Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Rat Queens, Vol. 1 by Kurtis Wiebe


What a great pleasure it is to come across something that is just plain fun. Funny, witty, full of characters that worm their way into your hearts and say pithy things just when you most want them to. While also killing just about everything in sight.

Like most graphic novels, this one was loaned to me by my friend Melissa. She has good taste in that territory, and I gulped it down one Saturday, laughing out loud at least once. It reads very much like someone has illustrated beautifully the best parts of a rowdy D&D adventuring party, out to take drugs and kill monsters, not necessarily in that order. 

We have a kickass mage, Hannah, a dwarf who shaved off her beard and is not going home to join the family business, Violet, a cleric to a seemingly Cthulhu-esque god who abstains from her religion not because she doesn't believe in it, but because it's awful, and Betty, a halfling who is all about the drugs, candy, fighting, and women. 

They are sent out on a mission in the first issue to clear out some bandits, while other adventuring parties in town are sent out on other classic roleplaying missions. However, what they find instead is a troll, far more dangerous than expected. With great difficulty, they return to town, to find most of the other adventuring parties were killed off entirely or partially in similarly more-dangerous-than-they-should-be low level adventures.

Who could be trying to kill off all the adventurers? It's not like they consistently destroyed the town every week or so with bar brawls....oh, wait.

The story for the first arc is fairly simple, but immensely fun. We don't need uber-complicated here, when you've got such rich relationships between women, and interpersonal affairs flying fast and furious. 

The book really did capture the feel of old-school roleplaying. Some of the lines I could have seen coming from the lips of my friends as we fought yet another pack of goblins on the way to some treasure.

I always find I struggle to find enough to say about graphic novels. I read them at a gulp, they're thin and tasty, but then there's not as much content to go into - and I'm not a visual thinker, so while I enjoy the pictures, they don't stay with me at all, and you're unlikely to find me identifying patterns there.

So, this is a shorter review, but it comes down to this - if you've ever played D&D, you should enjoy this book. And even if you haven't, there's a better than average chance you'll like it.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain


I picked this up as part of reading a list I found online of something like "Best Books of the 21st Century so far." I'd read about a third of the list already, liked those books. Quite frankly, I can't pass up lists. I love checking things off. This particular list has not let me down, and this book was a more than worthy addition to it. It's not as absurd as Catch-22, which it has been compared to, but it's damned good. (See blurb at the top of the cover.)

It's one of those connections publishers love to make, hoping to strike gold. But other than the obvious subject (the ridiculousness of war), these two books have very little in common. The tone is very different, with Billy Lynn trying to fall on the side of realism. It's understated, not drawing attention to its commentary, even as that commentary builds over the length of the book. Because of that subtlety, certain scenes hit me like a ton of bricks.

In this novel, a group of American soldiers are caught on camera by a Fox News team fighting back against an insurgent force, at the cost of two lives and one soldier permanently injured. They have become celebrities, lauded as heroes, and brought back for a "Victory Tour." Of course, you can't let people think heroism actually gets a rewarded, so after they've waved at the cameras enough, back to Iraq they're going, and they know it.

The novel takes place primarily at the last event on the tour, after they've been buffeted by journalists and civilians for weeks. It's at a Dallas Cowboys game, where they're to be part of the half-time show, the spectacle of war merging with the spectacle of sport.

Billy Lynn is the 19 year old soldier who acts as our window into this morass. He joined the military to avoid jail after he messed up the car of the guy who dumped his sister. His time in Iraq, and in particular, his contact with a couple of soldiers, have helped him realize there might be more to life, but really, how do you get to it? It's a job, and when it's done, if you're lucky, you'll go home to your working-class family and try to find a working-class job of your own.

People only want to call you a hero if it gives them no responsibilities. So Billy mingles with rich people at the Cowboys station, flirting with a cheerleader, listening to speech after speech, and people's well-meaning attempts to claim his experiences as a deeply personal experience for themselves. Fountain does a really interesting job of conveying how words become just noise by arranging them deliberately on the page, with certain words having completely lost meaning, Billy's heard them so many time. (It took me a moment to figure out "nina levin" but then I got it.)

