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meganbaxter

meganbaxter

I'm a grad student, an avid reader, a huge nerd, fervent roleplayer, wife, cat lover, tea snob, and obsessive keeper of lists.
The Circle - Dave Eggers

I finished this book over a week ago, as the first read for our local "Books on Tap" book club, and have been delaying writing the review ever since. I wasn't sure what I wanted to write about it, or perhaps that I had so many thoughts that an overriding drive to the review was slow in coming. I've finally decided to give in to that and write a review about how messy this book is, how good some parts of it are, and how frustrating other parts are. The parts where the story is great, and the parts where we rely on a narrator who is, quite frankly, not the smartest.

Although everyone around Mae tells us she is smart, the brightest, and on and on. Perhaps she's bright, although she doesn't in the least really show it. The problem is not the intelligence. It's the total lack of self-reflection. Or outwardly directed reflection. Reflection, of any kind. Heck, if a student who had done well in one of my classes, as apparently she did in her college education, and was this uncritical about everything around them, I would be intensely convinced that I had failed.

This is somewhere where my personal preference for narrators may be showing. Dumb narrators drive me crazy. Unbelievably naive narrators drive me crazy. And uncritical narrators drive me crazy. I realize this is definitely something very personal, but if I'm spending that much time inside someone's head, even if I don't agree with them, I want them to critically engage with the world around them. Otherwise, I want to grab the controls and start steering this goddamn ship.

On the other hand, I have a sneaking suspicion that that's done on purpose. I'm quite sure Eggers can write more intelligent, perceptive characters than this. He has two in the background. They're so far in the background they're almost drowned out, and again, I think he has a point in doing this.

Mind if I take a little detour into Dollhouse? I have long been one of the staunchest defenders of that show. I tell people, when I'm in the midst of my Whedon-evangelism, that to really get the most out of the show, you have to watch it as a pre-apocalyptic show. Screw all this post-apocalyptic zombie nonsense.

(Also, I'd like to say that I'm very sorry to everyone who has had to listen to my long and impassioned sermons about how Buffy The Vampire Slayer is the best show ever, followed closely by everything else, and holy shit has Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. gotten good. And yes, I know, written by Maurissa Tanchaeroen and Jed Whedon, but it's still close enough it bloody counts. I think you get the point. My love for the Whedonverse is complete and all-consuming and not going away any time soon. Also, the interactions between Hawkeye and Black Widow are the most awesome things about the extremely awesome The Avengers. Sorry again. I have a lot of opinions on this stuff.)

ANYWAY.

Where was I? Dollhouse. Right. That idea, that we're watching a show that quietly is showing us all the wrong steps, all the bad decisions, all the justifications that led up to the apocalypse (as shown in the unaired episodes). It's fascinating.

That's pretty much what's happening here. That's a neat idea. It's a world that is only a couple of degrees off from our own, and power is being consolidated in the hands of a corporation that masks its own grab for absolute surveillance with the expressed belief that Privacy Is Theft. Now that's a slogan to make all those of us who've read dystopias shudder right there. Good work, Eggers!

But where most dystopias come from the time where the despotic power is well-entrenched and someone, say a fireman, or Winston, or a rogue pig, or a young woman, whatever, rubs up against the strictures they'd never previously considered to be constrictive or fascist, this is, like Dollhouse, in the before times. Where someone could stop the dystopia with the right words at the right moment.

Don't hold your breath.

(show spoiler)


The dystopia here is not that far off our own world of social media, where quick gratification has replaced reflection for most people, and their lives are more and more full of obligations that social media places on them. I find this both interesting and a bit overblown. I'm certainly on board with worrying about how corporations are mediating our social media interactions, and even concerned when people become too wrapped up in responding to everything.

But the interconnectedness, by itself, not that scary to me. We've always traded information about each other, it is just the scope and the medium that are different this time. Gossip, in the sense of news about each other's lives, that's always been a part of community. It's finding the times to disconnect from community and just be alone that are increasingly missing, and so I am both on board with the worries of this dystopia and a little frustrated by it.

Of course, I've worked in sick workplace cultures, so the first day at that job, even when everyone's being all hunky-dory, the first hints of mandatory fun that appear would have made my antennae wave furiously. Wanting control of more than just the workday is a huge red flag. And then the next day, with the revelation of constant performance surveillance, impossible goals, and bullying the customers into giving you the responses you want? Out the door, slamming it behind me. I've been there, done that. Fuck that shit.

Any time someone tries to mask corporate Big Brother tactics as a friendly competition, or a way to track store numbers (why don't you look at the store numbers then?) or this fun thing we're doing? Out. Run. Gone.

So yeah, I'm a little sensitive. From the first pages, sick feeling in the stomach. This is not healthy.

This is why I'm not a corporate person. I want my non-work life to be my own. Hell, I want most of my work life to be under my own control. And I want to believe in what I'm doing. Which at least the big corporation offers to its non-reflective employees.

So this book made me uneasy, and sometimes it made me frustrated, both with main character and the sometimes overblown fears of social media, but then it equally often made me agree, with the dangers of quick surface thought rather than time to reflect and digest, and the mediation of our social media experience by corporations that definitely have ulterior motives. And add that to interference with the political system, and this became a very scary book.

