Friday, 31 July 2015

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

I started this book with low expectations. I've been down on the idea of bestsellers these days, and the first chapter was incredibly irritating. The lead character seemed so much an over-the-top rendition of the awkward, probably-on-the-autism-spectrum guy who doesn't do emotions and does do schedules that I wasn't sure I could even finish reading the book, let alone like it.

So I was a little surprised when I finished, and discovered that, overall, I enjoyed it more than I expected. I didn't love it. I'm not sure everyone needs to run out and read it. I don't intend to run out and read the sequel, but in the end, this last crack at deliberately reading best sellers, was an okay one. (This is not to say I won't read bestsellers anymore - just that I won't be using bestseller lists specifically to help me pick books out. I have other ways of getting at recent books.)

The main character is a professor in Australia (I should know what city, but I have forgotten already. Melbourne?) of genetics. He has only two friends in all the world, because his personal mannerisms and obsession with perfection alienate everyone else. (Except for the half a dozen women who hit on him without him realizing over the course of the book.)

Don would like a relationship, to fit into the meticulous scheduling of his life. But finds dating inefficient, so (of course he does) he comes up with a questionnaire to weed out unsuitable candidates, looking for someone exactly like himself.

The romantic comedy rule of opposites attracting, though, means that when messy, upset, has-difficulty-with-men-because-of-father-issues Rosie walks through the door, guess what happens? Well, what happens first is a whole whack of paternity tests, because Rosie's looking for her biological father, and Don decides to help her out.

In the course, predictably, he learns a little about having his schedules disrupted and enjoying it and falls for just the woman he never thought he would. (Opposites always attract in fiction, I guess. Not as sure about real life. My husband and I are really fairly similar people in many ways, and we've been together for almost two decades.)

Rosie is pretty much a manic pixie dream girl, with just enough daddy issues flaws that you can point at and say "see! She has flaws!" if you really want to. She's there to shake Don out of his rut and make sure he enjoys it. She's not really developed a ton beyond that.

But still, for what it was, it wasn't terrible. The ending felt a bit rushed, as far too much happens in the last two chapters to squeeze into that much space. However. It's a light and frothy read for summer, and I hope it's not too much of a spoiler when I say love wins out after all. Did anything about the blurb make you think anything different would happen?

Thursday, 30 July 2015

"The Mating of the Moons" by Kenneth O'Hara

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?

From: Orbit, Vol. 1, No. 2, 1953

First off, why is this story called "The Mating of the Moons?" All the action takes place on Mars. It's about Mars. And Martians. Deimos and Phobos don't really make an appearance. (Okay, I guess maybe they appear in conjunction that the internet tells me is totally impossible once.)

Secondly, is it wrong that I spent the entire story wanting to throttle the main character?

Madeleine is rich. Very, very rich. And practically a spinster. Of course, as a rich person, she has rich person problems. Like that the world is very boring. And that she is the only special snowflake with the perception to recognize the world's phoniness, and so therefore she is a cut above everyone else because she cannot tolerate anything at all that does not come up to her high standards for authenticity - which means that she can't tolerate anything.

She is "tortured by the insight that both enables and compels me to see through the sham and pretense." 

"The invisible edges of living had cut her soul to pieces."

Everyone else in the solar system is in "hopeless peonage to the radios and teevee and radar and thundering jets that drown out the song of real life." 

This does not give me sympathy. This makes me want to slap her up the side of the head and tell her to stop being so goddamned in love with her self-image as so much more real than anyone around her. She doesn't even know what she means by real life. Or authenticity. Just that nothing she encounters can ever be it.

Ugh.

So, of course, she's upset at the tourist trap on Mars, that she thought would, just once, satisfy her soul. Or whatever. My eyes were permanently rolled at this point. Luckily it was a short story. On Mars, she bitches about the ruins. Insults the locals. Sees through the commercial sham of the hotel. Almost has sex with the tour guide, but realizes it's not real enough.

And then runs out onto the surface, where she meets a real Martian, a disembodied spirit who appears as an old man, while also realizing that the tour guide is another, younger disembodied Martian, who tries to discourage tourists who are just too good for this tourism shit from going out and getting themselves killed.

Becoming all disembodied, see, would be real. But humans just can't do it. So she dies, halfway between the material world and becoming one of them. She's too old. She can't make the transition as a child could.

But at least she shrivels up and dies on the surface of Mars, in a real death. Almost having found authenticity. Feeling satisfied at last.

Blech.

Hey, it's a female main character, if an utterly useless one. It's funny, I associate this particular kind of being too authentic for the world with men, although that may just be that the specimens I've run into have been male. Plus, I've read Catcher in the Rye.

In the end, there's no sign the author thinks this character is being as ridiculous as I think she's being. Wow.

If you want an old science fiction story that made me want to slap every character in it, you could pick this one. I'm not sure why you would, though.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Flash and Bones by Kathy Reichs

Temperance Brennan goes NASCAR! Well, not really, but this one centres in and around Charlotte, North Carolina, just before and during Race Week. It's supposed to be near Brennan's home base, and that worked for me better than the only previous Reichs I'd read, set in Quebec and Hawaii. At any rate, having read two, I'd say this is a competent mystery, but oh man, have I ever been spoiled by Louise Penny. In comparison, this is just so surface.

In other words, if you're looking for a quick, not-particularly-challenging-or-deep mystery, go right ahead. The solution is fairly satisfying. It moves right along. It just doesn't do anything more than be a procedural mystery. Not even capture the lives of the rich and murderous a la Agatha Christie. Or the small town stylings with Miss Marple. It's just so...straightforward.

