redheadedfemme: (couch poodle)
A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky  Chambers

3 of 5 stars

This book is the quintessential comfort food. It's science fiction, but not especially hard science (a couple of things are pretty handwavey, but just enough to be passable), and space opera, but not the system-spanning, fate-of-humanity kind. It features one main character that is an artificial intelligence, downloaded into an android body, who wants to co-exist with humans rather than kill them, and another character that's one of a genetically engineered, cloned slave class, bred to do the nasty work that other humans (presumably natural-born ones) don't want to do. There are many directions the author could have taken this story, some of which would, frankly, have been more interesting, which is why I haven't given the book more stars. In particular Jane 23/Pepper's character is a bit of a disappointment. She's one of the cloned kids who sort, clean, and restore the planet's industrial scrap, and die very young due to heavy metal/radiation poisoning. Yet she has no interest in helping the girls left behind at her factory, and the next generation of clones to come, even after she escapes offplanet. The author dismisses this idea with a few sentences and some shreds of hastily-forgotten guilt, which do not ring true, and seem to me to be very much a missed opportunity. 
 
However, it's plain this wasn't the angle the author was interested in. She wanted to write a tightly focused, character-based story of acceptance and finding where you belong, and misfits making a home and family for themselves. This is not to say said story is bad. For what it is, it's well done, particularly the characterization of the two main protagonists, and the prose is breezy and flows well. But in the effort to make the book warm and fuzzy, the potential weight of the story is discarded. It's warm-hearted, and cute, and feel-good...and utterly lightweight and forgettable. This book will have its fans, and rightly so, but I prefer to have a little more grit and shades of grey in my space operas. 
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Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

4 of 5 stars

By all rights, this book should be a jumbled mess, as Max Gladstone seemingly threw everything into it except the kitchen sink. It's an urban fantasy, a courtroom drama, and a murder mystery; it's a coming-of-age story with three young protagonists struggling to find their place in the world; it's an examination of faith, in this case in a very literal way, as the "gods" in this book gain their life, sentience and energy from the devotion and fervency of their worshipers; and it's an alternate-world setting, as humans are (for the most part) the main characters, but this is very much not our Earth. 
 
I wouldn't have thought such a mishmash could work. But it does, wonderfully. 
 
There's some excellent worldbuilding here, the best kind--the reader is given the impression that we're only seeing the tip of the iceberg, that ten percent or so above the waterline. There's a dark, complex, ancient and not-so-ancient history that threatens to rear its ugly head at any time. This is embodied in our two main characters; first, Abelard the priest of the fire-god Kos Everburning. Abelard is a very engaging character, as he is young and unformed and has a poignant crisis of faith through the book. The other main character is Tara Abernathy, a woman of color (and no whitewashed cover! Hallelujah!) who wields the Craft, a magic system that draws upon starlight and moonlight, among other things. (It also extracts a pretty hefty price, as the author makes clear. This is a side element of the story I wish had been explored further, although admittedly there wasn't time for it: why people choose to study the Craft despite knowing what it will eventually do to them.) There are several other viewpoint characters, including Tara's boss, Elayne Kevarian; her former professor, Alexander Denovo, the villain (like all great villains, he is given a believable backstory and motivation, and in the very last scene of the book he gets a delicious comeuppance); Shale, a gargoyle; the vampire Raz Pelham, captain of the Kell's Bounty; and Catherine Elle, a vampire addict who moonlights as a Blacksuit, an avatar for the goddess Justice. 
 
There's a complicated plot here, with each of these characters having a crucial part, and it was a pleasure to watch everything come together. But the star of this show is this world and its history, and I look forward to following Max Gladstone as he further explores it.
redheadedfemme: (old woman no regrets)
The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher

4 of 5 stars 

This was a tough book to read, and is a bittersweet review to write, knowing that this woman's witty, funny voice will not be heard again. Supposedly, Carrie Fisher was a top Hollywood "script doctor" (brought in to fix shooting scripts, often at the last minute) for years, and after reading this book, I can see why. Her writing abilities, to me, are especially evident in the prologue and the first three chapters, where her sardonic, snarky wit shines. This is encapsulated in a rather creepy anecdote told about Warren Beatty, her costar in her first movie, Shampoo.
 
