Nov 10 2020

She Lies Close by Sharon Doering


I’ve read plenty of books with unsympathetic narrators but this is one of the perishing few where I could sympathize with our protagonist even as I lacked any empathy for her. Grace Wright is, in temperament, my exact opposite. She has a fixed idea of how things should be, and reacts poorly when things go wrong. She’d rather take medication than undergo therapy, and is an enthusiastic helicopter parent who resents her kids, especially since divorcing the husband who cheated on her. She’s overwhelmed even before she discovers that her neighbor is a suspect in the disappearance of five year-old Ava Boone. Sleep-deprived and constantly scouring the Internet on a quest for how to fix everything in her life, she’s a mess. And then she thinks she sees Ava in the window of the house next door.

What follows is a hallucinatory descent into, if not quite the madness, then the definite temporary psychosis of a modern woman trying to keep it all together, to be the woman she thinks she’s “supposed” to be even as her mental and emotional health degrade, in no large part due to her own reactionary choices. Grace has little impulse control and cannot stop from making bad decisions, spurred on by a social milieu that tells her she shouldn’t compromise, that she only needs to lean in, to try harder while depriving her of the supportive framework to do that. Confused and anxious, she chooses paranoia at every turn. Frankly, she’s a QAnon cultist waiting to happen — certain passages, particularly the ones about falling down Internet rabbit holes and being obsessed with protecting children from strangers, remind me of profiles I’ve read of true believers.

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Nov 09 2020

The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder

It is entirely possible that any reader of this review has in their pocket a computing device more powerful than the one whose design and initial construction are the story of The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. That machine, code named “Eagle” in the book, would eventually be sold by Data General as the MV/8000. It was a big as a good-sized kitchen appliance, and needed a separate television screen (definitely a cathode ray tube screen at the time) to manage input and some forms of output. Why read a book that is nearly 40 years old about a device that’s hilariously outdated in a field that is notoriously fast-moving?

The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder

First, Kidder brings the process to life. Someone far from the business might think that the design of a new computer is a bloodless affair. Kidder shows the decisions, the drama, the fights, the passion and the humor that go into the construction of a machine that, at the time, aimed to set the standards of what engineering and science could do within the constraints involved in creating a minicomputer. Sometimes the engineers had disinterested discussions about the best way to address a question; at other times, the choices they made were the result of knock-down drag-out arguments about fundamental views on how people could and should work. There was even the occasional bit of skulduggery.

Second, Kidder shows people giving their all for a project that they believe matters. They worked crazy hours, they worked in shifts, in their off hours they thought about the problems it raised, they offered their creativity, they pushed each other, they stretched their capabilities. “The Eclipse Group and the many others who had worked on the machine — including, especially, Software and Diagnostics — had created 4096 lines of microcode, which fit into a volume about eight inches thick; diagnostic programs amounting to thousands of lines of code; over 200,000 lines of system software; several hundred pages of flow charts; about 240 pages of schematics; hundreds and hundreds of engineering changes from the debugging; twenty hours of videotape to describe the new machine; and now a couple of functioning computers in blue-and-white cases, plus orders for many more on the way. Already, you could see that the engineers who had participated fully would be looking back on this experience a long time hence. It would be something unforgettable in their working lives.” (p. 276)

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Nov 06 2020

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne

In short: neurotic weirdo falls in love with a big ball of red flags.

One of the main reasons it took me years to come back to reading contemporary romance novels is that it infuriates me when the central premise of the book is based on a woman lapping up clearly abusive behavior from some shitheel whose main feature is his good looks. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, he’s also rich, for an injection of glamour and hopefully some expensive parting gifts for our heroine once she figures out she needs to dump the asshole. With some encouragement from Romancelandia, however, I’d recently discovered the joys of reading Helen Hoang and Alisha Rai, with neither writer promoting that kind of toxicity. But too many of the books I’ve read by other authors since have veered closer and closer to it… and then we come to The Hating Game by Sally Thorne.

So our heroine Lucy Hutton is a 28 year-old doormat with no social life because she’s always picking up the slack for her underlings at the publishing house where she’s executive assistant to the arty boss, Helene. Her nemesis Joshua Templeman is the brooding, regimented executive assistant to the business-side boss, Richard. Lucy and Joshua share an office in front of their bosses’ offices, and for the past two years (I think? Overdrive took the book back, so I can’t look it up) have been quietly feuding, engaging in any number of games of one-upmanship with few clearly defined rules. Mostly it’s a bunch of immature behavior that takes up so much time, it’s a wonder either of them gets any work done at all. Plus, they’ve run to HR complaining about the other on numerous occasions, which makes me feel like they’re actually seriously transgressing against one another and not just playfully joking. When a chance appears at a promotion that would put one in charge of the other, their simmering tension boils over and romance ensues because, as Ms Thorne puts on the very first pages of this book, there’s a fine line between love and hate, which is a line I used to torment a set of romantic nemeses back in grade school but has no business being a maxim by which to conduct adult relationships.

