December 21, 2014

Review: Outlander


Outlander
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



When Starz announced it was making Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series for TV, it inspired me to re-read the books (at least the ones I have—I don't have all of them). I don't have Starz, but I plan on buying the Blu-ray as soon as it comes out. I know the television adaptation will be different than the books; that's to be expected. But this is a book I've re-read several times over, and it's nice to have an excuse to do it again.

From what I understand, this is not only Diana Gabaldon's first published book, it's her first attempt at writing a book. Her inexperience does come across in places (conversations tend to go on for ten pages or longer), but it's not nearly as creaky as you would expect. Her voluminous research definitely shows. I'm not learned enough in Scottish history to know if every detail is true, but it feels true, and that's what matters. For those who aren't familiar with the series, our protagonist, Claire Randall, is a World War II nurse who is visiting Scotland with her husband, Frank, and who is accidentally thrown two hundred years back in time. (There's some handwaving about genetics, and how only certain people can go through the standing stones, but it's not really an explanation, because Gabaldon's focus isn't the science. Her non-explanation is adequate for her purposes; suspend your disbelief and go on.) There she meets, among other people, the ancestor of her husband, “Black Jack” Randall, and a right nasty bugger he is, in more ways than one.

She also meets a young Scottish warrior, Jamie Fraser (he's actually four years younger than Claire), and the two of them develop one of the greatest fictional romances I've ever read. I would put it right up there with Romeo and Juliet.

Even more so than the history, I read the Outlander series for Jamie and Claire. I think everyone does. Gabaldon plumbs the depth of her hero in ways rarely seen, from pain through loss to love and everything in between. The only thing I wish would happen is that Jamie might become a little less of an 18th century Scottish chauvinist due to Claire's influence (as happened to Jennifer Roberson's Sandtiger), but he is very much a man of his time. The somewhat bigger flaw I found on reading the book this time around is his complete inability to respect the word “no” in the bedroom. This is problematic, and I'll cheerfully admit it; there are a couple of scenes in this book I wince through, or skip altogether, but it's not enough to make me stop reading the books.

Claire is a grounded, sensible protagonist, coping as best she can with an incredible situation. Make no mistake, being thrown back to Scotland in 1743 is comparable to landing on an alien world. (To mention just one difference that we in the modern world [or even the World War II world] take for granted—there's no antibiotics. Which means that a simple cut could result in amputation or death.) But Claire falls so hard for Jamie that she eventually chooses to stay there, with him.

The second half of this book turns quite dark, as Jamie is captured and taken to a notorious Scottish prison. There he is discovered by his sworn enemy, Black Jack Randall, and he pledges not to resist Randall's rape to save Claire's life (she snuck into the prison to try and free him). Frankly, I'm surprised that Gabaldon got away with torturing her hero this much. Claire eventually frees him, and after his recovery (which is a gross oversimplification, I know, but you'll have to read the book to find out) they're on their way to France, in a bold attempt to change history by waylaying the Young Pretender, Charles Stuart, and possibly preventing the massacre of the Scottish clans at Culloden in 1746.

This book is unique. It is a romance, but it's so much more—it's history, it's war, it's two marvelous characters in an unforgettable story. I only hope the TV series can live up to its source material.



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December 20, 2014

Review: Sword-Bound


Sword-Bound
Sword-Bound by Jennifer Roberson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



This book is the latest in a series that has been around for almost thirty years. I've been buying them for all that time, starting with Sword-Dancer, published in 1986. In that book, a unique fantasy world was introduced, and two unforgettable characters in Tiger and Del. The author has done a marvelous job with Tiger's voice; the rhythms and cadences, and snarky humor, are unmistakably his. It's a credit to her that his voice remains unchanged after all these years.

