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Vacation Reading

I reread In the Garden of Iden (Kage Baker) (1997) in the run-up to vacation, because sometimes what you really need is some slapstick with tragedy. It's been... a decade? More than a decade? Since I originally read this, so I'd forgotten some of the set pieces: the "unicorn", the Christmas celebration, the dubious consequences of Sir Walter's deal with the Company. Iden has most elements of the Company series, in a nutshell, including that pompous git Mendoza's boyfriend. It's so good! The writing is fluid and smart and funny and the plot flows together wonderfully. Baker's early death was a great loss to the SF/F writing community.

The Winged Histories (Sofia Samatar) (2016): Samatar's second novel, set in the same universe as her first, A Stranger in Olondria. It's Samatar's take on epic fantasy. Histories is divided into four parts, presenting four POVs on a civil war in Olondria. I bogged down at the opening of the third part, almost exactly halfway though, which opened with second person present tense. (And by "bogged down" I said, "oh, no," and pulled the next book in the to-read queue.) This is nominally standalone, but I struggled to assemble a sense of the characters, their relationships, and what made their stories sufficiently compelling that I should keep reading. Histories also suffered from the tension of being epic fantasy and being critical of epic fantasy. It's hard to reach for an affecting touchstone Crowing Moment of Awesome while taking a hard look at the assumptions that make that Crowing Moment of Awesome so affecting. Also, epic fantasy just isn't my genre. On the outside, it looks like it should be. It's a genre that runs long in wordcount and intricate in worldbuilding. But epic fantasy rarely digs into the spin-off of the worldbuilding assumptions, the second order assumptions. GRRM unintentionally nailed it: The common people pray for rain, health, and a summer that never ends. They don't care what games the high lords play. I want to know what causes the Westeros wacky seasonal variation, how that impacts the society - I want some impact on society - and I really don't care about a bunch of people fighting over power. Power is boring, limitations set the state for interesting stories. Histories has the right idea - the characters have limits - but again, the execution is almost there.

Also, there's an xkcd graph that is relevant to this novel. I thought the plethora of fictional plants, animals, trade goods, what have you, was a Le Guin style ethnographic argument on cultural contextualization and atomization or something, but it's an example of epic fantasy imitating the forms of the genre's founders while forgetting that one of the founding giants was an obsessive philologist whose smash hit was a spin-off of his conlang projects (note the projects multiple). Okay, I exaggerate? But to make my point that the outward shape is reproduced, not the inner truths readers found in the reading experience.

Points for ambition. I want to like The Winged Histories, but the execution didn't do it for me on this pass. But apparently I want to talk in detail about its ambitious failure, which might get me to try other fiction by Samatar, or even grit my teeth and finish the second half. Eventually.

Lab Girl (Hope Jahren) (2016): I think this might have been an NPR book? It paid off very well for an NPR read, if so. Memoir by a die-hard plant nerd, focusing on the adventures of life in pursuit of the tenure track and also on the awesomeness of plants. It's a 304 page account of a lifelong love affair with green things. There's a relaxing effect of the writer skimming across her experiences, touching on the tenure track struggle, the desperate state of research funding, the experience of being a woman in academia and a field research science, adventures and misadventures in mental health, family relationships, and not delving too deeply into any one of these, except maybe the awesomeness of Jahren's partner in crime and research.

The City of Bones (Martha Wells) (1995): Scrappy loner with wacky survival abilities thanks to long-vanished Ancients - and his partner in dealing Ancient relics - are reluctantly drafted to save the world. Scrappy loners are one of Wells' go-to character types, which is useful for talking about societies, and the odd things that make up the culture, like burning people's bones to prophesy, or trading their sanity for mage powers, or engaging in high risk trades in Ancient relics, because money, against a backdrop of postapocalyptic desert scarcity. It's a bit Mad Max, minus the cars. And also with the strong female protagonists - loner Khat and his partner Sagai are drawn into high level intrigue by Elen, a junior Warder of the city-state Charisat. Elen and Khat have contrasting emotional arcs: Khat struggles to keep his distance from Sagai and Sagai's family, Elen struggles with stepping out of her mentor's shadow. If you like Wells' other fiction, you'll probably like this too.

