September 25, 2016

Review: Breath Of Earth

Breath Of Earth Breath Of Earth by Beth Cato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One reason I bought this book is its fantastic cover. It intrigued me: who is this woman and what is she holding? Then, after downloading the sample chapter from Amazon, I was hooked. I had to know how this story ended.

This is a steampunk alternate history, incorporating real-life characters (Theodore Roosevelt was prominently mentioned, though he never appears; I hope he shows up in the sequel) and tackling some sobering themes, including oppression of women and persecution of Chinese immigrants. The latter is a little-known and shameful history in early 20th-century California, as the author explains in her Author's Note. She had to do considerable research for this book, as the story is set at the time of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906 (there is a bibliography of her sources in the back). It shows. The scenes set in the quake and its aftermath are harrowing.

But her worldbuilding impressed me the most. This is the most important element of a good story for me, followed by characterization and plot, and Cato aced all three. This is is a world where magic and mythical creatures--here called "fantastics"-- exist (one small detail that tickled me was an offhand comment about unicorns pulling wealthy people's carts in the San Francisco Heights), magically powered airships roam the skies, and "geomancers" prop up world economies and wield vast power. They are defined thusly:

Geomancy, however, was a rare skill among people and relied upon kermanite, an even rarer crystal that acted as a supreme electrical capacitor. Wardens absorbed the earth's energy from earthquakes and then channeled their power into kermanite, which was then installed in all varieties of machines. No other battery could keep airships aloft.

Kermanite had stimulated the Roman Empire two millennia past; now it was the Manifest Destiny of the United Pacific [United States and Japan; in this history, Japan and its airships helped the North win the Civil War] to govern the world, thanks in no small part to geomancers.

Unfortunately, the attitudes toward women in this history remain the same, and our protagonist, Ingrid Carmichael, a woman of color, bears the brunt. She is a female geomancer who is not supposed to exist, and she struggles under the same discrimination and constraints. Beth Cato sets all this up admirably in the first couple of chapters, and then we are plunged into a crackling good story, with mystery, intrigue, romance, well-developed secondary characters (including a transgender man) and culminating in the terrifying set piece of the earthquake. The book doesn't end there, but damn those chapters were outstanding.

It's always a pleasure to take a chance on a brand-new author and be so well rewarded. If you've never given Beth Cato a try, read this book. You won't regret it.

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September 18, 2016

Review: Behind the Throne

Behind the Throne Behind the Throne by K.B. Wagers
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was....okay. It's basically a court intrigue with a thin veneer of science fiction and space opera slathered on top. It follows a pretty standard formula: the heiress who fled home gets dragged back, the empire is in chaos, her family members are being murdered, and she has to decide whether to take up that life she turned her back on. Along the way she picks up unexpected allies, proves to be doggedly hard to kill, and in the end is crowned Empress after all.

That could be a good story in the right hands, but unfortunately this isn't. The writing is just adequate, and the characterizations are shallow. There's an attempt to create a unique culture, a pseudo-India (as in the subcontinent, not First Nations) transplanted to another planet--most characters have Indian names, there is a pantheon of Indian gods, and everyone wears saris--that I wish the author had never included because it just comes off as painful and awkward. Another not-so-great worldbuilding idea is that the society is matriarchal because the radiation from when the planet was first settled killed off most of the men, the women assumed leadership roles, and now men are viewed as being generally inferior and incapable of ruling, or some such. Obviously that's a commentary on today's society, but it's not terribly well-thought-out.

This book isn't really bad; it falls more into the category of "a mile wide and an inch deep." It's a decent read, but it lacks the thought, depth and spark that would make me search out the sequel.

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September 13, 2016

Review: Ninefox Gambit

Ninefox Gambit Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is my second five-star read of the year, and as far as I am concerned it is knock-your-socks-off good. Having said that, this is not an easy read by any means. In fact, the first chapter alone will undoubtedly put off many potential readers, who will wind up scratching their heads and asking: "What the hell is going on?" This is due to the book's extreme in media res format; you are thrown into the middle of a battle and introduced quickly to the main characters, with no explanation or backstory. The narrative is, basically, sink or swim.

This book is set in a far-future universe, with protagonists who are called "human" but share very little of what I would consider human, with technology that could be described equally as virtual reality, magic, or Arthur C. Clarke's formula of tech so advanced that it is indistinguishable from magic. Any of the three might fit, and part of the fun is figuring out your own formula for how everything works. The reader has to do this because, again, there are no explanations. Yoon Ha Lee is apparently the anti-infodump writer, although he does rather better with his characters, especially his undead general, Shuos Jedao (whose consciousness, or uploaded brain, or something, has been imprisoned for four hundred years in a "black cradle," and hauled out only when the ruling hexarchate wants to put down another rebellion).

This book sounds confusing as all get-out, but it sucked me right in and I didn't want to leave. The protagonist, Kel Charis, who is put in charge of quashing the rebellion at the Fortress of Scattered Needles and unleashes Shuos Jedao to do it, is a fascinating character: singled out because of her penchant for mathematics (which becomes bloody damn important at the end), and thrown into the middle of something she does not know how to handle. The relationship between Charis and Jedao is the heart of the book.

This book will greatly reward re-reads, I think, because in going through it again the reader can pick up more clues about the technology (and what "calendrical rot" means--I still haven't quite figured that out, although I think it has something to do with these "calendars" influencing the fabric of reality in a given location). In any case, this book is breathtakingly original, and it will be up for awards next year if I have anything to say about it.

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September 2, 2016

Review: Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement

Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement by Sarah Erdreich
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This little book is a good primer on the state of the pro-choice movement in America. It was written in 2012, long before the recent Supreme Court decision striking down HB 2, Texas' terrible abortion law, and thus is somewhat pessimistic about the movement's future. Despite the recent SCOTUS victory, abortion rights are still under siege in many areas of the country, as this book points out.

Topics include "Hands-Off Training," discussing the (lack of) training offered by many medical schools in how to perform abortions; "(Mis)Representations of Reality," pointing out the distorted view of abortions, a common medical procedure (1 in 3 American women has an abortion during her reproductive lifetime), offered on TV and movies; and "I Went to the March for Life, and All I Got Was This Lousy Fear of Choice," the chronicle of the author attending the March for Life and visiting a so-called "Crisis Pregnancy Center." The most interesting part of the latter section is the author's recounting of literature she picked up in said CPC, and how dishonest it is. From page 197:

"I knew going into this CPC that I would not receive any pro-choice information. But I was still shocked at just how factually inaccurate and misleading the abortion information actually was. Just because a clinic is 'faith-based,' as the woman I met with pointed out--to say nothing of not 'abortion-minded'--does not give it the right to provide women and their partners with lies."

Huh. Well, color me shocked (not).

This book is well-written but doesn't tackle its subjects in any great depth, unlike another book I recently read on the topic, Katha Pollitt's Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights. It's certainly worth reading, however.

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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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