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Lotus Blue by Cat Sparks

5 of 5 stars

For me, worldbuilding is the most important part of a good SFF novel, followed closely by characterization. A rip-roaring story is also a good thing, but if the first two elements are done well enough, I can forgive a slower pace or a more deliberate plot. That doesn't happen with this book, happily: Cat Sparks has the first two in spades, and the fact that we also have a rip-roaring story is the cherry on top.

This is a far-future science fiction saga, in a post-apocalyptic, post-climate-change Australia. The seas have risen, massive areas have turned to desert, and the remnants of humanity are subsisting on the "Sand Road," where caravans of scavenged tech travel to shantytowns built on, and with, the ruins of more tech. There were great wars in the past, and armies of genetically-engineered cyborgs and "mechabeasts" (artificially intelligent, half biological and half metal tankers that ride the desert like schools of fish--or maybe killer whales--and play an important role in the story), and all sorts of hidden bunkers and underground factories and cities. There is also a forgotten, uploaded, batshit crazy general called the Lotus Blue, who, after untold centuries, is waking up.

There are a great many viewpoint characters here, which normally tends to put me off. I would rather concentrate on just a few people, or one. However, the author is firmly in control of her story at all times, and as I progressed through the chapters I could see the threads that would eventually braid everything together. Sparks pays attention to the need for development for each of these characters, and the two who eventually emerge as co-protagonists--Star the Sand Road girl who longs for a better life and Tully Grieve the con artist and thief, who gets dragged into a bad situation and finds it within himself to be a better human being--get satisfying arcs. The story for these particular people is more or less wrapped up, but the door is also left open for a sequel.

This is a damn good story, and I would love to see more tales in this universe. Recommended.
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The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley

5 of 5 stars

This is my first really good book of 2017. I pre-ordered it sight unseen, and it's quintessential Kameron Hurley: messy, gory and brutal, full of unlikable characters and hard choices.

The worldbuilding stands out with this one, however. The Legion is a swarm of living biological worldships orbiting an artificial sun, and the "humans" (and I use the term loosely, as they're clearly not Earth humans; furthermore, they've evolved in tandem with the worldships) in this book inhabit these worlds like intestinal bacteria, or maybe parasites. Our two protagonists, Zan and Jayd, are both unreliable narrators. Zan because she has amnesia, a groan-inducing trope that turns out to have very important plot reasons, and Jayd because she holds her cards so close to the vest, and is playing such a deeply layered game, the reader is never sure if Jayd herself knows what she is supposed to be doing. Zan and Jayd are part of an ongoing battle for control of the Legion, a generations-long war that is about to come to an end, one way or another. The worlds of the Legion are dying, and the fabled ship the Mokshi, which Zan has been told she repeatedly tries to board, repeatedly fails, and returns with her memories stripped from her each time, holds the key to the Legion's survival.

The book is divided into three sections. The middle section is the longest, and is the torturous story of Zan's journey through the guts of the worldship Katazyrna. This is where the worldbuilding gets down to the blood and guts and slime; there are some deeply disturbing things to be found here, and this part of the book is not for the fainthearted. Yet all this, no matter how nasty it is, is necessary. The people Zan meets on her journey to the upper levels of Katazyrna, and the choices she makes to get her little band to their destination, change Zan in profound ways. This character arc comes to its fruition in the final section of the book, when the truth of Zan's previous life, and her journey, is revealed. The final choice she makes tears herself free of the endless loop she had been trapped in, and sets her newly rebirthed worldship on the path free of the Legion.

This is supposedly a standalone book, but I hope Hurley writes more stories in this universe. I would love to know, at a minimum, how the Legion was built and who built it. Still, we do have this book, and it is fan-freaking-tastic.
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The Vision, Volume 1 by Tom   King

5 of 5 stars

This is one of the best graphic novels I have read this year. I'm not going to write a separate review of the second volume, Little Better Than a Beast, as the two tell one complete story and should be taken together. 
 
This is the story of the Vision, the "synthezoid" (Marvel's version of an android) created by the villain Ultron, and his attempts to live a normal human life with a family. Needless to say, this does not work out. I'm tempted to compare his journey to the story of Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, but this is a far darker tale, with extensive quotations (and volume titles) from The Merchant of Venice to drive home the point that this is, and will be, a Shakespearean tragedy. I realized this about halfway through Vol. 1, but that didn't stop me from reading. This may be a tragedy, but it is a fantastic one, with explorations of what it means to be human, whether an artificial being can ever reach such heights, and whether, in the end, any of it matters. 
 