This is not a polemic. Billy's sergeant is definitely cynical about the war, and the prospective movie deal a producer is trying to put together for them, and Billy is absorbing some of that, but it doesn't come out as a diatribe. It's very subtle, a mocking of all the people around them who just do not fucking get it, but are so confident that they do.

What is the military for, if not to provide vicarious excitement? The well-meaningness of the people Billy talks to comes through, and yet so does the utter cluelessness. And of course they're all shocked that these heroes are going to be going back to Iraq, but not enough to do anything. Or to offer them a job when they return to the States. They're good to be seen with at half-time, but not the sort of people you'd want around on a daily basis.

There is one scene in the equipment room, where the equipment manager lists, for perhaps a page and a half or more, all the equipment that is needed for the Dallas Cowboys, how much, and when. The parallel is never deliberately made, but it hits like a ton of bricks, the money being poured into this, when they're getting paid shit to go and get killed, to come back to not much more. It was a punch in the gut and all the more powerful for never deliberately making the point.

This is really excellent, subtle and nuanced. It's not necessarily anti-war per se, but certainly mocking the attitudes of Americans who will never get closer to Iraq than Fox News.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Saga, Vol. 5 by Brian K. Vaughan


I have enjoyed this series from the beginning, although volume 4 felt unfocused and a bit meandering, like the thread of the story had been lost. Too many characters were being introduced, without good enough reason. Given how focused and hard-hitting the first few volumes had been, it was a bit of a disappointment.

Not enough, of course, to keep me from reading happily when a friend loaned me volume 5. And I'm happy to report that it feels less like killing time without somewhere to go. Some of the urgency is back, and the story is slowly starting to focus down to the family again.

I'm not quite as engrossed as I used to be, though. I'm in the camp of enjoying it while not being fanatical anymore. I still love Lying Cat with a fervent passion, but he didn't have that much to do.

So in this book, the family is split up. Mother and baby have been taken captive by a grief-stricken tv-headed father (if you haven't read this series, just go with it), while Father is looking for them. (Damn, I'm bad with character names in books. Just a sec....Okay. Alana is the mother, Hazel the baby, Marko the father). Marko is in pursuit, trying to balance his pacifism with his deep-seated need to find his wife and child.

Alana is kicking drugs, while Marko is discovering them. They run afoul of a rebellion that is willing to do anything to hit back, including sell a biracial child to someone for propaganda purposes.

All the stuff with Hazel in danger hit the hardest, as indeed it always has. Anytime people are threatening her, all the stakes are raised, because you know there are many people around who would die to protect her, and suddenly it feels like nobody is safe.

We also have the side story about the bounty hunter, and I have to say that a lot of that feels like distraction. It's supposed to have the same emotional impact as the family, and it just doesn't. (Sorry, Lying Cat!)  I come to these sections...well, I found them powerful in earlier books, when Sophie was first rescued, but not it feels like an unwelcome interruption.

On the other hand, the tree woman's arc in this book was strong and upsetting at the end. That one hit me emotionally. And the little "she died as she lived" bit made me laugh.

I'm getting a little too cranky. I did like this, and I thought it was an improvement over the previous volume. I will continue to read the series when it comes along. I just...I prefer the tighter focus on this family, or, at least, I haven't been sucked in by any of the other storylines going on to care very much what happens to those people. 

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin


It only took one book for N.K. Jemisin to be added to my "authors to follow" list, and three books into her worlds, I see no reason to change that. Given that I read that this was written before the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms but published after, it's possibly even more impressive. This is a fantasy world I was thoroughly absorbed by, and I'd recommend it to anyone looking for some work in the genre.

In particularly, I was impressed with the clash of cultures Jemisin depicts in The Killing Moon. We get two countries, each drawing on the same religious heritage, but with diametrically opposed views of the magic that lies at the centre of this book. One abhors it, preferring to abstain than tread the moral uncertainty of using it. The other tries to regulate it, use it wisely, but leaves itself open to horrors committed by those who enjoy power.

