redheadedfemme: (cringeface)
The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis

3 of 5 stars

There were a couple of times when this book nearly met the wall, especially in the earlier chapters. One of the characters (unfortunately, the main POV character) is such a vain, obnoxious, sexist ass that he made the book very hard to read. That is my main knock against this book: why, when you have such a wonderful protagonist as Josette Dupre, the first female combat airship captain, would you choose to tell her story through the eyes of the entitled male "fop" who is actively working to bring her down? 
 
This seems to me to be wrong authorial decision. And while said "fop" does grow and change a bit through the book, and eventually comes to respect and support Josette, the entire narration of this novel just feels like a sadly missed opportunity. I would much rather have spent more time in Josette's head. What caused her to join the air corps, disguising herself as a man? What obstacles did she face to get to where she is? The topic of sexual harassment is notably glossed over in this book; one would think that should have been a major plot point, given the ongoing problems of integrating real-world armies. (Indeed, this book's supporting characters are poorly drawn and almost indistinguishable.) Instead, we have such irritating bits as Bernat's wanting Josette to "smile more" (AAARRGH! I hate that in real life, and I hate it more in my books). This just comes back to the fact that he is entirely the wrong viewpoint character for this book, and he almost sinks it. 
 
Why then, you may ask, did I give the book three stars? Because of the fast pace, the tightly and carefully ratcheting suspense, and the thrilling battle scenes. I don't know if the author has ever been in the armed forces, but she certainly seems to know her way around a battlefield. The gore and the muck, the tedium and terror of war, are fully explored. The technology of a combat airship is well thought out, and there are exciting scenes of battles in cloud banks, and Josette's airship Mistral running silent like a submarine. Once we get into the actual fighting, the book picks up, and I raced through it to the end. 
 
This doesn't take away the clumsily written characterization, however. Unless "the fop" is gotten rid of, or at the very least sidelined in favor of Josette Dupre taking center stage, I won't be picking up the sequel.
redheadedfemme: (sorry you suck)
Ms. Marvel, Vol. 7 by G. Willow Wilson



3 of 5 stars

Any long-running series will have volumes of lesser quality. I own nearly all the Ms. Marvel paperback collections, and the last two, Super Famous and Civil War II, have been right up there in terms of quality, the latter less so than the former. The natural cycle of good/bad would dictate that we were due for a (relative) stinker...and unfortunately, this is it. 
 
That's not to say that this collection is all bad. Parts of it were interesting (especially the finale with Bruno in Wakanda) but it doesn't hang together to produced a focused whole. The "internet virus" storyline, in the middle, was particularly ho-hum, at least to me. There were some good points about compassion, and being true to yourself and standing up to bullies. Zoe's and Nakia's little side story was touching. But the villain, the malignant computer virus who tried to blackmail Kamala, was definitely underwhelming, and the result was that the entire story seemed to be spinning its wheels. I missed seeing Kamala's parents and brother; I've always thought that family dynamic was one of the cornerstones of the series. 
 
(Also, can we get rid of the "secret identity" thing already? It's straining my suspension of disbelief to continue to assert that Kamala's friends and family don't know who she is. Bring it out in the open and deal with it. That would seem to be a far better source of stories than this was.) 
 
I liked seeing how Bruno was adjusting to his disability and his life in Wakanda, and I can only trumpet over and over: MORE MIKE!! She deserves to be a full-blown sidekick, as far as I'm concerned. Hopefully the next volume will pick things up again, as this one simply missed the mark.
redheadedfemme: (aliens won't talk to us)
Kindred by Damian Duffy

4 of 5 stars

This is the graphic novel version of Octavia E. Butler's masterpiece. I read Kindred (the book) years ago; I need to read it again, as in a lot of ways I didn't really understand it. But I'm glad I picked this up, as this version of the story, condensed to its soul-shattering essence, shows the depth of Butler's enormous talent.

This is a story of slavery and oppression, and the psychology of both. The science-fiction, time-travel aspect is the most hand-wavey part of it, and I've seen other reviewers complain about how the mechanisms of both fell flat. Ignore these people, as the point is whooshing at skyscraper-like heights over their heads. Octavia Butler was not the least bit concerned with the how of Dana's arrival in 1815 Maryland. Her razor-sharp focus is on the characters, and what happens to them afterwards, and how the systems and mindset that made enslaving other human beings possible left its dark, ugly mark on everyone involved, a mark which echoes through this country's history down to the present day.

