February 18, 2017

Review: Arabella of Mars

Arabella of Mars Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think David D. Levine has invented an entire new subgenre with this book. I'm calling it "Pulp Steampunk Regency." Pulp because it harkens back to the sort of rip-roaring adventure that was first promulgated by Jules Verne; Steampunk because of airships and automatons; and Regency because the book is set in the England (and Mars) of 1813, with all the retrograde views of women, people of color (and, as it turns out, aliens) that the time period entails.

But whatever you want to call it, it's a helluva rocket (or rather airship) ride. To modern eyes, of course, the "science" is complete nonsense. There are no "swamps of Venus" or a breathable atmosphere on Mars, much less an atmosphere (and soil) that allows for the growth of forests. There is no "intraplanetary atmosphere," or an ocean of air between the planets themselves that replaces hard vacuum and permits airship travel to Mars, Venus and presumably other planets in the solar system. But this is no more ridiculous than the FTL drives that have been a mainstay of SF for nigh on to forever. I can forgive a lot of things if a world and its rules are well thought out and the characters are engaging. This book qualifies on both counts.

Our protagonist Arabella Ashby undergoes quite a bit of personal growth over the course of this story. She learns her own strength, both physical and mental, and though at the end she is forced to marry to assure the succession of her family's Martian estate (because the British Empire of 1813 encompasses all the settled planets, apparently), her husband-to-be turns the formula on its head by being a person of color. The author actually handles the racism/sexism/classism elements of the time period pretty well, all things considered. This is a book that sneaks up on you--the further along I read, the more I liked it. (And Levine's airships are much better than some, for instance Jim Butcher's.)

This particular storyline is wrapped up by the end, but a few lingering questions assure a sequel. I'm looking forward to it.

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February 15, 2017

Review: The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is yet another re-imagining of H.P. Lovecraft's oeuvre, in this case "The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath." Not having read the original, I'm sure I didn't pick up on many of Kij Johnson's references, but this lack did not impede my thoroughly enjoying this story. Starting with the main character: 55-year-old Vellitt Boe, a professor at a women's college in the "dreamlands," a world where capricious gods slumber and destroy, nature is in a perpetual state of upheaval, and physics as we know it does not exist.

Can you imagine that? A middle-aged woman, not relegated to invisibility, in charge of her own story? Sign me up.

It soon becomes apparent that although Vellitt's quest is important (she's pursuing a young student who ran off with a man from the "waking world," in fear that said student's father will shut down the Ulthar Women's College, one of the few opportunities available for women of the dreamlands), the journey itself is the point. Vellitt walks endless miles through nasty underground caverns, meets with and fights all sorts of dangerous creatures, and eventually ascends to the "waking" (e.g., our) world. (For much of this journey she is accompanied by a small black cat--which does not die. TAKE NOTE, JOE HILL!!!) Along the way, we are given considerable insight into the far-traveling young woman she once was, and how she is determined to be, as she puts it, more than a "footnote to a man's story." The only complaint I have about this story, and it's a minor quibble, is the abruptness of the ending. This storyline is wrapped up, but I would very much like to know what Vellitt does next.

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February 11, 2017

Review: Hammers on Bone

Hammers on Bone Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is another of the recent crop of Lovecraftian Mythos updates, this one set in London and starring (if indirectly) Shub-Niggurath. It's a taut, fast-paced novella about a hard-boiled detective who is hired by a kid to kill his stepfather. Needless to say, the detective gets more than he bargained for.

Cassandra Khaw is a fine writer. Her pacing is good, she creates the atmosphere of this story very well, and she has a knack for unusual metaphors and similes. For instance:

Croyden's a funny place these days. I remember when it was harder, when it was chiselers and punks, knife-toting teenagers and families too poor to make it anywhere else in grand old London, when this body was just acres of hurt and heroin, waiting to stop breathing. Now Croyden's split down the middle, middle-class living digging its tentacles into the veins of the borough, spawning suits and skyscrapers and fast foot joints every which way. In a few years, it'll just be another haunt for the butter-and-egg men. No room for the damned.

Of course, this being the Lovecraftian Mythos, the aforementioned tentacles figure prominently, along with eyes, blood and gore. However, Khaw practices admirable restraint along those lines--I've read far worse. The only thing that rubs me the wrong way is the casual misogyny of John Persons, our human/not human detective. This fits in with the noir tropes, but I still didn't like it.

All in all, this is not the best novella I've read this year, but Cassandra Khaw is a writer to watch.

