The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Monday, April 5, 2021

The Yiddish Policemen's Union
Michael Chabon, 2007

Hugo Winner - 2008

Premise: In the final days of Sitka before Reversion, a murder is committed, buried, and investigated. 

So I went into this book trying to give it a fair shake, even though the only thing I remember about reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (by the same author) was that I thought it was overrated. Now the main thing I'm going to remember about this book is that it's tedious.

It's an alternate-history murder mystery that wants to be in a hardboiled style, but the writing only occasionally comes within a glimpse of the cleverness of the greats in that genre. Mostly it's just too precious. One perceptive Goodreads review put it very well: "If he can come up with three ornamental ways to portray one thing, he includes all three of them in the book." And that person said they enjoyed the book. 

To be fair, I can currently only read books in short bursts, and this book was not well served by that. The descriptions were so lengthy and tedious that I started skimming them just so I could keep track of what was even happening (very little). If I weren't reading it for the Hugo project, I would have quit the book a dozen times over in the first half, which drags on and on setting up the situation and the character. I would say characters, but it's all about the main guy, even though after all that description I still don't feel like I know anything important about him (there's all this past trauma, but it's just not compelling) or care at all what happened to him. 

It's alternate history, and the world is really intriguing - but the world doesn't have any practical impact on the story. None of the interesting questions raised by the premise (what if the U.S. had let a few million Jewish refugees settle in Alaska in the 1940s) are actually addressed, in favor of a plot that's trying to blend a noir, a conspiracy novel, and a tiny minuscule bit of vaguely possible supernatural goings-on. (I also spent a third of the book wondering whether all alternate history novels should be eligible for the Hugo if this is.)

I guess it wasn't necessarily bad. It was occasionally even good. But I resent how long I spent reading it, only for it to just end in a big shrug. 

1 Star - Didn't Like It.  


Serial Reading: October Daye #4-#9

Monday, February 22, 2021

Pandemic life has brought me back to reading series in a big way, and I've been continuing to work through Seanan McGuire's October Daye series. I am enjoying these books, but I don't have enough to say for individual reviews. But on the other hand, I do want to remember what I thought of each later, so... time for a lightning round!

Book 4: Late Eclipses - Toby races against time to find a poisoner.

A lot happens, but I don't have much to say about it. Running! Reveals! A villain who last appeared in book 1 that I didn't remember! There's a lot of death in this one, and the scenes where Toby is tortured by iron poisoning are very effective. 

Book 5: One Salt Sea - Toby races against time to find some kidnapped kids before a war starts. 

I liked this one quite a bit. It introduced a whole civilization of sea fae, new characters, new powers, etc. Toby only doubled back on herself like a video game character replaying a level once and only passed out once. Spoiler: We say goodbye to Connor, which... was anyone surprised? Really?

Book 6: Ashes of Honor - Toby deals poorly with loss until a changeling kid in crisis needs help before someone else kills or exploits her, possibly destroying Faerie in the process.

I was so relieved to have Connor off the board (finally) that I kinda skimmed through all the self-destructive behavior that opens this book. I liked the new characters and getting more about the past of Faerie and the structure of the world.

Book 7: Chimes at Midnight - The Queen's animosity toward Toby comes to a head, but luckily for our heroes, she's not actually the rightful heir to the throne.

There's something slightly forced about the inciting incidents here, but the discovery of the truth and assembling of allies works well. The complicating mess around Toby getting dosed with magic drugs and turning herself mostly human is somehow both repetitive and compelling at the same time. It's my biggest ongoing uncertainty about this series: I can't decide whether I think the repeated plot elements and themes are effective or annoying. I do like that at least the power creep so common to this genre feels baked into the character premise.

Book 8: The Winter Long - A friend from the past is a foe and a foe may be a friend. Toby learns more about her mother's life before she was born and takes a dangerous stand.

