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Book Log

Me, early 2017: I will be better about reading and writing about what I've read!
Me, November 2017: So that's going to be a 2018 goal, as well as a 2017 effort.

God's Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine (Victoria Sweet) (2012): A memoir of practicing medicine at Laguna Honda Hospital, one of San Francisco's last-ditch facilities for long term care. The memoir is infused with Sweet's research into the medical practice of Hildegard of Bingen.

I opened this with a vague idea I'd get a look into one facet of San Francisco's health care history. That's not what God's Hotel is most interested in. Its focus is on the human face of doctoring, as experienced by Dr. Sweet during her tenure at Laguna Honda, and how her approach to medicine was influenced by her doctoral research on Hildegard. It's a topic that needs periodic reinforcement: the myriad tools available for medical intervention are secondary to healing the sick. Sweet emphasizes cutting back on dramatic intervention and letting time and the human body do their work. It's the same lesson Shem wrote down forty years ago: the delivery of good medical care is to do as much nothing as possible. Sweet emphasizes the more positive interpretation: the delivery of good medical care is to figure out what's blocking the path to health, and get rid of the blocks, including the egos of the doctors, nurses, and other people involved with caring for the patient.

Provenance (Ann Leckie) (2017): standalone in the same universe as the Imperial Radch trilogy, set shortly after the trilogy, but essentially unrelated. Ingrey Aughskold, daughter of ambitious and politically connected Netano Aughskold, takes a daring course to challenge her brother for inheritance of Netano's name and position. This gets complicated by Hwae politics, an upset Geck ambassador on her way to the Conclave, and the provenance, or lack of provenance, of Hwae's most revered cultural artifacts. If you've read the Foreigner series, the the complicated political dynamics muddied by personal concerns, and the personal relationships muddled up by the political situation, are going to feel pretty familiar. Provenance takes that muddling in directions that feel pretty homey if you've read the Imperial Radch trilogy.

I was lucky enough to attend a reading when Leckie was on book tour for Provenance's release, and got to hear her say - I'm paraphrasing - that she'd learned some things about gender and gender presentation during or after writing the Ancillary trilogy which got put into Provenance. Hwae society has three genders, thrown in as part of the worldbuilding along with the family and inheritance structures. Those social constructs that have profound implications for Ingrey and her family, and tie into the thematic questions about where things come from and how are they - ha! - made significant.

All this, and aliens too. The Geck ambassador's involvement brings with it a pervasive fear of breaking the Treaty. The Geck angle brings with it questions of humanity and identity that thematically ties back to the previous three novels in the universe. Provenance is a lighter and faster read than the Imperial Radch trilogy, but very preoccupying for the characters and enjoyable as a lighter thing.

All Systems Red (Martha Wells) (2017): first novella in the Murderbot series.

Murderbot is the chosen identification of the protagonist, a self-proclaimed cheap security droid whose defining traits are being responsible for a mass casualty event and later hacking the governor module that made it kill 55 people. Secretly free of its override protocols, Muderbot's most significant change in habit is its unrestricted space!TV addiction. All Systems Red covers a contract job gone sideways, which forces Murderbot to reveal its self-actualization to a group of softhearted humans.

Murderbot is... not necessarily the most reliable narrator? Wells has a fondness for a certain type of isolated, distrustful protagonist who is convinced revealing their true nature will end with rejection, more isolation, and maybe death. Murderbot follows the trend, with bonus self-deprecation and psuedo-indifference to the governor module incident that is totally over, cough, which has nothing to do with why it calls itself Murderbot. Ahem.

I suspect this will come up again in the future novellas, which I look forward to reading.

After many years and several tries I finally got through Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics (1993). When I first tried to read it I had a vague assumption it would focus on the mechanics of comics, and it does that, but it goes much deeper into how comics function as art and also into the hows and whys of symbolism in comics. A tougher read than expected but very rewarding.

