Aug 19 2018

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Short story collections are often hit or miss for me. Particularly when they’re the collected works of a single author: I often find myself rooting for said author to do well with each new story even as I’m quietly disappointed by the sum of the collection. This is especially true for writing that’s critically lauded as being “literary”, most of which I find deeply dull or, at best, pedestrian. I often wonder at how sheltered critics must be who rhapsodize over incredibly tedious short stories about interior lives and impressionistic emotions as being somehow novel or undiscovered. It genuinely makes me wonder how much reading these critics actually do otherwise, and makes me want to shove a copy of any Gardner Dozois or Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling edited anthology into their hands. And writers, if you feel the need to write a literary short story, tell it in a way that doesn’t make me roll my eyes like a know-it-all teenager. I want to be impressed. I want to love your story. And if you’re sure you only need to use a short story and not a novel to tell me your tale, tell me something complete unto itself.

Fortunately, Her Body And Other Parties doesn’t evoke my brattiest behavior but it’s still not as good, I feel, as the hype would have me believe. I honestly didn’t care that much for the critically lauded The Husband Stitch because, while the parts about the narrator’s marriage and family were quite entertaining, the inclusion of the green ribbon was a metaphor that wasn’t properly explained. What in the actual hell was the green ribbon supposed to signify? I’m surmising that it means a woman is allowed her secrets and interior motivations, but the ending, while mirroring the source material, winds up having the exact emotional impact of said source material to anyone who’s decades removed from the first time they heard this story: a sense of profound unsurprisedness. Like, what is the point?! Don’t just borrow the story for the sensationalist frisson, do something with it. Sure it’s got more gravitas because of all the filled-in family stuff, but I didn’t actually care any more about the protagonist than I did the woman in the original.

I suppose I could put this down to me just not being smart enough for this book, but I continued to find myself baffled by Carmen Maria Machado’s use of metaphor and technique throughout the collection. Inventory, I thought, was a strong entry because things actually happened in it that didn’t leave me going “what just happened?” Mothers was great until the ending that made no sense. As was… actually, most of these stories had endings that were incredibly weak. The coda to The Resident was some nauseatingly self-indulgent nonsense, and again, nothing was explained. Eight Bites was pretty great till its nonsensical ending. Real Women Have Bodies only works if you believe the narrator is an asshole who thinks it’s okay to tell other women how to survive, but given her sympathetic rendering otherwise, I’m pretty sure Ms Machado is okay with said narrator’s holier-than-thou bullshit. Especially Heinous has a terrific premise but just goes on and on, flogging a dead horse well into paste. I did like Difficult At Parties a lot, so that makes two outstanding stories of the eight, and six that had great imagery or ideas but just seemed to fall flat at the finish line.

It’s weird, part of the reason I thought I might like this “literary” collection is the fact that it’s rooted in some deeply weird horror/sci-fi, and as a feminist, I fully support stories of women owning/exploring their sexuality and asserting their agency/personhood. But either the finish on these stories is poor or I’m just not smart enough to figure out what the point of those six stories were, as you may choose.

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Aug 18 2018

The Hazel Wood (The Hazel Wood #1) by Melissa Albert

Oh yuck, this has a sequel? Not that this wasn’t an entertaining book, but I liked how complete it was on its own. If anything, I’d like to read more of the fairy tales that are mentioned, but not fully imparted, over the course of this novel.

Okay, so there’s this journalist, Anna Parks, who goes missing for an extended period of time. When she returns, she changes her name to Anthea Proserpine, writes a book of fairy tales, then retreats to upstate New York to a secluded estate with her husband and daughter, Ella.

Years later, and Ella is constantly on the move with her own teenage daughter, Alice. Mother and daughter are exceptionally close, but for one thing: Ella wants nothing to do with Anthea or her estate, The Hazel Wood, or the book that made Anthea’s fame and fortune, Tales From The Hinterland. Alice doesn’t understand why. Nor does she understand the many fans and, bluntly, creepers who obsess over Anthea and, by extension, herself and Ella. But Alice is happy enough to respect her mother’s wishes… till the day Ella disappears, and Alice finds herself searching out The Hazel Wood for answers.

So this was a weird book for me. I very much enjoy fairy tales and their deconstruction and retellings, but I have to admit that I admired this novel as an exercise in such more than as a story. I enjoyed the philosophical questions Melissa Albert raises about storytelling and folklore and family and personality, but the pacing of her framing narrative didn’t quite work for me. Once Alice arrived at the Halfway Wood, the structure of her story overtook what, up till then, had been a vivid tale of personal choices. I did not enjoy losing everything that made Alice such a vital character to formula. Even though it was making a point about the genre, it made the story itself a whole lot less interesting for that stretch.