This story is also an examination of violence and abuse. Since the original storyline has been stripped down to fit in the graphic novel format, one can readily see the steady escalation in each successive chapter. In the beginning, Rufus is an innocent child, parroting the white supremacist mindset of his elders without understanding it. But as he grows, and continues to drag Dana back in time to save him, one can see the poison of antebellum society taking hold, despite Dana's best efforts to get him to see his slaves as people, not property. His obsession with Alice (and with controlling the slaves in general, as he's now the "Massa" after his father's death), who he rapes and fathers several children with (echoes of Thomas Jefferson), marks the point of his being past redemption, although Dana doesn't see this until the very end. She's remembering the child she rescued. But when Rufus states his intention to make Dana his sexual slave just as he did Alice, she resorts to what is, at that point, her only way out (since in that time and place she obviously can't expect help from the law or society in general)--she kills him.

By that time, the reader--or at least this reader--can't help but see the homicide as justifiable.

No doubt many people will feel the print book portrayed all this better. And this is, after all, pretty much an apples to oranges comparison, as a graphic novel necessarily takes a quite different tack. As I was reading, I thought at first that I didn't care much for the artwork. But after finishing the book and thinking about it some more, I find the art is growing on me. It's bright and harsh, all sharp lines and sometimes ugly sepia tones, but that's appropriate to the ugly story Butler is telling. Let's put it this way: it's about the furthest you can get from Marvel or DC Comics.

This book is tough to read, but don't let that stop you. And mourn that such a monumental talent as Octavia E. Butler was taken from us so soon.  
redheadedfemme: (Default)
The Queen of Swords by R.S. Belcher

3 of 5 stars

I had a rough time rating this book. Parts of it I liked, and parts of it I didn't care for. That may be because it's the third book in the series and I haven't read the other two. Copious references are made to previous events, but the author does a nice job of summing them up, so I don't think that's the problem. This book has two main characters and two timelines, and it seems to me what I'm having trouble with is the fact that one character and timeline resonated for me, and the other simply did not. 
 
Well, let's start with the character/timeline that absolutely worked: Anne Bonney. I would LOVE more books about her. She was a real person, a female pirate in the 18th century, and as far as I can tell, the author pretty much stuck to the facts of her early life. The branch point into the author's alternate history and universe begins in 1721, when Anne goes on a quest for her last great treasure, and falls into a world of gods, magic and vaguely Lovecraftian monsters. This quest takes her into the heart of Africa, where she meets a priestess of an ancient society of women called the Daughters of Lilith, who are fighting another ancient society of monsters called the Sons of Typhon. This priestess, Raashida, convinces Anne she is destined to take on what is called Lilith's Load, and protect the world from the Sons of Typhon. Anne does this, and her bloodline now belongs to the Daughters.
 
(A lot of Anne's story takes place in Africa. Since the author is a white male, this is a rather sensitive and potentially problematic storyline. He seems to have done his research and handles the various tribal cultures and customs with respect, and also tackles the racism and colonialism of the era. But I don't know enough about the real history to comment.)
 
Cue a hundred and fifty years later, with Anne's multiple-greats granddaughter, Maude Stapleton. In one of the previous books, Maude released Typhon from his prison, and this comes back to bite her, big-time. As far as I was concerned, Maude's storyline bogged the book down, because it felt like the author was losing control of his world. As just one example, Anne Bonney is still around when Maude is a child, specifically nine years old and several years after that, since Anne is mentioned as having given Maude her initial training. Which would have made Anne Bonney about 140-150 years old? Of course this is a fantasy, and there's several hints given as to how this might have happened (ingesting the Blood of Lilith), but all the people who have no idea this underworld of gods and monsters exists go around ignoring the fact that they're talking about Maude's great-great-great-great-grandmother? Who was still alive till 20-odd years ago? Come on, people. 
 
