Saturday, December 31, 2011

Please note

There was a Friday post - I saved it as a draft instead of posting it. Perhaps I planned to add something more to it? I can't recall.

The Dozen Books of Christmas, Day half a dozen and half a dozen+1

yesterday's book is being held hostage by math - apparently, there are not, actually, twelve books, and so I can't actually get a book each day. Oh well.

Yesterday was apparently a popular day for saints. Here's just one - St. Egwin. Egwin was the Bishop of Worcester. In order to silence some of his detractors, he made a pilgrimage to Rome. Before leaving, he locked iron shackles on his ankles, and threw the key into a river. Upon arriving in Rome, a servant brought him the key - it had been found in the mouth of a fish in the Tiber river. Thus was Egwin vindicated.

On a secular note, yesterday (actually, given the International Date Line, two days ago for those of us on this side of the line) was Rizal Day in the Philippines, a day celebrating Jose Rizal, a Philippine nationalist who was executed by the Spanish in 1896.

Today, December 31, is of course New Year's Eve. When I worked in the sort of place where you got extra pay for working on holidays, I didn't mind working on New Year's Day. Nothing important happens on New Year's Day. I hated working New Year's Eve, though, because it invariably meant working late, and missing stuff. Which sucks.

Additionally, it is St. Sylvester's Day. He was a pope in the 4th Century. He probably didn't convert Constantine to Christianity. He probably also didn't kill a dragon.

Today's book:

Simon R. Green - Ghost of a Chance

Simon Green writes some delightfully trashy novels. This is the first of a new series of books about ghost hunters. "The Carnacki Institute exists to Do Something About Ghosts," says the back of the book - sounds promising.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Friday Review, 12/30/2011

So, I actually wrote this, but didn't post it, I guess?

Samuel Holt - One of Us is Wrong

A pleasant detective novel. Shades of the Rockford Files and Magnum PI. A little like Steve Barnes' gigilo detective, without the lurid sex. Major terrorism as a plot point - a little "all terrorists are Arabs/Muslims," despite efforts to counteract that (a significant character asserts that all Arabs/Muslims are not terrorists, but there is no discussion of non-Muslim terrorism). A little dated. Also a little prescient - the discussion of sectarian violence within Islam feels very current, if a little shallow. I'll hunt down the rest of the series, or at least the next of the series.

Anton Strout - Dead Waters

Delicious! 4th in the series, but with enough back-story explanation that I didn't feel like I needed to hunt down the first three before finishing this one (which is good, since my library system doesn't have any of them - might have to hit the paperback bookstore in town). Compelling characters (such that I found myself dreaming about them - always a good sign), a pleasantly twisty plot, enough dark humor to keep me happy. Possibly the character depth in the earlier novels will be less - by the time you've written the same characters 4 times, perhaps you begin to imbue them with a certain humanity? But the secondary characters, and, more tellingly, the villains created fresh for this book, had significant depth as well. Good stuff.

Janni Simner - Bones of Faerie

Initially, this was a little fluffy, with a few really hard bits. Later, the hard bits started coming a lot more frequently. It's a conundrum. On the one hand, the writing level almost screams the young end of young adult - especially the oddly large print, so as not to dismay struggling readers (?). Something about the font and the page set up (I'm stretching here, perhaps) demands illustrations (which were not there). But the subject matter is out of sync with the sort of writing Simner engages in.

The novel is about child abandonment and death, and the harshness of living in a deeply diminished post-apocalyptic world. There are some death scenes which, while not graphic in anyway, are pretty raw. There's some parental violence which is pretty raw as well. There were several scenes - the discovery of a baby, the death of a cat - which made me wince, and which, I suspect, would have a 12 or 13 year old in tears. Which, now that I think back on what I and my peers were reading at 12 and 13, is fairly consistent with the YA model, isn't it? So, perhaps, this book is perfectly composed - it's the sort of YA novel that, perhaps, you hide from your parents. Not because you think it contains material they won't approve of (ie, sex, or drugs, or rock and roll), but because it contains material that you don't think they, as adults, can handle.

Anyway, it is a very well written book, and the bits I liked I liked a lot. Good world building, excellent character building, and some really gut churning (emotionally) scenes that gave the book some real punch.

Hmmm. Further musing - to what extent is YA fiction serving the same purpose as poetry in A.E. Houseman's untitled poem which starts: "Terrance, this is stupid stuff"?

There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,        60
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all the springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,        65
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;        70
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
—I tell the tale that I heard told.        75
Mithridates, he died old.

Houseman suggests, in the above stanza, that poetry allows us to experience misery and unpleasantness in a dilute form, so that when we experience it full on, it doesn't cripple us. To what extent do YA fiction - or some YA fiction, anyway - do that?

1100 Books of Christmas, Book 101

(That's binary, of course)

It's the 5th Day of Christmas. It is Thomas Beckett's feast day - celebrating the day he was killed ("will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?") Both the Canterbury Tales and Murder in the Cathedral are (more or less directly) a result of Beckett's assassination.

Today's book:

James Houston - James Houston's Treasury of Inuit Legends

An interesting looking book. Houston began gathering Inuit tales in 1948, and illustrating them with hand drawn pictures of the Arctic. He lived for twelve years among the Inuit, travelling with them, eating their food, and generally acculturating into their way of life. According to the introduction (by Theodore Taylor), Houston is well regarded among the Inuit, which suggests that this is not a work of purely cultural appropriation, but rather something more akin to veneration by an adopted member of the culture. Anyway, it looks good.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

XII Books of Christmas, Book 4

Today is the 4th Day of Christmas. Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents - in Spain and parts of Latin America, this is a day celebrated with pranks and gentle tricks - like April Fool's Day.

More importantly, it is Christmas Mouse Day! On the 28th (we decided this year) the Christmas Mouse brings socks and snacks and various forms of electronic media (just because, that's why). So, instead of a book (boo) today, I got an abundance of socks (yay!) and also Strange Animal by Gowan.

Ominous Spiritus!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

twelve books of Christmas, Book 3

It is the 3rd Day of Christmas. Wikipedia informs me that it is the feast day of three saints: Saint John the Apostle, Saint Fabiola, and Saint Nicarete. In the Eastern Orthodox faith, it is St. Stephen's Day (which was yesterday for Western Christians) For those less inclined to venerate saints, it is also the day that the Beagle set sail with Charles Darwin on board.

Today's Book:

Jean Rabe and Martin Greenburg, eds - Steampunkd

It's an anthology of steampunk short stories! I'm pretty sure I haven't read any of them before, so that's fantastic! I recognize only two of the 14 authors (actually, 15, because one of the stories is by Skip and Penny Williams - 14 stories, though), which is also fantastic - I love being introduced to new voices.

Library Post, 2/27/2011

What, you thought I wouldn't go to the library because I've been getting books for Christmas? How silly! The library expects me to return books on a regular basis, which provides the impetus to check more books out - it's a brilliant business model, frankly.

Two books today:

Barry Eisler - The Detachment

Eisler writes the John Rain books. Rain is an Asian-American assassin who lives (at least part time) in Tokyo. He specializes in killings that look like accidents or natural causes. He's been trying to retire for 5 books now. This is seventh book in the series (I'm pretty sure I've read all of them). Rain is a highly likable character, clearly in conflict with himself over what he does for a living. Eisler is the sort of author who meticulously researches things for his books, which is also nice.

Chris Moriarty - The Inquisitor's Apprentice

Sacha Kessler is a Jewish kid in early 20th Century New York City. He discovers that he can see witches, and is hired/forced into service by the Inquisitor of the NY Police Department to hunt down witches. And, ultimately, to protect Thomas Edison. This is YA, it looks like fun, Cory Doctorow blurbed it, so I'm looking forward to it.

My wife went back to work today, which means that the book of Christmas will come after dinner. You'll just have to wait, just like me.

Monday, December 26, 2011

12 Books of Christmas, Book 2

A glorious St. Stephen's Day to all of you - be sure to give your servants something you don't want anymore in a box. (Hence, Boxing Day)

My book for the day:

Mark Ovenden - Railway Maps of the World

This is pretty much what it says on the cover - it's a collection of railway maps from around the world. It's maps! And Railways! Together in one book! Yay!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Twelve Books of Christmas, Day 1

First up - Merry Christmas, all! I hope you got what you wanted, not what you deserved. Unless you deserved more than you wanted, in which case, reverse that.

I have been promised/threatened with 12 books this Christmas. (Actually, we've done 12 books before, I just haven't posted about it) For each of the 12 days, I will receive at least one book.


Anton Strout - Dead Waters

I'm pretty sure I read a Big Idea about this one. It is the fourth Simon Canderous novel. Simon works for the Manhattan Department of Extraordinary Affairs - the branch of the police that deals with werewolves and zombies and vampires (oh my!). Either at the end of book three or at the beginning of this book, budget cuts have gutted the department, leaving Simon to deal with weirdness more or less on his own.

Normally, faced with book 4 of a series, I would rush off and find books 1-3. In this case, however, I think I'll see how book 4 stands up on its own. A well written book out of sequence should be readable with no foreknowledge, so this will be an interesting test.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Saturday Post, 12/24/2011

I suppose I should write this post before it gets any later and I run into Christmas Eve activities, and thus Christmas activities, and thus post Christmas activities, and thus not get to post until Tuesday.

Two books this week.

