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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.
Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand - Samuel R. Delany, Carl Freedman

This is not a great book. There were times when I wasn't even sure it was a good book. But it's trying so many interesting things, testing the boundaries of science fiction, and perhaps, the comfort of the reader, to get at some truly fascinating things. Some of these experiments may have failed, but I'd much rather read an interesting but failed experiment than an unambitious sufficiency.

The best, the one that works the most clearly, and because of that, is very disconcerting, is his detachment of gendered words from biological sex. In this, he does something that I've been disappointed in Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness for not doing. He brings it to the forefront, instead of letting it fade into the background, and by choosing an option that always rings dissonantly in the reader's ears, makes it remarkable and startling and thought-provoking.

Where LeGuin let it fade into the background by using solely male pronouns and descriptors, Delany takes "woman" and makes it a synonym for "citizen," that is to say, a responsible adult. "She" is used to refer to everyone, unless there is a reason not to. This is entirely separate from male and female. "He" is only used as a pronoun when the person being talked about is an object of sexual desire. Now that's an interesting inversion of gendered language, and the use of "she" is frequently jarring. In a good way. Having to remember what "she" means here made me often think about what it means in my world, about "he," and how male words have for so long been used to mean everyone. (Everyone, sometimes. Depends on who you ask and application.) It's interesting what it does to your brain when it's reversed.

Most of the sexuality explored in this one is males desiring each other. Women who are male. Although interspecies sexuality is also a topic.

Here's something that didn't work for me, though, and I wish it had. This book had none of the lovely lyricism I've come to expect from Delany. I'm glad he had more time to explore themes, but a little dissatisfied with the outcome. And so the prose is sometimes clunky, and the descriptions of the world of one of the main characters often opaque.

And I think I get what Delany's trying to do here, but it just falls short. One of the main themes is cultural difference, and he's riffing on ideas of how much cultural difference there is on a single planet, let alone across six thousand! I think things are supposed to be opaque. But it's too much, at times.

I enjoyed the part where I figured out that Marq's geosector's horror of meat from live animals was equally matched by other places being horrified that where he was from, they ate meat cloned and grown from humans. But there were plenty of other things I never figured out, and while that successfully gave me the stressed-out tourist feeling, much never fell into place. Maybe that's deliberate, but it just doesn't work that well.

But what is this book I've been nattering about actually about? Let's see. Rat Korga is a young male woman who has run afoul of the law on her planet, and in sentence for that, has been sentenced to Radical Anxiety Termination, a procedure I think I understood, but I'm not sure. Later, after years of what amounts to slave labour, she is the only survivor of his world.

Many planets away, Marq Dyeth is an Industrial Diplomat, a professional at negotiating cultural differences between worlds so far-removed as to be almost inexplicable. She is brought into close contact with Korga.

From there, stuff happens? Many of the women near Dyethshome try to see Korga, for reasons I never entirely understood? The narrative kind of falls apart. It's definitely the weakest part of the book. As is the obscurity of what's happening, a good deal of the time.

And yet.

Delany's trying genuinely new stuff here, and foregrounding conventions about language, gender, and sexuality that are usually ignored. I love this book for its experiments, and am frustrated by its opacity. It's hard to recommend, and yet, I'm glad I read it. It won't replace the other two books I've read by Delany in my affections, but it's always refreshing to read something new. Even if "new" is 40 years old.

The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern

This is a lovely, whimsical book. I am also sort of at a loss as to what to write about it. Normally, there's some issue, or some literary trick, or idea, that I latch on to, and am dying to write about in a review, for better or worse. This time, not so much. From a couple of days distance, this book feels remarkably like a meringue. Entertaining and sweet going down, but then it disappears in a wisp of foam.

Which is a little strange, given the subject matter about a magical duel between two children dedicated to the battle before they could possibly have understood what was going on in their lives. As they grow, the battle commences, and the battleground is an amazing circus. But is it a battleground after all? Collaboration ensues, and meeting, and falling head over heels in love. In the middle of a contest that cannot be stopped.

