Aug 17 2020

Vader’s Little Princess (Star Wars: Darth Vader and Kids) by Jeffrey Brown

There’s going to be a bit of rambling before my review actually begins, so I apologize for that now.

I went out to my Sharing Library the other day to replenish the contents, which had been looking a little low recently. Imagine my surprise when I found it stuffed to the gills with children’s books, supplied, I suspect, from the largesse of my next door neighbor given that it has books on being a good big sister, and they’re the only family on the street with such (and don’t think I’m not jealous.) I set aside the stack of novels I’d brought out, and set about to neatly arranging the updated contents of the library, in the process deciding to take this book  for myself because it’s just too cute!

Aside: one of my dearest friends, tho we haven’t spoken in a while, is named Vaden and I kept layering his name on this adorable title, especially since he has a little girl, too (and don’t think I’m not jealous of that either!)

To the review! I honestly think that if I hand this to my nine year-old, he’d flip through dutifully then return it to me with a shrug. I mean, he likes Star Wars, but I’m not sure if he’s ever seen the entirety of the original trilogy, and for anyone who hasn’t, the references here will be vanishingly obscure. The jokes are also, in large part, to do with Darth Vader struggling to parent a cute daughter (and son, who occasionally pops up) who grows up to be a rebellious teenager, which really isn’t high on the list of things my kid finds funny yet. I laughed at the contents a few times and definitely admired the art work, but this is definitely a book that will most appeal to the Star Wars fan who happens to be the parent of a daughter, or to a Star Wars fan who is a rebellious daughter. Tho in all likelihood, she’d be the one handing the book to dear old dad as a birthday gift and a reminder that parenting could always be harder!

Overall, cute but, to anyone but Star Wars families (and I know there are a lot of you out there!), inessential.

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Aug 15 2020

The Comanche Empire by Pekka Hämäläinen

Pekka Hämäläinen gets right to the point: “This book is about an American empire that, according to conventional histories, did not exist. It tells the familiar tale of expansion, resistance, conquest, and loss, but with a reversal of the usual historical roles: it is a story in which Indians expand, dictate, and prosper, and European colonists resist, retreat, and struggle to survive.” (p. 1) Over the following 360 pages, Hämäläinen, who is Finnish and now teaches at Oxford after several years in the US, details how the Comanches changed from “a small tribe of hunter-gatherers living in the rugged canyonlands on the far northern frontier of the Spanish kingdom of New Mexico” to a complex polity that held northern New Mexico in thrall, farmed Texas for horses and captives, raided central Mexico to within 150 miles of the capital, displaced the Apaches, shaped relations among their northern neighbors such as the Cheyenne and the Pawnee, and traded on their eastern frontier with the French, Osage, Wichita, Americans, and others. By the early nineteenth century, the Comanche dominated the southern plains in an area stretching east-west roughly from Santa Fe to the Sabine River and north-south from San Antonio to the Arkansas River. Hämäläinen draws not only on written sources from across this realm but also on archeological evidence, with careful attention to environmental history and what its scholars have shown about the interplay among climate, horses and buffalo.

The Comanche Empire

Hämäläinen sums up their rise: “They were newcomers to the region, having fled the political unrest and internal disputes in their old homelands on the central Great Plains, and they were struggling to rebuild their lives in a foreign land whose absorption into the Spanish world seemed imminent. It was here, at the advancing edge of the world’s largest empire, that the Comanches launched an explosive expansion. They purchased and plundered horses from New Mexico, reinvented themselves as mounted fighters, and reenvisioned their place in the world. They forced their way onto the southern plains, shoved aside the Apaches and other residing nations, and over the course of three generations carved out a vast territory that was larger than the entire European-controlled area north of the Río Grande at the time. They became ‘Lords of the South Plains,’ ferocious horse-riding warriors who forestalled Euro-American intrusions into the American Southwest well into the late nineteenth century.” (p. 1)