Warren, the star, cowriter, and producer of Shampoo, was asked by the costume department if he wanted me to wear a bra under my tennis clothes or not. Warren squinted in the general direction of my breasts.

"Is she wearing one now?"

I stood there as if my breasts and I were somewhere else.

"Yes," responded Aggie, the costume designer.

Warren pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Let's see it without."

I followed Aggie to my hamster-cage trailer and removed my bra. Whereupon I was returned to Warren's scrutiny forthwith. Once again he squinted at my chest, impassively.

"And this is without?" he asked.

"Yes," Aggie groaned.

"Let's go without," he pronounced, directed, charged, commanded.

My breasts and I followed Aggie back to my dressing zone and the subject was closed.
 
Good heavens. That sort of thing would be enough to put me off acting permanently, and also watching Warren Beatty's movies. 
 
Of course, the big reveal in this book is the fact that Fisher and co-star Harrison Ford had an affair during the filming of Star Wars. Mr. Ford, to be frank, does not come off very well in the telling. There was a fifteen-year age gap, and Fisher was an insecure young woman with incredibly low self-esteem, something Ford plainly recognized and took advantage of. Carrie Fisher writes about him from a place of hard-won perspective and dignity forty years later, and is far kinder to him than he deserves. (Screw these strong, silent, uncommunicative John Wayne types. This particular one was apparently good in the sack, but even if he hadn't been married at the time, I would have dropped him like a hot rock. Which, again, speaks to the inherent creepiness of the whole thing.) She also includes an extensive selection from the journal she kept during filming, most of which was naturally about the affair. Some of her poetry wasn't too bad, and as raw and unfiltered as her nineteen-year-old thoughts and emotions were, she did an excellent job of capturing them. One can see the glimmers here of the professional writer Carrie Fisher would become.
 
There are so many different directions this book could have gone, and I wish she had delved into the filming itself in more detail. Still, what I've read has encouraged me to look for her other work, and mourn the loss of this woman. RIP, Carrie.
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Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

3 of 5 stars

This is going to be a hard review to write, because even after finishing this book, I'm not sure I liked it. I didn't hate it, and I was definitely fascinated by it, but I can't even say I really enjoyed it. It's a difficult, frustrating, dense, hard-to-understand read, and several times through the slow, sagging middle I almost put it down. However, Ada Palmer must be one of the best writers I have ever read, because despite all this, with my looking for any excuse to stop reading, she would write one more scene I had to finish, and one more...and before I knew it, I had turned the last page of the book. 
 
I will say one thing, this is unlike any SF book I have ever read. It's a far-future (four centuries, to be exact) tale that's nearly impossible to categorize. Is it, as I have heard it described, a dystopia masquerading as its opposite? Is it a 25th century history text? Philosophy text? A detailed, deep-dive discussion of the Enlightenment? Or a thinly disguised retelling of the French Revolution, with the addition of a kid who can work unexplained, seemingly supernatural miracles? Complete with an unreliable narrator who often breaks the fourth wall and frequently has arguments with his reader, who he assumes is looking back on the world of 2454 with as much distance as ours is removed from Voltaire, the most frequently mentioned philosopher in these pages? Said narrator, Mycroft Canner, is revealed to be quite a nasty piece of work, and yet you can't help feeling sorry for him. I didn't like him, but I could certainly understand him, which is a testament to the author's skill. 
 
You would have to read this book at least twice to even begin to digest it. Frankly, I'm not sure if I can do that. I normally wail and gnash my teeth over infodumps, and with the exception of the final eight chapters, that's basically all this book is. Yet it held me riveted, and not in a trainwreck kind of way, either. I don't know if I'll dare attempt the sequel...but I don't know if I'll be able to resist.
redheadedfemme: (ignorance point of view)
 I just found this site. Indolent Books is an independent poetry press, publishing "a poem a day by a different poet exploring and responding to our nation's political reality." 

