Spinning Silver

Monday, November 5, 2018

Spinning Silver
Naomi Novik, 2018

Premise: Miryem's family was nearly starving until she took over her father's moneylending business. Irina may be the daughter of a duke, but she's not pretty enough to be a useful pawn. Wanda is the only person standing between her brothers and their drunken father. All three young women face marriage, and therefore, danger. Magic only complicates matters.

This is a sister novel to Uprooted, in that it is a fantasy novel which takes inspiration from fairy tales (most obviously Rumplestiltskin) and emphasizes cultural traditions which are often neglected in commonly British-descended fantasy tropes. In this case, the country takes quite a bit from Eastern Europe, and Miryem and her relations are Jewish and face discrimination and danger because of this.

I really liked so much about this book. I loved the three stories and the way they combined. I loved the use and reinterpretation of fairy-tale elements. I loved that tipping point of marriage in all three stories and the danger and horror each young woman was confronted with. I loved the hard choices each of them faced and the way they dealt with them.

My biggest criticism has to do with structure. I think the structure could have been tighter. The point of view changes from chapter to chapter, and I was fine with this while it was the three young women, even though the third didn't appear until the story felt well underway. But then chapters appeared throughout the book adding additional viewpoint characters, and I think this really weakens the impact of the storytelling, making it more like just an average run-of-the-mill fantasy novel. One point-of-view character has only one chapter, and I think it would have been much more compelling to get the information delivered in that chapter from an outside perspective.

I do love the way the magic worked, and the various supernatural creatures. However, another quibble was that I felt there was an alternative ending heavily foreshadowed by the magic early on (matching two characters who do not end up together), but nothing came of it. And I have mixed feelings about aspects of the ending.

Still, while I didn't think it was perfect, I did enjoy it a lot.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

An Unkindness of Ghosts

Monday, October 1, 2018

An Unkindness of Ghosts
Rivers Solomon, 2017

Premise: Aster lives in the bowels of the great ship Matilda. As a dark-skinned lowerdecker, she is constantly in danger from the people of higher classes who run the ship and the society. Then she discovers that an affliction suffered by the leader of the ship may have a connection to her mother's long-ago disappearance.

This is a hard book to review for a lot of reasons. What's good about it is great, but what misses the mark for me personally threatens to derail the whole thing.

The best part of this book was the worldbuilding, the characters, and the texture of the writing. I feel as though I could recognize any of these characters at a glance. I absorbed the brutality of the violence. I can picture the ship in all its complexity and horror.

Most of the major characters are gender-fluid and/or LGBTQ and/or neuroatypical and/or suffering from severe trauma. Their complexity means that while they might not be "fun" or always "likable," they feel deeply, tragically true. Their fragile relationships and identities are all the more valuable because they live under constant threat.

The plot I had a bit more trouble with. Even though whenever I picked up this book I could touch its world, I kept putting it down again. I wasn't pulled along by what was happening, and I never understood certain twists and turns. Sometimes the timeline seemed to jump ahead suddenly.

And then it ended. And the ending... I'm not sure I understood it. It was an emotional and thematic ending, I guess, and lots of actions happened, but the plot feels extremely unresolved. (I immediately googled to see if there's a sequel in the works. There isn't.) There was a lot of action and buildup and then... Huh? There was even some foreshadowing in an earlier chapter that was never followed up on. For me, not sticking the landing can overshadow a lot about a book.

To sum up: brilliant writing but with a structure that didn't work for me. Your mileage may definitely vary.

3 Stars? 4? Good, Great? I don't know.

Princeless Books 1-3 (Save Yourself, Get Over Yourself, The Pirate Princess)

Monday, September 24, 2018

Princeless Books 1-3 (Save Yourself, Get Over Yourself, The Pirate Princess)
Jeremy Whitley, et al., 2012, 2014, 2015

Read Harder Challenge 2018 - A comic that isn’t published by Marvel, DC, or Image

Premise: Princess Adrienne can’t believe her father hired a dragon and stuck her in a tower. She’s had it with expectations and decides to save her sisters herself.

I read the first arc of this book in issues back when it came out, and I had such fond memories of it that I picked up the first three collections. And it’s good, but my recollections were perhaps overly rose-colored.

To sum-up: It’s got a great premise, but the execution is a bit rocky. The first issue and the first arc are fun overall, but a lot of the jokes rely on easy pot-shots at fantasy tropes or wordplay that’s only clever the first time. None of this is bad, just... one-dimensional, I guess?

The plot meanders far too much. The first book is Adrienne getting out of the tower, heading home only to discover her youngest sister isn’t there, find out her (effeminate, shy) brother set up her escape, be mistaken for her own abductor, and meet and befriend Bedelia, a blacksmith who sets her up with fancy armor and tags along on her adventure.