Further, “For a century, roughly from 1750 to 1850, the Comanches were the dominant people in the Southwest, and they manipulated and exploited the colonial outposts in New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, and northern Mexico to increase their safety, prosperity, and power. They extracted resources and labor from their Euro-American and Indian neighbors through thievery and tribute and incorporated foreign ethnicities into their ranks as adopted kinspeople, slaves, workers, dependents, and vassals. The Comanche empire was powered by violence, but, like most viable empires, it was first and foremost an economic construction. At its core was an extensive commercial network that allowed Comanches to control nearby border markets and long-distance trade, swing surrounding groups into their political orbit, and spread their language and culture across the midcontinent. And as always, long-term foreign political dominance rested on dynamic internal development. To cope with the opportunities and challenges of their rapid expansion, Comanches created a centralized multilevel political system, a flourishing market economy, and a graded social organization that was flexible enough to sustain and survive the burdens of their external ambitions.” (p. 2)

Continue reading

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Aug 13 2020

You Deserve Each Other by Sarah Hogle

My opinion of this book is pretty much equally divided: it is 50% atrocious and 50% adorable. Essentially, Naomi and Nicholas have been together for almost two years and engaged for almost a year of that. It’s November and their wedding is in January but invitations haven’t been sent yet. Naomi is having a million second thoughts, then realizes that Nicholas feels the same way and that they’re both seemingly pushing each other away in order not to look like the bad guy when the relationship fails. As soon as Naomi realizes this, all bets are off. The two engage in an escalating war of pranks and emotional digs but realize along the way that they actually do care about each other, and manage to repair their relationship and find their HEA.

To begin with what I found atrocious: I’m the kind of person who finds prank shows irritating and doesn’t understand the impulse to laugh at your alleged loved one instead of with, so while there were genuine moments of hilarity to be found in the petty stunts they pulled on one another, I was also quietly aghast that they would expend so much energy this way. While everyone expresses love differently, I suppose, the real sticking point was the complete lack of communication between our two romantic leads. Naomi also had the unfortunate habit of assuming the worst of Nicholas, but that was sort of justified because he’s the kind of childish asshole who thinks it’s totally okay to make important couple decisions on his own or, worse, to defer them to his mother. As if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s a weird undercurrent of justifying emotional/spousal abuse, especially with the whole “you don’t need to work” phrase that Nicholas flings around several times. Naomi says it translates to “I will support you no matter what you choose, whether to work or not” but he never says that, or in any way inquires as to her feelings on the subject. There’s a huge difference between a spouse saying “you don’t need to work” and “you don’t have to work if you don’t want to.”

To the adorable: I loved that they finally figured out a way to open up to each other and really communicate. I loved that they realized that being partners means standing up for and supporting each other, and not being afraid to ask each other for help. While I worried that they’d sunk into this quagmire of miscommunication so early into their relationship, it was also great that they figured it out early and decided to make the conscious choice to repeatedly choose each other from then on. I did think that these fuckers didn’t discuss enough of the important things before getting married tho, and that therapy should definitely have been on the table for both of them. For fuck’s sake, folks, DISCUSS KIDS BEFORE GETTING MARRIED (also finances, but at least they had that sorted.) That said, the scenes with Nightjar made me cackle aloud with glee.

To the unique: I was actually pretty impressed with how this book felt like a psychological thriller in its earlier chapters. Only knowing that this was a romance novel kept me from being convinced that one of them would end up literally murdering the other. I also enjoyed the riff on the War Of The Roses movie from the 80s tho that didn’t help with convincing me this wouldn’t turn out to be a psychological thriller after all.

