The Murder of Mary Russell (Mary Russell, Book 14)

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Murder of Mary Russell (Mary Russell, Book 14)
Laurie R. King, 2016

Premise: Mary Russell is home alone when a visitor with an old grudge comes calling. But this stranger’s issue isn’t with her, or with Holmes, but with… Mrs. Hudson?

After being sometimes underwhelmed by some recent entries in this series, I put off reading this one for a while. Now that I have read it, I’d say it’s fine, but nothing outstanding.

Most of the book takes place out of sequence. After a dramatic opening which sets up Russell’s possible demise, the narrative jumps into the past to tell the secret history of Mrs. Hudson, occasionally jumping briefly back to the present to follow the investigation into what happened to Russell.

This series has always lived in that space between pastiche, homage, and fanwork. This volume in particular pulls more from the Holmes canon, drawing connections between various stories and slotting in an expanded dramatic backstory for a minor female character.

As that, it’s perfectly fine. I enjoyed the book, although I found some of the revelations/resolutions off-putting. The past story is a perfectly nice historical fiction before it ever strays into Holmes connections. Russell herself is in very little of the book, although I quite liked her scenes.

This makes the book an odd duck - lacking in the central character of the series overall, but not divorced from it enough to stand alone for fans of other Holmes pastiche/fanfiction.

I personally have little patience for Watsonians - that particular brand of Holmes fan who tries to give every inconsistency or coincidence in the original stories an in-world explanation. I just find it cutesy and irritating. There are continuities in which I enjoy in-world explanations, but Holmes is not one of them.

Connecting disparate stories through a coincidental reused name treads close to that irritation, but I still enjoyed this story.

I just didn’t enjoy it as much as I would a Russell/Holmes story.

3 Stars - A Good Book

The Empress Game

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Empress Game
Rhonda Mason, 2015

Premise: Kayla and her brother have been hiding or on the run since their home planet was attacked by troops from the galactic empire. She’s made a new, bare-bones life by fighting in a backwater gladiatorial arena. Now she has the opportunity to get them either safety or in a lot more trouble when she’s asked to double for a princess competing to marry the heir to the empire.

I remember seeing a strong recommendation for this book, so I picked it up when it was on sale. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

The book isn’t terrible. The writing is fine, and some of the world-building (the psychic society that Kayla comes from) is intriguing.

But the plot is silly on the surface and doesn’t improve with execution. This highly technical galactic empire has a physical contest where prospective empresses attempt to beat one another into submission. It makes no sense, to the point that Kayla actually attempts to lampshade the situation in-world.

If I had connected with the characters and their motivations more strongly, really felt them, then I could have overlooked the silliness of the setup. (Not to mention the rigmarole about why Kayla’s planet is on the outs with the galactic community, which is supposed to seem politically complex and morally nuanced, but struck me as poorly explained and often convenient for the purposes of DRAMA.)

The book starts to pick up once the focus shifts to political infighting and a tentative alliance between Kayla and the woman she’s doubling for. However, for me it soon started to fall flat again as the villains are more and more villainous, and Kayla’s situation more and more of a soap opera.

The coincidental opportunities for her to help her planet by pretending to be this other woman became sillier as the book went on. The romance plot isn’t as shoved-in as it could have been, although it’s overly dramatic for my taste.

Then there’s some excitement with some last minute danger, but finally the book just sets us up for future installments instead of resolving anything.

In the end, I didn’t buy into the world or the characters, and I won’t be picking up the next volume.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

The Hidden Brain

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Hidden Brain
Shankar Vedantam, 2010

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a nonfiction book about science

Premise: “How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives.”

This is a fascinating survey of research around unconscious reactions, and when they can and can’t be overridden by our conscious minds.

There is a lot about bias. In some cases, no matter how tolerant and fair-minded we may be consciously, the biases we pick up from society may override our intentions. There was one particularly interesting piece of evidence that people found it easier to react without bias after having sugar.

There are details about the invisible currents caused by gender biases. This section includes more detailed stories from a few prominent transgender researchers I’ve heard of before and their unique perspectives on society and privilege.