Tiger has grown considerably throughout the series, however, as has Del. In the beginning, Tiger is quite frankly a male chauvinist pig, the usual type for a desert fantasy world. Del successfully changes his mind and makes him view and treat women as people, a process that is still ongoing. There's a strong feminist streak that runs throughout the series, especially in the fifth book, Sword-Born, where Tiger tells Del to “go where you wish to go, be who you wish to be,” even if that means leaving him. Del replies that being with him is where she wishes to be, and in this, the seventh book of the series, they are still together. Two talented, damaged people, who have been through hell and back, each nearly killing the other; and here they are, their loyalty, partnership and love still going strong.

Things have changed, though. They have a daughter now (Del miscarries another child in this book), and both have matured. Tiger is content with his life and his family, and Del is no longer so bent on revenge. These characters have a rare depth, and they are absolutely on target. I couldn't say the same about the plot, unfortunately; it tended to flail and meander for the first two-thirds of the book, although my fascination with the characters more than made up for that. The climax came quite suddenly, almost out of the blue, although I'm sure when I reread the book I'll see where the clues were planted. Nevertheless, this does seem like a rather unpleasant reversal to the overall storyline. Tiger was finally able to live his life, free from wizards and magic, and now he's being sucked back into it again?

Well, I guess I'll have to read the next book to find out, won't I?

One note about the covers. I know authors usually have no say in the covers and cover models, but good heavens, I wish Jennifer Roberson could have done something about this cover model. He is spectacularly unattractive, with a peculiar cube-shaped face. Not how I see Tiger at all. The series' second book, Sword-Singer, shows what I consider to be the real Tiger (who happens to look a lot like Patrick Swayze). Never mind, ignore this cover, and revel in these characters and this world.



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Review: Ruins


Ruins
Ruins by Dan Wells

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



This is the final book in the Partials sequence. It does just what it's supposed to: it wraps everything up, tucks in all the dangling plot threads, and leaves us with the sense that these characters' lives will go on, and they'll be reasonably good ones. This is the ending they deserved, the ending they fought long and hard to receive. A new world will rise from the ashes of the old; humans and Partials (genetically modified supersoldiers grown in vats) will learn to live together because they have to. Partials carry a virus in their pheromones that kills newborn human children, but Partials also have a built-in twenty-year expiration date that they believe humans can help them circumvent. The story of these two seemingly implacable enemies, the remnants of which are battling it out after a war that nearly exterminated both, has been told through three books.

The highlight for me was the second book, Fragments. The eerie description of the post-apocalyptic world, and protagonist Kira Walker's search for the cure for both expiration and RM (the Partial virus) is quite absorbing. This book isn't quite up to that level, but it's still a quality tale, and well worth your money.




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Review: The Great Movies


The Great Movies
The Great Movies by Roger Ebert

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I own Roger Ebert's autobiography, and that book, along with this one, reminded me of what a treasure we lost when he died. That made reading this book bittersweet, to say the least. I think Roger's voice fully flowered after his cancer treatment and the loss of his ability to speak; his mastery of prose and emotion is there in every entry to his blog, which remains online. However, glimpses of the greatness to come are here in this collection of his movie reviews.

There are 100 movies reviewed here, many of which I've never heard of. The listing is, perhaps, weighted towards foreign films, which I've never had much of an opportunity (or the inclination, to be truthful) to watch. But if these lovely, poetic reviews don't turn you into a foreign-film buff, nothing will. I was also rather surprised to find Star Wars on the list; sure, it's popular, and sure, it changed the course of cinema and special effects, but I never thought anyone would call it a “great movie.” Ebert does, though: “The films that will live forever are the simplest-seeming ones. They have profound depths, but their surfaces are as clear to an audience as a beloved old story...If I were asked to say with certainty which movies will still be widely known a century or two from now, I would list 2001, and The Wizard of Oz, and Keaton and Chaplin, and Astaire and Rogers, and probably Casablanca...and Star Wars for sure.”

From his review of 2001: “Only a few films are transcendent and work upon our minds and imaginations like music or prayer or a vast belittling landscape. Most movies are about characters with a goal in mind, who obtain it after difficulties either comic or dramatic. 2001: A Space Odyssey is not about a goal, but about a quest, a need. It does not hook its effects on specific plot points, nor does it ask us to identify with Dave Bowman or any other character. It says to us: We became men when we learned to think. Our minds have given us the tools to understand where we live and who we are. Now it is time to move on to the next step, to know that we live not on a planet, but among the stars, and that we are not flesh, but intelligence.”

