April 23, 2017

Review: Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016 with a Journal of a Writer's Week

Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016 with a Journal of a Writer's Week Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016 with a Journal of a Writer's Week by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Should I be ashamed to admit that I've never read any Ursula K. Le Guin until now? Maybe I should, since she's been a giant of the SFF field for decades, and her Hugo-winning novel The Left Hand of Darkness is acknowledged as a classic of the genre. For some reason, her novels have never attracted me--they just don't seem like they would be my kind of thing. Which is a poor excuse, I know. Still, this essay collection was definitely my kind of thing, at least until I hit the final third of the book.

May I say, first and foremost, that her writing is beautiful: poetic and precise, with nary a word wasted. She has a self-deprecating sense of humor, almost British in its wry understatement. This is most evident in the first two sections of the book--"Talks, Essays, and Occasional Pieces" and "Book Introductions and Notes on Writers." The final section, "Book Reviews," was something of a letdown for me, and ultimately resulted in my bumping my rating down a star; the reason being that with the exception of China Mieville, the books being reviewed did not sound interesting at all, despite her erudite defense and exploration of their merits. Magical realism is not my cup of tea, and straight literary fiction even less.

The first section--"Talks, Essays, and Occasional Pieces"--is to me the best, and the outstanding essay here is "What It Was Like," a gut-punch of a short speech about life for American women before Roe v. Wade. I simply must quote a couple of paragraphs from it, because it took my breath away.

I can hardly imagine what it's like to live as a woman under Fundamentalist Islamic law. I can hardly remember now, fifty-four years later, what it was like to live under Fundamentalist Christian law. Thanks to Roe v. Wade, none of us in America has lived in that place for half a lifetime.

But I can tell you what it is like, for me, right now. It's like this: If I had dropped out of college, thrown away my education, depended on my parents through the pregnancy, birth, and infancy, till I could get some kind of work and gain some kind of independence for myself and the child, if I had done all that, which is what the anti-abortion people want me to have done, I would have borne a child for them, for the anti-abortion people, the authorities, the theorists, the fundamentalists; I would have borne a child for them, their child.

But I would not have borne my own first child, or second child, or third child. My children.


I'd never seen that before. I wish it was included with every piece of literature Planned Parenthood and similar organizations put out.

The final section of the book, "The Hope of Rabbits: A Journal of a Writer's Week," is her record of a week spent in a writer's colony. It is the perfect way to end this book, with its beautiful prose, marvelous descriptions of her surroundings and the wildlife found there, and deep dive into one writer's process. This is a quiet sort of book, not loud or flashy, but the wit and wisdom found within its pages will stay with you after the flash fades away.


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April 22, 2017

Review: Life's Work: A Moral Argument for Choice

Life's Work: A Moral Argument for Choice Life's Work: A Moral Argument for Choice by Willie Parker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've read about Dr. Willie Parker before. There's a lovely profile of him here at Esquire. Rereading that now, it has many of the themes that Dr. Parker expounds on here. This book is part memoir, tracing Willie Parker's life journey from the depths of poverty to the heights of a prestigious, well-paying career as an ob/gyn; part declaration of faith, as he relates being born again at age fifteen and how he balances his Christianity with his now full-time work as an abortion provider; and a fierce, ethical, and moral argument for the right of women to make this choice.

This is a very frank and refreshingly scientific treatise on the procedure of abortion. Dr. Parker describes it in detail, and busts many pro-lifer myths along the way. Abortion does not cause breast cancer; abortion is safer than childbirth; Planned Parenthood does not sell fetal tissue; and the vast majority of women do not regret their abortions, but rather feel relief, or at most a bittersweet acceptance. (As Dr. Parker says [pg. 98]: "I find that my patients are far more sensible, and far less histrionic, about the realities of this process than their elected representatives are.") He discusses second-trimester abortions and the myriad reasons a woman might have one, summing up his stance with this (pg. 101): "I perform second-trimester abortions, within the legal limits of state and federal law, because women tell me they need them."

For Dr. Willie Parker, this is the only reason he needs. It's the only reason anyone should need.

In chapter 9, "Preaching Truth," he examines several of the anti's objections to abortion, and deconstructs them with a doctor's knowledge, a scientist's precision, and a storyteller's cadence. I'm just going to quote a few paragraphs here, because I could never say it any better.