Also, Maude is damn near as invulnerable as Superman (at least until she meets the Sons of Typhon), and there's no kryptonite to be found. Now, I like a badass female fighter as much as anyone, but the Daughters of Lilith take this rather over the top (their fighting techniques supposedly inspired all the martial arts in existence). There's also a convenient metaphysical place known as the Record which Maude discovers she can tap into (fifty years earlier than any other Daughter being able to do it), where she can converse with the spirits of the previous Daughters (and her own mother, apparently), and solve all her problems. I could go on, but you get the idea--it felt to me like the worldbuilding was coming apart, and my suspension of disbelief stretched to the breaking point. 
 
Which is sad, because Anne Bonney was wonderful. I would love reading the story of how she rescued the tree people and acquired her sentient warship, the Hecate. She was a realistic, flawed, human character. Unfortunately, at the end of the book we're left with Maude Stapleton teaching and nurturing the next generation of the Daughters of Lilith, and after her disappointing story in this book, I'm not inclined to go any further. 
redheadedfemme: (Default)
The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente

4 of 5 stars

In 1999, comics writer Gail Simone came up with "Women In Refrigerators," a comic book trope where female characters are injured or killed as a plot device to move the hero's story arc forward. I know she didn't expect Catherynne M. Valente to write a lovely little book about this idea eighteen years later, but this novella, or maybe short novel, both brings this repulsive idea to life and turns it inside out, to memorable effect.
 
I've been iffy about most things I've read from Valente so far. Sometimes her prose seems lush and lyrical, and simply purple and overwrought at other times. That is definitely not the case with this book: her writing here is tight and punchy, and the voices of the characters shine through. This is a series of six interlocking stories set in Valente's comic-book universe, where six (sometimes thinly disguised) wives and girlfriends of superheroes tell their stories. These women are all dead. Now they are members of the Hell Hath Club, and they meet in the Lethe Cafe in Deadtown to tell their stories, the deaths that provided fuel for the men left behind. As Valente puts it, in three scorching sentences that are the heart of this book:
 
I belong in the refrigerator. Because the truth is, I'm just food for a superhero. He'll eat up my death and get the energy he needs to become a legend.
 
(I'm trying to figure out which current or past characters these fictional women represent. Paige Embry seems to be Gwen Stacy, Spider-Man's dead girlfriend; in the second story, "The Heat Death of Julia Ash," by far the most unsettling story in the book, Julia Ash is apparently Jean Grey from the X-Men; Pauline Ketch, with her terrible dysfunctional relationship, is obviously Harley Quinn; Bayou is Mera, wife of Aquaman; Samantha Dane, in the last story in the book, is the stand-in for Alexandra Dewitt, the girlfriend of Green Lantern who was killed and stuffed in a refrigerator, thus starting this whole thing. The only one I'm not sure about is Daisy Green? From various comments I've read, her analogue is Karen Page, but I don't really know who that is.)
 
This is a powerful little book. It tears apart the idiotic "women in refrigerators" trope and shows it for the sad, sexist fail in storytelling it really is. (Yes, I know it's not restricted to superhero universes--vigilante tales often start with the deaths of the hero's wife and family to send him on a revenge quest to slaughter those responsible, although the recent film John Wick turned this on its head a bit by sending the retired assassin after the people who killed his puppy. Thus pointing out the stupidity of the entire idea.) It's the most tightly written story I've seen from Catherynne Valente, with the novella/short novel length being exactly right. It's well-thought-out and entertaining, but at the same time it gives you a lot to think about. Most likely you'll never look at a comic book story the same way again.
 
redheadedfemme: (Default)
The Art of Asking; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help



3 of 5 stars




This book constituted a break from my usual diet of SF and fantasy. I've never heard any of Amanda Palmer's music, or participated in her Kickstarters and Patreon, but I have followed her blog for years, after meeting her via Neil Gaiman (to whom she's married). This is a combination of a self-help book, an explanation of how she manages her free-for-all Internet business and musical presence, a discussion of Life and Art, and a memoir. The writing style is very freewheeling and stream-of-consciousness, so if you don't like that sort of thing, be warned.
 