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Nov 05 2020

Invisible Planets edited and translated by Ken Liu

With his smashingly successful translation of Liu Cixin’s The ThreeBody Problem, Ken Liu introduced modern Chinese science fiction to a large English-speaking audience. The reception of the rest of Three-Body‘s trilogy, one translated by Joel Martinsen and the other by Ken Liu, showed that it was not a one-book phenomenon, and that English-speaking science fiction readers were ready, eager, for more of the genre from China.

Invisible Planets, edited by Ken Liu

Invisible Planets provides 13 short stories and three essays, plus an introduction and short notes about each author by Liu, that offer a wide-ranging sampling of science fiction from China published in Chinese between 2005 and 2014. The stories are from seven different authors, three of whom also contribute the essays.

In his introduction and his editorial choices, Liu emphasizes the diversity of science fiction from China, reflecting the vast scale and wide variety found in its country of origin. “Even within the limited selection of this anthology, you’ll encounter the ‘science fiction realism’ of Chen Qiufan, the ‘porridge SF’ of Xia Jia, the overt, wry political metaphors of Ma Boyong, the surreal imagery and metaphor-driven logic of Tang Fei, the dense, rich language-pictures painted by Cheng Jingbo, the fabulism and sociological speculation of Hao Jingfang, and the grand, hard-science-fictional imagination of Liu Cixin. … Faced with such variety, I think it is far more useful and interesting to study the authors as individuals and to treat their works on their own terms rather than to try to impose a preconceived set of expectations on them because they happen to be Chinese.” (p. 14)

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Nov 04 2020

We Hunt the Flame (Sands of Arawiya #1) by Hafsah Faizal

I was so chuffed to learn about this Arabian-inspired fantasy YA novel by an American niqabi, which had been getting so many rave reviews! I had to keep putting off reading it for one reason or another, but was so pleased to finally have time to settle in with it over the weekend. I was further excited to hear that it doesn’t actually have any Muslim representation, as Hafsah Faizal wants to point out that the people and myths of the Arabian peninsula are not a monolith: a very laudable aim.

So I was really perturbed to find myself already sludging through the prose from the first chapter onwards. It can take me some time to adjust to an author’s writing style so I was happy to keep persevering, but it soon got to the point where I felt that editors just gave up trying to form this mess into something readable. The prose reads as if it was written in another language before being translated back, and rather indifferently, to (mostly) standard English. The grammar was sloppy and the attempts at poetic fillips incredibly sophomoric. If I had to read the word “exhale” used as a noun one more time, I was going to hug a Ted Chiang collection to death (Exhalation is on my To-Read list, btw!) In short, this was some of the most ghastly professionally-edited English-language writing that I’ve ever read.

But more importantly, how was the story? In a word, ugh. In a phrase: both tropetastic and dull.

Zafira is a huntress who masquerades as a boy in her sexist caliphate in order to feed her people. She must travel through the madness-inducing mystical forest known as the Arz in order to find game, a forest that’s claimed the minds and lives of hundreds, including her own beloved father. When the Silver Witch appears, tasking her with a quest to retrieve a mysterious artifact that could help bring magic back to her devastated land, Katniss, I mean Zafira, has little choice but to accept.

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Nov 01 2020

Swords Against Death by Fritz Leiber

The stories in Swords Against Death are among the first published adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, making them more than 70 years old at this writing. The bulk of them were published as stand-alone stories in pulp magazines in the 1940s and 1950s; nearly all of them predate The Lord of the Rings some by a decade and a half. If they seem simple, or sometimes clichéd, that’s likely because Leiber wrote them when the genre was new, its conventions still being worked out. Indeed, the stories in Swords Against Death may be the source of the traditions that contemporary readers are familiar with.

Swords Against Death

That’s especially true for stories, such as “The Jewels in the Forest,” “Thieves’ House,” or “The Seven Black Priests” that read like adventures from a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Gary Gygax and the other early creators of D&D acknowledged their debt to Leiber. In particular, Leiber is the first modern author to write about a Thieves’ Guild, in which criminals are as organized as any other collection of artisans in a medieval city.

So how do they hold up, after all these years? First off, they are fast, atmospheric adventure stories, often with a twist. What is really going on in the tower in “The Jewels in the Forest”? Will Fafhrd arrive in “Thieves’ House” before midnight? Ok, there’s less suspense about that one, given that it’s not the last story featuring in the pair, but it’s not written as if everyone’s survival is assured, and that made a difference to me. Second, in contrast to a lot of modern fantasy, the world that Fafhrd and the Mouser operate in was not much thought out in advance. Nehwon sort of slowly accretes around them, from the stories. Leiber implies many different gods, guilds vying for supremacy in Lankhmar, histories behind the city’s street names, but there’s no sense that he’s worked it out in advance. Things appear as they are needed for individual stories. Curiously, I didn’t mind; I found that it lent a mythical atmosphere in stories such as “The Bleak Shore” or “The Howling Tower.”