As far as NASCAR goes, I have to confess that I watch NASCAR with my husband. We've fallen off in recent years, but I'd say we still tune in for a good third to half of the season, whenever it's on TV or convenient. My husband's driver is retiring at the end of the year, so it's anyone's guess if that'll be it for NASCAR for us. I read, and look up every once in a while, check where Jeff Gordon is, go back to the book.

In other words, without being a fervent fan, I know NASCAR. So I have this to say - Reichs has clearly done her research. And her main character doesn't know much about the racing world, so that's fine. What ends up happening is that you get well-researched facts, that still don't quite jump the gap to feeling like NASCAR. That is perhaps inevitable.

However, the end of the book, which I will not spoil, draws on an interesting and disturbing part of NASCAR culture, and when it was revealed that was where we were going, I approved.

There are also the FBI, ricin, white supremacist groups, a missing CDC guy, and a body in an oil drum to contend with. And a sexy head of security at Charlotte? Brennan has a lot of love interests, it appears. The book lists them off at one point, with what I read as an exhausted air. While it's cool that there's no particular premium placed here on settling down into monogamous bliss, one has to wonder if four or five sometimes sex partners in the picture at the same time (most of them to be very far away and have troubles that mean there is no actual sex) is a bit much?

I'm glad it's not the centre of the series. But it's so diffuse, it feels like it could use some pruning. Sorry, guys.

The thing that did bother me about the book was the way Reichs does descriptions. It's more like product placement than anything else. We're always told what brand Brennan's eating, and that's all the descriptive prose we get. It's just lists, not actual description. I started to roll my eyes just a little bit.

In the end, this is fine. It doesn't change my decision to ditch bestseller lists in any way. The mystery is competent. It's not anything more.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Saga Vol. 4 by Brian K. Vaughan

*Some Spoilers Ahead*

It's sometimes hard to write a book review for each graphic novel in a series. Then again, sometimes it's also hard to write a review for later entries in a series of novels - you end up feeling like you aren't saying anything new, because the books aren't offering anything that new. This is not necessarily a bad thing - they might be great - but I run out of things to say.

So here we are with Saga, Vol. 4. I was loaned this by my friend Melissa, who loves this series with a deep passion, and told me that this one would break my heart. And I feel bad admitting it...but it didn't. I didn't dislike it, but the emotional impact was far less than the third entry in this series, for instance.

In part, it's because this graphic novel feels like it's spinning its wheels instead of advancing the plot. The characters are feeling that too, and perhaps it's the point. In a grand saga, you're not supposed to just have to...hide out on a planet for years and work crap jobs and have to hide your face all the time. You're not supposed to feel your grand romance slowly crumbling while you can't think what to do to save it.

It's an interesting move, for sure. As long as it is only for this one novel. We appear to get moving at the end, and that's good, because now we've done the pause, it's time for action. (Pay attention closely here, George R.R. Martin.) 

I also didn't find it heartbreaking because, although there was an upsetting scene, the set up for what will happen next came quite quickly on its heels, and I'm not particularly worried. It felt more like a speedbump than an endpoint. (This may be me reading quickly - I was already on to the next bit and some of the promised resolution before it had time to sink in.)

Having the new threat be an entirely new character, who doesn't really particularly care about our leads...I'm not sure about that. We already have a plethora of people who are after them - the diversion into this new random dude acting out against the TV-headed guys was...I don't know. Is this an extended cast sort of book? It didn't appear so at first, but it's becoming more so as we go. As long as there's a point down the road, I'm fine. If this is long-term crafting of a story, cool. If it's just throwing more weird shit at the screen to see what sticks, then less so.

I guess I'll have to wait to find out.

Oh, and Alana's main subplot seemed a bit...pat. Another case where I was thinking, okay, fine, but did we have to? Is it the most interesting thing to happen here? Mom pops pills, Dad gets attracted to the alien down the lane?

So yeah, there are a bunch of things about this book that make me wonder if the choices were really the best ones. If it pays off, Brian K. Vaughan is forgiven. If not, then I'm a teensy bit dissatisfied. You've got a couple more volumes to win me back. Wow me.

(The best goddamn bit of the book was the two pages with Lying Cat. So good.)

Friday, 24 July 2015

Goliath by Scott Westerfeld

*Some Spoilers Ahead*

I'm done this series, I think. In that I think it's done? And even if it's not, I'm not sure I need to go on with it. It has been passable young adult alt-history, but it never really grabbed me. I haven't minded reading any of the three books, but I was never delighted when they came around on the Kindle.

Plus, Tesla doesn't shake hands. And it's almost the first thing he does when he is introduced in this book. In fact, most of his quirks don't appear, and he's turned into something of a villain. I'm rather fond of Tesla as a historical figure, and this version missed most of the eccentricities, and made him unlikeable, which is unlikely to win my approval.

In this one, the Leviathan drifts out of Europe, into Russia, Asia, across the Pacific. (I think they go across the Pacific? Maybe they reversed and went across the Atlantic. But no, they end up in California, so....) They're out of the main theatre of war, mostly there to ferry Tesla on a mission to finish a weapon he claims will bring peace to the world. Alek buys into this most thoroughly, apparently not having learned anything from history.

In California, they meet Hearst. Hearst sends them to meet Pancho Villa, to get better newsreel footage. This story is less driven by plot about the two main characters than it is by a travelogue, trying to fit in as many historical personages as possible.