There is none of the narrative push that such a description might make likely. No, instead this book floats along on a cloud of whimsy that is truly enchanting to read. And the circus itself - I want to go there! Right near the end of the book, it delves into tension, and that works very well. But it takes a while to get there. This book strives for the effortlessness, and only at the end offers its readers the tension of a high-wire act.

Two magicians, as in, practitioners of real-life magic, disagree on how visible magic should be, and how best to practice. In order to settle this rather petty grudge match, and rather than fighting it out themselves, they sacrifice young people to their vanity by binding them to contests, and apparently have been doing so for possibly centuries. It's sort of glossed over how much of monsters this makes them, but, you know, playing with people, particularly children, to settle a bet? Eep.

Celia Bowen takes a job as an illusionist with the newly founded Cirque des Reves. She does not know who her opponent it. Marco is the almost invisible aide to the man behind the circus, changing things from a distance. The two strive to create new tents in the circus that move the competition forward, without ever really knowing why, or what the competition means.

I wonder if the lack of knowledge undercuts some interesting tension, although perhaps that kind of drama was not what Morgenstern was going for here.

Here's the thing, though. There are other characters I like far better and am far more interested in than the two lovers/competitors. The twins, Widget and Poppet, are far more vivid in my memory, and I cared more about them than I did some of the other plotline. Their fight to save the only home they've ever known  is more compelling.

In the end, I enjoyed the writing style, and lovely, whimsical world Morgenstern created. Little about the book gave me food for thought for later, but as a debut, this is enchanting.

Throne of Jade - Naomi Novik

As one of my reviewer friends pointed out just last week, this book takes a long time to get somewhere, and then almost no time there. That bothers her a lot more than it bothers me, but I do agree that perhaps too much time is taken on the voyage, and not enough on the meat of the book. (Particularly when that means all of China gets stuffed into the last 50 or so pages, after hundreds of pages of sea voyages.) Still, I like what Novik's trying to do here with dragons, and the emphasis on the voyage seems to be a part with these books hearkening more to the tradition of Patrick O'Brien than Anne McCaffrey.

In this second Napoleonic-Wars-but-with-dragons book, members of the Chinese royal family have come huffily to England, demanding back the dragon they sent to Napoleon himself, but which was captured in a sea battle and chose the naval captain Lawrence as his companion. Temeraire, the dragon, will have nothing to do with it. The British government tries to lean on Lawrence to lie to Temeraire and tell him that Lawrence doesn't want to be his companion anymore, but Lawrence, of course, refuses.

So they bundle them all of on a ship to China, obviously hoping for some nefarious parting of the two. Most of the book is the journey to China, and that is a pacing problem. The stuff on ship is interesting, but it takes up so much of the book with not really very much happening. I think there could have been much better ways to show Temeraire becoming disenchanted with the position of dragons in England.

That is the most interesting part of the book, and unfortunately, most of it gets shoe-horned into the time in China. It's a pity. But when they get to China, they find a society that is much more adapted to dragons, provides them a wage, and the cities have wide enough boulevards that dragons can freely mingle with humans. So Temeraire is right to be a little annoyed about his own position and the position of his compatriots.

On the other hand, Lawrence decides not to tell Temeraire about the signs that not everything is peachy keen, that it's great if you're part of the royal family, but other dragons are not treated so well. Bafflingly, he decides that it would be churlish to tell Temeraire "well, yes, you're treated very well here, but some dragons starve to death in the streets." That might not be a dealbreaker, but it would add some much needed perspective, and avoid this whole "China is the dragon's paradise" thing, when it's fairly clear that China is awesome if you're part of the royal family, but not if you're a peasant, which could pretty much be said about everywhere, ever.

I do like the idea of Temeraire as a social crusader, though. We'll see what happens when he gets back to England.

As for the book, the pacing was not great, but I still like these characters. And conceptualizing them as naval books as I do, the long sea voyage was not the problem for me that it has been for others. Still, I think there are ways to more elegantly handle this plot.