Still, I'm not entirely convinced. But all dystopias have aspects of hyperbole about them. Underneath that, there are issues Eggers raises here that are serious ones, ones we should reflect on.

Even if the main character kept making me want to throttle her.

Camera Obscura - Lavie Tidhar

I feel like this series is developing nicely. The second book feels slightly more accomplished than the first. But two books in, isn't it about time to state clearly what's going on here? It's not a deal-breaker, because I enjoy very much this literary steampunky world, but I've stuck it out for two books. What are Les Lezards? (Yes, it's been broadly hinted at. But I'm ready for answers, not just hints. If something major had been revealed each book, but reserved part of the secrets, that would have been fine. It's substituting the hints for any real reveals that makes me a bit impatient.)

Still, this series is getting better as it goes. This one is set in Paris, and therefore brings in a whole whack of French literary figures, from Mme. de Winter from The Three Musketeers to Victor Frankenstein to the Phantom of the Opera. Along with Tom Thumb and the Marquis de Sade. I truly do have fun with spot-the-literary-reference. I'm not sure that it adds anything to the stories themselves except to make me pleased with myself for being well-read, but it is a main feature of the stories.

And, in a massive bit of improvement, none of the literary characters struck me as wrong as Irene Adler being on the side of order in The Bookman did. Although, to tell true, I've only seen movie adaptations of The Three Musketeers, but I liked what Tidhar did with that character.

Milady is the operative of a secret Parisian council, probably dedicated to preventing the lizards from gaining the same toehold on France that they have on England. But their motives may also be more suspect. She is called to investigate a corpse of a man who seems to have been given a c-section, and something removed. Her investigation takes her through the sewers of London, and into robosexual subcultures, and darned if she doesn't keep coming across bodies that just won't stay dead.

She also keeps running across Chinese operatives who are in Paris trying to retrieve whatever that guy was carrying in his stomach, but the Council wants it too. It's broadly hinted at as to what they think they could do with it if they got it, but this is one place just a smidge more clarity might have helped. I'd even have accepted monologuing.

The Phantom of the Opera is an operative too, but he seems to have been infected by the grey plague that is making corpses still walk, and he was never that stable anyway. So he's killing people left right and centre, and Milady is bound and determined to stop him, but the Council tells her to let him alone. Little people don't concern them.

She can't let it alone though, and this leads to a chase across the Atlantic to Vespuccia (apparently Amerigo gave his other name to the continent in this world) and the Chicago World's Fair. Before this happens, though, she gets a piece of the statue everyone is chasing lodged in her eye, and it starts whispering curiously scientific sentences to her, about finding its way home. Turns out the Phantom has one of his own, as does a Chinese man, and hey, les Lezards may want to use the statue to open a portal to...their own world? Seems likely, but more hinted at than said.

So all in all, I love the world-building. I enjoy the characters from literature. But after two books, I don't think I'm being overly demanding when I say that I'd like some answers. Not all the answers, but some. Seriously. I've stuck it out this far. It's getting to where withholding answers has gone past the point of creating tension, and into the part where it bugs me.

Sabriel - Garth Nix

This is a very solid young adult fantasy. It's got some aspects that are unlike anything I've seen, and others that are more familiar, but well done. The characters are interesting, and the evolving relationships, thankfully, more subtle than a lot of more recent books. And a focus on necromancy for a book meant for teenagers? Interesting....

For the magic in this book revolves around the dead. There seem to be other sorts of magic, but they are background, and this is foreground. The fantasy world exists right beside our own, separated by a wall that reminds me of nothing so much as Hadrian's wall. In our time period, it seems to be about the 1950s. Across the wall, time does not run at the same pace, and the phases of the moon are different. The powers that be seem to know about the magical kingdom on t'other side of the wall, and man it accordingly, with soldiers. Some who have been trained in Charter Magic, the magic of the kingdom.

I'm a little fuzzy on the Charters, still. They are filled out somewhat through the book, but not entirely explained. It's not the type of lack of explanation that drives me batty, though. I get the feeling it's coming. I can wait.

But I was talking about the dead, wasn't I? Right, necromancy! For the land behind the wall, more and more dead stalk the land, occupying the bodies of the living. And there seems to be an evil force behind them. Into this comes our young adult protagonist, refreshingly, a female character. The most refreshing thing is that swooning or falling desperately in love is not her main consideration. (Okay, yes, maybe she does fall in love, but it happens slowly.)

Sabriel (My husband was convinced this was a book about angels, given the way the name is constructed. It's not.) is brought up on our side of the wall, at a girl's school nearby, where she is taught magic as well as more practical things. Near her 18th birthday, she is sent a message that her father is missing, and knows she must cross the wall to look for him. Once there, and the going is rough, she discovers that not only was he her father, and a strange sort of necromancer, but that he had an official title, which has now passed to her. This is Abhorsen, and it means the one necromancer who holds the duty of banishing the dead instead of raising them.

Now Sabriel must embark on a journey to find her father's fallen body, and figure out what being the Abhorsen means. She brings a spirit masquerading as a cat with her, named Mogget, and frees a man frozen in time and place, who calls himself Touchstone, and belongs to a much earlier age.

The middle part of the book felt a bit meandering, but I think it was to teach this new world to both Sabriel and the reader. The pace of the reveals is good, but the journey could be a bit more tightly plotted. But as the danger grows, so does the urgency.