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February 6, 2017

Review: The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I almost feel guilty for giving this book only two stars, since it just won the National Book Award. But it goes to prove that no book is for everyone, and in this case, I have an apples-to-apples comparison to make: a book with a similar subject, storyline and treatment, Ben H. Winters' Underground Airlines. I reviewed it last year, and thought it was fantastic.

The main difference between the two is that Underground Airlines is a far more speculative story than The Underground Railroad. The former is an explicit alternate history; the latter has a whiff of fantasy elements, and not terribly believable ones at that. Colson Whitehead's Underground Railroad is an actual series of tunnels and tracks deep under the earth, where real locomotive engines run? How and where, pray tell, did they hide the cubic tons of earth that would have to be excavated to accomplish this feat? How could they have disguised all the workers, equipment, and noise while the tunnels were being dug, and what about the inevitable collapses and construction accidents? I mean, I like my SFF as much as anyone, and a good deal more than some, but as far as I'm concerned your story has to make some internally consistent sense.

(And yes, I'm sure a historian and economist could tell me all the things wrong with the premise of Underground Airlines. That may be so, but Ben H. Winters' story makes sense on its own terms, and doesn't have such a huge logic disconnect jumping up and down and demanding the reader's attention.)

Secondly, for a book that just won such a prestigious award, the prose here is...pedestrian at best. The writing is terse and dull, and never sang, at least for me. The characters don't seem to be terribly deep, and Cora, the protagonist, was not relatable for me at all. I didn't particularly like her, but I can't think of another character I wanted to step up and take on the main role, which is a sure sign (or should be) that your characterizations aren't working.

The ending is the final problem...which is to say, there isn't one, certainly not in any sense of closure or satisfaction. The story just peters out, and one never knows if Cora finally reaches a place where she won't be betrayed and recaptured yet again, or if her slave catcher has finally gotten his comeuppance. After I turned the last page, I decided I didn't care that much, which is the kiss of death for any book. On the other hand, I cared about the characters in Underground Airlines.

Your mileage may vary, of course, but as far as I'm concerned Ben H. Winters' book is superior in every way to this one. It would definitely be the one I'd choose if they were placed side by side.

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January 28, 2017

Review: A Taste of Honey

A Taste of Honey A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I bought this book on the recommendation of several people I know online, whose tastes generally seem to mirror mine. Their reviews were good, so I thought I'd give this unknown-to-me author a chance.

Unfortunately, the truism that "tastes differ" was confirmed once again, as I did not like this.

For one thing, the writing was far too frothy and artsy-fartsy to suit me. I haven't read any of the author's other work, so I don't know if this is his general style or an affliction of this story, but either way it didn't set well. Second, this starts out as a fairly generic fantasy, but about halfway through there is a sudden introduction of "gods," complete with psionics, Discorporate Intelligences (i.e. uploaded minds, it sounds like), holograms, hints of a terraformed planet, and highly technological dialogue. It's a clumsy, jammed-in retrofit, and it doesn't fit with the rest of the story at all.

Next problem: I did not like the main character. Aqib is a vain, arrogant little peacock who grated on me to no end, and frankly, his lover Lucrio could have done a lot better. But Lucrio made no great impression on me either; the best character in the book is Aqib's daughter Lucretia. However, this brings me to the third and biggest problem...


I couldn't figure out why this book jumps around so much. From past to future, back and forth between Aqib's and Lucrio's initial affair and events later on in Aqib's life. The last such event takes place when Aqib is 89 years old, and seems to fade into his death.

Or so we think....

But where were they now? The anguish and desperation he'd felt earlier this same morning, when he'd begged the Sybil: "Did I choose right? Or should I have stayed in Olorum?" No regrets, now! He wanted no life but the one he'd lived!

"Well?" The Sybil stirred in her glass. "There it is," she said. "Such life as you'd have lived, if you'd chosen Olorum."

Excuse me? You mean three-fourths of this book is nothing but an alternate timeline dream? Good God. Why did I waste my time reading it then, especially when I didn't care for it? And when the character I liked best never existed?

That is a plain and simple cheat, folks.

I'll donate this book to the library, or something. Someone is bound to enjoy it. I did not.

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January 24, 2017

Review: Runtime

Runtime Runtime by S.B. Divya
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is another of Tor's novella line. I must tip my hat to whoever is overseeing this, because each of these stories I have read so far is a perfect representation of its length and purpose. This story is a fine example of something with more worldbuilding and characterization than can be stuffed into a short story, but is a bit too light on plot for a full-fledged novel. But the novella length suits it very well.

