Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Major Spoilers at the End!

Sitting down to write this review makes me feel distinctly curmudgeonly. I didn't love this one, despite its eagerness to be patted, its copious pop culture references, the deep love of books. Given who I am, why didn't that last one, at least, get to me? Maybe because that part felt superficial. Books are like oxygen to me, sometimes, and despite the setting, this book mentioned books a lot, but not with the crazy enthusiasm that gets me about my favourite fellow reviewers. They were mostly set dressing for a more literate Da Vinci Code.

On the other hand, Mr. Penumbra's etc. was a fun read. The characters were lightly drawn, but entertaining. The solving of puzzles was mostly interesting, even though I still shake my head at the last one in the book, and the drawing-room solution.

There's just something missing. The book treads too lightly, I didn't get deeply attached to any of the characters, the action never felt truly perilous, and while that can make for an okay read, I wanted to like this one so much more.

I would say it was telling that I can't even remember the main character's name, but then, names are not always what I remember best. But I can remember Kat and Neel and Mat and Ashley and Corvina and Deckle and.... So maybe the problem isn't that, it's that the main character a) wasn't mentioned by name very often, and b) he wasn't very well developed. He's a struggling young graphic designer who works at a bookstore and loves a certain series of books and used to play D&D. Those are things he does, not things he is. As for his personality? He apparently gets along well enough with a bunch of people not to piss them off, he thinks geek girls are cute (we're getting into things he does again) and he's very loyal to Mr. Penumbra.

I was going to say curious, but he's not really the curious one. It's another friend who goads him into exploring the mysteries of the 24-hour bookstore at which he works. After he gets started, then he's curious.

But I'm being harsh again, which mostly comes from my disappointment that this wasn't better! He's a perfectly fine coatrack on which to hang a plot. And for the plot was fairly entertaining, if slight.

One more digression on characters? The most interesting thing about any of the characters was how personally offended Kat was by the very idea of death. We know this, because she says it constantly, and it's interesting, and I'm not looking for a deep psychoanalytical look at this, but some exploration would be nice. Death is frustrating, sure, but what drives it to be a constant burr under her saddle?

As for the plot? When the main character starts work at the 24-hour bookstore, he quickly notices that there are two sets of books. A small set for browsers, and a huge set of ones filled with what looks like nonsense. They're a test, you see. Once you decode one, it leads to another, and another, until you've solved the first puzzle in a mysterious brotherhood that believes that in the puzzle of the book written by the founder of the order centuries ago is the secret of eternal life.

But nobody can crack the damn thing. Well, what about Google? Enlisting the help of the woman he dates sometimes, his former dungeonmaster turned millionaire boob-renderer, and Mr. Penumbra himself, he breaks into the secret lair to get a copy of the book, and then turn it over to the codebreakers of the world.

This is all fun. As I said, a more literate and pop culture Da Vinci Code.

Spoiler! Spoiler! Spoiler!

But the ending, when it came, dissatisfied me, and this cast a pall over the rest of the book. There were two problems with it. Interestingly, one of them came from the fact that I was reading this on a Kindle, and it's hard to flip back to double-check something you might or might not have missed on a Kindle. So when it came out that the solution, which Google couldn't solve, was a simple substitution cipher, just on the sides of the letters instead of the letters themselves, that bothered me. Because even if that were the case, there would still be regularities in which letters were used after which letters, since the letters were cast in typeset, so would have to be used in certain patterns to get the code across.

Am I missing something? I may be, but I've worked on an augmented reality game and let me tell you, there is no substitution code the internet cannot break in seconds, given enough people. You've got to go harder. Why not use a Vignere cipher, at very least? That can be broken too, given enough time, but it's really hard without knowing the encoding phrase.

So maybe there's another layer here I missed as I was reading that explains why this substitution cipher couldn't be broken like any other substitution cipher, but again, hard to flip back and find it. So I remain a little dissatisfied with that solution. At very least, the book would not have come across as noise. Even if you couldn't figure out the actual message it would be very apparent that there were some regularities in how letters were being used.

And then the message underneath it all, in addition to the decoded book? It was nice that it wasn't the secret of life, but did the final message really have to be a wordier version of "friendship is great"? That seems a little saccharine a reward for all that journey.

That is my problem with the book. For most of it, it was slight but enjoyable. But the ending did not live up to the great message they were seeking. It doesn't have to be immortality, but it needs to be a more genuine insight.

So, do I recommend this? I don't know. As I said at the beginning, not being thrilled with this book makes me feel like the curmudgeon. I don't mind heartwarming, I just want books to have earned it. But it's light, and fun, for the most part. The pop culture references veer between fun and trying too hard to be hip.

Also, why isn't this book about Kat? She's far more interesting a character than old What's-His-Name.

A Palm for Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman

I returned to this book this past week, as one of the best comfort reads I know. When the world is overwhelming, this series has been one of my best refuges, one of my favourite fictional universes to escape into when I have no energy to go anywhere new. (Other comfort reads include L.M. Montgomery, Robertson Davies and Spider Robinson books.)

Whether it was a few years ago when I was struggling with insomnia and anxiety before my comps, or this past week, when I was all knotted up after one of our cats had two successive seizures, the Mrs. Pollifax books comfort me.

And they're just so much darn fun. Rereading this for the umpteenth time, I enjoyed it as thoroughly as if it had been the first time. She's an elderly spy for the CIA, you see, and these books are wonderful tales of her adventures. They always send her on missions that should be simple and safe, yet never are. And she is always wholly herself as she has to deal with what goes wrong.

In this one, Mrs. Pollifax is sent to a rest spa in France, where alarming chatter gives this charming locale as a potential receiving spot for two recent thefts of plutonium. Once there, she annoys Interpol by seeming more interested in the wellbeing of a young boy than the mysterious Robin Burke-Jones, whose background checks out not a whit. Of course, her instincts are perfectly sound, and she suddenly finds herself in the middle of a cat and mouse game with the fate of nuclear materials at stake.

While I never like the circumstances that often drive me back to these books, I love that I know I can pick them up any time and spend some time with an old friend, just when I need the most soothing.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge

Oliver Sacks, he ain't. Despite the back cover blurb from Oliver Sacks, this is definitely a lesser book. There are some interesting things in here, and may be worth a read, even though there was one chapter that I thought was just terrible. But don't go looking here for Sacks' deep humanism and warmth. This is much more the distant case history, although the science he's talking about is fascinating.

(I also have a huge soft spot for Oliver Sacks, as he gave the commencement address at my undergrad graduation, and it was a wonderful speech about not being too attached to your plans, about making room for synchronicity and the unexpected.)

The Brain That Changes Itself is an examination of neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change, and I found a lot of the ideas well worth engaging with. The scientists he profiled, and the work they were doing, were all very interesting.

The chapter on sexuality, though, is atrocious. Here, Doidge displays his hardcore Freudianism (this comes out in another chapter as well), and changes from reporting on actual studies to heavily anecdotal evidence, including the characterization of all kinds of sex except the most vanilla as "perversions." He makes strange claims about people who engage in s/m play with very little to back it up, and generalizes far too much. He tries to psychoanalyze a masochist about whom a documentary was made, based solely on the footage that made it into the final cut of the movie.

Doidge's attitude towards porn bears striking similarities to the temperance advocates I study, with the fatal first peek replacing the fatal first drop. He goes to great length to show that porn addiction is a real addiction, a compulsion, out of the control of the sufferers, but ends off the section by saying that once the sufferers in his practice were made aware of their addiction, they were all able to just stop watching porn.

And most problematic at all, in the entire chapter on sex, he treats sexuality as a male attribute. The people he relates anecdotes about are all male, although some of those people refer to women in their lives. If you just read this section at face value, it would seem like women don't have sexual desire, or sexual issues.

It really felt like a publisher said "you know what we need? A chapter on sex!" and made him whip one off. If it isn't that, it's simply sloppy writing that has far too little evidence for its actual claims (the citations for this chapter are mostly on incidental things.)

The book also ends abruptly, without a conclusion. I finished the last chapter and went looking for the conclusion, and nope, that was it. There's some good stuff in here, but avoid that chapter on sex like the plague.

Monday, 28 April 2014

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Even though it was years and years ago that I saw it, I wish I'd read the book before seeing the movie made of The English Patient. It would likely have meant that I'd have despised the movie, but having seen it kept me putting my attention in certain places, and never seeing other aspects creeping up until it was too late.

The movie, of course, is a romance. The book, although it has romances in it, is not. It is about war, and its effects on people. How some are destroyed, and some think they have found themselves.

The irony of the title is not just that eponymous character may not be English, but that no one in the book is. Hana and Caravaggio come from Canada, (Caravaggio probably from somewhere else before that), Kip from India. Yet they are all in France at that certain time, having participated in the war effort for the English, as a nurse, a thief, a mine clearer. Englishness itself lingers over the scene of the book, but no one hails from the country for which they are in the war - they are all from the colonies.

