Friday, 29 August 2014

Reckless Eyeballing by Ishmael Reed

There is this thing I do when I stare at a review, baffled as to what to write, for quite a long time. I start to try to think about why this particular review is so hard to write. Sometimes that helps me through to throw something together. We'll see if it works in this case.

Everyone is just so awful in this book. White feminists hate black men. Black women hate black men and white feminists. Black men hate white feminists and Jewish people. The one Jewish character dies before we can really find out who he hates. Or maybe the hate stops there. Oddly, none of them focus any of their ire on white men.  The only white man in the group is an Irish police officer who has repeatedly killed men of colour in the line of duty, and is proud of it. (Reading this right around the time Ferguson was hitting the headlines was interesting, to say the least.) But all of the characters place power, when they rant, elsewhere. Mostly on white feminists, who apparently control all the theatre spaces in New York?

I find that hard to believe, but this isn't supposed to be realism.

But what my real problem is is that I'm not sure what the point is. People are awful and hate each other? Maybe displace their anger? Fucking white feminists are all pro-Eva Braun? (I'm not kidding.) Actually, that's weirdly what bothers me. All these groups are shown as so…monolithic. There's no dissension within groups.

There's also a thread running through here about compromising your artistic voice to get exposure and approval. The main character is trying to ingratiate himself with white feminists by changing his play, bit by bit, from being about black men being killed for looking, to being about how looking is rape, and giving all the best lines and the moral high ground in the play to the white female protagonist. He's looking for approval, obviously, and while he gets some good mentoring from other playwrights, more he gets people wanting to adapt it further for their own ideological ends.

And rage gets acted out, in the background, as women, black and white, are assaulted and have their heads shaved by a black man. Most minimize the assaults. Some don't.

I just keep feeling here like there isn't enough to grab onto. I get what happens, but I don't in the least get what it's supposed to mean. There are interesting bits here, and certainly some very unsettling parts, both viscerally and intellectually. But is unsettling enough? It's a start, certainly. Sometimes (often) we need work that shakes us up, throws us out of our comfort zones, makes like uncomfortable for the traditionally comfortable. This book does that. What's the next step?

I'm not sure.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold

*Spoilers Below*

Another Vorkosigan book I have courtesy of my lovely friend Nele, who arranged for a care package of Bujold books to show up on my doorstep a while back, after I was whining that my local library had almost none of them.

I am having so much fun working through them, bit by bit.

And we're back to Mark! Eeeennnteresting. What's even more interesting are the ways in which this Vorkosigan book has a large chunk there in the middle without any Miles in it! I was shocked when that happened, and I'm trying very hard to figure out how to allude to what happened without giving it away. I wasn't sure how a Miles book without Miles would work.

It turns out, rather well. This forces the focus onto Mark, just when he'd most like to hide. He gets sent to Barrayar, and meets the parents he had never met, and that meeting is just as interesting and complex as I was expecting.

Let me give you a little example. You know how, in most media, eavesdropping scenes are there for people to either hear unpleasant things about themselves, or to hear just the wrong snippet and jump to terrible conclusions? That is not what happens here, and it delighted me. Mark accidentally eavesdrops on his parents in their library, and what does he discover? An honest conversation that confronts all the difficulties around them, has a lot of love in it, some calling on bullshit, but most of all, makes him aware that his parents don't just put on appearances - what they show the public is who they are.

It's a wonderful scene, and I was so pleased with Bujold for breaking those conventions and letting that be something different and new and far more interesting. False drama is boring. Real drama, like, say, having a clone son appear just as his brother has disappeared, and trying to cope with it like adults? Far more intriguing.

And it's also very interesting watching Mark trying to figure out who he is now that he's not trying to be Miles. Negotiating Barrayaran society. And Ivan. And then, later, being the one to figure out what's going on with Miles, and leading the attempt to bring him back. (See how politic I'm being in my descriptions?)

I also enjoyed Miles as, well, not-Miles. It was interesting to watch that energy bubbling up through someone who doesn't know who he is for a while. But still knows how to test boundaries, understand people, and inspire loyalty.

Poor Mark. It was interesting to get into some of the darker stuff, if very uncomfortable. And to see Mark's mind's tactics for dealing with it as a source of strength rather than a weakness, which is perceptive and interesting.

Oh, I feel like there's a ton of stuff I'm dancing around, to avoid spoiling it. Ah well. I'll leave this as a somewhat opaque review.

The ending also tickled me, with Mark not letting Miles run roughshod over him. It's what Miles needs. What else are siblings for?

Booklinks:

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

No Questions Asked by Ross Thomas

No Questions Asked is a solid mystery/suspense. It's probably not going to stick with me over the long term, but I enjoyed reading it, and will look for more by the same author.

There seems to be a whole minigenre of non-detective detectives - Bernie Rhodenbarr from Lawrence Block's Burglar Who...series springs readily to mind. Or Dortmunder from Westlake books. This book is firmly in that tradition, with the main character being on neither side of the law. He works as a go-between.

As the book starts, Philip St. Ives, (I had to look up the name, even though I just finished the book two days ago,) is hired by an insurance company to handle the hand-off between the company and the thieves who stole the rare book they had insured. Double-crossing naturally ensues, and St. Ives wants to track down what the hell just happened to him.

Along the way, he hires an aspiring young political operative as his driver in an unfamiliar city, gets cozy with the owner of the rare book, as well as with a psychiatrist/poker player, loses a friend, and sorts out a tangle.

I figured out the culprit fairly early, but there was enough in this book to keep me interested. I don't think this author is going to become one of my favourites, but it was fast and fun to read, and just the sort of break I needed from heavier tomes.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake

How to rate this one? Three stars or four? Well, I'm unlikely to read this again, so I guess three. Or am I? Maybe I'll try it again some day. Four?

I find the Gormenghast books a bit exhausting, and they fall under the category of books that I respect, but that I don't particularly like. The characters are all too distant, the writing too ornate, the world too much like a painting by someone who can capture moments, but not depth of feeling.

And yet I found the second volume slightly more accessible than the first, and will go on to read the third at some point, because I'm just stubborn that way. At least there was an identifiable drive to Gormenghast - Titus' rebellion against Gormenghast itself, its ritual, its physical form, and its inhabitants. But given that, even to Titus himself, the other characters exist less as actual people and more as reminders of his own psyche, I find it hard to care about them, and by extension, him.

Peake's character sketches are amusing, but somewhere around the two hundred page mark, I start to want something more.

And yet the word pictures that all that ornate writing creates are striking. There are turns of phrase that leave me breathless. I just wish they added up into something a little bit more. Thousands of words are spilt on Irma Prunesquallor's search for a husband, the party at which that happens, and the first meeting of her and her future husband. And then...they disappear. Except for a couple of brief mentions.

I like sprawling stories about lots of characters, but it's a delicate juggling act to move between them. With Peake, it's more like he hurls one ball at a time directly at the reader, and then forgets it exists, except when, on occasion, it nudges his foot as it rolls back.

Read as part of the BBC Big Read

Monday, 25 August 2014

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

This book is problematic.

And yet, it's slightly too good to be dismissed.

But this book is problematic.

Any book that is by a white woman, about a white woman helping black women find their voices (or at least a publisher) in the Civil Rights-era South is going to be problematic. And yet, this book acknowledged that. But did it acknowledge it enough?

This book is problematic.

The author has been sued by her brother's maid, who has the same name and many of the same characteristics of one of the main characters. I can't say anything about the validity of the claim, but that also makes the book difficult.

This book is problematic.

So why can't I just dismiss it? Because it is intense, and really, given the subject matter, fairly sensitive to the race issues it brings up. It evokes an era of great danger very effectively.

And yet.

Complete side note: what the hell was up with the mother's disappearing stomach cancer? You can't have a plot point that big, and more or less dismiss it with "she decided she wasn't going to die." Cancer doesn't fucking work like that.