The structure is a little different in that there is an omniscient narrator, the identity of which is revealed at the end of the first volume. The Avengers don't come off too well in this story (well, we know Tony Stark is an asshole, but here he's rather more assholish than usual), and were I the Vision, I would tell them to leave me the fuck alone from here on out. Which is the beauty of this story, in Volume 1 and (especially) Volume 2: even though the Vision ends up doing some terrible things, the reader understands perfectly why he does them; and this reader, at least, considered whether or not she might do the exact same thing in the given circumstances. 
 
The art, by Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Jordan Bellaire, is very good, perfectly complementing the story. On the last page of Volume 2, there is a bit of (gasp) shall we say hope? for the future, a small glow of light in contrast to this story's darkness. This is a thoroughly adult graphic novel, and should not be missed.
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Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Vol. 1 by Amy Reeder

2 of 5 stars

This was...okay. I prefer graphic novels with more mature storylines, which you can have even when your protagonist is a 9-year-old girl, as in this case. The last third of the story, when our hero Lunella Lafayette takes off on her own to hunt down the bad guys, is the strongest. Lunella is a nicely rounded character, with believable motivations and fears, and I think if she was just a little bit older this would be a better comic. As it is, she's cute without being twee or cutesy, which is good, but this simply doesn't have the depth it needs to be memorable. 
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The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison

3 of 5 stars

I really wavered about how many stars to give this. I liked it, but it has its issues, and there is a great deal of handwavium inherent in the premise. This is also one of the grimmest books I have ever read, on a par with Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (if nowhere near that book's quality).

Needless to say, All The Triggers applies. Rape, child rape, abuse, violence and extreme misogyny are found here.

This is a near-extinction-of-humanity and death-of-civilization tale, with a virus so virulent it kills 98% of men and more than 99% of women, including all pregnant women. Which is the first of my objections to the worldbuilding--the world's most lethal viruses, such as Ebola, simply do not work that way. Ebola kills something like 90% of its victims, but this occurs over a time frame of weeks and months. The virus here seems to strike the entire world population simultaneously, which is ridiculous. (Unless it was a genetically engineered organism, tailored specifically to humans, introduced years beforehand, and programmed to turn lethal in response to a specific trigger. Something like David R. Palmer's Emergence, which handles this scenario a helluva lot better.) Also, the Unnamed Midwife who is the book's protagonist--she never gives her true name, but goes by various aliases, mostly male, throughout the book--wakes up after who knows how long in a comalike state (somehow without starving to death or dying of thirst, which also bugged me) to find everyone else gone and San Francisco deserted. (And where, pray tell, are all the rotting bodies and feral dogs?)

But put all that aside, if you can, because that was just the pseudo-science to jumpstart the plot. The author's concerns are what happens to humanity after it all but dies out, and what she and the Unnamed Midwife sees isn't pretty. Specifically, men revert to brutish animals and make all remaining women their slaves.

I said "extreme misogyny" in reference to triggers, but it seems to me there is a lot of hatred of men in this story's subtext, thinking that nearly all men would act like this. Or, hell, hatred of humanity in general, that we would automatically revert to knuckle-dragging barbarians in such an event. To be sure, some of us would. But I'm sure that many more men AND women would band together in the hard work of changing to a non-technological, agrarian society (which is what would have to happen) while preserving as much old world technology as is feasible. (For instance, rounding up herd animals, building greenhouses, scavenging as many medical supplies/canned goods as possible, and also constructing windmills/gathering solar panels for power/etc etc etc. Jeezus. I just threw that out in fifteen seconds, and already I've got a much more hopeful scenario than this book.)

I think the reason the author goes with such a grimdark storyline is that the society she envisions coming after, which is established in the prologue and epilogue as a framing device, is so different from our own. For instance, instead of a two-person marriage as the basic unit of society, there are polyamorous "hives" (specifically, one women with two or more men), and women are separating into two different castes, Mothers and Midwives. (Hopefully this is expanded upon more in the sequel, The Book of Etta.)