Englishness is not well-defined - the sections on Kip are the most direct, but even in that case, it is a particular Englishman and his entourage, rather than Englishness as a whole. Still, Kip's mentor in disarming bombs comes to stand for what Englishness can be, to him. Kip sets himself up as a living reproach to a still-much-loved older brother, who went to jail rather than fight one day for the English.

Caravaggio has been destroyed in the service of the Empire, stealing secrets (quite literally), suffering horrible consequences, with no apparent concern from the people he was stealing them for. Hana loses her father and almost herself in the war, and has very specific reasons why she will not leave her badly burned patient to die alone.

The English Patient is the story of these four, and how they knit a small community out of the ashes of the destruction. Not in grand ways, in small ones, working through suspicion, formality, and pain. They create a world which no one who had not been through the conflagration would understand, and come to some sort of equilibrium, having seen the worst that they could see. Where simple patriotism has given way to weary resignation.

And then even that is shattered. The worst was yet to come. And I never saw it coming, most of the political aspects being excised when they made the movie. But once it had happened, nothing could ever be the same. I had never even seen Ondaatje laying the groundwork for that moment, but once it came, everything came together at once.

Does that make the book a metaphor for the double fuze [sic] bomb Kip has to figure out how to disarm? While I was paying attention to one fuze, everything else was surreptitiously burning towards this other source of an explosion.

The English Patient is well worth reading. But the part that is the lion's share of the movie is perhaps the smallest part of the book. I enjoyed the patient's stories, but was far more engrossed in what was going on in their little corner of France.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

Alt-history by the creator of that trend of adding monsters to fiction, starting with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which quite frankly, I rifled through once, saw the bits that had been added, winced at how they'd been added, and put it gently back down and backed away.

See, that sounds like a great idea for a late night discussion at a pub when you're all tipsy and want to argue about what would happen if zombies invaded Jane Austen. To me, that remains the proper locale. Such discussions do not generally need to be published. I couldn't see anything they were adding to the story, and for the most part, the author was using a book that's now in the public domain and changing small bits of it, then making money.

For years, one of my friends has collected Family Circus books, and circulated them at parties, inviting people to write their own (frequently outrageous and jawdropping) punchlines underneath the saccharine ones. I love these books. They make me laugh, they make me outraged, they make me doubt the sanity of my friends. I do not think they need to be published, even if Family Circus were in the public domain.

So how do I feel about this one, which appears to be more of the author actually writing, rather than tweaking existing material, doing an alt-history? It's certainly more up my alley - my husband and I bat around ideas for an alt-Canadian history book we could write, with Sir John A. using a wooden mecha to fight Bigfoot, or with Laura Secord as a superspy. Or how ninjas helped win the Quiet Revolution. None of these ideas have ever made it to paper, but we have fun talking about it.

Seth Grahame-Smith actually wrote it. Well, a book-length version of one story, and I'm not entirely sure there's enough here. Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter kept my attention (unsurprising - I needed some fluff after a book about the Sudan and another about the plight of the working-class in Victorian England). But I didn't laugh, I didn't even crack a wry smile. The book is already disappearing from my memory and I finished it yesterday.

My American political history is spotty, so I can't speak how in-depth his research was. So for pure entertainment value, it's okay. It didn't bore me, it didn't enrage me, it didn't capture or enrapture me.

I had expected it to be funnier, and I'm not sure the seriousness served this work well, although I do admit that I can imagine plenty of versions where humour grated.

It's just fluff. And sometimes, that's okay. But on the other hand, I can't think of any particular reason to recommend it, either.

Friday, 25 April 2014

The Ghost Road by Pat Barker



What becomes of us when all we know is death and killing, and that is taken away?

If that is the question being asked, the answer is not forthcoming. The book ends just before the war does, so we never get to see how any surviving characters would reintegrate into civilian life. From their worries, their neuroses, and what the experiences of warfare have done to them, the answer appears to be "not well." If the experiences of Rivers among the headhunters are instructive, particularly not well.

In the midst of the First World War, Billy Prior desperately wants to go back to the front. A victim of what is then termed shell shock, he has been hospitalized in England. Rivers, the psychiatrist that has taken care of him and many other men, sees the effects of war every day, but does not understand why anyone would want to return to the front. Billy does make it back, along with the poet Wilfred Owen.

From afar, Rivers tries to heal the men in his care, knowing they'll be sent back to be killed. While suffering from a battle with Spanish influenza, he gets stuck in his memories of doing anthropological research with a headhunting tribe, and his witness of their disintegration when headhunting is forbidden.

The Ghost Road feels distant from its characters sometimes, but from that remove weaves beautifully the attractions and horrors of war, the material world surrounding these soldiers, the hospitals that take care of the dead and dying, and who know their success stories will be sacrificed anew. We see men who are irrevocably changed by war. Their culture is now death, and death is about to be taken away.

Sex is another battlefield in this book - getting it, having it, exerting power through sexuality. Billy has to plan out an extensive campaign in order to be able to be alone with his fiancee, and, as in most combat, the plan doesn't survive first contact with the enemy. Billy also attracts and is attracted to men and women he encounters, and maneuvers sexual interactions skillfully, and mostly from a position of power, power that he has not always held.

This book deals with what parts of their lives the soldiers can control, which are controlled for them, and how they deal with it. And the looming threat of peace, which the soldiers both desire and fear.

The writing in The Ghost Road is evocative, and the details of the seamier sides of a soldiers life mesmerizing. The focus is squarely on the human elements of war, and Barker does a striking job of examining the moment before the end.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

Some Spoilers for the previous book, The Lies of Locke Lamora

Gods damn it, Scott Lynch! You did it to me again!

And this time there's no excuse. I remembered very vividly how the first book was a great deal of rollicking fun, and then an emotional evisceration in the last few chapters. But somehow, I forgot that until the final battle drew near, and suddenly, a sense of foreboding settled over me. I'd been here before. Characters I loved had died. It filled me with a sense of dread to turn the pages.

I truly don't want to spoil anything here, but let's just say that the new character I had grown to love the best suffered a horrific fate. And if anything, it was even worse than the deaths in The Lies of Locke Lamora, because this one was heroic. And horrifying. I was sitting in the middle of the campus cafeteria seating area, crying. It makes me upset even to write about it.

I rarely give the second book by a new author who delighted me quite as good a review. This one is going to be an exception. I think it's even better than the first, and I loved the first. I've already bought the third, but I think I'm going to wait a while to read it, until the emotional wounds have at least started to scab over.

We rejoin Locke and Jean as they are midway through a plot to steal from the owner of the richest casino in Tal Verrar. It's Ocean's...well, Two. Complete with snappy dialogue, twisty plans, and some breathtaking reveals. But then the local military leader, the Archon, steps in and "convinces" Locke and Jean to do a job for him - and no, I'm not saying how. He wants a military threat to bolster his power, and trains Locke and Jean how to masquerade as pirates, with the aid of a ship master who actually knows what he's doing.

Unfortunately, Locke can get neither women nor cats onboard his ship, which makes his new crew immediately suspicious. And soon, he is captured by pirates! And the book really takes wing here - the pirate captain, her first mate, and the rest of the crew are all wonderful characters. Locke juggles plots like mad, trying to stay ahead and alive.

Did I mention the Bondsmagi are still out for his blood as well? Throw another couple of balls into the fire!

It's a satisfying book, and starts out with a great device. We see Locke and Jean, in the middle of a stand-off. Jean appears to betray Locke. Those of us (read: me) who are deeply attached to the characters dismiss this as an obvious ploy. Jean would never betray Locke! They might fight, sure, but if you're making a list of impossibilities, this would be at the top. So I think I totally know what's going on in this scene.

And damned if, in the next few chapters, Lynch doesn't supply us with a perfectly believable reason why that scene might turn out the way it appears to be turning out. It doesn't contradict my deep-down knowledge about Locke and Jean, but it does make sense with everything that's happened. This is quite the feat of writing - giving me several different potential answers to this scenario, and each of them seems equally plausible. Talk about tenterhooks!

This is such a strong book, a wonderful entry into this series. Fun, enjoyable, and then, devastating. I guess I'll mention the swearing, as it seems to put some people off. I don't understand that, but there it is. People swear. If you're shocked by that, this is not the book for you. But if the idea of a fantasy men with conmen, pirates and schemes by the yard appeals, check this one out, after you've read the first in the series.

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

It kind of says something when I want to bounce ideas about the book I'm reading off my husband, and all I can think to say is, "meh, it's fine." (He's gotten quite used to having me talk about books he hasn't had a chance to read yet, and tends to have amazing insights anyway. And if he doesn't, I at least get to formulate my ideas out loud, which is always how I think best, and he listens patiently.)

Even more telling may be the part where I started this book, and then remembered that I'd read it before. But not in any way that anything had really stuck with me. There was no rush of "oh, yes, I remember that!" that I got when I was rereading David Copperfield, and bits I'd forgotten rushed back to welcome me like old friends. It was more "oh, yeah, I did read that. Huh."