What is particularly amazing to me is that I still don't know which side is better. Jemisin writes complexity so well that the beliefs of both societies are perfectly understandable, and neither has a clear moral superiority over the other. I understood the intellectual and the emotional urgency of both, and I still am undecided. That's quite a feat, and much better than the clear preference for one society we see in so much fantasy.

I'm talking in generalities and the particulars here are worth discussing. In Gujaareh, the magic of one of the moons and the goddess it represents is channeled into a complex system of dreamblood, one of four humours, this one with the power of healing. People are obligated to donate, but if they are old or ill, or corrupt, the Gatherers can go and send them peacefully into a dreamland afterlife. For some, it's a blessing. (It's supposed to be a blessing always.)

Of course, deciding who lives and dies is a fundamentally difficulty process, one open to corruption itself. The Kisuati have decided that no one may use these powers at all. An easier decision, perhaps, but a better one? Also perhaps.

Sunandi, an ambassador from the Kisuati is in Gujaareh when the people who decide give her life to a Gatherer to collect. She is able to convince Ehiru, the Gatherer that perhaps the choosing process has been perverted, and as a fervent believer in what he does, he suspends justice. Sunandi, Ehiru, and his apprentice fight against time and death to figure out who is holding power in Gujaareh and what they intend to do with it.

This is a great adventure through power and its effects, its perversions, what people might do with dangerous knowledge, depending on who they were and what they believed. The characters are vivid letting us explore this through its effects on them. Plot and characters really work together beautifully. Jemisin shines when she writes about power and how it is expressed and embodied.

I enjoy the complexity, the idea, the characters. There's really nothing here I didn't like. I'm very glad I discovered Jemisin, and am looking forward to the other books of hers I have not yet read. It's a delightful feeling.

Monday, 21 March 2016

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz


I'm suddenly obssessed with the cover of this book. It's the way it looks like the old Arkanoid bricks, which then suddenly makes me think about that heart getting chipped away bit by bit, and why didn't I notice this earlier? It's a quite brilliant design.

It's funny. I absolutely loved Diaz' last book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Although I knew very little about Dominican Republic history, I did know the second dialect of the book, all the nerd references. It was thoroughly enjoyable.

This one has less of the nerd references, although there are still a few poking their heads out. Instead, it's a collection of short stories about Yunior, a character from Oscar Wao, mostly concerning how bad he is with women and how badly he treats them, and/or how his brother interacted with women before he died from cancer.

Given the subject matter, it is perhaps a little puzzling that I still feel a little distant from the book. I enjoyed it, sure, but it feels like I kind of danced over the book, and finished it without every really feeling connected. I wasn't upset, or annoyed, or thrilled, just...done.

And yet, I don't want to give the wrong impression. Much of the writing here is really wonderful. There were sentences that grabbed me. The short stories were each interesting - the problem may be that I have trouble connecting with short fiction sometimes, and that's an issue with me, not the author. I read so quickly that sometimes the story is over before it has time to make a connection. That may be what has happened here.

I remember hearing grumblings about the fact that Yunior is really a shitty partner to the various women in his life (as is his brother.) That's absolutely true, and yet it never really feels like Diaz is saying this is the way it should be, or even that Yunior thinks that his behaviour is somehow laudable. He feels shitty in a lot of his relationships, and there is a long history that gradually emerges that has led him to where he is, without seeing a way out.

It's one of those books where you don't know how autobiographical it is, because the stories have the ring of truth. Which could mean either that Diaz is drawing on his own life, or is just very very good at what he does. It's an interesting limbo that I also found myself in with Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table, and Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body.

In the end, this is a good collection of short stories. I just don't connect as strongly with short stories as I do longer form pieces of fiction. But Diaz's voice is strong, and I look forward to other books.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Book Blogger Hop: Author Contact

Book Blogger Hop





Participate here!

This Week's Question:

Has your contact with authors usually been in person, via e-mail, social media, or something else?

I haven't had a lot of author contact. Well, to be precise, I've had a number of people spamming my inbox on Goodreads asking me to read their book, and a few who actually seemed like they'd done their research and might want me to review their book, as opposed to just any reviewer they can find.