See what I mean? Damn, I wish I could write like that. (This is also the only review I've seen that made any kind of sense out of 2001.) I'll have to get more of Roger's review volumes; I bet the ones where he talks about bad moves would be even more fun than this one.




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Review: Restoring Harmony


Restoring Harmony
Restoring Harmony by Joelle Anthony

My rating: 1 of 5 stars



Bah. Two clunkers in a row. I'm now reading Peter Watts' Echopraxia, however, so things are looking up.

This is the third book this year I didn't finish, and I gave this one every chance. I read on far past the point where the idiotic plot really started to bother me, hoping it would improve. Hoping beyond hope it would get better. Finally, about two-thirds of the way through, I stopped and asked myself: “Do I care what happens to these people?”

The answer was “no,” so I removed my marker and closed the book.

The fault wasn't with the characters. They were fine, if impossibly good and treacly. The protagonist, seventeen-year-old Molly McClure, is a very sensible, down-to-earth young woman who is something of a badass, in a quiet, understated way—she plays a ferocious fiddle (not violin: there is a difference, as she points out; not the instrument itself, but how you play it), and she does not sit back and let things happen to her; she takes charge and makes things happen, or tries her best to do so. She has a good, supportive, old-fashioned family who stick together and help each other. This includes Grandma and Grandpa, who live in Oregon, far away from the family's Canadian island, and who are trying to cope after Grandma's stroke. Because of her mother's unexpected risky pregnancy, Molly is sent to bring Grandma/Grandpa back to the island, to provide them a place to live and also help Molly's mother. In fact, the characters could have been lifted wholesale from a Laura Ingalls Wilder book.

Unfortunately, Little House on the Prairie does not fit into this book's plot and world. That would be more like Little House in the Post Collapse, and that does not work. AT ALL.

Sorry for the shouting, but the more the author revealed about her world, the more I hated it. It is not the least bit realistic. To make a long ugly story short, about 2031 the oil started to run out, so world governments seized the last reserves (which would've meant declaring martial law, at least in the US—can you imagine Exxon and Chevron giving up their corporate assets without a fight?), and about the same time, a deadly cattle virus caused the slaughter of the world's beef herds, which led to the demise of the fast food industry (as well as much of the world's food supply—hello), mass unemployment, and the collapse of the United States economy. The government is said to still be in existence (HOW?) but can't collect taxes because no one is working and no one has any money.

I'm sorry, but this is totally, completely ridiculous. How is the author wrong? Let me count the ways:

1. OUR ENTIRE WAY OF LIFE IS BASED ON FOSSIL FUELS. Maybe in twenty-five years alternative energy will have more of a toehold, but given the ongoing fight over climate change, I doubt it. In any case, the author didn't even attempt to explore this, beyond an offhand reference to “solar panels on the barn roof,” and a solar phone/car battery that doesn't even hold a charge. In fact, in her fantastical world, the Internet still exists, planes still fly, and trains still run. I suppose for the trains, you could go back to the old steam engines, but planes have to have fuel, and the Internet has to have servers, which are operated by electricity, which is supplied by (at least at that level) oil-fired power plants. Nobody's using Tesla batteries, so where the devil is all this power coming from?