Neal Stephenson - Reamde

First up, this book took me a whole week to read. Clear some time if you want to read it. It's over 1000 pages long. 400 pages in, Stephenson introduces a new point of view character. a little over 500 pages in, Stephenson starts Part Two. The climax begins something like 150 pages from the end, and builds from there. What I'm saying is, this is a long book, and it builds slowly, but solidly.

Stephenson has made a name for himself by writing books that only geeks can love. Anathem is a thousand pages, deeply infused with mathematics and quantum mechanics. It has appendices, which are even more full of math. (It's also a great story - I don't really do math, and I loved it.) Cryptonomnicon (multi-hundreds of pages) features a scene in which the hero reprograms his laptop to blink its LED status lights in Morse code. The Baroque Cycle is three books long, each of them multi-hundreds of pages long, which include lengthy descriptions (among other things) of the process whereby phosphorous is made, as well as digressions discussing languages, physics, the nature of money, and all manner of other stuff which turn already meaty and complex books into door-stopping, toe-breaking tomes. Reamde is a tome - there's no getting around that - but this one is a little less geeky than some of his other works. No laptop programing sequences (although there is a bit where some of the people hack into a WiFi server to access some files), no discursive explanations of how language works, no complex math. There are, however, several scenes set entirely inside an MMORPG. They aren't as dense and geek-friendly as some of the bits in earlier works, but nor are they skippable.

The MMORPG elements concerned me going in - many many authors don't seem to get how online games actually work. There's a whole Cracked article about it - here - and I know I've complained about it before. Current game technologies don't allow the generation of the sort of immersive virtual reality that authors want from the games. At present, there is no way to "rob a bank" in a game, and no company currently employs people to take over NPCs when a player character asks complicated questions - most games I've seen use a pre-set dialog tree which limits you to a specific set of queries and responses. Either you take the quest or you don't, you can't actually have a conversation with a computer character. I think Stephenson dodges the worst elements of this.

That being said, he largely avoids the problem by defining very carefully what the game can and cannot do. He has the space - the book is over 1000 pages long - so he can say "the game is designed to do thus and so" and thus avoid someone saying "no game does thus and so." In particular, the use of money in the game seems to anticipate a potential next step in how games work - it's not outside of what's possible, it's just that noone is doing it. Still - remember that Cracked article? Stephenson does #2 from that list - a chase scene inside the game world - and makes it make logical sense. People on one side the Pacific need to talk to a person on the other side of the Pacific, and have no way of meeting him in person, and so must track him down in the game. The person on the other side of the Pacific can't simply log out, because if he does, he will lose some stuff he's worked hard to get (and which have real world value). I was watching for a slip, because I'd read the article before starting the book, and I think Stephenson does it pretty well.

Anyway, the game is only a small element of the book. The whole thing is about money (Stephenson is fascinated by money, I think - as a concept. What constitutes money? How does it work? How can it work differently? How will it work differently, now that we're playing with the internet and such?) and terrorism and very strong personalities clashing with each other in interesting and unpredictable ways.

Strong personalities - and deeply written characters (multi-hundreds of pages, you know) - are the other trademark of Stephenson's work, and this book is certainly no different. He uses his long books to very good effect, and presents really interesting characters who do things that are fun to read about. It's not hard to care about them. Which is what makes these monstrously long books a treat to read, even if you don't care about the math or the laptops, or the money, or whatever.

This books ranges all over, with big sequences in Portland, in various parts of China and the Philippines, in Western Canada, in Idaho, and all over the place. Terrorists feature heavily, as do hackers. There are lots of guns. There are some bikers who wear claymore swords on their backs. There's a troll. It's a spy story smooshed into a sci-fi/fantasy story, smooshed into a romance story, smooshed into an adventure story. The whole thing is a little unwieldy, but it works.

If you already like Neal Stephenson, you'll probably like this (although you might be disappointed that the characters from Cryptonomicon don't show up, even though they really ought to). If you like rollicking good yarns, you'll probably like this. If you like strong characters doing interesting things, you'll probably like this. If you like to watch stories unfold slowly, and characters get built up and built up and built up over many many pages, you'll definitely like this. But, if you fear long books, maybe give it a miss.

Devon Monk - Dead Iron

This book was a little lighter (ha!) than Stephenson. It's a steampunk western urban fantasy romance-y type thing. It features a werewolf bounty hunter, and an evil fairy type villain (truly mustache twirlish - nicely evil), a good witch, and some mysterious brothers who live in a silver mine.

The evil fairy is building a rail line across the United States. The brothers don't like him - there seems to be some history there. The werewolf sets out to find a lost boy. The witch sets out to avenge her dead husband. A pretty inventor girl (at the un-marry-able age of 17!) sets out to prove herself. Romance-y things happen off to the side. Magically infused steam-powered robots stomp around and blow things up. Magically infused steam-powered guns are used to devastating effect. The whole thing is a lot of fun, frankly.

It's a little deeper than that. The book does prompt some pondering about the nature of humanity, and the role of technology in our world.  Monk hasn't taken an urban fantasy western plot and thrown gears at it The steampunkishness is deeper than the brass and brown surface - does technology make us all the same, or can it be twisted to allow individuality. Still, it's not all THAT deep - a quick read, with some fun characters, and just enough depth to make it worth the effort. There will be a sequel, but this book does conclude with sufficient satisfaction to not spoil things.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wednesday Library Post, 12/21/2011

Three books yesterday:

Kirsten ImaniKasi - Ice Song

I swear I've read this - Sorykah Minuit is an engineer on an ice-drilling submarine. She is also a Trader - she can switch genders suddenly. When a madman kidnaps her twin infants, she has to go and rescue them. Anyway, there's a sequel, and though I swear I read this book, I can't actually remember anything about it (except the synopsis sounds awfully familiar), so I'm going to read it. Possibly again.

Helen Oyeyemi - Mr. Fox

A fairytale, perhaps. Mr. Fox writes novels, but keeps killing off his female leads. His muse, Mary, becomes real and drags Mr. Fox into his stories. Looks think-y.

Samuel Holt - One of Us is Wrong

In discussing Donald Westlake novels last week (not here, elsewhere), I discovered that Westlake had written four novels as Samuel Holt, about a semi-employed actor (named Sam Holt) solving mysteries. This is the first.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Saturday Review Post, 12/17/2011

Ooo, can you feel it in the air? That's right, it's that time of year! Paper grading time! Woooohooo!

My final grades this semester are due on the 20th. That means that the grades will post sometime around the 23rd or 24th, and that means that the complaints about grades will begin sometime around the 26th or 27th. This is perfect - by the 26th, I'll be all out of eggnog, and I'll need something to drink instead - the frustrated tears of students are delicious, and I drink them neat, no chaser.

Mmmm. Tears of my Students. Just the ingredient I need!

That, though, combined with the sheer length of Neal Stephenson's Reamde means I've only finished one book this week. And it isn't Reamde.

James R. Benn - Mortal Terror

I believe I've mentioned Benn's Billy Boyle mysteries before. I really like them. They are set during WWII. Boyle is the distant nephew of General Eisenhower. His family pulled strings to get Boyle on Eisenhower's staff in Washington (to keep him out of the fighting) and then Eisenhower got transferred to England, and took Boyle with him. Ike uses Boyle as a deep cover detective, investigating crimes that are too sensitive to allow the public to look too closely at. This, naturally, places Boyle in some hairy situations - not at all the cushy position his parents anticipated.

The book is really about combat fatigue, and the things that combat does to the minds of soldiers. The plot concept rests on the idea that, if in combat long enough, 98% of soldiers will have some sort of mental breakdown. The remaining 2% will be sociopaths. One of those 2% decides to start killing US officers in Italy, just before the Anzio landings, and Boyle is tasked with tracking him down before he can mess up the invasion.

A new character enters the series - Boyle's kid brother gets called up and (in the way that fiction works) ends up in the thick of things. Boyle has to struggle with his sense of duty and his desire to protect his brother. This allows Benn to explore concepts about family, about duty, and, ultimately, about the nature of humanity. We keep starting wars - why? What does it do to us? I think that's what I like about Benn as a writer - he's playing with a couple of genres - historical mil fic and detective novels - that very easily collapse into formulas. Instead of giving into the temptation of formulaic writing, Benn continues to look more deeply at the human condition. Excellent stuff, highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Wednesday Library Post, 12/14/11

So, the trip to the library yesterday was something of a bust, frankly. Not much on the new book rack at all. Probably many other readers are realizing that, with the Christmas season upon them, they have some time in which to read, and have grabbed all the good books. Or something.

I did pick up a YA novel, however:

Janni Lee Simner - Bones of Faerie

This looks interesting. It's a post-apocalyptic setting, but the cause of the apocalypse was the return of faeries to Earth. They infested the natural world with inimical plants - dandelions now have thorns, for instance - and wove magic through the human population. But the magic in the human population calls ruin upon the human family. So that's an interesting twist.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Saturday Review, 12/10/2011

4 books this week:

Kevin Mitnick - Ghost in the Wire

Mitnick is a big deal in the computer hacking world. This is something of an autobiography, covering Mitnick's discovery of social controls (con artistry, more or less) and then computers and phone networks in California. In the mid-80s, Mitnick became a desired target of the FBI and such agencies, a situation which did not change into the '90s. Eventually he was arrested and became something of a cause celebre because of the way his rights to sentencing were rather severely bent, because of his scary (and largely false) persona as super-hacker (what Mitnick calls the Mitnick Myth). He is now a consultant, engaging in hacking for companies who want to test their own network security.