Raven Stratagem (Yoon Ha Lee) (2017):</strong> does one of my favorite things in fiction, the late-story plot twist that is a wonderful surprise and also totally fits with everything that came before. There's limits to that strategy, but Lee hasn't reached them yet.

Thrawn (Timothy Zahn) (2017): Months after reading this I can say it was reasonably clever, it was as good as I expect from Zahn, and the Pryce backstory was nice, but it made me terrifically nostalgic for The Last Command.

Binti (2015) and Binti:Home (2016) (Nnedi Okorafor): young woman defies tradition to attend space university, has adventures. If you've read Okorafor, these novellas will feel very much in her style.

Three Parts Dead (Max Gladstone) (2012): Craftswoman Tara Abernathy, cast out of the Hidden Schools of the Craft, is recruited by Elayne Kevarian, of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao, to deal with a tricky case of Craft whose roots trace back to the God Wars that changed the world, and cut through a tangle of Craft and personal relationships.

If that summary is a mess, well, the novel is ambitious to a fault. The PoV is tight-ish third noir-ish in a D&D-ish fantasy world. But it most reminds me of old school science fiction, the sort where the clever plot turns on the writer explaining the way everything works except for the pivot-element that swings the final twist into action. In the epilogue, Elayne remarks, engineers: they spend so much time solving physical problems and obeying physical rules, they forget that nonphysical phenomena obey rules every bit as strict.

A couple of years ago the Legion of Honor hosted an exhibit of Breguet watches, fancypants high-end timepieces of the last three or four centuries. The plot of Three Parts Dead reminded me of the tiny interlocked gears powering the conventional hour, minute, and second hands, as well as all the complications that could be imagined and packed into a handheld device. Like some of the honological complications on display, I didn't quite see the appeal of the threads of history and action connecting the deaths of Judge Cabot and Kos Everburning to Tara, Elayne, Novice Technician Abelard of the Church of Kos Everburning, addict and agent of Justice Catherine Elle, Shale of the Guardians (gargoyles), Craftsman Alexander Denovo, and the vampire Raz Pelham. There is a point where piling on history, secondary worldbuilding, personal backstory, and red herrings turns a cats-cradle plot from a tense interconnected story to a mess.

The book does a number of things "right" - women as protagonists, Bechdel test pass, people of color as characters with agency - but the execution it felt bloodless, clockwork, to me.

On a really petty, petty note, every time someone talked about the city of Alt Coulumb I had college physics flashbacks. It was really, really distracting.

A Closed and Common Orbit (Becky Chambers) (2016): Hugo nominee. Double timeline story about AI fish-out-of-water Sidra's first steps into personhood played against young Jane 24 (aka Jane, aka Pepper) and shuttle-AI-slash-parent-ish Owl teaming up to fix a junked spacecraft.

Orbit is a character book. If you're interested in the characters and their personal journeys, you're going to enjoy this book. The plot acts in service of time with the characters, winding through there's Sidra's challenges as an AI stuck in an un-AI body, with attendant dysphoria; an exploration of Port Coriol's people and cultures; and Pepper's history, topped off with a Leverage-esque shuttle heist / family reunion at the end of the novel, because this is a novel about identity, found family, and not leaving people behind.

There's a sense of a lot of influences, not that far under the surface. That doesn't always work to Orbit's benefit. The Dispossessed has a memorable, tightly structured, thematically resonant double timeline narrative. The other double timeline narrative that has rocked my world is Ancillary Justice. There are interleaved usenet-slash-irc-slash-reddit-ish excerpts with people being people, with AIs on the table, accidentally evoking A Fire Upon the Deep. Orbit includes a glancing interest in how to make a person, which is right up my thematic alley, but that's secondary to its focus on self-actualization, see "focus on characters". Orbit is a competent but not brilliant or definitive take on the tropes and ideas in play.

