Jul 22 2017

A Devil to Play by Jasper Rees

A friend whose son plays the French horn was struck by the quality of Jasper Rees’ writing and sent me a copy of A Devil to Play, thinking that I would enjoy this memoir of renewing acquaintance with a musical instrument abandoned in Rees’ final years of school, and of course she was completely right. On one level, Rees’ story is a common one: middle age has not only approached, it has arrived, bringing with it the end of a marriage, a New Person in His Life, and reaching back to a defining feature of his youth, perhaps in an effort to reclaim some of it. So far, so pedestrian. Rees makes no effort to hide what is happening, or how much he has in common with many other people who have gone through similar passages; indeed, one of the charms of Rees’ writing is his very British ability to make fun of himself, not to take himself too seriously. It can be annoying in person, when you eventually come to wonder if they can take anything seriously, but within the confines of two covers, it makes for witty companionship.

A slightly random moment with the New Person recalls Rees to his days playing the horn in the school orchestra. That leads to his collecting classical music that includes the horn, which leads to his picking up his old Lidl, which leads to his joining the British Horn Society (BHS) in a group of seventy players doing the Hallelujah Chorus. That, in turn, reminds him of how great it was to make music as part of an ensemble, even when one is doing it badly, and so Rees conceives of the idea of playing a solo a the next year’s meeting of the Society. A Devil to Play combines the story of that year with the history of the horn in Western music and civilization. It is, so to speak, a hoot, and the best part of it is spending 300 or so pages in Rees’ amiable and self-deprecating company. He’s arch about some things as well, as when he first addresses the question of why he is doing this slightly crazy thing.

In the Albert Hall at this point [in the Hallelujah Chorus] there would be a single vainglorious trumpet taking on the thousand-strong choir. It’s good for announcing things, is the trumpet. It’s not good for much else, this side of Louis Armstrong. Suddenly the answer steals up on me. I am here because the horn is not the trumpet. The horn is not the bassoon or the trombone or the flute. The horn is, incomparably, the horn. In the right hands, it is the most beautiful instrument in the orchestra. In the wrong hands, it’s still better the trumpet. (p. 14)

[By the end of the 18th century] the trumpet will be so marginalized by the horn that in search of its lost mojo it will have to go off and invent a whole new musical form. (p. 99)

But he’s not always insufferable about the horn’s place in the musical firmament.

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Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/07/22/a-devil-to-play-by-jasper-rees/

Jul 14 2017

The Truth by Terry Pratchett

Technology is rising on the Discworld, as surely and erratically as the morning light from the Disc’s sun. Moving pictures appeared briefly in Moving Pictures, but the unreality that they involved kept them from securing a lasting place among the entertainments for the people of Ankh-Morpork. In more recent books, the semaphore “clacks” have come to form a rudimentary long-distance communications network. In the stories, they echo some of the effects of the telegraph in our world; at the time Pratchett was writing the books, they reflected the growth of the internet.

In The Truth, some dwarfs have discovered a way of turning lead into gold. They have figured out movable type printing with lead letters, and people are paying them in gold to print various things. William de Worde, a dissipated but mostly harmless nobleman, has been making something of a living writing a letter full of news about Ankh-Morpork and selling copies of it to people near and far who need to know about key goings-on in the city. He stumbles into the dwarfs’ workshop and sees possibilities. He feels the pull of a buzzing newsroom, though at the start it is only de Worde and the printers. He has an idea what a paper filled with news could mean for a city, especially one on as perpetually changing as Ankh-Morpork. He can’t stay away. It’s a heady feeling. I know it well.

Not everyone in Ankh-Morpork likes new technology, or the ruler who is letting such things develop. Some of the city’s wealthy and powerful have done quite well with things the way they are, and these people think the city could do with a chief executive who is a little more pliable behind the scenes. Some of them have gotten together and hatched a plan to help the current Patrician, Lord Vetinari, retire; they have brought in a pair of talented foreigners to execute the plan, if not necessarily the Patrician himself.

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Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/07/14/the-truth-by-terry-pratchett/

Jul 09 2017

Love Me to Death (Lucy Kincaid #1) by Allison Brennan

Due diligence for work! I didn’t like this quite as much as I enjoyed the Max Revere books I’ve read so far, most likely because there is So Much Backstory alluded to here that it doesn’t feel like the start of a series but the continuation of some other book I can’t quite figure out. Also, it was absolutely maddening how everyone was all “protect Lucy!”… except for the moment she was kidnapped. And that thing at the florist? Ayfkm?! A name isn’t a positive ID, ffs. That was some really shoddy detecting and everyone involved should be thoroughly ashamed.