That’s all okay as far as set-up goes, but not one of these introduced elements have begun to pay off by the end of Book 3. In the second book, Adrienne and Bedelia find one of Adrienne’s sisters and eventually rescue her, sort of. It’s complicated, the art isn’t as good as the first book, and it isn’t a very interesting story. In the third book, the story takes a hard left, changes characters and genres, and none of Adrienne’s sisters are in it at all. At this point, I’m just not invested in these characters or this world anymore.

It’s still a fine book, and it’s still probably a really fun book for kids. And maybe it gets better after this; it’s supposedly still going on. Part of why book three was so odd was that the new story of Raven the martial-arts pirate is so much more interesting than Adrienne’s story. The problem is, it’s supposed to be Adrienne’s book.

Looking at this book now, it seems a bit like training wheels for the stuff the author is doing now. I’ve read a little of his more recent work for Marvel, and it has a better balance between charming humor and action, so the later Princeless might find its feet as well.

3 Stars - A Good Book

In Cold Blood

Monday, September 17, 2018

In Cold Blood
Truman Capote, 1966

Read Harder Challenge 2018 - A book of true crime

Premise: The true story of a multiple murder and its aftermath.

True crime might be enjoying a recent popularity boost, but Capote’s classic is still one of the pinnacles of the genre.

For this challenge, first I tried to read a more recent book, but I gave up under the weight of a well-researched but interminable narrative. This book, on the other hand, is tightly narrated and carefully structured to maintain emotional tension.

Some responses to this “nonfiction novel” claim that not every bit of dialogue and nuance of character is truthful, but the research is clear to the reader without ever being overt. The various threads - the lives of the victims, the feelings of those left behind, and the psychology and history of the murderers - are skillfully interwoven to build a story with the kind of fully realized texture that is rare for any type of writing (fiction or non) to achieve.

Much like the other things I’ve read by Capote, the writing paints complex, caring pictures of every type of person. The book does an excellent job of providing context and understanding for the killers without excusing or glamourising anything about them.

It’s a tragedy on every side, and a compelling picture of intersecting lives.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

The Diamond Age

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer
Neal Stephenson, 1995

Hugo winner - 1996
Premise: In a world where people are bound together only by their philosophies and their nanotech, men try to control the future and girls raise themselves with the help of a special book.

This isn't the worst Hugo-winning book I've read. That honor still belongs to Stand on Zanzibar. But this is one that I would not have finished reading if it weren't for this project.

The beginning is very promising. Nanotech designer Hackworth is in an interesting position, faced with the puzzle of how to teach children raised in a wealthy coddled society to be innovators and leaders. His solution is The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, a "book" which operates as a highly advanced interactive teacher, using classical fairy tale tropes to encourage learning and independence.

One copy of this book, smuggled into existence by Hackworth, intended for his own daughter, falls into the hands of Nell. Nell's life, dodging her mother's violent boyfriends and scrabbling for subsistence with her street-tough brother, is the opposite of the girls the Primer was meant for, but that only means that she can take greater advantage of it.

So far, so intriguing, right? But it's just.... so......... long.............. It eventually includes every "neat" idea about computers and distributed networks and sex cults and interactive VR and Confucian ideals and neo-Victorian culture that the author could come up with. Most of these ideas are at least somewhat interesting, but it never comes together.

By the end, I just wanted it to be over. There was so much off-screen character development and change that it felt like a different book. I didn't care what happened to any of the characters, none of the plots I was interested in paid off, and the climax was just a mess of characters I no longer recognized doing things I didn't care about.

This was my least favorite book by Stephenson back when I'd only read this, Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, and Zodiac. I really tried to give it a fair shake on re-read, but I think I like it even less now than I did back then. Interesting ideas just don't work for me without compelling characters any more.

1 Star - Didn't Like It, Almost DNF

Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles

Monday, September 3, 2018

Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles
Mark Russell, Mike Feehan, et al., 2018

New Release! I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for the purpose of review.

Premise: In the 1950s, anthropomorphic animals and humans alike struggle with McCarthyism, censorship, and homophobia. One flamboyant pink-furred playwright is caught between all three. Collects Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles #1-6 and the backup story from Suicide Squad/Banana Splits Special #1.

I'm only passingly familiar with most of the Hanna-Barbera characters from this era, but I think this reimagining does some fascinating things by extrapolating out from basic character traits. The core is, of course, taking the extravagant and theatrical mannerisms of Snagglepuss and making him a closeted Southern playwright working in the style of Tennessee Williams. The whole piece has the heightened language and high melodrama that I associate with Williams' work, in fact.

The story is serious and dark, reflecting the paranoia and hatred of the time as well as reflecting into today's culture. Snagglepuss is persecuted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and although his success protects him a little, it protects others not at all. He struggles with the balance between cowardice and pragmatism. Between convictions about the purpose of art and the reality that crossing certain lines means you don't get to make art at all.

The art is lovely, and the realism and detail match the writing well. I couldn't quite get over the no-pants thing, though. It was just so weird! Animals live like humans, look very humanoid, have sex with humans, but don't wear pants.