I've turned it all down, though. I don't really want an emphasis in my reading patterns on unpublished/self-published stuff, and I fully believe that the vast majority of unsolicited requests will probably be for books that I have no interest in reading. I'm happy reading older (and a few more recent) books that made it through the publishing system and reviewing them. (By which I'm saying I know that publishing can be flawed, but I want someone to vet books as readable first.) Maybe when I'm done my dissertation and have more time, I might add in some reviews for unpublished or self-published authors. Maybe not.

I have had one publisher contact me, and send me a couple of books and I read both of them (one did fairly well on last year's Dust Cover Dust-Up, although nowhere near the top ten), and enjoyed both. So I'm not opposed to the idea, but neither am I courting it.   


Thursday, 17 March 2016

Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen


This is a strange book. Some of the prose is beautiful, the ideas are far out, and yet...I am not sure I like it very much. There's one scene that is so ugly both in what happens and then what the narrator thinks about it that it is what swims into view every time I think about this book, and I can't get away from it. So despite the part where I kind of enjoy the far-out prose and the sentient vibrator orgy, I am sour on the book as a whole.

I was making snarky comments on twitter about that era in the sixties when poets and authors discovered they could write about their dicks (or vaginas) and did so with great gusto. I mean, about sex too, but there feels like this fundamental fascination with the author's own genitalia. I've read enough sixties poetry about upthrust trees, etc., that I wonder if some of these poets ever met a phallic metaphor they didn't like. (And to be fair, you see this in some writing by women at the time as well, although to a lesser degree.)

I'm sure it was transgressive. It's just that that phallic metaphor seems to be where the work stops. Here is my dick, behold it, and.... There's no third act, no therefore, no point beyond the point.

Beautiful Losers at least feels like it's trying to be something beyond that, bringing the sacred into the sexual. I'm not entirely sure it works, this blending of the story of how everyone wanted Kateri Tekakwitha to have sex (and her sainthood, but the priorities are clear) with a Quebec separatist trying to mold a new race of supersexual people. To do what, exactly? Well, he had syphilis, so the section where he explains is a little nuts.

That is, however, where the sentient vibrator comes in.

I'm making this sound like fun, and in parts it is. But when it's ugly, it's very ugly. And the scene where the narrator talks about the gang rape of his Native American wife when she was 13, and then goes into thoughts about the sexiness of 13-year-olds...it's hard to come back from that. It's hard not to read that and want to put the book far, far away.

My husband tells me about reading My Favorite Game and thinking Cohen's prose was gorgeous, but boy, did he want to punch Cohen in the face for the way he writes about women. I'm...kind of there too. It's interesting and evocative, but there are actual things that my skin gets caught on, that I can't get past, and don't really feel like I should have to.

So...it's about more than just his dick, but there are also some distinctly creepy things here, as well as a lot of far-out surrealist sexual stuff that might be interesting in a different context, with a different author.

But here, there's enough that I find too upsetting to forget to enjoy the other parts, the parts where there's something interesting here in the explorations of the sacred, and the writing style of the man with syphilis, and a bunch of other experimental prose that again, under other circumstances, I would enjoy.

Just...not here.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Home by Marilynne Robinson


*Spoilers Below*

These are such quiet books, full of space and time for the reader to move through, draw their own conclusions, watch with the characters the ebb and flow of life. It's really quite extraordinary, and more remarkable still is what happens when you layer one book on top of the other.

For a change, I actually started this series at the beginning, instead of with the third book, which was quite a sensation the year before last. That means that I've been through these events once, from the eyes of the Reverend John Ames, seen his anger and frustration over his own failing body and the behaviour of his namesake, a son of his best friend, another minister.

This time, we're in the Boughton house when Jack comes home, and we see through the eyes of Jack's sister much of the same story, but with a different flavour, a different relationship between characters, and yet, with the knowledge of the first book, sentences land differently, lines have strong punches, even though the action is as quiet as ever.

