May 28, 2016

Review: All the Birds in the Sky

All the Birds in the Sky All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For the first two-thirds of the story, I wasn’t sure this book knew what it wanted to be–either a contemporary fantasy, magical realism, or an absurd tome on the order of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This seemed to vary from chapter to chapter (the chapters alternate viewpoints between the two main characters). Because of this, I felt the story rambled more than a little, so that I wondered when or if it would ever get to some sort of point.

I was never tempted to put the book down though, because Charlie Jane Anders is an excellent writer. Her prose is rich and evocative, and she has a knack for metaphors and similes that turned my fingertips green with envy. She also moved the story right along, so even if I thought we might never get to where we were supposed to go, for the most part I was enjoying the trip.

The two main characters, Patricia and Laurence, represent the two opposing sides of the author's mythos: magic and science. This is made clear right away, in each of the chapters introducing them. A bird Patricia rescues starts talking to her within the first three pages--and pay close attention to where that bird takes her, because the ending of the book is indicated right then and there. In the second chapter, the bullied nerd Laurence invents a "two-second time machine," which immediately portends the various other things he invents throughout the book, all of which play huge roles in the final showdown. It's a masterful bit of foreshadowing, and also of characterization.

About two-thirds of the way through the book, the author drops the bomb. (Figuratively, from my reaction, and literally in the story.) Looking back now, I can see how carefully the whole thing was set up, and how delicate some of the puzzle pieces were. When everything clicked into place, the book took off like Secretariat exploding out of the starting gate, and all I could do was hang on for what became a helluva ride.

This book takes some pretty familiar tropes and turns them inside out. The only quibble I have with it is the meandering first section, and given the quality of the writing, I didn't mind all that much. Your mileage may vary, of course. In any event, the book is well worth checking out.

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May 18, 2016

Review: Their Fractured Light

Their Fractured Light Their Fractured Light by Amie Kaufman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the final book in the Starbound trilogy, and while I know three books is a real investment to make, this trilogy is worth it. It's also the case that while the authors make laudable attempts to explain what has gone before without bogging down this story, you really owe it to yourself to read the first two books (These Broken Stars and This Shattered World). I think it would be much harder to pick up on what's going on without this background.

But having read the first two books only deepened my enjoyment of the final volume, because all the stray threads are tied together and all the loose ends picked up. About halfway through this book, the four characters from the two previous books meet up with the protagonists of this one, and all six characters take it through the final battle. This shows some very good plotting by Kaufman and Spooner, and my hat's off to them.

Sofia and Gideon, the protagonists of this book, were actually introduced in the previous volume--Gideon is the Knave of Hearts, hypernet hacker extraordinaire, and Sofia is one of the inhabitants of Avon, the setting of This Shattered World. Both are used to hiding behind various masks and distrusting everyone they meet, and of course they are thrown together and must learn to trust each other to survive. Their relationship is a careful, hesitant slow burn of a romance (this book is marketed as "young adult," which is kind of a misnomer in a universe where sixteen is the legal age--Captain Jubilee Chase from the previous book talked her way into the military at fifteen--and the usual YA angst of our world is totally absent; the characters have the feel of mature people, regardless of their late-teen status) as they work together to defeat LaRoux Industries, the sociopathic corporation that is the real antagonist of the series. (We also spend quite a bit of time with Roderick LaRoux, head of LaRoux Industries, but in something of a twist, he is a broken, pitiable man at the end.)

The worldbuilding didn't knock my socks off, but it's perfectly adequate. This is space opera with terraforming, FTL and hyperspace, and an expanding human empire which depends on all three. (Although it's kind of funny to think of Gideon hacking his way through hyperspace. Where were all the cat pictures?) The outstanding element of this is, of course, what comes to be called the Collective, the incorporeal hivemind of energy beings discovered in hyperspace (which is their universe) and exploited by Roderick LaRoux. That's actually the weakest part of the worldbuilding; how on earth could a human contain creatures of pure energy, creatures with the power to create a perfect copy of a deceased person? There's quite a bit of handwaving there, but in the end I decided I could overlook this because the overall plotting and characterization was so good. This book really brought the Collective to life for me, with their asides between chapters.