For me, the book was most successful as a memoir: chronicling Palmer's marriage to Neil Gaiman and the illness of her dear friend and father figure, Anthony Martignetti. (Sadly, Martignetti has since died.) She reveals some pretty intimate details about her life and marriage, unusually so for a celebrity, but that is definitely Amanda Palmer--TMI is her middle name. Her writing has a coherence and an emotional punch in those sections that is not found, for the most part, in the more rambling sections about her music and art. That's not to say that the latter subjects are bad, just that they're not as interesting. The book does seem to get better and more focused as it goes along. 
 
All in all, this book was a pleasant enough diversion. It won't win any awards, but it's an engaging look at the life of one of the more unusual artists and musicians of our times. 
 
redheadedfemme: (reader thousand lives)
Abaddon's Gate by James S.A. Corey

4 of 5 stars

This is the third book in the Expanse series. I've been reading them haphazardly, due to availability issues at the library, and so missed book #2. I religiously watch the series, however, so I'm up-to-date on the overall storyline. 
 
(Having said that, if the third season of the TV series gets very far into this book, as I'm sure it will, it's going to be hellaciously expensive to film.)
 
In this book, at least for the first half, our familiar Rocinante characters don't make much of an appearance; three new POV characters are introduced. This was a bit of a drag at first, but the characterizations are done well enough that I came to care for all three new characters, even the sociopathic sister out for revenge. However, in this book the plot is very well done, the threads expertly braided to a slam-bang climax. The stakes are increased exponentially, and this is obviously a turning point for the series as a whole, greatly expanding the world and the potential for conflicts. 
 
(But damn, I miss Amos and Alex. And when are we going to get chapters from Naomi's point of view?)
 
This is a very solid entry in the series, and I can't wait to see the alien hub on the screen.
redheadedfemme: (read a book)
The Winter Long by Seanan McGuire

4 of 5 stars

This is the eighth book in the October Daye series. I actually skipped ahead to this one because I'd heard so much about it, and despite my not having read some of the previous books in the series, it doesn't disappoint. Seanan McGuire has a nice, flowing prose style, with little to no infodumping, and does very well at revealing only what you need to know at any given moment. This avoids slowing the story down, and inspires trust in the reader. You know the twists are coming, but in the meantime, you've got a bang-up story to enjoy. 
 
What's outstanding here, however, is the worldbuilding, the characterizations, and the relationships. The world of Faerie existing concurrently with our modern world is a staple in urban fantasy, to the point of become cliche, unfortunately. However, few urban fantasy writers dive as deep into Faerie as McGuire. (I would say the only author to match her is Laurell K. Hamilton, but Hamilton's Faerie is much more pornified.) Toby's world is rigorously thought out and explored, with all its implications and potential (and real) nastiness. (Such as the racism exhibited towards changelings, for example.) This is a world that has left a deep mark on its protagonist, a world where Toby has suffered and has the scars to prove it. 
 
Toby herself, as the central character, is just lovely. She's deeply loyal to her friends, and if in the past she had a habit of charging off half-cocked, she's making a conscious effort to slow down and think. She's also working on accepting help from other people, in particular her boyfriend Tybalt. The foundations of her relationships and family--both her blood family and her found one--are dragged into the open and examined here, and like everything to do with family, the results are sometimes messy. Not all hurts can heal, and not all things can be forgiven. All of these little ins and outs of the people in this book are fascinating, and (as so many people have said) the Luidaeg is a delight. She can scare the piss out of Toby, and does, but Toby loves her anyway, and does something for her that will obviously have major repercussions going forward. 
 
This book is smartly plotted and paced, and very satisfying. Urban fantasy, as a genre, is not as popular as it used to be, and for good reason: in past years, the market was glutted with it, and a great deal of it was not so great. (I know, as I read quite a lot myself.) But this series is superior, and definitely a keeper.
redheadedfemme: (sparkle dragon)
League of Dragons by Naomi Novik

3 of 5 stars

This is the final book in the long-running and mostly worthy series. I've heard it referred to as "Patrick O'Brien with dragons." It takes place on an alternate Earth where there is a second sentient species--dragons--and said dragons are drafted to engage in aerial warfare, long before the airplane is a mote in anyone's eye. (Indeed, one wonders if air travel will even be invented in this universe.) Napoleon Bonaparte plays a huge role in this series, and in this last book he is finally defeated and exiled to the island of St. Helena, which is what happened on "our" Earth.
 