My overall reaction to the book is meh. Mitnick wanders through his personal narrative, often noting something to the effect of "while this was going on, this other thing happened," and breaking his narrative flow. Further, I found Mitnick's description of himself to be highly distasteful. Throughout, Mitnick engages in highly anti-social actions - breaking into networks to steal the code for cell phones; tweaking his own cell phone so that his calls were billed to someone else, tricking officials into giving him private information - and doesn't seem to fully get why these things got him in trouble. In his defense, he didn't use the data he stole, or even make money off of it in anyway, but if I break into your house and take pictures of your art collection, I have still engaged in an illegal action. Mitnick comes across as mildly sociopathic and, despite his protestation, doesn't seem to be particularly likable. Had the writing been more entertaining, the content wouldn't have mattered. Had the content been less disagreeable, the writing wouldn't have mattered. Combined, the whole was less than lovely.

Tom Perrotta - The Leftovers

The Rapture has occurred, or something that looks very much like the Rapture - lots and lots of people have disappeared. Only some of them are not the sort of people who the Rapture should affect - non-Christians, and open sinners, and all manner of people. The Sudden Disappearance, although central to the plot, is never explained - which is probably for the best, since that's not really the point of the book. As the title suggests, the book is about the people left behind, left with the painful task of picking up the pieces and figuring out what to do next.

Perrotta's characters do all manner of things next. Some of them join cults which are more or less destructive, depending on the cult, and on the joinee. Some of them throw away their lives on drugs and sex and general hedonism. Some of them become politicians. Some of them lose their faith, and some cheat on their spouses, and some of them remain faithful to something or someone. For the most part, life goes on - and, largely, I think that was Perrotta's point. Peoples is peoples (and frogs are frogs), rapture or no rapture.

So, that's somewhat hopeful, I suppose. Life goes on, and humanity adapts to all manner of oddness. Beyond that, though, the book was somewhat depressing, as you might expect. Billions of people just vanished, and the world has changed. Everyone in the book is damaged and grieving and not sure how to go on, all at once, all at the same time. It makes for very difficult reading at times. I can imagine that it would be extremely difficult reading if you've recently had a death in your close personal circle. Perrotta's writing is excellent, and that makes the book highly readable, even enjoyable in places, but the subject matter, ultimately, remains difficult to digest. Finally, the book just ends - on a hopeful note, with a baby who will probably reknit at least one small family - bang, right in the middle of things. Which is, more or less, where the book starts. This would be an interesting book to have a discussion about, and I imagine that lots of book groups will do that over the next year.

Peter Spiegelman - Thick as Thieves

Caper novel. A bunch of crooks set out to steal money from a money launderer. Things go awry, which is normal for this sort of book, but work themselves out, more or less, in the end. Which is also normal.

The book is a little deeper and twistier than the typical caper novel, asking questions about the nature of humanity, and about growing old, and about the danger of secrets, and the inevitability of betrayal. All around these deeper themes, Spiegelman tells a highly entertaining story about breaking into dark houses and stealing things. There's a lot of technical detail, and a few explosions. In the end, a delightful novel with some fantastic twists (although I had figured out one of the big twists before the end - which isn't necessarily a bad thing, as long as the it makes the reader feel smart rather than the author look stupid, if you follow me) and a highly satisfying ending. Good read, and a nice step down from the Perrotta - deep enough that it stands up against the literature, but not so deep that the two books back to back swamped me.

Tanya Huff - The Wild Ways

A further step away from Perrotta and Spiegelman, this is the sequel to Huff's Enchanted Emporium, both pleasantly interesting paranormal romance. Huff, of course, has been writing paranormal romance since before paranormal romance was a thing - the Blood series, with Victoria Nelson the ex-cop PI and Henry Fitzroy the ancient vampire (and Victoria's lover) present clear precedents for the sub-genre. Huff has had, and continues to have, highly positive effects upon the sub-genre.  In particular, Huff has gone out of her way to include characters of colour and characters with different sexual orientations, even (especially) when those features are not critical to the plot. In this book, the principle character is bisexual (well, ok, Charlotte Gale is more of an opportunistic forager when it comes to sex, but she clearly doesn't discriminate between genders), one of the important secondary characters is black (just because), another pair are gay (and deeply committed to each other). All great stuff.

A little background. The Gale family are not quite human. The women in the family are skilled at casting magic with "charms" - little patterns that cause things to go more smoothly - the car doesn't need repairing as often, the windows open more smoothly, people tend to like you a little more, etc etc - and they like to put these charms in baked goods, especially pies and pancakes. Pies and pancakes feature heavily in the books, almost a running gag. Perhaps exactly a running gag. As the women age, they become Aunties - matriarchs who control the family with carefully hidden iron fists. The Gale Aunties would give Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax a run for their money - or, at least, a fair fight. The men in the Gale family tend to turn into stags when frightened or excited. Especially when excited.

Sex in the Gale family is ... odd. Very open, and highly ritualized, and tightly tightly controlled for the good of the family. And it involves men who turn into stags when they get excited. Huff doesn't really discuss the logistics of that, particularly, but you can tuck it away for consideration, if you like. (That sort of implies that there's a lot of sex in these books, and that would be untrue - it happens, Huff sometimes describes it (not in particular detail), but it's not a central feature of the books.)

In this book, Charlotte (Charlie) Gale heads to Cape Breton to help out a friend with a Celtic rock band. (Did I mention that the books are set in Canada? They are - Canadianism runs deep in the books, which excites me a little - I've actually been to some of the places Huff describes! Whee!) While there, she gets mixed up with a bunch of selkies trying to save their habitat from an oil rig. This is all complicated by the fact that Charlie is a Wild Talent - she can do things that the average Gale girl cannot, like charm people with music, and walk between woods (allowing her to cross distances quickly by playing music to trees, more or less). Further, Charlie finds herself baby sitting one of her cousins - who is a dragon. (That's a bit of leftover plot from the first book, incidentally)

The good bits of the book - I love the Maritime Canada settings - brilliant. I love the whole magic through baking gag. I love the 14 year old dragon. I love Charlie. The characters are fantastic - the bad people are not one dimensional, and the secondary characters are almost as well described as the primaries (which makes sense, because Huff has a tendency to spin off secondary characters - easier to do that if they are well written in the first place).

The bits that I didn't like - the bad guys are an oil company. Huff (accurately) describes Cape Breton as a region of Canada desperate for employment, which the oil company would have provided. Clearly, the drilling would have disrupted the sensitive selkie habitat, and that's bad - but Huff's characters don't really offer any solid alternatives either. In an otherwise surprisingly deep book, this conflict is dealt with rather shallowly, and that bugged me a little. Also, Charlie's ability to walk through woods results in her bopping back and forth from Cape Breton to Calgary (where her familial support base is). A dangerous ability, which threated to derail the narrative in a couple of places. Huff manages to keep the whole thing moving forward, but I felt like telling Charlie to pick a locale and stay there, damn it.

In the end, a very satisfying read, and very quick - I started the book this morning, and finished it before dinner.

I Aten't Dead

And I will post a review. Maybe after dinner.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Tuesday Library Post, 6/12/2011

Two books this week.

Devon Monk - Dead Iron

I gather that Devon Monk is a rising star in the Urban Fantasy genre. This book isn't UF, though, it's steampunk and wild/weird west. And it's got a werewolf in it.

Neal Stephenson - Reamde

I like Stephenson. This is another of his bricks of a doorstop books. The plot revolves around a massively multiplayer roleplaying game, and some hackers who are trying to hold players' characters for ransom and, apparently this has real world repercussions and etc etc.

I like Stephenson, but I'm a little wary of this book, because too many writers really don't get MMOs; turning them into fantastic virtual realities, and having characters act within the game as they would outside of the game. Mr. Doctorow, Mr. Stross, I'm looking at you... The premises they spin, regarding virtual economies and etc, are neat - but not, yet, viable, and suggest that the authors haven't actually played an MMO. So, I don't know - I guess I hope Mr. Stephenson has done his research here.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Saturday Review, 12/3/2011

November, you know, is just a silly month. Part of this is entirely my own fault - the second test of the semester comes in November, and I need to grade it. And, actually, I hate grading tests (and often wonder why I even bother assigning them in the first place) so I put it off and put it off. It's not even that grading takes that long - I can generally turn papers around in about two days, if I sit down and do the work - it's just tiresome reading essentially the same responses over and over again, and the same basic errors of understanding (which suggests that I, the instructor, have made a fundamental error in the way that I have explained something, which never feels good), and wondering if that one really good response is plagiarism (and sometimes it is, but often it isn't)... Anyway, I hate grading, but I have a bunch of grading to do in November. Plus, I'm gearing up for the end of the semester, and wondering if I've left quite enough time to finish everything I've said I will finish in the syllabus (and I have, really). And then there's Thanksgiving in the middle of everything. And the weather can't decide if it's late fall or early winter, so we get these alternate gross wet days and absurdly bright and warm days, whipsawing through my immune system. November sucks. (And, of course, all the rest of the year, I post my posts exactly as I have scheduled them, and I never ever have to post a place holder. Ever. Riiiight.)