This is possible because the romance takes centre stage. Deryn's pining becomes known. Alek thinks he can't reciprocate because he has to become Emperor of Austria. Can anyone who has ever read a young adult novel guess whether or not Alek will follow his duties or his heart?  The romance was never my favourite part of these books, but it's not terrible. At least it developed slowly and avoided insta-love at any point.

Still, it wasn't the part of the book I was breathlessly waiting on. The problem is that there weren't any parts I was breathlessly waiting on. There's very little tension in this book until the very end, and even that feels a bit predictable.

My other little quibble is that these perspicacious lorises are introduced, and then nothing much is done with them. I know they knew Deryn was a girl, but other than that, I figured they'd play a big part at some point, when people finally realized that what they were repeating was relevant to the situations they were in, but not only did that seem to happen less often in this book, nobody really realized it. Which takes all that potential and roundly squanders it.

Most of the drama hinges, yet again, on whether or not Deryn will be revealed as a girl. I won't tell you which way it goes, but she is closer to that revelation in that book. That's interesting, but at a certain point, the consequences and what happens next would be more interesting. (Okay, I guess I just told you.)

This series isn't bad. It just never really caught my imagination or made me excited. It's competent YA fiction. That's about the best I can say.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

"General Max Shorter" by Kris Neville

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?

From: Galaxy, December 1962

It's been a while since I've done one of these! It may continue to be erratic until my dissertation is finally done and submitted. It's nice to get back to them. And imagine my surprise, when I started this one, ready for purple prose, hilarious similes, and worrisome politics.

Wait, where did that stuff go?

This was not badly written, to my surprise. It's all about the dangers of military think, in terms of the colonization of space, but more generally in terms of a slavish following of rules as an excuse for abdication of thought and compassion.

In this story, the Earth military is mostly in charge of terraforming, and General Shorter is in charge of an expedition to make Miracastle safe for human habitation. Neville moves into things being askew gently, with us seeing General Shorter as a competent, respected leader, and then hearing about the suicide of one of his men (also one of the first science fiction short stories I've read that acknowledges suicide as a problem in the military). Shorter dismisses it as a weak personality, but there are hints that it was because of something the military had done that that soldier had been unable to live with.

Then administrators from earth show up, pissing off General Shorter as it messes with his schedule. There are more hints about how he thinks it would be better to bomb a city than run an expensive evacuation, if it meant he wouldn't be able to track down an enemy.

Turns out, despite a survey that on sampling, showed no evidence of non-human life, there was a small settlement of non-humans. They had evidently not started on this planet, but showed no signs of being able to leave. When the humans started to change the air, they started to suffocate. Shorter was informed that they could reverse it and save them, but refused to let his terraforming get behind schedule. He is shocked at the end of the story, when he is arrested for murder.

It's not just Shorter, though. Neville is careful to show that this is not one man's obsession with utility, but a military-wide problem, through a long-term Sergeant who rails about enlisted men who think too much and question orders. The blame is distributed.

I really enjoyed this story! It's a troubling look at the use of utilitarianism to justify colonialism and at extremes, massacre through inaction. In the recent stories I've been reading from the late 1950s and early 1960s, several seem to have moved from mad scientists to looking at the military applications of technology. Most of them are not that critical, but this one is extremely pointed.

It's too bad that it appears that Neville found that most of his work couldn't be published at the time. I will probably try to seek out more of what he could get published.

However, I should note, that while I enjoyed the politics of this story a lot, Neville's army still didn't include any women, nor, as far as we are told, anyone who wasn't white. It's hard to transcend all barriers, and he's far from alone. Still, it's always a little disappointing when someone is very close to making the next leap, and doesn't.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Seriously...I'm Kidding by Ellen Degeneres

I am seriously considering giving up on those painstakingly compiled (by me) Globe and Mail bestseller lists. I was doing it with the best of intentions, trying to make sure that I was still reading a certain number of books every year that other people were likely to have read. But over the last few months, I've been finding myself more cranky about it than happy. I also found a new way to come up with a year-end list of popular books, and it looks like it's yielding more interesting choices.

Because, quite frankly, a good number of bestsellers have very little content worth speaking of. Some of them are worth reading. A great book can absolutely make it on the list. The problem is, so can a lot of really mediocre books, and I'm just tired of it. (It may not help that I've got three other bestseller list books out from the library right now. I'll finish them, then ditch the lists.)

Which brings me to Ellen Degeneres' book. The problem here is not that it's bad. It's that there isn't anything to it. It's written in her voice, I could hear her in my head as I read it. And two days after being done, I don't remember a thing. This is fluff of the highest order, with absolutely no insight into herself or her life, just little funny sketches of a couple of pages. Sketches, however, of very little depth either, very little to remember.

I think there were a couple about not having children? A bunch about the show? Faux self-help stuff, which was amusing at the time, but has entirely fled my brain?

Ellen has made a career of being nice and accidentally talking too long then backtracking. That's her schtick. That's what's in this book. It's fine, it's just...I spent hours reading this, and feel like I was reading cotton candy, with about that level of permanence.

There's nothing wrong with that, if it's what you're looking for. If you like Ellen, this book captures her voice very well. But I am frustrated with it. I want more, some insight into the human condition. Even in a humour book, dammit. This was even more ephemeral than some of the other humour books that I've read and didn't tickle me in the past year or so. (And far more ephemeral than the couple I really liked, and which have stuck with me.)