It is just, darn it, a little too good to allow me to ignore it, or to savage it or write the review I thought I might be writing before I actually read the book.

But this book is problematic.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Myths of Origin by Catherynne M. Valente

Second review in a row where I adore an author but have more reservations about this particular book. In this case, it's not that I didn't think it lived up to previous books. That would be hard, since this is some of the first stuff Catherynne Valente wrote. It's more that, if I hadn't already known what a terrific writer she is, I might not have stuck this one out.

I am glad I did. I think she only gets better from here, but in these early short novels, there's a real hint of the greatness to come. This is a collection of four short novels, collected together.

If this had been an author I didn't know, I think that first story, about the labyrinth and the seeker and the minotaur, would have defeated me. The language is beautiful, and I kept having the feeling that there was something there, lurking behind the words (a wonderful metaphor for this story), but I never got to look at it straight-on. It was always veiled, and the writing, although beautiful and poetic, was also opaque.

But I stuck it out, because I love Valente's work. (I was so delighted when my husband finished Deathless recently, and loved it as much as I do.) And found there was much to like here. It's rougher than her later work, more uncontrolled and messy, but you can see the seeds of the books that come after, and that's fascinating. I would not start here. But if you had read a number of her books, and loved them, then this is not a bad place to come to later on, to see her evolution as a writer.

If the first story is a poem in prose, dense and opaque, the three others are more accessible, although sometimes still a bit rough. But rough in a way that hints at depths and shimmerings yet to come. The second story, "Yume No Hon: The Book of Dreams" is set in Japan (or is it?) about an old woman on the mountain who dreams of other women, other mythical lives, and is not sure which is the dreaming. She is the Sphinx, Isis, herself, and others. It's a book about solitude and connection.

The third is "The Grass-Cutting Sword," also a riff on Japanese mythology, about an eight-headed serpent and the eight young women it devours, although devouring might not be the right word, and the villain not who you would expect. It also strikes me as being about a search for wholeness in other people, about projection and acceptance. And love, twisted, and untwisted.

The last is a series of vignettes about the Knights of the Round Table, set in California. This was perhaps my favourite, probably because Arthurian myth has long been one of my particular interests. In all the midst of the retellings of Arthurian legends of late, the Knights have gotten short shrift, and I was quite delighted by what stories Valente gave to them here. They are stories of masculinity, the difficulties therein, of quests and knights, of compulsions and rages.

This is not an easy book, not an easy set of short novels. But I am glad I stuck it out. I think I will come back to it - the first story in particular whispers to me that there is more to be discovered on future readings. We will see.

The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Solid science fiction about first contact, set in a universe where humanity reached the stars, fractured, and has slowly knit itself back together under imperial/aristocratic power. This doesn't actually come through for much of the book, other than mentioning that one of the main characters will have a title one day. And then at the end, we're thrust into imperial politics with little preparation - it's interesting, but a bit jarring.

Niven and Pournelle do an excellent job of creating a nuanced and alien alien race, one that is neither benevolent nor malevolent. And, for one of the first times ever (that I've seen), it's a race of aliens that has internal dissension and cultures within itself - that's a level of complexity that is normally reserved for humans alone.

And the Moties are fascinating - their outlook is alien to a North American outlook (what would Russians make of it, I wonder?) And as I said, their motivations are complex and inspire compassion if not agreement.

On the issue of gender relations in science fiction, this book does have one female character, and she has her own profession, and rebels against imperial strictures of behaviour (to a small degree.) And yet, she falls in love with the main character, the future Marquis of something-or-other at almost first sight, with little reasoning given or, apparently, expected. Two handsome young aristocrats in close quarters emit pheromones?

So that relationship is dealt with sparsely and is an extreme afterthought. As for gender amongst the aliens, the Moties have two genders, but rotate between the two, with no difference in their roles.

I enjoyed The Mote In God's Eye. Perhaps if I'd read more Pournelle, I might have gotten more out of his imperial politics, but still,, this is a solid piece of science fiction.

Booklinks:

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

Friday, 22 August 2014

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

I liked but didn't love this book, although that might be because I found the last third of it less compelling than the first two-thirds. The Red Tent is an imagining of the story of Dinah, sister of Joseph, who is only mentioned briefly in the Old Testament. It has been adopted by the women's spirituality movement, for the community of women that is shown in the book, and their separate religious practices and beliefs.

It was the part of the story that discussed Dinah, her mothers, and the community that formed around them that I found the most interesting part of the book. Her four mothers are all engaging, well-drawn characters that form the foundation of the book. None of the female characters are simple, all are complex, with different faults and virtues. This envisioning of a women's community that interacts only tangentially with that of the men is an interesting one. I don't know enough about the history of this time period to speak to the historicity of that idea.

(Although I do know that the belief that held sway in women's history for a long time about completely separate men's and women's cultures in the 19th century that only interacted slightly and with great difficulty is far too simplistic.)

But I don't demand forensic accuracy. I am more interested in what Diamant does with the story, how she tells this story of how women negotiate power and relationships amongst themselves, and how they interact with the men they may love, but rarely have substantial contact with, other than serving them. And by far and large, it's well done.

Once the scene shifts to Egypt, and Dinah is bereft of this women's community, I found it less interesting. I understand, I think, what the author is trying to do, but since I was always more interested in Dinah's mothers than in Dinah herself, Dinah trying to find a place for herself outside of that community didn't hold my attention the same way.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Embassytown by China Mieville

Wow, I am behind on reviews. I'm getting just now to books I finished over a week ago. Time to put my head down and try to clear a few off my desk. In that vein, China Mieville's Embassytown! This was my pick for this month's "moderator's choice" themed read in the SF group I'm part of.

I love China Mieville. I really do. The four of his books I've read so far have blown my mind, each in different ways. There is a fervent evangelicalism to my love. They're difficult books, often. Thought-provoking. Mind-bending.

So when I say that I didn't enjoy Embassytown quite as much as I have his other books, that should put it in context. I still liked it. I still found it created times when I needed to sit and think and try to underestand, and extrapolate on the ideas he was putting forward. But it didn't create that same excitement that, say, The City and the City, or Railsea, or Perdido Street Station, or even Un Lun Dun did. If you're wondering where to start with Mieville, maybe not here?

It's less dense a book than some of his others - the verbosity that, quite frankly, I loved, is not on as ostentatious a display here. In that way, it's a more standard science fiction book. But the content is as mind-bending as ever. This is one about language, about signifiers and platonic ideals, about perceptions of sentience. About a settlement on the verge of collapse, almost about to become one of the lost colonies like Roanoke, where the next shipment of goods would appear to find a demolished city, and no idea what went wrong. And at least one little point that I was interpreting as being about the eternal crystallized moment of colonialism. I'll explain what I mean. Give me a second.

This is why I love Mieville. I'm good with occasional brainless fun, don't get me wrong. But it's so much better when the book makes me think, makes me make ponder, walks with me, and inserts itself into research I'm doing (even though temperance fraternal lodges in the 19th century are miles away from science fiction, or even first contact between natives and Europeans.)

Brief plot synopsis, so I can explain where all these big ideas come from? Avice Benner Cho (her initials are undoubtedly not a mistake) grew up in Embassytown, where a small human settlement was an outpost for contact with the Ariekei, an entirely alien species (and we've run into other aliens before, none as different as they are.)

Communication with the Ariekei is virtually impossible. There are pairs of Diplomats who speak the language in unison, or rather, with one voice overlaying the other, different words, but this polyphony makes up Ariekei language. But more than that - it needs sentient speakers. Computers can't do it. That's because, somehow, when the Ariekei speak, they're not hearing sounds - they use sounds as access points to what seems almost like platonic ideals. The words are not signifiers, they are the things being spoken of.