Bleh. I did finish three books this week, though. So.

Isabel Cooper - No Proper Lady

Same author as Hickey of the Beast (different name, but same author, I assure you.) This is a paranormal romance, with rather more emphasis on the romance than the paranormal. Joan lives in the future (2088, possibly), and it's a horrible future. Demons roam the earth, brutally oppressing humanity. Humans have two choices - become docile cattle and live under the demons, or live a miserable existence in tunnels, constantly fighting demons and their thralls. Humanity is losing. In order to fix things, Joan has, through magical means, traveled back in time to England, 1888. There, visions indicate, she will find the person who wrote the book which unleashed the demons which destroyed the world.

Simon Grenville lives in England, in 1888. A member of the landed gentry, Grenville is also a minor dabbler in the magical arts. He has returned to his country estate with his sister, Eleanor. Simon has recently rescued Eleanor from an unspeakable magical ritual being performed by Alex Reynell, formerly one of Simon's best friends, and his fellow dabbler in the magical arts. Reynell has decided that the black arts is the way to go, and, when Simon tries to prevent Reynell from pursuing that line of action, Reynell takes Eleanor and tries to have her possessed by a demon.

Reynell, incidentally, is the person that Joan has come back to deal with, which makes the whole thing very tidy.

The good stuff - Cooper has done better than average research for the genre, and creates a believable picture of Victorian England. She has also given considerable thought to the world that Joan comes from, even if we only see it in snippets. So, good solid world building. I honestly liked Joan, and Simon, and Eleanor, and cared about their eventual success. I particularly liked Eleanor standing up for herself and insisting that she be allowed to participate in the plan. I also liked that Joan initiated sex - none of the "it's not rape if you (eventually) enjoy it" trope here. There are some musings on the nature of power and what it means to be human - somewhat surprising for a romance novel.

The middling stuff - For all that it is well written, it's still a romance novel. It's somewhat predictable and a little formulaic - which is what you want, generally, from the genre. There's no real question about the ultimate success of the mission - although there are some interesting twists in the way that the success occurs. There is also no real question about the possibility that Joan and Simon will eventually have sex - of course they will. They dance around it a little - will this harm the mission? - but it's inevitable. Again, that's more or less what you expect when you pick up the book with the heart on the spine (at least that's how my library codes romance novels). So, yeah, it's there.

The less than good stuff - my god, Izzy, the cock! It's like that's Simon's favorite word. Surely there are other euphemisms that were current in 1888? And, also, Joan's genitalia is never directly mentioned - Simon "enters into her" (with his cock!) - through what? A conveniently placed door flap? I get that Simon, perhaps, might not have euphemisms for the female genitalia that he feels comfortable sharing with Joan, but Joan is from the future, and she's comfortable with her sexuality - what does she call her lady parts? For some reason, this really bugged me. I suppose it could have been worse - cock is nicely direct and to the point. Simon is not described as having a "tender hardness" or an "erect manhood" or any of the other tortured euphemisms that romance novelists employ. Still.

So - a delightful romp of a novel, with some surprising musings on deeper philosophical matters, and an abundance of cock.

Peter Van Buren - We Meant Well

Van Buren works in the State Department. He was assigned to Iraq in 2009. In fact, he states that, as of about 2007, all Foreign Service Operatives (FSOs) in the State Department were required to serve for a year in Iraq, helping to rebuild the country, if they expected to advance in their careers. This is, perhaps, not the best way to motivate people to do what is necessary to rebuild a nation.

Indeed, the whole premise of the work is that the entire mission of the State Department in Iraq was and is a largely unmitigated disaster. The goal of winning "hearts and minds," of making the Iraqis like us and want to be like us, has been rendered impossible due to the way in which the agents of the US military and the US State Dept. have gone about doing their jobs. Van Buren recounts the extensive efforts of military officers and State Department employees to mold Iraqis into the image of Americans. His opening vignette is about a collection of books that his predecessor ordered - great American classics of literature, translated into Arabic. The idea is that, by giving Iraqi schoolchildren access to great American literature, we can help them to become more like American school children (as if this were a desirable goal). The plan ignores several critical things:
 - The fact that Iraqis have access to great classics of Arabic literature (already IN Arabic!)
- School syllabi are built around the Iraqi literature, and shoehorning in a bunch of American books is impossible
- American school children are not the way they are because some teacher forced them to read A Scarlet Letter
- The problem in Iraq has far less to do with a lack of great American literature, and far more to do with a lack of adequate school buildings.

Throughout the book, the projects which Van Buren describes are more or less exactly like this. Some Colonel or embassy official decides that what Iraq needs is [X] - where X is some trapping of US capitalism. This totally ignores [Y], [Z], and [Q], where Y is the fact that Iraq had been managing without X for centuries, Z is the fact that the infrastructure which allows X to work in America has been completely destroyed and Q is the fact that due the fact that Z is entirely our fault, X is never going to be embraced by the Iraqis, because we are proposing it without addressing Z.

The whole book is written in a wry tone which allows the reader to laugh at the bumbling. This is vital, because if you cannot laugh at the story Van Buren is telling, you'll find yourself screaming - $86 Billion (with a B!) has been more or less dumped on Iraq. If the money had been piled up and burned, at least the resulting fire might have warmed some people up a little - instead, we've constructed roads that go nowhere (and then blocked the roads off because they allow terrorists to travel more easily through Iraq) and ignored the fact that the nation needs clean water, reliable electricity, and accessible doctors. Not to mention the fact that the $86 Billion could easily have been spent in the US, fixing roads which already exist, and which go to places. Or libraries, or schools, or any number of other things which are desperately needed in the US. Now I'm all pissed off again.

The book is written in a series of disjointed vignettes - not unlike a collection of blog posts. In his afterword, Van Buren thanks Michael Herr, author of Dispatches, a book about the Vietnam War. Herr's book is written in much the same fashion - a collection of journalistic dispatches from the war - and so Van Buren's construction makes more sense. It's still a little odd, and makes the book feel a little uncoordinated and jumpy.

If you are looking for a book that will make you feel a little (or a lot) pissed off about government waste, and which will make you chuckle ruefully at the same time, this is probably a good book for you.

 Ekaterina Sedia - Heart of Iron

It's somewhere in the middle of  the 1850s (Sedia does not specify), in Russia. But not our Russia - in this Russia, the Decemberist revolution was successful. (The Decemberists attempted to ensure that Constantine, and not his brother Nicholas, would ascend the throne in 1825. Constantine, Sedia suggests, was more moderate than Nicholas, and engaged in a policy of freeing the Russian serfs (which, in reality, did not happen until 1861) and a thorough modernization and mechanization of Russia (which didn't really happen until after WWI). This is a Russia fully engaged in the industrial revolution - a Russia with a Trans-Siberian Railroad in 1854 (in reality, not completed until the 1890s). In this Russia,  Alexandra (Sasha) Trubetskaya is given the chance to go to the University of St. Petersburg as part of an inaugural class of female students. While there, she becomes friends with a group of Chinese students (who can travel to St. Petersburg because the Railroad is complete). When Russian secret police (under the command of Nicholas, Constantine's brother) raid a Chinese social club, Sasha finds herself caught up in a complex web of intrigue and espionage. A mysterious British student, Jack, helps her out, but also further complicates things.

For most of the book, this is a delightful spy story with strong steampunk trappings (in the classic sense of the term - the presence of steam powered devices allows radical changes to society. The cultural tension exists between elements which want change and elements which don't. Sasha ends up getting the benefit of both the pre and post steam world, and shaping things to her best advantage). There is also some evidence of wuxia style kung fu - the highly acrobatic over-the-top style of heroism. In movies, this is assisted by wires - lots of leaping over buildings, punching people through walls, landing so hard the surface of the road cracks - that sort of thing. This plays only a minor role in the story, but suggests that there is the possibility for further narrative exploration there.

The good - I really liked the steampunk stuff. There's a lengthy description of Sasha's corset, which allows her to dress as a young man (for an espionage driven trip across Russia to China) - lots of authors talk about girls dressing as boys, but Sedia puts some thought into what that would entail, and maps it out. I love the narrative style, which has just enough of a flavor of late 19th century literature to be fun, but not so much that the book is unreadable. It's mostly there in the phrasing and the sentence structure - delightful. I like the effort that Sedia has made in thinking about the world she is crafting - how would Constantine's reforms have affected the geopolitics of the late 19th century? How would Britain have reacted? What effect might it have had on events in China? Excellent world building.

The not so good - first, the novel ends rather abruptly. As I approached the end of the book, I got that dreaded "there's going to be a sequel" feeling - and then, in the last chapter, Sedia wraps everything up, and tacks on an epilogue to tidy up any loose ends. The book could easily have been 1/4 of its length longer, and the pat ending is a little too much. I suspect that Sedia is thinking in terms of a sequel, but wanted to avoid the problem of the unfinished first book. That's the only really big flaw - there are some minor details that bugged me a little - a little cultural appropriation here, an inconvenient fever there - but nothing major. I would happily read a sequel.

If you like steampunk, if you like historical or counter-historical novels, if you like headstrong female protagonists and over the top cinematic action, then this is clearly the book for you.

Friday, December 2, 2011

November is over

but it kicked my ass on the way out the door. I'm going to go collapse now, and maybe I'll feel up to writing reviews before bed, and maybe not. I only made 2 1/2 books this week, so perhaps if I put it off until tomorrow I can do 3...