It's been evident for the last few books that the author is better writing her draconic characters than her human ones, and that pattern continues here. There is a surprising amount of humor in this story, especially in the chapter where Temeraire and Iskierka are arguing over which of their men will marry the peasant girl. We are introduced to a new character, the dragonet of Iskierka and Temeraire, Ning, who is a tart-tongued delight. Laurence is dealt with a little better in this book than some; at least he's gotten to the point where he'll refuse unlawful orders and stand up for dragonkind. (He also retires from the aerial service at the end of this book, which frankly he should have done at the beginning when he saw how Temeraire and dragons in general were treated by the British.) The overall running theme of this story is the dragons' fight to be recognized and treated as sentient beings, and the book ends with Temeraire planning to run for one of the twenty seats set aside for dragons in Parliament. 
 
Having said that, there were some serious pacing and plot problems with this book. Especially in the second half, the author developed the annoying habit of leading up to an action scene, coming to the end of a chapter, and in the next chapter skipping right ahead in time and completely depriving the reader of exactly how our crew got out of their predicament. I don't know if she thought she needed to wrap the book up right now or what, but I would rather have had a fatter book and those scenes left in. This is particularly exasperating in the final showdown with Napoleon and Lien--are we to believe Lien, Temeraire's primary antagonist throughout the series, wouldn't put up a hell of a fight at the last? I don't remember any of the previous books doing this, and I wish she hadn't written the book like this. 
 
Overall, this is an engaging series, and I do own all the volumes. Just be aware that the quality tails off at the end.  
redheadedfemme: (wonder woman reading)
Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

4 of 5 stars

I'm a great fan of the TV series based on these books, The Expanse on SyFy. I watched the first two seasons without having read any of the books. Now that I'm getting into the books, I must admit it's been a bit of an education. I can see where this book's storyline was changed (although not all that much, fortunately) and compressed, and I applaud the producers' decision to bring in a character who actually isn't in the print series until the second book. The series has definitely captured the gritty, messy future described in this book, where humanity has spread within the solar system but still hasn't left behind its endless fighting. 
 
This series takes place about two hundred years in the future, when Mars, various moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and the asteroid belt have been settled, and Mars is in the process of being terraformed. The point is made that these new generations born and raised in space have already started to tweak human evolution, as Belters are taller and thinner than Earthborn humans, due to living in lower gravity. Mars is the golden child, with plenty of pretty military toys, technologically advanced; Earth is the aging mother, overcrowded (with a population of 30 billion--I cannot imagine this) but still supplying the colonies with food and air; and the Belt and its denizens are the orphans fighting to survive in the solar system's dregs. This tinderbox, and its very uneasy and delicate status quo, is upended by the discovery of an alien nanotech supervirus, launched at our solar system billions of years ago and kept from settling upon the infant Earth by a fortuitous accident (Saturn basically getting in the way). Unfortunately, an Earth corporation discovers this ancient invasion, and since Earth corporations are still assholes in search of endless profit even hundreds of years from now, it takes this virus (dubbed the "protomolecule") and promptly starts experimenting with it...on individuals and eventually a million and a half people inside a settled asteroid. 
 
Our two viewpoint characters in this system-spanning disaster are James Holden and Joe Miller, the XO of the ice freighter Canterbury and a cop working on the asteroid Ceres respectively. Holden is an idealistic do-gooder in way over his head, and Miller the weary, hard-bitten soul who is just trying to solve a mystery and gets dragged into a mess. Of the two, Miller was the better character to me; I wanted to slap Holden several times. This is a very long book (561 pages) but unlike the last doorstop I suffered through, the pacing was good and the story flowed nicely, and infodumps were kept to a minimum. (No pages upon pages explaining how the Epstein drive worked, for instance. It's there, it uses fuel pellets at extremely high efficiency, it enables travel at high enough gees that drugs are required to keep people from blowing their organs and blood vessels, and we go with it.)
 
I'm glad I watched the series first, as it made for an interesting comparison and I don't mind spoilers. This is a gritty, dirty, lived-in world, and the politics are as interesting as the protomolecule. It doesn't envision a particularly nice future humanity, with schisms and prejudices and tribalisms that endure beyond this planet and into the stars, but these many shades of gray make for fascinating reading.
redheadedfemme: (Default)
Death's End by Liu Cixin

1 of 5 stars

Oh, how the mighty have fallen, as least as far as I'm concerned.
 