The magic is particularly dark in this book, and that's a nice change. There is the suggestion of nicer magic about, but it is certainly not the focus. It's dangerous, it's chancy, and it involves death. For all that, the book is not too intense for young adult readers, and i would recommend it. It didn't enchant me, but it was very enjoyable.

Fall of Giants: Book One of the Century Trilogy - Ken Follett

This is the second Ken Follett book I've read, and it thankfully avoids the major flaw of The Pillars of the Earth, the one that irritated me so consistently. There is no absolutely cartoonishly evil villain who adds nothing to the story except by being a horrible person and wanting to rape everyone.

I have little patience for such characters. Once you've established that they're horrible, where do you go? There can be no development, no changes, no different menace. And when your menace is all about rape? That's not that fun for the better part of a thousand pages.

This is a major step forward. There is no such thin master villain here. There are some other issues with the book, but none of that magnitude, and so I enjoyed it quite a lot more. It's an easy read, for one, for all that it is also the better part of a thousand pages.

It is the story of the Great War, told through a Russian family, a German family, an English family, and an American family. Well, family is a bit of a misnomer. This is the story of four or five young men, and makes occasional references to their parents, their sweethearts, their children. The English setting gets two more complete female characters, and the Russian and American settings about half of one each. (They're not in the book much.) So although this promises to be a family saga over multiple books, for this one at least, it is mostly focused on the young male experience, although there is quite a bit about female suffrage in England.

The story covers the lead-up to the war, the war itself, and the immediate aftermath. It's fairly interesting, and there were times when it seemed like Follett had done his research well. But then we came to the part I actually do know inside out and backwards (military history is not that topic), and he got it wrong, and so now I'm not sure.

It's a minor point, but it's mine, so:  in Toronto in 1920, there is no way in hell you could go around perfectly legally buying liquor. The Ontario Temperance Act was in force from 1916 to 1927, and buying alcohol was just as illegal here as 18th Amendment made it in the states.

Yes, I know there was massive smuggling of liquor over the border. This was due to the division of powers in Canada. Prohibiting the sale of alcohol was a provincial matter. Prohibiting the manufacture of alcohol was in federal jurisdiction, and except for a very brief period near the end of the war, the federal government declined to do so. So, we have the strange situation where it was perfectly legal to manufacture alcoholic beverages in Canada, but it was absolutely illegal to sell them. Hence why there was a supply to be sold illicitly in Canada and smuggled over the border.

The point is, walking around Toronto and going into a liquor store (post-prohibition invention, by the way) and buying cases of whiskey perfectly legally and openly? In 1920? Nope. Nope, nope, nope, nope.

Pedantic research nitpicking over. For the areas I don't know that well, nothing jumped out at me as glaringly wrong. But when we got to the stuff I do know, problems. On the other hand, this was recommended to me by a First World War historian, so maybe his military research is better than his prohibition research.

But here's my main issue with the book. As I said, it's very readable, it's fairly interesting, but if one of the representative young men was shown to have caused a major turning point in their country's history once more, I was going to throw something. Forrest Gump works by having him present at turning points, and even that doesn't work that well. This one has the young men actually being the power behind the scenes, present at and causing major events. It strains credulity, to say the least.

Let's take the Russian main character, for instance. His father is hung by Russian nobles for poaching. He is with his mother at the gates of the Winter Palace on Bloody Sunday. His mother is killed. He is in the first Russian military unit to see service in the Great War. He is the first soldier to lead a revolt in the Russian revolution. He dictates the first pronouncement of the new government. He meets Lenin at the station when he re-enters Russia. He warns Lenin to get out of town when things become difficult. He's the one who brings Lenin back to the Parliament to cement the Bolshevik victory.

Really? I mean, really? It's kind of okay to want all those things in there. It's even okay to want your own characters somehow involved. But for one individual character, utterly unnoticed by history, apparently to be instrumental in so many things? It isn't poignant, it's just irritating. Similar massive improbabilities cluster around each of the other nationally representative young men. At times, I wanted to investigate this supernatural phenomenon.

It's far too much. The stories themselves are interesting, but shoehorning your five young men into EVERY. SINGLE. EVENT. of the First World War is not only massively unlikely, it's ludicrous.

If you can overlook that, then this is a fun read. I mostly enjoyed it, although it got to the eyerolling stage pretty quickly every time a historical issue came up and somehow one of our five young men was right in the middle of it. Again.

Brothers in Arms - Lois McMaster Bujold

A month or so ago, I was bemoaning the fact that my local library has an incredible lack of Lois McMaster Bujold books. They only have very spotty coverage of the Vorkosigan series. So my attempts to read it have been mostly stymied. A few days later, a package showed up on my door.  A friend of mine from the other side of the Atlantic had bought me a whole whack of the Vorkosigan books. It was just about the best surprise package ever. Books! Books I wanted to read! And a very thoughtful gesture from a very good friend. Thank you again, Nele!

So I settled down to read the first book in an omnibus with warm fuzzy feelings, and was not disappointed. I'd read a book further in the series, so I knew about Mark, but, of course, not the details about where he had come from. Knowing more or less how it came out did not spoil the book for me - in fact, it made it more interesting. How do we get from here to there? That's often far more interesting than what twists are coming up next.