I appreciated that the collection includes a few pages in the back that explain which elements are taken directly from history and which are adapted or adjusted to fit the story. For example, having the Stonewall Inn exist in the 50's the same way it did in the 60's is a blow to historical accuracy, although I understand why the choice was made for narrative impact.

I didn't love everything about this story - I think the emotional beats and climactic speeches land well, but some of the exposition meanders in the middle issues. Overall, though, it's a strong, fascinating piece.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

The Long Goodbye

Monday, August 20, 2018

The Long Goodbye
Raymond Chandler, 1953

Premise: Private investigator Philip Marlowe strikes up an odd friendship with Terry Lennox, the husband of a local socialite. When addiction, envy, wealth, and conspiracy cause murder and mayhem among the upper crust, Marlowe gets drawn into a social class where all that glitters is dross.

I recently reread this book and was reminded how much I love it. I love the style. I love the careful word choices that evoke very specific images and provide subtle commentary on events. The characters are larger than life but still grounded enough to be believed.

I love Marlowe. He’s not a great person, but he’s decent, and he has a particular moral code. Unfortunately for him, he’s just slightly too moral for the situations he finds himself in, which means he gets beaten up. By corrupt cops, by hired thugs, by gangsters... Marlowe takes a heck of a thrashing in this book and doesn’t get much in return.

It’s occasionally of its time, although there’s only one sexist comment in the book that I truly recoiled from. Even that one (a crude comment about a girl by a pool who was made ugly by laughing) I suspect was there not as a comment by the author, but so you’d remember that Marlowe is not a refined guy.

The occasional crudeness and edge of the style is part of the charm. This isn’t the false over-the-top grittiness of imitators. Reading Chandler is a master class - the best of the hard-boiled style.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

2001: Space Odyssey

Monday, August 13, 2018

2001: Space Odyssey
Arthur C. Clarke, 1968

Read Harder Challenge 2018 - A classic of genre fiction
Premise: An unknowable force is guiding humanity, and has been since the beginning.

First, I’ve never actually seen the movie. However, I do know all the major beats, because it was basically impossible to grow up when I did and not know all the major beats - monolith and monkeys, I can’t do that, Dave, weird space baby. When I decided to read the book, I had no idea that the book and the movie were so closely related.

So all that is to say that it’s impossible for me to come at this book with anything resembling a fresh perspective. Heck, I actually worked very briefly with Keir Dullea, who played Dave in the movie. (While I can’t blame anyone working on that troubled show for being cranky, that does give me an additional hang-up about this story.)

Partially because of all that, I think this is my least favorite book I’ve read by Clarke. It isn’t bad, but it isn’t actually interesting to read for itself. The ideas may have been mind-blowing at the time, but they became so deeply part of the fabric of modern sci-fi that I can't even find this interesting from a historical perspective.

The thing I most dislike about the book is the actual plot. The characters are fine, even though most only make brief appearances, and the individual action beats that make up the middle of the book are well-handled. But the larger plot is just annoying. Some impossibly powerful force jump-starts the evolution of early hominids into Homo sapiens, and then transforms one human into a godlike being at the end. Nothing any of the characters do has any real impact on this, nor do they understand it in any way.

My dissatisfaction is certainly affected by assumptions about the primacy of agency in story. Today, common cultural wisdom teaches that there is more value in a story when the characters can affect the outcome, but that hasn’t always been the case. However, even in the original Odyssey, humans struggled with the gods, whether or not they could ultimately defy fate.

Despite some lovely description and interesting ideas, I find the unknowable power forcing other species up the same progression that it followed too depressing to be a satisfying read.

Experience: 2 Stars - An Okay Book
Importance: 5 Stars

To See the Sun

Monday, August 6, 2018

To See the Sun
Kelly Jensen, 2018

New Release! I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for the purpose of review.

Premise: Outer colonies are the rough frontier, which might be why Bram never seems to meet anyone special. That is, until he sees Gael's profile on the interstellar matchmaking service. Gael would do anything to leave his planet; he knows it's foolish to also hope for love.

I've been dipping further into romance and romance-adjacent books of late, so I I thought I'd give this LGBT sci-fi romance with the pretty cover a try. And the verdict is... it's fine.

It's good even. Enjoyable, well-written, two main characters who fit around each other's quirks and grow to care for each other. The complications of the sci-fi setting are decently described and fun.

But, it's also a trope-riddled cliche from top to bottom. We've got your mail-order bride, your fake relationship to escape possible slavery, your instant found family, your fake relationship that turns into a real relationship, your city-planet of endless corruption, your past sexual trauma that a character has to overcome, your dual perspectives that mean the reader knows the characters' relationship would be fine if they would just talk to each other, your space is really just the wild west with different shading, your unreasonably jealous ex for a villain...

None of these are bad. They're all fairly well-handled. But all together, it's a bit much for me. There just wasn't anything new. The sci-fi skin allowed for a few environmental hazards and an sexually flexible society, but it didn't feel different enough from the westerns it was mimicking. I liked the characters, but I didn't have any reason to love them.

