November 23, 2014

Review: Lock In

Lock In
Lock In by John Scalzi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've read several books by John Scalzi, but this one is by far the best. Some of his notable tics (especially using "I/he/she said" for every freaking line of dialogue, which is a silly but inescapable pet peeve of mine--just let those quotation marks and the individual character's speech rhythms and word choice speak for themselves) are tamed down, and the book as a whole is generally written to a higher standard, as compared to the first book of his I read, Old Man's War.

This a near-future science fiction story. The incident that starts is all, the mini-pandemic that causes what ends up being named Haden's Syndrome, could begin tomorrow. Twenty-five years from now, the millions of people that suffer from Haden's (which is similar in some ways to ALS, although it's not fatal--and awake and aware mind is "locked in" to a nonresponsive body), have caused great societal changes, with their use of neural networks, "threeps" (Personal Transports, or androids, linked to Hadens via their neural networks), and their virtual reality space known as the Agora. Scalzi uses this setup to explore several issues, including gender presentations and disability rights, set against the backdrop of a rather pedestrian murder mystery.

But the mystery, although mildly interesting and rather easily solved, isn't really the point. What the author is doing with his world is. Among other things, he's writing some fascinating stuff about gender (the main character, Chris Shane, is never given a gender--a little easier to do when written in first-person, of course--and while I eventually came to the conclusion that Chris is male, that's strictly my projection as a reader, and not anything drawn from the text) and race. I believe Chris is biracial; his father is definitely stated to be black, and I think his mother is white. At any rate, that's the picture I have of him: a young, earnest, biracial FBI agent, like a darker, woolly-headed Fox Mulder. Your picture of Chris may be very different, and that's the beauty of this book. If there is a sequel, I hope the world of the Hadens, and the politics it inspires, are explored in greater detail.

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November 17, 2014

Review: The Sharpest Blade

The Sharpest Blade
The Sharpest Blade by Sandy Williams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the third book in the Shadow Reader series, and I think it wraps things up quite well. It's marketed as urban fantasy, and it's got a cheesy bare-midriff cover (and the protagonist is in the midst of drawing a katana--honestly, I'd be afraid I'd cut my arm off or gut myself), but it's really not. It's more high fantasy with an unexpected science-fiction edge; the Realm, the home of the fae, is on another planet with entirely different constellations in the night sky, Fae and humans cannot interbreed (no halflings! Yay!), and the fae "fissure" to get from one place to another, which is simply a fancy-schmancy word for teleportation.

However, none of this would work if we didn't care about the characters, and I certainly did. McKenzie Lewis, the protagonist, showed an amazing amount of growth between the first book and this one--in this, the final book, she's turned into a right proper badass, wielding a sword and a tranquilizer gun as she sets out to rescue her lover. There is a love triangle, which I gather from other reviews some people do not like at all. I thought it was sensitively handled myself; give McKenzie credit for breaking things off with her first love, Kyol, after it becomes evident that Kyol will never be who she wants and has, in fact, been stringing her along for ten years. Of course, it's a bit more complicated than this, involving a "life-bond" (an empathic tie that gives McKenzie some unexpected strengths) Kyol puts on her to save her life (at the end of the last book, The Shattered Dark), and which her new love Aren now has to cope with. Eventually, after an idiotic attempt at noble martyrdom, he does.

(Although the question must be asked--does polyandry not exist in the Realm? Why can't McKenzie have both Aren and Kyol?)

One thing that sets this series apart is its focus on fae politics. This facet of the storyline was fascinating, and something I don't often see. McKenzie has to choose which people she belongs with, and she ends up throwing her hand in with the fae, with all their battles over Descendants and false-bloods and rightful rulers. I wish the author had given the politics more play than the love triangle, as the former was more interesting to me, but it's not enough of a quibble for me to not recommend the book.