Most women who seek abortions are healthy and in the prime of their lives. Whatever factored into their decision making, they know what they want to do, or what they need to do by the time they enter my office, and they have gotten the money together. These are the "lucky" ones.

Adults are presumed to be able to look after their own best interests and the best interests of the people who are depending on them. In every case except abortion, society bestows upon individuals this trust, even if those individuals have demonstrated that they cannot be trusted to make good decisions. The presumption undergirding abortion decision making is that women who have had sex and are accidentally or unintentionally pregnant can't be trusted to comprehend the consequential weight of their actions. The law requires them, like bad little girls, to "prove" to authorities that they have thought carefully about what they're about to do.

In health care, no other medical condition is treated this way.
(pg. 141)

In my conversation with the young anti-abortion activists at the University of Alabama that day, I presented fatal fetal anomalies as clear-cut cases for the necessity of preserving abortion rights up to and beyond twenty weeks. They countered that sometimes miracles happen that allow these fetuses to survive. Yes, I answered, maybe. But most of the time they don't. And the students were forced to concede that, sometimes, maybe, abortion does not equal murder. And then I brought my argument home: If you can agree that certain medical conditions might justify abortion, then how can you exclude social, or personal, or financial conditions? If abortion is permissible in the case of a fatal fetal anomaly, then why not in the case of homicidal, battering partner? Or a dire lack of resources? Or a drug dependency? How can the state adjudicate the circumstances of a woman's life at all? (pg. 153)

This is a wonderful book: concise, compassionate, well argued. I thought before that Willie Parker is a goddamned hero, and this book only reinforces that. He is proud of the work he does, and I'm proud, and grateful, that we have him.



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April 15, 2017

Review: The Collapsing Empire

The Collapsing Empire The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's nice when you follow an author who has steadily upped his game. Like many, I started reading John Scalzi with Old Man's War, and while I liked that book well enough, some of his authorial tics (mainly constant maddening "saids" with every single freaking line of dialogue) drove me nuts. Still, I enjoyed the books well enough to hang in there. Scalzi has a breezy, workmanlike style that manages to pull you in, and his characterization and worldbuilding has improved with each book. I would have said the last book of his I read, Lock In, was his best.

Until this one.

This is the first of a new series, the story of an interstellar empire with less than ten years left to live. The Interdependency relies on the Flow, interdimensional currents that bypass the lightspeed barrier and make space travel possible. Humanity has built its entire existence around these currents, and the rigid trade hierarchy between colonies (and the Interdependency's one actual planet, End). Now, however, the Flow is collapsing, and the extinction of the Interdependency and humanity itself seems imminent.

There are not much higher stakes than this. Usually in books like these, we have a cast of thousands, which is why I don't read many of them. This is not the case in this book: we have three main protagonists, an Interlude featuring the POV of the villain, and a prologue told from the point of view of a character I wish we could have seen more of. (Maybe next time.) Our main characters are Cardenia, who is unexpectedly, and unwillingly, thrust into the office of Emperox of the Interdependency; Kiva Lagos, the wonderfully foul-mouthed representative of one of the royal houses (I would love for her and Chrisjen Avasarala from the Expanse novels to engage in a curse-off); and Marce Claremont, a Flow physicist from End, who is tasked with delivering the bad news to the new Emperox.

This story is mainly told through dialogue, which is a Scalzi trademark. That's not to say he can't write action scenes. There are a few of them here, and one in particular, an assassination attempt on the Emperox, is well done. But snappy patter is John Scalzi's meat and potatoes. Description is not, which may bother some people. I didn't mind, and scarcely noticed it after a while, because these characters are well drawn and distinctive, even if I have no idea what any of them look like. The prose is smooth and unobtrusive, and the entire book flows well. The problem is not solved in this volume, which may also put people off. But since the problem itself is so huge, one can hardly expect it to be wrapped up in one book, and frankly it would be a cheat if it was.

(The only thing that gave me pause is the prologue: specifically, several paragraphs within the prologue itself, where the rising action grinds to a halt for a heavy-handed and authorially intrusive infodump explaining the Flow. I have no idea why Scalzi did this. As far as I'm concerned, it was completely unnecessary: a few brief sentences would have sufficed to tell the reader the ship had unexpectedly dropped out of its interdimensional current, and if it didn't get back in, everyone would be up shit creek. Especially since the Flow and the Interdependency itself is explained later, in a far better and more natural fashion, in Chapter Four, where we are introduced to Marce Claremont. If the entire book had been like the prologue, it would have rapidly met the wall. Fortunately, it wasn't.)