That said, I’m only really critical because dang can Allison Brennan write a thriller, and I guess I just expect her characters here to be as smart as the characters of the Max Revere books (tho what’s up with Ms Brennan’s thing for half-Cuban ex-boyfriends?) I did very much like Lucy’s perspective not only on survival but also on trust and vigilantism. I kinda want to force the writers of Arrow to read this book for those latter two topics alone. But I digress. The love scenes were terrific! And another stellar thing about this book is the fact that it’s set in DC and actually knows what it’s talking about. I really hate when books are set in my area by an author who has no idea what he or she is doing.

Anyway, an enjoyable thriller and I’m glad to finally make the acquaintance of Ms Brennan’s work. Good, solid stuff. She’s now on my Read This list.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/07/09/love-me-to-death-lucy-kincaid-1-by-allison-brennan/

Jul 05 2017

Notorious (Max Revere Novels, #1) by Allison Brennan

Honestly, I picked this up for due diligence for work but if it’s anything to go by, this will be an assignment I absolutely adore! I had so many Veronica Mars flashbacks when reading this book: smart, sassy lead investigates the death of her high school best friend and discovers secrets and lies amidst her closest family and friends. Of course, the smart, sassy lead happens to be past thirty and researching the cold case reluctantly, after being approached by the grandparents of a young architect (engineer? It’s late and I couldn’t be arsed to go get my Kindle to double-check) whose recent murder at the lead’s high school remains unsolved, but might be related to the other murder fifteen (thirteen? See my prior excuse) years previously. I kinda sorta figured out who did it midway through, but the excellent misdirection had me totally abandon that idea, till it all came together in the end. Great plotting.

But my hands down favorite aspect of this book was Max Revere, our heroine, herself. She isn’t nice and that’s a big fucking thing. I’ve recently been having discussions about nice vs polite, and I’ll admit in all honesty that I tend to politeness more than niceness, as I’m competitive and judgmental but realize that that doesn’t mean I can’t be civil about things. A lot of people mistake my politeness for niceness, but I can be a vindictive mofo when crossed. Of course, I default to believing the best of people till proven wrong: I may not be nice, but I’m not a psychopath either.

And “nice” is not an adjective you would ever use for Max. She’s demanding, sometimes bitchy, but always fair. She believes in standing up for what’s right no matter the personal consequences, and while I think her crusade for truth borders on zealotry, I think she does have a very good point regarding justice. You can’t sweep problems under the rug: they won’t just disappear. People who literally get away with murder will 99 times out of a hundred keep doing terrible things until they’re caught and punished. Max understands this instinctively, and combining this with her ability to look at things objectively means that she isn’t the most popular person in her hometown. The event that initially draws her back there is the funeral of the man who was accused of killing her best friend. She was one of the few townspeople to stand by him, but was devastated when he told her, after a trial that ended in a hung jury, that he’d had a solid alibi all along but didn’t want to expose it because he was convinced that the system wouldn’t convict an innocent person (I know, I know, get your eye rolls out of the way here.) Max puts this break down to her hatred of liars but I found her secondary argument to be more valid: the time that the cops and prosecutors put in to building a case against him would have been better put towards finding the real killer, who continues to live undetected. Like, damn, son, stress yourself out as much as you need to, but you’re wasting everyone’s time and money and a killer is going free.

Anyway, I’m really looking forward to reading more of Max and of Allison Brennan’s other books. Good thing that I have three more lined up!

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/07/05/notorious-max-revere-novels-1-by-allison-brennan/

Jul 04 2017

Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

Raven Stratagem picks up right where Ninefox Gambit left off, with the star-spanning hexarchate facing threats from within and without: internal heretics who threaten to disrupt the tight control of time that enables faster-than-light travel and other sufficiently advanced technologies, external aliens bent on conquest. A swarm sent by Kel Command, the highest authority of the hexarchate’s warrior caste, to defend against the invasion has received orders to stop and pick up a passenger in a solo ship, one Captain Kel Cheris. She was the hero of Ninefox Gambit, and readers know something that the officer of the swarm, from whose point of view the initial chapter of Raven Stratagem is told: her body is also home to General Shuos Jedao, a master tactician who is also a loose cannon, and whose commitment to the hexarchate is more than a little in doubt.