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Tuesday Library Post, 11/29/2011

Two books from the library this week. My goal for this week is to get caught up, if I can - I have 7 books in my pile, including the two I just picked up (assuming I haven't missed any...). I'm hoping to finish at least 3 of them this week.

Anyway, the new entries:

Peter Spiegelman - Thick as Thieves

A caper novel, involving a diamond heist which may or may not be a set up. Thieves and paranoia and a heist - I'm in!

 Tanya Huff - The Wild Ways

Huff was a pioneer in paranormal romance, before paranormal romance was a thing. This is the second book in a new series (The first was The Enchanted Emporium) involving exotic shape shifters and magical rites. I actually have no idea what this book is about, but I enjoyed the first one, and I expect to enjoy this one.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Signal Boost: Magick for Terri Windling

Terri Windling edits some of my favorite stuff - the re-imagining of fairy tales series, and the Borderlands series in particular.

From the site:

Terri Windling and her family have been coping with health and legal issues that have drained her financial resources at a critical time. Due to the serious nature of these issues, and privacy concerns for individual family members, we can't be more specific than that, but Terri is in need of our support. As a friend, a colleague and an inspiration, Terri has touched many, many lives over the years. She has been supremely generous in donating her own work and art to support friends and colleagues in crisis. Now, Terri is in need of some serious help from her community. Who better than her colleagues and fans to rise up to make some magick for her?

Terri, of course, has some fabulous friends, many of whom are artists and authors, many of whom are famous in their own right. What they're doing is offering some really cool stuff for auction - some really good original artwork, signed books, Cory Doctorow is auctioning a named character in his next book (Homeland - a sequel to Little Brother), with the proceeds going to Terri. I don't have anything to offer myself (and I'm not nearly close enough to Terri to offer anything even if I did) but I can boost the signal, and so I am:

Friday, November 25, 2011

Friday Review post, 11/25/2011

I'm writing this on my in-laws desktop, and I just want to say that this monitor is huge - my data entry window, which on my monitor mostly fills the screen, is a tiny rectangle in the middle of a sea of grey. A little difficult to get used to.

Ok, to the reviews. Three this week:

Lee Arthur Chane - Magebane

Chane combines some steampunk sensibilities with a magic world, infuses the whole thing with some potent political plotting, and presents the result - a fantastic novel.

The setting - a magical kingdom completely separated from the rest of the world by a magical barrier. Within the kingdom, magic users are the ruling class (the palace is further separated by a second barrier within which it is perpetually summer) and the common folks are little better than slaves to the whims of the magic users.

Plot one - Lord Falk - a magic user - seeks to use his position as Minister of Public Safety to plot his way onto the throne. Falk is a delightfully mustache-twirler of a villain, entirely willing to use torture and murder of innocents to get what he wants. Once king, he plans to dissolve the great barrier and invade the outside world.

Plot two - a character who I will not name for spoiler reasons also seeks to see the barrier collapse - because si conjectures that this will result in the destruction of magic as a force, allowing the Commons to rise in revolt. Si is also perfectly willing to use torture and murder to get what si wants, but hir cause is righteous, so it MUST be ok, right?

Falk and the unnamed plotter (UP) work together; Falk is unaware of the UP's ultimate goal, and thinks he is using hir to further his aims.

Everything is thrown into disarray when Anton, a young man from the non-magical side of the barrier, drops in (literally) when the dirigible he is using fails. Anton falls in love with Falk's ward, and they end up engaged in yet another plot - escape Falk and survive.

A further complication is the possibility of a magebane - someone who can absorb and redirect magical energy, thus depriving the magic users of their strength. Given the book's title, I don't think it's much of a spoiler to suggest that this character does indeed exist.

The steampunk comes from the idea that technology levels the playing field between the Commons and the Lords. It's a fairly light element in the novel, which is far more concerned with magic and love than it is with technology.

Ultimately, a highly satisfying novel. I'd love to see something further in the world that Chane has created, although this book stands entirely alone. The element that I most liked was the fact that the UP's righteous cause is not sufficient to justify hir unrighteous means - good triumphs despite its dubious allies.

George Martin - A Feast for Crows

This book does not stand alone. It is the fourth of Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series. This is the book that Martin split into two books. The first book (this one) was published in 2005; the afterword suggested that the second book was mostly finished, and would be published, ideally, in 2006. It was finally published this year, in July. As such, this book is a little unsatisfying, since it only tells half of the story it was originally intended to tell. I suspect that the next book (Dance With Dragons) will be equally unsatisfying. One of the elements that I have enjoyed about the series is the way in which plotlines which are geographically diverse feed on each other - this element is missing from this book, and is likely to be missing from the second half as well. Further, the material in the most recent book will occur simultaneously with this book. I want to read the book, and will, as soon as it shows up at the library again. But, ok, that's not so much about this book, but rather about a book I haven't read yet...

This book opens with a reminder not to get attached to characters at all. Martin introduces a character, with a back story, friends, motivations, ambitions, a love - and then kills him. We hear nothing more about him or the circumstances around his death.

Martin is just as casually brutal with characters who we've been following since book 1. Don't get attached - there's a decent chance your favorite character is going to die, probably while doing something disgustingly noble and good. Probably as a result of the noble and good thing they are doing.

So, look - if you're already reading the series, and you've arrived at book 4, you're probably going to continue with book 4, and push on to book 5, and, ultimately, the end of the series (which, I predict, will be cataclysmic and destructive). If you aren't reading the series - this isn't the place to start. If you like politics heavy books with an unrelentingly grey moral tone, in which the person who is mostly likely to die is the one who is most noble and good - start with A Game of Thrones and push on from there. If not - this is probably not the series for you.

Some further musings, however. This book seems to focus heavily on two motifs. One is the character with a romantic view of the world prior to the chaos of the civil war. (There are several characters who fit this mold, but Brienne is the one I'm thinking of.) This person acts as though the romantic image is something that was a) real at the time (Martin suggests, repeatedly, that it was not) and b) that, through dint of will, the romantic version of the past can be re-created in the present (Martin suggests, repeatedly, that it cannot). The other motif is the character who recognizes the endemic ugliness of the world and seeks to do something concrete about it, either to better the world (in this book, I'm thinking of Jamie [oddly enough] and Arianne) or to better themselves (Cersei [naturally] and Petyr Littlefinger [also naturally]). The strong implication is that the last group - those who seek to use the ugliness to improve their own lot in life - are (at least temporarily) the most successful. That is why I think this is leading to a cataclysm - this world is so rotten that it needs a despot (with dragons!) to make it right.


I did say 3 books didn't I? The third book:

Lisa Medley - Castle Waiting, Vol I and II

An utterly delightful graphic novel. I had read Vol I ages and ages ago, and Vol II came out earlier this year - a long wait (not unlike George Martin, above). I don't, as a rule, review graphic novels, but I thought I would make an exception for this one, because it is a) gorgeous, and b) really really good.

So. It is gorgeous - the printers chose a nice heavy paper with a pleasant yellow tint. The art is all hand drawn, and highly detailed. The books each have one of those attached bookmark things - the ribbon in the binding so that you can mark your place without losing your bookmark. Both volumes are a pure delight to hold, look at, and read.

The story is brilliant as well. Medley is playing very complex games with fairy tales. The titular Castle is the castle of Sleeping Beauty. When Beauty wakes up to her prince's kiss, she abandons the castle (and everyone who lived in it), and it has since become a place of sanctuary for an odd group of characters.

The cast of characters is quite odd, ranging from some fairly normal fairy tale type humans to a group of dwarves to a whole menagerie of animal headed people. Medley makes no effort to explain why some of the characters have animal heads, and, really, she doesn't need to. No one in the story feels that this is odd in anyway; why should the readers?

Medley weaves a series of interlocking stories together in much the same way that Catherynne Valente does in her Orphan's Tales books. Someone will be telling a story, which will have nested within it a second story, which will have nested within it a third story, and so on. Delightful (but also frustrating, because the stories just keep going on and on without finishing...)

Which is, in the end, the only problem with the books. The second book ends rather abruptly, right in the middle of a story. Presumably, the story will be continued in a third volume - perhaps even concluded - but that's not guaranteed. At the author's request (according to the publisher), Medley's name is nowhere on the second volume. That bodes ill, perhaps... Still, a third volume, even if we have to wait several years, will be well worth it. I recommend this pair of books to anyone who likes fairy tales, strong independent female characters, excellent writing, and gorgeous artwork.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Tuesday Library Post, 11/22/2011

We are driving to Virginia for Thanksgiving this year. Since my laptop is still unable to connect to the internet (although it functions on a very basic level, allowing word processing, for instance) I cannot guarantee that I will be able to post on Friday (although we're staying with my in laws, and they have access to the internet, so it's possible) Also, I'm not sure how much I'll have been able to read by then anyway, since, you know, driving, and then eating my weight in turkey. This is just a heads up if you don't see anything on Friday.

Sorta two books this week. 

James Benn - A Mortal Terror

Benn has been writing a series of historical murder mysteries set during the Second World War. Billy Boyle is the distant nephew of General Eisenhower, and has been given a position on Eisenhower's staff which allows Boyle to poke his nose into things and clear up messes that Eisenhower cannot deal with himself - often, murder. This book is set just prior to the Anzio landings in Italy. Someone is bumping off top officers in the US Army - Boyle's first serial killer? He's sent to deal with it.