I'm being overly critical of a book that is exactly what it's supposed to be and absolutely nothing more. The fact that it's making me this cranky is exactly why I'm giving up on those lists of the books that spent the longest time on the Globe and Mail bestseller lists in a given year. It's time to move on. I'm excited about the new method I have to compile a list of recent books, and time to let this one fall by the wayside.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

It is hard to review an anthology of stories. The obvious temptation is to write a couple of lines about each story, but then you don't get into any depth about any of them, and when I read reviews like that, I tend to glaze over after a couple - it's not that I'm not interested, it's that it's a lot to take in about something I know little about, in a format that is not conducive to retaining knowledge.

So, let's maybe start by talking about the organizing theme? And then a couple of stories I particularly liked, and a few things I noticed. Retellings of fairy tales is an obvious win - so much so that this is the third anthology of stories with that theme by these editors. It's easier to put your finger on than Ellen Datlow's Supernatural Noir collection I read last year, in which there were many spooky stories, but few that actually seemed noir.

But tell people to rewrite a fairy tale, and I am betting eyes light up. Fairy Tale is stretched here to include the Wizard of Oz, but other than that, the collection also includes stories drawing from Russian and Japanese legends (although anything about Koschei the Deathless is going to be compared in my mind by Catherynne Valente's exquisite Deathless, which makes it difficult for a new writer to make an impact.)

Of the stories I liked the most, perhaps it isn't surprising that they came from authors I already knew I liked. Neil Gaiman's story in verse captured the rhythms of oral storytelling beautifully, where, yet again (this is a theme in this book), women turn the tables on less than fairy tale suitors.

Nancy Kress' take on Sleeping Beauty (and there were a lot of takes on Sleeping Beauty) stood out, with a princess who woke up only a few decades in to her hundred years, and spends the rest of the time tending the castle and watching the fates of the princes who impale themselves on the brambles, trying to save her. Not for her a traditional happily-ever-after, and I liked where she ended up.

Tanith Lee takes on Beauty and the Beast, and because it's Tanith Lee, it's beautifully written and frankly sexual, and under all of that, fairly disturbing. Her Beauty finds her power, and wields it in ways that are necessary, given her Beast.

I've never read any Joyce Carol Oates, so I was interested that she was the headliner, as it were, but her Sleeping Beauty story seemed less a fairy tale retelling, and more a ghost story about someone in a coma. The fairy tale wasn't embraced enough, although it was a fairly good, if not revelatory, story.

I would warn, though, that in this book, many of these stories include sexual and domestic violence, perhaps drawing on the undercurrents of fairy tales. It became a bit much, at times, to read story after story with beaten and raped women. (None of the ones I've mentioned were these.) It's commentary on the genre, yes. But all grouped together, it becomes...I don't know...less like people are saying something new about fairy tales. More like everyone's saying the same obvious thing and stopping.

As a whole, this is an excellent anthology, although yeah, a little heavy on the violence against women.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Baby of the Family by Tina McElroy Ansa

I had never heard of this book before it popped up on one of my lists put together from one of the Nancy Pearl Book Lust books, and likely would never have come across or read it, if I hadn't. That would have been too bad, because while I can't say it set my world on fire, it was thoroughly enjoyable, and a little on the enchanting side.

Baby of the Family falls squarely in the magical realism camp, and weaves that into a story about a well-off Black family in Georgia that is mostly just about the family, rather than about their interactions with a wider world. (Other than the regulars at the bar the father owns, or the women who work at the hairdressers.)

The youngest of three children, and only girl, Lena is born with a caul over her face. At the hospital, the attending nurse knows just what to do with it to keep Lena safe, but her mother thinks it's superstition, and discards and burns the caul and the tea made out of it. (That's a new one on me!)

So Lena can see ghosts growing up, and is unprotected from the malignant ones. They pop up every once in a while - the ghost of a family member who died as a baby, terrifying Lena while she sleeps. The ghost of an enslaved woman at the beach, telling her story. Other spirits that tend to haunt her.

For all that, this is mostly vignettes of Lena just growing up, from the poor girl down the road who becomes her best friend for a while, to her love for her father's bar, to school time misadventures. The book creates a community around Lena, who protect her, support her, or ostracize her.

It's funny, but both this book and the last one I reviewed, Annabel, are about children growing up as something apart from other children. This one, it's about the supernatural, while Annabel was about the biological and social structures of sex and gender. In both, the leads don't quite fit in, finding a few friends around the outside, while looking askance at the inside.

It's not a plot heavy book. It's about this family, at this place and time, and Ansa has a knack for capturing small details in ways that make it vivid and interesting. I didn't need more plot than I got.
These felt like real people, from Lena, to her two brothers, to her parents, a father who ran a bar joint, and maybe screwed around on the side, and her mother, from a bigger city, not always satisfied with what she got in the small town. And her maternal grandmother, who never realized what her daughter-in-law had done with the caul.

It's a quiet book, not one where the plot drives it along. It's just about Lena, and her world, and her lack of understanding of what she can do, and what it means for her life. But at that, it's really damn good.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Annabel by Kathleen Winter

I should explain why this review uses this cover, rather than the more common one with an androgynous youth on the cover. The answer is, in this case, simple - I try to use the covers that are on the physical copies I've read (with books off my friend's Kindle, I pick whatever I damn well choose), and this is how Annabel showed up at my local library branch for me to take out. It has relevance to the book, although less so than the cover that I've actually seen everywhere.

Nearing the end of the BBC's Big Read, I came across a CBC Canadian 100 - not voted on, but what the hell. I'd read 29 books on it, and wanted to read more. So, here we go! (The list as a whole does skew relatively recent.) So the first title (alphabetically) that I hadn't read was this one. Actually, maybe it was Alias Grace, I just forgot to write about the new project when I posted that review.