And yet, it's not terrible. I just feel terribly neutral about it. It's fine. It really is.

It's just not anything more. I'd say maybe it's cultural, but I've read plenty of books, some about different cultures, where different generations fundamentally don't understand each other. Some of those have been freaking fantastic. Maybe it's me. Maybe it's not.

It's also that this genre exploded after The Joy Luck Club, with books about Chinese women's experiences in the United States, and so I also have some of the knowledge of the books this spawned, and it doesn't seem so unique anymore. It might have been at the time, but once novelty is taken away, it's just...fine.

Four Chinese women lament that their Americanized daughters don't understand them. Four daughters are annoyed that their mothers don't understand them. The writing is fine, the characters are fine, it just doesn't sparkle or leap off the page.

It's not bad. It's just not great. Hopefully this time I'll retain the memory of having read it.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Coraline has been my reread for the past week. Which, you know, means I read it (again) in the bathroom. Not that I read it in the bathroom the first time. Am I making sense? Because I am feeling emotionally hungover from a very long day yesterday. It is not the first time I have read this book. It is the first time I read it in the bathroom. I'm not sure why I feel the need to mention that. Multiple times.

Except that it's a reread, and that's my rereading space.

Rereads can take me months, reading them in small chunks, occasionally getting distracted by graphic novels or Penny Arcade collections. Coraline, on the other hand, took me less than a week. Given that it's a children's book, that makes perfect sense.

But it is a damned spooky children's book. I think if I'd first read this as a child (I was a very oversensitive child), I might have spent the next few years being terrified of buttons. Or things lurking in the basement. Or locked doors. Something.

Roald Dahl's The Witches had me crossing the streets when I ran into women wearing gloves, The BFG had me terrified to go to sleep lest a giant eat me, and The Dark Crystal movie made me think every branch scratching at my window was a Skeksis.

So, I'm a little glad I didn't run into Coraline as a child. On the other hand, I'm more jaded now, and it didn't give me those deep-down terrors other books did. Is that lack of emotional reaction a sign that I've grown up, or a sign that I've lost something in so doing? Both?

At any rate, Coraline, who loves her parents even though they did just move her to a new house, and are busy working, and sometimes her father makes dinner from recipes, is bored. In this state, she uses an old key to open a door that should open on a bricked up wall, but is instead a passageway. Down that passageway is her mother. But not her mother. With buttons sewn into her eyes. As the button-eyed mother tries to entice Coraline to stay, Coraline has to be brave and try to free her parents and all the other children the notmother has trapped.

And even when it seems to be over, it's not over.

Coraline is a very fun book, but it doesn't hit me as deeply as other Neil Gaiman books have, or as hard as scarring children's books did when I was little. I recommend it, highly, but it's not one of my favourite Gaiman books, and it doesn't sweep me away.

But it is damned creepy.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

First of all, there's a blurb on the back saying that this book "has the kind of intimacy found in the diary of Anne Frank," and that irritates me, because it's obvious that this comparison is only being made because both authors died in concentration camps. Can we use the eventual fate of an author as the basis of a comparison that makes no sense?

Because, while The Diary of Anne Frank is an amazing book, a clear and forthright recording of unimaginable events by a teenage girl, Suite Francaise is obviously written by an accomplished author, and has breadth and insight into a much more sweeping story. 

Both books are good, but they're nothing alike. The manner of an author's death, no matter how specific, is not a basis for comparison of works they wrote while alive.

Suite Francaise was a book that I wasn't sure about until I started to read it, and got swept up in the story, the characters, and Nemirovsky's merciless eye for human grace and ridiculousness, often both encapsulated in the same moments. The book covers the surrender of Paris, and the later occupation of a small town by the Germans, in two discrete sections, although a few characters bridge the gap. 

Tragedy is rarely poetic, graceful, or beautiful, and yet we expect it to be such. One character, an author, is disgusted by the pettiness of the tragedy he sees around him after a German bombing, wanting these messy bodies and wounds and groaning underclasses out of his sight so he can enjoy the artistic merit. But these events do not conform to artistic desires, and Nemirovsky continues to show how there can be grace in some gestures, and cruelty and ridiculousness in others. Often even coming from the same characters.

Nemirovsky also has a lot of cutting things to say about class in France, for as the upper class flees Paris, they seem as concerned with asserting their class privilege as with the impending invasion of the Germans. They are infuriated when the lower classes have food, or, in the second half of the book, refuse to be subservient. One character makes the astute observation that while the wife of the local big landowner is happy to dole out scraps of food as charity, and to sell supplies to those of the same class, she won't sell anything she has to those she considers social inferiors, because that would allow them status. And so she thinks they need to beg or starve. 

And yet, in the middle of tragedy, there is humanity. The Germans, when they come, are not monsters, although they are also not just misunderstood young men. They are conquerors, willingly or not (and there are some of each), and Nemirovsky understands acutely the power imbalances in any relationship that begins under such circumstances. Dolce, the second half of the book, considers the arrangements both sides make to exist as conquerors and the conquered, each to the best of their ability, until the strains of such a relationship inevitably begin to fray the deceptive calm of the town. 


There is such a strong sense of complexity in this book, of difficult situations, and how power is contained and expressed, and how powerlessness is accepted and rejected. As a look at her adopted country under incredible pressures, Suite Francaise is an unsentimental look at this time period, although not quite a cynical one. And it is also a look at how humans react in difficult times, and this specific difficult time, and the wide variety of their responses, the times they reach out to help each other, and the times they withhold what they have, out of fear or anger or distrust.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Mort by Terry Pratchett

I've been reading Mort while I eat for the last week or so - it's just about the perfect level for that amount of attention. To the person I borrowed the book from, I promise I didn't get any food on it. I'm just trying to say something about Terry Pratchett. It's thoroughly enjoyable and light, and not particularly taxing. Perfect reading while eating.

This did make my experience of reading it rather choppy, though. While I enjoyed it, I didn't love it, and that might be as much a part of how I was reading as the book itself. Take that into consideration.

Death is looking for an apprentice. He picks Mort, who doesn't quite fit in with his family. He's too easily distracted, you see. Thinking big thoughts instead of getting stuff done. So when Death comes along to the apprentice's fair, Mort is ready to go with him. But being Death's apprentice isn't an easy task. Particularly when there's a beautiful princess next to have her thread cut....

Mort does a nice job of subverting narrative expectations. Mort is quite an intelligent young man, and less bumbling than well-meaning. And the adventure with the princess doesn't go quite the way we might have expected it to, given that set-up - and I think the ending we did get was much more satisfying.

Still, it does feel a little slight. I think, of all the Discworld books, I've responded most strongly to the Night Watch ones. The others I generally enjoy, but feel a little bit like something is lacking at the end. The story of Mort is definitely entertaining, but lacks a bit of that social commentary and bite that the Night Watch books have had. Or maybe it's later Pratchett vs. earlier? I don't know enough to know.

It is telling that I've already run out of things to say. This is fun, and it's light, and it gets me one more book closer to finishing the BBC's Big Read books. I'm glad I read it.

Read as part of the BBC Big Read

Deadline by Mira Grant

This would be the series I accidentally started in the middle, as the Kindle was thumbing its nose at my attempts to find publication dates. I was on a plane at the time, and didn't have internet access to check.

So, yes, I started in the middle. That may have affected how I viewed this book.

And for the most part, I enjoyed it, but I didn't love it. It's fairly solid all the way through, with some very nice tension being built in times of zombie outbreaks. It's not heavy character stuff, but there's enough there. And I'm not a zombie aficionado, so the fact that I liked it at all is probably a good sign.

But man, did I ever dislike the villain. Or rather, did I ever find him frustrating. Look, they talk in this book about the previous book, about the villain of that piece being almost a cartoony mustache-twirling super villain. If you get that that's what it was like, why do it again? 

And honestly, his little diatribe about what he was doing and why, I didn't understand it at all. It didn't make narrative sense, and as far as I could tell, it didn't make logical sense either. (The annoyingness of flipping back a few pages on the Kindle to reread to see if I could understand as it became clear more explanations were not going to be forthcoming meant that I just forged ahead, befuddled.)

So, anyway. Many years after the Rising, Shaun Mason, "action journalist" or "Irwin" still grieves the loss of his serious-journalist sister. He does a not-very-good job of running their news/blog site after she was gone. But then a dead doctor shows up on his doorstep (and not the zombie kind), and he's plunged back into fighting and running from the conspiracy that killed his sister. 

The rest of the book is that pursuit, and the feeling of a surveillance state instituted to fend off zombie attacks was well done. It heightens the tension when it needs to be heightened. I just wish the conspiracy made a little more sense. I suppose all will truly be revealed in the third book in the trilogy. But I wasn't enthralled with this one.


(I will probably read the other two, though, as they were both nominated for Hugos, I think, and I'm trying to work my way through all the Hugo nominees. I'm about a quarter of the way there.)

