventual growth? Because it felt like more than just the start of self-knowledge. It felt like the wisdom of having many years with which to look back, and so there's a part of me that wonders how young adults would react to it.

It's very possible that teenagers would like it fine, and react as strongly to the ending as I did. I'm just saying I don't know, and the question lingers in my mind.

I realize I haven't talked at all about what the book is about. The main character is Matt, struggling with the fact that his sister has recently run off, consumed with the idea that someone must have hurt her, and that he thinks he knows who - the boy they both had a crush on. His Mom works at the pig slaughterhouse, and hours are getting reduced. Matt feels ugly and unlovable, and if the world is out of his control, he starts to focus on not eating as a source of power, control, success, and...super powers.

The super powers are subtle enough that while it seems that Matt can do supernatural things, he's in a state where he's not an entirely trustworthy narrator. But it's enough to get this book nominated for a YA Not-A-Hugo, and I think it belongs there.

Matt is vengeful, and wants to hurt the person he assumes hurt his sister. Problem is, he has absolutely no evidence. And to the reader, it's fairly clear that his desire to hurt is clouding any ability to figure out he's probably wrong about what he assumes happened. So, that, plus all the self-loathing, both feels very teenager, and is not a lot of fun to read. It's like reading Catcher in the Rye as an adult - Holden is far more of a brat when you're further removed by age.

But then there was the real thing that got under my skin and made me dislike Matt, if not the book itself. That would be the part where he really likes one of my least favourite books, On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Both Matt and the boy he both crushes on and blames for his sister running away, seem to find great meaning in that book. It's brought up a bunch of times, and again, I think this is a commentary on how young men find meaning in that particular work, without in any way noticing that the "freedom" Kerouac is lauding is provided by women's labour, both economic, physical, and emotional. And, as Matt's sister points out later, thereby becoming my hero, sexual.

So yeah, it gets called out near the end. And I felt like the whole book ended well. For a while there in the middle, though, oof, I was having some trouble.

Friday, 22 June 2018

Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor

There's having a whole bunch of extra things to do when you're getting near teenage-dom, and then there's having a whole double life, which mostly takes place at night and leaves you constantly exhausted because you no sooner see the sky get dark than you have have head out to learn more about who you are and what you can do.

This is the situation that Sunny finds herself in, along with three of her friends. I haven't read the first book, where Sunny discovers her abilities yet, so my depth of background knowledge is limited, but it wasn't hard to pick up this one without have read the others, or to get into it. The three friends knew all their lives they came from magic lineages, whereas Sunny didn't find out exactly how odd her grandmother had been until she and her family moved back to Nigeria from the United States.

Now she's immersed in the Leopard Society, trying to harness her particular gifts while not trespassing spoken and unspoken laws - with not a lot of success. Early on, she is put to an ordeal that is sometimes fatal to those upon whom it is inflicted, and manages to come out of it intact, and with a couple of favours owed her - which she will need to survive the rest of the book!

I wish I'd had a chance to read Akata Witch first, but I'm reading this as part of my attempt to get ready for Hugo voting, and I have not had time to squeeze earlier books in series in to help inform my choices! Akata Warrior was  nominated for the Young Adult award.

It feels like it would have been helpful to start with the first book here not so much because I was in anyway perplexed about Sunny - her character is well drawn, and her problems compelling. It's more that I struggled a little bit with who her friends each were - I suspect a lot of the fleshing out of each of the other three members of the Leopard Society who are Sunny's age and go to school with her happened in the first book. So I get some of it now, but they're not as vivid to me as Sunny is, or even as her older brother is.

Much of the book revolves around the tension Sunny feels trying to balance her two lives - and in particular, what happens when the Leopard Society rules about not letting normal people see their powers conflict with one of her family members being in grave danger. Her older brother, away at university, is brought into a group that is part fraternity, but with extra frissons of danger. He tries to get away, and is badly beaten.

Sunny hatches a plan to help extricate her brother from the situation, but when she executes her plan, she can't resist getting a few personal licks in, exposing herself. What she did would have been dicey but fine if no one had known it was her, but she is very recognizable, and Leopard Society has clear injunctions against showing what they can do to others.

