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#43: Don't Feed the Trolls - I reviewed this out of order, go back a month or three.

#44: Victoria: The Queen by Julia Baird. 4. Straightforward biography of Victoria. Seems to cut a middle path between fetishization and demonization.

#45: All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. 4.5. I'd seen End of Tomorrow well before reading this, so the contrasts were definitely interesting. (Similar: fundamental concept. Different: just about everything else.) They each have their strengths--the book has much less of the Hollywood structure going, although I found the Hollywood structure somewhat more satisfying overall. I much preferred the original's geeky scientist sidekick, though, who's female and obliviously charming.

#46: New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson. 5. This book is both pessimistic enough to envision a New York flooded by global warming to Venice levels and optimistic enough that the city survives and thrives anyway. With big problems and blatant inequality, but really not much worse that what we have now. The author, in the text itself, repeatedly protests that his happy ending is only temporary and not a fairy tale ending and it's really a "doth protest too much" situation, and I don't care. It still makes you want to cheer.

#47: 1985: Stori3s from S0S by E.C. Myers. 4. Doesn't particularly stand on its own, but serves as a nice connecting web between the two Silence books. Penny's story is particularly engaging, and the early hacker details of Max's parents' courtship are delightful.

#48: Reasons My Kid Is Crying by Greg Pembroke. 4. Yes, most of these photos of children wailing, with their captions of the ridiculous reason why, are on the website. Still hilarious. Especially since my four-year-old sobbed himself to sleep tonight because his pajamas had the wrong kind of tag on the side. (Not that he doesn't want the tag. I could cut out the tag. He demands a specific kind of tag, down to fabric type and placement, which exists on maybe a quarter of his shirts at most. We're out.)

#49: Parenting is Easy: You're Probably Just Doing It Wrong by Sarah Given. 3.5. Yes, most of these ridiculous stock photos of families, with their sarcastic captions highlighting the insane premise of each photo, are on the website. Still hilarious.

#50: I Am Not A Serial Killer by Dan Wells. 4. A teenage psychopath who's very much aware that he's got the exact right profile to become a serial killer and has set himself very elaborate rules to avoid doing so runs into a serial killer. Wells cleverly makes sure you're aware this is actually urban fantasy very early on, so the later twists aren't a total betrayal.

#51: The Deaths of Tao by Wesley Chu. 3.5. Clever and tense, but the fact that the bumbling agent-accidentally-possessed-by-an-alien is all grown up now means that it lacks some of the charm of the first book in the series.

#52: Dark Currents by Jacqueline Carey. 3.5. A perfect serviceable urban fantasy that hits all the usual beats--kickass sarcastic heroine with a weird backstory, multiple potential love interests from different paranormal types (in this case, a ghoul, a psychic, and the obligatory werewolf), lots of humor with a shot of horror. But spends a lot of time setting up for a long running series so a number of plot threads are pointless for this book. Kind of generic, which is unfortunate, given how iconic some of Carey's other fiction can be.

#53: Finding Serenity ed. by Jane Espenson. 3. Essays on Firefly. Unfortunately, there wasn't really enough Firefly, so these get kind of repetitive.

#54: Memoirs of the Comtesse de Boigne, vol 1: 1781-1815 ed. by Anka Muhlstein. 4. The first half of the memoirs of a French Comtesse who spent her childhood being petted by Marie Antoinette, her teenage years hiding in England during the Terror, and then her adulthood gallivanting around Europe with her diplomat father. (Very unhappy marriage.) It's fascinating, the kind of primary source that actually gives you insight into what people were thinking. It's also inadvertently funny in that she's an ardent Monarchist and repeatedly explains how the best form of government is what they have in England, because of the importance of breeding and having an aristocracy to ensure wise decisions and stability. However, her actual opinion of every single royal she actually interacts with (which is the entire French royal family and a number of the other Bourbons ruling Piedmont, etc) is that they're all idiots. Well, except Emperor Alexander of Russia, who really was pretty decent and smart during this period. (It's later that he gets his head stuck up his ass, and she admits that.) The cognitive dissonance never seems to register.

#55: The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks. 4.5. I wasn't crazy about the first Culture novel, and was assured this one was better. It is, much. The issues of keeping oneself motivated in a fully post-scarcity society are well handled if not answered--for some people, it's just not going to be easy. There are so many games being played here--by the games expert sent to a backwards military empire who base all status on a single elaborate game, by his hosts, by the people who sent him. It's a significantly less nihilistic book than the first novel, but still somehow ends on the same emotional note. The driving emotional resonance of the Culture seems to ultimately be one of futility--when dealing with time and space scales that are so vast, and where most things are controlled by AIs with intelligence so far beyond ours, human will seems to mean relatively little.

#56: Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky. 4. This pedantic novel-length Harry Potter fanfic managed to still be sufficiently emotionally engaging that I basically wasted multiple evenings I was supposed to be doing something else because I just. couldn't. stop. reading.

#57: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. 5. A gut-punch of a book. The mother of a school shooter looks back and tries to figure out what went wrong. It's deeply chilling and completely absorbing and incredibly well written. It also features a highly unreliable narrator. I'm not sure picking it up was the best idea, but then it wouldn't let me go from its chill, dark depths until I had finished it.
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This is why I'm down to just a line or two each for these things.