I think this is John Scalzi's best work to date (and thankfully his "said" problem is more or less solved). I am invested in these characters and this story, and care about what happens to them. That makes a successful book, and one I am glad I own.

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April 13, 2017

Review: Six Wakes

Six Wakes Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After finishing this book and thinking about it for a bit, I decided I wanted to like this book more than I actually did. This book is, as so many people have already stated, a closed-door, locked-room murder mystery: one of our six characters (which actually turns out to be seven) is the killer, and the fun, if you want to call it that, is figuring out who that is.

Unfortunately, I'm not especially fond of murder mysteries, and as such I did not pay attention to, or particularly care about, the various clues and red herrings. The setting, the worldbuilding and the characters intrigued me far more than the actual mystery. This book takes place on a generation ship run by clones, outbound from Earth on a four-hundred-year-long journey. There are many good things about it, particularly the characterization: the characters are sharply drawn, their backgrounds fully explored, their motivations believable. The mystery is not as convoluted as you might expect, and the layers of the onion are slowly, and expertly, pulled back to reveal how all the pieces fit together. (How's that for today's mixed metaphor?) I'm not sure the book sticks the landing; the story seems to come to a vague, formless stop, with something that might lead to a sequel or might not.

The main problem I had with the story is the severe suspension of disbelief required for some of the tech, specifically the cloning and mindmapping techniques. I know this book takes place several hundred years in the future, but even so, I don't think some of this stuff is feasible, now or ever. Of course, FTL and time travel isn't feasible either, and yet many good books have been written around these concepts. Obviously, one's enjoyment of the book will depend on what the individual reader can tolerate. So: I liked this to a point, but I'm not gung-ho about it.

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April 6, 2017

Review: Ms. Marvel, Vol. 6: Civil War II

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 6: Civil War II Ms. Marvel, Vol. 6: Civil War II by G. Willow Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This volume of Ms. Marvel is apparently G. Willow Wilson being dragged kicking and screaming into Marvel's misbegotten Civil War II. Everything I've heard about this "event" makes me more disinclined to read it. Having said that, Wilson manages to wrangle the beast into some semblance of coherency, by sticking as much as she could to her own characters and storyline. These include the issues bookending the Civil War sections, with Kamala meeting Spiderman Miles Morales at a Jersey City science fair (complete with kooky Marvel-universe physics) and Kamala returning to Pakistan to visit her family, regroup and figure out what she wants to do with her life. She makes some bad decisions in this volume by (temporarily) siding with Captain Marvel Carol Danvers and her misguided foray into "predictive justice," and the fallout for those decisions will presumably be the series' focus going forward.

This is a bit of a mess, and it's not really Wilson's fault, which is why I have given it four stars. She explores the moral question of Civil War II by bringing down to a very personal level for Kamala, and mostly succeeds. The basic conflict of Kamala's life--her family and personal identity versus her superhero identity--has never been more evident. There are several small, poignant character touches that save the story, and the closing issue in Pakistan is very good. I wish we could see Kamala visit Pakistan more often. (And meet up with the local superhero the Red Dagger, who I'm fairly confident is Kamala's "friend-in-law" Kareem.) The volume ends with Kamala returning to Jersey City with a renewed determination to protect her city and its people, and an acknowledgment of the awesome, crushing responsibility she must shoulder. Hopefully we will leave Civil War II behind in the next volume, and if we do, things have been set up for some impressive storylines in the future.

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April 2, 2017

Review: Lotus Blue

Lotus Blue Lotus Blue by Cat Sparks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For me, worldbuilding is the most important part of a good SFF novel, followed closely by characterization. A rip-roaring story is also a good thing, but if the first two elements are done well enough, I can forgive a slower pace or a more deliberate plot. That doesn't happen with this book, happily: Cat Sparks has the first two in spades, and the fact that we also have a rip-roaring story is the cherry on top.