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November 16, 2014

Dig It, the Dancing King

If you're like me, you probably don't know much about dressage, but I'm going to put this up anyway, because it's just gorgeous. This is North Forks Cardi, the Welsh Cob stallion who just won the Freestyle Grand Prix at the U.S. Nationals. His music is Celtic (maybe from Riverdance, though I don't know for sure) and apparently he did this in a simple snaffle bit. I'll let Judith Tarr from Book View Cafe explain why this is such a Big Deal.


November 11, 2014

Review: Skin Game

Skin Game
Skin Game by Jim Butcher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If Jim Butcher were ever to offer a writing class or release a how-to book, I would sign up and/or buy in a heartbeat. This is the fifteenth book in the Dresden Files series (out of a rumored twenty-seven), and not only is the series not sputtering out, it's stronger than ever. This entire series is absolutely a master class in plotting, as often seemingly throwaway aspects and/or characters of the earlier books are brought back into play, and there are real consequences for everything Harry does, consequences that have to be dealt with.

The pivotal book in the series, so far, is no. 12, Changes. In this book, Harry's entire world is turned upside down, and the series takes off in a drastic new direction (although the full ramifications of this don't begin to show until the book before this one, Cold Days). This book is, to me, meatier than its predecessor; for one thing, some of the more...icky...aspects of Harry's turn as the Winter Knight are now under control, and for another, he finally begins to wise up re: Karrin Murphy! In fact, this book's plot, dealing as it does with a very long con game Harry sets up and executes to perfection, shows how much the character has changed--he is now far more prone to thinking before he acts. This is a Good Thing.

But the biggest delight of this book, for me, is a scene that rivals what was up till now my favorite sequence in the entire series: the scene in Dresden Files #9, Dead Beat, when Harry rides Sue the zombie T-Rex into battle. I never thought there would be scene to match that one. Now, there is, and it involves milquetoast mortician Waldo Butters, the broken Sword of Faith, and an absolutely perfect capper: "Mister, where I come from, there is no try."

It's just wonderful, and so is this book. I can't wait to see what Harry does next.

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October 25, 2014

Review: Stung

Stung by Bethany Wiggins

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I read some other Goodreads reviews of this book before I started on mine, and it seems there are only two camps regarding this story: you either really like it or you absolutely hate it.

I don't quite fall into the "absolutely hate it" faction; my feeling about this book is that it's mediocre at best, and that's only if you don't think about it too much. Once you do, the severe flaws in worldbuilding, plot and characterization become blindingly apparent.

The most glaring flaw, for me, is the worldbuilding and backstory. There is a lot of handwaving regarding the science (such as it is); I'm sure even a halfway competent beekeeper could take this story apart without much effort. To wit, as much as I understand it--which probably isn't very well at all, as the backstory of this book does not make sense--bees were in danger of going extinct, so there was genetic manipulation, which resulted in the genetically enhanced bees killing the old bees off, and the gengineered bees' sting spread the bee flu (and with that, the severe suspension of disbelief already required to this point absolutely snaps), and the vaccine created for the flu sent some people into comas and turned others into drooling, Incredible-Hulk style monsters. (Really. I kept waiting for the author to describe the lovely green shade of said monsters' skin.) Oh, yeah, this scenario causes mass starvation and the breakdown of society (which is actually the most believable part of the entire book), and the bee flu apparently kills SEVEN TIMES more females than males, as the ratio of f/m is now 1 to 7.

Seriously, Ms. Wiggins? I'm sorry, but that's ridiculous. It also serves as a gateway to some of the more nasty parts of the book, namely that the surviving women are reduced to sexual objects and breeders, and the men are all turned into sex-starved rapists. (And apparently there are also no gay men and women left in the world.)

There are considerably more problems with the plot and characters (mainly because Fiona Tarsis, the protagonist, veers perilously close to Too Stupid To Live territory), but I don't feel like going on, to tell you the truth. This book is a mess, and it's not even an interesting mess. Some people might like it; there are a number of 5-star reviews on Goodreads, which I don't understand at all. To me, it reads more like a trunk novel, and the author should have left it there.