Apparently, the series was building to some of the revelations in the book, and it does feel like everything kind of comes together here. New characters and returning characters and some status quo changes that feel earned. Possibly my favorite so far. I did find it fascinating that the meta message in this book is that the people who were most helpful to Toby when she was struggling with depression and trauma aren't necessarily all people who are healthy for her to be around now that she can stand on her own. 

Book 9: A Red-Rose Chain - Toby, not exactly the pinnacle of diplomacy, is sent to the Kingdom of the Silences to stop a war. 

Hey, some different plot stuff! This book brings a lot of dangling plot threads together to create some new status quos and some big open questions for later books to deal with. I liked it a lot. 

The Duke Who Didn't

Monday, February 15, 2021

The Duke Who Didn't
Courtney Milan, 2020

Premise: Chloe Fong is focused on one goal: making her father's sauce a successful business. She certainly doesn't have time for her old crush on Jeremy Yu. Jeremy wants to convince Chloe that he's serious about her, but what will happen when the townsfolk find out that he's technically the Duke?

So, Chloe is a constant list-maker. She's stubborn and type-A and prone to over-planning and keeps grudges like they're going out of style. The first pages describe her beloved clipboard.

What I'm trying to say is I feel a bit called out here. Maybe more than a bit. 

Even if you don't strongly identify with the heroine, though, there's a lot to love here. I think what I most enjoy about Milan's work, and most of the romance I like, is the particular mix of reality and aspiration. 

For example, many of the characters face racism and other discrimination because the book is set in England in 1891. However, it's also set in a wonderful haven of a multicultural village - an unlikely place but not impossible. In fact, both heroine and hero face and overcome their difficulties in ways that are perhaps unlikely for the time but not impossible (you can always check Milan's notes at the end for citations and research).

Another aspect I enjoy is that the romance feels right. I usually have little interest in lust-at-first-sight, and Chloe and Jeremy have been pining after each other for a realistically long time, even if their visits have been short. There's a lot of angst about a particular obstacle to their union that turns out to pop like a soap bubble when actually aired (rather than turn into a heap of cloying melodrama). 

Both of them are brave and true and talented, and they make each other better as well as making each other happy. 

Another winner from an author I am coming to trust. 

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Over the Woodward Wall

Monday, February 1, 2021

Over the Woodward Wall
A. Deborah Baker (Seanan McGuire), 2020

Premise: Kids Zib and Avery live on the same street but lead very different lives, until one day they climb a wall that shouldn't be there and end up in a very different world. 

I have mixed feelings about reviewing this book because I went into it with completely the wrong idea. I heard a few people singing its praises and placed a hold at the library without thinking much about it. But this is a new pen name for McGuire, and that's because it's pretty different than her other work. But maybe not quite different enough for me to realize it from the start? In either case, I spent the whole first section confused because I kept waiting for something in the tone or plot to change that wasn't going to change.  

I've read this author's urban fantasy, and her meta-fairytale work, and her horror, but I would call this book... somewhat eerie middle-grade fantasy? It's kind of like if Stephen King with all his meta-narration-style tried to write a modern fairy tale that's actually appropriate for kids. And that was honestly not what I was ready for. 

Also, this is apparently a book that exists inside the world of another of her recent books that I haven't read yet, so maybe the whole thing makes more sense in that context? 

The fantasy world is interesting, but the writing has a blend of Oz-like dream logic and modern direct address to the reader implying an awareness of storytelling/fairytale structure. That combination clashed more than it clicked for me, and the style wasn't pretty enough to make up for a meandering plot. 

It was interesting (and short) enough that I read the whole thing, but the ending isn't an ending. In my opinion, this type of multi-book arc is all wrong for the type of classic-style children's book it purports to be, again bringing into awkward tension whether it's an adult fantasy with kid protagonists or a kid fantasy with too much description. 

I can't mark it down too far because individual scenes were striking or moving, and individual ideas were really neat, but it didn't gel as a whole.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Rainbows End

Monday, January 25, 2021

Rainbows End
Vernor Vinge, 2006

Hugo Winner - 2007

Premise: In the near future, advanced technology means new healthcare, new communications, new dangers, and old human problems.