(And by the way, who had the bright idea to print chapter 38, the one chapter in this book from Lilac's point of view, on gray paper? You'll know why when you get to that chapter. It's just brilliant.)

This book, and indeed this entire series, is one of the best I have read in a long time. Highly recommended.

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May 12, 2016

Review: Kalahari

Kalahari Kalahari by Jessica Khoury
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jessica Khoury is one of the better YA writers out there; her books have a strong science fiction focus and take place in unusual and well-fleshed-out settings. (I was also going to say that she doesn't write trilogies, but I discovered this book is third in a loose trilogy, dealing with the same secretive, shady corporation. I haven't read the second book at all, and it's been a while since I read Origin, long enough that I'd completely forgotten about Corpus.) Just as her fantastic treatment of the Amazonian rainforest in Origin, here the Kalahari desert comes alive, from the sounds of the birds to the snakes and scorpions in the grass, from digging up edible roots to bringing down guinea fowl with a sort of primitive boomerang, to facing down a young bull elephant in rut and wriggling into a warthog's burrow.

Sarah Carmichael has spent her entire life traveling the world with her parents, conservation research scientists. In order to gain a grant, she and her father agree to host five American teenagers for two weeks in the Kalahari, where they have been living for the past few years. As the story opens, Sarah is just beginning to recover from her mother's death four months ago. She meets the five city slickers and drives them to her camp (one of the girls, Miranda, upon seeing the primitive campsite, asks plaintively, "Where's the lodge? You promised there would be a lodge"). Her father, Ty Carmichael, hears a report over the radio of poachers in the area and goes to check it out, taking with him the only other adult, the friend of the family and Bushman Theo. He promises Sarah he won't get involved and he'll be back by dark.

Of course, this grand plan doesn't work out at all.

This book is a mixture of a hard-edged survival story and genetic engineering run amuck, in the form of a secret Corpus lab creating something that, in the usual "there are some things humankind was never meant to know" formulation, gets away from its creators. How you feel about the plot as a whole depends primarily on the plausibility of the second half of this proposition, and I must say Khoury comes up a little short here. She tries mightily, and couches her Metalcium (her inorganic "living metal" invention that reminds me of the "liquid metal" in Terminator 2: Judgment Day) in enough handwavium that she almost pulls it off. This Metalcium is actually pretty frightening: it's inorganic but can self-replicate and evolve; it uses lead to sneak past the body's immune system and can copy DNA to create inorganic copies of organic cells; and of course, once it learns to do that, it decides that all those organic cells in the bodies it's infected need to be replaced, which results in lions, giraffes, bush babies, porcupines, mice and eventually humans turning into creatures of living metal before they go insane and die.

All this is well and good, and sets up a taut little thriller, as an infected lion named Androcles escapes from the Corpus lab and leads a chase that collides with our protagonists. Sarah, her father, and the five city kids are caught in the escalating conflict of the Corpus mercenaries' increasingly desperate attempts to contain the situation. They learn of the true stakes about halfway through the book, and the remainder chronicles Sarah's quest to keep herself and her charges alive, find her father, solve the mystery of her mother's death, cross the Kalahari on foot with little food and water, avoid the Corpus bad guys, and attempt to reach civilization--and not incidentally get all of this done before she succumbs to her own Metalcium infection, from inadvertently touching a contaminated bush baby.

The pacing of this book is very good, and the settings and descriptions are excellent. The Kalahari felt totally lived-in, deadly and real. Sarah is a marvelous protagonist, competent, intelligent and in charge, completely at home in primitive conditions and a fish out of water in anything approaching modern life. Sam Quartermain, her love interest--and I must say I appreciated the fact that there wasn't a bloody love triangle in this book; I'm really getting tired of that cliche--is the best characterized of the five city slickers. The others, unfortunately, are not as well fleshed out. However. Khoury blows a mile-wide hole in the plot with her solution to the Metalcium problem--African bee venom? Really? Bees, who most certainly did not evolve to fight this inorganic menace, can neuter it and break it down in Sarah's body (and the bodies of anything infected, animal or human) with a few stings? If the Metalcium is as intelligent and aggressive as it's made out to be, why couldn't it change its own chemical composition to counter the effect of the venom, or simply take over the bees' tiny bodies before the venom can start to affect it? I'm sorry, but after doing such a good job of setting up this implacable foe, the solution was way too easy.