And hey, we finally get to see Earth! And things finally move forward with Elli Quinn! (Although, given that the later book I've read was A Civil Campaign, that raises entirely different here to there questions.) Miles and the Dendarii fleet show up at Earth, looking to get resupplied, and secretly, funded by the Barrayaran government. But the attache on earth seems more than a little suspicious of Miles in both his guises, either as himself, or as the Admiral of the Dendarii.

There are also enemy forces on Earth, both the Cetagandans and a shadowier conspiracy. Miles and Admiral Naismith both appearing around the same time on the same planet risks blowing Miles' cover, and yet, it keeps being necessary. So Miles spins a story for the press about the Admiral being his clone. And as soon as that happened, I winced. Telling the lie that is actually sort of the truth tends to make conspiracies edgy.

Because, of course, someone has cloned Miles. In hopes of replacing him and using that replacement for nefarious purposes. But what is most interesting about this are a couple of themes it raises. Family, for one. Raised by a Betan mother, Miles knows immediately that a clone brother is still a brother, with all the problems that might raise. But he can't reject Mark, and his mother would be outraged if he didn't look out for his little brother, even though they've only just met and Mark is trying to kill him. This idea of family, the bonds that are there immediately, even if the other person is unaware of them, is interesting. Mark, of course, believes this not in the slightest.

The other aspect that interested me is the idea of loyalty, personal, familial, or to a cause. And what happens when a cause becomes moribund, but there are still fanatics hanging on. I'm not going into details here, but the struggle between Mark's creator and those around him, is very well done.

And, of course, Miles and Quinn finally give in to certain...desires, and that leads to complications. Not least an argument about which Miles is the real Miles, which I can see causing real problems between them down the line. It's a good subplot, and I look forward to seeing how it pans out. Or doesn't, as the case may be.

Of course, there's always Miles, trying to juggle identities and responsibilities, with a little brother suddenly added to the latter. A very enjoyable entry into the series.

The Republic of Thieves - Scott Lynch

This is a really good book. Let's say that straight-up. But it isn't quite as good as the first two in the series, which I thought were phenomenal. So if I'm quibbling, remember that I did really like this. I just have such high expectations of Scott Lynch.

Locke and Jean are back. Locke is suffering from the ill effects of the poisoning he got at the end of the last book, in a heartbreaking but utterly satisfying battle over who got the antidote. One of the mages of Karthain offers to help, but at a cost. He has to come to their city and run one side of a political battle that occurs every five years. The opposition has employed a certain someone from Locke's past.

Yes, we finally get to meet Sabetha. And I am not disappointed. She's an intriguing character, as annoying as Locke, and almost as endearing. Although,  having spent so much time with Locke, it's easier for the reader to empathize with him, and want her to give him more of the benefit of the doubt. But Lynch does a good job of creating issues between them that cannot be easily settled, and beyond the quick fix of an honest conversation.

In fact, one of these issues really caught me. It circles around how power is withheld from people in society, unconsciously, and how, as soon as you have to say indignantly "I should be the leader!," you've already lost authority. Even in a society where the gender roles are less strict than many fantasy worlds, Sabetha is not apart from her society, and neither are the men around her. It's a subtle point, but a really good one.

The flashbacks are also really great. I'm a theatre geek from way back, so I loved the whole plotline of the Gentlemen Bastards having to go to another city and rescue a theatre troupe and practice their acting skills - and then, get themselves out of a great deal of trouble when both the theatre impresario and his wealthy backer are more devious than they expect. Plus, it's great fun to have Calo and Galdo back, even if only in memories.

So why is this not quite as good? The stuff in Karthain is entertaining, but it feels slight. The real meat is in the past, and in the scenes we get between Locke and Sabetha. In other words, what's billed as the plot is the least interesting part of the book. (It's still interesting, it just feels like too much setup for the payoff.) The things around the plot are phenomenal. He's integrated these aspects so well in the first two books that to see them unravelling just the slightest bit here made the pacing feel off.

It's fun. It's always fun. And this one didn't entirely emotionally eviscerate me in the last act! I started to feel that dread, but the payoff to it was more setting up for the next book than deciding to make me cry now. It's probably good that he's not going to that well too often. But still, it's been so masterfully done in the previous two books.

I highly recommend this one, even though the balance of the storylines feels a tiny bit off. Not enough to ruin my enjoyment, certainly. Now I have to wait with everyone else for the next one. That's going to be tough.

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void - Mary Roach

I generally quite enjoy Mary Roach's books, even though sometimes they are too much information to be read while eating. (Stiff) So when I saw this one, about one of my favourite things in the world, space travel, I was excited. Even more so since I'm running a roleplaying game set on Mars right now, although much further along than the first tentative preparations Roach is talking about here.

It's hard not to be charmed by her enthusiasm for space, as it's something I share. I like to think I'd be equally incoherent with delight if I ever got a chance to go on a Vomit Comet. And she does a good job of capturing both the delights and the grinds of the experience, although towards the end, the grinds do slightly overshadow the delights. But still, let's go to Mars. Please.

This is not so specifically about Mars as it is about the nitty gritty details of spaceflight, even though the eventual orientation is towards that hypothetical Mars trip. It goes through the days of spaceflight, the first animals sent up (including a fine debunking of some of the myths about Enos (The Penis) the Chimp, one of the first two American space chimps.)

