Sep 07 2018

Rogue Protocol (The Murderbot Diaries #3) by Martha Wells

Definitely my favorite of the series so far. Murderbot is slowly becoming more comfortable and confident as an autonomous unit interacting with humans, with a purpose that is becoming clearer, as well: to take down the GrayCris corporation whose actions essentially precipitated Murderbot’s discovery and subsequent flight across the galaxy. There’s a greater wistfulness, too, as Murderbot thinks of Dr Mensah, Murderbot’s ostensible “guardian” and the person most willing to see Murderbot as being invested with an inalienable personhood.

In this installment, Murderbot is intent on examining illegal proceedings on an asteroid that has since been abandoned by GrayCris. Murderbot is pretty sure there’s still incriminating evidence dumped in the memory banks of the machinery there, but the quest to recover such is seriously complicated by the presence of a reclamation team that has bought the rights to the asteroid from GrayCris. Murderbot’s skills as a security consultant quickly come into play as the reclamation team comes under attack from mysterious sources.

That isn’t the hard part for our grumpy AI, tho: the real challenge is figuring out how to deal with Miki, the reclamation team’s pet robot. Essentially a glorified baggage carrier, most robots of Miki’s design are treated like the help or worse. But Miki is treated like a friend and an essential part of the team, something Murderbot has a hard time processing.

I’ve stated in previous reviews that I’m deeply skeptical of the commercial novella format, especially when in an easily collectible series, an opinion that has only been strengthened by’s recent decision to embargo digital library sales for the first four months after a book’s initial pub date. I am unashamed to admit that I’m one of the people without the disposable income to enjoy these books without the help of my tax dollar funded libraries, so I imagine I’ll be reviewing the final(?) Murderbot diary quite a long time from now. At this point, tho, I’m genuinely more interested in finding out what happens to e-book sales than to Murderbot. That said, at least I want Murderbot to do well.

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Sep 04 2018

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth

Since June 1 of this year, and through October 28, the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford have been displaying an extraordinary selection of items from their Tolkien collection. The original map of the Lonely Mountain, complete with pointing hand and runic inscription. Watercolors by Tolkien of Hobbiton, of Bilbo’s conversation with Smaug, of the Eagles, of the escape from the wood elves. The original design for the dust jacket of The Hobbit, including a publisher’s note to disregard the red that Tolkien wanted, as this would have raised production costs. Tolkien’s desk. A pipe. Numerous fan letters, not least from a young Terry Pratchett. A map of Beleriand. Some of the objects show Tolkien’s work process: there is a timeline that helped him keep track of who was where when after the breaking of the Fellowship, there are notebooks that he used for writing. There are more personal works: Christmas letters to his children, visionary watercolors from well before The Hobbit was published.

The curators seem very proud of a projection of the design from the gates of Moria at the exhibit’s entrance, and of a multimedia relief map of Middle Earth that changes from light to dark and shows the course of various journeys in Tolkien’s work. They are both pretty neat, and surely involved a good bit of work to create, but they are secondary to the works from Tolkien’s own hand, and from the objects and documents that help illuminate his life.

The exhibit showed me how very early Tolkien was orphaned, and how tight his finances were for many years. He asked his publisher that he be paid for the illustrations that he prepared for the books; he did extra work during the university holidays; he re-used spare examination books for writing. Middle Earth is a cultural juggernaut now, but it was not for much of Tolkien’s life. Other visitors have commented on the items showing Tolkien’s experiences in the Great War, and drawn conclusions about how that affected his writing. I was reasonably familiar with that part of his history, so I did not spend much time with those objects.

The exhibition as a whole is not large. It is all contained within one room at the Weston Library. Tickets are free and bookable in advance online, though a limited number of entries are available each day, and they have been known to run out. The well-stocked gift shop next to the exhibition is only free to people with much more willpower than I have.

I was thrilled to see the paintings, drawings, and maps from Tolkien’s own hand. It was well worth a trip there and back again from Oxford.

(Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth will travel next year to the Morgan Library in New York, where it will run from January 25 through May 19. After that, it will be in Paris, although I have not been able to find a precise location or dates.)

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Sep 02 2018

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

Okay, jeez, this book means well but honestly, it’s like someone took a distillation of current events from the last ten or fifteen years and fictionalized it to make it easily understandable for and palatable to the average white woman. Here is modern feminism (with a bit of background on the movement in America) and, briefly, the problems its detractors correctly point out, with a love story and personal histories to make it all feel more relatable. It’s a perfectly pleasant, perfectly readable, perfectly vanilla book.