There is a lot to like about this book, and I'm glad I read it. I can for the most part gloss over the plot deficiencies (the fact that I didn't throw the book against the wall is proof of that), but of course other's mileage may vary.

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May 9, 2016

Review: Everyday Sexism

Everyday Sexism Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think this little book should be read by everyone, and it definitely should be taught in high schools and college. It proves that feminism is still needed, and anyone who tells you we live in a "post-feminist" society is simply full of it. The book began life as the Everyday Sexism Project, a website where women could post their stories and lived experiences. According to the book's frontpage, the site has now collected more than 100,000 testimonials from people around the world.

One of the most heartbreaking chapters, to me, is Chapter 3, entitled "Girls." The first three pages detail stories of sexism from literally every year of a young woman's life, from birth to 18.

My father's reaction when he learned I was a baby girl: "They are twins, and girls to boot!?"

My mom told me repeatedly that men won't like me because I was too started when I was 3.

Aged 5, man leaned over the garden wall where I was playing, asked me to twirl so he could see my knickers.

6 years old, as a bridesmaid, took my cardigan off at the reception and got WOLF WHISTLES from adult men nearby. Straight back on.

Being told by age 9 that getting catcalled, whistled, honked at were to be taken as compliments.

Age 12, at KFC, some guy hands me a note with crap handwriting, but reads pretty much as "I want to fook you."

Told I was pretty and then asked my age. Said I was 14 and he asked me to sit on his lap.

Men shouted at me from their car "get your tits out you fucking slag." I was 15.

Working in a bar aged 18, collecting glasses, man waits until both my hands are full then grabs my boobs from behind.

These stories, and many many more, show that sexism runs through a woman's life from birth to death, whether she's married or single, a housewife or a career woman, a mother or childfree. (Also, for those who ask "what about the men?" there's a chapter on them too.) The sheer number of reports can be overwhelming, which is why it took me over a week to finish this book. However, the final chapter, Chapter 12, "People Standing Up," gives reason for hope and urges people to, as the author says, keep "moving small stones to redirect the flow of the river."

True equality can be achieved, and it will. Books like these are invaluable to show us the way.

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May 8, 2016

Review: Sleeping Giants

Sleeping Giants Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think this is one of those books people will either love or hate. I really liked it, but it's not for everybody. The reason for that is simple: this is not a conventional narrative structure at all. Aside from the prologue and a few journal entries, it's told entirely in the form of transcribed interviews, with a lean, stripped-down journalistic style. You certainly won't have to worry about any purple prose in this book.

This could get quite annoying if we had a massive cast of characters, a la World War Z. Fortunately, the author concentrates on a basic core group, "interviewing" them again and again. And in any case, it soon becomes clear that the interviewees, as important as they are to the story, are not the protagonists; it's the nameless, faceless interviewer, evidently a current or former CIA agent, who is the actual driver of the tale. He is the shadowy background lurker who sets many of the events in motion and cracks the whip, following in the footsteps of the X-Files' Cigarette Smoking Man.

I read the prologue online before I bought the book, so to recap without too many spoilers: At the age of eleven, Rose Franklin is taking her brand-new bicycle for a ride into the woods when she spots an odd turquoise glow. She goes to check it out and falls into a hole in the ground, where she finds...I'll just quote this from the prologue (and it's masterfully done, hooking the reader in just two pages):

It was about a week later that someone rang the doorbell. I called for my father to go, but I got no answer. I ran down the stairs and opened the door. It was one of the firemen that had gotten me out of the hole. He'd taken some pictures and thought I would like to see them. He was right. There I was, a tiny little thing at the bottom of the hole, lying on my back in the palm of a giant metal hand.

And with that, we're off to the races.