There is a fascinating chapter on herd mentality, group-think, and disasters. This was probably the most disturbing section of the book. It explained how easily people can make decisions in stressful situations based only on the attitudes of the group. The chapter following that explains common threads behind people who become suicide bombers.

I’ve heard a lot about many of these subjects before, but I enjoyed the systematic way the various areas were dealt with and the details about supporting research.

It’s a solid, quality survey of information that uses personal stories to keep the reader engaged.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Hamilton: The Revolution

Monday, October 10, 2016

Hamilton: The Revolution
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jeremy McCarter, 2016

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a play (Yes, I'm cheating a little.)

Premise: The complete annotated libretto of the smash musical Hamilton, along with short articles about the writing, production, and cast.

I loved the cast album for Hamilton, but I wasn’t planning on reading this book anytime soon until it occurred to me that I could use it for the challenge. It does contain all the words spoken on stage, so I think it counts as a play.

First: the style of the book is lovely. It’s full of photos, big color production shots and candid dressing room black and white snaps. The design of the book itself evokes the duality in the show. The articles - about hip-hop, about the writing of the show, about President Obama’s visit - are each introduced with a header in the style of a pamphlet or a newspaper from the 1780s.

The book contains both photos of composer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda’s working notes and photos of letters and documents written by Alexander Hamilton. History is present in more than one way.

The content is equally amazing to go through. Each article is a perfect little story about a particular actor or a particular moment, and together they describe the process of bringing this project from idea to the first few partial trial performances, to the Off-Broadway run at the Public, to the Broadway run.

Each song is peppered with Miranda’s annotations about lines that were cut or rewritten. Sometimes he explains why this or that choice was made in adapting the historical facts. Sometimes he just shares a personal experience from performing the song.

The book made me cry the same way the music does, but it also gave me a clearer understanding of both the power of the show and the reality of the history it’s based on.

(Also, I learned that the associate lighting designer was someone I’ve worked with. Cool.)

5 Stars - An Awesome Book


Monday, October 3, 2016

CJ Cherryh, 1988

Hugo Winner - 1989

Premise: You live, you make enemies and friends, you work, and you die. But what happens to a child who inherits your enemies. Your friends. Your work. Especially if the child is a clone...

This is a hard book to talk about, particularly because I listened to it as an audiobook.

A 37-hour audiobook.

It was less reading a book and more drowning in 20 years of an alternate reality.

At the beginning, Ariane Emory is more than a hundred and twenty years old, councilor for the Science bureau, a political power in and out of Reseune. Reseune is an independent, highly advanced science facility on the planet Cyteen. It supplies longevity treatments and cloning. Reseune also provides “azi,” people who are heavily engineered genetically and mentally to be suited to particular purposes.

No one has been able to clone a “special” (exceptionally talented person) like Ariane, not in an exact way. You would have to recreate both nature and nurture. That isn’t going to stop them from trying after she’s killed.

Much of the book follows Ari, the young clone, as she grows up and tries to figure out who she is, given that context.

On one level, this is the story of two families. One is Ariane: the elder and the younger, her extended family, and her personal bodyguards. The other is the Warricks: Jordan (Ariane the first’s sometimes rival), Justin (his son, also a clone, but not an attempt at an exact replica), and Justin’s companion Grant (an experimental cloned product of Reseune). The arc of the book is 20 years of politics, planning, and maneuvering from the two groups, both in opposition and alliance.

Cherryh, as usual, presents a fascinating world, full of nuanced, flawed people and a complicated social and political structure. The book touches on the ethics of childrearing, of cloning, of military might. It deals heavily with a technology that affects the mind, and the ethics of programming people and societies.

It reminded me a lot of Fascimile, in parts of the theme.

It was not an easy read/listen, though. It’s emotionally taxing, involves mental and sexual assault and a major character with long-term PTSD, and I’m not sure I understood the end. (To be fair, I think a lot of the point is that there are mysteries that the characters, for all their intelligence and power, will never solve.)

It was really, really well done. Just exhausting.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

List of Hugo Award Winners