Sunday, October 7, 2012

Review post, 10/7/2012

So were trying an experiment. This weekend we're in Virginia, visiting in-laws (and the Green Valley Book Fair!) and we have not brought the laptop. Instead, we have the tablet. We already know that I can write reviews on the tablet, now we're determining if we can do with the tablet as a primary technology device. So far so good.

Two books this week.

Jill Lepore - The Mansion of Happiness

Lepore is rapidly becoming my favorite historian. She writes a nice clear prose, uses lots of discursive endnotes, and shares my view on what History ought to be - an argument supported by stories. This book is an ambitious project, an attempt to address the history of life itself.

Well, perhaps. More the history of the discussion/ views of American thinkers on the various stages of life from conception to death. Along the way, Lepore tells stories about a series of fascinating characters including Milton Bradley (can't talk about life without talking about Life, the game), E.B. White (childhood as viewed through the creation of children's literature), and the Gilbreths (Cheaper by the Dozen - a discussion of Scientific Management, and how it affected work and adulthood).

Topics in the book include breastfeeding, sex-ed, and cryogenics. Each chapter stands more or less by itself - many were originally essays in The New Yorker, more E.B. White - which makes the book nice and easy to read in chunks. Lepore's chatty style of writing makes the book easy to read in long stretches too - a very nice balance. Additionally, Lepore is one of those authors who, while you are reading her work, you feel compelled to share snippets with whomever is lucky enough to be in the room with you.

In the end,  a delightful book, highly recommended.

Robin McKinley - Sunshine

 An older work, a hold over from Vampire Month last year (February is coming - what should I do this time?). McKinley likes to play with literary conventions, and this book is a good illustration of this. Instead of rapid action, the book slowly unfolds. Instead of front loading a lot of exposition, McKinley unwraps her world building carefully over the course of the novel. Instead of clean resolutions, McKinley leaves her readers with a messy ending. Admittedly, perhaps not for all readers, but if your in the mood for a moody, complex novel about vampires, baking, being human, and staying safe (psychologically, politically, emotionally) in a time of perpetual war (vampires, weres, demons as stand-ins for terrorists?) then this book is for you.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Thursday review 9/27/2012

So. The big exciting news in my world is the purchase of a new electric toy; a Google nexus. Which toy I am learning what I can do with. (That sentence needs to be dragged out and shot.) Anyway, that makes it easy to read e-books, like this week's review:

James Hutchings - The New Death

James sent me a review copy of this book, and offered to do a guest post. Which was very nice of him. The book is a collection of short fiction, flash fiction, and poetry. It's the sort of collection which a relatively new writer might put together after several years of writing, and so it clearly reflects a growing and evolving talent. That actually makes it a little difficult to review, because, frankly, the collection is a little uneven.

High points - a series of stories set in Telelee, which have a decided Leiber flavor. At their best, these stories are pleasantly cynical in their tone with being bitter. Sometimes, though, they dip below that cynical/bitter line. Also, Leiber gave us guides to Lanhkmar in the persons of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser - Hutchings has no such heroes. Still, I would love to see a longer work in this setting.

Hutchings also offers a series of flash fiction and short shorts which echo Asimovian long-form puns. Now, some of you don't appreciate puns - you are either more or less evolved than me, depending on your point of view. I am a pun aficionado, and I consider Asimov to be a master of the form. Hutchings comes close, but misses as often as he hits. My key problem is that a long pun needs to be played straight right up to the end, and Hutchings likes to wink broadly at his audience as the puns unfold, which spoils things for me. Still, I'd you like puns - well, this is worth the price of admission.

The best piece in the collection is a long autobiographical-ish piece which has considerable heart, a creepy twist, and a nicely set up bite at the end - a perfect short story, and a gem here.

 I didn't dig the poetry, for the most part. There were a few epigrammatic pieces that were OK, but the long ones - reader, I am ashamed to admit I skipped them. Your mileage may vary depending on how much you like poetry.

So. Worth buying and easy to get. The New Death and others is now available from Amazon, Smashwords and Barnes & Noble. James Hutchings also has a new serial novel available here. The Case of the Syphilitic Sister is a detective / superhero story set in a two-fisted version of the 1930s. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

A Guest Post

First, I'm going through some re-evaluation of my time at the moment. I thinking I might shift my review post to Thursdays, for reasons. In the meantime, here's a guest post from James Hutching's whose collection of short stories, The New Death, I am reading and hope to review later this week. James is part of a new(ish) wave of authors making use of e-publishing to leverage the web into a new model of book marketing. In his post, he explains how that works, in regards to protecting his intellectual property, and why he has chosen that route.

"Many writers, whether published or just starting out, are very nervous that someone else will steal their work, whether that be another writer using their ideas in their own stories, or someone making pirated copies of their books. When I put out a collection of my writing, I specifically gave permission for anyone at all to copy my ideas, or even to cut and paste whole stories. I also contacted the Pirate Party, a worldwide network that wants to lessen copyright, and told them that I was giving anyone permission to put my ebook on file-sharing sites. In this post I hope to show why I went against common wisdom.

Creative Commons

I used a free service called Creative Commons. Creative Commons is useful for people who want to give the general public permission to use their work, but with restrictions. In my case I didn't mind people using my work for non-profit purposes, such as posting on a blog, but I didn't want to allow anyone to make money off it. Similarly I wanted anyone who used it to give me credit. I could have just listed these things myself. However I'm not a lawyer, and perhaps I would have worded it wrong so that someone could twist what I said to do more than I meant. Also I could have been unclear about what I was allowing and what I wasn't allowing. Sure, someone could email me and ask, but the whole purpose of having a written statement is so that people don't have to ask.

Creative Commons has a series of different licenses, which give permission to do different things. They're all legally 'tight', and they're all summarized in plain language. So all you have to do is go to their site and answer a series of questions, to get to the license that does what you want. In my case I used the Attribution Non-Commercial License.


That's what I did. But why? Common sense would suggest that I'm giving something away for free that I could be selling. However I believe that, in the long run, I'll be better off. The main reason is that I've seen how many people are, like me, trying to get their writing out there. Go to Smashwords and have a look at the latest ebooks. Then refresh the page ten minutes later, and you'll probably see a whole new lot. The problem that new writers face isn't that people want to steal your work; it's getting anyone to show an interest in your work at all. If someone passes on a pirated copy of my work, it might get to someone who's prepared to buy it - and that someone would probably have never heard of me otherwise. Even if they don't want to pay for what they read, I might come out with something else in the future, and perhaps paying 99c for it will be easier than hunting it down on a file-sharing site.

Science fiction writer Andrew Burt tells the story of someone who disliked his book, and to get back at him decided to put a copy on a file-sharing site. The effect was that he got a small 'spike' in sales immediately afterwards.

I also have some less selfish motives. Many people would assume that the purpose of copyright is to protect authors and creators. Leaving aside the fact that someone else often ends up with the rights (how many Disney shareholders created any of the Disney characters? How many shareholders in Microsoft have ever written a line of code?), that doesn't seem to have been the intention in the past. The US Constitution says that Congress has the power "to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." Note that protecting 'intellectual property' isn't mentioned. The authors of the Constitution seemed to see the point as getting ideas out there where people can use them: almost the exact opposite of keeping them 'safe' and 'protected'.

The original idea of copyright seems to have been a sort of deal: you have an idea, and we want you to get it out into the world where it will do some good. To encourage you to do that, we'll give you a monopoly on its use for a limited time. After that, anybody can use it (it will enter the 'public domain').

A lot of people don't know that copyright used to give a lot less protection than it does now, especially in the United States. In the US, it used to be that works were copyrighted for a maximum of 56 years. Today copyright in the US can last for over 100 years. In fact Congress keeps extending the time. In practice, they're acting as if they never want ideas to go into the public domain.

This is great for the owners of 'intellectual property'. But it's hard to see how this "promotes the Progress of Science and useful Arts," or how forever is a "limited time." In a sense it's a theft from the public. Anyone who publishes work has accepted the deal that the law offers, of a limited monopoly in return for making their idea known. Congress has been giving them more and more extensions on that monopoly, but doesn't require them to do anything to earn it.

It probably doesn't matter that much that Disney still owns Mickey Mouse, or that Lord of the Rings is still under copyright. But remember that these laws don't just apply to the arts. Similar laws apply to science as well. So a life-saving invention could be going unused, because its owner wants too much money for it, or because it's tied up in court while two companies fight about who owns it.


