Nov 26 2017

Ganymede by Cherie Priest

Ganymede, the third of Cherie Priest’s five Clockwork Century novels, follows the efforts of some free people of color to tip the scales of the American Civil War, ongoing for more than 20 years at the time of the book’s events, in favor of the Union by bringing it an experimental Confederate submarine that sank in Lake Ponchartrain. Of course there are obstacles: the Ganymede itself is at the bottom of the lake; when it was operational, it had a tendency (like real Civil War submarine prototypes) to kill its own crew as readily as any enemy forces; New Orleans is a Confederate city, although the Republic of Texas takes care of most of the occupation; the Union’s new aircraft carrier (zeppelins, this is alt-history among other things) is stationed off the Louisiana coast and willing to receive the Ganymede but can’t hang about forever; nobody really knows how to pilot a submarine. Not to mention the zombies.

Josephine Early, brothel owner and a leader of the enterprise to raise the Ganymede and bring it to the Union, believes she has a solution to the pilot problem: Andan Cly is an airship captain and an old flame of hers. She believes that a submarine is more like an airship than anything else. Captain Cly might have just the right combination of derring-do, foolhardiness and lingering regard for her to take on the job that numerous others have turned down. Cly is presently based in Seattle, a settlement with its own considerable zombie problem, as detailed in the first two Clockwork Century novels, Boneshaker and Dreadnought.

In the world that Priest has set up, an experiment gone wrong in Seattle unleashed a mysterious gas, Blight, that turns humans into zombies and has unpredictable effects on other wildlife. To contain the Blight, the people who survived the initial onslaught built an enormous wall around the center of town. Distilled essence of the Blight yields a powerful intoxicant and stimulant, generally known by the street name of “sap.” Sap, in turn, is much in demand among soldiers in the war, casualties, and others willing to play around with their consciousness regardless of the price. Captain Cly has previously run sap to the east and supplies back to Seattle, but he has become uneasy with the bargain and is trying to go more or less straight.

Early’s telegram, vaguely seeking help, catches him at an opportune moment. He is willing to come to New Orleans with his ship and crew, and find out what Early wants from him.

Of course things do not run like clockwork. An unfortunate encounter between an important Texian officer and a delegation from the local zombie population leads to lots more military attention from the Republic than the would-be sub smugglers prefer. Early’s brother is seriously wounded in a firefight that was bad enough before the Texians sent in reinforcements. (One of the field doctors in this novel is Leonidas Polk. In Ganymede, he’s a washed-up Union man, and a drunk. In our timeline, Polk was an Episcopal bishop, a Confederate general, and a principal founder of my undergraduate alma mater. Encountering this version of him is deeply weird.)

Soon, Early and her allies along with Cly and his crew are racing time and Texas to try to bring the Ganymede from the lake to the Mississippi River, and thence to the sea. It’s an adventure almost without pause, told with style and verve. One of the best aspects of the novel is that Early and Cly split because neither could yield to the other, at least not enough to make a life together. Working together in a fraught and secret, neither of them finds it any easier than before to let the other take the lead. As Priest handles their conflicting tendencies, both characters remain true to themselves and work their way toward resolution, or at least accommodation. This relationship could easily have fallen into cliché, but in my view did not.

The rest is good, solid adventure writing. Readers learn a bit more about how the world of the Clockwork Century works; Priest lets on about how there are coming to be zombies in places other than Seattle; Marie Laveau has a couple of guest appearances and teaches Early a little bit of zombie lore. There are spies, there may be betrayals, there are certainly fireworks. Ganymede promises a taut tale in a strange nearby world, and delivers.

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Nov 20 2017

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett

At the Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork, magic leaks into all sorts of things, including the scraps from the wizards’ sumptuous dinners. Some of the rats who were helping themselves to leftovers got an unexpected dose of intelligence as part of the magic in the cooking. And a cat, Maurice, got it too when he ate some of the rats. Along with intelligence, they have acquired the ability to talk with humans. The rats mostly stayed rats, and the cat mostly stayed a cat, but not entirely. As The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents opens, cat and rats have been a team for some time. The rats have abandoned Ankh-Morpork (well, these rats, at least) and are saving their money for an island far away with lots of food and no cats. Maurice has come up with a scam that meets their needs efficiently: the rats visibly infest a town, and Maurice conveniently furnishes a human piper to play a sweet tune and draw the rats out, just as soon as the town has coughed up a hefty fee. But recently they have had what Peaches, one of the rats, calls “a number of narrow squeaks.” Besides, some of the rats are starting to have ethical qualms about the scam. Further, the rats have plenty of money.