Because of this, the Ariekei cannot lie. If they want to speak a new simile, they need to make it happen first. This happens to Avice, who becomes, in short form, "like the girl who ate what was given her." So who thought up the need for that simile?

This is mindbending enough, right? But then we get into how some Ariekei are trying to learn how to lie, and what that might do to society. To Avice's husband, who sees any deviation of the Ariekei from the moment of contact as downright evil.

(This is what I was talking about when I said the eternal crystallized moment of colonization. For a very long time, people took what they knew of Native American culture at the moment of contact as Native American culture, forever, and ever, amen. They were assumed to have been static. Why, change was something we did! They couldn't change! Now, of course, we know that Native American society was, just like European society, in the midst of almost constant change. There is no eternal now. There never was.)

Oh wait! That's not the main conflict of the book! That's just the set-up! Then we get into language as drug, of a contact society where devastation spreads like a disease, where the new human colonists are threatened, without backup, by the unwitting changes they have spread through Ariekei. Where do their responsibilities lie? Is this where their lives will end? Does it matter, compared to the entire Ariekei society?

I'm not going to get more specific than that. But this really is a very good book. I'm working myself into more enthusiasm just remembering it. There are so many ideas in this book, and none of them are easy or simplistic, although the story itself is relatively straightforward. 

Booklinks:

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

Getting Rid of Matthew by Jane Fallon

*Major Spoilers Near the End*

I am in an emotional quandary entirely of my own making. I try to stride proudly around, claiming I'll read anything once, trying to eschew the all-too-common academic trend of looking down on popular culture or books that everyone is reading. So I make sure there are one or two recently popular books on my reading list at any one time. I'm open-minded, dammit!

And yet, when it comes to chick lit, I always feel faintly ashamed. (Or James Patterson, but that's an entirely different story.) I should be proud to take any book I'm reading with me out of the house, read it in public, shoot down anyone who questions my taste with a haughty "have you seen how many books I read in a year? I deserve some fluff too!" And yet, at times, my courage fails me. How can I be a serious academic when I read chick lit in public? (It's the in public part that nags at me sometimes.)

That's one part of it. I felt faintly embarrassed reading this book.

The other part is that this particular piece of chick lit is not that good. Put aside the occasional missing comma, or the use of "disinterested" when the author means "uninterested," if you can. (I can't. Particularly the latter.)

More importantly, I get bloody impatient with these heroines who never make a single interesting decision in the entire book! They are swept along, they get into trouble because they never DO anything, and all their troubles come from their own damned passivity. It's very hard to feel sympathetic to that. If, just once, the heroine actually mulled over a painful decision and then DID SOMETHING ABOUT IT, instead of deciding to delay decision until it has been made for her by inane external circumstance, I might perk up my attention.

Difficult is interesting. A certain amount of dithering is permissible. But 410 pages of it? Too much.

So, I didn't like Getting Rid of Matthew, not because it's chick lit, but because the main character made me crazy. And at the end, the readiness of certain characters to say all is forgiven was insane. Okay, the ex-wife whose husband you cheated with but whose friend you became under false pretenses decides she wants her friend back? Maybe.

But for your ex-lover's son, who you smooched once, long before he found out you had been sleeping with his father for 4 years, to be ready to forgive and forget and make you a cake? After one coffee date? Must have been one hell of a coffee and kiss, to make up for all general ickiness and the prospect of years and years of running into his father and knowing his girlfriend used to sleep with that.


*snap*

That was the sound of my credulity hitting the breaking point. And there wasn't anything in the book that made me want to ignore the nonsensical ending and remember it with anything approaching fondness. Is it to much to ask for characters that occasionally do things, and then, for anything approaching realistic consequences?

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

I have to admit that for the first 20-30 pages of the book, my mind was halfway occupied with the question of whether or not I'd auditioned for a production of the play of this book at some point, and when I remembered my struggles with the Scottish accent, moved on to what role I'd been auditioning for.

I didn't get a part, though.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a tantalizing glimpse of human dynamics at work, at group dynamics, about the impact of a strong figure in early childhood, and, specifically, the impact of spinsterhood on single women in early 20th century Scotland.

Miss Brodie is a slightly maddening creature, pro-Fascist, controlling, and self-obsessed, but yet enriching and enlivening for the students she selects as her set. Over time, the set grows and changes, some get away, some are guided by her, one will betray her.

One of the best parts of the book for me was the way that Spark would give us little pieces of information about the future of each character while we were still in the midst of this emotional morass, allowing to see how what happened affected or didn't affect the eventual choices of each character.

A very short book, this was well worth the read. It eschews easy answers, and raises questions about human nature that are not easily answered.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

"Accidental Death" by Peter Baily

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?

This is the first one I've looked at that was not a story in a 1930s science fiction magazine! It was presented separately on Project Gutenberg, but the bottom has a note that it appeared as a story in Astounding Science Fiction in 1959.


It's a good story, for the most part. It's the dying recollections of one of the crew of the first interstellar ship, as he lies in the wreckage of a pod back on Earth. It also seems to be a thinly veiled story of first contact - not just first contact with another species, but it is reminiscent of writing about European explorers meeting indigenous peoples for the first time.

This is mostly in the language used to describe the Chingsi, who are supposed to look more like cats than people, although they appear to be bipedal humanoids. The dying crewmember is quick to assert that they're people, though, using the following criteria:

"One, they learned our language in four weeks. When I say they, I mean a ten-man team of them.
"Two, they brew a near-beer that's a lot nearer than the canned stuff we had aboard the Whale.
"Three, they've a great sense of humor. Ran rather to silly practical jokes, but still. Can't say I care for that hot-foot and belly-laugh stuff myself, but tastes differ.
"Four, the ten-man language team also learned chess and table tennis.
"But why go on? People who talk English, drink beer, like jokes and beat me at chess or table-tennis are people for my money, even if they look like tigers in trousers."

However, although the Chingsi are technologically far behind, they may not be the pushovers the crew initially thought. The crew brings at least one Chingsi back with them, (they dub him Charley), and that's when we discover that apparently they can manipulate luck, as the ship starts to have malfunction after malfunction, after a previously flawless trip. Calculations are altered, machinery fails, people mess up.

This results in the crash landing on Earth, in which presumably the Chingsi man dies as well, although there is the detail that he was laughing as the ship went down. The crewman leaves a warning for future potential explorers, about what a whole planet full of these creatures could do. Oh, and he rescinds, their "person" status:

The Chingsi talk and laugh but after all they aren't human. On an alien world a hundred light-years away, why shouldn't alien talents develop?

Beware the hidden talents of the native! seems to be underlying message here. I'm not going to draw this review out into a long consideration of colonialism, but there are hints here. Particularly since the only way race appears in the story is in the Chingsi, who are obviously alien, but alien in the way that is often a metaphor for human experience.


There's not enough here to get into a long discussion of what the author meant, and his point of view on the whole thing. It's interesting, but it's a fairly short story.

There are no women crew on the ship, of course. Or at least, not that are mentioned as such.

This is a pretty good little story, though. The writing is decent, and builds very well towards the end.
The framing device of having it come from the lips of a dying man is effective.

Too bad, I couldn't find anything else about Peter Baily. No other stories on Project Gutenberg, nothing on wikipedia (or anywhere else easily searchable) about the author.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

I think I am curiously resistant to books that have been telegraphed to me as "deep." Some small part of me digs in my heels and says "oh yeah?"

Siddhartha would fall into this category. It's a fairly simple parable, fairly straightforward in its Western exploration of Eastern religion. It was a fast read....

I don't, though, feel like it changed me or will stick with me. I already knew everything about Eastern religion that Siddhartha tried to express. (This is not to say I am particularly well versed in Buddhism or Hinduism, but enough so as to have already heard this all before.) Also, when your main character says enlightenment can't be taught or explained, but then the book is trying to show how he achieved it, isn't that contradictory?