I'm far from an expert on either the law or the publishing industry. However I hope that I've given you, especially those of you who might be thinking about publishing some writing, a different take on the whole issue of whether authors should worry about their ideas being stolen. At least I hope I've shown you that there's a different way of thinking about it, and that that way doesn't require you to just give up on making money; in fact that it might be more profitable as well as better for society."


bio: James Hutchings lives in Melbourne, Australia. He fights crime as Poetic Justice, but his day job is acting. You might know him by his stage-name 'Brad Pitt.' He specializes in short fantasy fiction. His work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, fiction365 and Enchanted Conversation among other markets. His ebook collection The New Death and others is now available from Amazon, Smashwords and Barnes & Noble. He blogs daily at Teleleli.


This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Tuesday Library Post, 8/28/2012

I've transitioned the blog to access my G+ profile, which shouldn't affect anything that you guys see (unless you're on G+ also, in which case, there will be a concurrent post of some sort when I post here), but which seems actually to make my life a micron or so easier. Also, according to my stat counter, I had a huuuuuge jump in traffic around the middle of August, for no discernible reason - like, thousands of new viewers. I don't know where you all came from, but the stats say you never really went away again, so, hi. Glad you're here. Archives are on the right, the tag cloud is on the left, and the archives are really more accessible.

One thing which seems to have resulted in traffic is a search for updates on Terri Windling's health, so I poked around, and Magik 4 Terri reported a successful fund raising back in January. So I would assume that Ms. Windling's health is as good as can be expected, all things considered.

Ok. Three books this week:

K.E. Mills - Witches Incorporated

The second of Mills' Rogue Agent series (not to be confused with the Rogue Angel series, which this is so much better than), a series of light fantasy in - well, I want to call it steampunk, because it's vaguely Victorian and there are airships. But it's not steampunk, because the machinery is powered by magic, rather than steam. And it's not really magicpunk, either - although the witches do use magic to challenge the societal status quo, especially the role of women in a Victorian society. Still, I'm not comfortable calling it -punk anything. So. It's a Victorian setting. Machinery is operated by magic. Mages form a critical portion of society, especially the civil service. Gerald, the hero of book one (and the Rogue Agent of the series title) has been recruited as a spy. His plot is the secondary plot, however, as Reg, Melisandre, and Bibby take center stage with their magical investigations agency, Witches Incorporated.

The tone of the novel is light - WI investigates the illegal use of magic to win a baking contest, for instance. That being said, I wouldn't call the book comedic - the material is too serious for that. Gerald wrestles with the responsibility his power entails, there is a short musing on the use of magical torture, and lots and lots of discussion of gender roles in society. So, the tone is light, but the material is dense. Some readers may well feel that this pairing is a little off-putting - even disrespectful, perhaps. It didn't bother me, though.

The pace is a little slow at the beginning, but it picks up towards the end of the book. The book has a solid resolution, while leaving enough material to finish the trilogy - Mills has pulled off an almost perfect middle book, in that you don't need to have read book 1, and there is no feeling that book 2 is incomplete. I think the fact that she shifts her primary characters helps a great deal with this.

I should also note that this was another Orbit publication - I really do like what they're printing right now!

Dave Duncan - When the Saints

Sequel to Speak to the Devil. Duncan picks up moments after the first book ends. The Magnus brothers are still besieged, magic is still in play, skull-duggery and politics are still taking place, the love is still triangular in nature - good stuff. Duncan, as usual, surprises by engaging in some very neat twists. In particular, as I was about midway through the book, it looked like the problems facing our heroes had largely been resolved, and I said to myself "what's the whole rest of this book about, then?" And that was when it became clear that the problems facing our heroes were much much larger than an invading army with a powerful new weapon. And, shortly thereafter, the book went from good to great, as is often the case with Duncan's writing.

If you like politics, especially the dark behind the scenes wheeling and dealing type, with a medieval/magical flavor, then this book is absolutely for you. (Although, you'll want to read the first book first - I think you could possibly skip it, but I wouldn't advise it) Duncan layers his political plots nicely, from the familial at the bottom, up through the politics of a small kingdom, and out into the broader political realm of Catholic dominated Europe, prior to the Reformation. As an interesting sideline, we also get a taste of politics among the secret conclave of mages. Lovely lovely stuff, all power and betrayal, and venal manipulators manipulating for their own gain, like they do.

Two complaints - Duncan's world building is great, but it felt a little tacked on in places. The magical society uses a lot of falconry metaphors - Duncan provides a glossary - but these metaphors (and the society itself) seem to appear from nowhere. Some hint in the first book would have been nice (possibly impossible on Duncan's part, but nice). Second, I wanted maps! There's a little historical note, but no maps.

Clearly, there will be a third novel, both because Duncan writes trilogies (he really knows how to work the form, in fact) and because there are many many loose ends that demand tying up. However, this book does have a solid and satisfying ending, and you won't feel cheated.

Baratunde Thurston - How to Be Black

I heard Thurston talk on NPR about this book, so when I saw it, I had to grab it. Thurston is a very funny man, formerly with the Onion, and professionally black. That is to say, Thurston trades on his racial identity for humor, and he does it very well.

This book is roughly 1/3 autobiography, 1/3 tongue in cheek advice book, and 1/3 stand-up comedy routine. Thurston has a small panel of blackness, including three black men, three black women, and one white guy from Toronto. They are all, also, very funny. Thurston's point (and it's a good point!) is that there is no one way to experience being black in the United States in the 21st century. More importantly, this shouldn't really need to be stated. And yet, popular culture (and society in general) tries to create the impression that there is only one way to "be black," one monolithic black experience. Thurston addresses this idea head on, has a lot of fun doing it, and weaves a somewhat poignant tale of a young black man growing up and becoming Baratunde Thurston. It's a good book, you should read it, even though it isn't February.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Monday Library Post, 8/27/2012

So, classes started today, which means that Monday has suddenly become fraught once again. So I'll be switching back to my school year schedule of library on Monday with reviews on Tuesday. Or, perhaps, Sunday? We shall see.

Two books this week:

Duane Swierczynski - Fun and Games

And out of work cop foils the plans of a group of assassins known for making their victims' deaths look like accidents. Looks gritty and pulpy.

Dave Zeltserman - Outsourced

A group of laid off computer guys plan and execute a heist. Ocean's 11 meets Office Space, perhaps. Anyway, heist/caper novel - I'm all over that.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Monday review, 8/20/2012

We're just back from the ball game. One of the summer reading programs my eldest daughter is/has been participating in gave us free ball tickets. We left during the 7th inning stretch - the visitors were up by one, and it looks as though they kept that lead and won the game. Still, it was a close thing. Not sure if that's because our team has improved since earlier this year, or if the visitors were just not very good...

Anyway, one book this week:

James Corey - Caliban's War

This is the sequel to Leviathan's Wake, the new space opera that Corey is working on. The scope is pretty sweeping - questions about the nature of humanity and the possibility of Empire in Space. The alien from the last book is still causing trouble - but it's not clear if the alien is causing trouble or if humans are using the alien to cause trouble. Which is an important distinction. I would not be at all surprised if the next book featured an attempt by the alien to initiate communication with humanity.

Anyway, I don't want to talk about that. I want to talk about the publisher, Orbit. Orbit is doing some VERY nice things recently - new authors and, in this case, a big risk. Big is the operative word here - this book, and Leviathan's Wake are both massive door stops of books. And Corey isn't an established author*, so there was no guarantee that Orbit could actually sell a massive doorstop of a book, let alone a series of them. Especially since the doorstops are in a sub-genre (space opera) which is, supposedly, not very popular right now. So, kudos to Orbit for taking a big risk on some big books. I think it's probably paid off for them.

It's certainly paid off for fans of sweeping novels with breathtaking descriptions of space craft, broad vistas of planets, and discussion of the complications of living in space. Also, politics, space marines, and giant freakin' alien/human hybrids flying through space without space craft. There's a lot for fans of those things to love in these books. Corey also packs a lot of humor into the books. Oh, and puke zombies - can't forget the puke zombies. They aren't as horrific as they were in the first book, but they're still there. Clearly, there's plenty of room for all manner of things in a doorstop of a book, and Corey takes full advantage.

Trigger warning - for parents of small children especially, this book is full of nightmare fodder. One of the major plot lines focuses on the abduction of a young girl. There are also some (false) accusations of child abuse midway through. So, consider yourself warned.

*Corey isn't exactly a new author, either. Corey is the pseudonym of a pair of authors, one of whom has published under his own name, and the other of whom is an assistant to George R.R. Martin (himself an author of doorstops). Still, I don't think that diminishes the risk that Orbit is taking here, so the kudos still stand.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Monday Review Post, 8/13/2012

Ok then. Two books. Or four, depending.