In the meantime, this storyline is somewhat equivalent to a drive-by car wreck--it's horrific, but you can't take your eyes off it. Meg Elison is a good writer, with sharp pacing, nice characterization, and a good ear for dialogue. I just wish she'd given more thought to her worldbuilding, because that leaves a lot to be desired. 
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redheadedfemme: (one more chapter)
Revenger by Alastair Reynolds

5 of 5 stars

I've heard this book called "young adult," and the first thing I'd like to say is that it most definitely is not. Yes, the protagonists, sisters Adrana and Arafura Ness, are eighteen and seventeen respectively. That does not matter. This book is too dark, and its first-person narrator far too ruthless, to qualify for the young-adult designation, at least as far as I'm concerned.

What this is is a far-future space opera, of pirates and creepy aliens and ancient skulls, of a solar system (possibly ours) where the planets seem to be smashed into rubble, and the human race has built tens of thousands of habitats out of that rubble. Built them over and over again, as a matter of fact, because we're on the Thirteenth Occupation (now known as the "Congregation"), and the history of the Occupations stretches millions of years into the past. The past is the driving engine of the story, as ships search "baubles" for tech and/or artifacts no one can now understand or duplicate, and one never knows if that tech will make you rich or drive you insane. This idea has obvious parallels with Andre Norton's "Forerunners," which are some of my favorite books of all time.

This is some marvelous worldbuilding (and very artfully done, with nary an infodump to be found), and I hope the author writes more books in this universe, whether or not he continues the story of the Ness sisters. But this book is the tale of Adrana and Arafura Ness, who sign on to a "sunjammer" (a ship riding the solar wind on giant sails that visits the baubles as they open, to scavenge the loot sealed inside) in an attempt to help their father, who just lost all the family's money. They are qualified to be "bone readers," linking to the giant alien skulls on the sunjammers that serve as long-range communications devices. (These are also creepy as heck, with the implications that for all there is no brain tissue left inside, they aren't...really....dead.) However, on their very first voyage they run into the pirate Bosa Sennen, who kills nearly the entire crew and takes Adrana hostage on her ship.

This starts the story, and a dark and bloody one it is. Arafura changes from a naive young girl to an obsessed and ruthless woman, and if in the end she finds her sister and kills Bosa Sennen, her triumph comes at a very high price. To hunt a monster, she basically becomes one. The last few pages of the story shows she realizes this, and if there is a sequel, I hope the consequences of what she's done are dealt with. (I also hope the second book is told from Adrana's viewpoint.) There is so much more that could be done with this universe and characters, and so many questions that deserve answers. 
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redheadedfemme: (kiss my ass)
Asking for It by Kate Harding

4 of 5 stars

Yes, I sometimes read something other than SFF. I'm very glad I read this. I'm sad and angry, however, that it still needed to be written at all, that the idiotic rape myths summed up by this book's title still have such a hold on our culture.

Never fear though, as Kate Harding blows said myths out of the water. Just as an example (from p. 24):

Myth: She asked for it.
Fact: It is literally impossible to ask for rape. Rape, by definition, is sex you did not ask for. So either you mean that a woman who dresses a certain way, or flirts, or otherwise expresses her sexuality on her own terms somehow deserves to be raped--which would make you a monster--or you are wrong, and she was not asking for it.

Myth: He didn't mean to. 
Fact: Rapists like to rape. Most of them do it more than once. In "Understanding the Predatory Nature of Sexual Violence," David Lisak cites a study in which 120 college men admitted to a total of 483 acts that met the legal definition of rape. Forty-four of those were one-off crimes. The other 439 rapes were committed by 76 serial rapists, who "had also committed more than 1,000 other crimes of violence, from non-penetrating acts of sexual assault, to physical and sexual abuse of children, to battery of domestic partners." Rape is not an accident.

For those who might sputter, "Butbutbut women lie," Harding also takes an entire chapter to discuss the problem of false accusations, dissecting the cases of Crystal Mangum, Tawana Brawley, and the Central Park Jogger. As she points out, however, according to the best available evidence, between 2 and 8 percent of rape accusations are false. My thought upon reading that was, even if we stretch skepticism to the breaking point and round that figure up to 10 percent, that still means ninety percent of reports are true. So, you know, if a woman says she was raped, the odds are she should be believed until, and unless, the evidence proves her wrong.

(This has nothing to do with the legal standard of "innocent until proven guilty," by the way. One can acknowledge a rape most likely occurred while simultaneously recognizing the challenge and necessity of gathering evidence, and prosecuting a case against, a specific person.)