This is a far-future science fiction saga, in a post-apocalyptic, post-climate-change Australia. The seas have risen, massive areas have turned to desert, and the remnants of humanity are subsisting on the "Sand Road," where caravans of scavenged tech travel to shantytowns built on, and with, the ruins of more tech. There were great wars in the past, and armies of genetically-engineered cyborgs and "mechabeasts" (artificially intelligent, half biological and half metal tankers that ride the desert like schools of fish--or maybe killer whales--and play an important role in the story), and all sorts of hidden bunkers and underground factories and cities. There is also a forgotten, uploaded, batshit crazy general called the Lotus Blue, who, after untold centuries, is waking up.

There are a great many viewpoint characters here, which normally tends to put me off. I would rather concentrate on just a few people, or one. However, the author is firmly in control of her story at all times, and as I progressed through the chapters I could see the threads that would eventually braid everything together. Sparks pays attention to the need for development for each of these characters, and the two who eventually emerge as co-protagonists--Star the Sand Road girl who longs for a better life and Tully Grieve the con artist and thief, who gets dragged into a bad situation and finds it within himself to be a better human being--get satisfying arcs. The story for these particular people is more or less wrapped up, but the door is also left open for a sequel.

This is a damn good story, and I would love to see more tales in this universe. Recommended.

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March 30, 2017

Review: The Stars Are Legion

The Stars Are Legion The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is my first really good book of 2017. I pre-ordered it sight unseen, and it's quintessential Kameron Hurley: messy, gory and brutal, full of unlikable characters and hard choices.

The worldbuilding stands out with this one, however. The Legion is a swarm of living biological worldships orbiting an artificial sun, and the "humans" (and I use the term loosely, as they're clearly not Earth humans; furthermore, they've evolved in tandem with the worldships) in this book inhabit these worlds like intestinal bacteria, or maybe parasites. Our two protagonists, Zan and Jayd, are both unreliable narrators. Zan because she has amnesia, a groan-inducing trope that turns out to have very important plot reasons, and Jayd because she holds her cards so close to the vest, and is playing such a deeply layered game, the reader is never sure if Jayd herself knows what she is supposed to be doing. Zan and Jayd are part of an ongoing battle for control of the Legion, a generations-long war that is about to come to an end, one way or another. The worlds of the Legion are dying, and the fabled ship the Mokshi, which Zan has been told she repeatedly tries to board, repeatedly fails, and returns with her memories stripped from her each time, holds the key to the Legion's survival.

The book is divided into three sections. The middle section is the longest, and is the torturous story of Zan's journey through the guts of the worldship Katazyrna. This is where the worldbuilding gets down to the blood and guts and slime; there are some deeply disturbing things to be found here, and this part of the book is not for the fainthearted. Yet all this, no matter how nasty it is, is necessary. The people Zan meets on her journey to the upper levels of Katazyrna, and the choices she makes to get her little band to their destination, change Zan in profound ways. This character arc comes to its fruition in the final section of the book, when the truth of Zan's previous life, and her journey, is revealed. The final choice she makes tears herself free of the endless loop she had been trapped in, and sets her newly rebirthed worldship on the path free of the Legion.

This is supposedly a standalone book, but I hope Hurley writes more stories in this universe. I would love to know, at a minimum, how the Legion was built and who built it. Still, we do have this book, and it is fan-freaking-tastic.

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March 28, 2017

Review: The Vision, Volume 1: Little Worse Than A Man

The Vision, Volume 1: Little Worse Than A Man The Vision, Volume 1: Little Worse Than A Man by Tom King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the best graphic novels I have read this year. I'm not going to write a separate review of the second volume, Little Better Than a Beast, as the two tell one complete story and should be taken together.

This is the story of the Vision, the "synthezoid" (Marvel's version of an android) created by the villain Ultron, and his attempts to live a normal human life with a family. Needless to say, this does not work out. I'm tempted to compare his journey to the story of Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, but this is a far darker tale, with extensive quotations (and volume titles) from The Merchant of Venice to drive home the point that this is, and will be, a Shakespearean tragedy. I realized this about halfway through Vol. 1, but that didn't stop me from reading. This may be a tragedy, but it is a fantastic one, with explorations of what it means to be human, whether an artificial being can ever reach such heights, and whether, in the end, any of it matters.