Which is a pity because Alice is one of the few modern protagonists allowed to be angry all the time. She’s violent, temperamental and self-absorbed, yet feels more excessively real than most fictional characters of any genre. There’s an especially awful interaction between her and Ellery Finch, the biracial schoolmate who is helping her, over a confrontation she has with a cop. Ellery tries to explain his well-founded concerns but she reacts exactly like a clueless, selfish white girl would. Alice can be awful, but that’s kinda the point of her, and I loved how Ms Albert was unafraid to portray all her flaws without condoning what she does.

Anyway, this was an interesting experiment in fairy tale deconstruction that had several distinct shortcomings in the storytelling but is still a worthwhile read, especially if you’re into metatextual fiction. Story-wise… eh. Maybe that’s something Ms Albert improves upon in the sequel.

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Aug 14 2018

Fiddlehead by Cherie Priest

Isn’t it great when the last in a set of books is the best of the bunch? Not only is Fiddlehead, the fifth of Cherie Priest‘s Clockwork Century novels, easily the best of the series, it’s terrific fun from start to finish, a page-turner in the best sense of the word. It races from tension-filled opening to satisfying conclusion with barely a pause. I tore through the book, constantly wanting to know what happened next.

In the world of the Clockwork Century, the American Civil War is still running in late 1879. Texas is its own republic, and a source of advanced technology such as diesel motors and zeppelins. The Pacific Northwest is still largely unorganized. Seattle was decimated by a strange gas that turns people into zombies. The city has been sealed off behind an encircling wall, but because a distilled form of the gas is an exciting drug, Seattle has not been abandoned completely. Unfortunately, taking the drug eventually turns people into zombies too, as Union, Texas, and Confederacy are all finding out from the effects on former soldiers trying to ease their pain, and on various forms of thrill-seekers.

By the way, Abraham Lincoln survived John Wilkes Booth’s assassination attempt and served out the remainder of his term. He was succeeded by Ulysses S. Grant. As Fiddlehead opens, Grant is nearing the end of his third term, somewhat worse for the wear, and definitely worse for the drink. Lincoln is a respected elder and mostly keeps to his estate not far from Washington. Priest advances technology enough to provide Lincoln an electric and motorized wheelchair; it’s a prototype, but gives Lincoln some mobility to go with his one remaining good eye.

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Aug 13 2018

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

One of the hard problems of writing far-future science fiction is just how strange humans of that era are likely to appear to present-day readers. Quite apart from the changes that technology and any move of setting from the terrestrial are likely to bring, the ways that societies change over time are likely to render humans of a time centuries hence nearly as alien as any actual aliens that appear in the stories. They won’t be unrecognizable — going in the other direction, readers still recognize people in, says, Dante, Homer and the epic of Gilgamesh — but they will be strange in ways both big and small, and things that are perfectly ordinary in a far future will be very difficult to comprehend to outsiders visiting from somewhen else.

Most of the time, authors ignore this problem for the sake of getting on with the stories they want to tell. Or they may rationalize their writing as something like an implicit translation from the idioms and manners of then into the usages of today. “Of course people in the twenty-sixth century won’t say ‘Perfectly cromulent,’ but they will have a functionally equivalent expression, and anyway I am writing for a contemporary audience so I use dialogue that is pleasing to present-day sensibilities.” There is also the point about the inevitability of authors writing as people of their time, with many of the assumptions and commonplaces of the era. It has been famously noted that Isaac Asimov, for example, could imagine a robot doing a man’s job, but not a woman doing the same.

In Too Like the Lightning, Ada Palmer tackles this problem directly. “You will criticize me, reader, for writing in a style six hundred years removed from the events I describe, but you came to me for explanation of those days of transformation which left your world the world it is, and since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed the recent revolution, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described. … It will be hard at first, but whether you are my contemporary still awed by the new order, or an historian gazing back at my Twenty-Fifth Century as remotely as I gaze back on the Eighteenth, you will find yourself more fluent in the language of the past than you imagined; we all are.” (p. 7) Fluent, too, in the language of the future. They care about things that strike us as unimportant, their daily interactions involve many of the same things, but are different in countless small ways that add up to a new society. Their motivations look odd, as of someone from a different culture, because of course that is exactly what they are.

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Aug 13 2018

A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic #1) by V.E. Schwab

I nearly fainted with pleasure when I finished this book and realized, holy shit, it’s a complete book! Way too many genre authors nowadays — or at least those whose works I’ve had the misfortune of reading recently — think that writing a series means that each 300+ page novel doesn’t need to tell a complete story on its own. This is highly irritating to me but something I’ve resigned myself to, so I didn’t honestly expect better from V. E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade Of Magic, once I heard it was the first in a trilogy. But when the book ended and felt wholly complete while still leaving me interested in what might come next, the sequels leapt up my To-Read list. THANK YOU, MS SCHWAB!!!