The rest of the book is the story of this discovery, and what it means for humanity. Rose Franklin returns seventeen years later, in possession of a Ph.D. and a burning desire to solve this globe-spanning mystery. The other core characters (besides the "CIA Spook" interviewer) include a blunt, badass, bad-tempered female helicopter pilot, a whitebread Army brat, and a language nerd. (These last two are male, which sets up an unfortunate love triangle that, in my mind, distracts from the overall storyline. Although I can understand why the author included it, because it generates a very important plot twist. Still, I wish he could have found some other way to get from point A to point B.)

There is an impressive level of craft involved in this, the author's first novel. Due to its format, there are almost no descriptions of any kind; the settings and characterizations are revealed entirely through the back-and-forth conversations of the interviews. This even carries over to the climax, which is the transcription of a frantic satellite phone call in the middle of a firefight. You would never think such a thing could work, but it absolutely does. This book is a fast and gripping read, with plenty to make the reader think after the last page is turned.

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April 23, 2016

Review: Lovecraft Country

Lovecraft Country Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the best book I’ve read so far this year, and right up there with the best of 2015. It is so many things–a mystery, a horror story with callbacks to, of course, Lovecraft (although you never actually see Cthulhu or any of the Elder Gods–there’s just a suggestion of a black shadowy something coming through an intradimensional door in the last battle, turning the bad guys to ash and retreating again), and above all an unflinching, brutal examination of racism, both in the time of Jim Crow and echoing down to our day.

You might think this last is presented in a heavy-handed way, but it isn’t. This is because of the author’s prose, which is restrained and straightforward, almost Hemingwayesque. (He’ll never be accused, to use Stephen King’s memorable line, of paving his road to hell with adverbs.) Given the subject matter–both the horror elements and the social–this approach is necessary, I think. There’s also elements of humor; very dark, to be sure, but I was startled into laughing at least once or twice. The characterizations are subtle, and demand a careful reading; and in any case, this is not a book to rush through. It’s structured as a series of interlinked novellas, not chapters as such. You might think one or two of the novellas in the middle section have nothing to do with the overall plot, but keep going. When you get to the scene where all the characters sit down and tell each other their parts of the story (and how often have we read books where we say, “I wish these characters would just talk to each other”? Well, in this book they actually do it!), everything clicks into place, and the author’s meticulous plotting becomes evident.

It occurred to me as I read the final pages that the title is more than just a metaphor for the book’s horror elements. To me, it’s also a metaphor for America as a whole, with its continuing racism and fear/hatred of the Other, both in this book’s setting of 1954, and, to our shame, still today.

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April 22, 2016

"Die Like a Hero Going Home"

cartoon for April 22, 2016

Today's cartoon in the Arizona Republic.

Oh my effing God, 2016. You need to stop this right now.

David Bowie. Glenn Frey. Merle Haggard. Malik Taylor. Vanity. Maurice White. Paul Kantner.

And now, of course, Prince Rogers Nelson, at the age of 57. Only *cough*mumbledy*cough* years older than me.

I've been watching a few videos, including the ubiquitous clip of his scorching guitar solo in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame rendition of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." If you fast-forward to the end of the clip, Prince tosses the guitar into the air after his solo--and it never comes down.

Obviously someone in the rafters caught it, but talk about symbolism.

Then I stumbled across this clip, with Lenny Kravitz.

That blue jumpsuit is a work of art all unto itself, but the incredible musicianship and guitar chops are on full display.

I only hope whoever manages his estate will release the rumored hundreds of songs in the vaults, so we can see the full extent of his genius.

"When your time comes to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home."   ~Tecumseh

April 18, 2016

Review: This Shattered World

This Shattered World This Shattered World by Amie Kaufman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the sequel, of sorts, to These Broken Stars, to which I gave a five-star review a couple of years ago. I say "of sorts" because while this book continues the overall story, and the protagonists from the first book make cameo appearances, this book introduces two brand-new characters. Jubilee Chase is a bad-ass soldier and Flynn Cormac is an idealistic rebel, and they come together on Avon, a planet in the midst of terraforming (the swamp that covers the inhabited section is almost a third protagonist in its own right) and shrouded in clouds and mystery.