Leiber shows his heroes as fallible to folly or to curses; at various times each rescues the other. They are each also at times too proud to show weakness in front of the other, which then gets them deeper into trouble. They get out, of course, but not completely unscathed.

I think a movie adaptation of “The Seven Black Priests” would be a terrific straightforward adventure film, although to make one in the 21st century some of the racial stereotyping would have to be changed. Swords Against Death, like its predecessor, is probably a total Bechdel fail. There may be female characters in “The Jewels in the Forest” who talk to each other, but they are appendages to the plot and of no further interest to the author.

And then there are things like “Bazaar of the Bizarre,” published in 1963. It’s not just a lush and hallucinogenic journey for Fafhrd and the Mouser, it’s as direct an anti-capitalist story as I have seen in fantasy. Here is what Ningauble, one of the pair’s sorcerous patrons, says about the Devourers, the story’s antagonists:

“The Devourers are the most accomplished merchants in all the many universes — so accomplished, indeed, that they sell only trash. There is a deep necessity in this, for the Devourers must occupy all their cunning in perfecting their methods of selling and so have not an instant to spare in considering the worth of what they sell. Indeed, they dare not concern themselves with such matters for a moment, for fear of losing their golden touch — and yet such are their skills that their wares are utterly irresistible, indeed the finest wares in all the many universes — if you follow me?” (p. 376)

And further:

“The Devourers want not only the patronage of all beings in all universes, but — doubtless because they are afraid someone will some day raise the ever-unpleasant question of the true worth of things — they want all their customers reduced to a state of slavish and submissive suggestibility, so that they are fit for nothing whatever but to gawk at and buy the trash the Devourers offer for sale. This means of course that eventually the Devourers’ customers will have nothing wherewith to pay the Devourers for their trash, but the Devourers do not seem to be concerned with this eventuality. Perhaps they feel that there is always a new universe to exploit.” (p. 377)

Pulpy and overwrought, to be sure, but also trenchant.

One of the first stories in this volume was originally published as “Two Sought Adventure.” Sought, found. And still fun for readers all these years later.

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Oct 31 2020

A(nother) Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny

Just in time for the full moon falling on Halloween — the celestial alignment that drives the book’s plot, I re-read A Night in the Lonesome October. Everything I wrote about it last time holds true: it’s a romp, a hoot, a love letter to classics of Halloween and suspense, a master storyteller having fun with many different tales with no higher purpose than the joy of telling a very tall one.

A Night in the Lonesome October

It’s less a shaggy-dog story than a dog-and-cat story; Zelazny takes the watchdog Snuff as his narrator, and Snuff strikes up an unlikely friendship with Graymalk, a witch’s cat. Snuff and his master Jack, whose ripping appellation is never stated but implied throughout, are players in a Game of very high stakes. If their opponents succeed, the Elder Gods of Lovecraft’s pantheon will return to the earth and remake the world to their liking. Part of the challenge is that until the end of the Game none of the players can be sure of who is on which side, or indeed of who is playing at all.

When such a Game is afoot near London in the late 19th century, can the Great Detective be far behind? Indeed he is not, and while he seeks to unravel the secrets around him, he is hiding at least one of his own. There are probably more minor characters that I should have recognized from elsewhere, though this time through I think I spotted an American werewolf in London that I hadn’t noted before. I also enjoyed the interplay among the players’ familiars more this time than last, although Snuff showing Graymalk the Things in the Mirrors is probably still my favorite laugh-out-loud moment.

I had forgotten some of the twists and some of the puns, and was glad to be reminded of both. Zelazny’s descriptions of the Count’s doings make me sorry he didn’t write a full-length vampire novel. Terry Pratchett did better with the Igors, but Zelazny’s version is pretty good, and his depiction of the Good Doctor’s monster is sympathetic and note-perfect from a dog’s point of view.

In short, it’s a terrific book to revisit and even better to read for the first time. And if such a Game is happening tonight, you’ve probably still got enough time to get through it before things come to a head.

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Oct 30 2020

Rowley Jefferson’s Awesome Friendly Adventure (Diary of an Awesome Friendly Kid #2) by Jeff Kinney

My 9 year-old pressed this book on me immediately after he finished reading it last night, because he really wanted to discuss it with me. I read it over dinner, and was honestly relieved to find that the narrative voice was quite different from in its parent series, The Diary Of A Wimpy Kid. Granted, I haven’t read every book of that latter series yet — to Jms’ chagrin — but after Rodrick Rules, I was pretty unenthusiastic at the prospect of jumping back in to Greg Heffley’s occasionally cynical and unnecessarily mean world so soon.