Lauren Willig - The Garden Intrigue

I love love love Willig, as I believe I have said previously. This is the most recent of the Pink Carnation books, and I think the series is actually coming to a conclusion. Willig's grad student framing character is struggling to finish her research, and we've returned to Paris. I think, probably, the next book will find love for the Pink Carnation herself, or perhaps the book after that. Unless Willig is going to push to the end of the Napoleonic War, in some romantic counterpoint to Sharpe's Rifles - that would be interesting as well, actually, but it would mean several more books, since she's only up to 1804. It would probably mean a radical shift in scene as well, perhaps, because the action would be in Spain and, ultimately, in Russia. Either way, it will be interesting to see where Willig goes next.

Willig's books continue to be delightfully well researched while remaining light and fluffy, and just a little zany. Her characters sparkle and snap. Her romances are a little formulaic, but not in a bad way. And, periodically (as in this one) they don't result in climactic sex, but conclude with passionate kissing - which is, of course, period accurate. I'll be sorry to see the end of the series, but also satisfied.

If you skip the framing narrative, I think you could safely start reading  the series here, but it won't be as much fun as if you start at the beginning. So you should start there.

Suzanne Collins - The Hunger Games Trilogy

I've been putting these off, but some friends bought the books, and my wife read them and insisted that I had to as well. I'm glad she did, they lived up to their hype, and were surprisingly meaty books for how quick they are to read.

If you've been living under a rock, you don't know about these books, so. Katniss Everdean lives in a post-apocalyptic world where The Capital rules over 12 regions of North American (Panem). Once a year, the Capital demands that the 12 regions send one boy and one girl between 12 and 18 to fight in the Hunger Games. This reminds the 12 regions of an attempted rebellion almost 100 years previous, and of the power that the Capital has over the regions. The last one surviving wins - they get to live a life of luxury for the rest of their lives, with enough food on a regular basis. They also get to train the "tribute" for the next year. Katniss volunteers to take the place of her 12 year old sister in the games - and that's the first book. In a fine nod to Chekov, Collins introduces a corrupt regime in the first book, which means it must fall by the end of the third book - if you don't see a rebellion building through the first book, I'm sorry, you've been reading the wrong sorts of books. So, book two gives us the beginning of the rebellion, and book three gives us the culmination. Other authors might have handled the rebellion in a little more detail, with a little more front line action - Collins focuses on Katniss (Katniss narrates), and Katniss is not allowed to serve as a front line fighter - too valuable as a symbol. Still, there's plenty of front line action.

Two things that Collins does very very well - world building, and realistic character outcomes. The nasty, brutish world that Collins creates is very well done. It is internally consistent, even if it's hard to see how we would get to there from where we are. Collins doesn't spend a lot of time worrying about that - these aren't intended to be a direct commentary on our current situation (although, there is a little of that there too). I liked the naming conventions, and I liked the way that the various regions interacted. I would have loved a little more description there - perhaps some narration from a different point of view - but that's not the way that Collins chose to write it, so.

The other thing I liked is that Collins' characters come out of their war badly damaged, physically and emotionally. This felt realistic - also depressing, but realistic. Collins shows, again, that there are things going on in YA fiction that simply aren't there in non YA genre fiction. These books have a very mixed ending - it's not a sad ending, but it's not really a happy ending either. I buy it. It works.

If you've been putting off reading these because you aren't sure if they live up to the hype - they do.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

A contest!

Ok. Contest! I need a copy of Dave Duncan's The Coming of Wisdom and The Destiny of the Sword. I have a signed copy of Moravi and a copy of The Hunt on CD. This suggests swapsies to me - one book for one book, or two books for both. But, rules:

1) You can't buy the Duncan from Amazon or ABE; you've got to find it in a physical store somewhere. Honor system, but if you want to include a photo of you buying the book(s), that's fine too.

2) You can't spend more than $5 on either book, and no more than $10 on both.

3) You may send me either or both books; the first person to send me either book gets to pick which book I send them in return.

4) No time limit - the contest is open until I have both books.

Saturday Post, 8/11/2012

                                           "Let me 'splain. No, is too much. Let me sum up..."

Ok. Two weeks of reading. I'll give you the highlights.

Dave Duncan - The Reluctant Swordsman

Wallie Smith enters a hospital here in our world, suffering from something brain related - a tumor? I forget. Anyway, he wakes up in a fantasy world, in the body of a barbarian swordsman. He is expected to do amazing things, because he is a seventh level swordsman - the best of the best. He is approached by a god, or a godlet (perhaps), who tells him that his job is to save the world...

In another author's hands, this book could have been mindless fluff. Duncan, however, does some amazing things here, and offers us a deeply philosophical text on the nature of free will. The pre-literate society that Wallie has found himself in is corrupt from the top down - and the top is the gods. Duncan gives us some delightful relationship parallels: Wallie and the gods (where Wallie is inferior and has no free will [at one point Wallie says something like, "what if I don't want to do what you want me to do?" and the godlet says "but you do want to do what we want you to do." and Wallie says, "yes, I do want to do that."]); Wallie and his apprentice (Wallie is superior due to skill, but the apprentice can be and is elevated to Wallie's level); Wallie and his love interest (she's a slave. Wallie is socially superior, but tells her she isn't a slave anymore. Does she have free will? Ahhhh. Wallie says she does, but she doesn't act as though she does - until she says "no" to Wallie, she is still acting as a slave, even if Wallie treats her nicely. IE, if Wallie wants her to eat dinner with him - elevating her to his social status - and she does it to please him rather than because she legitimately wants to, then she is still acting as a slave, even if she benefits from the exchange.) So, what does free will mean? And how do you save a world which is run by corrupt gods? Alas, unless I find the second and third books in some paperback sale somewhere, I'll never know - this is one of the few drawbacks of using a library.

Wait! A contest suggests itself! I'll make a separate post - watch this space.

John Scalzi - Redshirts

This book opens as a parody of classic Star Trek, shifts into a pastiche, and ultimately grows into it's own thing, a humorous yet deep musing on the nature of humanity, life, death, and (as with Duncan), free will. Unfortunately, I can't really say very much about the book without spoiling the plot twists that are a critical part of what makes the story great.

Here's what I can say. It's about a ship in the Universal Union - the starship Intrepid. Ensigns on board the ship have learned that when they serve on away teams with certain members of the command crew, their chances of survival are statistically very very low. A group of ensigns get together to figure out why, and what they can do about it.

There are some other things I can say about the book. One, I found it delightfully funny; biting in places, but over all a pleasure. However, I like Scalzi's style of dialogue and character description. If you don't, then you might find the book somewhat difficult to read. Two, the best best best part of the book is the short stories that serve as "codas" at the end of the book. There is more heart and character development per paragraph in the short stories than in the novel they are codas of (and there's a lot of heart and character development in the novel) But you can't read the stories without the context of the bigger novel. Still, Mr. Scalzi, in the unlikely instance that you are reading this, write more short stories!*

A last thing. I didn't like the very final twist - it felt a little cheap. Not enough to seriously affect my enjoyment of the novel, but still.

*A note on short stories. Charles DeLint suggested (somewhere, and I'm not going to hunt it down right now) that short stories are actually quite dangerous for authors. They take almost as long to write well as a novel, but they don't pay out nearly as well, and you need to accumulate several before you can actually do anything with them. And yet, sometimes you have no choice but to write them. Thus, DeLint contributes short stories to collections, and periodically he releases a collection of his own short stories - he does this for his own amusement. Still - more short stories! Everywhere!

Alex Bledsoe - The Hum and the Shiver

Speaking of Charles DeLint - this novel is reminiscent of DeLint's work. A truly amazing work of mythic fiction which mixes sweet with bitter, and offers a collection of really strong characters, centered on a powerful female character (which, you know, I love).

Bronwynn Hyatt returns to her tiny Tennessee town from Iraq with a badly injured leg and the adulation of a grateful nation. Hyatt is a hero, but she doesn't remember why - something to do with killing a bunch of Iraqis who were trying to kill her. (The structure of Hyatt's moment of heroism seems modeled on Pvt. Lynch) Anyway, that's not really central to the novel. Hyatt is a Tufa, a member of a secretive people which lives in the hills of the American South, and which is rumored to have certain powers.

The book is about coming home to a place you missed, and learning that you don't fit as well as you thought you might. It's about the duties of family, and about your identity within the family. The plot is a small one - no sweeping narratives about saving the world or foiling a grand scheme to kill the president or anything like that. Bronwynn struggles with herself, and with the petty powers in her local community. She falls in love, perhaps. She learns who she is, and how she fits into her world. And Bledsoe packs so much heart and character into the book that it feels like a much much larger work. Then, he wraps the whole thing up with mountain music so vibrant you can hear it - there's a lot to love about this book.

Trigger warnings, however - there are some scenes of violence that are a little raw; in particular a scene of animal cruelty. Also, there are some strong implications of rape, or at least rape ideation.