The Clearing - Tim Gautreaux

The Clearing is not a book to go to if you're looking for fast-paced action or a driving narrative. It's got a slowly creeping sense of dread, but this will go down best if you're willing to accept its leisurely pace between horrific violences. It grows, slowly, until it reaches a flashover point. And at that point, no one can go back.

Deep in the swamps of Louisiana, where a lumber camp has been erected to process the cypress trees of the area, the older son of a lumber baron is discovered enforcing the law in a rough settlement rife with drinking and gambling. He disappeared after the First World War, leaving his family and future profession behind.

The younger son is sent to run that camp and mill, and, in theory, convince his brother to come home and shape the hell up. He finds a wet and dirty camp, with few amenities and few graces. His wife follows him, first to New Orleans, and then to the little camp of Nimbus. Notably, she does not freak out at the dirt, or the squalor, or the roughness. For that alone, I would thank Tim Gautreaux greatly.

All his female characters are as rich as the male ones, if fewer in supply. Which, in the homosocial surroundings of a lumber camp, is fitting. Ella, the woman who married the damaged Byron, and stays with him through Victrola-and-alcohol binges, is rougher than the family she married into, but has her own reasons for putting up with Byron's scars. Randolph's wife, who follows him into the swamp, discovers she quite likes the life in the camp. She attempts to introduce more families and a church, but there is no sniffing or moralizing.

But it's not a simplistic look at the freedom on the frontier. Life in the camp is hard, and the dangers real, both from the surrounding swamp, and the men who are as mean as the alligators there who don't take kindly to By and Rando trying to keep the workers less drunk and belligerent.

And then there is May, Randolph's housekeeper, who has slept at least once with most of the men in the story, but for reasons entirely her own. The child born from this one character knows is his own, yet he can't say that openly. In the end, a father is declared, and the results are healing and painful both.

I haven't even mentioned the tangles with the Mafia yet. While the bar is run by an Italian not directly connected with the mob, the dealer supplied to the bar reports directly to the major crime boss/rum-runner in the area. The decision to shut down the bar on Sundays angers the boss, and this results in a series of deaths, accidental and deliberate both. Byron and Randolph and their families find themselves in the sights of killer, who was himself irrevocably altered by the same war that destroyed By.

Oh, and I just remembered the other thing I wanted to talk about! The other thing about this book that I haven't seen for a long time in the fiction I've read is the careful and sad consideration of the emotional damage caused by killing other human beings. Byron is the most obvious example of this, of course, having come back from the war haunted by what he did and saw there. But it goes further than that. When another character is forced to kill someone in the bar, in self-defence and to save another man's life, when it's the most justified killing could ever possibly be - it still has an impact. The person who did it is now a killer, now has to walk around with that, and it haunts him. It made me realize how much fiction tosses off killings as easy, particularly if they're justified. This book does not.

I enjoyed the complexity of The Clearing, the small movements towards a disaster. It's a book that takes its sweet time, but ah, the moments that are scattered on the way. It's thoughtful, and detailed. I don't know that I loved it, but I liked it quite a lot.

Dark Places - Gillian Flynn

Dark Places predates Gone Girl, and I think is a stronger book. I liked Gone Girl well enough, but this one is darker, harsher, and has more interesting things to say. This is not a book to embark upon if you want characters you like. Very few of the people who occupy these pages are pleasant to be around. And yet, that seems to be the point. Justice shouldn't only belong to the pleasant, and incarceration shouldn't be punishment for being disturbing.

Is it too much of a spoiler to say that this book seems like it draws heavily on what happened to the West Memphis Three? Don't take it as such. Flynn does a nice job of creating doubt about the guilt or innocence of the man who has been serving a life sentence for the horrific murders of his family. But at the same time, she deftly shows how pieces of the case against him were, really, much more incidental than they were made to appear at trial, and how what could be just the actions of a fairly messed-up teen were used to make him out to be a psychopath.

I'd like to draw attention to how exactly she does this, because I think it's quite brilliant. The book leaps around in time, between Libby, the sister who was the only one who survived the massacre of her family and testified against her brother, and the day leading up to the murders. It isn't that Flynn later reframes things in such a way that lets her readers smack their heads with dismay. No, she gives us the background first, and then we get to watch in horror as these pieces of information we already possess are seized upon by other characters of proof of what Ben was accused of doing. It gives the book the sickening sense of a train wreck in slow motion.