#25 The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson. 3. Pluses: plus sized heroine gets underestimated and turns out to be awesome. Also, unexpected resolution to love triangle. Minuses: Apparently being awesome requires losing all the weight and not being plus size. There was no reason she couldn't have been awesome without changing. Also, magic system of god-given belly button rocks doesn't actually make a great deal of sense from an economic perspective.

#26 The Bread We Eat in Dreams by Catherynne Valente. 4. Gorgeous and haunting short story collection.

#27 Sunshine by Robin McKinley. 5. Deeply weird and creative take on wizards vs vampires, circling around a cinnamon-bun baking mage who wants none of this but gets dragged in. Lyrical and poignant and action-packed, with nary a sparkle in sight.

#28 Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler. 5. This is one of those books that's hard to read in this climate, but worth reading anyway. After an economic collapse, a young woman becomes a prophet. It...does not not go well for the majority of the book. (You know from the first page that she succeeds somehow, but not how much it will cost her.)

#29 Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand. 4.5. A maybe-it's-a-ghost-story, maybe-it's-not. A folk band in the 60s retreats to an abandoned British manor house. The aftermath is told completely in "Behind the Music" style interviews.

#30 Path of Fate by Diana Pharaoh Francis. 3. Honestly, this reads like Valdemar fan fiction with the serial numbers filed off. The monarchs of the enemy country are total badasses, though. I'd like to read a book about just them.

#31 The Secret Love of Geek Girls Ed. by Hope Nicholson. 3.5. A collection of short memoirs, essays, stories, and comics loosely organized around the theme of geek girls in love. They're all female authors, so refreshingly, I had no impulse to throw the book across the room. Quality varies, but generally entertaining.

#32 What Would Cthulhu Do? by Patrick Thomas. 2.5. Bathroom reading, mildly amusing.

#33 The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World From Scratch by Lewis Dartnell. 3. This book would be very useful for a writer looking to navigate characters through an apocalypse. It gives all kinds of names of useful things to figure out, and what order to do them in. It would be useless to someone actually trying to navigate through an apocalypse, as it taunts you with lists of things you should be able to do but without any of the details you'd need to be able to do them. (Build a smithy! Great! How?) Fortunately, in the event of an apocalypse, I plan to go in the first wave.

#34 Unexpected Stories by Octavia Butler. 3.5. Early Butler works, generally charming (in the relentlessly pessimistic way she has).

#35 Black Light by Elizabeth Hand. 2. Trippy sixties occult novel. Unfortunately, main character spends huge amounts of it drunk or stoned and so it comes across rather like when your coworker wants to tell you a long and rambling story that makes no sense about a dream he had or that time she was soooooo drunk.

#36 Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter. 4. I'm not sure quite how to rate this. On one hand, it's unquestionably brilliant and I learned/remembered a lot and put together a lot of interesting information in novel ways. On the other hand, while he's brilliant, he's not as clever as he thinks he is, and so many of his little jokes and dialogues are so unbearably twee it drove me bonkers.

#37 Firstborn/Defending Elysium by Brandon Sanderson. 4. Clever science fiction concepts with strong characters. One features the younger brother of a Napoleonic starship admiral. The other is around a psychic phone company secret agent.

#38 Legion by Brandon Sanderson. 4. The paranormal schizophrenic thing isn't new, but this is a particularly cute take. He's a detective, and all his personalities are experts in different fields.

#39 Legion: Skin Deep by Brandon Sanderson. 4. Schizophrenic detective tries to recover a literal thumb drive.

#40 2K to 10K: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love by Rachel Aaron. 3. Some very good advice. Unfortunately, I was already doing most of it. :(

#41 Icon by Genevieve Valentine. 4. See, now this is what I'd wanted the previous book in this series to be! Global politics via fashion. In the Hunger Games, did you like the part where the stylists descended on them and they had to deal with Capitol politics best? The whole book is that.

#42 The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi. 4. Starting up a new science fiction universe with a bang, Scalzi mostly uses this to set up the pieces for a long game. But the characters are so delightful. They all sound like Scalzi, but different aspects of Scalzi at least, and that means you're in for some hilarious snarking.
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Don't Feed the Trolls by Erica Kudisch
5
I originally heard this book pitched as "love in a time of GamerGate." It's a fairly accurate description, but it leaves out much of the humor and sweetness that permeates this book.

An unemployed actress struggling with gender identity wins a contest in the MMORPG she's playing, and immediately becomes the latest hashtag victim. Doxxing, death threats, and drunkenness ensue, but so do flirting, friendship, and fabulous drag queens in cosplay. (Not people cosplaying as drag queens, but actual drag queens who are also cosplaying.)

It's full of rapid-fire references ranging from Shakespeare to semi-obscure JRPGs to...I was going to say Sondheim but my alliteration seems to be inadvertently getting out of hand. Broadway musicals, then.

Is the ending blatant wish-fulfillment? Of course it is. Isn't every good romance?

Disclaimer: The author is a good friend in real life. So I'm definitely biased. But I really do think this is a wonderful book.
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#16: Miniatures by John Scalzi. 3.5. Collection of very, very short works, nearly all in that very distinctive Scalzi style. Amusing (although not necessarily particularly memorable).