This is in some ways a depressing, but I think an important book. I'd like to see it used in classrooms, especially when it comes to teaching teenagers about rape myths, rape culture, and consent.
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Black Panther by Ta-Nehisi Coates

3 of 5 stars

Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of the best writers working today. His non-fiction articles for The Atlantic are usually excellent, and in many cases (particularly "The Case for Reparations" and "My President Was Black") they are, or should be, required reading for anyone interested in the complex nature of race relations in the United States.

But as good a writer as Coates is, writing a comic book series is a whole different ballgame.

That isn't to say this first volume of Black Panther is a failure. Or, if it is, it is a very interesting and ambitious failure. I would describe it as more of an extended, and necessary, learning curve. Coates clearly has some great things planned for his characters and the country of Wakanda (which is a character in its own right), and I am willing to stick around and see what happens.

This volume is bursting with potential. The main character of T'Challa is introduced, a king who has lost his way, along with what seem to be his three main antagonists--Zenzi, the Deceiver who is fomenting revolution, and Aneka and Ayo, the renegade Dora Milaje (T'Challa's elite female warrior bodyguards). All three villains have logical motivations; they are, as good villains must be, heroes of their own story.

Unfortunately there is precious little in the way of a plot to be found here--it seems more or less one giant setup, and a rather meandering, disjointed one at that. I enjoyed the introduction of the characters, the exploration of the country itself (there's a map provided, and we visit several different locations), the various villain backstories, and some small side tales of Wakandan myths and legends. The art is bright and colorful for the most part, well suited to the various vignettes--which is all they are. They're not a cohesive story, which is this volume's greatest weakness.

Having said all that, the groundwork has been laid. If Coates can come up with a good story to match his appealing world, he'll have a winner on his hands. 
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Rat Queens, Vol. 3 by Kurtis J. Wiebe

4 of 5 stars

This is one of my favorite comic book series. I realize there is a bit of controversy about the original artist that I'm not going to get into. There's a new artist and colorist for this collection, and the artist, Tess Fowler, measures up fairly well, I think. (Although she does have a propensity for drawing outrageous breasts and buttocks, and the cover in particular is a teenage-male-gaze T&A fest. Come on. Betty the Smidgen was my favorite character previously, and all the more so here because she doesn't have bountiful cleavage and enormous knockers.)

This volume concentrates on the half-demon Hannah Vizari, and the Mage University she flunked out of (and, we find out, committed rather bloodier deeds during her stay there). Violet the dwarf is a bit neglected, but the human Dee and Betty--whose real name is Petunia Harvestchild; I'd go by "Betty" too--have their own substantial and funny storylines respectively. (Also, Violet and Betty should be paired more often. Their banter is delightful.) But the star of this show is Hannah. A great deal is revealed about her past, and the story ends at a very dark place: Hannah is embracing her demon side, and the Queens have broken up.

I don't at this time know if the series is going to continue. I hope it does, to resolve this cliffhanger if nothing else. (There is also an interesting little extra at the back, the story of Broog/Braga the orc. Although this one doesn't make a lick of sense artistically; Broog is definitely drawn as a male in the beginning, and at the end he becomes Braga, the daughter of an orc chieftain, with the aforementioned unfortunate huge breasts and no explanation. I know it may sound like I'm harping on this, but it gets tiresome, you know? Not all human females are double-Ds, and fictional women shouldn't be either. Especially when such large breasts would get in the way of their sword-wielding. Maybe some of these artists should investigate the original Amazon myth of the breast corresponding to their sword hand being amputated.) I think there is still a great deal that can be done with these characters, and I hope they'll be given a chance. 
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Lumberjanes, Vol. 4 by Shannon Watters

4 of 5 stars

This is the best Lumberjanes volume I have read to date. (I missed no. #3, which was apparently not up to snuff.) This collection benefited greatly from the tighter, more adult storyline, involving the camp director, Rosie, the camp counselor, Jen, and a blast from Rosie's past named Abigail. The past-storyline panels are done in muted sepia colors, in contrast to the bright regular colors of the main panels. This effect is pretty cool.

(Also, whoever wrote the little intros to each comic in the collection, the ostensible first page to different sections in the Lumberjane Field Manual, was quite clever. It's worth your while to read each of these, as they, along with the various badges they are talking about, tie in with the story.)