Booklinks:

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

Sunday, 20 April 2014

"Cold Light" by Capt. S.P. Meek

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

Magazine: Astounding Stories of Super-Science, March 1930

We're back to Capt. S.P. Meek, military chemist and erstwhile science fiction writer. This from the scientist who brought you the revelation (under a different pen-name) that gravity is just magnetism, and apparently your feet are made of metal, or something. Are you ready for the newest scientific discovery he's made? Are you sure?

Here it is: That cold is not a lack of heat, it is "negative heat." That is, it is a separate substance, that cold, and can be added to things to make them cold. With the help of a reflector dish that can made spots approaching absolute zero. On the surface of the Earth. With, apparently, no long-term repercussions of creating absolute zero in the wild. Yeah, I don't know either.

Oh, but we do have an utterly unethical scientist again! But he was suborned by a Russian agent, and although he thought it was perfectly cool to kill the passengers of one plane in order to steal jewels, he balked at bringing down another plane that witnessed the first falling out the sky. So he's a good guy? As long as he's only okay with some murder, not all the murder?

I suppose I should go back to the plot, so you know what I'm talking about. This is another story about Dr. Bird and Agent Carnes, scientist/FBI team par extraordinaire! Carnes interrupts Bird on his vacation, weaving a story about being in a two-plane convoy crossing the States. In the front plane were agents, jewels, and the U.S. government's defense plans. No, I'm not sure how the jewel merchants bought space on the secret government plane. Apparently it happens all the time?

Oh, I know! It's to make it easy for the Russians to convince a money-hungry scientist (oh, those scientists!) to bring down the plane so they can steal the plans! Wow! The American government is really accommodating to evil plots!

Carnes sees the first plane go down, and when he gets to the ground, he finds shattered passengers. Not smushed, shattered. Frozen solid. Do they melt? Wait, I don't really want to know. He brings Bird in to check it out, and Bird advances his theory that cold is negative heat, and they're looking for a scientist who has figured out how to make it.

On the way, the science talk is so dry I felt parched. Maybe someone with a stronger science background might find it interesting, but for a layperson, it makes the story grind to a screeching halt. Fortunately, the science is broken up by gunshots, as Bird, Carnes, and two luckless men they hired to guide them out into the wilderness fight it out with the scientist and the Russian. (The Russian shoots the scientist, in the end.)

The scientist tells his tale of discovery and betrayal. He shows no remorse for killing the people on the first plane, because jewels, but seems to expect that they'll believe he's a good guy because he didn't go in for wholesale slaughter. Weirder, they pretty much seem to agree with him. He dies, taking the secret of negative heat with him. Dr. Bird is angry.

So let's see - utter lack of women, yes. Lack of non-white characters, yes. Unethical scientists, check. The poor schmoes who guide them are the cannon fodder. So, a fairly typical style for this magazine, and particularly for this writer. 

Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay

For a book about the horrible murder of one young girl, an attack on another, stalking, obsession, and numerous affairs and broken marriages, there's surprisingly little urgency. The whole thing felt very detached from events that I would expect to feel compelling, but from which the narrative kept its emotional distance. 

So, there it is. It's not a bad book, but never really connected with me. I didn't really care about any of the characters. I didn't hate them either. I just felt that whatever happened to the characters had little impact on them, really, and so they didn't really matter to me.

Where does this sense of detachment come from? The narrative? The lack of communication of emotional impact? I like it when authors underplay the emotion that you can feel boiling underneath the surface - but there has to be some hidden heat. This was cool as a late autumn morning. And not a stormy or windy or elegiac one, either. Just a day. 

Which is frustrating, because the prose style is very competent. But, I don't know. I wanted some of the things that were going on to really hit home to the characters, instead of being just one more experience they pass through on their way to...where?

The narrator is telling the story of her aunt Connie, her aunt's early teaching experiences, the troubled principal at her school, and the young man she gave extra tutoring to. Then it moves to later, when Connie is reporting on a horrible murder for which a young man is convicted and then, on appeal, released. The troubled principal turns up again. So does the young man. Then Connie travels to Europe on the eve of the war. Somewhere in there she gets married, almost absentmindedly, and then divorced, just as absentmindedly. 

Then she starts to teach again. And the narrator is investigating all these old stories, and breaks up her own marriage, again, absentmindedly. These things happen to the characters, flow through them, and don't seem to change them. And that's bloody frustrating.

It feels like there's a better book hidden inside this one, but it has been so severely tamped down that I can barely see the edges of it.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Hexed by Kevin Hearne

Second in the Atticus O'Sullivan series, and I think I have pretty much the same perspective on this book as I did on the first. It's thoroughly fun. Not deep, but with a nice sense of humour and snark wrapped up in an entertaining urban fantasy. But not the urban metropoli we're used to - these are set in Arizona. Also, there's an entertaining dog character, and while I'm not a dog person in real life, good dog characters almost always win my heart.

Atticus has survived the attack of Aengus, Celtic god, and killed him in the process, collecting yet another mythic sword in the process. Sure, he's missing an ear, but that's nothing that a little vigorous sex won't cure. However, now that's he's killed a god, other god-killers are trying to get him on side. To be precise, everyone's out for Thor. Atticus has no particular bone to pick with Thor, and this particular book sets that up. I presume the next will play it out.

He's also in the middle of negotiating a peace treaty with witches, which is definitely outside of his comfort area. Witches can control you with any piece of yourself, and Atticus has had some bad run-ins before. And then the actual witch coven he had the bad run-in with turns up, and while the local witches might not be entirely trustworthy, at least they're not actually trying to kill him.

Oh, and also, there is a maenad attack. It sort of feels like maybe too many attacks, although it does effectively give the sense of Atticus being under siege. He's forced to call on another powerful witch for help, and in return makes a promise that looks like it's going to play into the Thor plotline.

And there are further Tuatha de Danaan politics going on. Mostly over which of the goddesses will sleep with Atticus, and thereby, they think, gain power over him. (And learn how he makes his protective amulets.) Morrigan gets there first, but Brigid has her own appeals. This could speak a little too heavily of everyone wanting to sleep with the hero, but it's pretty apparent that those who want to sleep with him are attracted to him only incidentally, if at all. They're just trying to bind him. And Atticus seems to get that even though he's attracted to someone, that doesn't make it a good idea, nor does it obligate them to reciprocate. I guess those couple thousand years of life are worth something!

There isn't much of great depth in here, but these are very satisfying books. I've heard quibbles that Atticus talks too much like someone from the late 20th century, but this book makes the point that he consciously tries to learn language as it evolves, to stay hidden. It isn't like he's been transplanted from two thousand years earlier. He's lived through each of those years. And so it doesn't bother me.

I'd like to see more done with Granuaile, Atticus' new apprentice druid. She has had much so far, but she's an interesting character. And, of course, there's Oberon, the irish wolfhound, who in this book has gotten over his obsession with Mongols and now identifies with 1960s Merry Trickster culture. Oberon is always fun.

If you're looking for modern fantasy with tons of mythological references, a snarky lead character, a dog, and lots of action, this would probably be for you. I certainly enjoyed it for exactly what it was.

Gypsies by Robert Charles Wilson

What is it about Gypsies that fell short of the mark for me? I think, in many ways, it isn't that there's anything wrong with it, there's just not enough right. It is a perfectly fine entry in a blended sf/fantasy genre, but that hook that reached out and grabbed me and held me close, the way the story did in Spin, just wasn't here. Early book syndrome, perhaps? It's only my second Robert Charles Wilson, so it's hard to be sure.

First, genre. It's sort of science fiction, as the ability to travel between worlds seems to have been bred into humans through experimentation, but experimentation with magic as well as science. So, fantasy? There are few other fantasy trappings, however. No dragons. No quest for a heroic band to set forth upon, thankfully. No feudal politics.

Just our world, a slightly better one, and a grey dismal world where the church still rules Europe with an iron fist, Muslim armies are on the doorstep, and the Novus Ordo in the U.S. is bent on making the world even greyer and more bleak. In the name of world order, anyway. And to do so, it had bred three people who can walk between worlds. But two escaped, were tracked down and killed by the third, but left children. Those children now have children (one does, anyway.) The three children were raised by a father who was terrified of their power (and something else?) and tried to beat it out of them. The grandchild has been raised in absolute unawareness of what he can do.

As a meditation on better worlds and the power of imagining them, well, this is a little slight. As much as bleakness is not really my preferred setting, this might have been more powerful if it had been set more in Novus Ordo - those were the sections that gave the book oomph, and they are so slightly discussed. Whether or not the Vatican would endorse the horrible experiments being done, how it could do so, what arguments they would use, those were all the considerations I was most interested in.

The dilemma of the priest, caught between exigency and morality, was by far the most acute, and frankly, interested me more than main characters.