This came out in 2010, so it's one of the more recent. It's the story of Wayne, an intersex child who is raised as a boy, although without surgical intervention. (With hormones, though.) He grows up in Labrador, with his father intent on making sure he feels like a normal boy, and a mother who longs for the daughter she sees inside him.

This book has rich prose, is highly descriptive of Labrador and environs. At the same time, it's not prose that sweeps me off my feet and leaves me swooning. It didn't get under my skin or feel overdone, it just didn't enrich the story in the way truly poetic words can in the hands of a wordsmith. Here, it feels like Winter is trying hard, and succeeding in being competent, but not masterly.

Wayne grows to teenage years before he figures out what's going on, and then drifts for quite a while, trying to figure out who he is. (I'm using male identifiers because there's no sign of Wayne changing his pronouns, although he is exploring what his identity means after stopping taking male hormones. He toys with the idea of himself as Annabel, a name he was called as a child by a neighbour.)

Oddly, women drift away in the second half of the book. Wayne's mother retreats into her own world. Wayne still communicates with an old teacher, and wants to know an old female classmate. But the book itself becomes more and more male. To the point where, when he is attacked and sexually assaulted by someone who is aware of his nature (i.e., he is assaulted as a woman), he tells the teacher, and she phones his father, saying that it should be him that deals with it. It creates this very weird situation where being sexually assaulted as a female is seen as a men's issue.

I kept stopping, and thinking, what? I mean, really, what?  You don't think that maybe women, maybe his mother, maybe any other woman, might have some insights or support? No? It's just got to come from the men and be dealt with among men?

Perhaps my issues come from this because no one in this book is much for thinking. Or rather, we're told they are, but there's little evidence of it. No one thinks about what things mean, just what they are. It's chock full of very concrete thinkers, no analysis. Which may be part of what Winter is trying to do here, but it means we have a book full of atomized characters who not only make no effort to connect their experiences with anyone else's, no one even ever seems to be aware that other people might have similar experiences.

It just isn't how people share in this book. No one really shares themselves. They share what they've been doing, but never think about what they mean. Not really anyone, in the whole book. At the risk of being glib, Labradorans in this book could use some consciousness raising. And I mean that in the sense of sharing experiences and recognizing commonalities, realizing that the shit I've been dealing with is also sometimes the shit you've been dealing with, and maybe we aren't all alone all the time.

That is not this book. I hope Wayne figures out how to be Annabel as well. I hope he and Wally (school friend) manage to connect. I hope someone talks to someone about what they're feeling and thinking beyond the most surface of levels. I'm not sure I'm hopeful.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi

This is fun, but slight. It's apparently the first novel John Scalzi wrote, available for free on his website for a long time, and then finally published after he'd become a prominent science fiction writer. Then again, I read his books for fun, with interesting ideas scattered lightly over the top, like a seasoning. This book is long on the fun, with the thoughts only coming in at the end - but for a first novel, it read well, went down easy, and was enjoyable.

Wow, I am bad at retaining character names. Even when I read the book less than a week ago. Details of the story, sure, but names? Mmmm...Tom? Aha! Thomas Stein! (I looked it up.) Tom is a hotshot agent in Hollywood. Well, actually, he's a beginning agent with one major client who hit it big after he took them on. He's about to get her millions and millions for the sequel to the film that made her a star. She wants to get serious, and thinks that her blonde young good looks would be perfect for a movie about the Holocaust. As the old Jewish woman.

He has other clients, which are amusing interludes, but the book is really about the hot new property his boss gives him to represent. An alien species that looks like a giant pile of snot and communicates with flatulence. Hard sell! Tom must figure out a way to compatibly introduce our species. He's helped by the fact that the aliens are pretty media savvy and talk like they've watched A LOT of TV and movies. Not in an over the top way, but they actually came to Earth more or less understanding what humans are, which is helpful.

Joshua, the alien who has physically come down to Earth, hangs out with Tom, adopts a dog, and does some thinking about how his morality is different from human morality. Joshua could take over a body, but not if it's sentient. The dog doesn't quite count.

But really, Tom doesn't do a lot for the aliens except worry over the impact that concentrating on this is doing to his career. It languishes on the backburner, which is odd, given that that's the main plot of the book. In this way, it does feel like a first novel. Then one of Tom's other clients gets into trouble in a way that might give him an opening with introducing the aliens to Earth, if he can negotiate moral minefields.

The final dilemma is interesting, but a little bit surface. Again, first novel, and I'm not too bothered by it. The book does a very nice job of skewering the hell out of Hollywood and celebrity culture, with a handy dog for me to love, and aliens that are less strange and ununderstandable than almost entirely able to pass for human, if it weren't for the snot/fart thing. That's very different from most science fiction, and it's entertaining.

Overall, this is a light read, and in some ways a slight read, but it's fun, and in the middle of a stressful summer, it was a welcome relief.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Rule 34 by Charles Stross

I think I might be reading books out of order again. If this is the second book in a series, though, I can say that I read it without any trouble catching up to where we were or what was going on. I'm sure  characters were developed in the first book, but this one seems to stand alone. I'll probably track down the other at some point, but this is not one of those cases where I'm cursing my general lack of ability to read things in order.

It took me a while to warm up to Charles Stross. I find some of his first books frustratingly opaque, with big ideas that he didn't slow down long enough to really share with me. Feeling lost was one of my first memories of the books I've read. That's been changing, as I read. Not so much that I'm catching up, as it feels like he's allowing the reader in just a little more. And while there are still tons of big ideas, they're now more in the service of the story and character, in ways that I very much enjoy.