It's very well done, and it makes watching Jack interact with his father more painful. We know, as readers, when Jack asks about the sins of the father falling on the son, that he's thinking about his own son, who has not yet been mentioned in this book. But the other characters read it as an attack on his father, and react accordingly. What is a cry for help is seen as a thrust by an ungrateful son.

Because they are different people, they do not understand, in a family where much goes without saying, and what is said is often just exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time. There are no easy heroes or villains. We know the father to be a good and loving man, yet every time he does reproach  Jack, it makes me wince, because I know enough now to know that's exactly the wrong thing to do.

This is really the story of what happens after the celebration welcoming home the prodigal son, when all the worries and stresses of the years he was away comes back, when he isn't quite the repentant accepting man you might imagine. When there's some sharpness, some hurt feelings that come out of old age and a need to say things that have been brewing for years and years. Celebration is all well and good, but then there are all the days after.

And yet, Jack is irritating. He is so invested in being unsaveable that it makes you want to wring his neck. Everything he's done is blown up huge, out of what seems to be an unconscious self-centeredness. He refuses grace, when everyone around him loves him and just thinks if he could stop fighting everything all the time, things would work out. He's his own worst enemy.

From their own points of view, every character makes assumptions about the others in the world, and yet despite these misunderstandings, there is genuine connection and love and affection. There is also the pain that comes from uncertainty, from deliberate and accidental injuries.

Going back to the title, Robinson gives us home as a refuge and a trap, a place of comfort, and a place that makes you aware you'll never be what people who know you so well and yet not well enough want you to be. It's hard to read, in a quiet way.  The sensation by feeling trapped by other people's maps of you, and wanting to hit back is delicately captured.

I am very interested now to see what light the third book throws over this town.

Monday, 14 March 2016

The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman


*Spoilers Below*

The friend who started me reading this series claims that she refrained from loaning me the third one so that I'd read this series in at least two different years, so it could make it to the top ten each year. She's not wrong. There's really a very good chance of that. The Magicians came in at number two on the top ten, and The Magician King only didn't make the top ten because I wanted to share the wealth around. 

I think these books are thoroughly enjoyable if you don't know the Narnia series inside out and backward. At least I presume they are, since all three did very well and spawned a TV series, and I kind of presume most people aren't as obsessively in love with the Chronicles of Narnia as I am. Which is to say, most people know The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and not all the rest. However, if you do know and love the Narnia books, these become all the richer.

I spent time thinking about this, and you can see traces of most of the books somewhere in here. The Magician King was very much Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Neitherlands are a homage to The Magician's Nephew. The Magician's Land is obviously very much The Last Battle, but the fight that Elliot's in at the start of the book strongly reminds me of the single combat in Prince Caspian.  What I am trying to say here is not that I know those books well - I obviously do. What I'm saying is that Lev Grossman obviously knows them just as well, and weaves references in beautifully, without ever feeling beholden to or constrained by them.

It's quite the achievement, to make something entirely new while still paying loving reference to some of the source material. Oh, and I also spent some time trying to figure out where The Silver Chair was, but I became convinced that that's in aspects of Julia's journey.

In The Magician's Land, the time of Fillory is coming to an end. King Elliot and Queen Janet (and the other King and Queen) try to find out what's happening and how to stop it. Meanwhile, exiled from Fillory, back in the real world, Quentin is recruited for a magical heist, but ends up in possession of a spell far more powerful than any he's seen before. Will he try to work it? Do you need to ask?

The books continue to be about growing up, but by this time, everyone is pretty much an adult. They're not as labile and tempestuous as they were as teenagers and in their early twenties. They don't necessarily have everything figured out, but they are old enough to be able to see things with more perspective, to realize that maybe they aren't the first people in the world ever to have experienced the things they're experiencing.

That said, this book still knocked me for a loop when Alice was reintroduced. It was beautifully, done, difficult and sad and hopeful. It also seemed particularly fitting that Quentin went to bacon as his secret weapon to remind Alice how good having a body could be. She was pretty much always my favourite character, and her struggle not to be again was strong and powerful.