I actually picked it up in a bit of a huff (or rather, placed a hold on it at the public library in a huff) as a friend had sent me a copy of Naomi Alderman’s The Power, claiming it had life-changing properties. When I told her, quite gently or so I thought, that I was hesitant to read it because of its exclusionary idea of feminism, I was mansplained to regarding inclusivity. I wasn’t blind to the irony, but I was still deeply annoyed, enough so to care when one of the women’s magazines I read touted The Female Persuasion as a modern feminist novel. “Well,” I thought to myself, “let’s go see what all the moderns think of feminism.” But really, how much could I expect of a society that elected 45 into office?

Which isn’t to say that Meg Wolitzer doesn’t try, or that she doesn’t try enough. I mean, she clearly knows her audience, and knows as well enough of the criticism of mainstream political feminism to include it, however tangentially, in TFP. But I honestly thought Faith and Greer were both kind of awful, and I liked Cory for the most part except for breaking up with Greer for no discernible reason (and then also Lauren’s proclamation about his actions, like it was revelatory for Greer, which only proves that Greer is a total halfwit.) I liked Zee a lot and would have happily read an entire book about her, and that’s a lot of my problem with this book: I had to read about the mostly dull and marginally awful straight white ladies instead of the truly interesting queer woman because that’s how modern (American) feminism is. I’d like to think that Ms Wolitzer was just as aware of this irony as I am but I’m afraid that most of her target audience/market won’t be. Plus also there was a vague undercurrent of “critics are so tiresome” personified in Emelia’s sitter, who even I thought was obnoxious but well-meaning, thereby fitting right in with the rest of the novel.

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Aug 30 2018

Dragon Coast by Greg van Eekhout

With his trilogy about a darkly magical California — California Bones, Pacific Fire, and Dragon Coast — Greg van Eekhout has created an interesting world that puts wizards and fantastic creatures into a roughly contemporary setting and spun exciting stories of adventure among the people who shape that world. Earth is home to many magical creatures, from the kraken of the depths through the mammoths and sabretooth tigers on land to dragons in the air, all the way to the great beast at the heart of the world. Some trained humans gain access to these creatures’ power and other kinds of magic by eating their flesh and bones. They take the beasts into their beings and become magical themselves. That also makes them vulnerable, because any sorcerer who consumes their body will likewise gain the power of every beast they have absorbed. It’s a harsh society that calls California’s mild climate home.

The first followed Daniel Blackland as he upended the magical order in southern California; the second followed Daniel and his ward Sam, a golem of potentially immense power as they try to stop the creation of a Pacific firedrake, a massive dragon stronger than anything else known on the whole of the coast. Discussing the plot of Dragon Coast is impossible without revealing the ending of Pacific Fire.

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Aug 28 2018

Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

Why was Raising Steam, the penultimate Discworld novel, so much better than I expected? I had reason to worry. It clocks in at 475 pages, and for the last 10 books, I have much preferred the shorter ones to the longer ones. Both of Raising Steam‘s immediate non-YA predecessors, Unseen Academicals and Snuff, had seemed particularly self-indulgent. It’s programmatic: Pratchett has written about the post office, banking, and foot-the-ball; now he is going to write about railroads. It takes Moist van Lipwig as its central character, but Moist is not so much a character as a show and a collection of enthusiasms. He’s heaps better to read about than Rincewind, of course, but he’s nowhere near as interesting a creation as Captain Vimes, Granny Weatherwax (or even Nanny Ogg), or Tiffany Aching. The start is a bit shaky, too. Pratchett writes the dialog of Dick Simnal, the most important new character in Raising Steam, in the thickest dialect of any character that I can think of in all the Discworld books. I’m not sure what Pratchett is getting at with the dialect, unless it is referring to a specific regional English origin for the character, at the price of baffling anyone outside of England. He has managed to convey the humble origins of Captain Vimes and many other characters, or the country life in Lancre without resorting to ostentatious dialect.

With all of these factors arrayed against it, Raising Steam should just limp along as a serviceable late-Discworld book, a late-afternoon local on a line that is soon to be discontinued. But no, it works, splendidly, maybe even gloriously, barreling along its narrative tracks to a climax that’s thrilling and an ending that’s satisfying. Why? How?