The crew soon has cause to regret the oversight, as it is Jedao who boards the command ship, using his high rank and the Kel instinct for obedience to commandeer the whole swarm. With that, Raven Stratagem is off to the races. The story moves quickly, and now that the hexarchate was more familiar to me after Ninefox Gambit, I zipped right along with it. Narrative tension builds along several lines: Will Jedao be able to stop the invasion before Kel Command removes him from the swarm that he has stolen? Does he actually intend to stop the invasion, or is he playing a double game? Does Kel Command actually want to remove him? Do they want the invasion fully stopped? What sort of double game might they be playing? Given how oppressive the hexarchate can be, is it worth saving? Given early revelations of how the invading Hafn power their exotic technologies, might they be even worse than the hexarchate?

Raven Stratagem has the virtues of Ninefox Gambit: a dense, tightly constructed setting that Lee uses carefully and convincingly; a tension-filled plot with characters that have multiple and conflicting motives, so that victories may not be at all what they seem. Lee shows more behind-the-scenes maneuvering at the hexarchate’s highest levels, and it’s an interesting mix of decadence and ruthlessness. The hexarchate holds together better than most far-flung despotisms, and it doesn’t seem prone to the kinds of corruption that thrive in ideologically driven societies. But those are relatively minor complaints about a story that carried me along in a setting I could sink into.

I was not quite as fascinated with Jedao as Lee appeared to be. He’s an interesting character, just not quite to the degree that Lee seemed to want his readers to be interested. Besides, all of the focus on Jedao throughout the book left me with the nagging question of what had happened to Kel Cheris. When the story got to the point to answer that question, I was satisfied both with how Lee answered it, and how much attention had been previously focused on Jedao.

Lee also shows more of the regular workings of the hexarchate, which leads to interesting questions.

Family wasn’t the reason [he had joined the Kel], despite what Brezan had told Shuos Zehun in academy, although family had something to do with it. No: it was that the hexarchate was a terrible place to live, but it would be an even worse one if no one with a conscience consented to serve it.
You couldn’t pull the hexarchate apart and exchange it for something better. The fact that the heretics always lost was proof of that. So you had to do the next best thing, the only thing left: serve, and hope that serving honorably made some small difference. (p. 156)

Many Soviet officers surely told themselves something similar. But is that right? Can a corrupt system be served honorably at all? And is the premise right? Can the hexarchate be exchanged for something better? Neither Lee nor his characters answer these questions — if indeed there are answers — but Raven Stratagem occasionally digs deeper than its adventurous story.

The overall story of the hexarchate continues past the events related in Raven Stratagem, although it does bring the immediate storylines to satisfying conclusions. I’m looking forward to finding out what happens next.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/07/04/raven-stratagem-by-yoon-ha-lee/

Jul 02 2017

China Among Equals edited by Morris Rossabi

“Of interest mainly to specialists” is one of those phrases that reviewers often use to suggest, however gently, that a book is terribly dull and that no one outside of a select audience should read it. With a subtitle that reads The Middle Kingdom and its Neighbors, 10th-14th Centuries, China Among Equals is clearly aimed at a small audience, never mind that it was published nearly 35 years ago (arising from a conference held five years before that), and the scholarship among said specialists has very likely moved well past the ground staked out by this book. And yet, I am finding it full of geeky pleasures. In its densely footnoted way, China Among Equals is fascinating.

For all that it is about polities a thousand years in the past, the book is also not irrelevant to larger and more contemporary concerns. As Morris Rossabi writes in his introduction, “Westerners in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were fascinated by the conduct of traditional Chinese foreign relations. … They also assumed that the Chinese dynasties had uniformly and rigidly applied this system of foreign relations from the Han dynasty (206 B.C. – A.D. 220) on, an assumption that is challenged by the essay in this book.” (p. 1) Under this system, the Chinese “devised a scheme which demanded acknowledgement of their superiority.” (p. 2) Foreigners could only have relations with China if they first bowed to China as the superior power and paid tribute to the emperor. “The conventional wisdom is that China preserved this system from the second century B.C. until the middle of the nineteenth century,” (p. 4) when Britain’s ambassador famously refused to prostrate himself before the Son of Heaven and other European powers rejected the Chinese system.