The structure is a little different in that there is an omniscient narrator, the identity of which is revealed at the end of the first volume. The Avengers don't come off too well in this story, (well, we know Tony Stark is an asshole, but here he's rather more assholish than usual), and were I the Vision, I would tell them to leave me the fuck alone from here on out. Which is the beauty of this story, in Volume 1 and (especially) Volume 2: even though the Vision ends up doing some terrible things, the reader understands perfectly why he does them; and this reader, at least, considered whether or not she might do the exact same thing in the given circumstances.

The art, by Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Jordan Bellaire, is very good, perfectly complementing the story. On the last page of Volume 2, there is a bit of (gasp) shall we say hope? for the future, a small glow of light in contrast to this story's darkness. This is a thoroughly adult graphic novel, and should not be missed.

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March 21, 2017

Review: Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Vol. 1: BFF

Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Vol. 1: BFF Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Vol. 1: BFF by Amy Reeder
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was...okay. I prefer graphic novels with more mature storylines, which you can have even when your protagonist is a 9-year-old girl, as in this case. The last third of the story, when our hero Lunella Lafayette takes off on her own to hunt down the bad guys, is the strongest. Lunella is a nicely rounded character, with believable motivations and fears, and I think if she was just a little bit older this would be a better comic. As it is, she's cute without being twee or cutesy, which is good, but this simply doesn't have the depth it needs to be memorable.

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March 19, 2017

Review: The Book of the Unnamed Midwife

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really wavered about how many stars to give this. I liked it, but it has its issues, and there is a great deal of handwavium inherent in the premise. This is also one of the grimmest books I have ever read, on a par with Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (if nowhere near that book's quality).

Needless to say, All The Triggers applies. Rape, child rape, abuse, violence and extreme misogyny are found here.

This is a near-extinction-of-humanity and death-of-civilization tale, with a virus so virulent it kills 98% of men and more than 99% of women, including all pregnant women. Which is the first of my objections to the worldbuilding--the world's most lethal viruses, such as Ebola, simply do not work that way. Ebola kills something like 90% of its victims, but this occurs over a time frame of weeks and months. The virus here seems to strike the entire world population simultaneously, which is ridiculous. (Unless it was a genetically engineered organism, tailored specifically to humans, introduced years beforehand, and programmed to turn lethal in response to a specific trigger. Something like David R. Palmer's Emergence, which handles this scenario a helluva lot better.) Also, the Unnamed Midwife who is the book's protagonist--she never gives her true name, but goes by various aliases, mostly male, throughout the book--wakes up after who knows how long in a comalike state (somehow without starving to death or dying of thirst, which also bugged me) to find everyone else gone and San Francisco deserted. (And where, pray tell, are all the rotting bodies and feral dogs?)

But put all that aside, if you can, because that was just the pseudo-science to jumpstart the plot. The author's concerns are what happens to humanity after it all but dies out, and what she and the Unnamed Midwife sees isn't pretty. Specifically, men revert to brutish animals and make all remaining women their slaves.

I said "extreme misogyny" in reference to triggers, but it seems to me there is a lot of hatred of men in this story's subtext, thinking that nearly all men would act like this. Or, hell, hatred of humanity in general, that we would automatically revert to knuckle-dragging barbarians in such an event. To be sure, some of us would. But I'm sure that many more men AND women would band together in the hard work of changing to a non-technological, agrarian society (which is what would have to happen) while preserving as much old world technology as is feasible. (For instance, rounding up herd animals, building greenhouses, scavenging as many medical supplies/canned goods as possible, and also constructing windmills/gathering solar panels for power/etc etc etc. Jeezus. I just threw that out in fifteen seconds, and already I've got a much more hopeful scenario than this book.)

I think the reason the author goes with such a grimdark storyline is that the society she envisions coming after, which is established in the prologue and epilogue as a framing device, is so different from our own. For instance, instead of a two-person marriage as the basic unit of society, there are polyamorous "hives" (specifically, one women with two or more men), and women are separating into two different castes, Mothers and Midwives. (Hopefully this is expanded upon more in the sequel, The Book of Etta.)

In the meantime, this storyline is somewhat equivalent to a drive-by car wreck--it's horrific, but you can't take your eyes off it. Meg Elison is a good writer, with sharp pacing, nice characterization, and a good ear for dialogue. I just wish she'd given more thought to her worldbuilding, because that leaves a lot to be desired.

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