As far as star ratings goes, this could maybe be a four. Maybe. It was a quick read, a painless one, but didn't strike me deeply.

Some books just leave me feeling like I didn't get it. This is one of them.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood

I am blatantly breaking what would have been the rules if I were posting this on Goodreads (and the first paragraph probably will go there, just to shit disturb.) I am going to talk about the author, and how it coloured my reaction for the book. On the way, I'd like to say why I think it's perfectly legitimate to bring what one knows about an author into a review, as it would be disingenuous to say that my reaction to this book wasn't affected by who the author is.

So, Margaret Atwood. Some of her books I like a lot. Some of them, not so much. I thought The Blind Assassin telegraphed its twist from the first fifty pages, and just wasn't that great. I think The Handmaid's Tale is brilliant (my husband thinks the end is gimmicky and a cheat.) Cat's Eye is fantastic. I've never essayed Surfacing. Nor Alias Grace, despite the fact I was once in a play about Grace Marks, nor her science fiction trilogy. I'd like to, some day.

Of course, her stance on science fiction irritates me, a devout science fiction reader, to no end. As do some of her comments about libraries. And that one article about Stephen Harper that I agreed with right up until she went all Godwin's Law on his ass. She was pretty rude to the people working the event that one time she appeared in Kingston, and I was still working at the bookstore. (Unlike, say, Timothy Findley, who was so nice. And Stuart McLean, who walked around the store afterwards thanking everyone who'd worked the event for their help.)

I go into her books, therefore, with some skepticism. Knowing I've liked some and been disappointed by others. And the science fiction grudge was heavily colouring my thoughts. I brought all of that grumpiness to this book.

And this book won.

Guys, The Robber Bride is SO. GOOD.

It's not perfect, the male characters are almost caricatures, but man, it didn't matter. The prose is astounding, the relationships between the female characters so rich, the characters themselves just bursting with life.

So now I have the enthusiasm of the previously let-down, but newly re-evangelized Margaret Atwood reader. And I think you have to know how I got here to know why I responded to this book in the way I did. So, screw you, Goodreads.

The Robber Bride is about three friends who knew each other in university, but were really brought together into a close friendship through their traumatizing experiences at the hands of Zenia, another university acquaintance. With each in turn, she insinuated herself into their lives, twisted their relationships with the men in their lives, took whatever she could, emotionally and physically, and left. They think she's dead. But she just walked into the restaurant.

This sounds melodramatic. It is not. Although, as I said, the men in the book tend to be more caricatures who are incapable of not thinking with their dicks. (One does surprise us by the end.) But the women are so rich. You rarely see such vivid characters of any gender, and she's done it here. They're utterly different from each other, but have, in response to Zenia's hurricane through their lives, bound themselves to each other in ways that they don't even seem to truly understand.

Tony's a professor of military history. Charis works in a new age bookstore. Roz runs a venture capital firm. Each had a father who was notable by their absence, even when they were present. Each has a mother who was in some way unstable and controlling. Each lost, at least temporarily, a man to Zenia's clutches. This should irritate me. But again, somehow she made it work. There's just such nuance here, such turns of phrase, such insight.

It's really excellent. It had to work hard to win me over, but nearly from the beginning, I was hooked. I may think Atwood is sometimes uneven, but this is one of the great ones.

Friday, 15 August 2014

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

So, I just finished A Game of Thrones, and find myself in the uncomfortable position of wanting to run out and tell everyone they absolutely must read this book I just read, but knowing they'll look at me and ask "where were you 10 years, five books and a miniseries ago?"

Late to the party. Which I don't generally mind, but when you find a book that you absolutely love and want to become evangelical about, but everyone has already read it...it's a little disappointing.

But on the other hand, I have to say that A Game of Thrones transcended the hype that has surrounded it for the last year. Having watched the first five episodes of the series, knowing some of what was going to happen (thanks a bunch, internet spoilers!), this book still wrapped me up in its story and took me along for the ride.

(And given my lack of a visual imagination, having actors' faces to attach to characters actually helped me keep track of this sprawling cast a great deal.)

This was a book that I looked up from and blinked, dazed, every once in a while, expecting the world around me to have changed, just a little bit, in response to the vast changes that were happening within it.

So what can I say that hasn't already been said? It has a sprawling but complex and appealing cast of characters? That the shifts in narrative voice were interesting and always kept me reading (but I was always hoping another Tyrion, Arya or Dany chapter would come along soon)? That the geopolitical machinations of a realm are expertly navigated, and I never felt entirely lost?

At any rate, there is just this: if you're where I was two weeks ago, and you've never read A Game of Thrones. Do. For the rest of you: yeah, yeah, you were right. I should have read this years ago.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

I'm trying to avoid spoilers here, but be warned. Some might slip through my fingers.

Dammit, George R.R. Martin, how the hell did that happen? How on earth did you take a character I despised, and, without changing any of the things that I despised, add enough layers and complexity to make me like him? Is that nice? Is that fair?

*sigh*

By the time I finished A Storm of Swords, I liked Jaime Lannister. There, I said it. Not as much as Tyrion, mind you, but there it is. And I'm really annoyed about it!

This points, however, to something I've said in the previous two reviews I've done for these books, and it isn't any less true as time goes by - the characters George R.R. Martin writes are complex. None are completely good. None are completely evil. And with Jaime, without having changed anything he'd done before, without forgiving him for any of it, Martin layered enough complexity, added enough detail to make me sneakily like him.

I do have to say, though, for the first half of the book, I was getting a little impatient. It felt like we were in a holding pattern, particularly with Arya (and I'll discuss that in more detail in a minute.) I should have known to be careful what I was wishing for, I guess, because then things started to happen with a vengeance. The whole world was thrown up in the air.

These books make me feel like I have vertigo. There's no firm ground to stand on, no part of the world that is stable. Everything could be, and often is, turned ass-over-teakettle at any moment. I imagine some people might not like that, might feel irritated by the constant flux. I love it. And find it exhausting. And exhilarating.

Checking back in with my three favourite characters:

Arya. I was having real issues with her storyline until about halfway through the book, as it seemed to be repeating the same story from A Clash of Kings, and not really adding anything new to it. How many times can she almost make it to some safe haven before someone else captures her, or some new obstacle is placed in her way? It's a good story, but it went on for too long. And with too much of the same emotion. That string was strummed out.

Of course, then the world went in the crapper again, and that problem was solved!

Dany. Not tons happening with her in this one, although we do continue the theme of Dany trying to do the right thing and mostly failing. Over and over again. I enjoyed the brief glimpses we got of her, but there weren't many.

And, of course, Tyrion. Oh, Tyrion. Your story makes me so happy and sad and angry and sympathetic and indignant. Still one of the best characters ever. And now I like your brother too. What the hell?

Cersei, however, is still completely awful. Even though I understand her motivations, I don't like her any more than I ever did.

Booklinks:

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

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

A quick easy book as I'm nearing the end of the BBC's Big Read. Down to fewer than ten books to go, now. This particular list has been something I've been slowly working my way through for the last three or four years, and the end is in sight. I thoroughly enjoyed this entry. It's light but amusing, with entertaining commentary on other literature. I finished it quickly, and have taken a while to get to the review, as I had one weekend two weekends ago where I finished five books. I'm almost caught up.

Cold Comfort Farm is a book about what happens if you take a family of overwrought literary characters from the moors (think Wuthering Heights) and plunk down amongst them a cheerful, thoroughly practical modern young woman, and see what can be done by merely looking at the drama and saying "well, really, isn't this ridiculous!"

It reminded me a bit of that Jasper Fforde section where Thursday Next goes to visit the Wuthering Heights anger management classes. But where those characters could not be pulled out of their grooves, Flora is quite successful.