At the same time, the suspicion is there that even though those pieces of evidence don't point to what the prosecution says they point to, Ben might still be guilty. The evidence could be bullshit, and he could still have done it. There are serious reasons to believe it. And I'm certainly not going to be the one to tell you which way it turns out.

Libby, the main character, is for the most part thoroughly unlikeable. Unlikeable even beyond "screwed up because she was there while her family was murdered" screwed up. She lies, she steals, and finds it difficult to do any of the daily tasks that make up life. Now in her thirties, the trust fund provided by sympathetic strangers has been tapped out, and she's broke and angry because other survivors of tragedy are getting the money and attention.

Desperate to meet her rent for the next month, she gets involved with murder conspiracy theorists, a group obsessed with the murder of her family, and in return for cash, agrees to look into what happened that night, even though she's quite convinced that Ben did it. This leads her down twisty roads and the hangouts of the desperately poor.

I'm trying to figure out why I liked Dark Places more than Gone Girl. Maybe because it's because of the focus on crime in the lives of the poor. In the family that was killed, the mother wasn't a great mother, the kids weren't great kids, they were likely known in town as the troublemakers, and certainly as the kids most likely to bring lice to class. Because of this, when bad things start to happen, there is very little recourse, and any number of people willing to think the worst of the situation. It's that refusal to make the characters more lovable, better off, more tolerable, even, that strikes me so much.

I didn't like these characters very much, but by the end, I did care what happened to them. Very subtly, Flynn argues that they do not deserve to have been let down by the justice system because they didn't have the resources to use it to their benefit. And as we know all too well about wrongful convictions these days, they do happen. The mystery is excellently done, and doubt was ever-present.

A Civil Campaign - Lois McMaster Bujold

Just imagine me giving a huge satisfied sigh right about now. That's what I was waiting for. More of that manic Miles energy. I've liked the couple of other Vorkosigan books I've read between The Warrior's Apprentice and A Civil Campaign, but they lacked a certain something that caught me about the first book. It's back in this one, and I couldn't be happier.

Bujold writes out-of-control exceptionally well, and it's such a pleasure to watch Miles working by the seat of his pants, improvising. You root for him, and wince when he falls. But know that in the end, he'll probably work it out. Now we're in the arena of love, and it's a real pleasure to watch him in this all-new opportunity to make a mess of things.

I regret not having read the book right before this one, as it sounds like it was a doozy. The aftermath is so intense I wished I'd been able to get my hands on it. But my library is extremely spotty about which Vorkosigan books they carry, and I have no money with which to buy books, and so I am stuck with what I can get.

In it, it seems Miles found his match, the beautiful and newly-widowed Ekaterina. Now back on Barrayar, he wants to court her, but know if he pushes his suit too soon, he'll lose her forever. But he's besotted, and so tries to scheme his way out of it anyway. It doesn't go as planned.

This works so well for two reasons. One, Ekaterina is a really wonderful character, well-rounded and interesting. Her struggles with who she is in the wake of her husband's death (and, in a related topic, who she was during her marriage,) are complex and compelling.

Two, Bujold doesn't rely on crossed signals to keep them apart. That could have gotten old, and strained credulity. But by the midpoint of the book, Miles and Ekaterina know that the other person returns their attraction. There are still pressing and real reasons that keep them apart, including a newly unveiled political plot to score points on Miles. Ekaterina's reactions to this delighted me. They were slightly unexpected, but entirely in keeping with who she was. And who doesn't enjoy a good smackdown of people who truly deserve it now and then?

The other love story going on is one involving Miles' clone, Mark. (I missed that book too, apparently! Grrrr.) Mark and a young Barrayaran woman, Karine, started a relationship on Beta, but find it strained under more strait-laced Barrayaran gender norms.