This leads to the punishment, which then leads to some fairly exceptional circumstances for Sunny and whatever magic she can do, which in turn leaves her vulnerable to Ekwensu, the evil spirit who has been threatening her. This is a really entertaining and surprisingly deep adventure story for young adults, and while I wish I'd had time to read the first book first, jumping in at the second wasn't too bad.

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

This was a book club pick last month. I had, oddly, already read the book that spun off from this one, Carry On, long before I ever read Fangirl.  I enjoyed Carry On well enough, while never being quite convinced of its necessity. Would I change my mind after reading the book that spawned it?  Not quite. My opinion of Carry On is unchanged, but I mostly enjoyed Fangirl as a work of Young Adult fiction.

It was not, however, a book that inspired great love and devotion. I wrote the first paragraph above a couple of days ago, and went away to let my brain work out what it wanted to say without me having to pay conscious attention to the process - and this usually works! Normally by the time I sit down again, the review will have taken shape without me being aware of it. This one, I keep staring at the screen, not sure what to write.

(At the time of writing, I was a week and a half from defending my dissertation, so my brain might have been preoccupied with other things.)

The one thing that did bug at me a bit was how light much of the antagonism was. Actually, that's something I both liked and disliked. I liked that the Writing professor wasn't kneejerk and mean - she was incredibly nice and trying to understand, and the issue with the guy the main character, Cather, likes, is resolved fairly easily once they finally talk. Everyone is realistically not a complete asshole, but it can also be pointed out that there are complete assholes out there, and not everything is talked out reasonably. It's nice to be in a place where maybe that does happen, I suppose.

Except for Nick. Nick was the worst.

Which is not to say that big things do not happen in the book, but they happen Cather-adjacent, and concern people close to her going through very very tough times, so she is stressed and anxious about the lives of the people she loves, in that they are getting messy and there's little she can do. Her father is bipolar and starts to cycle high while she's away at her first year of university. And her twin sister is pushing her away and indulging in a lot of first-year drinking. And getting in touch with their estranged mother, which upsets Cather to no end.

Of course, the main struggle Cather is having in the book is with herself, with severe social anxiety and dislike of new situations that nearly torpedoes her first year away at college. Luckily, she has a roommate who is abrasive but pulls Cather out of her shell. The roommate has an ex-boyfriend who is friendly and sweet and supportive, and things go on from there.

Cather's other main issue is not feeling like she can write anything but fanfiction, and it feels weird that it took until this part of the reveal to talk about that, given that the title of the book gives fanfic the place of honour. Cather writes fanfic for this world's Harry Potter equivalent, focused on, essentially, a Harry/Draco-type pairing. In the world of fanfic, she is famous, and she's rushing to get her magnum opus finished before the last book in the real series is published.

It used to be something she shared with her sister; it's now something her writing professor won't accept as part of her work for that class (but again, very gently); it's something she's proud of and is under pressure about. But really, it's not part of the struggles of the book. It's the underpinning of her world, giving texture to the struggles she's finding, and it's the security blanket she comes back to, perhaps holding more strongly to it because of her anxiety.

On the whole, this was a pleasant confection with some substance, but not something that makes it onto my list of dearly loved and recommended books.

Monday, 18 June 2018

He Drank, and Saw the Spider by Alex Bledsoe

I think this is the fourth of the Eddie LaCrosse novels I've read, and while they've never struck me as great literature, I've always been happy to read them. So when I found this one at a library sale last year, it made it directly into my ever-growing "buy" pile and came home with me. (I'm not trying to be snarky - some things are literature and deep and some things are not, and you need a little of both in your book diet, as far as I can figure.)

It felt, though, like this was more of a straightforward (if still tongue-in-cheek) sword and sorcery than the weird mashup of detective noir with sword and sorcery that I've been enjoying so much up to now. This didn't have quite the detective oomph, and I'm having trouble putting my finger on precisely why. Maybe just because it didn't start with a dame (or the memory of a dame) coming into Eddie's office with a story that embroils him in a mystery.