Here is today's poem. In one paragraph, the poet demonstrates the true nature of the president's "safe" dogwhistle garbage. 

Robbie Gamble
Ars Protectica: A Monosyllabus
 
We will need lots of words, big words. Not big as in long, but big as in words that feel big, words that are clear, words like “strong” and “win” and “fight back” and “they will pay” and “build the wall.” Don’t say “black” or “brown,” just say “them,” and we will know what we mean. Save the weak words for them, words like “fail” and “thug” and “sad.” Words that will keep them far from us. For they aren’t like us. No, not at all. Think of the words that will keep us safe from them: “lock ‘em up” and “lock and load” and “stand your ground.” Great words. And “safe,” such a fine word, too. One of the best. Now then, think of things we need to buy more of: bombs, jets, ships, tanks. We can buy more of them if we don’t pay a lot for things we don’t need so much, like health care and clean air and meals on wheels and the arts. These things won’t keep us safe, so why pay for them? Think of all the threats in the world. The world is not a safe place now, but we can make it safe, just for us, if we stick to my plan. Trust me.

Another thing I just noticed: these are all one-syllable words (except for the one contraction). You know, the state of the world today has moved beyond one-syllable words, beyond simplistic, outdated concepts. Our world is complicated, difficult and sophisticated, and we need a leader in this country that can deal with the world as it is, not as how he wishes it could be and never will be again (and never was, for that matter). 

Unfortunately, we didn't get said leader, and this country (and indeed, the entire world) will suffer because of it. And we need people like this poet to keep pointing out that inescapable fact. 
redheadedfemme: (old woman no regrets)
Words Are My Matter by Ursula K. Le Guin

3 of 5 stars

Should I be ashamed to admit that I've never read any Ursula K. Le Guin until now? Maybe I should, since she's been a giant of the SFF field for decades, and her Hugo-winning novel The Left Hand of Darkness is acknowledged as a classic of the genre. For some reason, her novels have never attracted me--they just don't seem like they would be my kind of thing. Which is a poor excuse, I know. Still, this essay collection was definitely my kind of thing, at least until I hit the final third of the book.

May I say, first and foremost, that her writing is beautiful: poetic and precise, with nary a word wasted. She has a self-deprecating sense of humor, almost British in its wry understatement. This is most evident in the first two sections of the book--"Talks, Essays, and Occasional Pieces" and "Book Introductions and Notes on Writers." The final section, "Book Reviews," was something of a letdown for me, and ultimately resulted in my bumping my rating down a star; the reason being that with the exception of China Mieville, the books being reviewed did not sound interesting at all, despite her erudite defense and exploration of their merits. Magical realism is not my cup of tea, and straight literary fiction even less.

The first section--"Talks, Essays, and Occasional Pieces"--is to me the best, and the outstanding essay here is "What It Was Like," a gut-punch of a short speech about life for American women before Roe v. Wade. I simply must quote a couple of paragraphs from it, because it took my breath away.

I can hardly imagine what it's like to live as a woman under Fundamentalist Islamic law. I can hardly remember now, fifty-four years later, what it was like to live under Fundamentalist Christian law. Thanks to Roe v. Wade, none of us in America has lived in that place for half a lifetime.

But I can tell you what it is like, for me, right now. It's like this: If I had dropped out of college, thrown away my education, depended on my parents through the pregnancy, birth, and infancy, till I could get some kind of work and gain some kind of independence for myself and the child, if I had done all that, which is what the anti-abortion people want me to have done, I would have borne a child for them, for the anti-abortion people, the authorities, the theorists, the fundamentalists; I would have borne a child for them, their child.

But I would not have borne my own first child, or second child, or third child. My children.


I'd never seen that before. I wish it was included with every piece of literature Planned Parenthood and similar organizations put out.