This entry cross-posted at http://ase.dreamwidth.org/667836.html, where there are comment count unavailable comments.

Vacation!

I cleverly scheduled my trip to friends in Wisconsin to coincide with Wiscon. If anyone else will be at Wiscon and would like to hang out, ping me. I should be there Saturday and Sunday. If you would like something from my vacation - post cards, for example - leave a comment! Comments are screened.

Now I just need to address the really fraught packing questions, like what books pack along in hardcopy and which are acceptable in ebook.

This entry cross-posted at http://ase.dreamwidth.org/666754.html, where there are comment count unavailable comments.

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Recent Reading

Games Wizards Play (Diane Duane) (2016): Nita, Kit, and Dairine mentor younger wizards in a wizardly science fair: Dairine's mentee presents a spell that can stop earthquakes... if she can work through a few issues with her large and wizardly connected family... while Nita and Kit struggle with a mentee whose personality is even more flamboyant and flawed than his ambitious solar spell.

Climax destroying spoilers.Collapse )

Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love (David Talbot) (2012): Popular history of San Francisco from the Summer of Love through the HIV crisis. The focus is the welter of conflict that gripped the city through the '70s, culminating in the devastating two weeks of November 1978 when the Jonestown deaths rippled through the Bay area and Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were shot by Milk's fellow supervisor Dan White in city hall.

Talbot's uplifting redemptive finish is Feinstein's nine-year mayoralty. The HIV crisis is presented as San Francisco getting its act together, compared to what came before, which strikes me as a little off-base.

The Martian (Andy Weir) (2011): Fictional account of the survival of an astronaut stranded on Mars.

Spoilers, I suppose. Spoilers of meh.Collapse )

Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home (Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, 1990) (trans. Aliyu Kamal, 2012): a littattafai na soyayya</em> novel, one of the occasional series I think of as "NPR books", ie, books I read becuase NPR made it sound interesting. This is a story of virtue rewarded and misdeeds punished: the wife and mother Rabi is thrown out of her husband's home at the insistence of a new wife, and must support herself and her nine children in Kano, Nigeria. The bad behavior of spouses is the recurring theme of this novel, as Rabi's oldest daughter Saudatu catches the eye of a wealthy businessman and finds her virtue rewarded with a loving and wealthy husband, Abubakar. Alhaji Abubakar casts off his previous wives as their flaws come to light. Greed, selfishness, and irreligiosity play their roles in revealing who is moral and upstanding and who is not. Ultimately, Abdu's fortunes crumble and he is forced to take back the hardworking Rabi, though now Rabi is in charge. "She was the one who handed out the day's provisions, who distributed the detergent and soap. She was the one responsible for giving the house a lick of paint when needed, and deciding what should go where."

To say this is outside my usual reading is an understatement. And I love that! Sin is a bit of a soap opera and a bit of a romance and perhaps a bit chicklit, or at least the story of dense community. Rabi appeals to her siblings for support, her brother-in-law chastises her husband, her children pitch in, her neighbors are part of her support network. Saudatu is able to catch Abubakar's eye when she is visiting with an aunt. But it's also threaded through with profoundly Islamic and Nigerian ideas: routine polygamy, separate spaces for men and women - when Rabi begins selling food from her house, the novel casually mentions her sons helping to take food outside to adult male customers, since of course these men cannot step foot in her house, it would violate purdah - the routine Islamic prayers, woven into the fabric of the characters' lives. It's a short, fascinating look into someone else's culture.

Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars (Nathalia Holt) (2016): Pop sci history. The JPL computer department, founding to its transition from "computer" to "engineer".