In a near-future America with a rigid caste system, Marmeg Guinto is running in a grueling cross-country race, the Minerva Sierra Challenge. She is trying to win or place well to be able to afford the higher education that will gain a better life for her and her family. In this particular cyberpunk-ish future, her equipment includes exoskeletons and implanted computer chips, and teenage Marmeg is a coding genius. Spoiler: she doesn't win the race because of a technical disqualification, but the actions she takes during her attempt (saving another contestant from a rockslide) leads to her attaining her goal, and granting her a chance to get away from her overbearing mother.

All well and good. The writing is crisp and punchy, and the pacing is brisk. However, I didn't really connect with the characters. Honestly, the worldbuilding interested me more than the story itself. I would like to read another story in this world, with a real exploration of the caste system and the "licensing" procedure, and what that means for the unlicensed people. This story is a good introduction to the author's world, but I think she could do better with it.

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January 22, 2017

Review: The Arrival of Missives

The Arrival of Missives The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've read some good novellas lately, but this one is, in a word, fantastic.

It is very British though. That is, the prose is lovely and precise and languid, and the narrative is slow and restrained, until that moment, not too far along (at least that's what happened to me) when you realize you've been thoroughly pulled in, and you can't put the book down.

This is a story of fate, and power, and a heroine who realizes, as stated in the book's final paragraphs:

His presence gives me an optimism I have not felt in months. I will find the other rocks, and I will smash them all. I will wage war against those that deem me, and others like me, unimportant.

I will fight to make this world a better one.

The protagonist, one Shirley Fearn, does not start out like this. This book's setting is just after the Great War (World War I) and the Spanish influenza. The year is not named, but as best as I can figure out it is in May of 1919. In the beginning, Shirley is a lovestruck seventeen-year-old, infatuated with her teacher, one Mr Tiller. She dreams of attending school in the next village, becoming a teacher herself, and returning to her home village to marry Mr Tiller. The journey from who she is at the beginning of the story to the firebrand she becomes at the end is fascinating in and of itself, but the impetus behind this journey makes the book unforgettable.

But most of all, this is a story of perception. One of the most important plot twists takes place near the end, when we view an event through Shirley's eyes that has previously been described by Mr Tiller. This event motivates Mr Tiller throughout the book, and leads to a murderous decision of his own. But when Shirley sees what Mr Tiller has seen, she notices something that turns the entire narrative inside out. This sneaks up on the reader on soft little cat feet, but when you realize what it means for the story...it's breathtakingly well done.

This should be on all the awards ballots this year. It's just that good.

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January 20, 2017

Review: Stories of Your Life and Others

Stories of Your Life and Others Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I checked this book out from the library after seeing the terrific movie Arrival, based on the story that is the centerpiece of this collection, "Story of Your Life." Before this, the only exposure I'd had to Ted Chiang's work is the marvelous little story "The Great Silence," published in 2015 in E-Flux Journal. (Which y'all should go read immediately, by the way. It'll put dust in your eyes.)

After reading "Story of Your Life," I tip my hat to the screenwriter of Arrival. I'm sure a great many people considered that story unfilmable, and I would have been among them. So much of it, as is the case with many of Chiang's stories, is interior monologue, and it's amazing to me how much of this story's thrust and tone managed to be translated to the screen. Film and prose are very different mediums, of course, and the movie added a couple of subplots that weren't in the story. Still, it is about the best adaptation we could have gotten.

For the most part, the stories in this collection ranged from very good to great. The standouts are "Story of Your Life" and "Hell Is the Absence of God," the latter being a sobering examination of what might happen if Hell, Heaven, and visitations from angels were actual things in our reality. This story has what to me is a dark twist indeed. The only story I wasn't terribly fond of is "Understand," the tale of a man rescued from a permanent vegetative state by the injection of an experimental drug that regenerates his damaged neurons. Unfortunately, in the usual way of there-are-some-things-humans-weren't-meant-to-know, this drug causes him to evolve into a sort of godlike superbeing, at least until he meets up with another of his kind who shuts him down. I'm just not into that sort of consciousness-gestalt-meta awareness narration (unless the author is Peter Watts and space vampires are included). That said, this is still a masterful story: Chiang is very much in control of his weird, twisty narrative, and I can appreciate it even though I didn't like it very much.

These stories are a cut above almost anything else you might read, and Ted Chiang is a writer's writer. You owe it to yourself to check him out.