#17: Hidden Youth: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History Ed by Mikki Kendall and Chesya Burke. 3. A very mixed bag. Nothing terrible, but many of the stories are fairly forgettable or underwhelming. A few gems really shine, though.

#18: Jacaranda by Cherie Priest. 4. Creepy and compelling, this is The Shining transplanted to the Weird West.

#19: Final Girls by Mira Grant. 4. A virtual reality therapy session goes terribly, terribly wrong in this deconstruction of horror tropes. It's smart, fast-paced, and shiver-inducing.

#20: Working for Bigfoot by Jim Butcher. 3.5. Collection of Harry Dresden short stories, all about looking after River Shoulders' son. The poor kid just draws bullies like a magnet draws iron filings. Your opinion of these will be determined by your opinion of the rest of the Dresden Files. They're fairly representative of the earlier monster-of-the-week books.

#21: The Scar by China Mieville. 4. Press-ganged by pirates, unlikely companions find themselves trapped in a floating city on a mission that may reshape the world. Lush, cynical, intricately constructed, and incredibly vivid.

#22: Against All Silence by E.C. Myers. 4. Teenage hacker takes on global telecom, while wondering if his girlfriend can actually be trusted. I liked very much how when people take physical damage, they actually suffer the repercussions that come with it. On the other hand, you may find this uncomfortably close to what may actually be happening--Myers is one of the authors who have gotten lapped by reality in the last six months.

#23: The End of All Things by John Scalzi. 4. A stirring wrap-up to the Old Man's War universe. Similar to The Human Division, this is composed of a series of interlocked short stories from some very different viewpoints. One thing I really appreciated--when it comes time for the fate of the universe to be decided, all the people in the room happen to be female identifying, save one, who's only there as an observer. It's not at all artificial or forced--they're just the ones who are left standing over the course of the last four books, with the authority to make the necessary decisions. It's in no way pointed out or remarked upon. I only realized it in retrospect. And it's delightful.

#24: Beauty by Robin McKinley. 3. A straightforward telling of Beauty and the Beast. It's not even a retelling. There's no twist here. What punches other versions have are pulled. (No one tries to seriously convince Beauty not to go back, there's no rival love interest, the Beast's curse is only vaguely described and has no irony. There's not a whole lot of tension, given that you know exactly what's going to happen.) It's pretty, but kind of tame. I'd heard good things about this for years, and I'm frankly a little underwhelmed.
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#10: Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers. 3. The movie turns out to have been peculiarly faithful to the book, except for the part where the movie has a vague plot whereas the book has completely none. Honestly, Julie Andrews lends a warmth and a sparkle that the book version rather lacks. Book Mary is a rather vain thing, among other things. But it's still entertaining.

#11: Whitechapel Gods by S.M. Stiring. 2. Inventive (if very dark) steampunk rather ruined by raging misogyny. Took the lessons of The Difference Engine rather too close to heart. There are three female characters. One's an irrational whore with no impulse control, full of fluttery, dangerous womanly weakness. Another's an evil madame. The third is a goddess...who's easily overpowered and secretly glories in being raped by a totally normal guy who takes some drugs that apparently elevates him to her level because really, uppity women just need to be smacked around a little and properly subjugated. Umm, no.

#12: Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson. 5. Utterly delightful urban fantasy based out of a fictional city in the Middle East. An immersive Muslim take on the tropes of a hacker discovering a hidden magical world. It's smart, it's fresh, it's thought-provoking, and it's just plain fun.

#13: Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold. I've read this before, but had mostly forgotten the key plot points. It's refreshing to have the hero of a fantasy novel be a late middle aged woman, whose child is grown and who's looking for something to do with the rest of her life. She's not particularly fond of the plan the gods have for her, though, and intends to fight her destiny all the way.

#14: Romancing the Inventor by Gail Carriger. 3.5. Sweet, short romance between a parlor maid and a steampunk butch inventor. Makes a lot more sense if you've read the Parasol Protectorate series, though; doesn't stand well on its own.

#15: Poison or Protect by Gail Carriger. 3.5. I rather adored the romance plot of this one. Love a good lady assassin. But the assassin plot...pretty much fizzles out. I don't know if she's planning to carry a metaplot through the others of this romance novella series, but the whole "protect the duke" thing basically got dropped.
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#72: Pyramids by Terry Pratchett. 4. While not Pratchett's best work, still loads of fun. The Assassin's Guild final exam is most likely the best part. It's funny--I'm not sure how I missed this one, but I'm pretty certain I never read it. (Also, dear lord, the cover--apparently the artist's idea of an Egyptian prince who's studied to be an assassin is to dress him like the most racist cariacature of a ninja you can imagine, down to a headband with a rising sun, and stick slippers on him. The chainmail bikini babe in his lap is at least slightly more accurate to the character. It's like the entire 80s worth of wrong in one cover. It...does not do the book a favor.)

#73: Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling. 3. I read these as a child and adored them. I read them as an adult to see if the were salvagable to let my own kid read them. Umm...maybe some of them. If I read them out loud and strategically skip a couple of sentences. They're incredibly charming--the voice is adorable. The racism/sexism/imperialism rather less so. Which is a shame, because about half of them really are very cute.