Another reason I’m looking forward to sequels: the extremely delightful Lila Bard. Girl is a sociopath and I’m totally okay with it, probably because she’s a lot like one of my default RPG characters. I loved how she and Kell and Rhy interacted, and if there’s a nascent love triangle going on there, I don’t hate it, because it isn’t perfunctory and is entirely built up to. I also love the world building Ms Schwab has engaged in, and while I did find ADSoM a bit difficult to immerse myself in for the first half or so of the novel, I’m absolutely hooked now. Looking forward to reading more, once I dig myself out from under all the other obligatory reading I need to do rn.

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Aug 12 2018

Down & Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

One of the niftier things that Cory Doctorow does in Down & Out in the Magic Kingdom is to show a basically sympathetic character making a series of bad decisions for reasons that I, as a reader, could understand why he was taking those actions but I wished he wouldn’t and hoped he would figure out a way to sort himself out before he lost everything we both cared about. Doctorow has garnered a lot of praise as a novelist of ideas — the edition I have features a blurb from Bruce Sterling saying, “He sparkles! He fizzes! He does backflips and breaks the future!” — but it’s Doctorow’s skill with people, even transhuman people, that makes the ideas work.

The character I wished would make better choices is Jules, Doctorow’s first-person narrator and readers’ window into a semi-distant future in which humanity has conquered death and overcome material scarcity. Bodies are ephemeral and extremely modifiable, consciousness and memories are backed up regularly and rapidly so that about the worst that can happen to a member of the Bitchun Society is the loss of a fairly short span of memories covering the gap between their most recent backup and whatever caused the current body’s untimely demise. People have also colonized near-earth space, and perhaps more distant parts of the solar system but that’s not Jules’ focus.

He has already lived in space for a while, and at present he chooses to live in Disney World, a cultural landmark that has been running for well over a century at the story’s opening. A little more than a generation ago, the park was liberated from corporate control by ad-hocracies, passionate groups of fans who are willing to devote their post-scarcity lives to maintaining and improving the park experience for guests and earning Whuffie, the reputation-based currency analogue that simultaneously tracks social standing and opens the door to non-material luxuries of the future.

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Aug 12 2018

Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee

Sometimes an author is much more interested in a major character than I am. Writing about Raven Stratagem, the second book in the Machineries of Empire series, I already noted that Lee’s interest in writing about Shuos Jedao was starting to exceed my desire to read more about him. Revelations late in the book showed me why Lee had concentrated so much on the character, I understood what Lee had been up to all along, and I appreciated the skill involved in both setting up the apparent imbalance and resolving it in a satisfying fashion. Revenant Gun offers readers twice as much Jedao, the one who has appeared in the first two books, and a new one, created by one of the hexarchs to counter the threat that the first has become, but furnished with far fewer of the original Jedao’s memories.

The main action of Revenant Gun follows Raven Stratagem by nine years. I found this an awkward gap. Some of the external dangers to the hexarchate that loomed so large in Raven Stratagem have receded, without great explanation within the story and without great effects on the hexarchate. On the other hand, some of the internal political issues that stem from the end of Raven Stratagem are as important to the characters as if no time at all had elapsed since the events of the previous story. To tell the story he wants to tell about the two Jedaos, Lee needs a setting that’s settled into a more stable equilibrium than would be possible if the book were set directly after Raven Stratagem but he also needs the previous conflicts to be as immediate to the characters in the new situation as they were before.

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Aug 10 2018

Pretty Little Liars (Pretty Little Liars #1) by Sara Shepard

I love the idea of Gossip Girl with a murder mystery twist, so I was super thrilled when I finally got my hands on the first book of this series. I’ve read *every* single Gossip Girl novel (in all honesty, the TV show was a huge disappointment in comparison) barring the Psycho Killer mash up, which I have on a wish list and was hoping that reading Pretty Little Liars would whet my appetite for. And while PLL certainly provides us with the dishy goings on of privileged teenagers, albeit set in moneyed rural Pennsylvania instead of moneyed NYC, it is intensely annoying as a mystery novel because no actual mysteries are solved. Everything is setup. Very entertaining setup, granted, but certainly not a complete story on its own.

I had this same issue with Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious, but at least that made an attempt at solving one of the mysteries in the book. Also, I’m willing to cut a little slack to a trilogy, since I know that everything will be wrapped up neatly at the end of 900 or so pages. But PLL stretches out for sixteen books, y’all. I’ve heard that new mysteries crop up in the later books but I really don’t want to invest that much time in novels that have a high probability of giving me cliffhangers in lieu of satisfaction. I can absolutely see why people have enjoyed these books, however, and if I had all the time in the world, I’d read more of them. The characters are fun — I like Emily best, tho IRL, I’m definitely a cross between Aria and Spencer, barring the weird weakness for older men — and the situations for the most part relatable, if not completely believable. If this weren’t a mystery novel, I’d be much more delighted by the storytelling. As it is, it just felt like the first third of a book, one that I’m not interested in seeking out more of atm.