Rule 34 is a good example. I was never entirely lost, although some of the book was challenging me to keep up, but I was more engaged with Liz and the other characters than in some of his previous books.

Rule 34 takes place in Edinburgh. Liz was a rising police officer, but has been sidelined into internet crimes. Anwar is just out of jail, where Liz put him, trying not to get caught again, but not necessarily trying to keep his nose clean. And there's a psychopath, The Toymaker, in Edinburgh to set up a new franchise opportunity.

Then spammers start dying in gruesome domestic accidents, with no apparent suspects. Liz has to investigate, but the research reveals this may not be a local phenomenon.

This book incorporates fabber culture, country-wide scams, and, of course, the possibility of porn about everything, as the title suggests. Many of the characters are queer, which I was primed for by Stross' opening page quote of a right-wing nitwit claiming everyone in Scotland was gay. Well, why the hell not? Liz's problem is not so much how her sexuality is regarded by her coworkers - doesn't really raise any eyebrows - but that she can't turn the cop off for long enough to stay in a relationship. Anwar is married, but cruises. The Toymaker is just...a psychopath.

I bring this up because I enjoy science fiction that incorporates sex and sexuality into the book. This is not the book for the rant, because sex is oblique but definitely present. But I've had a rant building about sex in science fiction rising since I read Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon, and after I'd written and posted my review, ran into a bunch of people in my online book club most distressed about the sex. Since then, I've been looking for a science fiction book with sex I enjoyed to write about why it's a good thing. That was several years ago.

This comes close, but not quite, so I'll hang onto it. (Now, why didn't I write it when I wrote my review of Palimpsest by Catherynne Valente a couple of years ago? I guess because it was fantasy, and sex in fantasy novels is a bit different.) My point is, thank goodness for science fiction writers grown up enough to include a little sex.

That's a complete digression, though, that has little to do with Rule 34, and much to do with me, so I'll come back around to this book by saying that the last few Stross books I've read I've enjoyed a lot, and this is not an exception. It's entertaining, kept me engrossed, and even a little grossed out by some of the deaths. (And the psychopath.) It's a good yarn, with interesting characters, and big ideas that inform the story without taking it over. Unless they do. But I can't say what that means without giving away the ending.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Spook by Mary Roach

I am feeling a little tired of Mary Roach's books. I think this is the fourth I've read, and I'm starting to get the same feel from many of them, and it is this: she finds interesting stories, but she doesn't do enough with them, just plops them down in front of the reader like her job is done with the anecdote, and without delving more deeply into the issues that really interest me.

For a while, I was just thinking that this was what popular writing was like, and then I started The Ghost Map, and realized that, no, this is what Mary Roach is like, because The Ghost Map is immediately a more thoughtful popular history book than this is a thoughtful popular science book. She's a messy writer, and doesn't follow through on provocative questions. That's fine for a while, but eventually, I just want an editor to tell her to sit down and come up with a stronger throughline for her books. Nonfiction does not mean no direction.

At any rate, as usual, she digs up some interesting stories in this collection of what science has made of the various claims of life after death, including seances, the weight of the soul, reincarnation, and near death experiences. As usual, they tend to be entertaining, although in this case, they verge on the sneering at some points. Some of them are definitely sneer-worthy, but sometimes, it comes off as snide and uncomfortable with uncertainty.

That was one of my major "wait, what?" moments, near the beginning, when she was saying that science can get rid of uncertainty and figure things out, and I was sitting there thinking, doesn't all science at least start with uncertainty? And a desire to figure things out in laboratory conditions that may, and this is the big point, may not give you anything conclusive? Scientists don't go around knowing all the stuff, all the time. In theory, if they're acting honestly, they're trying to figure out uncertainties that they may have been the first to perceive.

And so, despite this being all about science, Roach falls preys to at least one logical fallacy that drove me nuts. She'd look into one aspect of her topic (which has certainly attracted its share of nutbars), and find someone whose results she can't adequately evaluate, for whatever reason. At that point, instead of saying that and leaving it, she'd say something like "I can't tell whether this data is good or not, but here's someone who is definitely off their rocker who believes something similar!" As though the fact guilt by association of ideas is a logical thing to do.

It isn't. It's a basic logical fallacy. So if we're setting out to do the science, let's not fall into those, okay?

Those are the complaints. Many of the stories she finds are interesting. But after reading three other of her books, they just feel so surface. It feels like there are more interesting connections to be drawn, more interesting thoughts to be thought, deeper depths to be delved. I get this is popular science. But I'm not convinced that means that this is all we can ask for.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

The Week in Stories - July 7

Have I really gamed twice in the past week? Well, technically, once was a little more than a week ago, but I was incredibly stressed last week, and missed writing this post. So, let's check in.

Superhero U

We had our second sitting of this, and I think it went pretty well. The three of us sat down earlier in the week and talked a bit more about what the supervillains want, to give our heroes something to fight against. I also pushed people to come up with "What If"s - starting points that do not decide an end point, but give us some plot to push towards. Because otherwise, it's just relationship scenes, and while those are fun, they're best mixed with other things.

For example, my character who is a twin who can feel her sister's senses, there was a What If a situation came up where the way to deal with it was to put my twin in danger? (Hasn't happened yet, is probably on tap for next episode.)

Or for one of Melissa's characters, the de facto leader of these new superheroes, it was a what if I'm threatened with losing another one of these heroes who trust me?