I was intrigued by the beginning of this book, a bit ambivalent but still curious in the overstuffed meandering middle, and thoroughly disappointed in the sloppy end. It's probably one of those that I would have abandoned if it wasn't part of my "read all the Hugo winners" project. 

I had three main problems by the end. One was mostly a function of when I read the book, but the other two were a fundamental failure to engage with the moral questions it posed and a refusal to reckon with its unlikeable main character.

The first problem I had with the book isn't so much a problem with the book as it is a problem with most near-future sci-fi. It was published in 2006. It's set in 2025. The advanced technology it proposes was plausible future tech in 2006, but isn't that related to the actual technology of today. Like, remember how people tried Google Glass and then decided we just wanted smartphones after all? Augmented and virtual reality have been "on the cusp" for so long that it's hard to picture them becoming the primary way EVERYONE interacts 24/7 with the world and each other anytime soon. 

In the book, everyone controls their computers with their clothes/bodies and sees them on their contacts. The book doesn't directly address this connection, but everyone can do this partially because of the crazy-advanced medical technology that cures nearly everything and makes old people young. (We'll come back to that.) The augmented reality includes being able to choose to see different overlays on reality, including many based on recognizable IP.

One small thing that threw me right out of the story was a sizable digression about things that Terry Pratchett was doing involved with this worldwide collaborative virtual reality project in 2019. It's more bad luck than anything that Vinge chose to briefly highlight someone who would pass away in 2015, and in a notable manner. But even though the artists that were important to the plot were fictional, the whole warring-groups-of-fans-fighting-over-their-various-consensual-realities subplot made me roll my eyes. That part was plausible but insipid.

One way in which the book is more plausible is in the very beginning. An analyst detects a weird occurrence that may be a pilot for a mind-control technique. The reader finds out shortly that it is, and that one of the high-level people ostensibly trying to track down the mind control project is, in fact, the author of said project. Most of the plot is set in motion by a Rube-Goldberg-esque scheme in which he is setting up a secret investigation of the lab while at the same time planning to alter the data so that he can continue to hide the project. 

In the second or so chapter, this character establishes his position -- that weapons of mass destruction are becoming too accessible to too many extremists, and so any technology that can make people not do that is justified. Now that is a fascinating question -- but it's one that the book completely abandons in favor of a bland and convoluted heist plotline. By the end, it might as well have been generic bad guy plot X. 

My largest problem with the book, however, is the main character. There are characters in this story who might be interesting if they got more development. Robert is not one of them. He used to be a famous poet. Then he got Alzheimer's. Then he got cured. At the start of the book, he's just received some treatments that make him functionally young again and he has to learn how to get along in what to him is the future. 

Oh, and he's an asshole. The book is clear on this point. He's lost his poetry mojo, and he's desperate to regain it, so he can go back to being a supercilious asshole. By the end I think the book wants to redeem him, by not getting his talent back, protecting his granddaughter (once when he's out of his mind on weird nerve gas and thinks she's his sister), and being a halfway decent person to a kid who tries to help him (after being an asshole over and over). It doesn't have his son or his ex-wife forgive him, which I was relieved by, but I felt like as the reader I was supposed to hope that his ex-wife would talk to him again sometime after the book ends. Now that he's chaaaanged. 

Which. No. Girl, just block that dude. He wants to be better, that can be something he does on his own time and far away from you. 

But the only characters who get resolutions after the plot collapses under its own weight get them in the context of Robert. I hate Robert. You don't learn about any of the interesting things happening in this world, because you're stuck following Robert. 

For making me angry with failed potential, this book gets:

1 Star - Didn't Like It

The Novice's Tale (Sister Frevisse, #1)

Monday, January 18, 2021

The Novice's Tale (Sister Frevisse, #1)
Margaret Frazer, 1992

Premise: Young Thomasina is eager to take her vows at the convent of St. Frideswide despite the objections of her wealthy aunt. When tragedy strikes, suspicion falls on the one who should be most innocent. 