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January 16, 2017

Review: Cold-Forged Flame

Cold-Forged Flame Cold-Forged Flame by Marie Brennan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of Tor.com's new novella line. This particular story was 100 pages, and for an introduction this format was perfect. Sometimes a book doesn't need to be doorstop size to make its point.

Speaking of "perfect," look at this opening paragraph.

The sound of the horn pierces the apeiron, shattering the stillness of that realm. Its clarion call creates ripples, substance, something more. It is a summons, a command. There is will. There is need.

And so, in reply, there is a woman.

Now that, my friends, is a hook, and the author reeled me right on in. The writing is smooth as silk, with not a word wasted, and the pacing was excellent. Due to the book's length, there aren't that many characters, but the people we do meet are vividly drawn. This nameless woman is prickly, sarcastic, and stubborn, and she never gives up. She doesn't know who she is, or how she has been summoned, or why she has been set to a task against her will. This is the story of her task and how she completes it, and what she finds out about herself along the way. It's a story of memory and identity, what you are willing to give up and what you fight to keep.

(One oddity I noticed in reading the other Goodreads reviews--a couple of people mentioned this story is told in first person. It is not. It is third person, present tense, with a tight focus on its protagonist. I guess the POV is so tight it fooled a few people into thinking it's first person, but it isn't.)

I would love to find out more about this world. We're given just enough details to whet the appetite (and I've already pre-ordered the sequel, due out in a few months). Hopefully the next volume will do this.

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January 14, 2017

Review: Born to Run

Born to Run Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I haven't read a musician's autobiography in a long time, after I struggled to get through Keith Richards' Life and had to give up on it. I've glanced at a couple since then, but they all seemed to follow the same boring trajectory: fame, fortune, sex and drugs, the latter of which led to a complete bottoming-out, followed by a torturous climb back to sobriety and sanity.

Fortunately, Bruce Springsteen's memoir isn't like that at all.

For one thing, the man can write. (Of course, since he's been writing songs for nearly fifty years, you would automatically think so, but lyrics, which have to rhyme and scan, are very different than prose. Maybe that's why most of this book's chapters are so short--they're mini songs.) I don't know how he'd do with fiction, but the prose in this book is excellent. His voice is sharp, wry, funny, and brutally honest. The heart of this book is his complicated relationship with his father, which weaves through from beginning to end (though towards the end of Douglas Springsteen's life, father and son found some understanding and peace). Then there is Bruce's frank discussion of a life lived with depression, and the fact that he's been in therapy for decades, which obviously contributed to the insights about himself in these pages. I also appreciated that on some subjects (namely the sex part of the rock n'roll equation), he didn't let it all hang out--there's no salacious kissing and telling here, although he is forthright about the failure of his first marriage.

(But the stories about his second wife, Patti Scialfa, and his children, are some of the funniest and most heartwarming in the entire book. This is a bit of a long excerpt, but I just love this.

She also guided me when she thought I was falling short. For years, I'd kept musicians' hours, a midnight rambler; I'd rarely get to bed before four a.m. and often sleep to noon or beyond. In the early days, when the children were up at night, I found it easy to do my part in taking care of them.
After dawn, Patti was on duty. Once they got older, the night shift became unnecessary and the burden tilted unfairly toward the morning hours.

Finally, one day she came to me as I lay in bed around noon and simply said, "You're gonna miss it."

I answered, "Miss what?"

She said, "The kids, the morning, it's the best time, it's when they need you the most. They're different in the morning than at any other time of the day and if you don't get up to see it, well then...you're gonna miss it."

The next morning, mumbling, grumbling, stolid faced, I rolled out of bed at seven a.m. and found my way downstairs. "What do I do?"

She looked at me and said, "Make the pancakes."

Make the pancakes? I'd never made anything but music my entire life. I...I...I...don't know how!


Patti Scialfa sounds like a woman who brooks no nonsense. I'd almost rather sit and talk with her than Bruce.)

Because we don't get the usual rock and roll cliches in these pages, this book has a rare depth. I particularly appreciated the stories of Bruce's political awakenings, encapsulated in the controversy over his song "American Skin (41 Shots)"--sadly prophetic indeed, in the age of Black Lives Matter. There are also fascinating insights about his songwriting; the themes he wanted to tackle with each album, what he wanted to say to his audience and how he constructed his songs to fit. This book is five hundred pages long, but it's well worth the read, whether you're a fan or not.

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