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Aug 23 2018

Snuff by Terry Pratchett

Snuff, the thirty-ninth Discworld book, turns out to be the last one starring Sam Vimes, who has gone a long way in the world since his first appearance in Guards! Guards! There will be one more Moist van Lipwig book, one more Tiffany Aching book (although I am still drafting my thoughts on I Shall Wear Midnight), and that is the end of the main sequence of Discworld books. By the time Snuff was published, Pratchett’s diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s had been public for four years; he would live for another four. I don’t know if Pratchett knew that Snuff would be his last outing with Vimes, but I tend to think not. There is nothing elegiac about it, and although there is an epilogue saying what happened later to various characters, it is almost exclusively concerned with minor characters whose futures support a point made by Vimes in the book’s middle and provide a few last laughs.

The book sends Vimes on a busman’s holiday, or more accurately, a policeman’s holiday. He is persuaded, well, practically ordered, to spend a couple of weeks at his wife Sibyl’s considerable estates in the countryside at some distance from Ankh-Morpork. She accompanies him to the manor house that she loved as a child but has not visited in eight or nine years. They bring along their son, Young Sam, not least so that he may have some of the same treasured childhood experiences that Sibyl recalls so fondly.

Vimes is out of his element. He is a city boy, through and through, and he finds the countryside vaguely unnerving. Nor is he much better with the people. He is quite used to being in charge as commander of the Watch, but he is not at all accustomed to being lord of the manor. His egalitarian instincts clash with what the people expect from someone at the top of the hierarchy, and he is equally clueless about the ranks and rivalries among all of the people who serve him and his family on the estate. Sibyl, of course, is to the manor born, and she prevents Vimes from making greater mistakes, even as she guides him to a place in country society.

All is not well, or it would be a very short book. During a dinner party, Vimes is told by one of the local gentry how quiet things are and how little there could be to interest someone who is used to the criminality of the big city. Vimes’ ears immediately prick up. Sometime later, he accepts a challenge to a fistfight from the local blacksmith who has egalitarian views similar to Vimes’ and isn’t afraid at all to share them at great volume and with great resentment. The blacksmith, Jethro, is young and strong and fast, but he had the decades of fighting people who are actually trying to kill him that Vimes has had, and it’s a short and one-sided fight.

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Aug 21 2018

Foundryside (Founders #1) by Robert Jackson Bennett

Hands down my favorite fantasy novel of 2018 so far. In large part because it isn’t a fantasy novel or, as I described it to Bookclub chat, is really a meaty sci-fi novel in a delicious fantasy shell. It’s smart and witty and heartfelt, and I laughed and cried and gasped in sheer astonishment in turn. It is a terrific book, easily one of the best fantasy novels of all time (and if the sequels are just as good — or even better — whoo boy, are we in for a treat!)

To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t too enamored when I first started reading it: street urchin is a skilled thief by virtue of having special spooky secret powers, who gets sent to steal something so super secret, she’s not supposed to look in the box to see what it is she’s stolen. We know how that always goes, and I was just flipping pages, nodding along, when Clef enters the scene and all of a sudden, I realized that this was not the book I thought it was. Clef is hilarious, and has been described by the author as a fantasy version of the hacker on overwatch talking in the hero’s ear as she navigates an unknown and probably deadly area. There are, as a matter of fact, a lot of decidedly tech-based story angles given their fantasy analogues here, set in a city-state where capitalism has evolved into its worst possible structure, where people are seen as commodities and justice is a privilege extended only to the rich. Foundryside tackles tough political and social topics with the kind of verve you usually find in sci-fi a/o thriller novels. The last time a fantasy novel moved me with its philosophy and ethics was Vic James’ terrific Gilded Cage but even that is a pale shadow to the yummy intellectual and ethical goodness that is Foundryside.

To start, nearly everyone is a person of color. The romances are handled deftly and there is terrific non-heterosexual representation. Old people aren’t relegated to thin supporting roles with no or inactive personal lives. The bad guys, while still being obviously evil, are complicated and interesting. Friendship is important. And that ending is so enormously satisfying while still making me want the next book right now. Barring the first bit, this is an almost distressingly perfect novel.

I’ve now added Robert Jackson Bennett to my list of must-read authors, and just bought a Kindle omnibus edition of his other fantasy series for $3! Speaking of Kindle, his notes on Foundryside on Goodreads are a delight. I have a crush, for sure.

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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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