I'll admit up front that I borrowed this book from the library on the strength of "kinda similar to Cadfael," and I was not disappointed. It's set in the 1400s instead of the 1100s, but the sub-genre of cozy-ish historical murder mysteries set in/around a Benedictine monastery/convent can't have that many entries, right? From the first page, it felt comforting, like a warm cup of tea. (A near trick for a murder mystery.)

I really enjoyed all the characters. The main protagonist, Dame Frevisse, was especially delightful between her gentle intelligent snark and practical convictions. The obvious antagonists were over the top without being too extreme, while the more subtle antagonists were implied to the reader without being too obvious. 

I especially liked the B-plot that in a Cadfael book would have turned into a romance didn't do that, instead staying true to the characters. 

I will definitely read more of these, it had just enough excitement and painted an engaging picture of the time. 

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Persephone Station

Monday, January 11, 2021

Persephone Station
Stina Leicht, 2021

New Release! A digital copy of this book was provided by Netgalley for the purpose of review.

Premise: There's only one human settlement on the planet Persephone, but there's a secret outside the city that some would kill to possess and some would die to protect.

This is one of those books that I regret to say was only fine. The cast has a great level of diversity in race, gender expression, and sexual orientation. However, the book is no more than an okay sci-fi action caper. 

The first chapter is really a prologue, but because it wasn't marked as such, I was confused when we never returned to following that character. (They do show up as a minor character much later, but by that point, I'd forgotten which character that was.) The secondary protagonist is the subject of the second chapter, and we finally meet the main character in chapter 3. She's fine, but nothing really stands out about her. 

That feeling was my main problem with the book - that there's a promising premise, but everything is underwhelming in execution. The mercenary characters help protect an alien city, but the action is nothing special. The aliens are implied to be special in lots of mysterious ways, but all we learn by the end is that they have advanced medicine, talk with smell, and are shapeshifters. It's neat, but it's not unique or dealt with in enough depth to be engrossing. 

There's a lot of references to the criminal underworld of the main human city, but we don't really see anything else in human society, so it just seems like a generic cyberpunk tone. There's another plot following an AI character, but we barely return to her perspective once her plot line coincides with the others. Overall the ending is unsatisfying; the intended emotional payoffs don't quite land. There are so many characters that I never felt compelled by any of them. The book is called "Persephone Station," but we never hear anything about the station until it's suddenly the setting for the final climax. 

Overall it's a decent read, I swear it is, but I wish it were more than that. 

2 Stars - An Okay Book (although I'm tempted to give it a bonus star for doing a decent job with the challenge of writing a character who uses they/them pronouns)

(P.S. I really REALLY hope that the "uncorrected proof" warning was true for this book. I got an advance copy, and there were an unusual number of typos, even for an advance copy.)

Axiom's End

Monday, January 4, 2021

Axiom's End
Lindsay Ellis, 2020

Premise: Cora thought that being the daughter of the world's most notorious conspiracy theorist/whistleblower (depending on your point of view) was as weird and stressful as her life was likely to get. Then it turned out that aliens were real.

If you know internet personality/film critic/media analyst Lindsay Ellis, you know that she likes genre stuff of all types, but has a special place in her heart for the Transformers. This is evident in her novel but I didn't find it distracting.

In broad strokes, the plot has a lot in common with many Transformers stories. Two alien factions come into conflict on Earth; a human with the ability/opportunity to communicate with one alien gets involved, as does the United States government.

Beyond that, the story plays with techno-organic lifeforms, alien methods of communication, and very human reactions to extreme situations. It took me a while to get into the story - I found the first section a bit too full of exposition and events I didn't understand. I also wasn't a big fan of Cora for a while - she was a bit bland and hapless at first. I did really like the speculation and world-building surrounding the question alluded to in the title. 

The book tipped a bit more toward tension and action than I expected, more thriller and less adventure, which isn't generally my taste, especially in 2020. However, once the plot picked up steam, I really enjoyed the read.

3 Stars - A Good Book