Harry Turtledove - Supervolcano: Eruption

Oh my god, this book was so awful! I'm a Turtledove fan, and I'm a fan of disaster novels, and neither of those things outweigh the fact that this was not a good book. How was it bad? Let me count the ways:

1) It's a book about the eruption of the supervolcano which is under Yellowstone National Park (an actual thing, I assure you). The title is pretty clear about that. And yet, for the first quarter of the book, characters wonder if the heroes are right about the possibility of the volcano erupting. That's right - the volcano doesn't erupt until nearly a quarter of the way through the book.
2) All of what happens before the volcano erupts is pretty banal. There are several descriptions of what Colin, one of the heroes, is eating for dinner. Nothing happens!
3) The eruption itself is somewhat anti-climactic. Almost all of the principle characters are well outside the danger zone. The two who are not escape fairly quickly. No long descriptions of devastation - everything is at a remove.
4) Speaking of which - there's a bit, about 3/4 of the way into the book, where Iran launches a nuke at Israel. The rationale is that since the American warheads are largely in the midwest, and since the midwest is covered by a heavy layer of volcanic ash and dead animals, the US can't retaliate in defense of Israel. Fair enough - a bit of a stretch, perhaps, and faulty logic on the part of the Iranians, because the Israeli's have nukes of their own, which they use. The problem is, this all takes place in a couple of paragraphs, is conveyed third-hand (a character watches a report on CNN about the event), and is Never Mentioned Again. A nuclear war. Well, skirmish. In the Middle East. Never mentioned again.
5) Most of what the characters do after the eruption is pretty banal as well. Nothing happens! I guess the point is that human beings basically keep on doing what they were doing - falling in love, getting married, having babies, playing music, taking classes - but the description of the book says this: "Those who survive find themselves caught in an apocalyptic catastrophe in which humanity has no choice but to rise from the ashes and recreate the world..." And there's none of that. There is no apocalyptic catastrophe (food shortages and extreme global cooling are beginning, but they are SLOOOOOW), and there is no rising from the ashes and recreating the world. Perhaps in later books? But I will never find out, because I have no desire to read later books.

There were a few scenes with real impact. There's a plane crash which was solidly well written. I liked the relationship between Colin and Kelly. That's about 50 pages, perhaps - a short story, maybe?

Ok. Those are the high (and low) points. I also read:

Andrew Blum - Tubes: A trip to the center of the Internet - interesting book, as much history as geography. A good way of looking at the infrastructure of the internet. A little dry - I took a break and read Redshirts.

Tanya Huff - The Heart of Valor - third book in the Valor's Confederation series. Good solid book, nice twists and some pleasant character development. A quick read.

Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer - Sorcery and Cecelia: Or the Magic Chocolate Pot - The first of Wrede and Stevermer's epistilary series. I've read them before, but there's a third book in the series that is new, and my wife agreed that we needed to re-read before advancing. This is a fun series; lots of little jokes. Wrede and Stevermer clearly had fun writing it, but the later books are better.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Tuesday post

My groove has been thrown off.This is mostly, if not entirely, my own fault. I have reviews almost ready to go, and I'll get them up asap, but asap might not be today. Sorry.
Beware the groove!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Library Post, 7/25/2012

Huh. I'm not sure why I didn't post yesterday.

Three books:

Dave Duncan: When The Saints

Sequel to Speak to the Devil - let's see what the Magnus brothers get up to next.

Tanya Huff: The Heart of Valor

Book 3 of the Confederacy of Valor. More space marines, yay!

Alex Bledsoe - The Hum and the Shiver

This time, I won't lose it under a chair until it's too late to read it before it's due date.

Ahh. That's why I didn't post yesterday - it wasn't a particularly exciting list.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Review post, 7/23/2012

It was a good week for reading. Unfortunately, most of the books I read were at least a little disappointing. Sometimes that's how things go.

Four books.

David Crystal - The Story of English in 100 Words

This is more or less what it says on the cover - a discussion of how English evolved as a language as illustrated by 100 separate words. Crystal writes about words, it is what he does, and I'm sure he does it very well. However, for much of this book, I found myself wanting more. The description of the various words, while often interesting and entertaining, left me wanting more - much more in several cases. A single example - the word "Alphabet" included two nuggets of information that didn't go far enough.  Nugget the first - the current construction of the alphabet is a fairly recent thing: the 16th century hornbooks which were used to teach children their letters were each a little different in the organisation of their letters.
A hornbook, which is neither a horn, nor a book.

 Nugget the second:  in 1817, the Trifler magazine published a poem by Alaric Watts which uses words beginning with all of the letters of the alphabet - one letters per line letter - except J, which was considered a subset of I. Fascinating stuff. But the entry doesn't say when the alphabet attained it's current configuration or when J became it's own letter - I am left wanting a little more. And this was fairly common throughout the work - the entries were witty, but I wanted just a little more. Also, it would have been nice to have been given a clear transition between words instead of the abrupt break that the dictionary format offered. I think the lesson here, as with the 100 most influential animal book I reviewed earlier (not by Crystal) is that 100 is the wrong number of things to use to classify all of a broad class of thing. Fewer things would allow for a deeper discussion of the broad class, and more things would force the presentation of the connections between the various things. Perhaps.

That being said, if you are interested in etymology, but don't really know where to start, perhaps this is a good book to do so.

A.J. Kazinski - The Last Good Man

People are dying all over the world. The deaths seem suspicious. They seem to have similar tattoos on their backs. A detective in Venice suspects a connection. He figures out the spacing between the deaths, both in terms of time and in terms of location, and figures that the next death will be in Venice or in Copenhagen. He also figures out that the people who are dying have one thing in common - they are all "good" people, people who seems naturally selfless. He contacts a counterpart in Copenhagen, who begins investigating. Neils Bentzon, the Danish police negotiator, decides that the people being killed are the 36 Righteous "Men". According to a story in the Talmud, there are 36 Righteous people in each generation who, as long as they are all alive, keep G-d from destroying the world. The 36 don't know who they are, but, Kazinski speculates, they must be naturally good people, inclined to give of themselves to their fellow human beings. If they are dying, this must be a bad thing. Bentzon sets out to stop the next death.

This book was a really big deal in Denmark in 2010. I can only conclude that the Danes have very peculiar literary tastes, because the book is something of a dog's breakfast, frankly. There are odd mathematics and unusual religious things sprinkled throughout. There's a tiny little subplot about out of body near death experiences that doesn't really seem to add anything to the overall work. Kazinski adds the twist that the Righteous 36 are physically connected to their "sector" of the globe (which corresponds, naturally enough, to a chunk of the pre-continental drift Pangeaic continent) and, if they travel beyond their "sector", they become ill. This is all a little messy, but manageable. I read Umberto Eco, after all. My big problem is that the novel really doesn't resolve well, at all. Does Bentzon get back together with his estranged wife, or does he stay with the estranged wife of a Danish mathematician who helps him out? Why were the 36 being killed? Kazinski suggests that this isn't the first time this has happened - is this a "natural" process? If so, does that mean that the murderer is God? Because, if so, the motive is "because I'm a big jerk," which is unsatisfying.

There's a lot of potentially good stuff in this mess of a novel. I'd love to find out that something was lost in translation. I fear that this is not the case. I suspect that it's just a disappointing novel.

Dave Duncan - Speak to the Devil

This one was NOT a disappointment at all. I love Duncan. His characters have such a vibrancy, and such compelling flaws - I just want to gobble these books up. I'll be grabbing book 2 at the library tomorrow.

Set in a fictitious middle-European country, in the late 18th century, this is the story of a family of cavaliers. These young men are known within their nation for their swordsmanship, for their loyalty, for their fearless recklessness, and for their tendency to "Speak" to voices. The Speakers claim that the voices are saints (the voices claim likewise). The Church claims that the voices are devils or the Devil. Hence the title.Either way, Speaking allows Speakers to have a profound and supernatural effect on their surroundings - it's magic, or its a miracle, but it tends to be big, and it tends to be noticeable.

Anton Magnus is asked by the chief adviser to the king of Jorgary to assume the command of a border fort, and to prevent an invasion from outside, possible aided by a Speaker. Anton's brother, Wolfgang, is, secretly (or, perhaps, not so secretly) a Speaker, and he agrees (reluctantly) to help. Anton and Wolfgang manage to get matters under control, but Wolfgang falls in love with the woman to whom Anton is supposed to get married, and things get delightfully complicated from there.

Duncan revels in twisting a plot and twisting a plot and twisting a plot until the reader isn't sure if the plot is coming or going. He likes to stab his characters in the back (although not quite as often or as roughly as George Martin, for instance - it's generally safe to become attached to Duncan's characters), and he likes to tweak historical settings just a little (he also likes to include an historical note, and you KNOW I like those). Duncan likes big heroic swashbuckling characters with huge glaring flaws and blind spots, and this book is no exception to this rule. Anton's view of Anton and the view that the rest of the world has about Anton are completely different, and the gap between these two views really provides the humor in this book.