You Deserve Each Other was a fast read that was as amusing as it was appalling, with several moments of really great writing. I don’t think Naomi and Nicholas had a healthy relationship, but I think they could eventually get there, with communication, consideration for each other’s personhood, and commitment to choosing one another. As an Asian Muslim, tho, I totally rolled my eyes when they said that weddings are supposed to be about the married couple and not their families. While I fully respect the right of couples to elope, and feel that couples absolutely should be in charge of the planning of their own weddings, I do think that wedding ceremonies are meant to celebrate the joining of families as well. This isn’t, of course, possible in every circumstance, but ignoring a chance to expand the community of people who are important to you just seems unnecessarily churlish. Also, the whole “cutting off your family” aspect coupled with the “you don’t need to work” stuff mentioned above ticked another box on my “Is Your Spouse An Abuser?” checklist. If these were real people, I’d absolutely want to check in on them from year to year to make sure they’re still okay.

Also, it would be really nice if Penguin would let Overdrive provide Kindle copies of books instead of forcing me to read this on my phone, grr.

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Aug 12 2020

Dark Age (Red Rising Saga #5) by Pierce Brown

With a book titled Dark Age in a futuristic series that consciously bases itself on Roman history, you know the contents are going to be pretty grim. Our hero from the start, Darrow of Lykos, is fighting a losing campaign on Mercury against the treacherous Gold-elevating Society led by the depraved Atalantia au Grimmus. His wife, the demokratically elected Sovereign Virginia au Augustus, is fighting her own losing battle trying to convince the Senate on Luna to send him support. Their son Pax along with Electra, the eldest child of their best friends, have been kidnapped by Ephraim ti Horn in a series of increasingly elaborate double crosses; all three are now being held hostage by the Obsidians on Mars, led by Sefi the Quiet, who is trying to move her people towards a future that eschews savagery for its own sake. Ephraim’s protegees, stoic Obsidian Volga and scrappy Red Lyria, are held prisoner in turn by Victra au Julii, Electra’s badass mom, while Sevro au Barca, Electra’s dad, tears cities apart in search of the Syndicate members who ordered the kidnappings in the first place.

And that’s what you missed on Red Rising!

Ugh, and I guess there’s fucking Lysander.

God, I hate that little twerp with the fire of a thousand suns and I don’t understand why he, of all the villains, gets viewpoint chapters in this book. Our other narrators are Darrow, Virginia, Ephraim and Lyria, and while I know that doesn’t cover the entire scope of what Pierce Brown is trying to show us in this hellscape of unceasing violence, and while I’m not at all opposed to viewing things from a villainous perspective, I don’t understand why Lysander is singled out in such a way as to make us think he’s anything better than the scrapings on the bottom of my shoe. For fuck’s sake, a character’s actual dying declaration to him is that he’s good actually, and no, Pierce, he really isn’t. Lysander is a race supremacist who thinks the other Colors should just happily skip along back to being oppressed by his people. His discomfort with how far his actual people have fallen from the noble, romantic ideals he’s cherished since childhood is easily elided by his blinding desire to get them back “on top”, whence he will be able to “fix” them. He’s a fucking fascist to his core and he is not a good person and I really hate that I’m reconsidering my love affair with Mr Brown’s writing over this.

Because I understand wanting to show how war is hell and how it makes beasts out of even the noblest of us and how doing the right thing sometimes demands immense sacrifices, as Darrow and Virginia especially must endure, but comparing them with that whiny bitch Lysander making bad choices at every turn is a “both sides” false moral equivalency at its most aggravating. Democratic leaders making hard choices in order to ensure that the vast majority of their people can live in peace and freedom makes for compelling reading. Reading about a fascist feeling sad he has to stain his honor in order to achieve maximum fascism is boring and stupid. Honestly, we could have cut out so much of his wittering and I would have been 100% happier, especially since this book is absurdly dense and feels like three books, in large part because there are so many people here. I get that, realistically speaking, Dark Ages involve masses of people at cross-purposes, with chaos being the inevitable result, but there is a limit to the amount of realism I expect from my fictional entertainments. Even non-fiction requires judicious editing in order to present a coherent thesis. With fiction, I expect to not groan with fatigue every time a new antagonist is introduced, especially since I can hardly keep track of all the moving pieces already on the board.

