Friday, March 18, 2011

Friday Reviews, 3/18/2011

Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier - Zombies vs. Unicorns:

This was one of the advanced reader copies (ARC) that hapaxnym sent me. She advertised it as "exactly what the title says," which is fair enough. It's a collection of YA short stories, edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier. The back story is that Black and Larbalestier have an ongoing debate about the competing merits of zombies and unicorns - Black is a unicorn booster and Larbalestier is a zombie patriot. In an effort to resolve the debate, they invited several YA authors to write a series of short stories, some featuring zombies, and others featuring unicorns. This is the end result.

What happens when you pack a bunch of YA authors together and tell them to go wild? Mostly teen protagonists, dealing with life, and also unicorns and/or zombies. I picked the book up hoping for something light after the surprisingly heavy Pratchett last week. In the end, I didn't get light. I found the book to be a lot creepier than I had anticipated, especially the unicorn stories, and considerably more thought provoking than I had expected.  Several of the stories were real gems: my faves were Maureen Johnson's "Children of the Revolution (z), Diana Peterfeund's "The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn" (u), Cassandra Clare's "Cold Hands" (z) and Libba Bray's "Prom Night" (z). Scott Westerfeld's "Inoculata" (z) was also interesting. There seem to be more "z"s than "u"s in my favorites, so, perhaps Larbalestier wins?

Some notes on the writing. In general, all of the stories were truly excellent, not just my favorites. The authors clearly had a lot of fun writing the stories for this project. The prose crackles with wit, and the authors have approached their various stories with a lot of thought. In particular, there was an effort to take what could have been a series of cliches and turn it into something fresh. Although both "teams" do a good job in presenting new angles to address unicorns and zombies, I think Team Zombie did a better job overall with that aspect. There are several different types of zombies reflected in the stories, while the unicorns seem largely to be European traditional, despite Black's statements about the various different sorts of unicorns around the world. It would have been nice to see an Indian unicorn, or a Japanese Kirin.

In terms of diversity, the collection is moderately well done as well. There was an interesting range of gender and sexual orientation in the characters, but my overwhelming sense was that the characters were white - there was a Zororastrian in "Prom Night", perhaps she was Middle Eastern?

Final assessment - a well written, fun, witty, sometimes gory (especially the unicorns) collection of stories that many teens will enjoy. I'm not sure I would buy this for myself, but I can definitely think of some teen friends who I would point towards the book.

Lois McMaster Bujold - Cryoburn:

Bujold is widely, and justifiably, regarded as a master of the speculative fiction genre. She writes slick, funny, intelligent, twisty novels that make her readers think deeply. She also, and at the same time (within the same covers, even), writes delightful romance/adventure novels. This is the latest of the Vorkosigan books, and it arrives at a time when her fans were not sure there would BE another Vorkosigan book - there have been dark hints to the effect that Bujold thought she had said everything she had to say about life through Miles Vorkosigan. Seems these rumors were unfounded, because there's this new book.
And what a book! There's a lot in this book. Bujold muses on aging and death and the health care debate in the States, and the financial meltdown, but mostly on aging and death - personal aging, individual death (and what happens after), and also the difficult situation of dealing with aging parents. Oh, and there's a rollicking adventure, a mystery/spy plot, and a pleasant little romance on the side, all wrapped up with Bujold's typical dry wit, and Miles Vorkosigan's outsized antics. For fans of the series, a must read.

I will say this, though, the ending was an emotional kick in the stomach; be prepared.

A must read for fans of Vorkosigan, but perhaps not a great place to start for new comers. Where should one start reading Vorkosigan? Chronologically, Falling Free begins the series - but you don't see those characters again, well, ever. Cordelia's Honor* makes some sense, but perhaps the best idea is to start with The Warrior Apprentice and then go back to Cordelia's Honor.

This discussion of where to start is not entirely moot, because the hard cover of this book comes with a disc with all the novels on it, for free - new readers can start at a beginning and work their way forward. I'm not sure if this is very  interesting marketing ploy, or a potent threat to the possible sale of back catalogues. One of the problems for authors like Bujold, who have written, and are writing, a long series of books, is that new readers will feel lost, and possibly alienated. I know that I strive to locate the first book of a series when I noticed the third or fourth on a new book rack. So, perhaps including the disc is valuable from that point of view, especially as the back catalogue becomes increasingly difficult to find. Still, it feels a little like giving away a library for free along with the purchase of a single book. I don't know, clearly a debate for people more market savvy than myself.

*Cordelia's Honor is an omnibus edition, with two novels in it; Shards of Honor and Barrayar, and tells the story of how Miles' parents met and fell in love.

Barbara Kingsolver - Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

This was the food ethic book that was recommended a couple of weeks ago. It documents a year in the life of Kingsolver's family, as they take a personal challenge to eat only locally produced food for a year. Locally produced, in this case, includes food (vegetables, fruit, chickens, and turkeys) produced on their small farm in Virginia, as well as the 100 to 150 mile radius around the farm. When the family travels, they seek out local food for the area they are in while travelling.

So, this is a book about the localvore movement in the United States. It is also a book about farming on a small scale, or gardening on a large scale. It is a book about paying attention to the basic rhythms and cycles of nature, and about eating consciously; being aware of where the food you are eating came from, and what that entails. The book was informative, possibly to the point of being a little preachy. Kingsolver deflects the preachiness with a healthy dose of familial humor - I especially liked the chapter on turkey mating, and the bit about opening a pumpkin at Thanksgiving, although there were many many nuggets of humor throughout the book. The book was also provocative, although, in my case, preaching to the choir (a little - at the same time, I could easily do a lot better in regards to local eating). I am also compelled to do more with our garden this year (my wife, no doubt, is happy to hear this), and our thoughts about raising some backyard chickens are coming closer to reality, perhaps.

The things I like best about the book - in addition to the humor, I liked the side bars by Kingsolver's husband, and the short essays with recipes by Kingsolver's eldest daughter.

The thing I didn't like about the book - there's a strong thread of gender essentialism throughout. Kingsolver makes statements about how she can do the things she does because she is a housewife - as though the sorts of things she is doing are "women's work." On some level, I think she feels uncomfortable with this as well, as she often hedges these statements with other statements about how this doesn't violate her sense of being a feminist, or of being liberated. The whole thread wasn't enough to poison the book for me, but it irked me a little. Beyond that, it was a fantastic book, and I recommend it highly.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Monday Library post, 3/14/2011

First up, happy Pi(e) Day! I hope you have all had pie, but if not, there's still time.

Just one book this week:

Jonathan Stroud - The Ring of Solomon 

It's a Bartimaeus book, from the perspective of a snarky demon (Bartimaeus) summoned to a Victorian London where demon summoning works, which has some interesting effects on politics and such. Well, the original trilogy was that - this is from rather earlier in Bartimaeus' personal history - a story of King Solomon. Should be amusing.

Post re: food is up here.