So. It's a big, comic, tragic novel with swords and canons and love and betrayal and magic - delicious - but it doesn't really end solidly, which is the other reason I'll be getting book two tomorrow. So, not disappointed, but a little unsatisfied.

Stephen Segal, ed - Geek Wisdom

It's a cute concept - take a series of geeky quotes (from comics, movies, television, etc) and turn them into a system of wisdom - almost a religion, really. Segal and his co-writers do a pretty good job of expanding the various sayings into broader examinations of the world, and the role of the geek within the world. Again, as with Crystal's word book, I wanted a little more - a little more structure, perhaps, or a little more application. A little more glossing of the text. More discursive footnotes, maybe. It was a cute idea - it could have been expanded and turned into a great idea. I did, however, add The A-Team and Quantum Leap to my Netflix instant view queue. So, not a total loss.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Library Post, 7/17/2012

Friends, it is hot. It is miserably hot. Ok, I'm whining, I know it's hotter further south, but I moved north specifically to escape the hot, and clearly I didn't go far enough. But, you know who has free air conditioning? Libraries. Which is awesome. And, since Kid 1 is enrolled in three separate reading programs, we get to visit three libraries as week. Where there is air conditioning. Ahhhhh. Maybe, Thursday, we will go to a bookstore or something like that. Or swimming. Perhaps swimming. We shall see.

Anyway, three books this week:

Andrew Blum - Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet

Blum travels to the places around the world where the physical components that make up the internet exist. This could be interesting, it could be dreadfully dull - we'll find out!

John Scalzi - Redshirts

This is trending hot right now, Scalzi has just finished a book promo tour, including a spot on National Public Radio. His premise - what if we told a Star Trek-esque story entirely from the point of view of those hapless redshirts who we all know will die before the end of the episode? And, what if they KNEW they were redshirts? And, what if the fate of the universe hinged on the redshirts being the heroes? I'm really looking forward to this one.

Brandon Sanderson - Mistborn

This has been recommended to me several times, and it probably reflects a serious gap in my genre knowledge. The sequels looks delightfully steampunk, so I hunted down the first one. It looks hefty, but that's never stopped me before.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Monday Reviews, 7/16/2012

Bob Tarte - Kitty Cornered

People who read non-fiction books about other people living with animals have, I think, a right to expect certain things. They should expect some humorous stories about the animals in question acting in odd ways. They should expect some humorous stories about the people in question acting in odd ways. They should expect at least one trip to a veterinarian. They should expect at least one point at which it is not clear if (one of) the animal(s) in question will survive to the end of the book, which should be resolved quickly. If that point comes early in the book, probably the animal will live - if later, probably not. Unless the book is about struggling to nurse an injured animal back to health, in which case the resolution will take some time, and could still easily go either way. Some lesson should be drawn about human nature, based on the interaction between the animal(s) and the human. If that is what you are expecting from Bob Tarte's book, you will almost certainly be satisfied. The humor is a little dry, and it took me a bit to tune into it, but otherwise, Tarte hits all of the high points in the check list.

I should also say that Tarte's story feels very true, and it should feel true to any other cat people. He has five cats; we have three, but the differences are a matter of scale rather than type. Cat people are a little crazy about their cats. For instance, we struggle with their independence while considering that to be a feature. We keep the cat which lives under the bed, even though said cat doesn't actually DO any of the things that make cats pleasant - sit on your lap, for instance, or purr nicely. When my 15 pound beast of a cat flops on my lap in the 90 degree living room, I accept that as affection. Tarte describes life with cats. It will be familiar to others who have experienced life with cats. Again, if that's what you are looking for when you open the book, you won't have any problems.

In conclusion, a picture of my cat:

Ally Carter - Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy

The second of the Gallagher Girl novels. Girls' boarding school. Spies. Boys. The interaction of these three things. A delightful, if somewhat fluffy, novel - highly enjoyed. I do wonder, however, if all of the novels will end with what initially seems to be a "mission", but which turns out to be something else - I hope not, that would get predictable pretty quick.

I really like Carter's use of idiom; the way her teen characters talk is amusing, and feels authentic. I also like the way that the girls switch, effortlessly, between teen and spy in their outlook on life, and how the two outlooks often overlap - getting the kiss and getting the documents that will bring down an enemy government - equally important in the minds of the characters. Again, that feels authentic.

Isabel Cooper - Lessons After Dark

At least one of the purchasing agents at my local library shares my taste in books. (Actually, since I know that the children and teens librarian is a big fan of graphic novels, and that she often buys the sort of thing I like to read in that vein, there are probably two purchasing agents who share my tastes). This is the sequel to No Proper Lady, and it is really fun.

One of the problems that an author runs into when writing a sequel is where to place the emphasis. Obviously, you want to include the characters from the first book, because otherwise it isn't a sequel - what's the point? And yet (and this is especially true in a romance novel like this one), those characters have already had their story. You can't make them fall in lust/love/bed again, and expect it to work on the same level. So, sometimes its the siblings, or the best friend, or, in this case, the teachers who the characters have hired to train the magically empowered students at their manor house. That's right - this book is X-Men meets Harry Potter - a school for "gifted" students (in the country side of England), where the "gifts" in question are magical in nature. Olivia Brightmore is hired to teach ritual magic, and Gareth St. John has been hired as a school doctor - magic often results in injuries, and St.John has the added bonus of being magically gifted himself.

Plot wise, this one takes a little while to get going - the antagonist is a little nebulous, and so the external conflict doesn't really arise until the last 1/3 or 1/4 of the book. Which is fine, because this is a romance novel, and the tension we, the readers, are really interested in is the sexual tension between the two leads.  This book has sexual tension to spare. Olivia is a widow, St.John suspects that she's a con artist, there's mutual attraction, and mutual distrust (hard to trust a man who seems intent on exposing you as a fraud) - it's good stuff. Also, Cooper writes a very sex positive romance novel - Brightmore is a widow; she's not a stranger to sex, she knows what she likes, and she doesn't feel guilty about getting it. St. John doesn't trust Brightmore, but he also doesn't think less of her for the fact that she enjoys sex - no shrinking virgins or rape fantasies here, nicely done. Additionally, Cooper avoids the over use of the word "cock" in this book, without resorting to the absurdities of euphemisms that are so common in romance - "his tenderness", "her flower", etc etc. No, there are no vulgarities either. Also well done.

When the plot DOES pick up, it picks up in a big way. There are ghosts, and a demon, and maybe another demon, and curses, and Jack the Ripper makes a cameo appearance (well, ok, there's a mention of the Ripper murders, because it gets Mr. and Mrs. Grenville out of the house at an appropriate moment - Jack doesn't really play a role in this novel) - all sorts of good stuff, in terms of plot.

So. A good romance, a good paranormal story, some good regency stuff - lovely. Can't wait for book 3 - I'm expecting, as possible romantic main characters, either Miss Grenville, (sister of the male lead in book 1 - she's away on the Continent in this book, which means that book 3 could be concurrent, which would be fun), Miss Charlotte Woodwell (she talks to the animals), or possibly Michael Waite (he makes it rain) and either Miss Elizabeth or Miss Rosemary Talbot (daughters of the vicar who lives down the road). Hmmm. Lots of potential for sequels - the anticipation!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Library Post, 7/11/2012

For those of you sufficiently blessed to have access to a 7-11, I hope you got your free Slurpie today. We, alas, are not so blessed. :(

So, I did go to the library yesterday. It was a whirlwind trip, because Kid 1 has camp until 4, and Kid 2 had a doctor's appointment at 5:30 (just a routine checkup), and it takes a certain amount of time to get from camp to the library and etc. Anyway, I didn't get any books yesterday. However, Kid 1 is also enrolled in three separate library summer reading programs - the joys of homeschooling! - which means we need to visit three different libraries over the course of the week in order to enter things and fill out things and get books so she can meet her reading quotas and such. So, today, I got two books:

Daniel Abraham - The Dragon's Path

This could easily be pretty straightforward epic fantasy, but one of the characters works for a bank smuggling gold from both sides of a conflict. That, alone, is enough to intrigue me - if the economics and politics are good, the book will be worth reading. If not, I probably won't finish it. We shall see.

Ha-Joon Chang - 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism

Speaking of economics... Chang is an economist at the University of Cambridge. This book purports to explain why the current economic muddle is the way it is and how to fix it. Chang espouses a regulated capitalism, which means much of this will be preaching to the choir for me - I'm hoping the book will rise about "talking points for refuting idiots on the internet", especially since Kathryn Shulz suggests that arguing with people who are wrong on the internet is probably not all that useful.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Reviews, 7/10/2012

Kid 1 is in camp this week, so I'm at home with Kid 2. This doesn't explain or excuse not posting yesterday, I'm just saying.