In this collection, we get some welcome backstory on Rosie and the Lumberjanes organization in general, and one of the characters is revealed to be trans. The last page ends on a cliffhanger: our Lumberjanes think weeks have passed, but Jo's dads tell her it's only been two or three days. This sets things up very nicely for the next collection. All in all, this is well worth your time.
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Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine

5 of 5 stars

I think David D. Levine has invented an entire new subgenre with this book. I'm calling it "Pulp Steampunk Regency." Pulp because it harkens back to the sort of rip-roaring adventure that was first promulgated by Jules Verne; Steampunk because of airships and automatons; and Regency because the book is set in the England (and Mars) of 1813, with all the retrograde views of women, people of color (and, as it turns out, aliens) that the time period entails.

But whatever you want to call it, it's a helluva rocket (or rather airship) ride. To modern eyes, of course, the "science" is complete nonsense. There are no "swamps of Venus" or a breathable atmosphere on Mars, much less an atmosphere (and soil) that allows for the growth of forests. There is no "intraplanetary atmosphere," or an ocean of air between the planets themselves that replaces hard vacuum and permits airship travel to Mars, Venus and presumably other planets in the solar system. But this is no more ridiculous than the FTL drives that have been a mainstay of SF for nigh on to forever. I can forgive a lot of things if a world and its rules are well thought out and the characters are engaging. This book qualifies on both counts.

Our protagonist Arabella Ashby undergoes quite a bit of personal growth over the course of this story. She learns her own strength, both physical and mental, and though at the end she is forced to marry to assure the succession of her family's Martian estate (because the British Empire of 1813 encompasses all the settled planets, apparently), her husband-to-be turns the formula on its head by being a person of color. The author actually handles the racism/sexism/classism elements of the time period pretty well, all things considered. This is a book that sneaks up on you--the further along I read, the more I liked it. (And Levine's airships are much better than some, for instance Jim Butcher's.)

This particular storyline is wrapped up by the end, but a few lingering questions assure a sequel. I'm looking forward to it. 
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The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

4 of 5 stars

This is yet another re-imagining of H.P. Lovecraft's oeuvre, in this case "The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath." Not having read the original, I'm sure I didn't pick up on many of Kij Johnson's references, but this lack did not impede my thoroughly enjoying this story. Starting with the main character: 55-year-old Vellitt Boe, a professor at a women's college in the "dreamlands," a world where capricious gods slumber and destroy, nature is in a perpetual state of upheaval, and physics as we know it does not exist.

Can you imagine that? A middle-aged woman, not relegated to invisibility, in charge of her own story? Sign me up.

It soon becomes apparent that although Vellitt's quest is important (she's pursuing a young student who ran off with a man from the "waking world," in fear that said student's father will shut down the Ulthar Women's College, one of the few opportunities available for women of the dreamlands), the journey itself is the point. Vellitt walks endless miles through nasty underground caverns, meets with and fights all sorts of dangerous creatures, and eventually ascends to the "waking" (e.g., our) world. (For much of this journey she is accompanied by a small black cat--which does not die. TAKE NOTE, JOE HILL!!!) Along the way, we are given considerable insight into the far-traveling young woman she once was, and how she is determined to be, as she puts it, more than a "footnote to a man's story." The only complaint I have about this story, and it's a minor quibble, is the abruptness of the ending. This storyline is wrapped up, but I would very much like to know what Vellitt does next. 
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Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw

3 of 5 stars

This is another of the recent crop of Lovecraftian Mythos updates, this one set in London and starring (if indirectly) Shub-Niggurath. It's a taut, fast-paced novella about a hard-boiled detective who is hired by a kid to kill his stepfather. Needless to say, the detective gets more than he bargained for.

Cassandra Khaw is a fine writer. Her pacing is good, she creates the atmosphere of this story very well, and she has a knack for unusual metaphors and similes. For instance:

Croyden's a funny place these days. I remember when it was harder, when it was chiselers and punks, knife-toting teenagers and families too poor to make it anywhere else in grand old London, when this body was just acres of hurt and heroin, waiting to stop breathing. Now Croyden's split down the middle, middle-class living digging its tentacles into the veins of the borough, spawning suits and skyscrapers and fast foot joints every which way. In a few years, it'll just be another haunt for the butter-and-egg men. No room for the damned.