The final section of the book, "The Hope of Rabbits: A Journal of a Writer's Week," is her record of a week spent in a writer's colony. It is the perfect way to end this book, with its beautiful prose, marvelous descriptions of her surroundings and the wildlife found there, and deep dive into one writer's process. This is a quiet sort of book, not loud or flashy, but the wit and wisdom found within its pages will stay with you after the flash fades away.  
redheadedfemme: (woman incubator)
Life's Work by Willie  Parker

4 of 5 stars

I've read about Dr. Willie Parker before. There's a lovely profile of him here at Esquire. Rereading that now, it has many of the themes that Dr. Parker expounds on here. This book is part memoir, tracing Willie Parker's life journey from the depths of poverty to the heights of a prestigious, well-paying career as an ob/gyn; part declaration of faith, as he relates being born again at age fifteen and how he balances his Christianity with his now full-time work as an abortion provider; and a fierce, ethical, and moral argument for the right of women to make this choice. 
 
This is a very frank and refreshingly scientific treatise on the procedure of abortion. Dr. Parker describes it in detail, and busts many pro-lifer myths along the way. Abortion does not cause breast cancer; abortion is safer than childbirth; Planned Parenthood does not sell fetal tissue; and the vast majority of women do not regret their abortions, but rather feel relief, or at most a bittersweet acceptance. (As Dr. Parker says [pg. 98]: "I find that my patients are far more sensible, and far less histrionic, about the realities of this process than their elected representatives are.") He discusses second-trimester abortions and the myriad reasons a woman might have one, summing up his stance with this (pg. 101): "I perform second-trimester abortions, within the legal limits of state and federal law, because women tell me they need them." 
 
For Dr. Willie Parker, this is the only reason he needs. It's the only reason anyone should need. 
 
In chapter 9, "Preaching Truth," he examines several of the anti's objections to abortion, and deconstructs them with a doctor's knowledge, a scientist's precision, and a storyteller's cadence. I'm just going to quote a few paragraphs here, because I could never say it any better. 
 
Most women who seek abortions are healthy and in the prime of their lives. Whatever factored into their decision making, they know what they want to do, or what they need to do by the time they enter my office, and they have gotten the money together. These are the "lucky" ones. 

Adults are presumed to be able to look after their own best interests and the best interests of the people who are depending on them. In every case except abortion, society bestows upon individuals this trust, even if those individuals have demonstrated that they cannot be trusted to make good decisions. The presumption undergirding abortion decision making is that women who have had sex and are accidentally or unintentionally pregnant can't be trusted to comprehend the consequential weight of their actions. The law requires them, like bad little girls, to "prove" to authorities that they have thought carefully about what they're about to do. 

In health care, no other medical condition is treated this way. (pg. 141)
 
In my conversation with the young anti-abortion activists at the University of Alabama that day, I presented fatal fetal anomalies as clear-cut cases for the necessity of preserving abortion rights up to and beyond twenty weeks. They countered that sometimes miracles happen that allow these fetuses to survive. Yes, I answered, maybe. But most of the time they don't. And the students were forced to concede that, sometimes, maybe, abortion does not equal murder. And then I brought my argument home: If you can agree that certain medical conditions might justify abortion, then how can you exclude social, or personal, or financial conditions? If abortion is permissible in the case of a fatal fetal anomaly, then why not in the case of homicidal, battering partner? Or a dire lack of resources? Or a drug dependency? How can the state adjudicate the circumstances of a woman's life at all? (pg. 153)
 
This is a wonderful book: concise, compassionate, well argued. I thought before that Willie Parker is a goddamned hero, and this book only reinforces that. He is proud of the work he does, and I'm proud, and grateful, that we have him. 
Apr. 22nd, 2017 08:37 am

Bye Bye LJ

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Well, that's done.

After mumble mumble years, my LJ account has been deleted. I thought long and hard about it, mainly because I'd just paid for a full year in November. But I no longer want to be associated with what Livejournal has become in Russia. I also want to extend my support for Dreamwidth as a company, with their lack of ads and censorship, and all-around better attitude towards their customers. 

(It would sure be nice, though, if somebody could get Flexible Squares to work on Dreamwidth. Also cross-posting from Twitter!)