This is a little more memoir than I like my pop sci. Rise of the Rocket girls is descriptive. It's subjective. It recounts women coming to JPL, their experiences in and outside the computer department. It doesn't go the extra step to correlate this to wider trends. It mentions that the JPL computers hired a black women, it doesn't explore the link that to a century of racial discrimination in the sciences. It passes over the the hiring of a first generation Chinese woman without thought. It mentions that the JPL computer department consciously and consistently hired only women for decades, from almost its inception until its dissolution, and treats this lightly, rather than turning it around from all its fascinating angles: is this a form of affirmative action? Is this a variation of reverse discrimination? Did this impact the payment, the structure, the labor assigned to computers at JPL, compared to mixed or male-only computer groups? There's recounting that women left to get married, left for their first child, came back because they missed working, came back and got divorced, left to salvage their marriages, and the creeping change from "babies end careers" to "single mother supporting her family" happens utterly unremarked, it's just another variation in anecdotes. JPL launched a rocket, so and so got hired, JPL proposed a space mission, so and so left right before the birth of her child, and so forth and so on. It doesn't put in the work to step from fluffy to significant. And that's a shame. This book about these women, and this moment in the history of space exploration, of women's involvement in the military-industrial complex, of women as computer programmers and engineers and mentors and advocates for their junior colleagues, is so slight it's going to slip right out from notice and take these stories with it. Rise suffers a lot from failing my hopes; it disappointing and frustrating that such an interesting topic is not assayed with more rigor and depth.

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Books Read, Some Not Recently

In December and over the holidays I read a number of Damon Runyon's short stories collected in The Bloodhounds of Broadway and Other Stories (1981). A writing giant of the 1930's, Runyon has a wonderfully distinctive fictional voice and smashing comedic timing.

A coworker lent me Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale (1983), which is a brick-long love story to New York City, in the mode of magical realism. Amazing prose, inconclusive plot.Collapse )

It's a hot mess and I like it. The plot is a mess with absurd resolution, when any thread resolves at all, and the prose is over the top, and it doesn't matter, it's so bizarre it takes the reader right out of the world into the world of the story.

I tripped and reread Martha Wells' Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy (2004-2005), some of the Ile-Rien and Cineth short stories collected in an ebook in 2015. It's hard to succinctly talk about why I enjoy these so much. I love the way The Wizard Hunters drops the reader into the troubles Ile-Rien and Cineth face and gets the multiworld ensemble working together against their common enemies, and against the frictions individual characters face with "their" people. The Ships of Air develops the cultural blind spots both sides discover alongside a breakneck action plot. The Gate of Gods almost sticks the landing; there's a lot of landing to stick (Tremaine and Ilias! The reason for the Gardier invasions! Giliead and sorcery! Ixion! Florian and Ixion! What's going to happen to Arisilde! And oh yes, defeating the Gardier.)

And there is snark. So much snark and sarcastic humor.

"It's a grend," Tremaine explained, keeping her voice low. "It's got Gerard trapped."

"You saw him?" she demanded. "What's a grend?"

"A big... thing." Tremaine flapped her arms in a vague gesture. "We didn't see him, but he's got to be there. If it had already eaten him, surely it wouldn't still be hanging around."

Florian stared, taken aback. "You know, when you're optimistic you have a strange way of phrasing things."


Then I read The Death of the Necromancer (1998) for the first time. The Death of the Necromancer is set a generation earlier, focusing on the adventures of the previous generation as Nicholas Valiarde's attempt to avenge his foster-father's murder is derailed by someone else's plot, one that smells of banned magics. One of the joys of The Death of the Necromancer is seeing Nicholas surrounded by characters in his weight class. Co-conspirators Madeleine and Reynard have their own histories, ambitions, and agency - Madeleine's particular defiance of family tradition plays a role, as do Reynard's disavowed military connections - and mad brilliant drug-addled Ari, repeatedly called the greatest or most powerful sorcerer in Ile-Rien, is least as much a problem as a sorcerous help. I love the sense of place the descriptions of Vienne evoke. I also like Inspector Ronsarde and Doctor Halle, whose antecedents are fairly obvious and I do not care at all.

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (Lois McMaster Bujold) (2016): Being the latest in the Vorkosiverse, this time focusing on Vicereine Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan and her burning desire for six daughters; and also the start of a post-Aral romantic relationship with Admiral Oliver Jole, who has some life decisions of his own to make.