The other book - I had to return Eona unread, because it was due back. But I grabbed the audio book copy of it, to listen to on my drive home - I've been tasked with transporting a spare car from Virginia to New York, so I'll have time to listen to a book (probably). So that's the second book.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Welcome Holiday Wish folks!

Last year, when I posted the blog in my Holiday Wishes post, I had not discovered the joy (and agony) of my stats, and so I have no idea what the reaction was. Well, except I know I got at least two readers who comment occasionally. This year, however, I know that, since posting my wish list earlier this afternoon, I am already experiencing a tsunami of visitors - and I would be a bad host if I didn't welcome them, now wouldn't I?

So, welcome! I'm glad you've stopped in! Please, enjoy a virtual plate of brownies (I almost said cookies - but those are something different on the internet, aren't they?)

On the internet, brownies have no calories or allergens
I suggest that, if you are interested in a decent taste of the blog, you take a look at the Honey Month posts (they're tagged - the tag cloud is a ways down on the left) and, possibly, the Hickey of the Beast posts (also tagged) - both offer a coherent thread that is reasonably easy to follow (I think).

Other thoughts. The post recommendations that pop up at the bottom of my posts are ... odd. I think my style of writing doesn't work well with that sort of thing. I will warn you that I'm not as regular a poster as I sometimes hope to be, but you are generally safe in expecting at least two posts a week. Comments posted via the RSS feed frequently don't show up on the main site (although I see them in my e-mail), and, thus far, I have been too lazy/busy to do anything about that. I would love it if people were to suggest books for me to look at. I'm also gearing up for February Theme Month again, and would love suggestions about that as well.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Friday Review, 11/18/11

Friends, I am sick. The cold that I've been trying to dodge for a month now (a MONTH!) has finally caught up with me. My throat is raw, and I have a cough. I do not, yet, have the head full of snot - that may come later or it may not. My sinuses are odd that way. I'm dosing with vitamin C and zinc. My students have requested movies
for the Monday before Thanksgiving break next week, and I may well accede, since I don't know if I'll have a voice to teach with. Updates as warranted.

That being said, I did complete three books this week. Two are even oddly related, for all that they are completely different.

Jon Scieszka, ed. - Guys Read 2: Thrillers

Scieszka is editing a series of books to entice middle school boys who don't like to read into the wonderful world of reading. This is the second - the first was Funny Stuff. This is what the box says on the cover - thrillers. A collection of stories featuring robbers and ghosts and detectives and villains and pirates, and people tied to rail road tracks.

This was not aimed at me. I am so far from being the target audience that I may as well be behind the shooter. I found most of the stories to be trite and predictable, and largely lacking in complexity. But, having worked in a middle school library and talked to the literacy teachers struggling to find material that a) enticed their reluctant male readers to read while b) being written to their literary level, I can say that this book might well be a hit with the intended audience. The writing is simple, without being condescending. The stories are straight-forward without being cute (mostly). A couple were even pretty excellent. The characters were uniformly male (because middle school males tend to have trouble identifying with female characters) and they do things - they get into trouble, they climb things and then jump off of them, they find stuff. All good.

The three standout stories were:

Matt De La Pena - "Believing in Brooklyn" - a story of a young boy who, for some logical reasons, believes that he has a wishing machine in his bedroom. (but he doesn't. Or does he?)

Walter Dean Myers - "Pirate" - a story from the point of view of an 11 year old Somali pirate (great for prompting discussion of current events, perhaps)

Gennifer Choldenko - "The Snake Mafia" - a story about exotic animal smuggling (more current events, maybe).

I would include Bruce Hale's "Nate Macavoy, Monster Hunter," except it doesn't end, which, given that this is a collection of short stories, I would consider a significant flaw.

If you have reluctant reader males in your acquaintance, this might well stimulate some reading. All of the authors are established, so if one of the stories peaks their interest, they can be assured that there is more like it available.

Earnest Cline - Ready Player One

Are you a child of the '80s? Do you like video games from the '80s? How about dystopian visions of the future, with a strong dose of cyberpunk? Then this book is probably for you. Frankly, I think Cline hits it out of the park with this one.

In the future, OASIS, a vast virtual universe, created by James "Anorak" Halliday, has taken over from the internet. People all over the planet log into OASIS to work, go to school, play, and generally interact with each other. For the vast majority, OASIS provides a viable alternative to life off line, which is overwhelmingly bleak - the Great Recession has stretched on for many decades, leaving most of the population stranded in slums while the few live in opulence. When Halliday dies, and leaves his billions, and control of OASIS, to the winner of a deeply complex treasure hunt through OASIS (and the decade in which Halliday grew up - the 1980s), a new "sport" emerges. People all over the world pore over Halliday's creation to find easter eggs - hidden bits of code which allow them to interact with the system in unexpected ways. Vying for the prize along with the citizen hunters (or Gunters - for Egg Hunters) is IOI, a multi-national corporation which seeks to take control of OASIS and run it for a profit; squeezing out the small users in favor of those with vast sums of money.

If you are a geek child of the '80s, the book is a nostalgic trip, full of references to iconic geek movies, music, and games (video and otherwise). No reference to Princess Bride, or the Karate Kid franchise, oddly enough, but otherwise an exhaustive collection - a joy for those readers who enjoy hunting for obscure and not so obscure references to favorite media. If you are not a geek child of the '80s, I can imagine that the constant references and name dropping might grate a little - but the book is clearly not aimed at you.

I loved the book, and my wife loved the book. If you share our (excellent) taste, you will probably also love the book.

Nnedi Okorafor - Who Fears Death

This book was deeply disturbing, and not a little depressing. Set in a vaguely post-apocalyptic Africa, the narrative draws heavily on African stories. However, with the exception of the magic, which seems rooted in fairly deep narrative traditions, the stories which the novel draws on are recent stories. The narrative revolves around female circumcision, rape as a weapon/tool for genocide, conflicts between tribes, and the use of child soldiers. Overlayed with the mystical elements of the magic, and the strong mythic elements of the heroine's quest to restore her land, the whole is deeply uncomfortable, while being eminently readable.

Okorafor offers a compelling collection of deeply complex characters who drive the plot with their conflicts - often petty, but always very real. Up to the last chapter, the book is also deeply satisfying. I found the last chapter to be unnecessary; it almost cheapened the preceding narrative, perhaps. At the same time, however, the last chapter added something to the sense of myth, and possibly allegory. So, I don't know.

In the end, the book was difficult to read, because of it's subject matter, but so compellingly written that it transcended the unpleasantness. I suspect it is an important book, the sort of thing which might well end up on reading lists at the better colleges and universities in the future. The sort of book which makes anti-genre critics shake their heads and hold their noses through the magic elements.

The link between this book and Ready Player One? Both make reference to the School House Rock song "3 is a Magic Number". I was deeply surprised.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Teetering Tower of Books

Don't sneeze!

This is currently next to my computer desk, at about head height. It's mostly not books for review - most of those are books about demobilization, plus some Yank magazines, some Peep and the Big Wide World DVDs, and some tea lights (because otherwise the baby eats them, that's why.) Whenever I look at this, I feel a sense of impending doom - and yet, there doesn't seem to be a better place to put them.

Tuesday Library Post, 11/15/2011

Three books this week:

Isabel Cooper - No Proper Lady

This is the same author as Hickey of the Beast,and I've been wanting to read it since I knew it existed, because I know Izzy (sorta). Plus, the back matter thumbnail description: "It's Terminator meets My Fair Lady in this fascinating debut of black magic and brilliant ball gowns, martial arts, and mysticism." How can I resist? How can YOU resist? Since this will have to go back to the library in 3 weeks (give or take) I won't be reading it serially.

Kevin Mitnick - Ghost in the Wires

Mitnick is, apparently, a big deal in hacker circles. He's known for hacking into computer systems and then evading capture for a long time. Now, he does the same thing, but to test the security of systems. It's Sneakers meets Catch Me if you Can. I love a good caper story (as I'm sure you all know!) so I had to grab this one.

Tom Prerrotta - The Leftovers

I've been, for several years now, following Fred Clark's deconstruction of the Left Behind series (currently hosted here) - what Clark describes as the worst books in the world. Perrotta attempts to look at the same material - what the world would look like after the Rapture (or something that looks like the Rapture) - but from a realistic, rather than a propegandistic point of view. So - lots of people just vanish, Perrotta writes about the folks who didn't, and how they adapt.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Nano Update

8123 words. I begin to doubt that I will get to 50,000 words, and I'm mostly ok with that. I'm a busy guy; I'm also writing dissertation stuff (yes, Lora, I totally am!), teaching, and doing full time Dadding and such. As one of my writing buddies says that every word that is written towards the 50,000 is one more than I had before, and that's all good. I'm not even sure that the story will take 50,000 words to tell.