Speaking of, I’m glad that Mr Brown has a lot of faith in his readers’ intelligence in remembering who all these people are and how they relate to the narrative, especially since, in keeping with older European fashion, most people have multiple names by which they’re seemingly addressed at random. But why then so much time spent on Lysander if Mr Brown’s purpose is to show that race supremacy is bad even if fascists are humans with dreams of glory, too? A dream of glory which involves the subjugation of other people is not good actually, and it would take at most two chapters to drive that home to the average reader. Instead we get reams of pandering to hard right-wing policies when far left-wing ones are cleanly eviscerated in one elegant chapter, which once more belies the weird “both sides” nonsense that subtly colors this book. Best case scenario is that Lysander eventually comes to see the error of his ways but I don’t care about a Lysander redemption arc and I’m going to be extremely disappointed if this series turns into the glorification of a former fascist.

Lysander aside, this was actually a decent, if uber violent, installment of the series. I pretty much loved all the scenes that Lyria, Victra, Volga and Sevro (even via hologram) were in, and would say the same about Ephraim except, well, that’s a spoiler and I’m still mad about the plot development. I wish Darrow wouldn’t take himself so seriously all the time, but I can understand why he does, and I’m glad that other characters can provide the levity needed to struggle through an otherwise grimdark world of blood and chaos. Writing-wise, the pacing definitely felt a bit off, particularly in the first 29% or so, with people dying far too unceremoniously. Again I get that it’s grimdark war times but see above re: realism in fictional entertainments. Also, I don’t read books in order to feel numb. The real world provides that aplenty (tho I’m so excited at the news of Sen Kamala Harris being chosen as Vice President Biden’s running mate!)

So, one more book in the series? I’ll definitely read it, but will be approaching with caution. Oh, and big thanks to Alec, who let me inundate him with reaction gifs as I read this behemoth over the weekend.

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Aug 11 2020

Die Schaukel by Annette Kolb

As the story of an artistic family in a materialistic time, Die Schaukel reminded me of The Family Fang, though of course Kolb’s work predates Kevin Wilson’s novel by more than three quarters of a century. The Lautenschlags are a Franco-German family who moved from Paris to Munich not long after the Franco-Prussian War led to the unification of the German Empire. Herr Lautenschlag is a garden designer, while Madame Lautenschlag is a pianist, composer and slightly scatterbrained society hostess. They have four children: Hespera and Gervaise, both of whom are among the prettiest girls in Munich. Kolb writes that people never forgot the first time meeting either of them, that not only did heads turn when they walked down the street, some people returned to the same spot on the street on subsequent days just hoping to see them again. There is a son, Otto, who seems on the verge of passing his university qualification exams on this, his third try. And there is another daughter, incongruously named Mathias.

Die Schaukel

The Lautenschlags appear to live in precarious financial straits, and neither parent is any good at managing money. The slightly Bohemian parents are likely to worry about the costs of daily bread, and then spend a large sum on everyone except Herr Lautenschlag attending the opera one evening on a whim. A little more than halfway through the book, however, the third-person omniscient narrator informs readers that Herr Lautenschlag is much better paid for his efforts than anyone things, he just doesn’t bother to manage his money at all.

For contrast, Kolb introduces the von Zwinger family, neighbors and acquaintances of the Lautenschlags. The von Zwingers are nobility where the Lautenschlags are commoners; Prussians who have moved to Munich versus old Bavarian roots (despite the French diversion that brought Herr and Madame together); Protestants rather than Catholic; decisive rather than impetuous; philistine rather than artistic; and, for most of the characters, boring rather than interesting. The von Zwingers also have the knack of managing money. Their affection for the Lautenschlags is never particularly explained, although since it is a largely autobiographical work, Kolb does not see the need for explanations. It is Herr Professor Doctor von Zwinger who arranges for Madame Lautenschlag’s aging and senile mother to be cared for in France for her final years. On the other hand, the Lautenschlags provide an outlet for the von Zwinger daughters, particularly Candida the youngest. They find relief in the free-flowing atmosphere that is such a contrast to their stultifying home.