2. IN THIS SCENARIO, THERE WOULD BE MASS STARVATION AND ANARCHY. You know what else requires fuel? The trucks that bring food to the grocery stores. Those trucks that come every day because otherwise the stores would run out of food. If those trucks stopped coming, because the oil was running out, do you know what would happen? Of course you do. I don't have to tell you. Across this country—hell, across the whole world—there would be riots, looting, widespread societal collapse, and pretty much the demise of civilization. People would flee big cities, because there's no ground to grow food (and also flee cold areas, because, y'know, there's no heating oil for the winter), which would set up an instant clash with rural anarchists/survivalists. Otherwise known as “those extremists who stockpile for the end of the world,” whose most fractured Second Amendment fantasies would be coming true. Molly wouldn't be leaving her island behind, no matter how bad off Grandma and Grandpa were—her family and neighbors would be hunkering down and searching for more guns and ammunition to protect their food supply from the desperate people who would be trying to take it. (Although this book does take place ten years after the Collapse, so everyone who was going to starve would have. Which would have included Grandpa and Grandma, so there would have been no need for Molly to leave the island and thus no story.)

3. IF THE UNITED STATES ECONOMY COLLAPSES, SO DOES THE WORLD ECONOMY. Doesn't the author remember what almost happened in 2008? This was precisely what Congress was scrambling to head off, with the demise of Lehman Brothers. The world economy is as interconnected as a sticky spiderweb, and the United States is the (bloated) spider in the center of that web. Take the US economy out, and everything else goes with it. There would sure as heck be no surviving “euro,” or a European Union, for that matter.

I could go on, but you get the picture: under this scenario, you wouldn't have any kind of government or civilization; you would have a bunch of starving , fighting tribes, ill-equipped for survival. You sure wouldn't have Molly and her happy family, blithely sending this teenager off to sing “kumbaya” (or play it on her fiddle) and rescue Grandma and Grandpa. The real world resulting from this plot would be as bleak as I could imagine. Throw in a probable nuclear exchange as well, as collapsing governments battle over the few remaining oil reserves, and you pretty much have bye-bye humanity.

I can't imagine why the author didn't think of this, or why her editor didn't point it out to her. Has the author read any science texts? Or economic books? Or just Paul Krugman's blog? I'm sorry, but this book, with this plot, should never have seen the light of day. Take Molly and her family and put them in a nice sticky-sweet modern-day teen romance. That's where they belong.



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December 14, 2014

Review: The Beautiful Ashes


The Beautiful Ashes
The Beautiful Ashes by Jeaniene Frost

My rating: 1 of 5 stars



This book started out with a bang, a first chapter that is a classic example of in media res ("in the midst things"). Most of the time, this is actually a pretty good way to start your story. If your first chapter is an action-packed set piece, as this one was, you can quickly draw your reader in. Of course, the author then has to fulfill the implicit contract made with her reader, and provide a book that lives up to that first chapter.

Unfortunately, this book doesn't do that.

For one thing, the storyline feels very derivative and unoriginal. The Biblically inspired (very much so, as the protagonist, Ivy, is a descendant of King David, and her antagonist/love interest, Adrian, is a descendant of Judas...hey, let's punch it up here and bring in a descendant of Jesus and Mary Magdalene! Actually, that would have been far more interesting) angel/demon mythology has been done before, and way better. (Off the top of my head, the first person I can recommend you read instead is Lilith Saintcrow, whose five-book Dante Valentine series is superior in every way to this.) I guess this is supposed to be New Adult, as Ivy is twenty instead of a teenager and there's a lot more sexual steam in the plot, but she doesn't come off as terribly intelligent (and that's putting it mildly)...just stubborn. Adrian, who kidnaps her in the first chapter, is one of those taciturn, macho assholes who withholds things from Ivy for her own good, supposedly. This maddening trait is also shared by Zacchaeus, the Archon (this book's ill-advised euphemism for angels, which immediately reminded me of the Star Trek episode The Return of the Archons--not a flattering comparison, to be sure). A few chapters of being manipulated and lied to by these jackasses, and Ivy should have said "Screw you" and walked off, sister-in-peril or no sister.

Of course, we wouldn't have had a book...dare I suggest that might have been the better outcome?

Finally, the title of this book is just...icky. As I read, I kept wondering what it could be referring to. I found out in the gory climax, when Ivy finds and wields King David's slingshot (yes, the same one that slew Goliath...groan) and kills every demon and minion in the realm where her sister is being held. They literally burn up from the inside out, thus producing a several-feet-deep layer of ashes. Apparently the author thinks this is "beautiful." Ugh.