But their relationship is not only romantic and sexual. It's also business. The business of taking edible bug vomit and making it palatable to the general public. If you thought that was quite the task, you might have been understating the matter. Much of the (very funny) comedy in this book comes from the misadventures of having a bug butter laboratory in the basement of Vorkosigan House.

This mixture of romantic and political intrigue worked for me, big time. In a situation fraught with the issues of dynastic succession in hidebound Barrayar, one count faces losing his seat because of a rogue and recently discovered ancestor. Another goes to Beta to get a sex-change operation in order to stand as candidate for his recently deceased brother's seat. Miles gets embroiled in these conflicts, and that threatens Ekaterina's position and the custody of her son.

(Strangely, it was only in writing this review that I realized that a character I created for our recent playtest of a storygame my husband wrote borrowed much of Ekaterina's backstory.)

What else can I tell you about this book? If you've liked earlier Vorkosigan books, I'm quite sure you'll like this one. This brings back what I like best about Bujold's writing, that sheer manic enthusiasm, paired with urgent drama and action. It's political action this time, but no less pressing for all that.

Raising Stony Mayhall - Daryl Gregory

Goddammit, people. I don't want to read zombie books. I'm not a huge fan of zombie cinema (I've seen two Romero movies, and that's about it.) I don't read horror. I like to sleep, and I'm far too sensitive to such things! (Although it's easier to let go of when it's the written word instead of the screen.) So how have I ended up reading two zombie books this year, both of which I really liked? Dammit, Daryl Gregory! Dammit, Mira Grant! Stop that!

So why did I pick this one up? Well, discovering Gregory's Pandemonium last year was one of the great pleasures of a year filled with great books. It even made it onto my top ten books of 2013, once the dust from the Dust Cover Dust-Up had settled. So I figured, what the hell. Let's see what his take on a zombie novel is like.

I should not be surprised that I enjoyed it mightily. I can also say that it didn't cost me a single sleepless night. This isn't that type of book. It isn't about boo scares or pulse-pounding action. Instead, it's a fairly quiet look at zombies, zombie culture, and the scares come from something far more troublesome than mindless brain-eaters.

Here is what I have enjoyed most about the two books by this author I've read so far. He takes a concept, and in both cases, it's a really interesting one, and then keeps pushing it. Taking it one step further, and then further, delving into the implications of what he's creating. Nothing just lies there, and the ideas are fascinating. This is so very far from what most zombie media is like, but once you take the first innovation Gregory comes up with, exploring all the ramifications of that takes the reader on a really wonderful ride.

This is the first step, the major deviation from previous zombie canon. This first comes up about a third of the way into the book, so I'm not sure it counts as a spoiler, but if you're worried about such things, stop here.

What if the mindless brain eating of zombies was temporary? What if it was part of the initial sickness, and passed 48 hours later? Who would bother to find out? And what if they did? Does the danger to society outweigh the rights of the newly dead but still conscious? How might the government react? The zombies?

That's not where the book starts - the first section is about a zombie baby adopted and hidden by a living family after the first zombie outbreak. Stony Mayhall grows up, shockingly. As in, physically gets bigger. Which, you know, if you're dead, is quite the feat. He learns. He hides. He thinks he's alone.

When things come to a head in his small town, he learns that he isn't, and is inducted into the LDA (Living Dead Army). There, he learns that there is a network of safehouses keeping surviving zombies safe, although the government is after them, big time. And thinks nothing of either killing them, or locking them away in a prison and doing horrific experiments. The facts of zombie existence have never been made public.

So, if that's not far enough, have you ever considered the differences of opinion that might exist in such a quickly-dwindling zombie community? From those who believe no biting ever, to those advocating for the apocalyptic Big Bite.

Also, what makes zombies move? They're dead, after all. How are nerve impulses travelling? What implications might that have for the metaphysics of consciousness?

I am not going to tell you how any of this plays out, except to say that it's always intriguing. This is a zombie book that's heavy on the implications, not the horror. Except that I would argue that while zombies running after you trying to eat your brains is scary, knowing zombies are debating unleashing the apocalypse deliberately is terrifying. In a more abstract way, but terrifying.

