August 28, 2016

Review: The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction

The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is pretty much a grab bag. Neil Gaiman, one of the reigning rockstars of comic book and fantasy writers, started out as a journalist. That training still comes through in many of these pieces; there's a sort of laidback evenhandedness in how he approaches his subject matter, even when he's definitely advocating an opinion, as many of these pieces do. (Libraries and literacy are apparently two of his favorite topics.) Neil's trademark style and voice are front and center in this book, a sort of wry British drollery that can carry the reader through some things that would seem to be, at least on the surface, as dull as dishwater. But Neil has a delightful habit of picking apart his subjects, nosing his way into all sorts of odd nooks and out-of-the-way crannies, and in the process giving a unique perspective that the reader most likely hasn't thought of before.

The book is divided into ten sections, dealing with beliefs, people, introductions, film, comics, music, fairy tales, art, and "real things." This last section is the most hard-hitting, I think, because Neil gets pretty personal, laying bare some of the challenges and tragedies of his own life. The very last essay in the book is the introduction to Terry Pratchett's collection, A Slip of the Keyboard, written before Sir Pterry died. It's a poignant, memorable ending to the book.

This is not a quick beach read by any means. Most of the essays here are meant to be digested slowly and savored. In some ways, this collection is for the Neil Gaiman completist, but there's plenty here to hold the attention even of those who have just read his fiction.

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August 21, 2016

Review: James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

More than forty years ago, James Tiptree Jr. wrote some stories that pretty much turned the world of science fiction upside down. Stories about women, and gender, and gender identity, and feminism. He won awards and corresponded with many SFF people, including Joanna Russ and Ursula K. LeGuin. In 1976, after his mother's death, it was revealed that "he" was not a man at all, but rather a woman, Alice Bradley Sheldon.

This is a rich, complex biography of a complex woman. I remember reading somewhere that the author took ten years to write it, and I can well believe it. The amount of research required for this must have been incredible. Julie Phillips had access to all of Alice's journals and letters--she, or he, was quite the letter-writer, an art I think has been sadly lost. The portrait that is painted is that of a troubled, complicated person, possibly manic depressive and obsessed with death, born too early for feminism and never at peace in her own body, who eventually killed her husband and herself. Yet she left behind an incredible legacy of stories that are still turning the field on its head today. (For evidence of this, read a book published just last year, Letters to Tiptree--I reviewed it here--where many of today's top female SFF writers compose missives to Alice B. Sheldon, explaining how she inspired them.)

This is one of the best biographies I have ever read. It doesn't read like a novel--it's thorough and methodical, and if you're the kind of reader who wants a swift pace and a sure resolution, you won't find it here. Some might say it's slow and plodding. But I found the book and its subject fascinating. This book won several well-deserved awards, including the 2007 Hugo for Best Related Work.

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August 18, 2016

"Polls. All of them."

Great Ghu. This election has truly gone down the rabbit hole. I would really like to crawl under the covers and hide until November 8, but unfortunately I can't.

The meltdown at Trump Tower on Election Night is going to make Karl Rove's denial of reality when Barack Obama took Ohio in 2012 look like a roadside picnic.

Buckle your seat belt, folks. We're in for a bumpy ride.

August 4, 2016

Review: Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism--From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond

Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism--From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism--From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond by E.J. Dionne Jr.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book, it seems to me, is a must-read to explain the 2016 elections and the sorry state of today's Republican Party. As E.J. Dionne states in the introduction, "This book offers a historical view of the American right since the 1960s. Its core contention is that American conservatism and the Republican Party did not suddenly become fiercer and more unyielding simply because of the election of [President] Obama. The condition of today's conservatism is the product of a long march that began with a wrong turn, when first American conservatism and then the Republican Party itself adopted Barry Goldwater's worldview during and after the 1964 campaign."

(Does anybody besides me think that Barry Goldwater would be spinning in his grave over Donald Trump?)

Dionne documents this central thesis in exhaustive, well-researched detail. It takes nearly 500 pages to wend his way through more than 50 years of Republican history, showing exactly where they went off the rails and why. He makes the point that, unfortunately, Donald Trump is the logical endpoint of the ever-increasing conservative extremism and insistence on purity, and ends the book with this.

"A turn toward moderation and an embrace of those who have been left out--these are the tasks essential to the conservative future.

Conservatives rightly revere those who came before us, but they will not prosper if they continue to yearn for a past they will never be able to call back to life. They may win some elections, but they will not govern effectively on the basis of an ideology rooted in the struggles of a half-century ago."

I despair of this ever happening, and thus the book was, for me, a pretty pessimistic read. But it was an enlightening look into why one of America's two major political parties is currently thrashing itself to bits.

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July 31, 2016

Review: Every Heart a Doorway

Every Heart a Doorway Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of Tor's new novella line, and this story is ideally suited to that format. It simply would not have worked as a full-length novel, and I'm glad the author didn't try to pad it out. Seanan McGuire, unlike some authors I have recently read (*cough*Neal Stephenson*cough*), knows how to avoid infodumps, and works the necessary backstory seamlessly into the narrative.