But this is an interesting twist on alternate worlds, and it's well written. It just wasn't quite my cup of tea.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Breakfast With Scot by Michael Downing

If this book were a painting, there would be large greyed-out spaces on the canvas, filled with the absence of something. And I don't mean this in an admiring sense of artistic integrity. I mean it as a comment on someone who just can't be arsed to finish the damn work. Because of this, and what really did feel like quite a lot of transphobia, this isn't a book I would rush to recommend to anyone. And these two things compounded each other, making it neither a perceptive look into parenting a difficult child, or a commentary on, well, just about anything. Instead, it's a story about a bunch of people who really come off as jerks.

At the heart of the book are a gay couple who end up being left a child in someone's will. Not someone who is related to either of them, someone who used to date a brother of one of them. This seems like a slipshod way to make sure your child is taken care of, but the dead mother seems to have been that sort of person, so I'll give it a pass.

Where it doesn't get a pass are the ways the story lurches like a car slipping gears. Without chapter breaks, without even line breaks, suddenly we'll be, oh, weeks later. Wait, Scot arrived? What was that like? I don't get to know? Oh-kay. And now we're when? What's gone on in the meantime?

Dude, I'm glad you know your story. Throw those of us who don't a bone, okay? People have been talking a lot about this recently as an offshoot of a particularly branch of literary fiction. This is my first time running into it, and I'm going to give the technique the benefit of the doubt and believe that it can be done better than it is here. But I don't like it, so far.

It's supposed to center around the idea of showing, not telling. Which is great on TV. It's even good in your books to, rather than just saying "he was kind to those around him," showing me how he is kind. I'm not as convinced that it works by not telling us what your first-person narrator is thinking, giving us only his impressions instead. I don't know about you guys, but from inside this particular head that is mine, I both receive sensory impressions AND have thoughts. Sometimes at the same time. Weird, huh?

Taking thoughts out, almost entirely, from your first person narrator, gives them a curiously disembodied feeling, and does nothing at all to help me connect to them.

So I have a main character who, if I can tell from his sensory impressions and actions, is really kind of a jerk. Maybe knowing why he does what he does might help me feel more sympathetic, but maybe not. We do sometimes get his thoughts when he tells them to other characters, but if you're giving us the intimate position of riding around  in his head while he carries the book, why use that as a reason to create distance instead of intimacy? Why go first-person?

This is even more difficult to stomach when it slips into a distaste and fear of Scot when it comes to Scot's tendencies to cross-dress and enjoy "girls'" things, particularly when it comes to apparel. I know that transphobia can slip between sexual orientations, but I was depressed that everyone in this book seemed to have the same kneejerk reaction to Scot. Mostly, for those outside the family unit, it was "keep that kid away from my kids." And then for the two new parents to have pretty much the same reaction, to spend so much time to "fix" Scot rather than understand him, made me uneasy  It was difficult to read. They're not mean about it, but quite insistent that he find ways to sublimate or hide who he is...really?

Maybe they're more understanding in the parts of the book the author chose not to write, I don't know. They seem to be doing it from a caring place, but that doesn't make it less awful. In a book about gay men becoming parents, it's difficult to run into so little acceptance. And it's not like anyone grows or learns. Scot learns how to hide it better and only let it out at times, which seems like a terrible fucking message. The new parents learn they really do love him, they just wish he'd hide his strangeness better.

I learned I don't like this book, and I don't like this literary fiction technique.

Collected Poems of Philip Larkin

I fully admit that I know very little about poetry. Very little. But what I've now read of Philip Larkin's work really didn't grab me at all. At times, it irritated the heck out of me. (This started with a nasty little poem called "To My Wife" and never really went away. Also, as far as I could tell, he never married.)

I could see three distinct periods in his poetry - his very early stuff was, to me, almost unreadable. Full of overly complicated sentences and clauses that took a pencil and a firm grasp of grammar to even work out what the hell he was talking about. I found it very hard to make head or tails of most of them - he's certainly experimenting with interesting rhyme structures, but much of the time, at the cost of sense.

Then, in his middle period, he suddenly becomes much pithier and more readable. There were sections of this I liked, but just as many poems that annoyed the heck out of me. Lots of self-pitying "why should I have to work instead of doing more important things," and "why should I have to engage in the mundanities of every day life when I should be doing more important things" and they just never read as profound to me. More like whiny.

And all these poems on growing older that didn't ring true, and I'd check the dates and exclaim "you're only 32! Give me a break!"

It wasn't until the last section, where he actually was growing older, and the content seemed to shift again, and this time it started to ring true - there were some truly good poems at that point.

But by then, it was hard to get back into the swing of things. But my entirely subjective and uninformed opinion is that his later stuff is really quite good, but man, his early stuff is irritating as hell.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold

Cetaganda doesn't have the manic energy of The Warrior's Apprentice, which retains top spot as my favourite Vorkosigan book so far. It lacks that pell-mell, out-of-control sense of urgency that I absolutely fell in love with. But it is still a solid entry into the series, and Miles remains an incredibly appealing character to read about.

In Cetaganda, Miles and his nice but a little dim cousin Ivan are sent to Cetaganda to attend a major ritual as part of ongoing diplomatic efforts (after, you know, Miles thwarted the Cetagandan invasion in a previous book). The Empress has died, and her funeral is a big deal on this highly stratified world of genetically-altered haut nobles, ambitious ghem courtiers, and a large underclass. (Actually, we don't hear much about the underclass, just the haut and the ghem.)

But when Miles is met at the airlock by a servant to the former Empress and is left with a strange artifact, and then that same servant shows up dead beside the Empress' coffin, something is definitely afoot.

Cetaganda is awash with conspiracies, and Miles is thrown in at the deep end. He becomes embroiled in the machinations of a bunch of haut women, who are rarely seen outside their opaque bubbles, but who may control more than initially meets the eye.

This is fun, but I felt too certain from the beginning that Miles would come through unscathed. Some of the first events seem like they should spark repercussions, but really don't. And in a world where genetic engineering is everything, I would have liked those themes to be explored in a little more depth.

While this is fun, it ultimately feels a little slight. Too little urgency, too little danger, too little exploration of deeper themes. But still, if you are looking for a good mystery where the detective is baffled up to his neck, this does fit the bill.

Monday, 14 April 2014

A Tiny Bit Marvellous by Dawn French

English family life in the key of shrill.

Ugh.

This book seems to take as its premise that not only are teenagers constantly (and I mean constantly) at a fever pitch of screaming and hating their parents, but also that that emotional lability (screw you, Goodreads, that is too a word) and immaturity and utter lack of self-awareness continues through everyone's entire lives.

Dora is shrill and screaming and unbearable and a little prat (teenagers are supposed to be, but this book is akin to sitting next to one to whom you're unrelated, while she's screaming on the phone for three hours). The bigger problem is, so is her mother. Mo has about the same level of maturity as Dora, and thinks things through about as well, and oh my god, they are both such unpleasant idiots to be around!

And Oscar isn't really any better. Insufferable, pompous and self-absorbed. Why would I want to spend any time with these twits, anyway?

Dawn French appears to be trying to do her best Sue Townsend impression, but without of any of the wit or insight or deft touch that Townsend brings to Adrian Mole. This is just shrill. It's just unpleasant. And then, at the end, it hinges on the stupidest of contrived contrivances, and then goes straight for attempted heart-wrenching, without having earned it one jot.

Even worse, I'm reading this at the same time I'm reading The Casual Vacancy (and it's really very good, you guys), and that is showing off how false and fake and, yes, shrill, A Tiny Bit Marvellous is. (I need to find another word than shrill, but it fits the book so well!) The Casual Vacancy has a couple of superficially similar characters, but isn't over-the-top, isn't trying to show how clever it is, and every moment in J.K. Rowling's first adult novel rings truer and sadder and more insightful than this.

Skip this one. Just do it. Your literary eardrums will thank me.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Changeless by Gail Carriger

*Caution: Spoilers Near the End*

Changeless relies less heavily on standard romance tropes, and so was a more entertaining book than the first in the series. I was a little let down by the ending, though. It felt abrupt, and pointless - the theories advanced to explain it seemed immediately logical, so the reaction of some characters seemed overblown. And more, unforgivable. We'll wait to see what the next book does, but if the main character is desperately trying to get her husband to forgive her, my feminist outrage may outweigh the amount of frothy fun these books have been.

Let's see. The main character from the first book is now married to her Scottish werewolf paramour, and lives with him and the rest of his pack. But he takes off in the middle of the night to investigate a plague of humanity that is afflicting the supernatural elements in London. Not humans. Werewolves and vampires are reverting to their former vulnerable human selves. Ghosts have disappeared.

As the resident preternatural, Alexia is summoned to investigate what's going on. While in London, she is diverted to a hat shop, where an attractive hat designer dressed in men's clothing gives her a parasol and some innuendo. I sort of hope that's going somewhere, and not just teased. That would be kind of a rip-off.

The locus of the anti-supernatural whatever moves to Scotland, and so Alexia's husband follows. (Is it a bad sign that I can't remember any of the character names, after two books? I've had to look them up.) Alexia goes after him by airship, accompanied by the hatmaker/inventor, her best friend, and her sister. There is a fairly tiresome subplot about the two latter characters, mostly about them being silly women and cattily fighting over a man.