This year I finally finished The House of God (Samuel Shen) (1978), a semiautobiographical novel of a first year medical intern's trial by fire, gomer, and administrivia. It's dated, raunchy in the least erotic way possible - there is an awful lot of kind of objectification and doctor/nurse sex - and yet the issues of patient care raised are still painfully relevant to American health care almost forty years later.

Thick As Thieves (Megan Whalen Turner) (2017): Slave Kamet escapes the calamitous death of his owner in the Mede Empire. Since this is a King's Thief novel, there is a big, plot-changing twist, perhaps even several. If one builds a reputation on surprising readers, there's a point where the readers know the story isn't being told straight and start to question closely the statements the characters take for fact, which works against that element of surprise. There's a limit to the strategy of plot twists for the sake of plot twists, which Turner might be starting to bump up against.

This entry cross-posted at https://ase.dreamwidth.org/683520.html, where there are comment count unavailable comments.

Meanwhile Over At Dreamwidth

tl;dr I am no longer crossposting from Dreamwidth to LJ. Same username, same content. Debating deleting my journal over here, because 95% of the content is already over there. See you over at DW, folks.

Rent! The 20th Anniversary Tour

I saw the Sunday matinee performance of Rent today, on the 20th Anniversary tour. I did not feel a great desire to see Rent in the '90s, but decided in the '00s I had been an idiot. Today I fixed that.

I'm no theater connoisseur, but this seemed like an easy-ish house, to judge from the cheering after almost every number.

I went with K, who has heard the soundtrack and seen the movie, but isn't a musical person. I have some serious reservations about the movie version, most significantly the choice of Chris Colombus as director. Columbus has absolutely no idea how to convert between media, which is why the first two HP movies are awful and the third convinced me that anything with Alfonso Cuarón's involvement is worth my time and money.

I had a good time. I'm not expert enough to say whether the individual performers did a good or just okay job, but I found it a good use of my Sunday afternoon.

A few notes: I have listened to this soundtrack for almost 20 years without seeing the musical staged.Collapse )

This entry cross-posted at http://ase.dreamwidth.org/678289.html, where there are comment count unavailable comments.

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2016 Reading

I think it's time to admit I am never cleaning up any of the 2016 book log, post, and move on.

League of Dragons (2016) (Naomi Novik): The concluding novel in the Temeraire series. Napoleon is finally finished off, various disputes are disposed of, and Temeraire and Iskierka's egg hatches.

On romance and Romance; characterization; and worldbuilding.Collapse )

Uprooted (Naomi Novik) (2015): Reread, picked up for plane distract during an October vacation. It's very likeable, even if it feels like it's trying to be three novels. It's three novels I'm happy to read! Not The Chosen Girl is a good story, Fairy Tales Meet Realpolitik has its moments, Young Woman Defeats Ancient Evil is good times. The only thing I don't like is the romance, because there's a point where your mixed feelings about the older mentoring wizard and his relationship with the younger witch in training run smack into your memories of Harry Potter fandom and you want to gouge your eyes out, because student/teacher has never ever been your thing, and that's... not how the author feels.

Necessity (Jo Walton) (2016): The concluding novel of Walton's Thessaly trilogy. Spoilers.Collapse )

Bring Down the Sun (Judith Tarr) (2008): Swag bag freebie. A novel of Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great, mixing history and fantasy. Olympia, known by various names as she departs from the path of an alcolyte to a fading Goddess religion to pursue power, magic, and lustful romance among the politics of Epirus and Macedonia.

Holy erotica, Batman! Tarr mixes history, fantasy, and romance in a short novel. Olympias wrestles with the dark magic of Thessaly's witches, learns about political power, struggles to understand and master her magical gifts, and meets and marries Philip of Macedon. A slight novel in word count, the mix of setting and genres is an interesting study in satisfying divergent trope demands. The tensions of those demands sometimes make the characters a bit wooden, and the length contributes a sketchy feeling to the worldbuilding, elements which keep the novel a bit slight in impact.