Flora is an orphan. She has a modest income, but instead of finding a job, she decides that the thing to do is to find a relative with whom she can live, and be an amusing companion to. The only relative to bite at this offer is a family out on the moors, whose very letters drip with overwrought emotion. She arrives, to find a family in constant turmoil. A great-aunt who rules them all with an iron fist despite appearing batty. A mother obsessed with one son at the cost of the other. A religious fanatic. A son who sleeps around with a lot of women, despite his real passion being the movies. Another son who loves the farm itself with passion that would otherwise be reserved for women. An uncontrolled daughter of the moors, in love with the local squire's son. A farmhand who thinks the muskrats (or some other small rodent) promised him the daughter of the moors as his bride in her cradle.

All of them are in the grip of their emotions, and have not let their common sense work in quite a long time. Flora breezes in, and the humour contrasts her to these stock literary characters, but also compares the styles of writing, as the prose is alternately light and breezy, and heavy and portentous.

Can Flora straighten out her relatives?

What's going on here is in no way revolutionary. Instead, it's like sitting down to tea and conversation with a witty friend, and just enjoying yourself without thought for whether or not that conversation means something, or will change your life.

Flora and her interactions with the young man in love with the farm particularly amused me, as every time she speaks on it, he assumes she's trying to steal the farm out from under his feet and starts ranting. Her way of undercutting him is charming.

The commentary on a certain genre of English rural fiction is quite hilarious, and Flora, in her officious and determined interference, a welcome commentary.

Read as part of the BBC Big Read

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

*Spoilers Below*

This book gets a solid "meh." I didn't connect with it, never felt that it had anything deeper or meaningful to say about about life, about medicine, about family or children, and then, near the end, one thing made me enraged. I don't know what Ann Patchett was trying to achieve with this book, but I didn't get it. There was the surface layer, and then...?

Incredibly passive biomedical researcher Marina is gently nudged into travelling to Brazil in search of her former teacher, who is there allegedly developing an incredible drug to extend fertility for women indefinitely. Oh, and to look for information on the death of a colleague. Once there, she drifts vaguely into the orbit of her former teacher, Dr. Swenson, and taken along to her hidden camp. There, she...look, I don't know what she does. I mean, I know what happens in the story, but how it affects her? It's all very vague, and we aren't given enough to really know how she changes, other than that initially she finds the life icky and then doesn't.

We don't really know anything about Marina except her passivity, so, wow, is it difficult to give a rat's ass about her.

There could be something to be said here about biomedical ethics, about lifestyle, about anything, really. Instead, what seems to be chosen is a very shallow look at very deep issues.

Oh, and then the part that enraged me. Look, if she decides she can't go back to get the child she just left alone with a hostile tribe, and suffers guilt because of that, that would be one thing. But to give it some pseudophilosophical justification about how "people are only allowed to go into hell once" is fucking ridiculous. One, it wasn't hell, it was a traumatic experience. Two, people aren't goddamned limited to one, and then exempted from all future trauma. It's certainly not a a moral justification for inactivity.

And then the book ends. And nothing is really changed, Marina may decide to go back to the Amazon camp, but I don't really care. I don't think she cares. She doesn't seem to have changed, or found meaning or purpose, or a backbone. I'm a little perplexed what the author was trying to do here, because I just didn't get it. At all.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Mars by Ben Bova

This is a reread review. I went straight from one Bova as my bathroom reading, to another. Thankfully, I found this one much more engrossing and consistent than I did the Kinsman Chronicles. The pacing doesn't lag in the middle, as that one did, and I never had trouble convincing myself to pick it up and read a few more pages.

Mars is a fairly straightforward story - there is no far-future tech, no aliens (or are there?), few wild leaps of imagination. What it is is an account of the first mission to Mars, in such terms as might actually happen - the political compromises that would impede or otherwise alter scientific desire, the men and women who would be chosen, and some of the obstacles they might face once there.

The main character, Jamie Waterman, illustrates some of the problems one man might have even being selected, being one American too many on an international endeavour, and Native American to boot. We see his struggles to be picked, the machinations behind the scenes that get him on board, and then how what we find on Mars might necessitate changing bureaucratic plans, who that might upset, and, near the end, the way that everyone except the doctor mysteriously sickens, and no one quite knows why.

While I'm sure the actual Mars mission will not resemble this in any particulars, but these all feel like things that could happen, quite easily. (And please, please, let that mission happen within my lifetime. You've got a while to go - get on it!) Particularly, the behind the scenes politics, where no one actively wishes the Mars mission to fail, although several wish that their predecessors in office hadn't pledge the funding, seemed a good representation of what might happen.

There are more in the series, and I look forward to seeing what happens next!

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Let's start this off by saying I hated the movie. I know I'm in the minority on this, but there it is. Hated it. With a fiery passion. (It's been a long time, and now that I've read the book, I might try it again at some point. But maybe not.)

But I've liked what little Edith Wharton I've read (Ethan Frome), so I decided to give The Age of Innocence a try. And enjoyed it immensely. And it struck me almost immediately why I didn't buy the movie for a second.

Daniel Day-Lewis is absolutely the wrong actor for that role.

Don't get me wrong, he's a wonderful actor. But he is absolutely wrong for Newland Archer. Whoever Daniel Day-Lewis is playing, he always has a strong sense of who he is. Newland Archer doesn't. The character should have been played by a pretty-boy, preferably someone who can play weak, definitely with a weak chin. I actually think Jude Law would be perfect.

Because Newland Archer doesn't have a strong sense of who he is. He is a fundamentally weak character who, when the chips are down and he's placed in difficult decisions, makes them based on what other people want. And I never bought that from Daniel Day-Lewis for a second.

But as a look at New York society, the inner circle, the ways it policed itself, and the ways it ostracized, accepted and accommodated, all in order to avoid making a fuss, the book is fascinating. The suffocating nature of the social strictures that permeate the air, and the brief glimpses of something that could be more - more passionate, more authentic, more real - serve to put into stark relief the bondage that the characters willingly accept.

I just never believed that Daniel Day-Lewis would accept what everyone wanted him to do simply because to do otherwise would be awkward. And I did believe that of Newland Archer.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld

The continuing adventures of naval crew and girl-in-disguise Deryn and secret-heir-to-the-Austro-Hungarian-Empire Alex. This time, in Istanbul! With a continued mix of steampunky ships and genetically engineered beasties, including giant airships. And bats who poop razors. Plucky kids in their early teens, battling to take down empires!

It's, you know, fun. Not much more, and it still feels like there's something lacking I haven't quite put my finger on, but fun.

Well, there's that review done!

*dusts off hands*

No? That's not nearly long enough to suit my inner reviewer? Dammit. So, what else do I want to say about this book?

Well, you all know how I like fictional dogs? And cats? Well, there's neither of those here, but there's a new beastie, a Perspicacious Loris, who is pretty endearing. He parrots people, but not unthinkingly. They may not be listening, but he's saying important things. He's cute.

The mechs that the Turkish rebels have are actually very interesting - they're mostly shaped like mythological beings, and the descriptions (and drawings) of them are beautiful. The rebels themselves are moderately interesting.

Oh, we're just coming down to the fact that nothing in this book really grabbed me. I'm struggling to remember what I thought of it, and I finished it less than a week ago. I enjoyed it perfectly well while I was reading it, but there wasn't a moment that made me excited or eager to read more, right away.

Which, given that it's a book about the start of a steampunk World War I, shouldn't really be the case. It shouldn't be this hard to engage with the characters, or care about their fates. I found myself not really caring whether or not Alex found out that Deryn was female, although the minor subplot where another female character had a crush on Deryn was moderately fun.

I think that's the best way to sum up this book. Moderately fun. There's nothing bothersome about it, there's just not enough right. It's fine. And if that isn't damning with faint praise, I don't know what is. I don't know if I'll go on to the others in the series. Given how hard it was to write this review, I suspect not.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

This was Jonathan Safran Foer's last chance.