It also covers in great details all the physiological things doctors thought could go wrong with the body in microgravities. (I think she uses zero gravity, but I'm just pedantic enough to go with the other term.) Many of them seem hilarious to us now, but they're also a good reminder of how little idea we had about how any of this worked, in gravity or weightless.

And of course, there are the problems of eating, losing bone mass, defecating, showering, and oh, the smell. I hadn't thought about the smell much before, but it makes perfect sense that, particularly on the earliest capsules, there were no facilities for cleaning. Up to two weeks of two people developing their own particular body odours. Urgh.

After that, the problems of having sex in orbit (not to mention tensions between people on long-term exploration/colonization efforts), seems, well, less appetizing. Still interesting, but less appetizing.

I was sort of amazed that most of these weren't the stories I've heard before. Roach goes after the more mundane, and therefore, the less discussed. It's a great tack to take, and that really makes this a must-read for anyone who likes Roach's books, or is interested in the stuff that's left out of most reports on what a mission to Mars would look like.

The deromanticization of space flight is definitely a theme. But there is enough excitement, enough people saying that they'd go back, they'd go to Mars, that it balances it out. I enjoyed the sections on astronaut temperament for long space voyages particularly. A girl can dream, can't she?

Worth Dying For - Lee Child
I enjoy the Jack Reacher books. I've dipped into the stream here and there, and I'm pretty sure I read the book right before this one, as the events he has just come from sound very familiar. And this is another fine entry. Child writes very enjoyable mystery thrillers. They aren't deep, but they are twisty, and Reacher is an entertaining hero. He gets less character time here than in some of the others, though.

It feels like his personality in this one can be summed up in one word - implacable. He's always been dogged, but it almost gets taken to a new level here - or maybe because there's so little else. Maybe it's always been that way, but it felt more obvious.

In this one, he's rather beat up. More than usual? I'm not sure. But he's hitchhiking his way across the northern Midwest, when he gets let off in a small town entirely under the thumb of one family, who does all the trucking for the farmers in the area, and enforces their will with a matched set of former football players.

Just trying to get a room, he ends up getting involved. (Naturally.) There's a domestic abuse call for the doctor, who has been told not to see to her. Reacher persuades him, and drives him, and then goes and breaks the abusive husband's nose. The abusive husband is one of the powerful family.

He can't leave town now, as the powerful family has put out the word. And everyone obeys. They have since a little girl went missing decades earlier, was never found, and the family was cleared of all suspicion.

So of course this is the kind of situation Reacher can't leave alone. He picks at it, and picks at it, leaving an impressive pile of crippled football players in his wake. He looks at the police work for the cold case. He befriends the locals. And he evades the three sets of errand boys for various mobs who have been dispatched to make sure the next shipment of whatever shady thing it is the powerful family are also shipping, along with the wheat, makes it through.

When what the shady business is is revealed, right at the end, it's difficult. While Reacher books are generally a bit hard-boiled, this one was almost too much. It makes sense with everything that's gone before, but still.

There isn't a damn thing that's new here, but it does what it does well. If you like the series, you'll like this one. If you're looking for something innovative, look elsewhere. But for a straightforward thriller, this is a competent and enjoyable one. Even if it did get a little too serious for me there at the end.
Dandelion Wine - Ray Bradbury

I am not a summer person, but this book makes me wish I was. The lazy days of summer, of enjoying the heat instead of feeling oppressed by it. Running all over town with my friends, disbelieving that the adults around me ever did the same. Bottling dandelion wine against the winter, when each day of summer will be drunk and remembered anew.

While not laboriously set up as a collection of short stories, that is nonetheless what this is. The stories flow into one another, as the days do, but there is definitely a short fiction feel to it. As to genre? Well, it's not science fiction, with the possible exception of one story. It's not really fantasy. But fantasy and science fiction sort of hang around the edges, and the stories that are being told could have a bit of a magical realism tinge to them, or they could simply be how a twelve-year-old boy experiences the world.

It's a small town kind of lazy summer, in the era when streetcars are being decommissioned and replaced by much less romantic buses. When the happiest man in town decides to build a happiness machine, but his wife isn't interested.

There is also the time machine that the kids can ride in by listening to the reminiscences of the retired military man in town. Or the way that same military man transports himself to locations he hasn't visited in many years, much to the distress of his nurse. There's the old lady whom the children can't believe was ever young like them, and they start to making her doubt it too.

There is a bittersweet romance between a young journalist and a much older woman. There is the threat of violence in this small town, as women disappear in the Ravine and are found dead. There are the stories of the main character Donald, realizing that he's alive at the start of the summer, and the accompanying discovery later that he will die some day. There's the junk man, bringing just what people need from far away. Best friends move away.

These are lazy sorts of stories, that just exactly fit the weather they're describing. They might be menacing, sad, melancholy, or bittersweet, but never hurried. Bradbury is bringing his best prose to this work, and it shows.

I recommend reading this one out on your own porch (please tell me you have a porch. I do not have  a porch, and feel the lack). On a hot sunny day, drinking a glass of lemonade and letting the hurrying world slip beyond the edges of your vision and you expand into the day and drinking in it, the lemonade, and the book.

Or in the depths of winter, to recapture a warm flush of what summer was like, has been, and will be again. Taking a sip of the dandelion wine, and remembering.