All the loose ends are tidied up, and the saga of these characters comes to a fitting end. Grossman has a knack for making pieces fit together into a whole, and that happens very satisfactorily here. I wouldn't be surprised to see this book turn up near the end of next year's Dust Cover Dust-Up. I'm sorry to be done the series, but delighted that now I get to look forward to the more nuanced pleasures of a reread.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Book Blogger Hop: Audio Books


Book Blogger Hop

Participate here!

This Week's Question:

Do you believe audio books are the future and why do [you] believe [that]?  

Uh, no. I mean, audio books are fine, but I see little sign they're replacing books. For some people, I'm sure they're great. However, I need to see the words on the page first. If I've read a book once, I can listen to it on audiobook, because then if my attention gets pulled away, I know what I've missed. If I'm reading a book for the first time on audio, my attention will wander, and then I've missed out.

Plus, it takes me far longer to listen to an audiobook than it does to read a print one. I love the audiobook versions of Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London (Peter Grant) series to death, but the first book runs eleven hours. When I read it, it took me maybe three. Maybe.

So I use audiobooks to listen to old favourites, but it'll never come close to replacing the printed word for me.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson


I just don't even know where to start with this book. There are so many parts of it that aggravated me nearly to the point of distraction, and then there would be a part that was pretty good, and then there would be frustration again, and sometimes I'd want to tear characters out of the book and throttle them. Is it really that bad? Or is it just that I am far too aggravated by what is really a defining feature of many of Robinson's characters in many of his books?

I finally found a way to sum up how his characters drive me nuts - for so many of them, it's like they've never read fiction. They have no capacity for empathy, no real recognition of other people as people, no idea that a middle ground might even be a conceptual possibility.

It's largely although not exclusively, his women characters, and I would enlarge this to include 2312 as well as the three books in this trilogy. They're so mono-focused, often selfish, but even if not, so utterly incapable to seeing other people as people most of the time that it's literally stressful to read. Their points of view are the only points of view, and everyone else is, not wrong, but sort of...not real. Or real only in the sense of being an implacable inhuman obstacle.

It's least excusable in this book for Ann Clayborne. Ann has always been infuriatingly monomaniacal, with an idee fixe about a mile wide, and she constitutionally can't agree with anyone - even if they're on her side. Where this book goes really off the rails for me is a scene near the beginning where her psychiatrist, in a casual conversation with a mutual friend, tells the mutual friend, that oh, it's because she was abused as a child.

I mean...what? A) that's just a stupid insulting pat answer that's thrown out casually - oh, you can ignore her, because she's like this because she was abused. And b) for her PSYCHIATRIST to be the one to tell someone else, not because the other person needed to know, just, you know, because it came up in conversation?

It's insulting, it's aggravating, and I almost threw the book across the room.

It's also frustrating that when she "mellows," we no longer get any scenes from her point of view. It's all from Sax.

Then there's Jackie, and Zo, and Maya, not to mention all the other women who can't see anyone around them as real in the other two books. There are a couple of male characters in earlier books with the same obsessiveness, but it really does seem to be a female trait in many of Robinson's books. Not all his women, but enough.

All of these people, all of them, they need to sit down and read some fiction, and realize that every issue does not need to be argued in the key of shrill.

Other than that, this book skims over decades and decades, occasionally alighting, but it really is a bird's eye view that swoops down to individual characters every once in a while. There were sections I enjoyed a great deal, sections that drove me to distraction, and some that just bored it. It's such a mishmash, and I don't know how to put it all together.

Except to say that I think maybe KSR and I are on shaky grounds. Our viewpoints may just be too different for a compatible author/reader relationship. However, unlike most of his characters, I'm willing to give it one more shot, see if the cynicism gets easier to bear.

Booklinks:

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

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett


I've said before that my enjoyment of Terry Pratchett books tends to wane in direct proportion to how I'm feeling. Oddly, when I'm not feeling well, his books seem to hit a sweet spot - the perfect amount of attention and diversion. When I'm feeling well, they don't tickle me quite so much.