They emerge in Scotland only to meet what's-his-name's former pack, recently returned from the wars in India, and seemingly carrying this anti-supernatural plague with them. The pack is led by a non-werewolf, the granddaughter of Alexia's husband. (All right, let me take the time to look it up. This is getting tiresome.) Conall Maccon. Fine. The granddaughter wants Conall to change her, even though women rarely survive the process (why? This is said for both vampires and werewolves, but no real explanation why.)

We still have no real explanation of what not having a soul means. Any time, Carriger.

This is a fairly fun romp, and I enjoyed more than the first, which I thought was very slight. As a romance, it was fine. As anything more, meh.

But right at the end, when it is revealed that Alexia is pregnant, the shit hits the fan in a very weird fashion. Her husband gets violent and breaks things. Werewolves can't impregnate anyone! It's known! Yeah, but Alexis points out, he's human when they have sex, since she's touching him, and can age during that time and stuff, so why couldn't he get her pregnant?

This, to me, seems perfectly logical. But no. More violence and threats. And seriously, if any part of the next book is HER trying to get HIS forgiveness, I will probably have issues. My husband is Scottish, if not a werewolf (that I know of), and would never pull that shit on me.

But more than the gender politics, I hate false drama. And this just reeks of false drama.

So this is a fun adventure, spoiled by a melodramatic ending.


Bonk by Mary Roach

Mary Roach takes her practically patented whirlwind tour through the world of sex research. And for the most part, it's very fun. And occasionally cringe-inducing. But less so than Stiff, which had me avoiding that book any time I was eating. Bonk never gave me the same problems.

On the other hand, it's going to be a bitch to write this review without double entendres. Maybe I should just give up on that particular goal now.

I think all my nitpicks are because I know more about sex and sexuality than I do about death and the body-disposal business. Whereas Stiff was all stuff I didn't know, in Bonk I knew enough to want MORE about all sorts of the topics.

Like sex research itself. She alludes all the time to how hard it is to get sex research funding, but it's piecemeal and not a coherent topic. Why not focus a few pages just on that? What kinds of projects are being funded and why and how and what are the stumbling points? How do our conceptions of sex and sexuality both steer the research in certain ways while making other ways utterly taboo? To what degree do we have a body of literature on the topic that has been shaped by prevailing political concerns, and how do the men and women who research this deal with it? (Again, it's not that this isn't touched on, but only lightly, and not brought together as a theme.)

There were a few other sections that I wanted more depth in. But for the most part, Bonk was fun, it was interesting, it was fairly light. Sex is a fascinating topic, and I applaud the brave men and women who keep doing research in the area, despite the breezes of political winds that insist that the less we know about it, the better off we'll all be. How utterly ridiculous.

Friday, 11 April 2014

In Memoriam: Sue Townsend

I think this is the first time since I started this blog that an author whose works I knew well has died. I liked the one Frederik Pohl book I'd read, but that didn't seem like enough to really feel like I knew him as an author.

And then I heard that Sue Townsend had died. Far too early, for my liking. And I will miss her greatly. Her Adrian Mole books were some of my staple books growing up, and they're still works I return to when I'm feeling the need for a comfort read. Adrian grew up as I did, and was pretty much still as much as a prat as he always was. I can't say I loved the last entry in that canon, but I did all the rest. Of her other fiction, I'm sorry to say that I've only read The Queen and I.

I knew her only as a reader, and since last night I've been trying to gather my thoughts about what it was about her writing that has consistently appealed to me for over two decades. It's funny, to start. Not gutbustingly funny, but the kind that evokes frequent wry smiles, and winces. It's that kind of British humour where you can see how the main character is about to cock everything up, and then get to watch as he does it. Poor Adrian.

I laughed at Adrian a lot over the years, but always retained an affection for him as a character, despite his asshattery. Townsend had a delicate touch, making us both like Adrian while we also enjoyed how he got himself into trouble, and almost always did the wrong thing at the wrong moment.

The Queen and I is another book I've frequently pulled off my shelf over the years, when I wanted something I knew and knew I would enjoy. The Queen comes out of her travails on a council estate with her dignity intact, which is not really something that can be said for all her family. But as a look at English poverty through the lens of the most privileged family in the country, it always grabs me and affords me a great deal of amusement. And wincing. Always with the wincing.

While we're sort of on the topic of politics, I'd also like to mention how much I've always loved that little bit of a faux diary for Margaret Thatcher that makes up one third of one of the Adrian Mole books. It's so pointed, and even as a fictional young girl, manages to capture a great deal of the crazed attitude to other people.

But what I'm really trying to say is thank you, Sue Townsend, for some of my dearest childhood friends. Thank you for letting them accompany me into adulthood, with no more success or composure than they had ever had.

Maybe it's time for a reread. 

Vicky Angel by Jacqueline Wilson

Under normal circumstances, I don't know that I would ever have read Jacqueline Wilson. I didn't discover her during my childhood, and as an adult, I don't think this would really have become an author on my radar. Normal circumstances, however, do not take into consideration my extreme stubbornness and the existence of the BBC's Big Read List. Due to the two in conjunction, I think this is my third Wilson book. I have to say, while they probably aren't something I would have sought out even as a child, they're not bad.

What I think where they are strongest is the sense of complexity. There is a level on which these could be straightforward - the stories of a girl losing a best friend, or of a girl leaving foster care, or of being a twin. But Wilson does a nice job of layering other things on top of it, making the lives of her characters complicated in ways that feel very much more life.

So in this one, Jade suffers the lost of her best friend. But it isn't just a take on her grieving. Her parents are kind of jerks, at times, and have their own stuff going on. Her dead best friend's parents are similarly wrapped up in their own pain. Other kids at school have varying reactions to Jade as she negotiates her Vicky-less world.

Vicky runs out in front of a car after school one day, and is hit. She dies later that day. Her best friend, Jade, who long hid in Vicky's shadow, is suddenly without her rock. Her parents are less than helpful, telling her talking about it and asking for help are forms of weakness. (Although they may be saying so to cover that they can't pay for therapy, and are afraid others might say they aren't good parents.)

Jade joins the Fun Run club, which Vicky was convincing her to join right before she died, and stays away from the Drama Club, which is what she really wants to do. Vicky not only overshadows this book as an absence, she's an active character. Vicky's ghost, or at least, Jade's projection of one, hangs around Jade. (The book doesn't definitively come down on whether or not this is supernatural.) We get the feeling that Vicky wasn't always a particularly nice person, or at least, Jade's memory of her seems that way. How do we deal with the warts on people we love who have died?

This is what I think makes these books more than they could be. The complexity stands up nicely to the very simple prose, and balancing the two is by no means an easy task. But all the same, I can't say I love these books. I know they're obviously greatly loved by the BBC's reading public, since there are so many on the top list, and I get why childhood favourites are disproportionately represented there. Still, it feels like something's missing.

I don't know what it is. But this are interesting books, and for children struggling with difficult times, I think they're good enough not to be insulting. There's nothing worse than saccharine reassurances that everything will be fine. These books manage to come to reasonably happy endings without feeling like they're faking it.

Read as part of the BBC Big Read


Tau Zero by Poul Anderson

Warning: Some Spoilers Below

I'm reading this book as moderator of a discussion on Sci Fi Aficionadoes. No one has chimed in yet on the discussion. It's a little lonely. The reason I'm bringing that up is because Tau Zero was the winner of our "Time Travel" theme, which has me a little bit...befuddled. I mean, yes, they travel through time, but in the same direction as the rest of us. At near light speed, so, you know, faster, or slower, or whatever. But in one direction. I guess that's time travel, but by that logic, every book that is in any way linear is about time travel.

It's a quibble, I suppose.

So, on the ship the Leonora Christine, on her way to colonize a new world, something goes very, very wrong with the decelerators. The accelerators are fine, but they can't stop. They are pretty much doomed to drift onwards while millennia and then billennia (is that a word?) pass them by. And if they keep drifting, or, even, increase their velocity, how long can they outlast the human race as a whole? Will they ever be able to stop? And what would they find then?

I think I might have had less of a quibble about it being time travel if the ship ever came back into sync with the rest of the universe before heat death and birth of a new universe. If they'd managed to slow down and encounter a post-human race, to have time travelled in the sense that they have been utterly left behind and have to deal with the future future future shock, I would have argued that that sense of being displaced would have made it more time travel in my books.

So that's the science fiction premise. But the characters are not really strong enough to keep this one afloat. It's fine, but if you're going to look at people in this kind of pressure cooker, it seems to demand more character-driven drama, less science. I look at Spider Robinson's Variable Star, which includes some of the same emotional elements, and I remember those elements for their impact on specific people, people I can pick out of my memory and cherish, or love, or pity, or hate. That seemed like a better exploration of individual reactions to what happened, and Tau Zero is more focused on how you keep a tight ship running.