Die Schaukel, The Swing is by now a doubly historical novel: written long ago (though not quite yet out of living memory) about a period even further back. I see traces of the Great Depression in the book’s emphasis on money, and particularly the way it speaks of money as a nearly animate spirit in itself. For people who lived through Germany’s hyperinflation in the early 1920s, and who were living through the Depression as Die Schaukel was published in 1934, money must have seemed particularly strange and mercurial, likely to misbehave or vanish entirely, for reasons not at all apparent to average citizens.

Although she is writing about German leadership in the late 1800s, Kolb reveals the views that led her into exile after the Nazi seizure of power in 1933: “Only the Professor [von Zwinger] belonged to the type of German who was happy with authority, who considered Berlin as the seat of statesmanlike wisdom, statesmanlike foresight and statesmanlike timing, and who showed the person in office there a trust that could only be shaken by their fall. And so the upright but clueless man wove with them on the loom of the unending suffering that they were preparing. From his point of view, the little populace, which was living so well, could do no better than to blindly leave things to the wise leadership in Berlin.” (p. 60) Kolb is very much on the side of Germany’s dreamers, its climbers of mountains and players of lawn games.

She writes views about Jewish people that are essentialist enough, if positive, that the editors of the series added a footnote mentioning when and where the book was published: in 1934, in exile. Some of Kolb’s characters attribute all of Germany’s woes to Luther, a view that was probably common enough in Catholic Munich at the time.

Mostly, though, Die Schaukel is a study of a family in a setting that was vanishing around them, as the narrator explicitly notes several times, looking forward to the catastrophe of the Great War and possibly sensing worse to come. Lautenschlags and their peers lament the appearance of borders, the demands of Europe’s increasing industrialization and nationalization — even as Hespera is pleased by her employers’ electric lights, and all of the characters enjoy the speed and convenience of railroad transportation. Though their story is set a generation and more before Die Rumplhanni, Lautenschlags’ world is clearly more modern, even as it is mostly a world of salons, engagements, and small intrigues.

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Aug 08 2020

The Last Emperox by John Scalzi

How does a human civilization react to news of its possible impending collapse, with the only option for survival a major upheaval touching every person in it and changing its power structure entirely? That’s the overriding question of John Scalzi’s Interdependency series. The Last Emperox is the third and concluding part of the story, following The Collapsing Empire and The Consuming Fire. The third of three books in a series about the collapse of an interstellar civilization is seriously not a good place to start, even if there is a prologue that sums most things up in a list, in the guise of the thoughts of a privileged minor character wondering “How did all of this happen to me?”

The Last Emperox

One of the surprises from The Consuming Fire was the contact with other humans from outside the Interdependency. The Flow links to Earth and other settled world had been broken at the Interdependency’s inception centuries ago, and the accepted wisdom was that links could not come back. The expedition to Dalasýsla turned up a starship home to a former interstellar ruler of another realm, preserved in the ship’s computers much as previous Emperoxs were preserved in the Memory Room. Chenevert is not quite Mycroft from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress taking Grayland’s side in the current intrigues, but he is definitely an asset with unexpected abilities. The same can be said for the Memory Room.

Because intrigues and reversals are what The Last Emperox is all about. The clock is ticking on Grayland; or rather, many different clocks are ticking. She has limited support within her own house. A major rival has come close to assassinating her on more than one occasion. That rival’s house is lining up support from the nobles and the guilds against this young, strange Emperox who wants to turn everything upside down. And of course civilization really is going to collapse. In fact, it will collapse sooner rather than later because the Interdependency is built on specialization and monopolies. It works as a network in which different areas can provide for others, while in turn receiving what they themselves do not produce. Trade rather than autarky has propelled the prosperity of the present arrangement, but when nodes start to drop out of the network problems will cascade beyond the ability of individual settlements or of fragments of the Interdependency to solve them.