There are some pretty poignant themes to this little tale; what happens when you feel you don't fit in anywhere, and when you finally find the place you're destined to be, you get yanked back to this world? What will you do, what will you give up, to get back to that place? And if you can't get back, how will you cope?

This is the story of Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children, the last refuge of children who have gone through magical doors to other worlds: Nonsense worlds and Logic worlds and in the case of our protagonist, Nancy, the Halls of the Dead. Nancy, like the other children in this story, will do anything to get back to her world...and as we learn, that "anything," for one of the characters here, includes murder.

The murder mystery is pretty pedestrian (I'm not enough of a murder aficionado myself to count clues and look for red herrings and such, but other reviews I've read suggest those into that sort of thing figured out the murderer pretty quickly), but as far as I'm concerned the murder mystery isn't really the point. The characters are, and this is where McGuire shines. From Nancy with her ability, gained in the Halls of the Dead, to stand rock-still and slow down her heartbeat, to fast-talking Sumi, a refugee from a Nonsense world, to identical twins Jacqueline (Jack) and Jillian (Jill), the former of which is ruthlessly logical and tolerant of gore (of which there is a fair amount in this book), and the latter sports ribbons and parasols...the characters are distinctive and memorable.

This is a lovely, compact story, and it is exactly the length it needs to me. Would that more authors would recognize this as well as Seanan McGuire.

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July 24, 2016

Review: Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening

Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening by Marjorie M. Liu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am a fan of Marjorie Liu's work. Her urban fantasy series, Hunter Kiss, is one of the more inventive UF series out there, with a rich, unique mythology, and the books are refreshingly free of most urban fantasy cliches. So I approached this graphic novel already predisposed to like it--and it knocked my socks off.

This is set in a world with an intricate mythos and background, easily the equal of Liu's Hunter Kiss universe. This is gradually revealed through the 6 collected issues of this volume, and once you get to the end you'll want to take another pass through it, to see all the little bits of worldbuilding you didn't pick up on before. Liu trusts her reader to follow her, and is never condescending or long-winded about her world.

But there are also some pretty heavy themes here, about monsters within and without, and fear of the Other, and how a person copes when she realizes she carries a horror within her she cannot escape. There's a shivery Lovecraftian feel and and an Egyptian tone to the story. It's pretty dark overall: this is definitely not a children's comic. The art is a muted palette of grays, browns and blacks that grows on the reader, and is very appropriate for the story.

The characterizations are very well done, especially Kippa (Little Fox), Master Ren the talking two-tailed cat, and of course the seventeen-year-old protagonist, Maika Halfwolf. She carries a burden that would break most people or drive them insane, but at the end of the book she finds a sliver of hope. The whole thing is just outstanding, and I highly recommend it.

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July 16, 2016

Review: Rebel of the Sands

Rebel of the Sands Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book disappointed me. I thought it would be right up my alley, but that turned out not to be true.

It started out strong. It began as a sort of Western/Arabian Nights mashup, with the Western part predominating. There are guns, and weapons factories, and trains; there are also gods, and First Beings, and djinni--and halfbreed children sired by djinni--and other mystical energy creatures such as Buraqi, the equivalent of a horse that can be caged by iron. (The Buraqi were the best part of the book, and I wish the storyline had focused more on them in some fashion.) There is a displaced prince, a rebellion ("A new dawn. A new desert."), and a clash of science, magic and religion. There's a sixteen-year-old protagonist, Amani, a sort of Arabian Nights Calamity Jane who has taught herself to shoot and desperately wishes to escape her backwards, misogynistic town and society. She meets up with a secretive foreigner, Jin, who turns out to be the brother of the Rebel Prince, and gets involved in the rebellion. Many fights and shootouts and a few deaths later, along with some revelations about Amani's parentage, the rebellion wins its first battle and is on its way.

This may work for some people, but it did not work for me. The writing is okay and the characters adequate, although not terribly deep. What spoiled the book, as far as I am concerned, is the clumsy worldbuilding. The further along I got in the book, and the more it tended towards the Arabian Nights end of the spectrum, the less believable it became. By the later chapters, we're deep into the rebellion, and the half-Djinni children show their various powers (shape-shifting and illusion-casting, among others), and of course Amani is revealed to be a half-Djinni (or Demdji) whose power is to manipulate sand and make it do things, such as forming shapes that, for instance, grab her and keep her from going over a suspension of disbelief shattered completely over that one. I realize this is supposed to be a fantasy, but the disparate parts simply do not blend.

Somewhere, there may be a Western/Arabian Nights combo that succeeds. It's not this book, unfortunately.

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July 11, 2016

Review: The Geek Feminist Revolution

The Geek Feminist Revolution The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been reading Kameron Hurley's blog since it was called Brutal Women, and I'm very gratified by her success. (Full disclosure: I am also one of her Patrons.) She's had a hell of a slog, dealing with a chronic illness, the ups and downs of the publishing business, and being attacked by asshats on the Internet, and it's nice to see one of the good people get ahead.