I'll leave it at that - there is less of the Eddie LaCrosse as noir detective going on here, and that was a bit disappointing. Not enough to make me not enjoy the book - I still did! - but that core conceit was a little weaker than some of the preceding books.

It was however, a twisty tale of suspicion, sudden death, and hidden heirs to kingdoms. It's a story that begins years earlier, when Eddie passes through a particular kingdom and finds a man dying from a bear attack (like you do), wrapped around a baby girl he protected at the cost of his own life. Eddie takes the child to a nearby village and finds a family to adopt her. Eighteen or twenty years later, he and his paramour Liz are passing back through the area.

Just in time to see the former baby, now a young lady, fall in love with someone that raises a lot of eyebrows on both sides, and...have people sent after her from a neighboring kingdom with instructions to take her back bodily to the sorceress who may or may not be controlling that neighboring kingdom. Of course, Eddie gets involved, as a retired sword jockey, and this book relies more on his weapons past than his investigative one. I also don't think he solves the mystery in this one, if I'm remembering correctly. It's unveiled by the perpetrator (for lack of a better word) to the group at large near the end.

A lot of this book is about the family the orphaned baby was adopted into, and that's all quite enjoyable and heartwarming, even if her brother is a bit of a dick and needs to be punched. He is, eventually, so all is good.

I didn't quite get what I expected from this book out of it, and so I was a bit disappointed - I've enjoyed the other three I've read more. But this wasn't bad. It was more straightforwardedly fantasy, but with some of the same modern sensibility, and Eddie and Liz continue to be enjoyable characters to follow as they stumble right into the middle of secrets that could change kingdoms.

Monday, 4 June 2018

Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

I still have two of the novels nominated for the Best Novel Hugo this year to read, but at the moment, with four under my belt, this one is in the lead. I'm using as my general marker for sorting out my order "books I told other people about the most" - providing, of course, that I wasn't swearing about them. Six Wakes by far tops that list, and as much as I enjoyed all the books in this category I've read so far, it is my frontrunner. Subject, of course, to my impressions of the last two books I haven't read.

I am kind of a sucker for a good murder mystery set in a science fiction or fantasy setting, and if you pair that with a new twist on cloning and the reactions of humans to this kind of cloning, and characters with lots of depth and secrets to hide? Sister, I am IN.  It does not hurt that I thoroughly enjoyed the writing, the story, the people on the pages...I'd be hard-pressed to say something I didn't like about this book.

So, let's talk about it!  Six Wakes starts off with a hell of a bang. Clones are supposed to wake up with all of the memories of their former bodies (this is cloning as a form of longevity, even immortality), and will never see the old and discarded versions of themselves. So, on a long-haul spaceship, the first-ever colony ship, crewed by six clones, it is a shock to wake up with no memories of the past twenty years, and the murdered bodies of their former versions lying on the floor (mostly) of the cloning bay.

One of them is a murderer, but no one remembers the past twenty years, so they have little idea of what might have transpired to bring someone to the point of mass murder. To make things more complicated, one clone died of suicide (apparently a non-reclonable offense, usually), several from trauma from sharp objects and blunt force, and one from...hemlock?

Also, the ship's AI, Ian, has been largely disabled and the ship seems to be turning around to go back to Earth - somewhere none of the clones wants to go, since they were all (or were all supposed to be) criminals who commuted their sentences by going on this one-way trip to a new planet.

Phew! We dive right in! From there, we dance around and through the mystery, with diversions back to the past to show how each character ended up where they were, and what that might tell us about the overall murder mystery. At the same time, and this is truly impressive, we get a larger sense of the uses and abuses of clones back on Earth, the ways in which the cloned and uncloned regard cloning, and the political machinations that led to certain limitations on cloning, as well as the blackmarket that has sprung into being to break those laws.