Pretty much everyone on my Friends List is over here anyway, and the few that aren't I can subscribe to in my feed reader. So...I guess I'm a proud Dreamer now. 
Apr. 16th, 2017 12:00 pm

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The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

4 of 5 stars

It's nice when you follow an author who has steadily upped his game. Like many, I started reading John Scalzi with Old Man's War, and while I liked that book well enough, some of his authorial tics (mainly constant maddening "saids" with every single freaking line of dialogue) drove me nuts. Still, I enjoyed the books well enough to hang in there. Scalzi has a breezy, workmanlike style that manages to pull you in, and his characterization and worldbuilding has improved with each book. I would have said the last book of his I read, Lock In, was his best.

Until this one.

This is the first of a new series, the story of an interstellar empire with less than ten years left to live. The Interdependency relies on the Flow, interdimensional currents that bypass the lightspeed barrier and make space travel possible. Humanity has built its entire existence around these currents, and the rigid trade hierarchy between colonies (and the Interdependency's one actual planet, End). Now, however, the Flow is collapsing, and the extinction of the Interdependency and humanity itself seems imminent.

There are not much higher stakes than this. Usually in books like these, we have a cast of thousands, which is why I don't read many of them. This is not the case in this book: we have three main protagonists, an Interlude featuring the POV of the villain, and a prologue told from the point of view of a character I wish we could have seen more of. (Maybe next time.) Our main characters are Cardenia, who is unexpectedly, and unwillingly, thrust into the office of Emperox of the Interdependency; Kiva Lagos, the wonderfully foul-mouthed representative of one of the royal houses (I would love for her and Chrisjen Avasarala from the Expanse novels to engage in a curse-off); and Marce Claremont, a Flow physicist from End, who is tasked with delivering the bad news to the new Emperox.

This story is mainly told through dialogue, which is a Scalzi trademark. That's not to say he can't write action scenes. There are a few of them here, and one in particular, an assassination attempt on the Emperox, is well done. But snappy patter is John Scalzi's meat and potatoes. Description is not, which may bother some people. I didn't mind, and scarcely noticed it after a while, because these characters are well drawn and distinctive, even if I have no idea what any of them look like. The prose is smooth and unobtrusive, and the entire book flows well. The problem is not solved in this volume, which may also put people off. But since the problem itself is so huge, one can hardly expect it to be wrapped up in one book, and frankly it would be a cheat if it was.

(The only thing that gave me pause is the prologue: specifically, several paragraphs within the prologue itself, where the rising action grinds to a halt for a heavy-handed and authorially intrusive infodump explaining the Flow. I have no idea why Scalzi did this. As far as I'm concerned, it was completely unnecessary: a few brief sentences would have sufficed to tell the reader the ship had unexpectedly dropped out of its interdimensional current, and if it didn't get back in, everyone would be up shit creek. Especially since the Flow and the Interdependency itself is explained later, in a far better and more natural fashion, in Chapter Four, where we are introduced to Marce Claremont. If the entire book had been like the prologue, it would have rapidly met the wall. Fortunately, it wasn't.)

I think this is John Scalzi's best work to date (and thankfully his "said" problem is more or less solved). I am invested in these characters and this story, and care about what happens to them. That makes a successful book, and one I am glad I own.
Apr. 15th, 2017 12:00 pm

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redheadedfemme: (books. cats. life is sweet.)
Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

3 of 5 stars

After finishing this book and thinking about it for a bit, I decided I wanted to like this book more than I actually did. This book is, as so many people have already stated, a closed-door, locked-room murder mystery: one of our six characters (which actually turns out to be seven) is the killer, and the fun, if you want to call it that, is figuring out who that is.

Unfortunately, I'm not especially fond of murder mysteries, and as such I did not pay attention to, or particularly care about, the various clues and red herrings. The setting, the worldbuilding and the characters intrigued me far more than the actual mystery. This book takes place on a generation ship run by clones, outbound from Earth on a four-hundred-year-long journey. There are many good things about it, particularly the characterization: the characters are sharply drawn, their backgrounds fully explored, their motivations believable. The mystery is not as convoluted as you might expect, and the layers of the onion are slowly, and expertly, pulled back to reveal how all the pieces fit together. (How's that for today's mixed metaphor?) I'm not sure the book sticks the landing; the story seems to come to a vague, formless stop, with something that might lead to a sequel or might not.