I didn't even make it through the (very long) introduction to Everything is Illuminated before I looked at the book with utter distaste and couldn't force myself to pick it up again. I don't know what the rest of the book was like, and I've heard many people rave about it, but the introduction was over 40 pages of one joke, and not a particularly funny one at that.

Yeah, it's hilarious that the narrator can't speak English as well as he thinks he can! It's rolling-on-the-floor funny that's he's strange and different! And then when you pair that with the narrator telling us repeatedly how great the main character is, who happens to have the same name as the author...well, let's just say it put me off entirely.

Again, this is just judging from the introduction, so it's probably totally unfair, but it read to me like someone who'd been told as a child that he was precocious and never gotten over it.

And then I read his wife's (also acclaimed) novel, and finished that one, but was left cold by it. It's unfair to judge him for that, but to me, it was two strikes.

This was his last chance.

And damn it if he didn't knock this one out of the park. I enjoyed this book so much I might actually give Everything is Illuminated another chance. Maybe.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is touching, it's funny, it's heart-breaking, and it's surprising. Time after time he layered little surprises about who knew what and when, and every time they caught me by surprise - they weren't twists, but instead added a deeper layer of meaning to the story. Most of the time, a deeper layer of pain and love and understanding.

As a book about silences and absences, and what is said and not said, it was devastatingly effective to learn what people did know, and never acknowledged. And for some reason, I never saw any of these tiny domestic revelations before they hit me.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler

I read Nancy Richler's second book a long while ago, and I don't remember being impressed. Years down the line, I remember virtually nothing about it. When this came along on one of my lists of Globe & Mail bestsellers, I was ready to give it a chance, but wasn't really expecting much. I was wrong. This is a huge leap forward from Your Mouth is So Lovely, and The Imposter Bride had me in its quiet palm.

Is it flippant to say that this fits squarely in the Jewish-Canadian post-Holocaust genre? There are a number of books written from the point of view of that community. In Canada, but with the horrors of previous years looming just over the shoulders of the characters. It shapes everything, as how could it not?

In this one, a woman in the midst of a series of emigrations, leaves Palestine for Montreal, and an arranged marriage designed to get her Canadian citizenship. But, as the title suggests, she is not who she says she is. Her bridegroom jilts her at the train station, but his brother falls for her instantly. They are married. They have a little girl. One day, the woman leaves the child with her sister-in-law, claims to be going for milk, and never returns. She sends the little girl rocks every once in a while, with a note about what they are and where they're from.

The little girl is brought up by a loving extended family. But the void of where her mother was colours both her and her father's lives. There are diaries left behind, but whose are they? Her mother's, or those of the woman she was pretending to be?

What really elevates this book, however, is the quiet complexity of the characters. There is no ranting, no scattershot blame. There are just people truly trying to understand what happened, and even if they failed, not choosing the easy or angry paths. Everyone carries scars, even if they didn't go through worst of the horrors themselves.

When I was reading Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, I was struck by her call for more complex stories of reunions after adoption. The standard narrative of throwing yourself into your birth mother or father's arms, and everything being easy, she argued, did a disservice to how complex that reunion actually is. The Imposter Bride, I think, although it is not about an adoption precisely, gives a new spin on that story, and it was truly stunning.

It's so quiet. That sense of stillness, of silence, of things that aren't said, without recrimination. Of understanding and not understanding and both of those things being just the way things are.

So much of this book is quietly complex. All the characters, their actions, their lives. And it's drawn so seemingly effortlessly. I remember not loving Richler's previous book, but now I'm eagerly looking forward to the next.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carre

It was a great synchronicity that this popped up on one of my reading lists when it did, as one of my gaming groups was about to embark on a game of Cold City, set in post-War Berlin, playing representatives of different countries in BPRD-like surroundings.

But my spycraft is sadly lacking, so reading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was a nice way to get a tiny bit of the taste, although this book takes place later in time, and only in England. I enjoyed it both for the story, and for the atmosphere.

I did have some difficulties with the writing at times, though. I found it difficult to tell sometimes whether something was a flashback, a story recounted, or in the present. I often had to stop and go back a few pages to try to figure it out, and still had difficulty. If this was le Carre deliberately trying to blend the past and the present to make the point that they are inextricable, good job. If it was just a sign of sloppy writing, not so good.

Also, if you get this in a later edition, don't read the foreword le Carre added. If you're paying attention, he pretty much gives away who the mole is.

But this novel does a good job of showing a treacherous world, in which anyone you speak to could be a double agent, and is fascinating in how it explores how you would track a mole without letting him know that you're doing so. (Particularly given that you're not sure who he is.) The claustrophobia and constant tensions are well elucidated.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh

*Spoilers Ahead*

This is a massive volume that is both fascinating and oddly opaque. It's a murder mystery in which the mystery is never solved. It's a consideration of the ethics of manufactured humans, without going into as much depth as it could. It's a conspiracy that is partially but not entirely explained. And it centres around a rape, which ripples through the rest of the book, and I'm not entirely convinced that it's handled well, in the end.

I am a bit at a loss. I liked parts of it a lot. I was bothered by parts of it. There were parts where I wished we'd stop dancing around big topics and just hit them, head on. Those may be explored in more depths in other books in this setting, and I may have to check them out.

In the end, I'm not sure the rape is well handled, nor its aftermath, and that does leave a bad taste in my mouth. One of the main male characters is raped by his boss, after being drugged, and near the end, we get an explanation of "oh, she was just trying to start a psychological intervention that would have been for his own good had she been able to complete it," and wow, that's not really good enough, C.J. Cherryh. I'm sure you didn't mean to make light of rape, but given what we know of what happened (fragments), and the way that it haunts him for the whole rest of his life, trying to explain it away and make his rapist understandable in those actions? Not really good enough. Not by half.

If she's going to do horrific things, don't shy away from it, and try to make her into an altruist in the last hundred pages. Own her as a complicated character who is capable of great evil. Just...don't try to lessen it. Don't. 

Which is a pity, because there's much else here to like. It's a world where Earth has lost its centrality, but there are few actual other human planets. There are other settlements, but most are in space. One, however, is on Cyteen. It's risky, because the air is carcinogenic, but they've built settlements nonetheless. It's become the home of the largest research facility in, well, the galaxy. The government is made up of representatives of different utilitarian factions, and the Science representative is also the head of the Reseune research facility.

So there's a lot of politics mixed in with the science. And people who would kill for their own political agendas.

Reseune is most prominent for the creation of "azi," which stands for artificial zygote insemination. I had to look that up on wikipedia, as I don't remember ever hearing it in the book. Many people are born from artificial insemination, though. The difference is whether or not they are then programmed. There is a difference between citizens, who are raised by humans, and don't receive teaching from "tapes" until they are six. And then there are azi, who are trained from birth on tapes, and given logic structures by which to live their lives. Some azi can become citizens near the end of their lives. Most do not.

In essence, Reseune is the sole supplier of a slave population, one which is incapable of functioning outside of citizen purview. They're still custodians of all of them, theoretically to protect them from abuse. It gives them a huge amount of control. What would happen if the azi were left on their own is an open question in this book, but not a theoretical one. But it's one of those issues that's brought up and not pursued.

The director of the facility, Ariane Emory, is the aforementioned rapist. And genius. She is killed fairly early in the book. The person who confesses, it is fairly apparent, is probably not the killer. The murder mystery is not solved by the end of the book, and that disappointed me.

Reseune is staggered by this loss. According to her wishes, though, they attempt to clone her. Not just her, but her upbringing. Previous attempts to recover genius in this manner came to horrible conclusions. What will happen this time? And if the new Ari survives, how similar will she be to her predecessor? Why is she still fascinated with the young man her predecessor raped? Will she do a better job of being a person than Ari I? Or will she repeat those mistakes?