As far as I'm concerned, Adrian's and Ivy's destiny can just remain "broken," as I'm not going to read any more books in this series. Not Recommended.



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December 7, 2014

"Either you are that person men will follow into battle, or you're not"

This is a lovely story of the Day of Infamy, from one of my favorite bloggers.

The Arizona Republic also had a front-page, indepth story of the USS Arizona today.

December 5, 2014

Review: Atlantia


Atlantia
Atlantia by Ally Condie

My rating: 2 of 5 stars



This isn't an easy review to write, because this book has so much potential. The writing is lovely, the premise is intriguing, the protagonist is likable and exhibits admirable character growth...and the whole thing just falls flat.

First, the good. This is a young-adult post-apocalyptic dystopia (of sorts) with a fascinating setting: an underwater city named Atlantia. (Said name taken from the obvious, the myth of Atlantis.) Generations ago, there was an environmental catastrophe of some sort, and half the population went Below to Atlantia and similar cities, while half stayed Above (the land). We find out there was an agreement made: the cities Below would mine the ocean floor and supply minerals to the Above, and the Above would supply food in their turn. But that was long ago, and now Atlantia, and this entire system, is beginning to break down.

Our protagonist is Rio Conwy, a teenage girl with a secret: she is a siren. Yes, an honest-to-God Greek-myth siren who can control people (and objects, we later discover) with her voice. Rio and her twin sister, Bay, are sixteen and facing the choice given to every person in Atlantia: whether to stay Below or go Above. Rio has always dreamed of going Above and has intended to do so all her life, but six months before the story opens, the girls' mother, Oceana, the Minister of Atlantia, was killed. After this, Bay made Rio promise to stay Below. So Rio, denying what she has always wanted for the sake of her sister, does so...and Bay pulls an about-faced betrayal by announcing her irrevocable choice to go Above.

The rest of the story revolves around Rio's quest to discover why Bay did that, and how it ties in to the death of their mother and eventually the future of Atlantia and their entire society.

The relationship between Rio and Bay, and their aunt Maire (also a siren) and mother Oceana is the best thing about the book. The theme of the book is the love between sisters, and Ally Condie explores this in deceptively simple, lovely prose. All four women are real, believable characters, and the book comes full circle to end with Rio and Bay, as it should. (There is a romance, but it's appropriately kept on the back burner.) I'd give this aspect of the book four stars.

Unfortunately, there's the rest of it, in particular the worldbuilding. Which is to say, very little, and what there is doesn't make much sense. We don't even know if this planet is Earth (although their gods are familiar-sounding animals, and blue-winged bats live in Atlantia), or if this takes place in the future or past. One could make a case for this taking place several hundred years in the future, when the full catastrophic scenario of climate change has come to pass: the sea level has risen, the land masses are devastated, and humanity has retreated either to the deep ocean or to the moon and/or Mars (Rio's boyfriend True makes a reference to another civilization that Divided about the same time theirs did, only part of this civilization went into the sky). But you'd think, with the technological sophistication shown by humanity's ability to build freaking undersea cities, they would also have records of this. They don't seem to, and nobody seems to care, which was very frustrating for me as a reader.

The bigger problem, for me, is the entire concept of the sirens. This gives the story a very mythic quality, which was obviously the author's intention. However, this entire thing is an ill-fitting square peg in a round hole, because there is almost no explanation as to how the hell sirens can even work. Sure, I'll grant that after a few generations of underwater living, genetic mutations will begin cropping up. I'll even stretch my suspension of disbelief really far and give the idea of someone's voice somehow influencing brain chemistry and/or waves and making people do as you say a pass. But when a siren starts "storing" voices in walls and seashells like invisible disembodied tape recorders, or a siren's voice can cause coins to float when they should by all the laws of physics sink, or that same voice can cause little mechanical fish to move in ways they otherwise wouldn't...sorry. Nope nope nope.

And since the main character is a siren, you see the insurmountable problem.