Now, I was sick last week - so dizzy and tired for days, that it's no surprise I enjoyed this book. On the other hand, I've also realized that, perhaps coincidentally, all the books I've read while I was sick and really enjoyed were the City Watch books. So maybe it's the sub-genre within Pratchett that I'm enjoying more. Further tests will have to be made.

At any rate, another City Watch book, which I am reading all out of order, and I really did enjoy this one a lot. I already knew Angua from a couple of different books, so her introduction was more a pleasure in seeing how that happened rather than a surprise that they'd allow a w..... in to the City Watch.

What I enjoy most about this series within Discworld is how it examines the exercise of power, where it resides, how money may impact policing, and in this particular book, the dangers of leading simply because you're charismatic and/or have the right bloodlines.

Vimes is on the verge of marrying, retiring, and devoting himself to the life of the wealthy, which, of course, he hates, as much as he loves his wife-to-be. He gets to hear all the worst-informed opinions of those who have only encountered the poor as myth, and grind his teeth, and not arrest the rich for doing the same sorts of things for which he would throw others in jail.

Meanwhile, the question is who will lead the Watch after Vimes leaves. Carrot seems like perhaps the likely candidate. However, others also seem to think Carrot should be a leader as well, for less laudable reasons.

There are also some interesting diversions in how mobs/militias get formed, what having power that has nothing to do with skill can do to a person, and of course, the continuing problems of integrating the Watch, what will allowing trolls and dwarfs and a w.... like Angua.

The scenes where Carrot handles a crowd of people are a pure joy to read, so delightful and twisty and satisfying, and yet the afterwards meditation on what it means to be able to organize people like that are probably even more interesting. Ankh-Morpork is lucky Carrot is a good man, as well as being charismatic and likeable. But even he's fully cognizant that those are not necessarily skills that inherently go together, and investing power in them might not be the wisest course.

I really do enjoy Carrot. He's so naive and canny at the same time, able to effortlessly navigate interspecies conflict through his sheer belief in the inherent goodness of the people around him. It's a fascinating mix that you understand why people might want to give him power.

And of course, there's also just that whole part where some people are looking for someone to be in absolute charge, either to shoulder the responsibility, or to be a figurehead while others plunders the coffers or whatever other nasty desires they might have.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Book Blogger Hop: Seasons for Reading



Book Blogger Hop 

Participate here!


This Week's Question:

Do you tend to read more in the winter or summer months?

That's not really something I've thought about before. Hmmm. During the winter, it's nice to cozy up with a book and not go outside, but frankly, the sheer effort of walking through the snow to and from work can be enough to tire me out and reduce the time I have for active attention to a book. The summer, the same thing, but with heat. I do not like humidity. I'd actually say it's the lovely, wonderful seasons of moderate weather - the spring and the fall - when my brain is awake and my body is joyous, and all is right in the world for reading. 

Friday, 4 March 2016

The Peripheral by William Gibson


I sort of have the opposite problem with this book than the last Gibson I read. The last, Pattern Recognition, I liked the book quite a lot, but thought that Gibson didn't quite stick the landing. In this book, I thought the ending was fine, but it took too damn long with too damn little happening along the way. 

The central conceit is interesting, if not anywhere near fully explored. At some point in the future, after a mass die-off of humans, the remnant have stabilized and have access to nearly unlimited energy and goods. (It doesn't seem to be post-scarcity, though, as there are clear mentions of people not being able to afford things. It isn't fully laid out.) A few of them also have access to a "conduit" that connects them with some part of the past. Not their past, as the future of that past started to diverge as soon as they made contact. The "stub" is what they call the past-that-is-no-longer-their-past. 

They can't go there directly, they can just communicate by computer, and no one really seems to quite know why it works. They can do it remotely, through Skype, essentially, or people from the past can invest a humanoid robot called a peripheral in the future, and those from the future can do the same with a much more rudimentary version.

The main character is a woman whose name I don't remember (that's never a great sign) from the past, who was hired to act as remote security at a party in the future, having been told it's just a game. That seems unnecessarily complicated, but okay. 