I've just introduced a new character, and discovered that she has an unusual way of talking - mile a minute, totally scattershot, shifting from one topic to another, for paragraph on end. That makes her quite fun to write, but means I'm going to have trouble keeping all of the other characters from adopting her patterns. Also, she claims to be from Texas. And I don't know ANYTHING about Texas. That's not true. I know a great deal about Texas - I know how it joined the Union, and I know where it stood during the Civil War, and I know it's the second biggest state in the Union, and I know lots of stuff. But not much about what it's like to live in Texas, or to be from Texas.  So that's interesting.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Friday Review, 11/11/11

Illness abounds in the Timonin household, and it's playing merry hob with my schedule. Also, it's that point in the semester when everything goes out the window (strange - when I was a student, I thought it was just students that felt that way, but clearly I was wrong). Frankly, the only thing that is getting this post out on time is the fact that it's 11/11/11, and how could I resist a post with that date stamp?

I suppose I could post a place holder for the cachet, but that would be cheating, right?

So. Three books this week.

Tamora Pierce - Mastiff

This is the third, and last, of the Beka Cooper novels. (I suppose it's possible that Pierce will return to the Cooper setting in a future book or series of books - let's say, this is the last of this particular trilogy.) Wait, though. I don't think I've reviewed a Pierce yet, have I? No, I haven't! What fun!

Tamora Pierce writes YA fiction. She's been writing YA fiction since before there WAS YA fiction, starting with the Alanna the Lioness series. She features strong female characters, often working in a tightly restricted male world. Also, she is brilliant. If you are not yet familiar with her work, I strongly encourage you to go, as soon as possible, and read some. Alanna is pretty cool, but clearly an early work - it lacks polish in some places. The Defender of the Small quartet is better (except you need to read Alanna first), and the two Circle of Magic quartets are excellent - I'm reading those to the big kid right now.

The Beka Cooper books are set in the past of the Alanna/Defender of the Small books, and follow the adventures of Beka Cooper, one Provost's "Dog" - basically, a police officer. Beka has some small magic - she can talk to ghosts - which she uses to help her investigate murders. The trilogy follows Beka from her beginnings as a trainee through this book, which presents Beka at the midpoint of her career. The books are written as Beka's diary, which has some ... issues. Like an epistolary novel, a novel framed as a diary is a step removed from the action. Everything is reported after the fact. In some instances, the action is presented long after the fact - days, even - which Pierce covers by having Beka trained in memory retention. Which is, admittedly, a useful thing for a police officer.

This novel, I should say, is not a good place to enter the trilogy - Terrier is the first one. That being said, this novel follows Beka, her scent hound, and her friends as they track down a gang of slavers who have kidnapped the royal prince. It's a police procedural novel, mostly, and it's exactly the sort I like - where the reader knows exactly as much as the detective - delicious! Pierce presents delightfully complex characters and a very pleasing romance. A completely satisfying conclusion to the trilogy - if there are no more books from this perspective, I am entirely happy (although I would be just as happy for there to be more!).

Frances Fox Piven - Who's Afraid of Frances Fox Piven?

Piven is an historian teaching at City University in New York (CUNY). During the 1960s and '70s, she was closely associated with the Poor People's Rights movement, and articulated a political theory about why poor people riot. Recently, she has been cast into the limelight by Glenn Beck (and may that be the only time I write his name here. Bleh) because of a proposition she made in the '70s - that everyone eligible for welfare should apply for welfare en masse, thus showing the instability of the welfare system, and hopefully result in some sort of guaranteed income policy. Beck (sorry) presented this proposition as a) current and b) a plan to destabilize the US economy, ushering in an era of anti-capitalist anarchy (which, sometimes, doesn't sound so bad). Piven responded to her sudden fame/infamy by publishing a collection of her various essays on economic inequality.

On the one hand, I'd love to say "if you want to understand what is happening with the Occupy Wall Street movement, read Piven." A lot of what she says makes sense. It is difficult to organize the poor in any society, because they are not, by nature, a cohesive group. Unlike, say, workers in a factory, you cannot organize them around their work place; nor can they be organized around a common shared experience, like military vets. Instead, Piven argues, the poor need to be shaped into brief moments of rebellion to shock the system - or, rather, the poor tend to rally themselves into brief moments of rebellion, when they, as a class, can be convinced that their misfortune a) has a clear cause and b) can be reversed through direct action. That - a moment in which direction action can reverse widespread misfortune - is what is happening right now. I'd love to say that it would be easy to see this if you read Piven - and, perhaps it would, assuming that you read fluent academicese. Because most of Piven's most fascinating work is written for a very specific audience - an audience of historians and political scientists - and so it's dense, and full of jargon. I must confess that I gutted* a lot of the book, like a well trained graduate student.

More recently, Piven has contributed to The Nation magazine, and those articles are far more accessible, and pertinent. Here is one of her articles for The Nation, from early this year - it's in the book, but you can read it online. So, I can say "if you want to understand what's happening with Occupy Wall Street, read Piven" - just not, necessarily, this book.

*graduate students of the humanities are often expected to read and discuss 3-5 lengthy academic texts a week, in addition to teaching classes and having lives. This is difficult or impossible. Thus, graduates "gut" books - they read the intro and conclusion, and then aggressively skim the material within the book, reading paragraphs which catch their eye, but not the whole work. Ideally, in discussion, different students have noticed different things in the work, and thus the book is reconstructed. Some academic authors clearly write their works in such a way that gutting is easily accomplished - spelling out in the intro and conclusion what, exactly, they thought they had proved, and including bold section titles throughout the chapters so that readers can quickly see what the important points are. Other authors write such compelling prose that gutting is acutely difficult - many times, I have found myself engrossed in a work that I really need to be done with so that I can move onto the next one. Yet other authors write such dry, dull prose, and bury their points so effectively, that even the closest reading cannot tease out meaning. Those books are the worst.

Jim Butcher - White Night

I'm midway through the Harry Dresden books. I've reviewed a couple of these earlier. The series invites a certain amount of skipping around - Butcher is skilled at presenting enough background material that new readers don't feel the need to read everything which proceeds, yet not in such a way that existing readers feel like they are reading the same book over and over. This book is set towards the end, perhaps, of the war between the Wizard's Council and the Vampire Courts. Dresden is called in to investigate a series of suicides which might not be suicides, and finds himself dealing with some old enemies.

Butcher, perhaps, is writing himself into a corner here. Dresden is amassing power from book to book, which means that his enemies must also have a great deal of power (or else we can't believe them), and his allies must also be extremely powerful (or else they are not much help). Eventually, this becomes ludicrous - Dresden and his enemies and his allies will become like unto gods, and combat between them will shatter worlds - that would be boring. So, I suspect, in future books, Dresden will find himself battling political issues more and more - which, actually, I kinda like in a book. In this one, though, he's just fighting really powerful bad guys, and that's pretty cool too.

Butcher is playing with the idea of power, though. At what point does Dresden cease to be human? What does it mean to be human, anyway? It is often difficult to tell who the monsters are in Butcher's books - and that, I think, is what keeps me coming back for more. I like complex books, I like complex characters, and I also like the whole over the top power struggle that Butcher writes so very well.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

November is Stupid, late Library Post 11/9/2011

It's not like I DID anything yesterday - I didn't even get any writing done. I did go to the library, however.

Peter Van Buren - We Meant Well

The account of a State Department employee deployed to Iraq to "win hearts and minds," explaining, in detail, why the whole initiative didn't work. The first vignette in the book, before even Chapter 1 - Van Buren's predecessor ordered an $18,000 library of classic American literature translated into Arabic. When it arrived, Van Buren couldn't give the books away - no one wanted them, because they served no useful purpose in Iraq.

Ekaterina Sedia - Heart of Iron

Steampunk set in Russia, with a strong dose of Wuxia (Chinese martial arts - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, that sort of thing).  Couldn't pass that up!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

NaNoWriMo update, for those of you that care

So, I mentioned that I have signed up for NaNoWriMo, the novel writing contest that runs through November. The goal is to produce a 50,000 word manuscript over the course of the month, with the broad motto of: "write in November, edit through the rest of the year." I've been writing bits and pieces of fiction and poetry since middle school. I've even finished some fiction (and some of my poetry isn't hideous, even - see?). It seemed like a good idea, though, given that I'm reviewing novels, to put my hands where my mouth is (that really doesn't work, does it? You know what I mean) and write a novel. So I am. And here's an update, for those of you that really care.

As of yesterday, I have written 4,791 words. Actually, I'm cheating ever so slightly - I have legitimately written 4,791 words since the 1st of November, but I'm adding those words to about 3,000 words that I already had written. The novel is tentatively called "And Jergen, As Always, Said Nothing." Here's a synopsis and excerpt. The excerpt comes from the first chapter, and is not part of the 4,791 words.

SynopsisShelia, a struggling free lance author, is offered a job by her fairy godmother. The job is to be a fairy godmother. Jergen, her dog, says nothing.

ExcerptSheila’s stomach gurgled. She had not eaten since lunch. Jergen followed her into the kitchen, his toes tapping on the linoleum. Sheila opened the fridge. “Damn. Groceries. That’s what else I needed to do today. Where did my day go, Jergen? Well, I guess we’ll take our walk down to the store, then. Let’s see. I’ve got an avocado – if I get some chips and some sour cream, we can have nachos. Maybe Glen will join us, and we can watch a movie.” Jergen, as always, said nothing. Sheila grabbed Jergen’s leash, and headed for the door. Jergen followed. Entering the living room, Sheila stopped suddenly. Sitting on the couch was a woman in a long white dress. She had her feet up on the coffee table and she was smoking a cigarette in a long holder, like Audrey Hepburn had, in that movie. Or was that someone else? “Oh hell, not you! How the hell did you get into my house?” “Dahling! I’m your fairy godmother, of course. Hello, did you not see the magic wand? You think a little thing like locks is going to keep me out?” The woman flicked some ash from her cigarette, which disappeared before it hit the floor, and pointed the holder at Sheila.
More to follow, as warranted.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Saturday Review Post, 11/5/2011

Two books this week.