How the Light Gets In - Louise Penny

This is a very special series, and Louise Penny a truly remarkable mystery writer. I read mysteries, on occasion, but they're not books to which I get greatly attached. Generally, they are light fluff. I'm not sure you could have convinced me that reading a mystery would reduce me to big soppy tears for most of the last two chapters.

But that's what happened here.

First off, the warning. Do not read this series out of order. There are few mystery series where I think that would matter, but it does matter here. Start at the beginning (you won't regret it) and work your way forward. Because there is an overarching story that is only hinted at in the first couple of books, but becomes more and more apparent as the series goes on.

How The Light Gets In is the culmination of the long arc, and it is worth the trip. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the trip has uniformly been so excellent, so perceptive about people, with mysteries so intriguing and characters so rich. But this is where it's all been headed, and that hit me like a ton of bricks.

Where do we go from here? There are strong hints that this is not the end of the series, but it is the end of the overarching plot about a creeping corruption in the Surete de Quebec. It's rare that I've seen a mystery series with that kind of long-term goal in mind, and one that is parcelled out so perfectly over so many books that the emotional impact when we got to this point nearly broke me.

We're back in Three Pines for this one, which is welcome. I've missed this cast of characters, in their roles as witnesses, suspects, and killers. The crime took place in Montreal , but the victim was on her way to Three Pines for Christmas, and perhaps was killed to keep her from getting there. When Gamache, Chief of Homicide, gets the case, he soon finds out that the woman was one of the famous Ouellet Quints. (Think Dionne quintuplets, with large amounts of artistic license.)

Who would have wanted her dead? The answer is satisfying, but really, the story in this book is the culmination of the Surete storyline. It centres around Gamache's decimated homicide department, dispersed and filled with jackasses, as those above him try to discredit him. It's about who he can trust. And it's about the heartbreaking relationship between him and his former second-in-command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir.

There's a point in this book with a duck that started the tears running down my face, and they didn't stop until I'd finished. I'm not going to say any more than that. Those who have read the previous books can guess who the duck is, but I'm guessing they didn't see this moment of grace coming.

Gamache has long believed that kindness and love are stronger, in the end. He investigates those moments when they've turned into their opposite, but he is a fundamentally optimistic and compassionate man. Are those qualities rewarded? I'm not telling, but you owe it to yourself to find out.

I don't care if you're a mystery reader or not. If you are, you'll love these. If you're not, you still ought to check them out. These are something truly special. And as we reach the end of that storyline, if not the series, I am so glad I've been on board for most of the run. The emotional impact was staggering.

The Osiris Ritual - George Mann

This series is growing on me. The first book I thought was merely serviceable, with a bit of a revelation at the end that made one of the characters much more interesting. Either the author has gotten better at plotting, or the tension has been amped up, or I was just in a better mood to enjoy Victoriana. I think perhaps all three, and the end result was that this was quite enjoyable. Not revelatory, but fun.

Our lead detective, Sir Newbury, is exploring his growing opium addiction, moving from laudanum onto the hard stuff. This concerns both his lovely assistant Veronica Hobbes, but also the Queen herself, and his friends at Scotland Yard, who have far too vivid memories of the last time one of Her Majesty's investigators went to the bad. It led to human experimentation and atrocity. No wonder they're keeping an eye on him!

In the meantime, two, no, three, mysteries have reared their heads. One involves the fad for mummy unwrapping parties among the fashionable - the mummy proves most unique, and the next day, appears to have led to murder. Newbury must investigate this while also tracking down a former agent who had been killed by his murderous predecessor, yet brought back to a grotesque half-life by a doctor whose work seems dodgy. Even if he is keeping the Queen alive.

At the same time, Veronica is increasingly obsessed with the disappearances of young women, and has traced those disappearances to the stage performances of a magician. All this, while worrying about her younger sister, whose trances seeing the future are becoming more frequent, and the asylum where she's confined less than hospitable.

The surrounding characters are entertaining, if not particularly deep, and the fraught relationship between Newbury and Hobbes, complicated by opium and personal loyalties, interesting.

These mysteries are each satisfyingly dealt with, and Mann is better in this book about having things have tension and real consequence. At least one character dies who I had not expected to! The chase scenes are satisfying, the answers to the mysteries interesting, and the examination of a vaguely steampunk world, where Queen Victoria is being kept alive by strange machinery, better drawn. And I'm just a sucker for a good mummy party reference.

Mann also has a knack for a good closer - it was the end of The Affinity Bridge that convinced me to continue with the series, and the end of this book was similarly tantalizing. Even more so because he seems to be getting better at putting the lives and emotions of the main characters on the line, and if this continues, the third book should be very interesting indeed. I wonder if it's out yet.

Range of Ghosts - Elizabeth Bear

Almost the only thing I don't like about this book is the title. It's just too nondescript, and I kept forgetting what it was. I kept telling my husband about this great Elizabeth Bear book I was reading....uh...what's-it's-title. I can remember the titles for the next two in the series much more easily, for some reason. But this one kept escaping my brain.

Everything else, though, was great. This is a thoroughly engrossing fantasy, set on the steppes, of, presuming this world has any kind of equivalency to our own, parts of Asia, set shortly after the time of again, presuming equivalency, Genghis Khan. But it is a world all its own. There are multiple cultures, landscapes, even skies.