Anyway, two books:

Kathryn Shulz - Being Wrong

A brilliant book. We are all wrong. Some of us are wrong more often than others, but none of us are infallible. This book looks at why that is, and then discusses why we think this is a bad thing, and finally explains why we're wrong to feel that being wrong is a bad thing.

Shulz writes in a breezy conversational style, using lots of footnotes-as-asides, and packing a lot of fascinating stuff into the endnotes for foks who want the story but not the details. This makes the book easily accessible to the layman, but also satisfying to the slightly more discerning reader.

Shulz opens each chapter with a short story of someone being wrong, and then she unpacks the story to illustrate her broader point in the chapter. This contributes to the conversational style - almost like a cocktail party, where the quirky story opens some more generalized discussion. When things sag a bit, Schulz sneaks in another quirky story, and peps things up. This is altogether delightful.

Shulz's argument goes like this: We are all wrong, often. We cannot know when we are wrong, we can only know when we have been corrected - it is logically false to say "I am wrong," because once we recognize that the thing we were saying was wrong, we are no longer wrong. We are wrong because our senses fool us, because our brains work in a particular way, because our society has convinced us of certain things, because we want to fit in with our friends, because our views about ourselves, the universe, and our position within the universe change as we age. We think this is a bad thing because society has taught us that, and because being corrected feels bad. But, out of wrongness comes art and science and progress and all things that make us human - animals are never wrong, because their brains don't work that way. So, we should embrace our wrongness, because it is the way that we express our humanity. This is a remarkably freeing philosophy, and Shulz presents it compellingly. This book should be required reading.

David Kowalski - The Company of the Dead

Wow. This was a really good book, and a surprisingly quick read. Kowalski is playing with the very idea of alt-history by focusing on the world that a minor change in history creates, and on efforts to fix that minor change. It's a time travel novel, which means lots and lots of paradox and plot twists that I'll try very hard not to give away. Someone from now, through accidental use of a time machine, ends up in 1911, and decides to fix things, starting with saving the Titanic. This results in an entirely new world which Kowalski unfolds deliciously over nearly 800 pages. In the new world, the US didn't enter WWI, so Germany won. Shortly thereafter, Texas secedes, and takes many of the Southern states along for the ride. This time, the Union doesn't intervene, because (as one of the characters muses) they don't think they can win. By 1999, Imperial Germany and Imperial Japan are the two big superpowers, with Russia loosely allied to Germany, along with France, England, and the Confederacy. The Union is partially occupied by Japan, which is loosely allied with Imperial Mexico. There's a map, which is actually kinda helpful. When a diary of the original time traveler turns up, a group of Confederate spies decide to go back and fix what he changed, because the situation in alt-1999 is hugely unstable.

The book is action packed, with aerial combat, giant floating balloons (not quite steampunk - diesel punk, perhaps? History-Punk, maybe), tanks, spies, secret plots within plots, backstabbing, atomic bombs - all manner of juicy good stuff. The military fiction stuff is outside of the control of the protagonists, so none of the whole top down, bottom up stuff that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago - an elegant solution. A satisfying spy story, and, as I said, lots and lots and lots of lovely twists in the plot of the sort that only time travel can allow. The action continues at a breathless pace throughout the novel, right up to the very end, which satisfies completely. A marvelous first book, recommended without reservation - except, what on earth can Kowalski do to follow up?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Welcome to New People

So, Pamela Ribon linked to my review of her book earlier this week, which is a surprisingly decent thing of her to do. And, according to my stats, some people have wandered over from her link, which is also a surprisingly decent thing for them to do. So, I'm reprising my Welcome post for them:

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 just visible on the right of the post) 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.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Kindle INDIEpendance giveaway

A consortium of indie publishers is again promoting their authors by giving away a Kindle Fire. I kinda want a Kindle Fire, so I've entered. I'm wary of letting you all know about it, because I really want the Kindle, but here's the link:

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Library Tuesday, 7/3/2012

Four books from the library this week. I must say, I wasn't sure if I was going to make it to the library today for more than dropping off books that were due back*, because of Reasons. But I did.

Carol Carr - India Black and the Widow of Windsor

I enjoyed the first one, so when I saw this, the second one, I grabbed it.

N.K. Jemison - The Broken Kingdoms

Sequel to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which I enjoyed. I was concerned, because I don't really remember what happened in the first book, but this starts in such a different place, with totally different characters, so I had no concerns after looking at the first chapter or so.

Dave Duncan - Speak to the Devil

The sequel to this (When the Saints) was on the new book shelf. I like Duncan - his books are worth chasing through the library system - but I don't think of him unless I see one of his books. Anyway, he specializes in swashbuckling books about sword fighting types. Very Scaramouche or Captain Blood, or Three Musketeers, but without the historical overtones. This one is magic and swords and mayhem in Europe. Sort of.

Dave Duncan - The Reluctant Swordsman

I like Duncan, did I mention that? So I thought I'd see if the library had the beginning of one of his other serieses, and sure enough, there was this one. A man from our world finds himself in another world, where he is, apparently, a long awaited sword wielding hero. The opening page is the man's obituary (from here), and it states that he went to high school in Binghamton, NY (which is where I am right now), which clinched it. (Duncan didn't, so it's a totally odd bit of character trivia, really.)

*I had a footnote. It was supposed to go here. Ahem.
One of the books I had to take back was The Hum and the Shiver, which I really wanted to read, but it got lost under a chair. This happens, and I will probably check it out a second time.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Monday Review, 7/2/2012

Three books this week:

Christopher Fowler - The Memory of Blood

Trigger warning: death of an infant

The most recent of Fowler's Peculiar Crimes Unit novels. Bryant and May, antique detectives, are at it again. A suspicious death of an infant leads the PCU into a web of theatrical murders that seems, somehow, to be linked to the Punch and Judy story. Are the murders being done by animated puppets, as Bryant seems to suspect? Or is there a logical answer, as May tends to be inclined to believe? Does Bryant actually believe the odd theories he espouses? That's a much bigger mystery.

So, in his author's note, Fowler states that the books are designed to be read completely individually - that you should not need to have read any of the other books in order for this one to make sense. This is, I think, largely true. He does include a helpful cheat sheet at the beginning of this one, in the form of an internal British Government memo about how the unit might be unraveled. This is helpful, since it allows the reader to place all of the major players in the unit, even if they haven't read any of the earlier works.

The books are fairly straightforward police procedural novels, with members of the unit tracking down criminals through a process of interviews and footwork. There are two twists. First, the PCU handles crimes which are odd, or officially sensitive, and often both. Thus, their hands are sometimes tied by the government, and sometimes the crimes are difficult to unravel because of the trappings. Second, Bryant seems inclined* to believe the oddest elements of the crime to be true (ie, maybe Punch climbed off his hook and killed the infant) while May is much more solid and down to earth. It's a Mulder and Scully relationship, except that Scully is generally right.

*Bryant would argue that he is merely willing to entertain the possibility of oddness in order to get to the mundane core of the crime. However, it's fairly clear that Bryant actually loves the weird stuff, and wishes the mundane aspects would just go away.

Solidly entertaining and twisty enough to satisfy. Fowler flirts with some of the bad stuff I've mentioned about the genre before - notably the revealing the killer to the audience thing - but pulls it off in the end, so kudos. I will say that it looks like the next novel is clearly set up by this one, and so you may want to read this one before that one. But I could easily be wrong.

Pamela Ribon - You Take it From Here

This arrived in my mailbox about a month ago, from Rare Bird Lit ( which is a publishing PR firm based in LA and New York City. I'm pretty sure I signed up for something - I've received three books from them over the past month - but this one came in first, so.

This is outside of the stuff I usually choose for myself, which is, of course, entirely the point of having people and PR firms send me books, right? This book is - I'm going to type the dread words - chick lit. And there's nothing wrong with that. I'm going to say, right up front here, it's well written, the characters are entertaining, and it made me sniffle, just a little.

Ok. Details. Danielle Meyers runs an odd little business in Los Angeles - she tells people how to better organize their houses and their lives so that everything is more efficient and happy. It's a very 21st century kind of business. Smidge Cooperton is Meyers' best friend, from Ogden, Louisiana, where they both grew up. Smidge and Danielle have been taking annual vacations for years. This year, Smidge takes Danielle out into the middle of nowhere to reveal that her (Smidge's) lung cancer has returned, that she doesn't plan to treat it this time, and that she wants Danielle to ensure that Smidge's husband doesn't go crazy and that Smidge's daughter grows up pretty good. The bulk of the book is Smidge trying to mold Danielle into a Smidge shaped object, without telling husband or daughter what's going on.