This is the centre of the book, and it is fascinating. I would be thoroughly enthralled for it if it weren't for that late attempt to shift the blame off the first Ari for a horrific act. If they'd just left that as it was, young Ari's development, and the question of whether or not she'd be who her predecessor was would have been even more powerful. What happens if you're designed to be the duplicate of someone capable of horrific acts? What does that do to you?

There are provocative ideas here. I never found it difficult to read. But the lack of follow-up on some of the provocative ideas was a bit frustrating. That paled, however, next to how upset trying to whitewash the elder Ari's actions in the final act made me. There are topics that, if you want to handle them, you can't back away from. You wanted a rape in your book, you can't try to make the rape okay after all.

It's too bad, because up to that, the long-term impact of what he'd experienced on Justin was well done, well-handled, interesting. Then I was let down. But the book is more than that. So I am torn.

Booklinks:

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

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Swamplandia is the story of a family on the verge of failure, and the various ways that collapse comes to pass after Hilola Bigtree, mother, wife and celebrated alligator wrestler, dies suddenly. It's the story of a family struggling in uncertain economic times, being squeezed out by a corporate theme park, and the various ways Chief Bigtree and his three children, Kiwi, Osceola and Ava try to cope.

This makes it sound too straightforward. This is a marvellously twisty book, with delves almost into magical realism, which creates the world of the swamps, Swamplandia, The World of Darkness (the big theme park) and the lifesucking suburbs of nearby Loomis vividly.

The Chief disappears to help the family out (and, we eventually discover, the family may have been on the verge of collapse even longer than anyone knew, but Chief and Hilola had kept the mythology of self-sufficient alligator wrestlers alive for themselves and their children through years of tough times.) Kiwi leaves to work at the World of Darkness, hoping to send money home, and prove his genius. Osceola dives into spiritualism, and attracts a spirit boyfriend. Ava, 13, is determined to take up her mother's mantle and save the family, and takes a journey into the Everglades that ends in horror that haunts all of those scenes and seems to draw inevitably closer.

There are no punches pulled in Swamplandia! No easy answers. And yet, lots of hope and love. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Star Light, Star Bright by Alfred Bester

This is a solid, if not spectacular, collection of short stories. The problem is, based on the two Bester novels I've read, I expect spectacular. I expect him to bend language to his will and plunge headlong into experimentation and emerge with gems. In this collection, only one story explores those aspects of his writing that I've most enjoyed in the past. For the rest, they were entertaining, but I don't really expect them to stay with me in the same way The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man have.

Story by story:

"Adam and No Eve"

This is an entertaining take on the "last man on earth" tale, with a twist, hinted at in the title - no one else to repopulate the earth with. In fact, it goes beyond that into being a "last living thing on earth." The ending is entertaining, the cataclysm that led to the destruction of all life on earth a frightening look at hubris.

"Time is the Traitor"

This is one of my favourite stories in the book, other than "The Pi Man." In the future, corporations and governments and everything, really, have grown so complex that almost no one can hold all the aspects of a large problem in their head and come up with a sensible answer. No one, that is, except for John Strapp. Naturally, his services are in great demand. There's only one problem. He keeps murdering men named Kruger. This one is entertaining and engrossing.

"Oddy and Id"

"Oddy and Id" is entertaining, but a bit too straightforward for Bester. A young man named Oddy has industrial-strength luck, and four college professors think they can use that to save the solar system. His luck has other plans....

"Hobson's Choice"

After a nuclear cataclysm, one statistician notes a statistical anomaly - the population keeps going up. And it really shouldn't. What he finds when he checks it out in person is a lot of fun. And I like the ambiguous ending.

"Star Light, Star Bright"

This story is way too similar to "Oddy and Id," as far as I'm concerned. It's perhaps the better of the two, but the two tread more or less the same ground with more or less the same results.

"They Don't Make Life Like They Used To"

A last-two-people-on-earth tale, except they're not sure they like each other very much, and at least one of them is probably lying. The vision of a deserted New York is interesting, but the story is a bit too cute sometimes.

"Of Time and Third Avenue"

A man accidentally buys a year almanac for forty years in the future, and a time traveller must convince him to give it up, unread. This one is twisty enough that it thoroughly satisfied me. I mostly but not quite guessed the ending, but the discussion over knowing the future was worth the price of admission.

"Isaac Asimov"

A magazine piece Bester wrote on Asimov, it's short and entertaining.

"The Pi Man"

This is the best story of the bunch, the one where Bester comes closest to the kind of writing that I've so enjoyed before. The Pi Man is buffeted by patterns, everywhere he goes, and the patterns demand righting, even if it leads him to do some pretty nasty things. Government certainly don't understand this. He doesn't even understand this. What does balance demand? And who's demanding it?

"Something Up There Likes Me"

I was literally in the middle of reading this story when I took a break, surfed the internet, and came upon a short speculative piece about how satellites could develop intelligence. The synchronicity astounded me, as that's what happens in the story. And the lead satellite, OBO, has quite the sense of humour.

While I'm talking about this one, I should say that his female characters are very well drawn, particularly compared to some other stories written in the same time period. They don't gurgle or burble, they aren't just out for sex or to mess the men up. They're about as well developed as the men in the stories, and if that's not always to an incredible degree, at least it's true for everyone.

"My Affair with Science Fiction"

An account of his science fiction writing career, and why he stopped. His discussion with John Campbell about Dianetics is a gem.

If you've read Bester's two great novels, and are looking for more, this is worthwhile. If you haven't, start with those. They're definitely his masterworks.

Monday, 4 August 2014

"Vandals of the Stars" by A.T. Locke

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

This story, you guys. This story. There may not have been a story I've read that led to my husband and friends being peppered with as many insane quotes as this one. It's not that the story was particularly out there, but oh, layered into it was some outrageous stuff.

I will try to make this review not all quotes, but it may be difficult.

Let's just start with the main character's name. I feel like it requires a bigger font, somehow...

Introducing Dirk Vanderpool!

He's a brilliant millionaire scientist, natch. Who is horrible to his servants. But we'll get to the class issues later. Because boy, are there class issues! Along with gender issues and some sort-of veiled racism! But the class stuff, it's a peach.

So, brilliant millionaire scientist. At least I think he's a scientist. And a pilot, and a financier, and maybe one of the five men who control the world. Benevolently, of course. Dirk is at home one night, with his butler, when a mysterious ship hovers over the city. I think it's New York. It hangs around for a bit, moves around, causes some damage, but then eventually comes to rest and disgorges its inhabitants, who say that they're representatives from a galactic empire, and Earth is their newest conquest.

The guy in charge is blond and, as is usual in these type of stories, that means he seems to be a good guy. He wants Earth as his own private fiefdom, and that'll keep it safe from the evil galactic overlord. Good deal, huh? Except, did I mention that his son has black hair? Can we all guess what that means? It means evil, of course. You can also tell he's advanced, because he has the most complex expression on his face ever:

"His expression, however, was petulant and haughty and it contained more than a suggestion of rapacity and evil."

That's some expression!

(This keeps recurring in this story. Not only the father/son duality, but Dirk and the other man who wants to date his girfriend are described in similar terms:

"He rose to his feet, a short man in his forties, stocky in build and somewhat swarthy in complexion. He contrasted very unfavorably with Dirk, who was tall and well-built and who had abundant blond hair and steady steel-blue eyes."

The girlfriend herself appears to be both blond and dark, in a truly stunning mingling of physical and emotional traits:

"She was perhaps twenty years old, and she had the golden hair, the light complexion, and the blue eyes which still were characteristic of the women of northern Europe....The slender lines of her exquisite figure and the supple grace which she displayed when she moved toward Dirk were evidence, however, of the Latin blood which was in her veins.")