#74: The Woman Who Died a Lot by Jaspar Fforde. 4.5. You really do have to have read the previous Thursday Next installments, but I have to appreciate how well he reminds the reader of stuff they read a decade ago. (These come out rather spaced apart, I'm afraid.) Fforde continues to be relentlessly clever, with densely knotted plots that all come together perfectly and a light enough touch it seems effortless. In this one, Thursday tries to deal with a mindworm that's corroding her memory and half a dozen clones that keep replacing her, her teenage son's disillusionment after his future career in the ChronoGuard is retroactively dissolved, an incoming asteroid, and a vengeful God who has scheduled a Smiting on her home town later in the week. And a dodo, but she always has to deal with the dodo.

#75: Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi. 3.5. A light, fast-paced read about a prospector of dubious principles facing off against an intergalactic mining company over whether aliens are intelligent or not, that turns out to be mostly about a courtroom battle. It's not a great work of literature, but it's a small impressive feat to turn a character who I'm pretty sure I'd despise in real life into a fairly entertaining protagonist.
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So behind on book reviews. Oh well.

#48: The Aeronaut's Windlass by Jim Butcher. 3.5. In which Butcher does steampunk. It's not bad--entertaining and skims along easily enough. But I couldn't help but feel like I've seen most of the elements elsewhere, and more compelling. I think part of the problem is that he's trying to be a little arch but ends up mostly just disengaged.

Hugo novellas: shall I count these? I guess I shall.

#49: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. 5. Original, engrossing, well-paced. Reminds me of Le Guin's Hain books more than anything else, but not at all derivative.

#50: The Builders by Daniel Polansky. 4. Nihilistic Redwall. On one hand, I'm not sure I wanted to like this--it's so grimdark as to be almost comical. But it's weirdly compelling and surprisingly funny. Shouldn't have worked, but it did.

#51: Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold. 5. Minor story in Chalion. Works ok even if you haven't read the novels. It's just adorable. Total innocent proto-geek gets saddled with all-powerful demon, does surprisingly well for himself.

#52: Perfect State by Brandon Sanderson. 4. A novella's the closest thing you're getting to a short story from Sanderson. Not particularly deep, but a lot of fun. Fully exploits the brain-in-a-bottle concept.

#53: Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds. 1.5. Meh. The plot is fine, I guess, but not told in a particularly compelling way. No real interest in the characters, and the set up doesn't have a great deal of logic to it other than to create a highly unlikely set of circumstances under which to make a not particularly interesting moral choice.

Back to the novels.

#54: Kraken by China Mieville. 3.5. I usually like Mieville's layered insanities, but there was just a little too much going on in this one. Breathless pacing, which is fun, as crazed squid cultists run around a slipstream London, but there are just a few too many ideas flying around and then things end a little too pat.

#55: The Stand by Stephen King. 2. *headdesk* So much talent, so many problems. I loved the beginning of this, as an unstoppable plague spreads across the US. (Bad timing? Reading an incredibly creepy and evocative set of vignettes about people acquiring a portentous summer cold, while suffering from a summer cold.) Great apocalypse. But then when we get into the post-apocalypse, things go downhill fast. I was only half on board with the good vs evil magical duel being set up. But the mounting, awful sexism and once again the magical Negro...can we just not? And then in the end...the protagonists don't do anything. Other than I guess play Isaac for a crazed God who doesn't offer a reprieve this time--there is literally no agency for anyone in this book. All the suffering, all the planning accomplishes nothing. The bad guy would have offed himself without their help. Oh, and don't get me started on his paramour. At least Harold struggles some with his decision to defect, and has some legit reasons for being upset. She can only be stopped by being deflowered, which she wants, but instead just goes and joins evil and loses her mind because women? Mindless baby machine sluts anyway.

#56: Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge. 4.5. Brilliant bit of near-future extrapolation. Slightly dated already, which was bound to happen, but still mostly stands up. Meme battles which cast Pokemon Go in a new, pretty awesome light. Total asshole protagonist who is nonetheless fun to follow. Convoluted plot about international mind control virus shenanigans, the destruction of libraries, and homework that mostly detangles itself by the end. A lot of fun.

#57: Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice about Children by Ann Hulbert. 3. A little disappointing. I wish there had been more actual analysis, especially of the earlier stuff, and comparison of how experts actually influenced parents behavior, and less delving into the various experts' respective childhoods. In the later chapters, things improved, but it makes the book very unbalanced.
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#45: Rule 34 by Charles Stross. 4. The meme squad of a near-future police force tries to deal with a baffling killer simultaneously striking around the world. The machinations are enjoyably complex, (most of) the characters are a lot of fun, and Stross is fantastic at extrapolating from current social trends. I really liked his vision of the police force of tomorrow. (Not necessarily that I wish for them, but I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of his predictions come true.) On the other hand, one of the antagonists goes so far off the deep end that it barely makes sense. (The suitcase is foreshadowed from the start, and yet still feels unnecessary to the character.) And the whole thing is in second person. While the ending makes clear what he's trying to do, I'm still not sure he needed to do it.