China Among Equals describes and documents a period of several centuries during which the so-called Chinese world order did not hold sway in East Asia. “The Sung (960–1279), the principle dynasty during this era, was flexible in its dealings with foreigners.” (p. 4) Sung officials dealt with neighboring rulers in a variety of different ways, up to and including recognizing some of them as peers. During this period, Chinese merchants also traded across much of Southeast Asia, leading to settlements in the region that are still there today. They competed with Arab traders who crossed the Indian Ocean with the monsoon; Chinese shipbuilders adopted technology that was developed outside of China, and over this period their ships changed from being only suitable for coastal waters to outstripping Arab vessels in seaworthiness. All of these aspects undermine the notion that China regarded itself as completely self-sufficient, the center of the world. To the extent that the traditional view shapes current thinking either inside or about China, showing that it was not universally true is relevant to dealing with twenty-first century China. The pragmatism and variety shown by the examples in this volume are reminders, as if any were needed, to look behind national mythologies, especially those that claim to stretch over thousands of years.

The book is also chock full of implied stories. “Especially for the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Koryo-sa (virtually our only Korean source) is thin in its coverage, owing to the destruction of the dynastic archives in Kaesong in 1011 by Khitan invaders.” (p. 151) Doesn’t that sound like an excellent fantasy novel? Or at least an episode of a good TV show? “The nativist-irredentist movement that acquired momentum in the late 1120s was led by the monk Myoch’ong, who was able to gain influence over the young king Injong by virtue of his thaumaturgic reputation.” (p. 162) I want the movie rights! Other essays detail the comings and goings of missions from one capital to another, with side notes on who tried to get ahead, who got rich in notionally prohibited private trade alongside the official embassy, and who got busted down in the ranks for misbehaving while abroad. People being people, in other words, and I find it fascinating. Not least that records were kept in enough detail to read about it halfway around the world a thousand years later in a language related to precisely none of those spoken at the events in question.

The contributors came from the US, West Germany, Italy, Australia, and Japan. An invitee from Leningrad was unable to attend the initial conference, but his paper helped the editor in revising the others. The essays in the book were written just as Deng Xiaoping was consolidating power in China, at a time when the country was far less open than it is today. The book itself is thus a bit of a historical artifact.

I wouldn’t want to have a steady diet of books like China Among Equals, but it shows why it can be a good idea, every now and then, to dip into things that are mainly of interest to specialists.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/07/02/china-among-equals-edited-by-morris-rossabi/

Jun 29 2017

Hugo Voting 2017

I’ve finished marking up my Hugo ballot for 2017, and I’m satisfied with where my votes have gone. That doesn’t mean I have finished reading everything that’s on the ballot — far from it — but I have done enough in each work that I am going to read to have a sense of how it compares with the others in its category, and that is enough for me to order my preferences.

Voting for the Hugo award has been a very gratifying process. I’ve been aware of the award lo these 30 years and more; fantasy and science fiction are my native genres, and many works that have won the award have meant a lot to me as a reader. I’ve used lists of both winners and finalists as guides to good reading, and been rewarded far more often than disappointed. I count it a privilege to be a part, however small, of selecting this year’s winners. It connects me to the larger community, and I am pleased to have a voice in recognizing excellent work. Technically, the process has worked perfectly. Kudos to the Helsinki Worldcon team, and to this year’s Hugo Administrator, who is a blogfriend. I’m also glad for the community aspect. There are definitely categories I know more about than others, categories where I feel my ballot was better informed than in others. I’m doing my part, but I am also counting on the community to exercise aggregated judgement, and for that I am grateful.

It’s been a big commitment: six novels, six novellas, six novelettes, five book-length related works, many many hundreds of pages of graphic storytelling. Then there are the more nebulous categories such as fancast, semiprozine, and dramatic presentation both long and short. Then there’s this year’s special Best Series category, of which more later. That’s a reasonable chunk of my annual reading, compressed into a little more than three months. As much as I have enjoyed doing it this year, I am not sure I would want to do it every year. (Worldcon is in California next year, so it is very unlikely that I will be going. Dublin in 2019 looks much more probable. And then there’s the possibility of New Zealand in 2020 — Worldcon in Middle Earth?) Some of the works I would have read this year anyway; some others I would have read on my own schedule, when all three parts of a trilogy are available, for example; some I would not have picked up at all. I definitely would not have read everything on the list of finalists by this summer. I am grateful to people who do make the commitment every year. They are honorable custodians of the tradition.