3 Stars - A Good Book

The Day of the Triffids

Monday, July 30, 2018

The Day of the Triffids
John Wyndham, 1951

Premise: Bill Masen wakes up, and something's wrong. He suspects that the plants have only been biding their time.

I didn't know anything about this book when I picked it up; I just had an idea that it was classic science fiction.

It turns out to be apocalyptic, vaguely sci-fi, and very British.

The situation is: after an amazing visual display in the night sky, everyone who watched is struck blind. Society immediately crumbles, with groups of desperate blind people enslaving the few people who can see and small groups either fighting or banding together to try to rebuild.

Our protagonist was undergoing a medical procedure, and so had his eyes covered. The most effective part of the book for me was the beginning when he's creeping around the half-deserted hospital, trying to figure out what happened.

The situation is complicated by the presence of the triffids. Triffids are mobile plants which have a dangerous sting. Our protagonist worked for a triffid farm, and he tries to warn other people that the triffids are more intelligent than people think and more dangerous.

The book isn't interested in where the triffids come from, and the only explanation is that they are probably some secret genetic engineering project that escaped. Likewise, although the main character suspects that the triffids planned the reaction that blinded humanity to remove humans' only advantage (sight), he has no proof and never finds any.

Instead, he spends the book joining or running from different groups of survivors, looking for a young woman that he rescued on the first day. They eventually are reunited and later still join a promising group on a nearby island.

It's very much a cross between man's inhumanity to man and an awkward love story set against the apocalypse. Both storylines have been done better elsewhere, although I guess this one was notable at the time.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

A Gentleman Never Keeps Score

Monday, July 23, 2018

A Gentleman Never Keeps Score
Cat Sebastian, 2018

Read Harder Challenge 2018 - A romance novel by or about a person of color

Premise: Hartley Sedgwick risked everything to give his brothers the hand up their feckless father couldn't give them, but it backfires badly. His much-wished-for life as a gentleman is slowly killing him until he meets the kind and handsome pub owner Sam Fox.

I've now read a few of Cat Sebastian's historical romances, but while I like them, I have not yet loved them. This one doesn't break the pattern.

Then I recently saw this:

The scale places Charles from "Medium Angst" to "So Tense I'm a Mess," and Sebastian from "Very Low Angst" to "Medium Low Angst." And that might explain everything. You see, I love KJ Charles. And I think my problem is that Sebastian's work, while lovely, just doesn't have enough excitement and/or angst for me. However, now that I know this, maybe I can choose to read these books when I'm really in the mood for fluffy lightness.

This is a good story, with engaging, charming characters. Hartley is broken after being openly accused of selling his body for advancement, and he's struggling with a fear of touch. Sam is a solid, good person who has to fear the judgment of authorities for his history as a boxer and his existence as a free black man in London. But none of their problems end up feeling that serious. I felt like any of these issues could have been delved into more deeply without risking the character's ultimate happiness.

This is a fun, frothy romp with just enough tension to keep it from being boring and enough emotional moments to tug the heartstrings.

It's fun, and it's enjoyable, but I don't know that I'll remember it a few weeks from now.

3 Stars - A Good Book


Monday, July 16, 2018

J. R. R. Tolkien, written between 1925 and 1937, published 1998

Read Harder Challenge 2018 - A book published posthumously

Premise: A little dog is rude to a wizard and ends up exploring far-off lands.

I didn’t know anything about this story heading into it, but the introduction gave me all the background I could want. Then said introduction kept going into much more exhaustive detail than I wanted about a story I hadn’t read yet, so I skipped half of it.

The important background is that once upon a time, Tolkien was at the seaside with his family, and one of his sons lost a toy at the beach. He made up a story to mollify the boy, then expanded it into a charming little piece. However, it was not picked up for publication and then fell by the wayside once he had made his name as the writer of more serious works.

The introduction frames it as a bridge between Tolkien’s other writing for his kids (like The Father Christmas Letters) and the Hobbit. I would actually say that it also can be seen as a bridge between early fantasy like The Gods of Pegana and modern fantasy’s roots in Lord of the Rings.

The story is delightful, but much more plotless and meandering, much more about playing with language and description, than we have the patience for nowadays. Rover is a dog who gets mixed up with a wizard and turned into a toy. He is bought for a child but escapes, with the help of another wizard, to the Moon. There he meets a moon-dog also named Rover, and so our protagonist goes by Roverandom. The story follows his adventures on the Moon, and then later at the bottom of the sea. He sees wonders everywhere and has several close escapes, but he eventually is turned back to normal and returns home, where he is reunited with the boy, who loves him just as much as a real dog as he did as a toy dog.

The richness and inventiveness in the description, the wordplay and clever asides all remind me of early fantasy, of Morris, Carroll, and Dunsany. You can see the seeds of the Hobbit in the hints of myth and the edges of a larger world beyond the worries of the characters. It doesn’t take itself seriously, it’s still very child-friendly, but you can see how you might give it one more turn and it would become something different. You can see some ideas and turns of phrase that crop up again in Middle Earth.