Anyway, the son wants the woman, Dirk vows to stop them, the father gets killed, the son tries to take over earth, but Dirk and the other rulers of Earth fight them off! And all is well! Well, except for the part where there's apparently still an evil galactic empire out there out to enslave them all, but that's a fine detail, right? I mean, at least they have the ship to dissect and learn from? No? It sank into the depths of the ocean? Bugger.

The story, it's not that complex. Underneath it, though, there are some truly stunning politics. Other than the bits mentioned, race is pretty much non-existent. Gender? Well, Inga is mostly there to be desired. And to make it so Dirk gets mad when other men look at her:

"The latter, he knew, was very much inclined to look with favor on Inga, and his presumption annoyed Dirk because, while he and the girl had not declared their intention of living together, they were very much in love with each other."

Which this guy should obviously have known, amirite? And that would mean no one else can look at her!

And apparently these gender politics reach even unto the stars, as the bad guy almost immediately states to her:

“your beauty pleases me. I have walked on many worlds but never before have I seen one as lovely as yourself. Of the spoils of this world, all that I crave possession of is you. When we return to Lodore,” he added with an air of finality, “I will take you with me and place you with my other women in the Seraglio of the Stars.”

Oh, and this reminds me of the one hilarious "science" bit in this story. Otherwise, I make no comment.  I don't expect old science fiction to correctly predict the future, although I do think it's funny when everything is because of "vibrations."

No, this is the social sciences. Apparently, get this, the invaders speak English. Because:

"Life grows out of the substance of the universe and language comes out of life. The speech of mankind, in your state of development, varies but little throughout all space and I have heard your English, as you call it, spoken among those who dwell in many, many worlds.” 

So all over the universe, English is a sign of being at a certain stage of development. What does that mean for French? Or Chinese, or, anything, really? Nope, English. That's the language. Not just the international language, the interstellar language.

Let's get to the part I really wanted to talk about. Benevolent dictatorship by those who hold all the money. I'm not kidding. This future world is ruled by five men who have all the money, and decided to take it over. And that's great, according to the author!

"It was in the early part of the twentieth century that wealth had commenced to concentrate into a relatively few hands. This was followed by a period in which vast mergers and consolidations had been effected as a result of the financial power and genius for organization which a few men possessed. A confederation of the countries of the world was brought about by industrial kings who had learned, in one devastating war, that militarism, while it might bring riches to a few, was, in the final analysis, destructive and wasteful." 

"Absolute control of all of the necessities and luxuries of life, in fact, were in the hands of the five men, who used their vast power wisely and beneficently. "

And there are all these snide comments about the servants - Dirk's an absolute asshole to his butler. Man, the invaders from outer space I can handle without a blink. But that the five richest men in the world would do a great job of ruling it, and not be ruled by their own self-interests? That strains my credulity far beyond the snapping point. Also, the decisions they come to, and the suggestions of regular use of knockout gas for crowd control in their cities? But that it's a good thing?

Man, this world was already a dystopia. It didn't need invaders from space for that. But the author doesn't seem to realize it.

Because rule by the powerful and wealthy is bad if they're not from around here (even if they speak English). But if they're homegrown petty dictators, they obviously have pure motives. Huh? 

Neuromancer by William Gibson

I first read Neuromancer years ago, and I have to say that when I picked it up again this time, not a single bit of it had stuck with me. I didn't even have that eerie feeling I often get when rereading that I'd read that exact line before.

But it's a classic of the genre. The one book group I belong to was reading it this month. So I took the book up to the bathroom and left it there for the first two weeks of the month, reading 5-10 pages at a time. Would taking the time to let small chunks seep into my memory make it have more of an impact?

I feel like I remember more of Neuromancer this time, but I still feel almost no emotional attachment to the book. It's been suggested it's because the book is too "arty" for readers who like hard SF. But I'm not the hugest fan of very hard SF, and tend to like books that take risks, if they pull it off.

It's been suggested people don't like it because they don't get noir and don't see how it draws on noir tropes. But I love noir. And I can see where he's drawing on the tropes, but he cloaks it all in such mystery that I can't even tell there's been a mystery until after the mystery has been revealed.

(And I'm presently playing in a Shadowrun game, fergoodness' sake, so it's not like cyberpunk is alien to me.)

It's just too opaque for me, too distant, too unemotional, too fascinated with its own universe to take the time to let me inside.

Maybe it's me. But I've given it a chance twice, and while I didn't hate it either time, and can remember more of it now than I did before, there's no fond place in my brain for this book.

So, Case and Molly, happy running. I probably won't be coming back on the trip with you again.

Booklinks:

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

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Stardance by Spider Robinson

Important Note: This review was written years ago, as the reference to the last shuttle launch should make clear. It is not my birthday!

This is my birthday present to myself - to review one of my favourite books by my all-time favourite author. It is made more poignant by the last shuttle launch yesterday, which made me cry like a baby.

This is not new - shuttle launches, Apollo launches, everything I can think of that has to do with space overwhelms me with wonder, and Spider Robinson is a huge part of the reason why. He makes space so exciting, so enticing, so essential, the vision and passion for manned spaceflight so urgent. (And to send artists up - one of the great tragedies of the cancellation of the Civilian in Space program after the Challenger disaster, was that his wife, Jeanne, never got to up with the second mission, never got to try dance in space for any longer than the time in the Vomit Comet she got very late in her life.)

And so, Stardance. And Starseed and Starmind, and I'll get to those later, I promise. Stealing directly from an essay by Spider, Spider is one of my mentors, in the sense of being one of the people who taught me how to think. Who taught me about the first law of Callahan's, which I will hold on to my whole life. Who taught me about wonder and the intense power of hope. And these books, which hold the message, we need to get out there in larger numbers. How could we have left the moon alone so long? Why aren't we making art in space?

Stardance is about hope. And fighting. About being human, and what that means. To quote from the book:

"This is what it is to be human: To see the essential existential futility of all action, all striving - and to act, to strive. This is what it is to be human: to reach forever beyond your grasp. This is what it is to be human: to live forever or die trying. This is what it is to be human: to perpetually ask the unanswerable questions, in the hope that the asking of them will somehow hasten the day when they will be answered. This is what it is to be human: to strive in the face of the certainty of failure. This is what it is to be human: to persist."

And like the shuttle launches, this book wrecks me every time. But in a happy, joyous way. Please read it. It would be a wonderful birthday present for me if you did.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Atomic Robo and the Fightin' Scientists of Tesladyne by Brian Clevinger

I love Atomic Robo. I fell in love with it after the first one I read, on Free Comic Book Day, in which there is a evil mad scientist velociraptor running through the corridors as walls are being torn down around him yelling "DO NOT BLAME ME IT IS NOT MY FAULT." (Grammar as presented, which for some reason makes it even funnier.)

I fell in love with Dr. Dinosaur right there, evil or not. And all the rest of the Atomic Robo universe. I've enjoyed all the comics I've read since then, and now, graphic novels!

Atomic Robo and the Fightin' Scientists of Tesladyne frequently made me laugh out loud, from the moment that Atomic Robo said "I didn't found this crazy organization to not nuke things" to the moment that it was revealed that Atomic Robo used rocks to write STEPHEN HAWKING IS A BASTARD in huge letters across the face of Mars. (Well, he deserved it.)

In this volume, Atomic Robo and his Fightin' Scientists tussle with Helsingard, a Nazi weird scientist whose brain has been transplanted into several successive bodies. Also with giant ants, with great discussion about how that should be impossible. (With one fightin' scientist defending staunchly his new field of "Imaginary Science".) Oh yeah, and then they had to fight a pyramid that was causing destruction across Egypt.

Atomic Robo is crazy fun, an irreverent, 1950s-style mad science comic extravaganza.

But this doesn't get five stars because there is no Dr. Dinosaur in this one.