Oh, the skies. I loved this aspect of the magic of the world, the idea that the sky over your heads was literally different depending on what kingdom's sphere of influence you were in. Also, the moons that represented the descendants of the Great Khagan, which disappeared from the sky as the people they represent disappear from the living. Makes it easy to see if your enemies are dead, when families turn on each other.

One such survivor of a civil war between his brother and uncle is Temur, who travels with a caravan of the survivors, hiding his identity. They are attacked by ghosts, and the woman he has been forming some kind of unclassifiable relationship with is taken. In his efforts to find her, he runs into two other women, one a newly-minted wizard, Samarkar, another a woman who underwent the necessary sacrifices to become a wizard, but found no access to her power. They are looking into a city that has been ravaged by ghosts, all the inhabitants taken. It took a great and evil power to do that.

While riding back to Samarkar's city, they are stalked/approached by a giant tiger-woman, Hrahima. The adventures take them back to the city, and then fleeing from it, as power struggles within Samarkar's family reach a boiling point.

This book is obviously the first in a series, as it does not so much come to a climax as set up for the next book. There is a big and thoroughly interesting fight at the end, but it is very obviously a "the journey was just beginning" moment. And with fantasy like this, that does not upset me in the least.

One thing that does delight me is the sheer number of female characters in this book! They are all distinct characters, which I should not have to mention, but somehow still do. Heck, two of them are pregnant. And that's done in interesting ways, bringing into consideration the vulnerabilities that pregnancy brings, and giving pressing reasons for why they must get involved anyway.

Temur and a mute monk are the only two of the group of travellers who are men, and the rest are women, as are the rulers of at least two places they stop along the way. And yet, this isn't a simplistic look at gender. It's complex, and each culture has its own rules for women and how they should behave, and dress, and what place they play in dynastic succession. It is refreshing to have a fantasy book that has more a token male than a token female in the group of brave adventurers. (Well, two. And a bunch of the background characters.) But when you're talking about those in the shadow of power, and what that does, it makes perfect sense to focus on women.

This was a breath of fresh air in the fantasy world, with vivid characters and a situation that does put most of the characters under extreme pressure, and we get to watch as they try to get themselves out. I am very much looking forward to the next two. And the recently announced ones that will be forthcoming eventually.

Steve Jobs - Walter Isaacson

I came out of this biography glad to have and enjoy my Apple products, but equally glad I never met Steve Jobs. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have liked him if I had.

On the other hand, out of such sheer assholery have come some products that I'm very glad to own. Made by a guy who had no compunction about being a jackass. I get the feeling there are a lot of driven geniuses who are also complete jerks.

This is a delicate balancing act, but Isaacson does a good job of holding the two in a kind of equilibrium. It's not a hatchet job, but neither is it a hagiography. And one side of him is never far from the other. Indeed, the perfectionism that drove the creation of great products (sometimes) also feeds into his utter disdain for social niceties.

I've long been of the opinion that there are distinct audiences for different types of computers. PCs are great for people who want to be able to customize absolutely everything, to fiddle and get things to work together. Macs are for other people, like me, who couldn't give a crap about the fine intricacies of computer design and just want something that works, seamlessly, and fails to irritate them.

While there are ways in which I'm uncomfortable with giving up the control over so many decisions that might affect my life, when it comes to computing, I don't have the time to learn what I would need to to make them. In that fairly limited case, and with the right reserved to complain loudly when they make bad decisions for me, I'm happy to let Apple handle making my computer not make me want to throw it out the window.

We'll see how long that lasts after his death. I am unsure.

But of course, Jobs was always so sure he was right that that meant that when he was wrong, he was very wrong. And hard to dissuade. That's not a small problem.

Isaacson has done a good job conveying a complex figure, who exasperates at the same time he inspires. It can make great products. It can also cause huge problems. I'm not sure what else to say about it. It certainly makes me feel conflicted about the man and his legacy. This is one of those classic cases where the biggest assholes do incredible things. Things for which I'm very grateful, like my various Apple devices and the Pixar movies. But knowing they were created in the atmospheres they were, that does change something. Not everything, but something. It makes me more critical. 

Whispers Under Ground - Ben Aaronovitch

It has been well established that I am a big fan of the Peter Grant series. Huge. So take that into consideration when I found this particular book in the series not quite as much fun as the first two. Still fun, still worth a read, but somehow, a little lacking.

My husband found the same thing (and he's a fan too), or else I would start to suspect this was because I read Whispers Underground in a very unusual way. That is to say, all at once. I haven't done that in years, ever since I realized that when I read a book all in one day, it fades much more quickly in my memory than one I read over several days. I read very quickly, so I arbitrarily started to put limits on how much of a book I would read in a day. (As a general rule, not much more than 100 pages.) This meant the number of books I was reading simultaneously started to balloon. But I have been remembering more. Reading over more than one day allows characters and plot and prose to seep into my long-term memory, to be built upon the next day by the next installment.

All that is to say, I was proctoring an exam this week, brought this book along, and before the evening was over, had almost plowed through the whole thing. So I'm not entirely sure if the way this book is slipping away from me more quickly says something about the book, or about how fast I read it.

At any rate, this was still a fun entry. I liked many things about it! But somehow, it wasn't quite as engrossing. And weirdly, the back cover blurb promised a conflict that was in no way present in the book. From an earlier draft, perhaps? But it's weird when you're expecting evangelical Christian dislike of Peter, and it never ever shows up. I didn't really want it, wasn't disappointed to not have it, but when I was all steeled for it, it was a little weird.