A great many of the essays in this book were originally published on her blog, but it's been long enough since I read them that I was able to look at them through fresh eyes. This book is divided into four sections: Level Up (dealing with the business of writing); Geek (something of a smorgasbord, tackling television and film reviews, archetypes in writing, male/female characters and protagonists, and dystopias); Let's Get Personal (how she has dealt with various challenges in her life); and Revolution (another smorgasbord, with treatises of Gamergate, Puppygate, and white privilege). This last section includes her Hugo Award-winning article, "We Have Always Fought: Challenging the 'Women, Cattle and Slaves' Narrative."

In these essays, Hurley has a blunt, in-your-face style that is no doubt a result of their having been blog posts: as she points out, you have to develop a thick skin to be a woman on the Internet. (Sample [from the introduction]: "Because telling someone to be quiet on the internet to avoid abuse and harassment is like telling women that the best way to avoid being raped is not to go outside, and there are many more of us who won't be silenced, because fuck that.") I think this style is very suited to the subjects she tackles. As she freely admits: "I want to change the world," and to do that, you have to get angry, fight, be persistent, and work harder. Kameron Hurley is good at all of those.

My favorite essays include: "What Marketing and Advertising Taught Me About the Value of Failure" (an interesting account of how she applies the lessons of her day job to fiction writing); "Wives, Warlords, and Refugees: The People Economy of Mad Max" (a deconstruction of Mad Max: Fury Road, my favorite movie of last year, from an angle I hadn't considered); "In Defense of Unlikable Women" (contrasting two movies, one with an unlikable male protagonist and one with an unlikable female one, and how the former movie was accepted while the latter was "controversial"); "Public Speaking While Fat" (an affecting account of how she came to accept her body and her existence as a fat woman); "The Horror Novel You'll Never Have to Live: Surviving Without Health Insurance" (a truly harrowing story of her experience as a Type 1 diabetic, and life before the Affordable Care Act); and "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: On Empathy and the Power of Privilege" (showing how those who get into kerfluffles on the Internet usually need to step back, think, show empathy, and realize it's not about them).

There are many thoughtful, engaging essays in this book. I'm grateful that Kameron Hurley has given them to the world.

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Hugo Voting 2016: The Big One

2015 Hugo Award Trophy

(This is last year's Hugo trophy. This year's design hasn't been posted yet.)

We've reached my final Hugo vote this year, Best Novel or what George R.R. Martin calls "the big one."  I'll link to my Goodreads reviews of all these books.

1) The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin (full review here, with spoilers)

When I originally wrote my review in September 2015, I said, "This is one of the best books I've read this year." I'll revise that now; it is the best book I read in 2015, bar none. I really really hope Jemisin gets the rocket.

2) Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie (full review here, with spoilers for entire series)

In the third volume of the Imperial Radch trilogy, Ann Leckie brings it on home.

3) Uprooted, Naomi Novik (full review here, with spoilers)

I debated the placements for #2 and #3 for quite a while, and finally tossed a mental coin. This could change tomorrow, and back again the next day, these two books are so closely matched.

4) Seveneves, Neal Stephenson (full review here, with spoilers)

I understand why this book was nominated, and why it may even win (although the God of Infodumps forbid, I certainly hope not). But it has some pretty severe flaws.

5) No Award

6) The Aeronaut's Windlass, Jim Butcher (full review here, with spoilers)

This book disappointed me greatly, because Jim Butcher can write better books than this, dammit. The worldbuilding here is very good, but I need more than a fascinating world; I need characters that come to life, characters I can care about. That is what this book lacks, and a Worldbuilding Report doesn't cut it, not for a Hugo.

(Note: The eagle-eyed may have realized I omitted any voting for the [famously Not-A-Hugo] Campbell Award. I am still trying to get to that...I have until the end of the month [nervously looks at calendar]).

July 10, 2016

Hugo Voting 2016: Novellas

1994 Hugo Award Trophy | The Hugo Awards

(The 1994 trophy. One of the prettier ones.)

Yes, we're getting to the end, folks. This is the Novella category.

1) Binti

I didn't have this in the top spot at first, but upon a reread I realized I had to move it up. It's a Heinlein juvenile updated for the 21st century, with a Himba woman of Namib standing in for a white American guy. There's a fascinating alien race, and deep-seated cultural differences, and misunderstandings, and murder, and Binti's Himba culture bridging the gap and saving the day.

2) Penric's Demon

Different from the first novella as night from day, this is the story of an ordinary kid who gains a demon, and is thrust into a world he can scarcely imagine. Penric is a wonderful character.

3) Slow Bullets

This is...okay. Nothing special.

4) No Award

(Other nominees: "Perfect State," a Matrix rip-off about a "brain in a jar who has to procreate." Bah. Couldn't finish. Also couldn't finish "The Builders," a Magnificent Seven rip-off starring rats, mice and opossums.)