Scalzi paints all of this in broad strokes. The Last Emperox is not a book about logistics or carrying capacities of habitats, it’s a book about personal scheming and score-settling at the most elite levels of the star-spanning polity. Only a few people really matter in this story, the vast numbers in inhabited space — even the merely wealthy and influential within a particular system — are resolutely off stage, an abstraction that Grayland and her partisans care about and her opponents largely do not. (Contrast this with, for example, Luna by Ian McDonald, another series that concentrates on the machinations of several ruling families, but also goes out of its way to show what life is like down at the bottom of the social ladder, and that even rulers are affected by what happens among the population as a whole.)

In this last book of the series, none of the characters has plot armor; though Scalzi is not writing a tragedy on a large scale, there are no guarantees that any of the characters that I came to care about as a reader will make it to the end. Except for Kiva Lagos, I think. Scalzi was clearly having too much fun writing her to let her get killed carelessly.

The Last Emperox ends well. The bad guys get their comeuppance, the good guys get a chance for everything to turn out reasonably well. Which, given that civilization really is coming to an end, is a big win. Also, almost none of them are guys; Emperox, rivals, heads of house, chief counsel — all of the key decisions in the book are taken by women. Some of the guys provide key information or support, but Scalzi has cast them into secondary roles. Scalzi does not take readers all the way to the end of the Interdependency, nor even to the beginning of the end, but to the end of the end’s beginning. For this series, that’s enough to find resolution.

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Aug 07 2020

The Cabin At The End Of The World by Paul Tremblay

In contemporary popular literature which takes as its default Christianity as the dominant belief system, there are two main kinds of believer: the kind who want prayers answered and the kind who want to complain bitterly about how God could possibly let such-and-such happen. The two main protagonists of The Cabin At The End Of The World represent this dichotomy, despite both being shades of fairly tepid faith. Eric is the community Catholic dad who feels a bit guilty at not initiating his adopted daughter in the traditions that gave so much meaning to his life growing up, whereas his husband Andrew is firmly agnostic. The two have decided to take said 7 year-old daughter Wen on a summer vacation in the wilds of New Hampshire, in a remote cabin without cellphone service (which is already horror story enough for me.) As the book begins, Wen is out on the lawn collecting grasshoppers when she’s approached by a large man who introduces himself as Leonard, who turns out to be the harbinger of the world’s weirdest home invasion.

Leonard and the other three members of his cohort tell Wen’s parents that they had a vision of the end of the world that can only be averted if Wen’s family willingly sacrifices one of their own. Of course, neither Andrew nor Eric are convinced by this, and over the course of the next few increasingly bloody days, they must battle not only the home invaders but their own doubts and fears in order to survive… or, perhaps, in order to choose not to.

It’s an interesting idea with a bunch of symbolism that will delight cryptophiles like myself. Ultimately, tho, I had more fun investigating the “liner” notes than I had from reading the story, which just didn’t hang together as a novel for me. I wonder if this is due to my Muslim faith, that scoffs at the idea of prophetic revelation asking really big sacrifices of randos via randos. In most of the mainstream Abrahamic teachings, God sends the biggest tests to those of greatest faith (e.g. Abraham, Job) because the point is to see how strongly they believe. Demanding sacrifices of those who don’t strongly believe means nothing: how can you ask people who aren’t thoroughly invested in your message to choose to do or endure terrible things to prove their faith, when faith is already a thing of little reward to them?

Theology aside, Leonard and co are so bad at presenting their case that I can’t blame our heroes for doubting their message. I did not at any point believe that they actually heralded the end of the world, and put this squarely on the shoulders of Paul Tremblay for narrative choices that elided persuasive conversation in favor of hysterical confrontation (also, the bizarre two-person viewpoint chapters made me want to tear my hair out at the laxity of their entirely scattershot construction.) There was no convincing existential threat here beyond the crazy people with weapons, and no guarantee, barely even a promise, that the sacrifice of one of their family would save humanity. I thought that Andrew, neurotic and annoying as he was, and poor concussed Eric ultimately made the right choice, because faith isn’t just about fear and believing people who threaten brimstone and hellfire.