#46:Sister Light, Sister Dark by Jane Yolen. 3.5. The first in a mythic cycle, this book plays off a fictional set of myths, legends, songs, analysis by historians of events that must have happened centuries before, and a narrative of what "really happened". Clearly part of the flowering of the feminist fantasy movement in the 80s, it's about a girl in a matriarchal society who becomes the linchpin of the collapse/rebirth of their social system. It's reasonably compelling, and the contrasts between what "happened" and what people remember are fun, but I imagine the story structure would get old fast as the series goes on.

#47: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. 3. I have such mixed feelings about this book, I'm not even sure where to begin.


Spoilers!
Spoilers ahead )

May books

Jun. 5th, 2016 08:52 pm
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#40: Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin. 3. This tale of vampires on steamships is a nice bit of horror, with some truly Grand Guignol scenes here and there, but he never really figures out a good way to handle the time jumps and infodumps, so there are some rather awkward chapters.

#41: Briar Rose by Jane Yolen. 3.5. A retelling of Sleeping Beauty, entwined with the Holocaust. The core story works surprisingly well, but the framing story opens up a lot of questions that are never answered. Rebecca's relationship with her sisters, for example, is set up as a major element and then never delivered on. To be fair, it wilts in comparison to the story she discovers about her grandmother, but then why spend so much time on it to begin with?

#42: Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories ed. by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant. 5. Really excellent collection of steampunk stories, some of them well out of the usual mold. (The steampunk ancient Roman Empire was a particularly nice touch.) The graphic stories didn't win my heart as much, but they're a nice way to break things up. Link's own contribution is a very interesting story, but the only one of the batch I wouldn't actually classify as steampunk.

#43: Embassytown by China Mieville. 5. Intensely cerebral. This is a story about a woman who is part of a language she doesn't speak and whose hometown is shattered when an ambassador to their alien hosts accidentally (or not) hacks their brains...and there's really not much more that can be described pages of additional information. It's incredibly dense, and takes awhile to wrap your head around what's going on. The climax depends on the nature of language itself. Difficult but rewarding--I found it really cool, and the ending deeply satisfying.

#44: Civilization and capitalism 15th-18th century, Vol. 1: The structures of everyday life by Fernand Braudel. 4. Incredibly broad and dense look at elements of daily life around the world, including housing, food, money, clothes, transportation, and more. Exhaustively researched, and very insightful. His points tend to get away from him though. It's less of a problem in the middle, but in the chapters on population and later on cities, he gets lost in his own argument and then just hares off on random points before dropping the entire line of inquiry. Also, weighted very heavily towards European history. But a fantastic overview with ambitious breadth.

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#36: Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks. 3.5. This is a dazzling work of science fiction, but it kind of left me cold. The set pieces are amazing. Moss-covered temples made entirely of crystal. Horrifying end-of-the-world cults. An ocean ring suspended in space by centripetal force. A death-based poker game only played  in the face of catastrophe. A dead world maintained as a mausoleum. The ideas are really, really cool. But I never really engaged with the characters. The protagonist (hero is too strong a word) has motives that are murky even to him--he starts on a course of action and sees it through despite ludicrous cost mostly because he's stubborn. And he stumbles from set piece to set piece without any real plot. The obstacles don't actually have anything to do with the goal, they just happen to be in the way. He doesn't learn or grow or change as a result. The protagonist is a shape-shifter, but only uses the ability once, really. It feels more like a loosely connected series of short stories about the misadventures of this one guy, in which he gets into a predicament and then gets out of it, never having really learned or gained anything in the process. It's not a bad book, by any means, and the ideas really are extremely cool. But I don't feel that strong a need to read the rest.

#37: The History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage. 3. Your run-of-the-mill gimmicky nonfiction. This one tries organize world history through the lens of beer/wine/spirits/coffee/tea/soda. It drags here and there, but does have some fun facts I hadn't heard before. Kind of fun, kind of forgettable. Feels like virtue for being true, but doesn't leave a great deal of understanding in its wake.

#38: Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene Republic by James. H. Johnson. 4. I'm kind of torn on this one. Johnson has a really fascinating theory on Venetians' relationship with masks. (Very quickly--we're talking about a city that routinely wore masks for over six months of the year. Like wearing a hat. Wear it to the corner store, wear it to a diplomatic event, wear it to have coffee with friends. Most of Europe took this as a weird combination of licentiousness and secrecy, with the ability to completely reshape the personality on a whim. His argument is that Venetians were actually fairly conservative and had an extremely rigid definition of self, and masks were what enabled them to function as a society without having to fully observe all the forms of ritual propriety that would normally be necessary.) There's a ton of really interesting, deeply researched information here. On the other hand, there isn't as much as he thinks there is. So he goes off on some really weird tangents, and he repeats himself a lot. Also, it's out of print but in demand, and ludicrously expensive even when used. ($85 for a new copy? $30 for an old one?) Still, despite occasionally rolling my eyes, I'm very glad to have read it, so extra stars for you.

#39: Venice and Amsterdam: A Study of Seventeenth-Century Elites by Peter Burke. 4. This is not pleasure-reading, unless you have slightly odd pleasures. I read it as research for a project, and it's a dense scholarly work comparing two mercantile republics. Given what it is, it's well-researched and well-written and generally just well done. It's not something to pick up to just read on the train. But if you're actively looking for this information, it's an excellent source.