“The reason I say we’ve got more money, Maurice, is that you said what were called ‘gold coins’ were shiny like the moon and ‘silver coins’ were shiny like the sun, and you’d keep all the silver coins. In fact, Maurice, that’s the wrong way around. It’s the silver coins that are shiny like the moon.”
Maurice thought a rude word in cat language, which has a great many of them. What was the point of education, he thought, if people went on afterwards and used it? (pp. 19–20)

So the rats and the cat agree to run the scam one last time. The kid, who seems to have no discernible wishes beyond wanting opportunities to play his flute, agrees. The Uberwald town of Bad Blintz is their last show, and they are going to make it a big one. Little do they realize how big it will turn out to be.

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Nov 17 2017

The Daughter of Time (Inspector Grant #5) by Josephine Tey

The premise of this novel is so inherently flawed that the fact that it convinced me of Richard III’s innocence by the end is quite the achievement. Essentially a re-examining of the history of one of England’s most vilified regents, it begins because a bedridden Inspector Grant refuses to believe that such a “sensitive” face could possibly order the murder of his two young nephews. Compounding this entirely unreasonable supposition is the fact that the face is depicted not in a photo but in a court portrait commissioned in an era that Josephine Tey readily admits required flattery in order for the artist to survive (financially, at the very least.) Grant’s primary argument after this is the fact that there were nine other heirs between Richard and the throne, but Ms Tey conveniently forgets that the claim of any of the six women was legally weaker than of Richard and the few males left on that list, an injustice only recently rectified by the British parliament to implement the rights of primogeniture regardless of gender. All of this makes me look askance at Grant’s conviction rate: I certainly would not want this level of deduction applied to cases with real-world repercussions!

Fortunately for my sensibilities and the fictional world of crime-solving in which Grant usually operates, the rest of the arguments are sound, and I did very much enjoy Ms Tey’s acerbic observations as to what constitutes accepted historical fact (Tonypandy!) And yes, it was hard for me to differentiate between Grant’s voice and Ms Tey’s, as the novel is essentially a philosophical/historical argument dressed up in 1950s British police and hospital clothing. An entertaining read, definitely, and arguably the most popular vindication of Richard III in print, but one must get over some startlingly poor suppositions in order to get to that point.

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Nov 16 2017

Wilhelm Tell by Friedrich Schiller

Wilhelm Tell, a five-act drama in verse, was Friedrich Schiller’s last major work. It tells the story of the start of the Swiss Confederation as the people of four inner cantons — Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden and Luzern — joined forces, swearing an oath to drive out a Habsburg ruler who is intent on limiting traditional Swiss freedoms. This oath, and the rebellion attending it, are so central to Swiss self-conception that even today, more than 700 years since the event (the timing of its closest historical analog is disputed), Swiss are often known in German as Eidgenossen, “oath swearers” or “oath comrades” and many Swiss institutions bear the adjective form, eidgenossische, as part of their names.

Schiller opens his telling of the events with a depiction of Wilhelm Tell as an incarnation of Swiss virtues. The first speakers, a fisherman, a shepherd, and an Alpine hunter, stand for the traditional ways in which rustic Swiss have made their livings. A storm is brewing over the lake when a young man lurches onto the stage, fleeing from Habsburg horsemen who will kill him for not showing proper reverence to a hat that their lord has set in the town square as a representative of the sovereign. The fisherman says it is too dangerous to set out on the lake. As the young man begs for help, Wilhelm Tell arrives, holding his crossbow. He says that he will take the risk, and in a show of skill, courage, and divine favor, navigates the stormy waters, rescuing the independent young Swiss and showing his own disdain for arbitrary power.

The events of the play all flow from that initial confrontation. The Habsburgs want to extend their domain at the expense of the Holy Roman Emperor, and so they are tightening their grip on the Swiss territories over which they had been nominal sovereigns. The Emperor will not come to the aid of the Swiss, although he has been a traditional guarantor of their rights. Later in the play, Schiller reveals that the Emperor has been killed by one of his sons, who believed he was being kept from his rightful inheritance. The Swiss of the four cantons wish to uphold their traditions, rights, and independence, but separately they lack the power to prevail against Habsburg soldiery. Tell does not initially think too hard about rescuing his young countryman, but over time the act leads him further into rebellion, and propels him into leadership. There is also a subplot with a young Swiss noble who thinks the Habsburg side will be the winning one, and at first casts his lot with the foreign oppressor.