We had some loose ideas for how those might get underway, and some of the plot lines got started, some are in abeyance, but it felt like it gave us a tiny more drive. Some were more personal, like my cheerleader who almost got killed by her boyfriend (accidentally) the time before having a What If I'm afraid to touch him. It was so sad, and ended up with them holding hands by each holding on to part of a teddy bear.

It's not a perfect answer, but it also felt fruitful.

What happened to my characters? Ruth kept feeling her twin's senses as her twin went on a first date, and had the woman she has a huge crush on turn her down flat, but ask if they could still be friends. She's not up for that.

Emily was afraid to touch her boyfriend again, and took her troubles to the woman she didn't realize has a huge crush on her. That came out in a big way, and left both feeling lonely.  In this case, they maybe still can be friends. Or not. We'll see.

Joseph got orders to try to suborn more of the newbies, by the bigger supervillain, who was also revealed to be his brother. He and his ex-girlfriend, Bethany, struggled to stay away from each other. They were only successful because they were interrupted.

Madelyn is on track to become a supervillain, one of the first the organized supervillains will target to join them. She's pissed off at the world, and at yet another request to just be friends. (There were a lot of those this episode!)

Flora...well, she's just Flora. There doesn't seem to be a main plotline of her own right now, as her relationship is going fine, and she's mostly just worried about her best friend, the leader of the group. She's trying to set Bethany up on a blind date. That's pretty much it.

Shakespeare, VA

Oh hey, and then I got to run a game! I was not feeling at the top of my game on Friday, as the week preceding it had been so stressful that it almost left me comatose. On the other hand, this game has been getting cancelled all over the place, so I was determined to at least get a session in. So I talked to the guy who was supposed to be getting his character episode. We switched weeks for that, as I want prep time before a character episode, and had had none.

Then I warned my players that I wasn't going to be at my best, and had nothing planned, but let's see where it goes from there. And it went not badly. There were some good character scenes, and that was satisfying. What wasn't there was that prep I do so I know what the NPCs want very badly out of the PCs, and so can throw in something interesting or to progress the plot when the occasion arises. I was mostly there to be the NPCs and react, and so we were missing that GM light hand that I've been talking about wanting more in Superhero U.

Fine for one evening, but hopefully something I can change going forward and (please) am not as stressed as I was.

There was also a clash between players over game system, and where to go when someone didn't get what they wanted. Also sort of about the same thing, how to push a scene forward when the character moment has been there, but something else needs to happen to make it truly satisfying. Which is mostly my job to help provide those moments, but...running on empty.

On the other hand, it made me think about the new PTA 3rd ed. resolution mechanic, and decide that I don't like it very much, and want to go back to 2nd ed. 3rd ed is feeling too constrained in the kind of outcomes that can happen, and requires us looking up a table every time a conflict hits. Which is what playing PTA is supposed to avoid. So I think I'm going back to "most red cards wins the conflict, highest card gets narrative control for how that happens." I'm more comfortable sharing outcomes with the players than I am trying to find ways to break out of this fairly narrow impulse-provoking mechanic.

It does raise the slight problem of players sometimes losing control over their characters, sometimes to another player, when narrative control is passed around, but that's an ongoing issue of negotiation. May have to sit down and talk about what's kosher and what's not in having narrative control. (As in, avoid ascribing emotions to the other characters. You can tell them they do something, but they need to be able to make up the story about why it happened that way. And you can't use it as an excuse to make them do something out of character.)

PTA was never designed to deal with intercharacter conflict, and we've hacked it to do that, but it means that the players need to use narrative control sensitively. (Well, so does the GM, but I flatter myself that I'm not bad at it.)

What happened in the game?

Well, the director disappeared, getting Matthew (new director and playing MacBeth) a visit from the police looking into his disappearance. Tetra (stagehand) is starting to think she might actually leave this little town, except a cold wind is blowing through that might have designs on keeping her. Arthur (Banquo) had a showdown with the local goth leader about what happened to his sister, and while she didn't give him precise answers, she said a lot of provocative things that might or might not be true. And Trevor (MacDuff) rescued a hawk hatchling from a burned-out tree, and was followed by other things through the woods.

It was a messy episode, but not an unsatisfying one. I just need to get back to doing prep to make these sing a little bit more.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Katherine by Anya Seton

When I started reading this book, my husband looked at the cover and asked if I'd picked it to read based on that alone. I used to have this poster over my bed before we moved in together, then later, above the couch in our living room. I said no, as I'd had no idea what the cover would be when I went to pick it up. But it is a nice piece of synchronicity.

Of course, the significance of The Accolade to the story of Katherine Swynford is perhaps tenuous. She never knighted anyone, never ruled anyone, is important in as much as she is because of her proximity to power, not the official wielding of it. But perhaps I'm being pedantic.

The reason I did pick this book up is because it's on the BBC Big Read, which I believe I am now about 5 books from finishing in its entirety. It doesn't surprise me, therefore, that this is a historical romance about Katherine Swynford, long-term mistress to John of Gaunt, father of Henry IV.

I'd be interested to read more about Katherine. While I believe Seton has done a lot of research on the dates and events, her Katherine's character is one that I would like to know if the evidence in any way supports. As she stands in this novel, she's not interested in power, or politics. She just wants her lover and to hide away from the eyes of the world, frequently wracked with religious guilt over her sinning.

Looking at the wiki entry, looks like at least one book has been written about her as a mover behind the scenes, which might be more interesting than this guilt-wracked lover. She's remarkably powerless in this, and while women had less and different access to power in this period, it doesn't mean they're utterly helpless. Katherine in this book is irritatingly so, at times.