The best part of being a Hugo voter has been encountering new work that I would not otherwise have read. Some of those I’ve written about already, and others I will soon write about as my reviewing catches up up, more or less, with my reading. To name some names:

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Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/06/29/hugo-voting-2017/

Jun 22 2017

Celine: A Novel by Peter Heller

I always love an older female crime solver, and Celine is hopefully the first in a series featuring such a heroine, loosely based on the author’s mother, who was also a blue blood debutante turned private investigator, handling primarily cases of family reunion. Hired by a beautiful middle-aged woman to investigate the disappearance of her father twenty years earlier near Yellowstone National Park, Celine and her laconic husband/sidekick borrow her son’s camper and take to the woods on an adventure that’s difficult to describe, but is deeply satisfying to fans of mystery and of nature writing. Throughout, Celine’s own life and motivations are explored in parallel with her client Gabriela’s. It’s a beautiful piece of writing that imagines this complex woman’s interior life with sensitivity and lyricism, without sacrificing the thrills of the genres.

My only criticism is that sometimes the writing is just a bit too precious. The text is overly peppered with the one-word sentence “Well.” Used sparingly, it is a delightful reminder that we are privy to Celine’s thoughts, but it definitely begins to grate with overuse towards the end.

I am hoping that Peter Heller writes more of Celine’s adventures, as this is a heroine too tremendous to be confined to one book. There’s so much more of her past to be explored, and I definitely want to hear of her continuing exploits.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/06/22/celine-a-novel-by-peter-heller/

Jun 21 2017

This Census-Taker by China Miéville

This Census-Taker, by China Miéville, did not add up for me. If it were not a Hugo finalist, if I had not read and liked close to half a dozen of his other works, I would have pronounced the Eight Deadly Words and set the book aside. Miéville is aiming for the mythic, but mythic is not where I am as a reader just now, and so what I think was meant to be archetypal read more as vague to me.

The story is set in and near a small town located in a remote mountainous region. The narrator, who slips among first- second- and third-person storytelling, is the only child of an odd couple who live atop a flinty hill some distance from the town. The wider setting features signs of a civilizational collapse, with people scraping by amidst scenes of technology that no longer works and a population much reduced by circumstances that include war. The boy’s father makes keys that seem to have magical properties, though they may also be mainly psychological in their workings. The boy’s mother tends the hard-scrabble gardening that produces much of their basic needs. At the story’s opening, the boy runs screaming down into the town because one of his parents has killed the other, though just who killed whom are cast into immediate doubt by the boy’s state. Later, his father claims there wasn’t any killing at all. The narrative, told by the boy an unspecified amount of time later when he is an adult, moves about before and after the opening scene, showing events leading up to it, the months immediately after, and how he came to leave the town.

+++

This Census-Taker was the twelfth bit of Hugo reading I have done this year, and the ninth I have written about.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/06/21/this-census-taker-by-china-mieville/

Jun 17 2017

Golden Son (Red Rising #2) by Pierce Brown

In an alternate universe, I’m a professional fiction author and Pierce Brown and I have beautiful literary babies together. I mean, what greater compliment can I give this series? It’s smart and beautiful and moving. It examines the compromises of society, and the ethics of war and love, and does it all with a stunning sense of humanity rivaled only by Brandon Sanderson, whose books I also loved but not this much. Not this much and that is saying a lot, since Mr Sanderson is the author I respect most in all the world.

So Red Rising was one of the best sci-fi books I’ve ever read, and of course I expected a bit of a sophomore slump with the sequel. Mr Brown defied all my expectations. There were parts where I was all “You’re not going to make me cry, motherfucker” then of course, mere paragraphs later, the tears would be coursing down my face. And then THAT ENDING. I’m so mad. You guys, I’M SO MAD. I want to talk about things but I can’t because there is so much that is gorgeous about this book that to dissect it for you is doing you a disservice when you should really be going out and immediately enjoying this book in its entirety on your own.

Though there was one small thing that didn’t really ring true for me, and that was Darrow’s reaction to the revelation of Eo’s final words, which she chose to say to her sister rather than to her beloved husband. This, of course, might be a defect in my own empathy, simply because what was revealed was something I did not feel quite so viscerally in anticipation vs when it actually happened. And there, I hope I’ve been obscure enough to not spoil it for you when you do read the book, though I hope you come back and tell me what you loved or otherwise about Golden Son once you do.

Once I clear a backlog, I will immediately start on the final book in the trilogy. God, I can’t wait!

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/06/17/golden-son-red-rising-2-by-pierce-brown/

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