Also, it’s a lot of fun as just what it is.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

The Henchmen of Zenda

Monday, July 9, 2018

The Henchmen of Zenda
K.J. Charles, 2018

Premise: Romance and danger abound for hired blades when everyone has their own agenda and a throne is on the line. A retelling of The Prisoner of Zenda.

At this point, a new book from KJ Charles is an auto-buy for me, although I did pause before reading to quickly catch up on the source material.

The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) is a pulp adventure in grand old style, with a humorous if stuffy British protagonist who gets swept up in a scheme to save the king of a tiny fictional European country... by pretending to be him. Ironically, I had already read and enjoyed Double Star, which is a sci-fi retelling of the same. The language is fun and the characters largely enjoyable in their over-the-top melodramatics.

The Henchmen of Zenda is the same story as told by one of the villain's hired soldiers-of-fortune, and it alleges that said British protagonist was a liar in several respects. It makes the politics more complicated and bloodthirsty and gives more characters base and believable motivations.

Plus, there's sex.

Jasper and Rupert each come into the Duke's service for their own reasons and with their own secrets, and the ever-present threat of violent death if you trust the wrong person rather complicates their sexual tension. I loved their romance.

I could have used a tiny bit more struggle on the part of the characters by the end - a few things seemed a bit easy or too-good-to-be-true. Ironically, I've seen some comments from other readers that the romance wasn't quite romance-y or maybe eternal-happy-ever-after enough for them. However, the blend of action and romance was almost perfect for my taste as a romance dabbler.

Also, I love the little Easter eggs that the author sneaks in referencing characters from other contemporary works.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Down Among the Sticks and Bones (Wayward Children)

Monday, July 2, 2018

Down Among the Sticks and Bones (Wayward Children)
Seanan McGuire, 2017

Premise: Prequel to Every Heart a Doorway. Jacqueline and Jillian had the kind of parents who shouldn't have children, so when they stumble into a place that offers them mentorship and protection, they take it...for better or worse.

It's been just long enough since I read Every Heart a Doorway that I didn't fully remember the roles that Jack and Jill played in that story. I'm not sure whether it's better to read this with the knowledge of their future fates or without it. I actually think the way I accidentally did it might be best, where I slowly remembered the original over the course of reading the prequel.

Either way, this is a novella about children whose parents try to force them into roles that don't fit, and how their relationships with themselves and others are screwed up because of it. Sure, their temperaments aren't helped by spending years of their childhoods in a dark and dangerous place home to gothic monsters, but that isn't what messes them up.

Like Every Heart, this is a novella, and it leans even further into the fairy-tale feel with stylized narration. It's both broad and subtle; exploring the rules of a horror-movie dimension alongside the tension between twins who never learned to be friends. Sad, poetic, and highly recommended.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Mirror Dance (Vorkosigan Saga)

Monday, June 25, 2018

Mirror Dance (Vorkosigan Saga)
Lois McMaster Bujold, 1994

Hugo winner - 1995

This is the third Vorkosigan novel that I've re-read specifically for the Hugo winners project, and once again, I'm surprised how much I discovered about this book by reading it in isolation from the rest of the series.

I had thought this was a good book, but often on re-reading it I have sped through the beginning out of a sense of anticipation and awkwardness around knowing the more dramatic plot elements that were coming.

After reading it with more care, I feel confident saying it's a fantastic book.

This is a book deeply concerned with identity. On the obvious physical level, there are numerous mirrors. Both Miles and Mark see themselves in mirrors at the beginning, establishing their current statuses, tying their paths together, and calling back to their first encounter in Brothers in Arms. Mirrors and cameras, self-image and projected appearance all play critical roles in pivotal scenes. Of course, the two men are also mirrors of each other, both physically and emotionally.

Mark is struggling to find his own place while Miles suffers from literal amnesia, and they each try on different identities on the way. You also have Elena returning to Barrayar to confront her identity in her heritage and the different types of identities and relationships claimed by the many characters who are clones.

All that plus spectacular plot and action, as well as poignant, illuminating appearances by the wide cast of supporting characters.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Island of the Mad (Mary Russell, Book 15)

Monday, June 18, 2018

Island of the Mad (Mary Russell, Book 15)
Laurie R. King, 2018

New Release! I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for the purpose of review.

Premise: Sequel to The Murder of Mary Russell. Russell and Holmes are off again, this time in search of a friend's aunt who may have run from an asylum.

This series continues to merely limp along, and yet, I can't quite walk away. At least this entry didn't have the problem that many of the recent books have shared (namely, that Russell wasn't the main character). It just has other problems.

The bones of the story and the characters are good. Reintroducing Mary's friend Ronnie and her extended clan works well, and most of the early investigation about the whereabouts of the aunt is interesting. However, there's a huge digression early on which strained the bounds of my credulity too far. Russell does something quite dumb and dangerous to go undercover to get information which she could plausibly have obtained any number of more legitimate ways.