I like Poul Anderson generally, but I can't say this is one of my favourites. It needed stronger characters to stand up against a very interesting concept, and I don't think any of the characters will stick out in my mind.

Booklinks:

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

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson

Remember how I've been lamenting my lack of getting American humour? How British humour makes me giggle, but American humour seems to leave me relatively cold? I take it back. I just haven't been reading good enough American humour, if this book is anything to go by. This book had exactly the tone that makes me laugh. You can ask my husband if I've ever giggled more while reading next to him in the living room. I'd be surprised. Sorry, American humour. It is you, unless it's Jenny Lawson. Apparently.

It is very hard to describe this book, other than hilarious. Sometimes the content is horrifying, often it's describing excruciatingly awkward situations. But damn it, it's funny about all of them! I have a soft spot for women who swear this much. It's part of what I liked about Julie and Julia. I identify with foulmouthed women. The hilarity is an amazing side effect.

Why? I don't know. Maybe I'm emotionally still ten. Maybe I just respond to that honesty of swearing a mile a minute when it's appropriate. You know what? Fuck it. I just like swearing.

Lawson apparently had a strange and sometimes traumatizing but not necessarily horrifying childhood, although I can see how some people might perceive it that way. But there's such affection in this book, and love for those strange moments that might have resulted in a need for therapy. We're all fucked up. Sometimes, we can celebrate how we got there.

Also, a raccoon in jammies? Eeeee!

It's of particular note how Lawson writes about mental health issues, and manages to make it very damn funny indeed, while never underplaying or dismissing it. It rings very true, and the ludicrous note that creeps in doesn't undermine how difficult life can be.

Let's see, what else. It may tell you more about me than anything else that when I was telling him Lawson's stories about starting to collect very strange taxidermied animals, my husband's first reaction was to look me in the eye and say very firmly, "No!"

Even when I told him about the little alligator dressed as a pirate. Which, come on! Who wouldn't want that?

He's no fun sometimes. 

Look, I don't know if you'll like this. What strikes me as possibly the funniest book I've ever read may not strike you the same way. But try it anyway. What have you got to lose? At worst, you'll have read about getting your arm stuck in a cow, strange taxidermy, and social anxiety. There's no downside, right?

But I giggled my ass off all the way through this book, sometimes accompanied by gasps. I hope you do the same.

What Is The What by Dave Eggers

I'm having trouble coming up with the right word to describe reading this book. "Enjoyed" is definitely not the right word - although the book is well-written, it's hard to call it enjoyable, nor is it trying to be. Moving? Something seems facile and reductionist about that, to reduce the story to something that affected me briefly, as if it is all about me.

Difficult? Definitely. In content, not style. Urgent?

What is the What is the fictional autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese man who fled the country on foot as a boy, and lived for more than ten years in refugee camps, before emigrating to the United States. It is about him, told in his words, based on hours and hours of interviews with the author, Dave Eggers. It is fictional in that not enough was available to flesh this out through witnesses, documents, sources, and so Eggers decided to tell the story, but to combine characters, to reimagine scenes from Deng's childhood that were sketchy.

This, of course, raises questions of authorship, as the book is written by Eggers, but in the narrative, he tries to remain invisible. I'm not sure how else it could be done, but I did do some research before I wrote this review, because it felt odd. After having read a couple of interviews about the process, about how they weren't initially sure who was going to write the book - whether Eggers was just helping Deng write his own autobiography, or would be writing it himself, I feel more comfortable, as if my comfort was all that matters.

What this is is a story about the importance of stories, of bearing witness, of telling and retelling and retelling stories that must be told. In the book, Deng is telling his story, but he's always telling it to someone in particular. Not necessarily out loud, but it is always addressed to someone. When I took a "Geographies of Emergency" drama course many, many years ago, we talked a lot about trauma, about the possibility of verifying facts absolutely that are acquired through trauma, what we do when memory contrasts with what we "know to have happened." And the feeling that there are stories that must not be forgotten, that must be told and retold. That the telling of stories can be a way to survive.

Where do our obligations come in as listeners? When must we listen, how do we listen, how do we judge the results?

This story is not easy. It is not necessarily enjoyable. But it must be told, and I had to hear it.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

"The Thief of Time" by Capt. S.P. Meek

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

Magazine: Astounding Stories of Super-Science, February 1930

This is the second story by Meek in this issue. The other was under a pseudonym, the story about the discovery that gravity was just magnetism, and ended in the death of a scientist. This is definitely a better story - maybe that's why he kept this one under his own name. The science is less ludicrous, and the scientists less hopelessly corrupt than they have been in either of the two stories I've read by him.

It's the same scientist back, though, along with his secret service buddy. When last we saw them, Dr. Bird and Operative Carnes found an underground carnivorous monster, and then covered it up. This time, they're investigating a bank robbery. I'm halfway surprised they weren't perpetrating it.

This is perhaps too cynical. I don't think Meek is trying to give us examples of corrupt scientists. I think they're supposed to be the heroes. But boy, do they ever engage in some ethical lapses! But not this time. Bird and Carnes are investigating a forgery case when there is a bank robbery. But no one saw the robber. The money was simply gone.

A ham-fisted detective comes in and tries to arrest people willy-nilly, despite lack of evidence, and the fact that the clerk doesn't have any of the money on him. He thought he saw a shadow, though. Nah, just a trick of the eye. Naturally, this is a case for Bird and Carnes!

The scientist immediately knows what he's doing, but in Sherlock Holmes fashion, keeps his deductions from his compatriot, leaving him a lesser Watson stumbling around as they go to a track meet to see a very fast varsity athlete, and later, as Bird's scientific lackey sets up an extremely high-speed camera while Carnes is bewildered. One theft later, and voila! A genuine drawing-room unmasking of the villain!

Turns out it's a professor, one of those gosh-darned scientists, who created a pill to speed up all metabolic processes for a fraction of a second - which, of course means SUPER-SPEED! And bank robberies. Case solved, they wash their hands of it, turn the guy over to the ham-fisted detective and leave. Hope he doesn't get any ideas!

The scientists in all of Meek's stories seem to have no sense of responsiblity to the larger society, even though they're supposed to be the heroes. The ethical lapses are not as large this time, but they are still remarkably cavalier.

No women.

No people of colour, thank goodness. I'm not sure I could deal with another one of Meek's takes on Native Americans. While I'd like to see non-white characters in some of these stories, I'm quite sure I don't want to see his take on the issue.

"The Thief of Time" is a better story than the last two I've read by Meek, in that it didn't leave me aghast. And the science, while sketchy, is less over-the-top crazy. 

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

 Warning: Some Spoilers Below

The Gone-Away World is a book that I enjoyed thoroughly, yet wasn't excited by. I'm not sure why - it had many of the attributes that I usually love. A certain sense of surrealism, of humour, of a meandering storyline, and threatening things just out of the edges of my vision. Yet I finished it feeling satisfied, but not thrilled. What did it need to take it to the next level? Or am I being too demanding? Is this feeling of deep-down satisfaction, in itself, testament to what I've read?

This is a hard book to explain. It happens before and after a new weapon is tested, and then deployed, one they thought would eliminate objects without fallout. They were, of course, wrong. And the fallout drastically reshapes the world. I'm trying not to give specifics about this, as the descriptions of the Go Away bombs were horrifying, and I don't want to spoil that experience.

Gonzo Lubitsch and his best friend end up on the spot when the first Go Away bombs detonate, and see their effects, and, with the rest of their squad, manage to survive, and even to protect others. Until the Jorgmund Corporation finds a substance that neutralizes the Gone Away fallout, and starts building a pipe to disperse it, creating habitable zones. Then they work for the corporation for a while, and later as independent contractors.

The book starts with the contractors being hired to extinguish an incredibly dangerous fire on the pipeline, but then jumps backwards to Gonzo and friend as children, following them as children learning martial arts, student radicals, and finally soldiers. About two or three chapters in, I noticed that the narrator, Gonzo's best friend, had no name. I was pretty sure that was significant, and even without knowing anything about the nature of the rest of the book, my guess about what that meant ended up being pretty much spot on.

I'm making this sound too serious, though. The Gone Away World moves quickly, and is often very entertaining. There are ninjas. And Evil Corporations. And pirates. And exploding sheep. There is also a bit of romance, a lot of rough and tumble, and being shot in the chest.

There are also mimes.

I enjoyed the examination of the Evil Company quite a lot, and how Evil Companies become Evil Companies, and the very simple and horrifying mechanism that this particular Evil Company uses to take monstrous ideas and make them actions, without anyone ever taking responsibility. And the final reveal is truly chilling.

I've made this sound like a jumble, and it kind of is, but it's a thoroughly entertaining jumble, and somehow, it all sort of works together. It's probably not for everyone, though. If this laundry list of things that are in the book appeal to you, you'll probably like it. If not, not.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

How many different forms of imprisonment are there? How irrevocable are they? What does living in that kind of prison do?