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Nov 15 2017

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

In just over 200 pages, Neil deGrasse Tyson takes his readers, who are presumably in a bit of a rush, on a grand tour of the cosmos, with a refreshing emphasis on what scientists don’t know. He’s bumptious, conversational, unafraid of including personal opinions about people in the field and commendably clear even when describing mind-expanding notions. He’s also a bit cheeky, titling his first three chapters “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” “On Earth as in the Heavens,” and “Let There Be Light.” Apparently he’s always been that way. The first essay he wrote about the wider universe was about diminutive galaxies that are companions to the Milky Way. He titled it “The Galaxy and the Seven Dwarfs.”

He mentions that essay in a chapter on intergalactic space, which concludes that it “is, and forever will be, where the action is.” (p. 74) Not only is there far more intergalactic space than the other kind, there’s a lot more in it than one might think, “dwarf galaxies, runaway stars, runaway stars that explode, million-degree X-ray-emitting gas, dark matter, faint blue galaxies, ubiquitous gas clouds, super-duper high-energy charged particles [cosmic rays], and the mysterious quantum vacuum energy.” (p. 64) How much mass does it all add up to? “Nobody knows for sure. The measurement is difficult because the stars are too dim to detect individually. We must rely on detecting a faint glow produced by the light of all stars combined. In fact, observations of [galactic] clusters detect just such a glow between the galaxies, suggesting that there may be as many vagabond, homeless stars as there are stars within the galaxies themselves.” (p. 67) Astronomers have also seen more than a dozen supernovas far away from presumed galaxies. Tyson notes that in ordinary galaxies, for every supernova there are one hundred thousand to one million stars that do not explode in that fashion. The isolated supernovas may point to “entire populations of undetected stars.” (p. 67) They may be even more numerous, because to date systematic supernova searches have monitored known galaxies, rather than intergalactic space.

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Nov 13 2017

Kill 6 Billion Demons, Book 1 by Tom Parkinson-Morgan

My husband got me this last Christmas and I’ve just now gotten round to reading it and, er, what? The best thing about it was Allison deciding she needed to suck it up and go save her idiot boyfriend, even if he’s kind of a crap boyfriend, because she’s a badass and that’s what badasses do: save people from unearned terrible fates. But I wasn’t a huge fan of the art, or perhaps with this presentation of the art: it looks way better on my PC screen than in a trade. And I spent way too much time rolling my eyes at the pretentious mythology that read like the drug-addled ravings of a philosophy major convinced that he’s not only cool but correct. I likely won’t bother with the rest of the series as I didn’t really care for anyone in it, tho the one trader turned helper at the end was kinda neat. I honestly don’t know why my husband thought I would enjoy this.

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Nov 13 2017

Bonfire by Krysten Ritter

I don’t think it’s weird of me to have a girl crush on Krysten Ritter after reading this book, given how phenomenally talented she is in the fields I care most about professionally: acting and writing (I would be completely unsurprised if she was also terrific at waitressing and corporate training, but then I’m just projecting a wee bit too much there, I suppose.) I still think her turn as the titular B in Don’t Trust etc has been her standout performance so far. I’m not knocking Jessica Jones, but DTTBIA23 was a terrific comedy series with a very strong main cast (James van der Beek is under-rated and oh my God, Dreama Walker! I could barely believe she was the same actress who terrorized Alan Cumming’s Eli Gold in The Good Wife!)

But to the reason for this review: Bonfire. The writing is tremendous. Ms Ritter has a way with words and her capacity for emotional honesty is astounding, traits that serve her well, I’m sure, in her day job. I will say that the pacing is off. Explanations are often rushed through or skipped over altogether, forcing the reader to make too many assumptions. Being a lifelong mystery reader, it was easy for me to make all the right guesses, but it annoyed me that narrative tension was too often cast aside for the purpose of getting to the next set piece. There is the potential for a really amazing book in this, but it needs to be written out more, which is not an accusation I often make. I do hope she keeps going with her writing, because she has a lot of talent, and I hope she’s afforded the time she needs to write truly excellent novels. I’m not sure if I’m being more kind in this review than I might be because I understand the demands on her time and attention of her other work, or because I know that acting can be so emotionally absorbing and creatively fulfilling that writing something completely unrelated requires a drastic shift in mindset and focus, but I do know that she’s as good a writer as she is an actress. And I freaking love when my entertainers are multi-talented like that.

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Nov 09 2017

Binti (Binti #1) by Nnedi Okorafor

So for real, Binti is a terrific character and the setting is amazing and the way Nnedi Okorafor builds a whole universe and sci-fi system is breathtakingly good considering the novella doesn’t even break a hundred pages but Jesus fuck, I was not okay with how the Meduse were deferred to. They did something to Binti which she would likely have agreed to if only they’d fucking asked her, but no, they completely disrespect her bodily autonomy but are also referenced as a culture of truth and honor and no, fuck no, they’re assholes. Fuck this noble savage trope: you can absolutely respect a culture without blindly rubber stamping everything they do. It was a perspective disappointingly lacking in nuance especially in comparison with how Ms Okorafor discussed the Himba and Khoush. Furthermore, it’s this kind of shit attitude that lets predators get away with bad behavior because they’re “good” men. I expected so much better than a Stockholm Syndrome-y book that rewards fucking terrorists.