A Darker Shade of Magic (V. E. Schwab) (2015):

INTERNET BUZZ: It's a fantasy novel about London, written by a YA novelist.
ME: Meh.
INTERNET: It's got a multiverse.
ME: WAIT RIGHT THERE.

Yet I found myself underwhelmed. Spoilers under the cut.Collapse ) The emotional highs and gory lows should have compelled my attention, but instead I found myself disengaging to poke at the underpinnings. The multiverse conceit is interesting, but I might have liked this more if I'd been able to accept the rest of the premise without so many questions about whether it could hold up to the narrative promises.

Penric's Mission (Lois McMaster Bujold) (2016): Third in the Penric series. Penric and the demon of chaos he's named Desdemona fail miserably at espionage and succeed at healing another character caught up by intrigue. The first two Penric stories are not required to understand this short novel, but they're fun reading. I think this could have used one more editing pass, to balance some of the events between the end of the last story and the start of this one, unless I was supposed to think, "well, that offstage crisis was not in-clued".

The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures (Anne Fadiman) (1997 / 2012): Nonfiction account that places miscommunication between one set of doctors and parents in the larger forces of Hmong experience and immigration. In the 2012 edition's new afterward, Fadiman writes: I hope The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down is settling into its proper place not as the book about the Hmong but as a book about communication and miscommunication across cultures. That's very much the light in which I read this. And in that light, I found it an easy, clear read. Fadiman takes pains to explain to readers the historic and cultural contexts that drove Lia Lee's parents decisions, balanced against the more familiar medical imperatives driving her doctors.

Death's End (Liu Cixin, trans. Ken Liu, 2010/2016) HOLY SCIENCE FICTION MADNESS. This is serious end of the world times. End of the universe times.

Spoilers.Collapse )

I made a sincere attempt to read Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning (2016) based on promising reviews and made it all of two pages before losing empathy for the narrative voice.

This entry cross-posted at http://ase.dreamwidth.org/677503.html, where there are comment count unavailable comments.

Holiday Reading

Every Heart A Doorway (Seanan McGuire) (2016): My library's now offers multiple apps which support electronic audiobooks, and critically, the ability to change the readback speed.

Less than five minutes into Heart I said, "you have got to be kidding me," and kicked it up to 1.2x speed. This at least kept the narrative flowing fast enough the worldbuilding issues accumulated faster than I could argue with them.

The premise: teenage girl returns from adventures in a portal fantasy world, gets sent to boarding school for other children like her. Her first, oh, week, at Ms. West's School for Wayward Children coincides with a Shocking Murder.

Nope. Spoilers.Collapse )

tl;dr this novel has an interesting concept it does not execute on very well at all and I am formally done trying to like Seanan McGuire's fiction. I am glad her work is well received and loved by others, but my experiences with her fiction have consistently been an exercise in Not For Me.

This entry cross-posted at http://ase.dreamwidth.org/675780.html, where there are comment count unavailable comments.

Wait For It

Highly relevant to my tiny fandom interests, exhibits one</em> and two. We’re officially ready to start writing the actual Alliance Rising book, and along with it, we’re going to put Finity’s End into Closed-Circle. That’s a hundred or so years on…some of the same bunch. It's a little fuzzy which end of canon the new novel is set in, and I don't care, I'd cheerfully read anything Alliance-Union. Can it be publication time now?

This entry cross-posted at http://ase.dreamwidth.org/673917.html, where there are comment count unavailable comments.

Moving Day

Last night my landlord emailed that he wants his house back for an entirely legitimate owner move-in eviction. So my roommates and I are looking for another place to live. Send good vibes, and if you know someone renting out a 3 bed 1.5 bath inside San Francisco's city limits, for roughly market or a bit under, maybe put us in touch. Or a studio, but it would be nice to keep the household together.

This entry cross-posted at http://ase.dreamwidth.org/673545.html, where there are comment count unavailable comments.

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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