Of course, this being the Lovecraftian Mythos, the aforementioned tentacles figure prominently, along with eyes, blood and gore. However, Khaw practices admirable restraint along those lines--I've read far worse. The only thing that rubs me the wrong way is the casual misogyny of John Persons, our human/not human detective. This fits in with the noir tropes, but I still didn't like it.

All in all, this is not the best novella I've read this year, but Cassandra Khaw is a writer to watch. 
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redheadedfemme: (taking book)
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

2 of 5 stars

I almost feel guilty for giving this book only two stars, since it just won the National Book Award. But it goes to prove that no book is for everyone, and in this case, I have an apples-to-apples comparison to make: a book with a similar subject, storyline and treatment, Ben H. Winters' Underground Airlines. I reviewed it last year, and thought it was fantastic.

The main difference between the two is that Underground Airlines is a far more speculative story than The Underground Railroad. The former is an explicit alternate history; the latter has a whiff of fantasy elements, and not terribly believable ones at that. Colson Whitehead's Underground Railroad is an actual series of tunnels and tracks deep under the earth, where real locomotive engines run? How and where, pray tell, did they hide the cubic tons of earth that would have to be excavated to accomplish this feat? How could they have disguised all the workers, equipment, and noise while the tunnels were being dug, and what about the inevitable collapses and construction accidents? I mean, I like my SFF as much as anyone, and a good deal more than some, but as far as I'm concerned your story has to make some internally consistent sense. 
 
(And yes, I'm sure a historian and economist could tell me all the things wrong with the premise of Underground Airlines. That may be so, but Ben H. Winters' story makes sense on its own terms, and doesn't have such a huge logic disconnect jumping up and down and demanding the reader's attention.)
 
Secondly, for a book that just won such a prestigious award, the prose here is...pedestrian at best. The writing is terse and dull, and never sang, at least for me. The characters don't seem to be terribly deep, and Cora, the protagonist, was not relatable for me at all. I didn't particularly like her, but I can't think of another character I wanted to step up and take on the main role, which is a sure sign (or should be) that your characterizations aren't working. 
 
The ending is the final problem...which is to say, there isn't one, certainly not in any sense of closure or satisfaction. The story just peters out, and one never knows if Cora finally reaches a place where she won't be betrayed and recaptured yet again, or if her slave catcher has finally gotten his comeuppance. After I turned the last page, I decided I didn't care that much, which is the kiss of death for any book. On the other hand, I cared about the characters in Underground Airlines.
 
Your mileage may vary, of course, but as far as I'm concerned Ben H. Winters' book is superior in every way to this one. It would definitely be the one I'd choose if they were placed side by side. 
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redheadedfemme: (powerpuff 2)
A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson

1 of 5 stars

I bought this book on the recommendation of several people I know online, whose tastes generally seem to mirror mine. Their reviews were good, so I thought I'd give this unknown-to-me author a chance.

Unfortunately, the truism that "tastes differ" was confirmed once again, as I did not like this.

For one thing, the writing was far too frothy and artsy-fartsy to suit me. I haven't read any of the author's other work, so I don't know if this is his general style or an affliction of this story, but either way it didn't set well. Second, this starts out as a fairly generic fantasy, but about halfway through there is a sudden introduction of "gods," complete with psionics, Discorporate Intelligences (i.e. uploaded minds, it sounds like), holograms, hints of a terraformed planet, and highly technological dialogue. It's a clumsy, jammed-in retrofit, and it doesn't fit with the rest of the story at all.

Next problem: I did not like the main character. Aqib is a vain, arrogant little peacock who grated on me to no end, and frankly, his lover Lucrio could have done a lot better. But Lucrio made no great impression on me either; the best character in the book is Aqib's daughter Lucretia. However, this brings me to the third and biggest problem...

oh for frak's sake )

I'll donate this book to the library, or something. Someone is bound to enjoy it. I did not.
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Runtime by S.B. Divya

3 of 5 stars

This is another of Tor's novella line. I must tip my hat to whoever is overseeing this, because each of these stories I have read so far is a perfect representation of its length and purpose. This story is a fine example of something with more worldbuilding and characterization than can be stuffed into a short story, but is a bit too light on plot for a full-fledged novel. But the novella length suits it very well.