It felt like half an excuse for unnecessary tension and half an excuse to infodump about a topic researched for the book so that the research wouldn't go to waste. I found the whole section annoying and thought it made Russell look either stupid or narcissistic.

Later, Russell and Holmes head to Venice (another thoroughly researched topic): Russell to search for Ronnie's wayward relation, and Holmes to obtain intel about the rise of fascism in Italy for Mycroft. Once there, they mingle with young wealthy folks from across Europe who are there for the beach and the parties and a set of artists and nonconformists surrounding the then up-and-coming Cole Porter. Unless I'm misremembering, this book marks the first openly LGBTQ folks in a series that has featured plenty of cross-dressing disguises.

All this mingling is part of my second major issue with the book (the aforementioned unnecessary undercover mission being the first). It seems as though the author set up an emotional plot for the main characters, and then just forgot to resolve it. Both Russell and Holmes in their respective sections (the narrative perspective switches back and forth) have moments where they make assumptions or are concerned about the other regarding their relationship.

Now, I have to step aside from the fact that all of these moments seem bizarre to me; the characters' worries do not evolve naturally from the previous depictions of their characters, and the moments are heavily flagged and happen more than once. However, then they aren't resolved. It's the most confounding thing. Neither character's concerns are mentioned or dealt with, rather the ending devolves into a complex, farcical scenario that reminded me of the end of an episode of Leverage. I like Leverage, and the complicated ruse is a lot of fun. But afterward, any loose ends are just hand-waved away.

I found it to be a disappointing read overall.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

Remnant Population

Monday, June 11, 2018

Remnant Population
Elizabeth Moon, 1996

Read Harder 2018 Challenge: A book with a female protagonist over the age of 60

Premise: Ofelia is tired. Tired of living in a company colony, tired of expectations, tired of her son and daughter-in-law's attitudes about what older women should and shouldn't do. So when the company tells them they're shutting down and moving, she decides she's going to follow her heart for once, and stay on the planet alone.

It's a mark of how compelling the setting and main character of this book are that I was bothered when it started to have a plot. Ofelia had just gotten some dang deserved peace and freedom, and now there was going to be a plot in this book? I was perturbed, honestly.

It all turned out alright, though, because the plot is pretty great. This book isn't shy about what it's trying to say about social attitudes about curiosity, learning, freedom, and what (or who) is "useful," but it never feels like a lesson, more like a discovery.

The native creatures that eventually show up were extraordinary, almost to the point of being unbelievable. But I one-hundred-percent believed in the incompetent bureaucracy of the human specialists, and in the dismissive attitudes seemingly all of them held toward Ofelia herself.

I adored her internal monologues struggling between what she was taught all her life and what she felt to be true or right. She's delightful. The book is delightful. I loved it.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

[Side note: I haven't read Blue Mars yet, but both Remnant Population and my beloved Memory were up for the Hugo the same year as it won, and I have to assume they split the vote for more compassionate, human-focused, emotionally moving sci-fi.]

A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo

Monday, June 4, 2018

A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo
Jill Twiss, illustrated by EG Keller, 2018

Read Harder 2018 Challenge: A one-sitting book

Premise: John Oliver's prank on Mike Pence turned charitable-children's-book sensation. 

Okay, we all know the very existence of this book is hilarious. If you didn't buy a copy, you might just be in the minority at this point. We had to wait a month for our copy because the publishers didn't print nearly enough for demand.

However, did you also know it's adorable?

It's sweet and wholesome and just overall like a warm hug. With soft, colorful illustrations and gently repetitive text, I'd say it's appropriate for any kids who are old enough to understand a book with a simple plot.

There are a few allusions to the actual VP having a boring job, and the villainous stink bug who objects to our hero's happiness is obviously modeled off the same. However, these blend into the background, leaving you with a charming story about a little community that comes together so love can win.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

All American Boys

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

All American Boys
Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds, 2015

Premise: Rashad and Quinn live in the same town and go to the same school, but they don't know each other. Then one is beaten by a police officer and the other sees it happen.

The moral of this book is on the nose, and it wears that fact openly. It's intended for a YA audience and comfortable with that. Happily, the style was strong enough to carry me through the first half, and the ending works very well.

It's presented in alternating chapters between the two boys' perspectives. Both boys felt concrete and realistic to me in their various obsessions, casual macho posturing, impatience with parents, etc.

Rashad is a good student who had never been in trouble, so it's easy for the reader to see that he's the victim of profiling. Quinn's place in the story is the white kid who learns racism is not only real, it's affecting his community. However, although some of the authors' early choices felt easy or predictable to me, by the end both characters gain a decent amount of nuance.

I probably would have found it extremely affecting as a tween/teen, although I would not have been a person who needed much convincing. I especially think the portrayal of the internal struggle of someone coming to terms with racism in their community and in their friends was well done.