I admire Incarceron for trying something that felt a bit new, and I generally enjoyed the story. I'm not sure I'd go back to reread it, though, which is my personal line for a four-star book. But although this is a three-star review, it's worth checking out.

Incarceron is science fiction, even though it initially feels like fantasy, feudal society and all. But no, it turns out that it's a very technologically advanced society that has artificially restricted technological levels by forcing everyone to live as though they were in the past. (How that would quite work, maybe a bit dicey, but it's an interesting idea.) People break this all the time though - did you really think those servants were scrubbing clothes down by the river?

But in this highly stratified society, which is all sorts of its own kind of prison, both by the time period they've chosen in to live in, the highly structured and immobile class structure (if you weren't well off when the edict came down, I'd guess you're screwed. Peasant.) And by the extreme court politics.

But much more literal is the prison itself, where, hundreds of years before, every criminal, dissident, radical, and person-who-looked-at-the-king-sideways was rounded up and put into Incarceron, along with some scholars, with the hope of a) getting rid of them and b) building a utopia. Why they thought it would be an utopia, a little weak.

Incarceron itself is self-aware, and seems to be more than a little insane. Its inhabitants live nasty brutish lives, although some seem to have scraped out some semblance of a workable society - but we don't get to see them much. More time is spent with the lowest of the low, the most brutal gangs on the inside. Finn has visions, and is convinced he was born outside the prison, although that is supposed to be impossible. (Although escaping is too, and there are myths of the one man who managed to do so.)

On the outside, the daughter of the Warden, Claudia, is about to be forced into a marriage she would much rather avoid, and she schemes to stymie the whole affair. The two start to communicate through strange devices, and the question of what Incarceron actually is, and where it is located, start to overshadow everything else.

This isn't bad. It isn't fantastic, but it's trying something, and though there are bits that fell a bit flat, I respect the attempt, and the story was engaging enough to keep me reading.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

So, where are the dragons? No, seriously, where are my dragons?

(I really hope everyone has read my review for Tooth and Claw, which I wrote recently, and so have on my mind. Otherwise, that first sentence will seem rather opaque.)

I'm getting very close to having read all of Jane Austen's books. I think I just have Mansfield Park left, unless there's one I'm forgetting. It took me a long time to come to then, perhaps in stubborn response to my younger sisters' enthusiasm for her. I had a comic book adaptation of Pride and Prejudice when I was younger, but that was about it.

The question is, do I have anything new to say about Sense and Sensibility? I'm late chiming in on this, on the order of centuries. I don't feel like the themes created any particularly original thoughts in my head so I guess we'll go with impressions.

I'd seen the Emma Thompson movie version, but from disdainful commentary from someone I work with, I knew that the two weren't that similar. Indeed, I think I was most struck by how far Elinor goes to the side of sense. I knew Marianne was going to be over the top in her desire for true emotion, but Elinor is equally as extreme in her reactions the other way. I wanted to shake her, sometimes, and remind her that while propriety might be good, too much can eat you up inside! If things hadn't turned out the way they had, I could easily see her becoming an embittered old woman.

It is the story of two sisters who take extremely opposite views in how they should behave in society. Elinor is hung up on propriety, and while she's mostly shown to be correct in her choices, she does also use that as an excuse to repress her feelings from everyone, even those to whom she should go for solace. There are times that I worry about her marriage. Will she ever tell her husband if there's something wrong? Or would that be improper?

Marianne, on the flip side, thinks there is something immoral in hiding all emotions, ever. Disagreeing with her on matters of taste is also just plain wrong. She spurns a steady older love interest in favour of a dashing young man who knows exactly what to say to sweep her off her feet.

Elinor and Marianne's joint romantic problems - Marianne in being too attached to someone who doesn't return the emotion, and Elinor in being attached to someone who is not free to pursue her - form the basis of this novel. Marianne learns to be more like her sister, while Elinor's patient silence is rewarded.

Austen is amazingly good at creating characters you would like to strangle, if you could convince them to manifest themselves in front of you for just a minute. And there are those aplenty. The brother, his wife, a few other characters. I was surprised how much I ended up liking Mrs. Jennings, who is silly and jumps to conclusions, but in the end, is a true-hearted friend.

What else is there to say? Late as I came to her works, I always enjoy Jane Austen, although sometimes I want to strangle some of her characters. I'm pretty sure they're the characters I'm supposed to want to strangle, though, so I'm okay with that.

Night Watch by Terry Pratchett

Somehow Terry Pratchett seems to go down particularly well when I'm not feeling at my best. I've read several that I've enjoyed but not been particularly grabbed by. In comparison, the times that I've read one of his books while sick or exhausted, I have liked them a whole lot more.

A few Christmases ago, the Christmas of the sick, when I ended up in the bathroom all night at my in-laws in absolute misery, I grabbed a couple of books from my mother-in-law's bookshelf. Let me tell you, sick and feverish at 3am is not the time to start Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. It was, however, the perfect time to read Feet of Clay. I read Guards, Guards when I was sleep-deprived and at an academic conference. Both of them were the most enjoyable Pratchetts I'd read so far.

I started Night Watch when I was healthy, and was liking it, but not feeling particularly invested. Well, the universe decided to enhance the experience by smiting me with the cold from hell, and what do you know? Suddenly, I was right into it again.

Terry Pratchett - he's good for what ails ya.

Night Watch takes Sam Vimes, Duke, and plunks him back in a pivotal moment in the past, where he has to make sure that his younger self turns into a competent copper, keep the peace during an uprising, and track down a bloodthirsty criminal who was thrown back with him.

It took me some time to get up to speed (I have only read about 6 or 7 Discworld books, and all out of order, so there may be things I'm missing), but once the story started to really get into a groove, I was sniffling, and along for the ride.

Night Watch allows Pratchett some interesting observations on the nature of the law, enforcement, protest, and protection, funneled through Sam's perceptions. I enjoyed the bits that were reminiscent of the barricades in Les Miserables particularly, as well as the young Nobby sticking his nose into everything that's going on.

It may be the sickness talking, but this is another Terry Pratchett that went beyond simple liking, and into something more.

Read as part of the BBC Big Read

Friday, 4 April 2014

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

Devil in a Blue Dress is an excellent hard-boiled mystery. It is also a fascinating examination of race and masculinities in late-1940s Los Angeles. That it manages to do both these things at the same time, seamlessly, is little short of breathtaking.

"Easy" Rawlins had just been fired from his job for not taking on extra hours when he was exhausted, when the local bartender offers him a chance at some easy money - enough for at least one month's payment on his mortgage. So he takes it on, trying to find a vanished blonde for a local bigwig, with a cold-eyed gangster as go-between. Along the way, bodies start to pile up, and Easy gets the feeling that he might be next. So he calls his psychopathic friend Mouse and asks for help - or hindrance, as the case may be. The blonde comes in and out of his life like a breath of perfume.

This is the story of how Easy became a private detective, which he certainly is not at the beginning of the story. He makes missteps, accidental good moves, stays silent, refuses to knuckle under, and at the end, decides this private detective business might just be for him, after all. No boss to answer to, anyway.

Devil in a Blue Dress is acute about racism, and the varieties that Easy runs into along the way, from outright violence to condescension to disbelief that Easy won't do exactly as he's told to the hidden racism of a confiding rich man. The web that this weaves around him is ever present, and yet, through that, Easy defines himself by his own masculinity, by the voice in the back of his head that tells him what he needs to do to both survive and to continue to think of himself as a man. He'll let things slide, but he won't bend his knee, and his negotiation and assessment of different circumstances are fascinating.

Most good noir has something the private dick can't walk away from. In the Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade has to do something about the death of his partner. For Easy, it's his property, the land he owns, and which he will not leave behind. The symbolic importance of property to Easy was both convincing and gripping.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Friend Of My Youth by Alice Munro

Alice Munro's short stories are always a delight to read, and Friend of My Youth is no exception. In almost every collection of hers I have read, there is a line or two of description that makes me start out of my chair and realize, yes, that perfectly describes something I have been feeling.

In Hateship, Friendship etc., it was a description of large family gatherings where no one ever says anything of consequence that described so many dinners at my grandmother's house. Not that those dinners were bad, necessarily, but everyone was so different that nothing of consequence was ever broached.

In this one, it was the framing device in the first story, a woman talking about her dead mother, and how she remembers her as she was when she was dying, and not as she was before. This is something I've been struggling with, on and off, with my father's death - remembering him before the end. It's easier, perhaps, because the end came so quickly, but for months pictures of him yellow and asleep in the hospital bed in the dining room or the look of fear on his face when he was having the worst of his strokes crowded out years of good memories. I feel like I'm just now recovering my sense of him as he was before.

So yes, back to Alice Munro. Themes of infidelity, love lost and deferred, memory and the way we invent pasts and lives for people we barely know populate these stories and weave together in such wonderful ways.

I am so glad Alice Munro writes short stories. She seems to know instinctively how long a story should be, and how to get there, even though these are not stories of urgency, and often seem to meander.