It also brings the reason she and John of Gaunt have a long affair and eventually marry when his wife dies down to sheer physical attraction, which is great to start, but there had to have been more once the fires had been banked for the night.

Still, it's not a bad read, and it's fun to run into Geoffrey Chaucer. The practicality with which the people involved regard marriage are interesting, as is the overall sense of grime to the world, leavened by the relatively easier lives of the extremely well-off nobles. If you're looking for historical romance, I think you could certainly do worse.

However, the main character is just so angsty and powerless. It's a choice, to make her whole life be about whether or not she gets to sleep with John of Gaunt, but the author's choice to take her out of all but one of the major events of the times, for her to be content to never ever know what her lover's doing, or how it might affect her until she's forced to...it just feels like a missed opportunity. There's definitely an interesting story here. There's just that little voice in the back of my head that tells me this book would have been better if there had been some speculating on oblique ways of influencing the course of events. She calms him down once. Was that all she ever did?

Read as part of the BBC Big Read

Friday, 3 July 2015

Shoggoths in Bloom by Elizabeth Bear

I snapped this up at a book sale our local comic book store has every year, where somehow books come out of the woodworks and I can pick up an armful for a song. In fact, this is one my husband got for me the day before I even made it to the sale, because he knows Elizabeth Bear is one of my favourite authors these days.

This is a book of short stories, and as long as people get that I mean this in a positive way, reading them is a lot like swallowing razors. They're sharp, dig in as they go down, lodge in your throat in unexpected and painful (deliciously painful) ways. I've loved her novels, but these short stories are really something else. Each one packs a punch.

Several stories in this collection take place in worlds she's already created - the Eternal Sky books give space to a princess finding out how to be a queen when she really doesn't want to, under the looming heel of an empire, with an attractive bandit causing problems. The Promethean Age takes a story, with Matthew dealing with a creature that preys on virgins, with tragic results.

Other stories feel like they all belong in the same fictional universe, although it's not one that I've read any of the books from, if there are books from it. There are three that struck me as similar, one (In the House of Aryaman, A Lonely Signal Burns) in India, a murder mystery with a parrot cat; one (Confessor) in the Pacific Northwest, tracking down genetic manipulators in the woods; and one (Gods of the Forge) in...oh goodness, I can't remember exactly where, with a scientist who must decide how much of a technology she believes in is too much. All share certain assumptions about future uses of energy, and massive changes in the way we can abuse the environment. They're all great, and the world that surrounds them is fascinating.

We also have little gut punches of stories about Weyland Smith, Sonny Liston, and a dying combat robot on a war-wracked world. And, of course, the eponymous story, Shoggoths in Bloom, which takes H.P. Lovecraft and adds race in a sensitive manner, that I found far creepier than the one Lovecraft book I've read.

There's also a lot here about what you must give up in order to move forward, to keep creating, to embrace humanity and pain in order to be whole - The Girl Who Sang Rose Madder, about an aging rock star who is given an agonizing choice, and Dagmar, about moving on after a difficult relationship.

There are several stories I haven't mentioned, but it's actually not because I liked them any less. I just don't have time to talk about them all without entirely losing any readers I might have! Trust me, these are stories that are pointed and painful and absolutely worth it. I may have snagged this at a sale, but you should have no compunction about going out and buying it right now.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Dry by Augusten Burroughs

I read Running With Scissors, and I don't remember disliking it, but it did feel too much like a story, life with the edges rounded off. It's hard to say why I can think that about a book with the kinds of things that happen in it that do, but it was just a little too people-pleasing, a little too neat, even when the subject matter was difficult.

Dry came up on one of my lists many years later, and I had no particular resistance to reading it. I wasn't falling over myself to do so, but not resistant. Now I've read it, and I'm sitting down to write the review, and I'm not at all sure what I want to say.

I think I liked Dry more than Running with Scissors, but at the same time, there wasn't that gut punch of connection you get with the best memoirs. Then again, I've never struggled with addiction, having always been far too stressed about being out of control of my own body to venture very far into substance-related waters.

Still, this book is not the shapely narrative I expected, both from the first book, and from the shape of the narrative we've come to know through media portrayals of addiction. It felt informative to have that narrative challenged, made messier, made apparent that these are not one-size-fits-all stories of life with addiction.

So yes, this story is a memoir of Burroughs struggle with addiction, primarily alcohol, during his years as a marketing executive. It captures the justifications he told himself, with the reader dragged into that point of view, and only realizing as Burroughs does, the behaviours that are propping him up.

And then it's relatively easy. He goes to rehab, discovers he does have a problem, comes home, and manages to stay sober for a long time without really having to put a ton of effort into it. Almost decides he doesn't need support anymore. (Books like these end up being virtual paeans to AA.) But of course, life doesn't give you long easy stretches very often.

I've kind of run out of things to say. It's a straightforward book in many ways, with a dear friend who is dying of AIDS as the background for all the things he was too scared or too messed up or too drunk to do. Pighead ends up carrying all the regrets, and in many ways, that's what this book is about.

So why do I say I don't think it'll stay with me? I'm not sure. It's interesting, but lacks that next step of a memoir where it really grabbed me, made me think about people and human nature, rather than just the experiences of the author. I think of Jeannette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? and how powerful that book got, and this book feels like the first half of Winterson's memoir, the lead-up to something I'd never read before, dark and powerful. The first half isn't bad. But it's going deeper that gets great.