This book is a lot darker and grittier than the first, with the alternating points of view of Jubilee and Flynn exploring the rebellion, the politics behind it, and the attempts to tamp it down. The complication to all this is the so-called Fury, the mental illness that sooner or later infects almost every soldier stationed on Avon, causing them to snap and kill anyone nearby. I say "almost" because it soon becomes clear that Jubilee is immune to the Fury. The reasons why are a major plot point, reaching back ten years to a similar rebellion on her birth planet of Verona, where her parents were killed.

As in the first book, the characterizations are excellent. There is a considerably larger cast in this book as opposed to the first, which focused almost entirely on the starcrossed love story of Lilac and Tarver. This frees the authors to further develop their world, to the book's benefit. The book starts with a bang, with Jubilee's kidnapping by Flynn, and never really lets up. The pacing is masterful, with well-chosen, quieter moments of character development.

Jubilee and Flynn's story is brought to a satisfying conclusion in this book, but the storyline remains up in the air: will Roderick LaRoux, the master manipulator behind the scenes in both the first book and this one, finally get his comeuppance? This, presumably, waits for the third book, which is upcoming on my list. I hope I enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the first two.

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April 16, 2016

Review: Letters to Tiptree

Letters to Tiptree Letters to Tiptree by Alexandra Pierce
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

James Tiptree Jr., AKA Raccoona Sheldon AKA Alice Sheldon, died nearly thirty years ago. In an unfortunately brief career, she made an indelible mark; not only for her groundbreaking, feminist stories, but because of the fact that she wrote most of them under the male pseudonym of James Tiptree Jr, before being outed as Alice Sheldon after her mother's death. This book celebrates what would have been her 100th birthday, and is filled with poignant essays of current SFF authors writing about what Tiptree/Sheldon meant to them.

The first section, containing the titular "letters," has thirty-eight authors expressing their feelings about Tiptree. Some write to "Tip," some write to Alice, some write to all three or various combinations thereof; but all of them turn out fascinating, complex thoughts about a complex woman. The second section, my favorite, consists of letters between Sheldon and the writers Ursula K. LeGuin and Joanna Russ in the late seventies, before and after her outing, as she tries to explain why she hid her identity (and wonders out loud if she will have any friends left). LeGuin, in particular, comes off as a warm, loving woman and staunch friend, delighted in the revelation that James Tiptree is Alice Sheldon.

The third section consists of introductions to Tiptree's collections, from books published before and after the revelation of her identity; excerpts from academic analyses of feminist science fiction and Tiptree's role therein; and a final essay from the author herself, shot through with wit and humor.

This is a moving tribute to a remarkable woman, who sadly left us far too soon. Her influence on the SF field is still great today, and I'm glad to see a book like this that will carry forth her banner into the future.

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April 3, 2016

Review: The Sandman: Overture

The Sandman: Overture The Sandman: Overture by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm still on my graphic-novel kick, but this is definitely the best one I've read since Scott McCloud's The Sculptor. In fact, it's damn near perfect.

Now, I must admit that I have not read any of the Sandman series proper, so this was a bit confusing at times. However, the story sucked me right in: the Dream King and his quest to save a mad star he mistakenly let live once upon a time, which will now bring about the end of the universe. This is a story that spans all of space and all of time, from the vastness of the multiverse to the interior of a black hole.

The artwork accompanying this story is absolutely gorgeous. I would not recommend trying to read this on any device. I checked the deluxe edition out from the library, and waiting for the dead tree copy is well worth it. There are two foldout pages (I imagine Vertigo had a fun time with that when it went to press) and on several occasions the art and word bubbles rotate across the entire length and breadth of the page. There are certainly no "panels" as such, not in this comic. The colors are bright and lush, and one could sit and study J.H. Williams' images for hours.

Morpheus is a lonely fellow in this story, and he ends up weakened and alone in the end, a state of affairs which is supposed to lead directly to the first volume of the series. That will be my next project, I think. Still, whether or not you have read the original Sandman, do not miss this.

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