Anyway, I’m still waiting on Akata Warrior from the library and I’m really, really hoping that it improves on the rest of the stuff I’ve read from Ms Okorafor as otherwise I’m giving up on her. Settings are absolutely her forte and I love how she writes about young people learning — and God knows we need more voices outside of the white Western perspective — but her drawbacks are starting to outweigh her strengths for me. Please, please, Akata Warrior, be a novel worthy of the acclaim she’s received otherwise. I want to believe.

Read Doug’s less angry review here.

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Nov 09 2017

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

I keep going back and forth on how I feel about this book. I actually enjoyed the romance in it, and the setting was pretty great. As a woman who was horse-mad as a young girl but who was frustrated in her interests, I reveled in all the great detail that the younger me would have done violence to obtain firsthand. But I really had problems with how realistic two of the main characters were, as well as with certain other craft issues.

The most minor of my complaints (at least in terms of how it affected my reading enjoyment) is that the pacing felt a bit stop-start, and I think this has to do with how mystified I felt through large sections of the book as to why the characters did what they did. I still don’t understand how Gabe thought it was okay to run away and leave his family in penury without giving them any warning of their impending homelessness. It was a total asshole move, but forgiveness was automatically expected somehow? Look, just because you feel trapped by your circumstances doesn’t mean you can use it as an excuse to fuck other people over. I totally understand the urge to leave, but not telling people about the bad things that were about to happen is just coldly selfish. I was aghast at how it was rolled so easily into his very real and understandable feeling of suffocation, as if seeking to grow and being a cowardly jackass necessarily go hand in hand. I was also mystified by how someone as business-focused and manipulative as Benjamin Malvern would let his son keep getting away with things that were destructive to both self and financial profit.

And then I didn’t like the way the novelty of Puck’s riding was handled. Again it had that stop-start feel, as if it only mattered when it was convenient to what Maggie Stiefvater wanted to write about at the moment. I mean, yes, no one thinks about gender discrimination all the time — that would be exhausting! — but every time it was brought up, it was like something new all over again. And the conversation Puck had with Tommy’s dad was another mystifying interaction. He sorta explains the cultural significance of having the race be for men on water horses, how that relates to his religion and how her decision to enter on a regular horse is disrespectful, and she apologizes but doesn’t actually care and no one says anything else? I’m not asking for a sociological treatise here but some attempt at reconciling the tradition with more modern sensibilities beyond a “hur hur, girls can’t do guy stuff” would have been nice. I felt sometimes that everyone’s general laconic demeanor was used as an excuse to not explain things, which is especially irritating in a book written from first-person perspectives.

Anyway, I got the enhanced version of the book which included a recipe for November cakes and they were tasty but not as wildly delicious as described in the book. I wanted that burst of butter and orange flavor in my mouth, darn it! They were still quite good but perhaps more work than I’d like to put in on the regular. I’d totally buy them from a bakery every once in a while tho, should they be on offer.

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Nov 04 2017

Thor, Volume 1: The Goddess of Thunder by Jason Aaron

So I’ve been reading comic books for over three decades now and this is the first time I’ve actually given a damn about Thor. I mean, I’ve certainly watched all the movies (Ragnarok soon!) but Thor was always a secondary character to me even before then, and certainly not interesting enough to pick up a book about. So when this turned up for free as part of Amazon’s periodic Kindle Marvel graphic novels sale (even though, for the hundredth time, this is a trade paperback not a graphic novel,) I figured, oh why not.

You guys, this is a really good book. Firstly, it does an amazing job of catching up the casual reader with all the convoluted nonsense of the Marvel Universe to set the stage for where the book begins. Secondly, the story itself is engaging and fun, with Frost Giants coming to Midgard, and the new Thor in conflict with old Thor. The B-plot of Odin’s return to Asgard(ia) was also excellent reading, and I’m very excited to see where this book goes, so much so that I’ve already purchased the next volume.

If Thor was always this interesting a character, then I’ve definitely been missing out. His title always just struck me as General Hospital with superpowers and squabbling deities, and I’d much rather have been reading about the angst of teenagers and beyond in the X-books and other titles I so enjoyed growing up. My only complaint is that Sif gets short shrift as usual (plus, did they change her hair back from being made of the night sky? Bummer, if so.)

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