The ending was, as I said, extremely effective. It was poignant and visceral, and I got a little emotional just reading it. I might not have found it to be brilliant prose throughout, but it's an important little book with a lot to say.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book


Monday, May 21, 2018

Roweena Miller, 2018

New Release! I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for the purpose of review.

Premise: Sophie has worked hard to carve out a life for herself. Combining her hereditary skill in casting good luck charms with long training in sewing has eventually led to a somewhat successful shop of her own. Just when it seems that her work will be noticed by a higher class of customer, a group pushing for governmental reforms risks starting a riot that could engulf the city, and her own brother is leading the way.

None of the themes dealt with in this book were groundbreaking or unique, but I don't know that I've ever read a fantasy novel that addresses them directly, and I really appreciated that.

I really enjoyed the nuance and tension in this book. Everyone is complicated. No one knows everything or understands everything. It features a populist uprising in which neither the royalty nor the commoners are fully in the right.

Even though I was sometimes frustrated by her action or inaction, Sophie feeling pulled in many directions felt right. I think the author nailed what she set out to do: present a picture of someone who is neutral in a conflict and explore why. I loved the minor acknowledgment that, like many historical revolutions and movements, these groups claiming to speak for the people and help the common folk aren't proposing reforming laws and customs that disadvantage women.

I liked Sophie's awkwardness about being a second-generation immigrant, with no real ties to her family's home. She's consciously choosing to downplay her heritage to make her business more successful, although she feels conflicted about it. The romance subplot was well-handled and worked better than I would have expected at the start.

I'm not sure how I feel about the fact that this is intended to be the first in a series. It definitely stands alone, to the extent that I was startled to read after the end of the text that there will be more.

This is a rare book that I picked up mostly on the strength of the cover. It's lovely, and as a fan of both fantasy and sewing, a good fit for me.

Overall a solid fantasy novel that's enjoyable and worth thinking about.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Usagi Yojimbo: Book 1: The Ronin, Book 2: Samurai

Monday, May 14, 2018

Usagi Yojimbo: Book 1: The Ronin, Book 2: Samurai
Stan Sakai, 1987, 1989

Read Harder Challenge - A comic written and illustrated by the same person

I'm sure I first saw the samurai rabbit as an action figure that went with my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles back in the 80s. I knew it was a long-running series, I knew it was acclaimed, and heck, I bought these two books off a sale rack without hesitation, but somehow I never sat down to read any before.

After I caught a handful of excerpts online, though, it drifted up to the top of the to-read list.

First, the mixed. The first book is a collection of the character's earliest appearances, and it shows; the writing is a bit abrupt here and there. The art is great overall, but occasionally it seems caught between styles - the writing and events follow a more serious dramatic tone, while the expressions of minor (often dying) characters evoke a "funny animal comic" look. (This is separate from the minor sight gags with the little lizards that feature in the corners of many panels. Those guys are great.)

Once the series starts in earnest at the beginning of Book 2, the story takes off and everything clicks into place. The art is dynamic and complex, and the writing begins to expand the characters and the world.

In these particular issues, I found the little side notes that explain Japanese terms more obtrusive than helpful, but I'm certain there were fewer readers who were already familiar with them when these issues originally came out. I also understand that there is a great deal more about Japanese history and culture in later volumes.

By the end of the second book, I'd been through an array of brief adventures, a long dip into backstory, more than a few exciting battles in defense of the helpless, and one long-form pun. Usagi's world is one that I'll be happy to spend more time in. Considering it's still being published today, there's a lot more story to enjoy.

4 Stars - Very Good Books

Parable of the Talents

Monday, April 23, 2018

Parable of the Talents
Octavia Butler, 1998

Read Harder 2018 Challenge: A sci-fi novel with a female protagonist by a female author

Premise: Sequel to Parable of the Sower. Lauren Olamina tries to protect her growing family, her community, and the movement she hopes to foster, but the rest of the world isn't ready to leave them in peace.

Oof. This was a hard read. I had to take a break several times. All of the content warnings on this one: rape, murder, and torture, including violence targeting women, LGBTQ people, and racial and religious minorities. Government-sanctioned religious extremism. A politician rising to power on xenophobia, sexism, racism, and a false nostalgia for the past. If it had been written today, people would say the parody was too on-the-nose and over the top.

However, what troubled me the most wasn't any of that. The text of the novel is mostly drawn from the main character's diaries, but there's a framing device where each chapter is introduced by her daughter, a fair amount of time after the events. Her daughter's animosity toward the Earthseed movement was hard to read. Once I got through enough of the book, however, I began to think it was a brilliant addition.

Her perspective is not just giving a voice to those who doubt the destiny that the main character sees so clearly. It's also a second story about how truly devoting yourself to something, no matter how worthy, affects every relationship in your life. Now, Olamina's poor relationship with her daughter is mostly not her fault - horrifying things are done to them by outside forces. But the observation holds.