The e-ARC hit my smartphone on October 21st of last year, and I wasn't able to bring myself to open the book until March, when time and the tenor of other readers' spoiler-cuts had given some hints about how to adjust my expectations. And then I had lots of feelings that assume you"ve read the novel.Collapse )

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Booklog: Ancillary Mercy

Ancillary Mercy (Ann Leckie) (2015): Moving on from Lifeboats to another sort of ship. Excuse me, did the trilogy just stick the landing? Extensive spoilers for all three novels.Collapse )

Also, Leckie's tumblr is a delight. See especially #peep-peep-peep-peep.

This entry cross-posted at http://ase.dreamwidth.org/657246.html, where there are comment count unavailable comments.

Backlogged Books

So, er, I found some book logs I started in July, and put somewhere unusual for me, and just found this week. And I remembered I had finished Lifeboats, so here's some novels.

Ancillary Mercy is getting its own post. It's moved me that much.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Haruki Murakami) (1997 trans. Jay Rubin): Absolutely surreal Japanese fiction about a milk-mild fellow, Toru Okada, and a dry well. Also mysticism, Japan's collapse on the Manchuran front during WW2, fate and free will, and Noboru Wataya, an academic, rising politician, and also the brother of Kumiko, Toru's wife.

It's a floating novel, as Okada wanders through life with very little idea what he wants, or what he stands to lose, until he loses the thing that defined his life. The narrative is fragmentary, filled with negative space during Okada's periods of unemployment and isolation, and with elliptical loose connections between the characters who erratically interact with Okada: May Kashiwara, a teenaged girl who lives in Okada's neighborhood; Malta Kano, a clairvoyant, and her sister Creta Kano; Lieutenant Mamiya; Nutmeg and Cinnamon Akasaka, mother and son in a clairvoyant family business; Mr. Hondo, another clairvoyant. It's a little tricky to judge prose and style across translation, but what has survived the translation is something extremely controlled and literary, with a control of language that gives the reader the sense Murakami knows exactly what he's doing. It took me a really long time to get into the novel, but at the end I was tempted to flip back to the beginning and start rereading in light of knowledge revealed by the end of the novel.

"Penric's Demon" (Lois McMaster Bujold) (2015): A novella in the Five Gods universe, about an accident with a demon and a Very Nice Young Man. It's a nice Bujold novella, that doesn't break any new ground if you're familiar LMB's fiction, but average Bujold is still very solid entertainment.

Lifeboats (Diane Duane) (2015): Joins "Not On My Patch" and "How Lovely Are Thy Branches" as the third minor "interstitial" story between A Wizard of Mars and Games Wizards Play. At 90,000 words, it's not terribly minor. And thematically, it doesn't feel minor: Kit, Nita, and most of the usual suspects are called up on an emergency mission of mercy. As a story about when flashy displays of wizardly power aren't the solution, I really liked it. The teenage angst about Valentine's Day was cute, in a sappy "aw, teenagers" way. It's a lot of fun watching Nita and Kit grow up; I'm enjoying how Duane is developing their characters and relationship.

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Ancillary Mercy Insta-Reaction

I just finished Ancillary Mercy.

Now that was an ending. And Seivarden! I was not expecting Seivarden of all people to be promoted in my affections. Unlike [spoiler] who is awful and steals the show with awesome one liners from pretty much the first second onstage. And [epic spoiler]! Enjoy the salad. With fish sauce.

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Booklog Blitz

Sprint update!

Gunnerkrigg Court v.1, SiddellCollapse )

Fairyland,Collapse )

Inda, Smith; did not finishCollapse )

Trying to force through the Hugo nominees and Inda killed my novel reading momentum for months.

The Dark Forest, Liu and MartinsenCollapse )

Go Set a Watchman, LeeCollapse )

The Just City, WaltonCollapse )

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The 2015 Hugo Awards

The 2015 Hugo Awards have been announced! Congratulations to the winners in this historic year.

The awards ceremony was livestreamed. Watching it in real time with [personal profile] norabombay in chat was a blast. I hope future Worlcons continue to make the awards ceremony available live for those of us offsite. A potentially fraught ceremony was handled with grace by the MCs, David Gerrold and Tananarive Due.

Nomination and voting statistics are up for this year's awards and are being crunched, as you would expect from SF/F fandom.

tl;dr commentsCollapse )

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