Despite the interesting premise, this was ultimately a wholly unconvincing execution that had me scratching my head at the high praise that led me to pick up this book in the first place. I was thinking of reading another book by Mr Tremblay in order to give this acclaimed author a fair shake, with the evocatively named A Head Full Of Ghosts looking the likeliest candidate, till a tart comment on that novel by a friend (hi, Cynthia!) made me discard the entire idea of reading more. Maybe it’s like my reaction to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: some people love that shit, but I’d rather read something original, or at the very least, entertaining. Perhaps Mr Tremblay will write something that appeals in future. For now tho, there are so many amazing unread books out there that it seems like I’d be doing myself a disservice wasting time on books I’m already fairly confident I won’t enjoy.

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Aug 06 2020

Alpha Omega by Nicholas Bowling

At about the 70% mark, I realized that Alpha Omega could slot very easily into the universe of The Matrix, serving as an entirely convincing origin story, so to speak, of that cyberpunk dystopia. The comparisons drawn between this book and Ernest Clines’ Ready Player One are poor: Mr Clines’ novel is a Spielbergian adventure with a young hero triumphant, and AO is very much not that. But it’s deeper and more rewarding in the end, in my opinion, tho there is a fair amount of chaff to get through before then.

AO is ostensibly the story of Gabriel Backer, a 15 year-old school shooter in the making who was kicked out of the expensive, prestigious Nutristart Skills Academy for irrepressibly hacking their computer systems. Since his expulsion, he’s spent most of his time “In World”, as being online in the vast virtual game world of Alpha Omega is known, to the chagrin of his sight-impaired mother, Stephanie. When he’s approached by someone claiming to be a game dev offering to pay him for playtesting new areas, he’s all in.

The majority of the actual story revolves around Tom Rosen, an English and Media teacher at the NSA who’s become increasingly disaffected by the school’s model-corporate-citizen policies. His breaking point comes when one of his students becomes violently ill, is hustled out by school authorities to a waiting car, then promptly falls off the face of the planet. Another student, Alex “Peepsy” Pepys, is convinced that the weird illnesses befalling the NSA students is a result of his stealing the undoubtedly cursed human remains newly excavated by builders looking to erect an impenetrable security wall around the campus. He, Tom and Gabriel become unwitting partners in figuring out what is happening at the NSA and exposing it to the world.

It’s not exactly a spoiler to say that corporate greed is at the bottom of all the shenanigans. It was, however, a shock even to my jaded system to see how Nicholas Bowling so brutally yet elegantly extrapolates from current trends to paint a vision of a corporation-run hellscape dotted with several flavors of misogyny, where people flee to the virtual reality of Alpha Omega for not only entertainment but an almost necessary comfort. It’s a bleak, unsettling portrait of a near-ish future, featuring strokes of mad hilarity and the occasional veering into uncomfortable edgelord territory, that also happens to be an ambitious and ultimately successful send-up of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

In all honesty, I wish there had been about one third less of the beginning and one third more added to the end of this novel. While AO ends in a liminal state both haunting and wry that hints at a better future, I really do want to know what happens to our characters next, especially brave, resourceful Maggie. This is a subversively smart novel that starts slowly, builds almost neurotically, then ends in a grand explosion that leaves the reader wanting more in the best way possible.

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Aug 04 2020

Lailah’s Lunchbox: A Ramadan Story by Reem Faruqi & Lea Lyon

A slightly belated Selamat Hari Raya Aidiladha! What better way to kick off the season than by, er, reviewing a book about Aidilfitri. Well, technically Ramadan, but since I’d put off ordering this picture book for my kids till I had several novels I wanted to buy in hard copy from my local indie bookstore, the book’s arrival seemed serendipitous enough for review now.