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Aug 06 2018

Bad Man by Dathan Auerbach

It’s not too often that I pause while reading a book to admire the writing. I mean, just the craft, the way the words are put together: I really enjoy the way Dathan Auerbach writes. The writing falls apart a bit as the book progresses — you can almost feel the deadline looming, the way the transitions go from smoothly turned to unintendedly jarring — but this is still a solidly written horror novel. Set in the 1980s in the Florida panhandle, Bad Man is the story of Ben, a young man who is a teenager when his little brother goes missing on a trip to the grocery store. Five years later, Ben’s family is still barely coping with Eric’s loss. Ben himself has hardly recovered from the twin disasters of his brother’s disappearance and an earlier car crash that seriously weakened his leg. Desperate for work, Ben accepts a position as stock boy at the same grocery store where he last saw Eric. Spending long nights there, often alone, has him starting to believe that the place holds sinister secrets, and that if only he can uncover them, he’ll be able to discover once and for all what really happened to his brother.

Bad Man is a terrific exploration of guilt and longing and memory in small-town America, far removed from bucolic romanticism and nostalgia. I would have liked more of an explanation of the particulars of Eric’s abduction: I assume he was lured away but the details otherwise are elided a little too much for me. I want to know why his abductor did it (“crazy” is not a good enough reason for a book that isn’t afraid to dive deeply into Ben’s psyche,) and more about Blackwater and the blond kid. And, I dunno, I didn’t really like the ending. I can sorta get over what happens to Ben, but I think it could have been linked back to the beginning better. I also didn’t really get the point of the interludes, which I imagine are a story told by the blond kid to Eric. Again, I felt like it was something that could have been linked back more tightly to the main narrative.

Overall, however, I quite enjoyed the way this book dealt with the horrors of child abduction and its lingering aftereffects on everyone involved. Going back to the subject of craft, there were so many set pieces that begged for a visual adaptation that I’m kinda hoping this makes its way to a screen somehow. I don’t usually like horror movies, but I’d definitely consider watching that one.

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Aug 05 2018

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

In John Sclazi’s first series of science fiction novels, Old Man’s War and its several sequels and companion volumes, the Milky Way near earth (well, near in interstellar terms) teems with life and spacefaring civilizations. Humanity has to make its way in a galactic neighborhood that’s full of life, and nearly as full of war. The Collapsing Empire concerns an interstellar human civilization at the other end of the Drake equation: nobody here but us. In this setting, travel between solar systems proceeds thanks to the Flow, something like an extradimensional river that enables interstellar travel in a matter of weeks and months. Ships maneuver to an entry shoal that is more or less stable in space, translate themselves into the Flow, and follow it to an exit shoal in the destination system. Communication proceeds at the speed of travel, as it did on earth in the ages prior to the telegraph. Moreover, Flow connections are not symmetric: a route from A to B does not necessarily imply a route from B to A. The geometry of routes means that some systems are more important than others. Within the story, the ruling power set itself up about a thousand years before the book’s opening by controlling the most important set of Flow connections and building its empire outward from there.

Over that time span, the Flow has been stable with notably rare exceptions. Many centuries ago, the connection to earth was lost. This bit of narrative convenience gives Scalzi a much freer hand in shaping the overall setting for his space opera, which is likely to run for at least three books. (The second in the set, The Consuming Fire, is scheduled to be published in October 2018.) In a more recent century, the Flow to the planet Dalasýsla collapsed. Cut off from the rest of humanity, the settlement of some 20 million people on Dalasýsla also collapsed within decades.

Although the book’s title mentions an Empire, and one of the leading characters is the new Emperox, the star-spanning polity is actually known as the Interdependency. Not only is the universe of this story bereft of other forms of intelligent life, there is precious little habitable real estate in the systems connected by stable Flow links. Most of humanity lives in artificial habitats, either in space or under domes on planets that are otherwise inhospitable to human life. Rather than attempting to make every colony autonomous, an expensive and probably unattainable proposition, the leaders of human colonization chose to make the settlements dependent on one another. The resulting web of settlement is stronger and more prosperous than a string of autarkies would be, and they stand or fall together. For the better part of a thousand years, that has been an advantage.

At the book’s outset, there are signs that the Flow is not as stable over the very long term as humanity has assumed. Over the course of the book, these signs turn in to certainty, but plenty of power players are willing to overlook the fact that fundamental and inevitable change is coming to human civilization.

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