What I liked:
The characters were snappy. Smidge is a bully, but her bullying is softened by the whole dying of cancer thing - I don't think she would be as palatable under other circumstances. Danielle is a little bewildered, and inclined to allow herself to be bullied, which would be annoying under other circumstances, but understandable here. The book doesn't end exactly as I thought it might, but the ending is satisfying. The writing is good, Ribon has a quirky sense of language and uses it to good advantage. There's a touch of the Bloggess there, almost.

What I didn't like:
The book is framed as a letter to Jenny Cooperton, Smidge's daughter, at some point after the events of the novel. For the most part, this is ignorable - the book is written in first person present, which works for this style of novel - but sometimes it broke my suspension of disbelief. Danielle remembers the events with shocking clarity, given the length of time between the events and the letter (unless she wrote the letter as the events unfolded, which is not indicated at all), and she seems to expect that Jenny will remember details as well. Ok, Mom/best friend dying of cancer - that I can believe you would remember. Details about what you were wearing over the course of the several months around the critical event - I'm not buying it. The frame didn't work. Also, I'm not sure why it mattered that the town in question was Ogden, Louisiana. It could easily have been Ogden, Alabama, or Ogden, Texas, or Ogden, New Mexico, and had the same effect - generic Southern town. That bugged me, a little.

A good summer read, pack some tissues if Steel Magnolias made you bawl. My copy is promised to someone else, but I'll make sure to do some sort of giveaway for later free and ARC books - possibly just a "say you want the book, and I'll send it to you" - we shall see.

Carol Carr - India Black

A lovely first novel about India Black, Victorian madam of the Lotus House, a mid-range whore house in London. A high ranking member of the British government keels over with one of India's whores. As India attempts to rid herself of the body, she ends up involved in some dicey espionage vis a vis the Russians, who want some of the documents in said high ranking official's possession.

A good spy story (not, as the subtitle suggests, a mystery at all), with some memorable characters (who will almost certainly be reoccurring) and a delightful taste of Victorian London, with all of it's Dickensian sordidness and byzantine politics. For a novel set in a whore house, there was almost no sex at all, two brief and very tasteful descriptions. India opens the novel by explaining that if the reader wanted to read about sex, there are other books available. The back matter specifically states that India and French have to struggle with their attraction to each other - bollocks. Maybe in book two. Other than that, a rollicking good read, highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Library Post, 6/26/2012

Two books this week:

David J. Kowalski - The Company of the Dead

This is a monster of a book - 750 pages - the sort of book you don't want to drop on your foot, even though it's a paperback. It's an alt-history. The back matter looks intriguing. In March 1912, a man saves Titanic, which prevents the US from entering WWI. In April, 2012, the grand-nephew of John F. Kennedy lives in occupied United States - Germans on the East Coast, Japanese on the West - and might be able to "fix" history. I'm a sucker for this sort of thing, but it really is a monster of a book. I hope it's the sort of book that goes quickly.

Stephen Segal - Geek Wisdom: The Sacred Teachings of Nerd Culture

Segal argues that the geek subculture has the trappings of religion, and sets out to unpack some of the iconic quotations which geeks revel in, presenting them as wise sayings about how one ought to live one's life. Which is interesting enough for me to flip through.

Monday Reviews, so late it's Tuesday, 6/26/2012

I could have written this last night. I should have written this last night. I did not, and so I am writing it now.

Two books completed last week, but one of them was an omnibus, so, technically, three books completed last week.

Stephen Platt - Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom

This is a fairly dense history of what Platt describes as the Taiping Civil War, but what is more traditionally referred to as the Taiping Rebellion. In the early 1850s, Hong Xiuquan began preaching a highly ideosyncratic version of Christianity in southern China, which led to an uprising against the Manchurian  Qing Dynasty which resulted in the Taiping capture of the city of Nanjing, and a decade and a half of civil war in China. Ultimately, the British (and some Americans) intervened on behalf of the Qing Emperor and the Taiping were defeated.

Platt, as an historian, has an interesting thesis. Other historians addressing the Taiping tend to focus on a couple of aspects of the war.  Chinese Communist historians have tended to view the Taiping as early Communist rebels, which, Platt (and others) argue they certainly were not. Many Western historians have focused on the role played by Europeans in the uprising, contending either that the British intervention was definitive in the defeat of the Taiping, or irrelevant. Platt argues that the British intervention was neither definitive nor irrelevant - that it certainly tipped the scales in the favor of the Qing reaction to the Taiping, but that it wasn't the primary reason that the Taiping were defeated.  Platt also contends that the British intervention tells us more about the British in the 1850s and '60s than it does about the Taiping.

The fact that the period is, as I said, generally referred to as a Rebellion is telling - Platt contends (and shows with some authority) that it is better understood as a civil war, and compares it to the US Civil War, which, of course, took place during the same general time period. The Taiping were ultimately defeated in 1864, and the Confederacy were defeated in 1865. The fact that Britain intervened in a Chinese civil war and not in the American civil war is, to Platt, highly significant.

So, reading as an historian, this was a very good book - an new approach to an exciting period in Chinese history, with copious footnotes, and a rigorously defended argument. Students of Chinese history will almost certainly find this on reading lists in the next couple of years, and that is somewhere it deserves to be.

As a reader, Platt was a little dense. The book is only 364 pages long (plus footnotes and an index), but the writing is complex and the pacing is slow. Graduate students will gut this book - a lay reader might find it slow going. I think the book is compelling enough, with strong historical figures and exciting battles (both military and political), that it will hold the attention of an interested non-historian. Still, you're going to want to take your time, I suspect.

I think there are very interesting parallels between the Taiping Civil War and current US military interventions. Platt doesn't directly address the connections, but his broader argument is that outside interference can, at best, prolong the chaos of a civil war. At worst, outsiders can prop up a government which really ought to collapse.

Final thoughts - as I've said of other books, the section of pictures adds almost nothing, and could easily be replaced by several maps, of which there are never enough. I'm coming to believe that this is an endemic failure of historical publications - there are never enough maps, and the pictures are rarely useful. They never show things that I want to see, and tend to break up the flow of the book. I suspect it's a publishing decision rather than a decision by the author.

Tanya Huff - A Confederation of Valor

This is an omnibus of Huff's first two "Valor" books - Valor's Choice and The Better Part of Valor.  These are pretty solid mil-fic. This provided an interesting contrast to Platt.  Platt was writing military history (military/social history, really), which tends to have a top down approach.  It's easy to research what the Hong Rengan and Zeng Guofan's of the world are doing, much harder to research what the soldiers under their command are up to.  Huff, as is common in military fiction, focuses on the individual soldiers at the bottom of the command structure.  Her heroine, Tarin, is a staff sergeant in the Confederation Marines, the ground troops which (in the distant future, in space) protect the Confederation from the Others. So, space marines.

The common problem with a bottom up focus is that mil fic tends to run into a situation where the grunt is always right and the officer is always wrong. Sometimes this is shown to be a perspective thing - from the soldier's point of view, this is correct, but a bigger picture shows that the officers actually have some idea of what's going on. Often, though, the tone of the book tends to suggest that, once promoted past Lieutenant, all officers take leave of their senses and, for lack of a better word, humanity. Huff walks the line between these two elements - sometimes she dips a little too deeply into the "Army would run better without officers" camp.

Huff has some interesting races involved, but she isn't as good at space aliens as Cherryh is, so there is a "human, but with a tail" feel. Also, she plays with the "most of the Confederation is totally pacifistic, they need the humans to fight their battles, because humans are inherently violent" trope - a trope which I really don't like very much.

All of that aside, I love Huff's characters. These books were a delight to read, because Huff played, quite consciously, with a lot of other military fiction tropes - the "I've only got two months left in service guys!" thing, and the "the nice guy gets killed" thing, among others. Huff is having fun with what she's writing, and that comes through - it's not hard for her readers to have fun with what she has written. Consequently, the books have heart. There are funny bits. There are sad bits. Despite the significant flaws, the books transcend, and are well worth taking a look. Also, look for the author shout-outs to Cory Doctorow and Julie Czerneda (there's a word for this [where the author names a character after someone as an homage], and I can't find it right now - if you know what it is, drop it in the comments). Tuckerization! Thanks, Beth!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Tuesday Library Post 6/19/2012

Two books this week:

Bob Tarte - Kitty Cornered

A book about having cats in the house, but the author of Enslaved by Ducks. I have cats, and books about cats are often funny.

Kathryn Schulz - Being Wrong

A book about being wrong, and why we need to be wrong in order to make any progress socially and scientifically. It played a big role in the sermon on Sunday.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Monday Review, 6/18/2012

If I don't write this now, there is a good chance it won't get written today, so I'm going to write it now, even though it would probably be improved by having a little bit more time to write than I have now.