Books

Mar. 19th, 2016 01:37 pm
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#24: Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner. 3.5. My goodness, I can see why some of my friends are completely in love with this book. This is the slashiest slash that ever slashed, only original. There are a bunch of nobles floating around, and ostensibly a lot of court politics. But really, this is the story of two special snowflake boys in love and ANGST. One is the very best swordsman who ever sworded. The other is a disgraced, somewhat suicidal scholar with a hidden past. There's clothing porn, manful tears, make up sex, threatened rape and torture, hurt/comfort, and lots of misunderstandings because people refuse to talk about their feelings right after angsting about their feelings.

It's the kind of thing that, if this pushes your buttons, mashes them with a mallet. They're not really my buttons, though. It was entertaining, but I actually kind of wanted to slap most of the main characters.

One thing I appreciated--I don't think this book could necessarily be written today. Not at all because of the relationship, but because of the low stakes. Most genre fiction today seems to require earth-shattering revelations. Today, I think the author would have been pressured into taking the hints of artisan revolts and the possibility of toppling the government and making the climactic courtroom scene determine, not just the fate of one or two people, but the entire government. And I don't think that's necessarily a good thing. There should be a place for stories like this, which may not be low stakes but really only affect a handful of people. Not every book needs to threaten to upturn the world forever.

#25: The City & the City by China Mieville. 5. Is this actually a supernatural thriller, or just a very clever procedural? Mieville continues to be evasive, even in the interview in the afterward. Either way, it's relentlessly clever.

I hesitate to even describe the setting in too much detail, since part of the joy of this book is discovering the nature of the dual city of Bezsel and Ul Qoma and of Breach. Let's leave it to say that this is a murder mystery in a palimpsest city whose citizens stretch the meaning of the social convention. It's a fascinating thought experiment without being in the slightest bit cerebral--Tyador is not particularly philosophical and is far more interested in figuring out who killed the victim and how that death is tied into the knotty politics he would have preferred to avoid. At the same time, it's suitably creepy and atmospheric. Interdepartmental fighting at a level beyond any bureaucrat's worst nightmares, all overshadowed by the continual shadowy threat of Breach. The conclusion manages some real surprises that make perfect sense in retrospect. A deeply satisfying mystery with an ingenious twist of the weird.
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#21: The Kingdom of Gods by N.K.Jemisin. 5. I wasn't as enthralled by the second book in this series, but she finished strong. I'm not sure why the cover copy is all about a secondary character, which had reduced my interest quite a bit, because this is Sieh the Childhood Trickster god's story. And I love Sieh, and it's clear Jemisin does, too. He's such a mix of dangerous and knowing innocence. Trickster is scarcely a new character, but this is a refreshing (and touching) take on him. Bonus that she wraps up much of the plot threads laid elsewhere.

#22: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. 5. Another creepy charmer from the master of Goth. This one is very much aimed at a younger audience, but is no less suitable for adults. I love the very concept of a little boy raised by ghosts in a graveyard.

#23: Uprooted by Naomi Novik. 5. I'll admit, this one hit a bunch of my favorite tropes, with a unexpectedly gifted apprentice and a romance with a prickly mentor. Are there cliches? Of course. But I loved the fundamental concept of the evil Wood, and the deeply satisfying ending. I also appreciated that she did not magically win everyone over in the capital--the protagonist is terrible at court politics, and realistically doesn't improve. Overall, it's deeply satisfying.

More books

Feb. 28th, 2016 09:19 pm
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#17: Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class by Barbara Ehrenreich. 5. Fascinating anthropology book written in the early nineties, chronicling the political mindset of America's professional class from the late fifties through the end of the eighties. Is this objective? Not in the slightest. But she's pretty transparent with her biases, and I agree with many of them. Since I was only hazily aware of the eighties, having lived through them as a small child, this made a lot of the current political situation more comprehensible...as well as more depressing. Near the end, she muses on the possibility of a swing back towards the left and a narrowing of the gap between rich and poor. I haven't checked if she is still alive yet, but I can't help but think that dismayed would barely cover her opinion of the last three decades.

#18: Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words by Randall Munroe. 4. Several years ago, xkcd featured a comic about "Upgoer Five", a diagram of the Saturn rocket explained entirely in the top thousand most used words. (This is most well-known for the concluding sentence "If it starts pointing at space you are having a bad problem and you will not go to space today.") This is an entire book of that. Munroe explains things as diverse as the composition of pencils and the composition of the interior of a star in incredibly over-simplified language. It's funny and thought-provoking. A note: this is not this decade's The Way Things Work--in fact, if you don't already have a rough idea of how these things work, you will not actually understand any of this. You need at least a working knowledge of freshman year chemistry, physics, astronomy, and more. What it is good for is making you think about the things that you kind of vaguely know about and either have forgotten or never quite got, and making sure you actually turn it around in your brain enough to make things click. (For example, I had to pull up an actual copy of the periodic table to make heads or tails of the periodic table page, but then it was very funny. And I learned about some properties and history I hadn't known before.) It's a puzzle, in which you try to figure out what the real words that he's not using should be, how that all plays into his explanations, and then translate it out again to get the joke. It's delightful for nerds. I would not bother having my son read it until at least halfway through high school.