S.M. Stirling - The Tears of the Sun

This is the most recent of Stirling's Embervese books. Set in a world where all modern technology just stopped working in 1997, Stirling is now telling the stories about the second generation post-event (so, actually in the future). The books are best described as science fantasy - there's some science stuff there, but the plot is entirely fantasy. Gods affect the events, and there is magic and singing swords and the whole bit.

Ok. This is five books into the series, and, if you haven't been reading them, this is not the place to start. If you have been reading them, this may be the one that makes you want to stop. It has all of the things that I like about Stirling - the long, chewy compound sentences, the characters facing absurd odds, the clearly defined good and evil, and all of that. It also has all of the stuff about Stirling that makes me cringe - the writing of accents, mostly.

There are three things that I didn't like about the book - three things that make me almost inclined to tell fans to steer clear. One - the book is largely flash backs, and flash backs within flash backs - as in, the character is describing something that happened three months ago, and in the midst of the description, has to describe something that happened six months ago. These flash backs are presented entirely out of chronological order - something that Stirling does, but it's quite egregious here. You really have to pay attention to the date stamps at the beginning of each section. Two - the whole book is building up to this big climactic battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Everything is working towards that end. Lots of discussion of mustering troops, and talking to this group and convincing them to work with that group, and rescuing people so this other group can safely work with all of the pre-existing groups, and etc. Setting the ground for the battle. Making sure that everyone, even the enemies, are in the right place at the right time. And then, there's this battle, and it's a short chapter at the end of the book, and then it's done. For all the build up, I expected more. I wanted to read about the heroic last stands. I wanted to read about the forlorn hopes. I wanted the clash of arms and all of that. And it wasn't there. If you're going to set up a big set piece battle as the whole purpose of the book - well, you should have that battle, is all I'm saying. Three - This book should have been the last book in the series, and it wasn't. Hopefully, the next book will be - the big bad has noticed our bold heroes of good - but there was a lot of back filling and flash backs and setting up of toy soldiers and such that didn't need to be in this book, and which could have been the big climactic battle followed by the bigger, climacticer battle.

Oh. And the title was never explained, as far as I saw.

So, I will probably pick up the next book in the series when I see it, because I am a completeist, and because I care enough about the characters to see where the story ends. But, if you are not a completeist, I would suggest skipping this one. And if you aren't reading the series, this is not the place to start.

Emily Diamand - Fire and Flood

The sequel (and, I'm pretty sure, conclusion) to Diamand's Raider's Ransome. Also set in a post apocalyptic setting, these books follow Lilly, Lexy, and Zeph as they struggle to overcome differences between their societies, and to bring their AI friend to Lundun, where he hopes to be able to power up fully. The book is YA, and I'd say the low end of YA - I'd even go so far as to call it juvenile fiction - so the writing is geared at that level, and the characters are somewhere between 12 and 16. Diamand has clearly done some thinking about the way in which societies fall apart, and how the resulting tribal groups would struggle with each other. She's thought through the sort of fail-safes that a slightly more advanced society than ours might have put in place, and how those fail-safes might fail, and what that failure might look like. All in all, a simple but delightful book, with a lot of adventure and action. I'd recommend it to 8-12 year old readers, boys and girls, and people who like to read stuff for 8-12 year old readers. Good stuff.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Friday Post

Bleh. I am sick. My throat is all scratchy. This weekend doesn't look to be as long and complicated as last weekend, but I'm in no fit shape to make a full review tonight. Plus, I have a book that I haven't finished yet. Tomorrow, I promise!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Tuesday Library Day, 11/1/2011

So, I'm posting this now, so that I don't forget. Timely posting, on a fixed schedule - I know I can do it, if only I work at it, right?

Three books today, and I'm deeply in serial narrative mode here:

George Martin - A Feast of Crows

This is the next to most recent Martin novel, which will bring me up to date on the series.

Allison Goodman - Eona

The other half of the Eon/Eona duology.

M.D. Lachan - Wolfsangel

Some sort of epic werewolf novel/series, involving vikings. It has the potential to be awesome, or to be awful, or, perhaps, awesomely awful. I'm kinda hoping for option 3...

Also, a heads up. Because I am a masochist (not really - put away the spankers), I have signed up for NaNoWriMo - the National Novel Writing Month contest. Basically, I'm thinking that if I make myself MORE busy, I'll actually accomplish things in defiance of logic and to spite myself. I shall endeavor mightily to keep up with myself.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

An actual Sunday Review Post, 10/30/2011

Gah. I am exhausted. Who knew that bugs and pumpkins and chili could take so much out of a guy?

Actually, now that I read that, it sounds really ... wrong. Sorry.

So, I promised you a review of Mark Charan Newton's Nights of Villjamur, and here it is.

I said, on Friday, that the book was solidly good, but not excellent. First off, Newton is treading some well trodden ground here. We have an empire on a world which is about to enter into an ice age. Everyone knows that the ice age is coming, and the empire has been preparing for the coming disaster. So - empire in danger; we've seen that before. An ice age - not a common disaster, but not unheard of. There are forces within the empire which seek to turn the disaster to their own ends - in particular, there is a conspiracy attempting to overthrow the Emperor. This produces lots and lots of nice politics - but political plots are a dime a dozen. We have a detective who stumbles onto the conspiracy while doing an investigation of the mysterious death of a council member. Ok, a police procedural. Plus, there's a romance plot involving the sister of the Empress (the Emperor throws himself off a balcony a couple of chapters in. This isn't my spoiler - it's on the book flap) and the man she thinks she's hired to teach her dancing and sword fighting. (There's a fair bit of mistaken identity throughout the book.) There's a military plot involving a variety of threats, including zombies and giant crab-like monster things. There are cultists who accumulate relics, which seem to be clearly some sort of advanced technology - perhaps the remnants of an earlier, much more advanced, society? So, not only is Newton treading ground that has been trodden before, but he is also treading it in many many different directions. All of these plots do blend together, somewhat, but the whole left me a little baffled and breathless. I felt like saying, "damn it, man, pick one and follow it through!"

The police procedural worked as the central piece of the book, and it was clearly the most complete element. It had a defined beginning, middle, and end. However, it was a "we, the reader, know more than the detective does" sort of procedural - and I don't like those. Also, I felt that the mystery was a little weak in other ways too, chiefly motivation for the murderer. Additionally, the police bit featured a particularly nasty bit of betrayal - good writing, but uncomfortable. That was an odd bit where an excellent piece of writing made me not really like a whole bit of plot - weird.

The politics were the best part of the novel. I really like political novels, and the politics here were murky and twisty - exactly the sort of thing I like. The motivation for the villain here was clear as a bell - in order to take over as Emperor, he needs to remove the existing dynasty. Watching him plot was delightful, and he was an excellent villain. If he had a mustache, he would have twirled it. Jeremy Irons could easily play him in the film adaptation, and chew scenery to his heart's content. Seeing him get his comeupance will be delightful.

Newton's characters in general are really well written. Given the extent that this is a character driven novel, that's a good thing. Poorly written characters would have doomed this novel. Newton offers us a broad cast that we can care about. We can root for the cocky young sword and dance instructor learning to love for the first time, or for the young rulers learning that there is more to their empire than the palace they grew up in. We can watch the slow re-building of the relationship between the detective and his estranged wife. We can thrill to the exploits of the military commander facing unfaceable odds. We can ponder the motives of mysterious cultists, engaged in byzantine plots of their own imagining. All of these myriad characters make the book worth reading, and compensate many many times for the problems I've mentioned.

The other thing that Newton does that I found interesting (and also frustrating). The empire has several different species in it - humans, and Rumels (who are bipedal, mammalian, furred, have tails, and are very long lived), and Guaradas (who are bird type things), and possibly other things hiding in the wings. All of these different species of character make for some interesting dynamics - how does it all fit together?

The frustrating thing about these alien species is that Newton never really explains how it all fits together, or where the various species came from, or offer us a glossary or a "history" of the Empire - the bits that might, tacked onto the end of a book like this, fill in the gaps that a reader like me really craves. There isn't even a map of the empire, or a suggestion of how large it is, relative to the world it's on. Perhaps a map would spoil a big reveal in a future book - "ha ha! Look, they're really on Earth!" - but given the distances people were travelling between islands, and the suggestion that there are hostile forces just outside the empire - I wanted a map. These are little things, but they accumulate.

My final complaint about the book is that it doesn't end satisfyingly. It's clear that Newton is writing an Epic (I feel some justice in using the term, because deities do play a role in the novel, if not directly), and so the novel ends somewhat abruptly, just as the conspiracy plot comes to fruition in one place, and the heroic military expedition is retreating from sure and certain death in another place.  I know the second book has been published (because it was seeing Book 2 which prompted me to pick up Book 1), and I'm not opposed, per se, to a serial narrative - but, on top of the other little things ... Well. The strong characters will draw me back into the second book, but it will be a "pick up when I see it" rather than a "hunt it down because I must have it" type thing.