In a near-future America with a rigid caste system, Marmeg Guinto is running in a grueling cross-country race, the Minerva Sierra Challenge. She is trying to win or place well to be able to afford the higher education that will gain a better life for her and her family. In this particular cyberpunk-ish future, her equipment includes exoskeletons and implanted computer chips, and teenage Marmeg is a coding genius. Spoiler: she doesn't win the race because of a technical disqualification, but the actions she takes during her attempt (saving another contestant from a rockslide) leads to her attaining her goal, and granting her a chance to get away from her overbearing mother.

All well and good. The writing is crisp and punchy, and the pacing is brisk. However, I didn't really connect with the characters. Honestly, the worldbuilding interested me more than the story itself. I would like to read another story in this world, with a real exploration of the caste system and the "licensing" procedure, and what that means for the unlicensed people. This story is a good introduction to the author's world, but I think she could do better with it. 
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The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley

5 of 5 stars

I've read some good novellas lately, but this one is, in a word, fantastic.

It is very British though. That is, the prose is lovely and precise and languid, and the narrative is slow and restrained, until that moment, not too far along (at least that's what happened to me) when you realize you've been thoroughly pulled in, and you can't put the book down.

This is a story of fate, and power, and a heroine who realizes, as stated in the book's final paragraphs:

His presence gives me an optimism I have not felt in months. I will find the other rocks, and I will smash them all. I will wage war against those that deem me, and others like me, unimportant.

I will fight to make this world a better one. 

The protagonist, one Shirley Fearn, does not start out like this. This book's setting is just after the Great War (World War I) and the Spanish influenza. The year is not named, but as best as I can figure out it is in May of 1919. In the beginning, Shirley is a lovestruck seventeen-year-old, infatuated with her teacher, one Mr Tiller. She dreams of attending school in the next village, becoming a teacher herself, and returning to her home village to marry Mr Tiller. The journey from who she is at the beginning of the story to the firebrand she becomes at the end is fascinating in and of itself, but the impetus behind this journey makes the book unforgettable.

But most of all, this is a story of perception. One of the most important plot twists takes place near the end, when we view an event through Shirley's eyes that has previously been described by Mr Tiller. This event motivates Mr Tiller throughout the book, and leads to a murderous decision of his own. But when Shirley sees what Mr Tiller has seen, she notices something that turns the entire narrative inside out. This sneaks up on the reader on soft little cat feet, but when you realize what it means for the story...it's breathtakingly well done.

This should be on all the awards ballots this year. It's just that good.
_____

redheadedfemme: (Default)
Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

4 of 5 stars

I checked this book out from the library after seeing the terrific movie Arrival, based on the story that is the centerpiece of this collection, "Story of Your Life." Before this, the only exposure I'd had to Ted Chiang's work is the marvelous little story "The Great Silence," published in 2015 in E-Flux Journal. (Which y'all should go read immediately, by the way. It'll put dust in your eyes.)

After reading "Story of Your Life," I tip my hat to the screenwriter of Arrival. I'm sure a great many people considered that story unfilmable, and I would have been among them. So much of it, as is the case with many of Chiang's stories, is interior monologue, and it's amazing to me how much of this story's thrust and tone managed to be translated to the screen. Film and prose are very different mediums, of course, and the movie added a couple of subplots that weren't in the story. Still, it is about the best adaptation we could have gotten.

For the most part, the stories in this collection ranged from very good to great. The standouts are "Story of Your Life" and "Hell Is the Absence of God," the latter being a sobering examination of what might happen if Hell, Heaven, and visitations from angels were actual things in our reality. This story has what to me is a dark twist indeed. The only story I wasn't terribly fond of is "Understand," the tale of a man rescued from a permanent vegetative state by the injection of an experimental drug that regenerates his damaged neurons. Unfortunately, in the usual way of there-are-some-things-humans-weren't-meant-to-know, this drug causes him to evolve into a sort of godlike superbeing, at least until he meets up with another of his kind who shuts him down. I'm just not into that sort of consciousness-gestalt-meta awareness narration (unless the author is Peter Watts and space vampires are included). That said, this is still a masterful story: Chiang is very much in control of his weird, twisty narrative, and I can appreciate it even though I didn't like it very much.

These stories are a cut above almost anything else you might read, and Ted Chiang is a writer's writer. You owe it to yourself to check him out.