#19: The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A.J. Jacobs. 4. Jacobs is the kind of writer who I suspect is an insufferable ass in person, but is quite entertaining in prose. In trying to follow all of the rules in the Bible, sensible or nonsensical, he deliberately takes the most outlandish ways of performing them, ostensibly in the name of independence and purity, but partly because he wants to play up the ridiculousness. (For example, when trying to attach tassels to the corners of his garments, he deliberately ignores tzitzit for the first half of the book and makes his own outlandish tassels out of yarn and safety pins. He's a Manhattan Jew, if nonpracticing. He's perfectly well aware this is a solved problem. He finally gives in midway.) I mostly felt for his wife, who went through a round of IVF and then a full pregnancy and delivery of twins during this entirely thing, in which her husband played at purity laws and refused to touch her or anything she had touched for large chunks of the month without any of the cultural support that a couple normally part of this culture would enjoy. But that said--it's still immensely entertaining and somewhat educational. And bits of warmth and transcendence break through despite him.

#20: Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny. 2.5. I loved this book from the start. Unfortunately, that love pretty much died by the time Corwin got his memory back halfway through. It starts with an amnesiac playing a clever and dangerous political game whose rules he doesn't remember. It hints at political maneuverings, battles of wits, fantastical magical worlds, and an exceptionally clever and interesting protagonist. Unfortunately, Zelazny can't actually deliver on his political intrigue--once it's out in the open, it's straightforward and kind of uninteresting. The transition to the magical world is fascinating and inventive. Once we get there, though...there's nothing. I do not care who rules Amber, I don't even understand why Amber is special beyond the protagonist being homesick. Similarly, we're told Corwin's brother is an evil despot, but he does nothing that's worse than anyone else does. I can't even root for Corwin. He starts off as more compassionate. He's got a fascinating history of being trapped on Earth for hundreds of years. But as soon as he gets his memory back, that all goes out the window. He's an idiot, a bad tactician, and gives us no reason whatsoever for why he deserves to be king more than Eric. I just didn't care. Heavy front-loaded sense of wonder, but no follow through. Disappointing, for a classic of the genre, but I suppose it comes from a time where character development just wasn't a thing.
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#13: Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You by Sam Gosling. 4. This is the kind of pop psych book that strives not so much to be deeply insightful as it does to be entertaining. And you know what? It's not particularly insightful, but it is very entertaining. It's partly about what we think we can discover about other people's personalities from observation and partly about what we can actually discover (and why those two are not the same thing). It promises to make you a master detective, and won't, mostly. But it's a lot of fun to think about what you can learn from someone's desk drawers or playlist.

#14: Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's "Learned" by Lena Dunham. 4. Dunham is the kind of storyteller who can both take a minor incident and spin it for tragicomic effect and take a traumatizing disaster and turn it into a bar story. You're never quite sure whether to gasp in shock or hilarity. She's certainly talented, definitely damaged, but it's unclear how much of a mess she actually is, for all that she enjoys playing it up. She strikes me as the kind of person who brazenly revels in past trauma and current minor incidents but desperately conceals actual current pain. Kind of the definition of an unreliable narrator. While I don't particularly want to watch her show, I do seriously respect her abilities as a storyteller. It's refreshing to get a story from a messy wunderkind who happens to be female, if nothing else.

#15: The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women by Jessica Valenti. 3. I gave this a higher review than my actual interest/enjoyment warranted; to be honest, I skimmed most of the second half. That may not actually be fair, though, so I bumped it up a bit. The information is not bad; however, I think I came a little late to this party and I'm also probably better informed than the intended reader. So most of it I already knew. The style is...a little problematic for me. I found it to be extremely repetitive. This reads more like an extended blog post that got filled out to try to make book length. It's also the kind of repetition that works fine for a series of articles over months or years, but gets grating when read over a few days. Fine points, meh execution.

#16: And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts. 5. It's a credit to Shilts' writing that this is about events from twenty years ago, I know how the story ends, and it's a door-stopper of a tome, and I still had trouble putting it down. I knew that the early history of the AIDS crisis was an appalling mess of mishandling, neglect, and prejudice, but this brings it to life in a horrifying way. He manages to simplify without oversimplifying a bewildering patchwork of biological and political complications, humanizing without demonizing or mythologizing the hundreds of complicated people who played major roles. It's fascinating and chilling and heartbreaking all at once. A tour-de-force.
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#9: Noises Off by Michael Frayn. 4. I'd read this farce a number of years ago; I re-read it immediately after seeing the current Broadway production to see what had been in the script and what had been added. (The entire second act is essentially in pantomime, so there's enormous room for elaboration in staging.) I'm having a lot of trouble rating this because of the difficulty in evaluating it as a object to be read rather than performed. Some plays, like much of Shakespeare, work as well if not better on the page than on the stage. This one, less so. For a standalone reading experience, it's maybe a 3. It's mildly amusing. When performed by a talented cast, it becomes a gut-busting 5. My face hurt for half an hour after leaving the theater. Frayn doesn't intend this to be read, so it seems unfair to penalize him for that. But really, don't read this--go see it in person. (Or rent the movie, which apparently is pretty great.)