(Yes, I did change my rating from 2 stars to 1. I thought about the book too much, I guess.)

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October 23, 2014

Review: Cruel Beauty

Cruel Beauty
Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At another review site I visited recently (and I'll be hanged if I can remember which one), this book was briefly mentioned as one of several retellings of the fairy tale "Beauty and the Beast."

I haven't run across another such book as yet, but it would have to be damned good to top this one.

This is a lovely reinterpretation of the fairy tale, with an imaginative setting, great characterizations, and lush prose. It's also a sort of alternate-world fantasy, with a pantheon of Greek gods and myths that are one step removed from our own--see this book's retelling of the Pandora tale as an example. But there are layers here, as you discover throughout the book: layers slowly peeled back to show that neither the setting nor the characters are as they seem. It's a wonderful testament to the author's skill and control of her story.

The book starts out with a humdinger of an opening: "I was raised to marry a monster." Nyx Triskelion was indeed brought up to do just that, and this marriage is (ostensibly) the only hope of saving her kingdom and her people. This fate, which she has known about since the age of nine, obviously engenders a great deal of resentment, both towards the father who bargained with a demon and consigned one of his twin daughters to marry said demon (with the incongruous name of the Gentle Lord), and towards Nyx's sister Astraia, who will live the normal life Nyx will be denied. This plays into the book's title (Cruel Beauty). Nyx has, as she says, "poison in her heart," and this turns into a major plot point.

For a young-adult book, there are some very grown-up themes here. One is realizing there is good and bad in us all, and this doesn't make us monsters; it makes us human. Another is fighting for love and against one's fate. It all adds up to a lovely story, and you should read it.

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October 13, 2014

Sailing the Ocean Blue Two

A perfect capper to the previous post, via John Oliver.

"Trafficked and robbed and triumphed home again"

This is what we should be celebrating today.

And this is the reason.

There's also this to think about.

That would be rude, to say the least. 

And then there are always asshats who are dragging their feet and missing the point. (I usually don't link to Townhall, but I couldn't resist sharing this columnist's colossal stupidity. There isn't enough cheese in Wisconsin to go along with this whine.)

This poem, found here, sums it up very well. 

"You Say, Columbus With His Argosies"

You say, Columbus with his argosies
Who rash and greedy took the screaming main
And vanished out before the hurricane
Into the sunset after merchandise,
Then under western palms with simple eyes
Trafficked and robbed and triumphed home again:
You say this is the glory of the brain
And human life no other use than this?
I then do answering say to you: The line
Of wizards and of saviours, keeping trust
In that which made them pensive and divine,
Passes before us like a cloud of dust.
What were they? Actors, ill and mad with wine,
And all their language babble and disgust.

~Trumbull Stickney

So: Happy Indigenous Peoples' Day! 

October 7, 2014

They All Fall Down

This is the Ninth Circuit Court's decision striking down Idaho and Nevada's gay marriage bans, issued today.

Judge Reinhardt, who wrote the decision, evidently has something of a sense of humor; one of his footnotes, on page 21, reads:

He also states, in conclusory fashion, that allowing same-sex marriage will lead opposite-sex couples to abuse alcohol and drugs, engage in extramarital affairs, take on demanding work schedules, and participate in time-consuming hobbies. We seriously doubt that allowing committed same-sex couples to settle down in legally recognized marriages will drive opposite-sex couples to sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. 

Which made me both laugh out loud and shake my head at the stupidity of such an argument. As if many opposite-sex couples weren't already doing all those things.

There's also a very interesting concurring opinion, written by Judge Berzon, starting on page 50 of the 95-page document. He argues that not only do "these same-sex marriage prohibitions fail because they discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation," but because of "impermissible gender classifications," based on "the baggage of sexual stereotypes."

The opinion is quite long, but well worth your time. Hopefully, this will apply to all the other states in the Ninth Circuit....which means that my home state of Arizona will have to wave its discriminatory little amendment bye-bye.

About damn time.