_____

redheadedfemme: (Default)
Cold-Forged Flame by Marie Brennan

5 of 5 stars

This is one of Tor.com's new novella line. This particular story was 100 pages, and for an introduction this format was perfect. Sometimes a book doesn't need to be doorstop size to make its point.

Speaking of "perfect," look at this opening paragraph.

The sound of the horn pierces the apeiron, shattering the stillness of that realm. Its clarion call creates ripples, substance, something more. It is a summons, a command. There is will. There is need.

And so, in reply, there is a woman.


Now that, my friends, is a hook, and the author reeled me right on in. The writing is smooth as silk, with not a word wasted, and the pacing was excellent. Due to the book's length, there aren't that many characters, but the people we do meet are vividly drawn. This nameless woman is prickly, sarcastic, and stubborn, and she never gives up. She doesn't know who she is, or how she has been summoned, or why she has been set to a task against her will. This is the story of her task and how she completes it, and what she finds out about herself along the way. It's a story of memory and identity, what you are willing to give up and what you fight to keep.

(One oddity I noticed in reading the other Goodreads reviews--a couple of people mentioned this story is told in first person. It is not. It is third person, present tense, with a tight focus on its protagonist. I guess the POV is so tight it fooled a few people into thinking it's first person, but it isn't.)

I would love to find out more about this world. We're given just enough details to whet the appetite (and I've already pre-ordered the sequel, due out in a few months). Hopefully the next volume will do this. 

 
redheadedfemme: (Default)
Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

5 of 5 stars

I haven't read a musician's autobiography in a long time, after I struggled to get through Keith Richards' Life and had to give up on it. I've glanced at a couple since then, but they all seemed to follow the same boring trajectory: fame, fortune, sex and drugs, the latter of which led to a complete bottoming-out, followed by a torturous climb back to sobriety and sanity.

Fortunately, Bruce Springsteen's memoir isn't like that at all.

For one thing, the man can write. (Of course, since he's been writing songs for nearly fifty years, you would automatically think so, but lyrics, which have to rhyme and scan, are very different than prose. Maybe that's why most of this book's chapters are so short--they're mini songs.) I don't know how he'd do with fiction, but the prose in this book is excellent. His voice is sharp, wry, funny, and brutally honest. The heart of this book is his complicated relationship with his father, which weaves through from beginning to end (though towards the end of Douglas Springsteen's life, father and son found some understanding and peace). Then there is Bruce's frank discussion of a life lived with depression, and the fact that he's been in therapy for decades, which obviously contributed to the insights about himself in these pages. I also appreciated that on some subjects (namely the sex part of the rock n'roll equation), he didn't let it all hang out--there's no salacious kissing and telling here, although he is forthright about the failure of his first marriage.

(But the stories about his second wife, Patti Scialfa, and his children, are some of the funniest and most heartwarming in the entire book. This is a bit of a long excerpt, but I just love this.

She also guided me when she thought I was falling short. For years, I'd kept musicians' hours, a midnight rambler; I'd rarely get to bed before four a.m. and often sleep to noon or beyond. In the early days, when the children were up at night, I found it easy to do my part in taking care of them. After dawn, Patti was on duty. Once they got older, the night shift became unnecessary and the burden tilted unfairly toward the morning hours.

Finally, one day she came to me as I lay in bed around noon and simply said, "You're gonna miss it."

I answered, "Miss what?"

She said, "The kids, the morning, it's the best time, it's when they need you the most. They're different in the morning than at any other time of the day and if you don't get up to see it, well then...you're gonna miss it."

The next morning, mumbling, grumbling, stolid faced, I rolled out of bed at seven a.m. and found my way downstairs. "What do I do?"

She looked at me and said, "Make the pancakes."

Make the pancakes? I'd never made anything but music my entire life. I...I...I...don't know how!

"Learn."


Patti Scialfa sounds like a woman who brooks no nonsense. I'd almost rather sit and talk with her than Bruce.)

Because we don't get the usual rock and roll cliches in these pages, this book has a rare depth. I particularly appreciated the stories of Bruce's political awakenings, encapsulated in the controversy over his song "American Skin (41 Shots)"--sadly prophetic indeed, in the age of Black Lives Matter. There are also fascinating insights about his songwriting; the themes he wanted to tackle with each album, what he wanted to say to his audience and how he constructed his songs to fit. This book is five hundred pages long, but it's well worth the read, whether you're a fan or not.

 

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Words To Live By

There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away. ~Emily Dickinson

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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