The main problem I had with the story is the severe suspension of disbelief required for some of the tech, specifically the cloning and mindmapping techniques. I know this book takes place several hundred years in the future, but even so, I don't think some of this stuff is feasible, now or ever. Of course, FTL and time travel isn't feasible either, and yet many good books have been written around these concepts. Obviously, one's enjoyment of the book will depend on what the individual reader can tolerate. So: I liked this to a point, but I'm not gung-ho about it.
Apr. 14th, 2017 12:00 pm

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Apr. 12th, 2017 12:00 pm

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Apr. 11th, 2017 12:00 pm

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  • Mon, 18:00: RT @ananavarro: Landed safely in DC. Grateful to @AmericanAir flight crew for not giving me a bloody lip, knocking me unconscious & draggin…
  • Mon, 18:03: Jeezus. President Littlehands isn't going to attempt to pass policy. He's just going to bomb Middle East countries. Ass. #maddow #uniteblue
  • Mon, 18:40: RT @Karnythia: Surrendering your civil rights starts with logic like this kids. You should not expect to be beaten for refusing to voluntee…
  • Tue, 11:15: 📷 aaknopf: This past fall saw the publication of Marie Ponsot’s wide-ranging and full-hearted Collected... https://t.co/OrCh8pHsDm
  • Tue, 11:19: Today’s poem for National Poetry Month is really nice. I guess I just like the metered poems--sonnets,... https://t.co/mXOlSw4nxK
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Apr. 10th, 2017 12:00 pm

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Apr. 8th, 2017 12:00 pm

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Apr. 7th, 2017 12:00 pm

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Ms. Marvel, Vol. 6 by G. Willow Wilson

4 of 5 stars

This volume of Ms. Marvel is apparently G. Willow Wilson being dragged kicking and screaming into Marvel's misbegotten Civil War II. Everything I've heard about this "event" makes me more disinclined to read it. Having said that, Wilson manages to wrangle the beast into some semblance of coherency, by sticking as much as she could to her own characters and storyline. These include the issues bookending the Civil War sections, with Kamala meeting Spiderman Miles Morales at a Jersey City science fair (complete with kooky Marvel-universe physics) and Kamala returning to Pakistan to visit her family, regroup and figure out what she wants to do with her life. She makes some bad decisions in this volume by (temporarily) siding with Captain Marvel Carol Danvers and her misguided foray into "predictive justice," and the fallout for those decisions will presumably be the series' focus going forward.

This is a bit of a mess, and it's not really Wilson's fault, which is why I have given it four stars. She explores the moral question of Civil War II by bringing down to a very personal level for Kamala, and mostly succeeds. The basic conflict of Kamala's life--her family and personal identity versus her superhero identity--has never been more evident. There are several small, poignant character touches that save the story, and the closing issue in Pakistan is very good. I wish we could see Kamala visit Pakistan more often. (And meet up with the local superhero the Red Dagger, who I'm fairly confident is Kamala's "friend-in-law" Kareem.) The volume ends with Kamala returning to Jersey City with a renewed determination to protect her city and its people, and an acknowledgment of the awesome, crushing responsibility she must shoulder. Hopefully we will leave Civil War II behind in the next volume, and if we do, things have been set up for some impressive storylines in the future.
_____

Apr. 6th, 2017 12:00 pm

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May 2017

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Words To Live By

Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of a job: it’s always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins. ~Neil Gaiman

Of course I am not worried about intimidating men. The type of man who will be intimidated by me is exactly the type of man I have no interest in. ~Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The road to hell is paved with adverbs. ~Stephen King

The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read. ~Mark Twain

I feel free and strong. If I were not a reader of books I could not feel this way. ~Walter Tevis

A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one. ~George R.R. Martin

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