It's frustrating, because as I read on through, I kept feeling that this book should have been torn apart and rebuilt from the ground up. Only the characters and the relationships, and the beautiful prose, kept me going to the end. This book is supposedly a stand-alone, fortunately. If it had a sequel, I would avoid it like the plague.



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December 1, 2014

#BlackLivesMatter

This is the finest comment I have seen about Ferguson, from the irreplaceable Jay Smooth. As Martin Luther King said, "A riot is the language of the unheard."


November 29, 2014

Review: Blindsight


Blindsight
Blindsight by Peter Watts

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



This is one of the best, and also one of the most difficult, science fiction books I have ever read. I love science fiction, but I'm not so much into the really hard stuff, mostly because I have a layperson's understanding (at best) of physics and biology. (That is, I didn't know Han Solo's stating "This is the ship that made the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs" was completely wrong until years after the fact.) I prefer "softer" science fiction, which is best illustrated by the book I read prior to this one, John Scalzi's Lock In.

Having said that, it was really interesting to read Blindsight after Scalzi's book. Lock In is near-future SF, taking place on an Earth very similar to our own, except for that one incident--the illness that resulted in Haden's syndrome--that shook up global society and basically turned it upside down. John Scalzi is exploring the fallout from this premise, and the fascinating disability/racial/gender issues it inspires, and doing it very well. But basically this book is more sociological science fiction, with an tight, inward-turned focus.

Blindsight is far bigger and more sprawling, with more issues and ideas packed into its first section than Scalzi discusses throughout his entire book. There's first contact, interstellar travel, ramscoops, antimatter, artificial intelligence, eye/brain evolution, surgically induced multiple personalities (one of the main characters, the Gang of Four, is four distinct people in one body), radical hemispherectomy to cure epilepsy and the results thereof (the protagonist, Siri Keeton, who loses a great deal of his humanity and empathy, but this also makes him the perfect person to record this whole first-contact flustercluck), a truly alien species that's a horrifying combination of the Alien Queen/an intelligent (but not sentient) living starship, budding off "kids" with no self-awareness or genes/a Lovecraftian nightmare come to life in deep space; and finally, the underlying theme of all this, a deep philosophical discussion of consciousness and self-awareness, and proposing the idea that just maybe, the Human species is an aberration from the rest of the intelligent universe for having developed it.

Good heavens. Isn't that exhausting? But that's not all, folks! There's also a future Earth, circa 2082, where genetic manipulation is common, and there's a virtual-reality Heaven where people can upload and leave their families behind (this is what Siri's mother does), and the moon and Mars are colonized. (I kept expecting Watts to throw in something about climate change--this does seem to be a rather huge omission, but I suppose his editor had to draw the line somewhere.) And last but not least, there's vampires, explained in a thoroughly scientific manner as a human subspecies and that went extinct a few thousand years ago. They go into seizures upon viewing right angles (hence the old canard about the cross, suddenly proven true), and they were resurrected following experiments using genetic manipulation to cure autism, which unfortunately woke up some "junk DNA." (This last is actually not so much in the book itself, but explained on Watts' website, in a very entertaining, darkly funny "slideshow." It's well worth your time if you want to find out more about them.)

So: needless to say, this is a very big and extremely ambitious hard SF novel. It's not light reading by any means. The prose is dense and packed, and if you don't pay attention you will miss something important. The characters are not likable, and at the very end of the book you suddenly realize the protagonist is an unreliable narrator. I suppose this would make some people curse and throw the book against the wall; it made me want to start the book over, so I could see just where Siri went off the rails. It's also not an uplifting book; it's bleak and pessimistic, and none of the characters (or humanity as a whole, for that matter) gets anything resembling a happy ending.

Nevertheless, it's absolutely fascinating. I had to return my library copy, but Watts has made the book available as a free Creative Commons download on his website. Naturally I trotted right over there and snagged it, and now I can peruse the Sad Travails of Siri Keeton at my leisure. It's also made me want to hunt down everything else Peter Watts has ever written. You should too.



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