I was glad Leslie was back! Not enough Dr. Walid, though. Or Toby, really. And was it just me, or was Zach pretty much just a slightly less reputable Ash? I liked the new cops, and Abigail.

In this one, a young art student is found dead on the tracks of a subway tunnel. Stabbed, repeatedly. And the murder weapon has a distinctly magical aura about it. So Peter gets called in, along with Leslie, to see what they can find. I quite enjoyed the straightforward mystery in this one. Turns out the student is the son of an American state senator, so a lone FBI agent is sent over to poke her nose in where it isn't wanted. She becomes distinctly suspicious of Peter, although without the promised Christian prejudice, this is a little out of left field. But in the end, I liked her.

At the same time, Nightingale and Peter and Leslie are all trying to track down the Faceless Man, starting with whoever may have trained him. I won't give away how that progresses in this novel, but it was interesting. And the new magical beings introduced in this one are an intriguing addition.

So, in the end, I still liked this entry into the series quite a lot, but not quite as much as the first two. I am looking forward to the third, though!

Long Walk to Freedom - Nelson Mandela

I've known far too little about Nelson Mandela. I knew who he was, of course, and some of the bare outlines of his life. But I think I'd fallen into knowing little more than what Cornel West, after Mandela's death, called the "Santa-Clausification" of the South African leader. By that, he meant the process of turning Mandela from who he was into a harmless, strangely apolitical grandfatherly figure that could be used as a symbol by left and right alike.

Mandela's autobiography is a welcome corrective to that. Although sometimes the story lags, the arc of his radicalization, the momentum of the ANC, and the developments while he was in prison all fight against an easy depiction of him as a figure in the movement and a person. The continued defense of the movements the ANC's offshoot made towards using violence as a political tool is interesting and challenging.

It is also a very readable account of the various laws that were put in place as the basis of the apartheid system in South Africa, their implications and the ways in which they were carried out, with a parallel story of how the ANC responded to these laws as they were implemented. There are some lovely "gotcha" moments in the government's first ham-handed attempts to suppress dissent and protest, but the story grows more dire as the police and government care less and less about finding reasonable justifications for their actions.

It's a very straightforward narrative, although there are parts where interpersonal conflicts are somewhat glossed over, probably deliberately. It's his prerogative, but it does add distance to the narrative when it comes to the personal. The political, however, is fascinating.

The years in which Mandela was imprisoned take up a huge chunk of the book, and are incisive in their examination of incarceration, the struggles in prison for fair and equal treatment, side excursions into what rights prisoners should have, and how political prisoners in this instance reacted to their circumstances.

At the end, I feel like I know a great deal about the political struggle, and somewhat less about the man. Not that there isn't anything, but there is that reserve and reticence about personal issues. Again, totally his prerogative. Also, his entire life hangs together as a unified arc, and I can't help but wonder if that means that there is some messiness being elided by the smoothing out of his political path into one where his later viewpoints are almost completely harmonized with the ones he held at the beginning of his struggles.

This was an interesting read, although in some areas it raised my curiosity more than it communicated. But as a look at the struggle against apartheid, and a memoir of years spent as a political prisoner, it was fascinating.

The Hidden Goddess - M. K. Hobson

Second book in the saga of Emily Edwards. I enjoyed it, but didn't love it. The pacing is off. The main character feels curiously passive, even though, thinking back, she actually did keep taking matters into her own hands. But for some reason, it doesn't feel like it. Why is that?

I can't quite put my finger on it, but it doesn't feel tightly plotted, nor does it feel like letting-things-take-their-own-sweet-time meandering. Which is too bad, because I liked the central character dilemmas more in this one than in the preceding volume, where I found them unconvincing.

Emily Edwards and Dreadnought Stanton are engaged, and he is about to take over as Sophos of the Institute of credomancers - magicians who fuel their power through the belief of others. Which explains all the purple prose in those dime novels featuring them. They're trying to increase their prestige and therefore, power.

Emily rarely gets to see her fiance anymore, and has to suffer through interminable social events designed to make her look like a proper young woman, worthy of the love of a hero magician. She'd rather be skyclad and out in the garden. This does not endear her to her future in-laws.

She takes a trip back to San Francisco just in time to catch some aftershocks, gets some surprising news from her Pap, manages to track down her birth mother's family, and is attacked or perhaps protected by the anti-magic Russian organization. In between social occasions. Which she hates. And so do I, which is maybe why I felt the pacing was off.

The investment of Stanton goes horribly wrong, and Emily is packed off willy-nilly to some place for her own protection. She runs away. She is captured by Russians. She allies with Russians. She decides she can't be with her fiancee anymore, as she has started to have doubts about his past.

Actually, the payoff on that looming backstory is pretty good. I was happy with it. And the ending very sweet.

But just liked the previous entry, there was something missing, a layer of engagement I just never got. The story was fun, the characters interesting, but the pace of the plot was off, and there were these long lags of Emily waiting around that were just not that interesting. I would say it's a better entry than the previous book, but still not stellar.

Still, if you're looking for fun American historical fantasy, you could do worse than give this a try. It's probably not going to blow your socks off. But it might entertain you for a while.