This is a good one, folks. I continue to be impressed with Daryl Gregory, with the way he keeps pushing at the boundaries of his concepts, and coming up with cool answers. The characters are great, Stony in particular, and the story moves along to an inexorable conclusion. The way the story twists might lose some people, but I was in. I'm in for the next one. Even if it's another zombie novel.

He, She and It - Marge Piercy

A friend loaned this to me, telling me one of her profs had told her it was cyberpunk, and she hadn't been enthralled with it. I've read at least one other Marge Piercy, and for the most part, enjoyed this one, although there were some issues that I've seen in both books so far that I'll get to in a minute. But first of all, let's address genre. Is this really cyberpunk? I would tend to fall on the side of no, not really, although there are some elements of classic cyberpunk in there. But instead, I would classify as a late entry into that genre of feminist science fiction that flourished in the 1970s and 1980s. In this case, Jewish socialist feminist science fiction. It's an interesting mix.

Why am I bothering to split hairs over this one? Because I think cyberpunk is used too thoughtlessly, applied to books that I don't think it belongs with. It's a lazy box in which to chuck things. Body modification? Must be cyberpunk! Big evil corporations? Must be cyberpunk! And both of those things are undoubtedly features of cyberpunk. But they aren't exclusive to it.

And what I keep coming back to is the punk part of the equation. There's a feel to cyberpunk, a sort of gritty cynicism. The world is fucked, and nobody's trying to make it a better place. Are you kidding? They're all trying to scrape by in a world beyond their control. There are variations on this to be sure, but that feeling of a punk reaction is something that I think is definitive about the genre.

And so, a book like John Varley's The Golden Globe has body modification, sure. Transhumanism, even. But it's this exuberant book about the theatre, about an actor/conman on the lam, and his lifestory. It's sometimes heartbreaking, but it's got none of the feel of cyberpunk. And in He, She, and It, we have the big evil corporations, but we also have little enclaves trying to experiment with socialism, and working with inner-city groups to fight the power, bring down the corporations, make real change in the world. That's not cyberpunk either, by my lights.

In a world not that far ahead of our own, corporations do own most of everything, although there are small enclaves of small alternative societies, and a huge mass of humanity in slums like the one in the middle of North America called The Glop. Shira works for one of the major corporations, but when she is stripped of her custody of her young son, she leaves and returns to her home, a small Jewish socialist enclave on the East Coast. There, she finds that her grandmother and the father of her childhood lover have been dabbling in forbidden cyborg technology. This has yielded one that finally seems to work and be stable - Yod. The parallels to the golem of Prague are overt, as Makva, Shira's grandmother, tells Yod the story of the original golem over the course of the book. As their small town comes under increasing attack, Yod must juggle what he was made for, the protection of the community, against his own desires.

For the most part, this is pretty good. There are some thoughtful things here, and the story was well-told. But Piercy has to stop writing these staggeringly naive characters into her science fiction. They bug the hell out of me. In Woman on the Edge of Time, I excused it because Connie wasn't a science fiction reader, and had been plunged into an entirely new society. So if she had weird and dumb assumptions, you could kind of understand.

Shira has no such excuse. She grew up in this world, went through the corporate hierarchy, knows how things work. So, after the computer systems of her village were attacked by the corporation she'd just left, nearly killing her grandmother, after knowing that the corporation would be very interested in this cyborg technology that Yod contains, knowing everything about this, to then respond to a corporate request for a meeting with her with "Maybe they have no ulterior motive! Maybe it's utterly unconnected to everything THAT JUST HAPPENED 24 HOURS AGO! Maybe they're just going to give me my son back, and presumably milk and cookies!" is mind-numblingly stupid.

I hate it when characters are written as theoretically smart, but then do incredibly dumb things just to advance the plot. It's lazy plotting, and infuriating.

This is frustrating, because there was little else I didn't like about the book. I just hated it when the author decided to rely on character idiocy instead of clever plotting or writing. Shira could have been a bit naive. That would be fine. But no one is that naive. Certainly no one who has been through what she's been through.