While there, she sees a woman get murdered, which leaves her, of course, as the only witness. This leads to people hunting her and the people in the future who had hired her trying to protect her as they try to get her into a situation where she can ID the murdered.

There's also a giant floating raft, which feels a lot like Neal Stephenson's raft in Snow Crash. And some nods to veterans with PTSD/loss of body parts and how peripherals would seem like the Holy Grail, but it's more hinted at than delved into fully.

The big problem comes with about a third or more of the book to go, when the police officer in the future says that what needs to be done is to take a peripheral housing the woman from the past to a party so she can ID the murderer. That's a good idea. Everyone agrees.

....and then more than a third of a book goes by where nothing at all happens. They talk about sending her to the party. An attack in the past happens, but in pretty much exactly the same way as we've already seen once or twice, The woman in the past gets shown around future London. BUT NOTHING ACTUALLY HAPPENS. For this honking great swath in the middle of the freaking book.

I mean, sure, some guy in the future pines for the woman in the past, but there's absolutely no chemistry there, and nothing ever happens with it. It's just a lot of...nothing. And nothing keeps on happening for pages and pages and pages.

Finally, we get to the goddamn party and things start happening again, and the ending is fine. It's that long padded pause in the middle of the book that's the problem.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent



People recommend books to me a lot. It's hard to know when or how to fit them all in! And then there's the worry I won't like a book that is very dear to a dear friend's heart. For a long time, I just avoided reading books that had been recommended to me, unless someone pushed a physical copy into my hot little hands. (This is still the fastest way to get a book to the top of my list.) So I started a new list to read of books friends recommended. If you want to get in on this, you can recommend a book on this post.

This book was recommended to me by Melissa

This is a story about how I eventually came to mostly like this book.

This book and I got off to a rocky start. The letter that opens up the novel just felt so completely wrong, like exactly what someone in the 21st century thinks someone in the 19th century would write. It's so over the top and melodramatic and mea culpa about things that the book will then explain to us very reasonably...I was put off.

Then there was the cover. Look at it. Do we see anything weird about the word 'heretic?" Like, for instance, the inexplicable capitalization of the first three letters? This then meant that every time I thought of the book, it rang in my head as the HER-etic's daughter, weird stress and all, and oh, for goodness sake. It's not anywhere in the book itself, including the title page, but it's SUCH a wrong-headed choice for the cover. As if to suggest that this time, only this time, the heretic is a woman. Except, you know, they often were. 

Next thing wrong with the title is that it's wrong. Sarah's mother isn't a heretic. She's accused of being a witch. These are very different things. The word "heretic" actually means something, and when the book itself explains heretics in the context of their world as Quakers, I kept expecting the mother to be revealed as a secret Quaker. She is not. She is not a heretic. She is accused of being a witch. Do we see how those two things are different? Precision, people. Some words actually have specific meanings.

These are really fairly minor things, but they made me grumpy every time I picked up the book and looked at the cover.

So, this book had an uphill battle when it came to winning me over. So take that for what it's worth when it settles in to be really not a bad look at suspicion and paranoia in a small town near Salem, touched by the witch hysteria in the same way. Kent does a good job of showing how anything could be used as evidence, and how small grudges and small lies could be suddenly blown into huge consequences. 

Sarah, the main character, is a young girl when her mother comes under suspicion, fostered by resentment that her grandmother left property to her instead of other family members. Like her mother, Sarah has a temper, and neither are popular where they move, particularly when they bring smallpox in their wake.

In the end, I enjoyed this book, although I'd never say it reached the level where I'd be running out and telling people to read it. One of the most interesting possibilities was skipped over - stories have been written of the witch trials before, of course. But they all end with someone being hanged, or the fever subsiding and people being released. I'd be interested to see someone write about the third act - what happens after.

When you know your neighbours could turn on you. When your neighbours know they did things unspeakable. How do you live? What do you do? Does it ever go away? Does it fester? While The HERetic's Daughter did the paranoia well, it feels like paths that have been tread before. They're tread well here, but nothing feels particularly new.

In other words, if this is something you like to read about, it's a good entry into that niche. It's just not revolutionary.