I have finished one book this week.

Christopher Buckley - They Eat Puppies, Don't They?

A darkish satire about the interactions between lobbyists, defense contractors, and the US government. Walter "Bird" MacIntyre is hired by a defense contractor to drum up a war scare with China in order to convince Congress to approve spending on a new unmanned drone. MacIntyre does so, with the assistance of Angel Templeton, who works for the Institute for Continuing Conflict.

If you already like Christopher Buckley, you will probably enjoy this book. It has the usual selection of zany characters and snark about politics as usual in Washington. Buckley contends that a satirist must, on some level, love the thing si is satirizing, and perhaps that explains the mildness here - Buckley loves Washington politics as usual, and doesn't really want to see it change, even while recognizing that it needs to change, but if it changed he wouldn't have anything write about, so he writes his satire in such a way that it doesn't cause change. I don't know if that's fair - I just think the book could have been sharper. Perhaps the barbs are somewhat misdirected? Maybe Buckley isn't really interested in skewering. Perhaps he is too sympathetic to the lobbyists and the phony institutes. At any rate, if you don't already like Christopher Buckley, this is, perhaps, not the place to start reading. Thank You for Smoking has more bite and Little Green Men has zanier characters - either of those would be better.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Signal Boosting a call for assistance

A couple of months ago, I reviewed Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon, which was amazing, and you should (if you haven't already) read it. Or read it again. Today, he posted this:

You should go and take a look.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Tuesday Library Post: 6/12/2012

Three books this week:

A.J. Kazinski - The Last Good Man

Someone is murdering the 36 Righteous People, who, according to Jewish legend, keep G-d from destroying the world. This is a fascinating piece of Jewish legend that I've encountered before, but not as a murder mystery/police procedural. Could be very good!

Janice Cantore - Accused

More police procedural, and, possibly, romance? Cantore is a former police officer, using her experience to write novels - that can result in good books full of a high level of realism, or it can result in crappy books full of jargon - we shall see.

Ally Carter - Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy

More boarding school spy fiction! I heart Ally Carter. Umm, in a purely platonic way, as a reader for an author.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Monday Reviews, 6/10/2012

Four books this week:

Robert T. Jeschonek - My Favorite Band Does Not Exist - DNF. 1) The author was trying too hard to be meta. There were three stories - the main story about a boy on the run, the secondary story about a fake band that he made up on the internet (to amuse himself? Perhaps?), and a tertiary story, a fantasy novel that the lead singer of the band and the boy on the run are both reading. Presumably these three stories would eventually mesh, but I didn't care about any of the three enough to find out. 2) Every Single Character had a stupid name. And a quirky schtich. It got very tiresome. 3) One of the stories within a story featured too cute renamings of months and states - Pensyltucky and such. The whole thing was just too too tedious, and so I gave up on it, less than half way through.

Thomas Frank - Pity the Billionaire - A screed, as I predicted. Franks is entertaining, but he slants his facts to suit his bias. For instance, in the first chapter he suggests that the current obsession with fiscal austerity in the midst of an economic downturn is the first time the US government has been obsessed with balance the budget during a Depression since Hoover. But FDR pushed for a balanced budget, both in his campaign against Hoover, and through his first two terms in office - he almost derailed the New Deal recovery as a result. Franks also over estimates the power of the president to effect change, especially at the legislative level. Look - it's absurd to compare Obama to Hoover, because he clearly isn't. I'm not saying we didn't need an FDR 4 years ago (or now; now would be good too), but what we got was Truman - he means well, he talks a really good game, but he's hampered by a hostile Congress and a desire to play by "the rules". The Skocpol and Williams I reviewed last week did a much better job of explaining the Tea Party, and Franks presented really the most basic and surface-y presentation of the current political situation otherwise. Still, it was a fun read, and sometimes you just want to feel angry and connected.

Michael Thomas Ford - Jane Vows Revenge - A romp. The third in the Jane Austen as vampire series. This features a whirlwind trip through the architectural highlights of Europe, a murder deliberately reminiscent of Agatha Christie, and some remarkably tender moments as Jane struggles with her sense of identity as a vampire, as a potential wife, and as Jane Austen, vampire. (I think it's clear that "identity" is the theme for this summer's reading list - I swear I'm not picking them out on purpose! It's like the arrow in the FedEx logo, seriously.) Possibly a conclusion to the trilogy, but there are enough loose ends (satisfying, but loose) that there could easily be future books in the series. I would not be unhappy either way - a strong and satisfying ending to the book, if not the series. I would have liked a historical note, though - Ford has a running theme of Jane remembering when she first visited these places, and meeting people who remember her, or seeing photos of herself - some notes on the actual events would be nice.

Andrew Fukada - The Hunt - Audio Book. This was very interesting. After my review a couple of weeks ago of the Sherlock Holmes, I was offered this book to review. I accepted, and it arrived in the mail promptly (like, the next day, which was a little freaky). Consider this full disclosure - I did receive a copy of the audio book from the publisher.

Let's dive in, shall we? The premise - vampires have overrun the world. Humans live either in farms maintained by vampires or in strictly maintained secrecy among the vampires. Apparently, vampires can't tell that you're a human if you are very very careful about personal cleanliness and such. Actually, though, humans don't live in farms anymore, because they've been eaten - delicacies eaten to extinction. So the only humans still kicking around at the beginning of the book are those living in carefully controlled hiding. Gene is one of these humans (they are called heepers or heapers - audio books have certain limitations in this regard - throughout the book - why is never revealed). His family has been gone since he was in his early teens - his dad was the last one to die. Gene maintains a facade that he is a vampire (a person, as they are described throughout) One day, the king of the vampires announces a hunt - there IS a small group of heepers still maintained in carefully controlled captivity, and a carefully selected group will be given the honor of hunting them down and eating them - how exciting! The hunters will be chosen by lottery. Naturally, Gene is selected, or else there is no plot.

Gene and a group of other vampires are sent out to the Heeper Institute, where they will have a week of training, followed by a hunt which is expected to last two or three hours. The heepers will be released at dawn, the hunters will be released at dusk, and the fun will ensue. Gene must figure out how to hide who he is and survive the experience, since he clearly can't hunt with the vampires.

Things I liked:
1) Fukada did a really nice job of world-building. He doesn't come right out and say that the vampires represent an apocalypse, but he crafts a post-apocalyptic world around them, in which technology is declining, and population is declining. Everything is described from Gene's limited point of view, and Gene knows almost nothing about the world outside of his limited experience - this was really well done. I especially liked the idea that vampires express themselves differently - they do not laugh, for instance. Instead, when they are amused, their wrists itch, and so they scratch them. "Necking" is done by putting one's elbow into one's mate's arm pit - odd, but consistent. Good stuff.
2) The use of humans as a metaphor for oppressed minority groups "passing" in the dominant society. Is Gene gay in a modern high school, pretending to be straight? Is he black in the 1950s, pretending to be white? Fukada plays this to the hilt - the physical aspects of "passing", but also the mental gymnastics - pretending to hate the very thing you are, until you start to actually hate the thing you are. This was also really well done.
3) A very minor thing, re: the audio-book-ness of the book - I liked that the narrator sounded like he was wearing false fangs as he read. Added a certain something.

Those things kept me from giving up, because the things I did not like were:
1) The gratuitous descriptions of vampires eating animal flesh. Lots of blood, lots of saliva, lots of messy adjectives - the first time, ok, that's setting. Repeated descriptions - a little gross.
2) Equally gross scenes of vampires dying in sunlight - flesh and eyeballs melting - the whole description just becoming too much, and taking too long - becoming icky, and then becoming absurd, and then becoming icky again. Yergh.
3) Gene is described as smart, but written as a moron. This, more than anything else, bugged the crap out of me. I suppose he was smart in comparison to the vampires, who are highly evolved physically at the expense of their intellect, but still - it took the boy FOREVER to figure out basic clues, and he kept wandering off to do other things rather than investigate basic things which were placed Right In Front of him. Gah. At points, I yelled at the book, which is never a good sign.
4) This is, I think, a peculiarity of the audio genre, but the pacing was very slow. I think, were I to have been reading the book myself, this wouldn't have bugged me, but action scenes took forEVER - lots and lots of monologueing, not enough doing. If it were on the page, it would have been a page turner, but when you read aloud, everything slows down - because you have to process the material and then translate it into speech, and then the audience has to process the material again. This made the last two discs of the book agonizing, because there was a lot of action - chasing, and fighting, and running, and escaping and such.

Finally, the book ends without a satisfying conclusion. There will be a sequel - this is not a case of loose ends, this is a solid case of cliff hanger. I do want to find out what happens with Gene, but I think it's good that I will have to wait for the sequel - I need time to recover from the vampire feeding and dying scenes.