I felt the ending of this one was a bit rushed, there's a sudden time jump that startled me. So I didn't leave this with quite the same impact as the first.

Still, it's a powerful, amazing read in many ways, and I am sad that Ms. Butler passed away before finding the plot for the third book. The hints we have continue to fascinate. 

5 Stars - An Amazing Book

Last Dragon Standing (Heartstrikers, Book 5)

Monday, April 16, 2018

Last Dragon Standing (Heartstrikers, Book 5)
Rachel Aaron, 2018

Premise: Sequel to A Dragon of a Different Color. The endgame has begun. Bob, seer of the Heartstrikers, faces the culmination of his final plan. In order to save the world from a Nameless End, Julius Heartstriker and Marci Novalli must rally all the dragon clans and the forces of human magic, but that might not be enough.

This final book brings the series to a fairly satisfying conclusion. It’s maybe a tad too happy of an ending to have much weight, but it is still a lot of fun.

The characters are as charming as they have been all along. All the factions we’ve met (along with some random red herrings) are here for the big finale, and everyone has a part to play.

The only other criticism I have is that giving all of these characters their respective emotional arcs takes a lot of pages. A pretty significant chunk of the book is tense conversation in which everyone hashes out their various issues, rivalries, plots, histories, etc., while there is literally a world-ending timebomb progressing in the background. A character even lampshades this at one point. It’s all interesting and satisfying conversation, but there is an awful lot of it. I find that this structure (an extreme focus on character moments at the expense of plot/action) is more common in independently published fiction and fan fiction. This author is enough of a pro that I kept reading. I always wanted to know what would happen, but it did drag now and then.

I loved the beginning, establishing Bob’s plans, and his role in this volume was very satisfying, as was Marci fulfilling her partnership with Ghost. Julius’s part had less impact; everything he did continued to grow naturally out of him accepting and embracing his unique strengths.

Despite the weak points, I enjoyed this series a lot. It has a great world and fantastic characters.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

The Three-Body Problem

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Three-Body Problem
Cixin Liu, 2007, English translation Ken Liu, 2014

Hugo Winner - 2015

Read Harder Challenge - A book of genre fiction in translation

Premise: Do you like trippy philosophy, complex morality, and lots of science in your sci-fi? Are you comfortable with that slight feeling of disconnection that can come with reading a translated work (even a really well-translated work)? Read it.

I just found out that there's a lot given away in the standard descriptions of this book. I'm personally really glad that I knew nothing going in.

That's not always my taste, often it's better for me to know roughly what to expect. (For example: if I'm in the mood for a light fantasy adventure, I'll be disappointed in a gritty medieval war story, but if I'm expecting a gritty medieval war story, I might be bored by a fairy tale retelling.) Sometimes a great author can get around your expectations, but I hardly ever have the patience for a book that reveals itself this slowly.

This book? This book, I never wanted to put down. I was just so curious. What's going on? How do these characters connect? What does this game have to do with anything else? What motivations are at play?

I've never read a science fiction book set in modern China, and it's a fascinating place to explore questions of society and humanity. Liu was a child during the Cultural Revolution, and the direct effects of this event on the characters are crucial to the plot.

I've read in other reviews that many people couldn't connect to the characters or found them flat. I found them subtle and complex.

The balance between aching emotion and intellectual fervor, the blend of rage, hope, and conviction, the growing layers of mystery... Reading this book felt like listening to a suspended chord on a growing crescendo, driven inescapably toward resolution.

It's brilliant. I loved it.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries, Book 1)

Monday, April 2, 2018

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries, Book 1)
Martha Wells, 2017

Premise: All Murderbot wants is to be left alone to watch tv. Unfortunately, if it doesn't want its free will to be discovered, it still has a job to do, and someone's trying to kill the people it's supposed to protect.

This was an absolute delight. Going in, I thought was that this was a novella from the point of view of a killbot. What I found was a snarky sci-fi adventure with a protagonist whose general misanthropy is not entirely genuine, but this never falters into pathos.

The humans call it Security Unit, or SecUnit, but a murderbot is what it calls itself. The reason why is a mix of black humor and cynicism.

Murderbot is not only hiding its sense of humor but also its free will from both the humans it's assigned to and the shadowy Company that owns it and financed the scientific mission they're on. A SecUnit has consciousness, but it isn't supposed to be able to choose for itself, and Murderbot has to balance appearing compliant with making the right choices when everything falls apart.

Naturally, there's some exploration of consciousness and free will here. What does consciousness mean when it could be corrupted or rewritten? Early on, the humans are surprised to see the organic parts of Murderbot, and it's unclear whether we would think of it more as a cyborg or an android. These questions never overwhelm the action-oriented plot, and the narrative voice is thoroughly winning and perfect throughout.

One other interesting point - I've been careful in this review to describe Murderbot as "it" as the text does, although in my brain it was always "she." I blame/thank the Ancillary Justice series for that one, although Murderbot would be very offended to be given a gender.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book