Fortunately, the protagonist of the Awesome Friendly Kid series is the awesomer, friendlier Rowley Jefferson, Greg’s much put-upon best friend. I bought Jms both books in this spin-off series as part of his latest Scholastic box shipment (books are considered an any time gift in my household — we’re so lucky we can do this, I know) and while he’s already crushed both novels, he was especially insistent I read this one. As with the Wimpy Kid series, you can absolutely read these books out of order, tho you’ll likely still miss a teeny bit of nuance doing so. That said, I feel like this is probably the most standalone of the books I’ve read so far, as it basically narrates a fantasy story Rowley is writing and illustrating.

Rowley’s story revolves around a young adventurer named Roland, whose parents keep him safe from a dangerous world by having him concentrate on his schoolwork and flute practice. But when his mother is kidnapped one day by the Winter Wizard while his father is traveling far from their village, he’ll have to embark on an epic quest to rescue her, with the help of his sidekick Garg. It’s a surprisingly twisty fairy tale with all manner of pop cultural references that had me laughing aloud almost as much as the interstitial episodes where Rowley discusses the book and its progress with Greg. From Rowley’s mild-mannered, often naive, point of view, it’s easy to see exactly how obnoxious Greg is without the latter’s self-forgiving attitude getting in the way. It’s honestly so funny, with just the right amount of ironic self-references both to the parent series and to fantasy writing in general, and just so much fun.

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Oct 28 2020

The Tech by Mark Ravine

One of my greatest joys as a book critic is finding little known indie/self-published debut novels and championing them for the world to read (see: James RobertsPardon Me, or anything by Unsung Stories but particularly Rym Kechacha’s Dark River.) As such, I’m always open to queries and will rarely turn anything down, schedule permitting. So when this small press thriller came into my inbox, in my favorite genre no less, I was excited to get started.

The Tech is ostensibly the story of FBI Supervisory Special Agent Alexandra Cassidy, a unit leader whose specialty is whipping rogue and misfit teams into shape, partially due to her penchant for rule-breaking herself. She’s sent to Arizona to take charge of yet another ragtag crew but finds herself hip deep in a bank robbery investigation almost as soon as she walks into the office. The case is wrapped up within 24 hours, and then the team is sent to investigate the kidnapping of three teenaged girls, leading to a multi-state bust in record time. Alexandra is a little disconcerted at the high success rate she’s clocking, but her concerns are quickly swept aside by the growing suspicion that these and other cases that are filtering into the office are related, and may have been masterminded by a sinister cabal that will soon turn its sights on her. But somebody else is already pulling her strings: an attractive, if mild-mannered FBI tech named Mike Patterson who’s hiding any number of secrets from Alexandra and her team.

The first problem with this FBI thriller is that none of this is how the American judicial system works. Witnesses are Mirandized but assured they’re not under arrest, and warrants are handed out almost willy-nilly. Don’t even get me started on the complete illegality of everything Mike does and how the half-assed attempts to turn his evidence into stuff that’ll hold up in court is doubtful at best. It’s pretty clear that this book was written by someone without much experience with America, never mind the local law enforcement: in just the most memorable example, no New Yorker in their right mind would pronounce the Texan city the same way they’d pronounce Houston St, if they pronounced that last correctly. The dialog overall is heavily British-inflected which, alas, is only the least of the things that strain credulity to its breaking point in this novel.

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Oct 27 2020

Rodrick Rules (Diary of a Wimpy Kid #2) by Jeff Kinney

I have definitely been consuming this series out of order, reading each as the whims of my 9 year-old sees fit, but I asked for this volume specifically because Jms had been talking about the Dungeons & Dragons analog played in these pages. As I’m a big old roleplaying nerd, I had to see how Jeff Kinney handles the topic, especially since our Wimpy Kid’s mom apparently gets in on the action too (obvi, I also came looking for tips at getting my kid to want to RP with me.)

I was actually super stoked with how our hero Greg Heffley enjoys playing Magick And Monsters, even as his mom interferes in the cutest way possible. Unfortunately, that’s a small, if the best, scene in the book. I was less enthused by most of the rest of this volume, as Greg is a lot meaner than I remember, as are Rodrick and Dad. Since Jms and I were reading this together, with me on the narrative bits and him voicing the illustration dialog bubbles, I kept pausing in our reading to say, “Oh, that’s mean! Greg is being mean. Jms, you shouldn’t ever do that.” This was most egregious with Greg bullying poor Chirag Gupta and then, worse, trying to deflect responsibility on to his mom for it. I’m really glad I read the later books first, as I might not have bothered if the tone of this book set the standard for later installments. Granted, I haven’t even read the first one yet, so perhaps that would have been good enough to overcome my reservations regarding its sequel.

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