#10: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee. 4. This has similar issues of readability vs performability as Noises Off, which I read immediately before it. Added in is the fact that this play features some of the most benignly malignant characters I've ever seen. They're awful, awful, dramatically unpleasant people, but in a situation which limits the damage they can do. We avoid pretty much all of the horror humans can inflict upon each other--there's no torture or murder or rape or any other violent nastiness--and stick just to attempting to completely crush one another's souls. I can see how it would be a tour de force for talented actors--playing out interlocked desperately codependent relationships gives a lot of room to chew up scenery like there's no tomorrow. But I have to say, I did not particularly enjoy inviting these people into my head.

#11: The Burning Dark by Adam Christopher. 4. This is a classic ghost story...in space. It's actually really impressive how well Christopher manages to meld the "vengeful ancient ghost from legends" (including all the standard horror tropes of deceased loved ones reappearing, whispering voices, disappearing minor characters, cold and sudden darkness, serious mind-fuckery, and so on) with a space opera derelict research station. You can't really decide how reliable a narrator the protagonist is until almost the end of the novel, which just increases the level of creepiness--something is definitely going horribly wrong, but how much is in his head and how much isn't is left up for debate for quite some time. I appreciated how Christopher manages to tie his mystical manifestations into the science fiction trappings through clever world-building. That said, the initial chronology is kind of needlessly confusing.

#12: Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis. 5. The Nazis have superheroes. The Brits have sorcerers. It all goes quite badly for basically everyone involved. None of the basic ideas here are particularly original; it's the development that's graceful and horrifying. Our viewpoint characters begin well-intentioned, and then as the situation becomes more desperate, are increasingly willing to make worse and worse choices. At what point do the good guys cease to be good, after too many expedient decisions? But even as their superiors go to pieces, the central characters never lose their humanity, just become gradually more damaged. All of it is overseen by a sociopathic oracle who's delightfully malevolent. Watching her maneuver people like chess pieces is fascinating. I hadn't realized, when picking it up, that this was the beginning of a trilogy, and was fooled by the short story at the end into thinking there was a prayer of wrapping it all up. I'll admit being almost ready to throw the book across the room in frustration when it ended; I'll have to be satisfied with tracking down the sequel instead.
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#5: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. 3.5. I don't know whether it's that I got on this train late or whether a lot of the studies cited are just fairly well known, but I will admit that I wasn't that surprised by a lot of the content. If you're relatively new to this branch of psychology/economics, this book is a stunning tour-de-force revealing how very irrational we are, even at our most rational. The author organizes a lifetime of (Nobel prize-winning) research to show how our brains take shortcuts that do not always serve us well, and how hard it is to avoid those even when you know they're coming. At the same time, he offers suggestions for how to structure around our known faults. On the other hand, if you've kept up with the literature, at this point a lot of it is fairly old news. The back half gets rather needlessly repetitive in its statistics--the various experiments shown aren't actually that different. So, ground-breaking for its time, a little less astonishing now.

#6. Waistcoats and Weaponry by Gail Carriger. 3.5. More delightful fluff from Carriger. Reticules shaped like sausage dogs, stolen trains, and ridiculous love triangles. This suffers a bit, though, from being an interstitial book. Most of what happens is just to set up either the last book in the series or the series that this is prequel to. Fun if you're a fan, but not her strongest.

#7: Manners and Mutiny by Gail Carriger. 4. Much stronger on the action front than the previous installment, although not quite the sublime ridiculousness of her first series. I appreciated several late-in-the-series reveals, as well as some very sweet denouements.

#8: The Devil You Know by K.H. Koehler. 3. There's the bones of a great story here, but it really needed another edit. The wish fulfillment of the protagonist--son of Lucifer, ex-cop witch--is extremely heavy handed. (Was it really necessary to point out how well endowed he is? Repeatedly? And being repeatedly assured of the hotness of his new fling and their resulting sex also gets old, fast.) We're told instead of shown quite a bit. The whole book is a bit too brisk--we could have used a few more twists as well as a lot more character development. The relationships that are sketched out are intriguing, but that's all they are--sketches.
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Title: The Backup
Author: Erica Kudisch
Genre: Urban fantasyish
Thingummies: 4.5

Synopsis: Unemployed musicologist reluctantly takes an assistant position for a dissolute rock star, who may or may not be the reincarnation of Dionysus but definitely is fucking with his head.

Thoughts: So, what did you think? )
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Title: Unraveled
Author: Courtney Milan
Genre: Regency romance
Thingummies: 4.5

Synopsis: An impoverished actress in thrall to a criminal mastermind tries to pull one over a stern judge. It...does not end the way they expect it to.

Thoughts: So, what did you think? )
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Title: Content Inc
Author: Joe Pulizzi
Genre: Marketing
Thingummies: 4

Synopsis: Guide to content-driven marketing.

Thoughts: So, what did you think? )
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Title: Darkover Landfall
Author: Marion Zimmer Bradley
Genre: Science fiction verging on fantasy
Thingummies: 1.5

Synopsis: A shipload of misogynists crash on a planet and then go crazy, but not in a particularly interesting way; series ensues.

Thoughts: So, what did you think? )
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