The first book in this series, The Three-Body Problem, was released to considerable acclaim a few years ago, winning the Hugo Award for Best Novel. I didn't care much for it or the sequel, The Dark Forest, only giving them (barely) two stars each. Looking at those reviews now, I realize I was trying to be nice, for some incomprehensible reason. Well, that's enough of that. I have no problem saying that this book is a clunky, bloated, godawful mess. 
 
I do wonder if this might be due to the different culture and language. (This is not knocking the translator, by the way--Ken Liu, the translator for the first in the series and this book, has done a masterful job.) Liu Cixin is the equivalent of a rock star in China, far more famous than hard SF authors tend to be in the US. The most affecting part of any of the books is the first section of The Three-Body Problem, dealing with the Cultural Revolution. I believe the author is a great fan of Arthur C. Clarke, and some of the other Chinese SF I've read seems to be quaintly retro, written for an audience fifty years past. All this adds up to a great whopping doorstop of a book that not only sends the human race four hundred but billions of years into the future...and unfortunately, felt like it took every minute of the universe's seventeen-billion-year lifespan to read. 
 
Look, if you like your hard SF laden with physics to the point where it feels like a textbook--or maybe a dreadful, dull, droning lecture--instead of an actual novel; if you like books with characters that have no more life and personality than the flattened, two-dimensional state our solar system is reduced to (lovingly described in every excruciating detail over the course of 26 pages); if you like clunky prose that only comes to "life," such as it is, when the author is delving into yet another way-out-there theoretical scientific concept; if you like stories with such grimdark bleakness that there is no way out for the human race other than to sit in a mini-universe, outside the passage of time, until the main universe contracts and is reborn; then go for it with this book. I do not. This is by far the worst book of the series, and I am glad it has come to its end.

 
 
redheadedfemme: (St. Bastard)
Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch

2 of 5 stars

This is the first book in the "Rivers of London" series, and based on this one, I have no desire to dive into any of the others. I suppose you could summarize it as "Harry Potter grows up and becomes an irritating, sexist London constable," but that would create a far better main character than this smarmy little twit. 
 
(I do not like Peter Grant. Can I repeat how much I do not like Peter Grant?)
 
Having said that, what good exists in this book is the secondary characters (especially Peter's boss, the wizard Thomas Nightingale, who I really wish this book had focused on), the worldbuilding, and the city of London itself. London and its culture was as much a protagonist as Peter Grant, and a far more interesting one. There was a competent murder mystery/police procedural at this book's heart, if the damned main character would just get out of the way. 
 
Bah. Fortunately, it didn't take me long to read this book, as that's a few days of my life I'll never get back.
 
redheadedfemme: (Default)
Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold

4 of 5 stars

This is the first book I've read in the Vorkosigan Saga, and somehow it feels appropriate to be coming in on the tail end of the series. I'm meeting the characters for the first time in their maturity, and in some cases the twilight of their lives (although Cordelia, at seventy-six, says she will live to be at least a hundred and twenty). There is a great deal of history here. These characters have weight and depth, and Bujold does a tremendous job of showing this, mostly through dialogue, as Cordelia Vorkosigan, her son Miles, and Cordelia's former paramour Oliver Jole (with her now dead husband, Aral Vorkosigan), reconnect, reestablish old relationships, and begin new ones. 
 
This is a mature book, written by an adult for adults. There are themes of aging, acceptance, moving into a new period in one's life (retirement, which means something far different in this universe and to Cordelia; for one thing, due to uterine replicator technology, she is going to be starting a brand-new family at the age of seventy-six, using previously frozen eggs and sperm from herself and Aral), and reconciling the past with the future (mainly in the person of Miles, who had no idea of the nature of his father's poly marriage). Cordelia is the kind of woman I want to be when I grow up: completely at home in her own skin, content with her life, and needing no one. She is delighted by the new turn in her and Oliver Jole's relationship, but she will not go with him to what once was her home planet, Barrayar, if he takes an offered promotion there, and she is not shy about telling him so. (This conflict is resolved at the end of the book; Oliver turns down the promotion, retires from the military, and finds a new career and purpose of his own, with Cordelia on Sergyar.)
 