I'm also a little ambivalent about the ending. It becomes apparent through the book that much of this is about parenting and wanting to control your children, what they do, who they become. Yod suffers most from this, because Ari, his creator, literally thinks he owns Yod, his time, the products of his labour, not to mention what he thinks. And that he should have the power to destroy Yod if he deems necessary, something he actually laments not being able to do to the son he begot in the usual ways. Makva is a better parent to her granddaughter, as she doesn't try to control Shira or who she is.

 

So at the end, Shira's choice doesn't sit well. She decides not to create another cyborg because she will want to control him into becoming her perfect lover and husband. She can't envision making a cyborg in circumstances in which she wouldn't try to control him the same way Ari did Yod. Which, if you extend it to the parenting metaphor that the book is heavy with, is sort of a cynical thing to say about having children, and isn't borne out in how actual children are raised. If you have accepted that a cyborg like Yod has consciousness, why not create and let him find his own path? What is it about machinery that makes that inconceivable? That part of it is insufficiently explored, and so, her final conclusion seems as short-sighted as everything else she does in the book.

(show spoiler)


So, in summation, there were things I really liked about this book, although one of the main characters annoyed the hell out of me when she suddenly decided not to know anything about anything. Repeatedly. But it's not cyberpunk.

 

Doctor Faustus - Thomas Mann, John E. Woods

My initial reaction to being done this book is relief. Like the other Thomas Mann book I've read, I've found this a slog at times. It was one where I had to give myself permission to read around 20 pages a day and no more, or else I never would have sat down with it in the first place. But despite that, despite how long it took me to read, and how I was never quite eager to get back to it, I am glad I read it. A difficult read, but still, a worthwhile one.

Someone else pointed out just a little while ago that the title itself is a spoiler for the book. The extent to which it is a Doctor Faustus retelling is not overt, except for a few points. But I think that's not so much a spoiler as it is a foreshadowing. We need that knowledge to loom over every moment of the book, to know that it is inevitably leading somewhere dark, to keep urgent and pressing. Otherwise, it's the fairly straightforward story of a composer.

But, of course, it's not. It's also the story of Germany, and German politics and intellectual thought, and the deal the country made with the devil for a sense of destiny, of strength, of mastery. Adrian is that deal made flesh, but Germany continues down its path in the background.

More than anything, this book made me wish I knew the first thing about classical music or criticism. I'm sure anyone who does will get more from the long descriptions of Leverkuhn's compositions and how they were radical. I found them interesting, but came out of them still befuddled. Without that background, I was totally at sea. But these sections made me wish I knew more, rather than wishing they'd been skipped, so there's that.

Then there's the nature of the relationship between Adrian and the narrator. It's exceptionally close, to be sure. But what struck me is how little we know about the narrator's wife. If the book is about Adrian Leverkuhn, the wife of the narrator gets but a handful of mentions over the entire huge span of the book, and only physically appears in two scenes. And then, she has no lines or actions. It's this giant omission of a woman who shares his life from the story being told that is so striking. I don't want to over-psychoanalyze and wonder if it mirrors Mann's own life, and his known struggles with his sexuality, but the presence-but-absence of the wife is striking.

Right, the plot. This is the story of Adrian Leverkuhn, celebrated but not prolific composer, as told by his boyhood friend. It is the story of his withdrawal from the world, his contraction of a venereal disease, his deal with the devil, and his dissolution. It's also the story of the literary and intellectual community of German in the interwar years, arguing with each other while celebrating the new turns the German state has taken. Except for the narrator, who sees the looming danger for both his friend and his nation, without the ability to do anything about either.

I feel like I've only scratched the surface of this book, but even the surface was worthwhile. I'd be interested to read it again in a few years, and see what that did to my understanding. Without that musical training, though, I just don't know if there are bits I'd ever get.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(show spoiler)


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

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

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

Red Seas Under Red Skies (GollanczF.) - Scott Lynch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mort - Terry Pratchett

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Hexed - Kevin Hearne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breakfast with Scot - Michael Downing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Changeless - Gail Carriger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(show spoiler)



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

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

Vicky Angel - Jacqueline Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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