The backstories seem quite separate at first, but begin to intersect in ways that the characters weren't expecting any more than the readers were. This is delightfully twisty, and when connections are revealed, they are satisfying and tie the whole story together more strongly, rather than trying to throw an out-of-left-field reveal in to change everything at the end. I know which kind of surprise I prefer more, and it's the kind Mur Lafferty is pulling off here, the one that makes me go "Oh, of course" because it fits so perfectly.

It is what she's doing with the underlying ideas, and how she's acting them out through the bodies of the characters that really elevates this book above and beyond. As a murder mystery, it's really strong. But it's added more to that, and that makes this a strong contender for the top of my ballot this year.

Friday, 1 June 2018

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

*Mild Spoilers Below*

I have not had the easiest relationship with Kim Stanley Robinson. There are things I like about his books, quite a lot - his embracing of complexity and willingness to delve into political machinations, for one. There are things that get under my skin - the overall pessimism and the way many of his female characters are intensely focused on just one thing and shrill as fuck about it, for another. This means that when I finish his books, I generally am all in a muddle about what I want to say about them. Unless it's the book just before this, Aurora, which I just plainly hated and included in one of my periodic "Terrible SF/F Sex Writing" posts I make for friends.

So, when I started my Hugo reading this year, I was not thoroughly pleased that that meant that I had to plow my way through another long book of his. After Aurora, I thought I'd probably wash my hands of him for good. This is a long way around to get to saying...I actually liked this without any of my usual reservations. It's not going to be high on my list for the award, necessarily, but it's more than I expected to be able to say that I enjoyed this, with no caveats.

He's got a wide canvas again, although all centered in a single city - New York of,  you guessed it, 2140 (and the two years afterwards), after the seas rose dramatically twice, with half the city trying to be the new Venice, while the rich stay uptown, still safely above the rising waters. There are skyway bridges between buildings if you want to walk, or boats if you want to go by water.

The story is about the inhabitants of one building that sits below the waterline, although most of it is still above. It takes a while for their stories to intersect, but they eventually do, in interesting ways. We have a daytrader who starts out amoral, or at least, inattentive to ethics, but whose sex drive prompts him to start thinking about the long-term. We have a local attorney for refugees who are flocking to New York City, which has not enough room for them. We have a middle-aged cop who used to be one of the fiercest water sumo wrestlers the demimonde had ever seen. (The previous two characters are both women.) We have the superintendent of the building in which we live, taking care of the building like it was his own child, with a fairly obvious trauma of losing a child in the background. (It's effective, but doesn't need to be teased out. The first oblique reference, I got it.)

We have a pair of water-rat children more or less adopted by the building, with a penchant for danger and digging for gold underwater in an oversized diving bell. We have a "cloud star" who works to save endangered animals, often without any clothes on to attract more viewers. We have a pair of programmers who see the problems with the system they work in and the wider economic system that buttresses it, and are kidnapped when they make an attack on both.

And, in the theme of Kim Stanley Robinson including non-human character POVs, we have The Citizen, who is eventually and unsurprisingly revealed to be the city.

The rich have fled to Denver, but still keep empty condos in the city. Rents are high on the poor, and there are attempted takeovers of the mid-range buildings in the intertidal (partly flooded) zone. The stock market fucks everyone, and the system teeters precariously. The day trader can see the time coming when the bubble pops and works to be ready to make a bundle when it does.  But then the lawyer, Charlotte, in conjunction with many of the other characters, has an idea to change the system more fundamentally, wresting power back from the machine of the stock market and the banks, and handing it back to the government and the people it represents.

It was a really enjoyable ride to see how we get there, with the city and our characters enduring a devastating hurricane along the way which sparks things into happening much sooner than one might have expected. And while there are disagreements, it doesn't have the air that little good can ever be accomplished that I associate with KSR books.

So, yeah, I enjoyed this. It was a big brick of a book, but instead of slogging, it was generally a lot of fun to read. I enjoy sprawling stories, with many characters and intersecting storylines. When the story lacks that one type of women he wrote far too often, and in the end, something gets accomplished, I'm much happier. Even if there will then be a fight to retain it, and so forth, into the future. I don't need the future to be easy. I just need it to be less bleak.