I originally ordered this thinking it would be a good primer for my 6 year-old twins, being a picture book, but discovered it’s actually aimed at a slightly older age group, which is totally fine. My eldest and I read through it together and it was perfect for him, tho I would have liked it if Reem Faruqi had stated how old Lailah was when she began to fast for Ramadan in the book itself. It would definitely have been helpful for my 9 year-old, whom we’re trying to encourage to fast for full days at school, to know that Lailah was 10, and that he’s thus on track with his peers (tho I began fasting full days at 8 myself, a benefit of going to school in a Muslim country with a built-in support system for that kind of thing.)

Anyhoo, this picture book tells the story of Lailah, a recent immigrant from Abu Dhabi to Atlanta, who is excited to finally be old enough to fast at school. Her mom writes her a note to be given to her teacher, explaining about skipping lunch, but Lailah has second thoughts about handing it over, leading to misunderstandings that are eventually cleared up with the help of a thoughtful librarian. My poor kid had to put up with me snarkily commenting on Lailah’s disobeying her mother and thus making her own life unnecessarily difficult, tho I do very much understand Lailah’s reluctance to draw attention to her differences or, worse, have to explain her belief system. Fortunately, the book made it clear that most people are respectful and understanding if not downright accommodating when given the chance to be, which is definitely a good message for the target demographic. My 9 year-old told me that his main takeaway from the book is “to be brave” tho “there’s no school right now.”

The pictures are also lovely, with Lea Lyon’s watercolors practically glowing from each page. Their quasi-photorealistic quality do a really good job of illustrating Lailah’s family and school lives. Overall, Jms and I enjoyed this quick, thoughtful read that helps to demystify fasting in a non-Muslim country for both Muslims and non-Muslims alike, as well as encourage a two-way street of communication to facilitate understanding and acceptance.

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Aug 02 2020

By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar

What if Arthur, like Uther, was an ambitious thug and the knights of the Round Table were a collection of weirdos and ruffians who say “fuck” a lot? That’s more or less the premise of Lavie Tidhar’s By Force Alone, and although I finished the book relatively quickly during my recent vacation in the Eifel, at the end I was struck by two things. First, Monty Python and the Holy Grail came to mind entirely too much, which I suppose shows the effectiveness of the troupe’s sendup of Arthuriana more than 40 years after its release. On the other hand, Tidhar may have at least partially been playing to that himself; he notes in his afterword “The attentive reader will no doubt find a great many and various references scattered throughout this novel.” (p. 505) Certainly his Lancelot resembles the Pythons’ in deadliness, although Tidhar adds a knowledge of kung-fu (noting also in the afterword that none of the sources give Lancelot this set of skills) and rather more self-control in getting started with the slaughter.

By Force Alone

Second, by the end of the book I was still not sure why. The Once and Future King mashed Arthur up with a modern, or at least mid-twentieth-century, sensibility, and made the early years quite funny. It’s been a decade and more since I read The Mists of Avalon, but I still remember the audaciousness of telling the legends of Arthur with the men mainly nuisances, practically all of the fighting off-page, and the Grail quest a pointless aggravation. Marion Zimmer Bradley had a clear purpose in recasting Arthur.

And Tidhar? He’s gone back to original sources, as he explains in his afterword. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history of Britain “is a wildly inventive fantasy text.” (p. 501) He explains how stories accreted to Arthur: “It is thanks to the otherwise-obscure Norman poet, Wace, for instance, that we get Excalibur and the Round Table. An unknown English poet in the fourteenth century gives us Gawain and the Green Knight.” (p. 501) Tidhar emphasizes the European roots of Arthurian legends. “Indeed, it is one of the greatest ironies of the material that the stories of Britain were mostly made up by those on the continent.” (p. 501) He notes that Chrétien de Troyes introduces Lancelot and the grail, that Wolfram von Eschenbach introduced the quest for the grail, and that Robert de Boron brings in both Joseph of Arimathea and the Lady of the Lake. Tidhar attributes motives to the various historians and poets — Geoffrey had political purposes, de Boron religious, and Malory “provided mass entertainment while serving an essentially political purpose: giving the people of Britain a shared (if entirely made up) past, made of glory.” (p. 503)

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