There's nothing earth-shattering in this book. The fate of Sergyar and Barrayar does not rest on Cordelia's decisions, and no one dies. (Aral died three years before, but Cordelia and Oliver talk about him so much, he's basically a third protagonist. This is all done in a healthy way, however, as the fond reminiscences the two principals have about someone who was vastly important to both of them, while they have nevertheless moved on with their lives.) The tone is quiet and restrained, but there is a great deal of wry humor, all character-based, and I laughed out loud several times. One passage in particular made me chuckle, when the truth about Cordelia and Oliver is finally revealed to her son (p. 214): 
 
Cordelia perked up in the hope that this might lead into some more personal revelations, but instead Oliver went off into an enthusiastic description of the Serena lake life as observed through the crystal canoe. The flash of self-forgetfulness brought his considerable charm to the fore, and Ekaterin [Miles' wife] smiled.

"But you can't be planning development out that way," said Miles. "Mother is trying to get people to move away from the local tectonics." 

Cordelia abandoned patience as unrewarding. "Actually, Oliver and I are dating."

Miles stared. The silence stretched just a little too long, though Ekaterin raised her eyebrows, looked back and forth between Cordelia and Jole, and ventured, "Congratulations!" Miles closed his mouth.

In another moment, he opened it again. "Er...what exactly do you mean by dating? In this context." 

"Screwing, dear," Cordelia replied, in her flattest Betan tones.
 
Cordelia Vorkosigan is a badass, and everyone in this book knows it. 
 
These are, by far, some of the most fully-realized characters I've read recently, and it was a pleasure to eavesdrop on these pivotal moments in their lives. Now I'll have to go back to the beginning of the saga, and see how they got to where they are today. Given the author's obvious skill, I'm sure I'll enjoy the earlier books as much as I did this one.  
redheadedfemme: (one more chapter)
Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone

4 of 5 stars
 
This is the second book I've read in the Craft Sequence, and I liked it better than the first. Maybe that's because I'm more familiar with Gladstone's world (and an inventive, layered, complex world it is), and maybe it's because the setting for this book--an island, with the appropriate isolationist economy and worldview that the villain will repeatedly murder to defend--has a laserlike focus that the first book seemed to lack. In any event, I can see the improvement in the author's (heh) craft: the pacing and plotting are tighter (perhaps a touch slow in the first half, but necessary to set up and advance the storylines of the two protagonists), the characterizations better, and the ending is nicely landed.

Most of all, the author avoids dragging his story down with infodumps, despite this being an extremely complicated and unique universe. (I mean, hell, in Gladstone's world, gods and goddesses are literal beings that live by and through the numbers and fervency of their worshipers, and they can die. In fact, the death of an idol, which here is an artificially created deity that doesn't quite have the worshipers to attain full sentience, kicks off the book.) He reveals just what you need to know at any given moment while getting on with the story, which inspires trust in the reader. I assumed I would be able to figure everything out by the end, and I did. It was also and absorbing and rewarding ride getting to that end, thanks to the sparkling characterizations of Kai and Izza, the protagonists.

In addition, there's a nicely plotted mystery involved, which ties in with themes of change and the acceptance of the fact that your small, isolated piece of real estate and culture cannot, and will not, remain static forever. The villain wants to hold back that metaphorical tide, and does some terrible things in service to his goal. (He also has a seriously creepy police force in the Penitents, living stone statues that swallow people whole and infect their minds in an attempt to brainwash them.) In the end, he is defeated by Kai and Izza, in a hard-fought and very much earned victory. The book ends on a bittersweet but hopeful note: change is coming to the island of Kavekana, but thanks to the efforts of these two, the people are far better prepared to meet it.

One of the front blurbs on this book mentions it as belonging to the "urban fantasy" genre. This is a misnomer, as it is no such thing. Humans populate this world, but it does not reflect our continents and cities, and culture- and history-wise it is very much its own thing. Max Gladstone's excellent worldbuilding is just one of the attractions of this series, which I wholeheartedly recommend.
 
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. 
redheadedfemme: (Default)
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.
redheadedfemme: (Default)
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: (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. 

September 2017

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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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