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While typing part of this, I rewatched the DS9 episode where Eddington taunts Sisko with Les Miserables. It's the wrong book for the metaphor the story was trying to write: Valjean doesn't lead revolutions. Sorry, Eddington; your heart is in the right place, but you're looking for another Hugo protagonist, I think.




My reading log is so behind it starts with last year's WSFA small press nominee voting bundle. The contents were:

Cut for space, along with story comments. )




Readers, feel my shame. I reread Mercedes Lackey. )

I did not venture into Mage Winds / Mage Storms territory (much), instead making a hard swerve into the Vanyel trilogy. It seems I still have many feelings about the (possibly unintentional) structure of foreshadowing and capital-D Destiny, while being less and less invested in the actual story. Teenagers are not all that good at life decisions, who knew? Teenagers with superpowers are not that good at life decisions with superpowers, not shocking! Unless you are a Herald, apparently.

One Big Happy Family: 18 Writers Talk About Polyamory, Open Adoption, Mixed Marriage, Househusbandry, Single Motherhood, and Other Realities of Truly Modern Love (ed. Rebecca Walker) (2009): Essays on family. A mixed bag, which killed some bus time.

Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation (Dan Fagin) (2013): Nonfiction. A recounting of the history of a chemical plant in a New Jersey town, and of the legal wrangling that arose during the plant's decline. Long, heavily end-noted, very well written. There was enough science I can look up the technical aspects for more details, and the science that was in the book was clearly described for a lay audience. The legal aspects also seemed well done to me, evoking the tedium and inanity of major legal actions, and the ambiguous closure - or lack of closure - associated with the final settlements.

Also, I will never look at tap water the same way. Highly recommended.

ETA, 2015: SAN trimer results complete, ambiguous. The study is discussed in Fagin's book in some detail.

For reasons, I reread broad swathes of Kage Baker's Company novels (1997 - 2007): In the Garden of Iden, Sky Coyote, Mendoza in Hollywood, The Graveyard Game, The Children of the Company, The Machine's Child, The Sons of Heaven, and the short story collections Black Projects, White Knights and Gods and Pawns. You'll note I skipped The Life of the World to Come, as my feelings on Mendoza's romance start at "faugh, this is not an entirely consensual relationship!" and go downhill from there.

The Company novels are wonderful entertainment: there's great worldbuilding with a number of clever little touches; a deep and wide cast of entertaining, well-evoked characters; coherence of plot and theme; deft comedic timing. They're not flawless: the Mendoza romance is predicated on some deeply sketchy "Edward is Always Right" nonsense. It's possible to argue there's an arc where Nicholas and Edward and Alec learn they aren't all that, but it's not entirely clear to me that's in line with the author's intention. I am happy to burble at length in comments, particularly about Joseph, or series structure, or the little gray men.

Ancillary Sword (Ann Leckie) (2014): Sequel to Ancillary Justice. It was enjoyable, in a way that is a little aslant of AJ.

Spoilers for both novels. Also, probably nonsensical without reading both novels. )

The Name of the Wind (Patrick Rothfuss) (2007): Fantasy novel. The retelling of the youth of Kvothe, called the Deathless, the Bloodless, Kingkiller, etc, by the red-haired green-eyed innkeeper Kote.

Jo Walton reviewed this favorably, and one of my friends really liked it, so I made an exception to my Fat Fantasy Epic rule. (The Rule: "Don't.") It didn't move me as strongly as others have been moved, but I'm intrigued by the artifice of the framing story. We're being told a story! The narrator may be rather unreliable! I certainly hope the portrayal of women is a side effect of the precocious mid-teens male protagonist PoV. The language is polished, nearly invisible, except when it does something particularly beautiful.

I still find myself inclined to wait until the trilogy (or series) is finished or permanently abandoned before reading the second novel.
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I keep meaning to post this on reading Wednesday, and forgetting. Have a reading Tuesday!

A Hero at the End of the World (Erin Claiborne) (2014): Scott Pilgrim redux, without Scott Pilgrim's brilliant deployment of contemporary pop culture, or the lurking plot twist that Scott recognizes and acknowledges his flaws. A story as trope-heavy as The Magicians, without Grossman's wonderful prose, or critical engagement with the problematic aspects of fantasy tropes. By chapter four (of 33) I didn't care about any of the characters, and committed the minor sin of skipping to the final chapter. A later plot element inspired false hope it would get better. It doesn't.

The novel is blurbed as "best friend of Chosen One fulfills Chosen One's destiny, timestamp: 5 years later". Sounds like a great opportunity to engage critically with the Chosen One trope, doesn't it?

This is not that novel. )

A Hero at the End of the World is the first novel published by Big Bang Press (see Kickstarter page). I anted up at the "three ebooks plus commentary" level, and will report back as the second and third novels show up in my inbox. Hero was the novel I had most expected to enjoy, so it's disappointing I bounced off it this badly. But! Now I can re-scale my expectations appropriately.

Saga: Volume 3 (Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples): THIS SERIES YOU GUYS THIS SERIES. This is how you do tropes. It's space opera (I love space opera). There is a star-crossed romance, which can be done poorly or well, and in this case it's done to my taste. Though Marko and Alanna are very "us against the world", usually my least favorite romantic plot, this is constantly undercut by their own flaws and struggles with their relationship, and their awareness of the possible consequences for their tiny daughter. The young parents may be In Love, but that doesn't resolve their insecurities, interior or exterior. Someone still has to change the diapers.

Spoilers for Volume 3. )

I love this series. I love the sprawling canvas. I love the multiple perspectives the reader follows, the compromises people make (and try to break), the gorgeous full color art, the callously high body count, the Lying Cat (if you do not love Lying Cat, there is no hope for you), Marko and Alanna figuring out how to be responsible parents, the different characters engaged in some form of parenting, or caretaking, or bringing life into an uncertain world (the Robot family! Could this series signpost Major Issues with more neon lights? Cannot wait to see how that plays out), the relationships. I love Klara figuring out this mother-in-law thing. I love the random ghosts and magic and the spaceships and the transformative power of trashy romance novels. I love the art, and the shameless reveling in this broad spacious canvas by writers, inkers, artists who know exactly what they're doing with their tools.

The Empress of Mars (Kage Baker) (2010): Mary Griffith, former scientist, current bar-owner-slash-brewer-slash-mother, survives and thrives on Mars.

Not my favorite Company novel (Sky Coyote, hands down; expand to shorter works and I will nominate "Son Observe the Time"), but delivered palate-cleansing competent storytelling and mild slapstick. There is, how to say this? When Baker makes her characters immature and short-sighted, one gets the impression she does not find this charming. It's just part of the human condition. She's also got tonal range in her storytelling: The Empress of Mars is pretty frothy, compared to, say, Mendoza in Hollywood. Mary's two oldest daughters get married, Mary secures the small entrepreneurial fortune any self-respecting pioneer woman would desire, plucky quirky independence is celebrated and mindless conformity derided... this isn't deep, but it's competent.
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Life After Life (Kate Atkinson) (2013): Mainstream "kill Hitler" time loop novel. Protagonist Ursula Todd is born, lives, dies - and is born again on the same snowy night in February 1910.

Spoilers for last page plot twists, invocation of TV Tropes. )

In some ways, it's an infuriating novel: long sections meandering through Ursula's life, especially her childhood and Blitz experiences, clicking together at the very end in a fashion where the reader is torn between turning back to the first page to reread with new knowledge and throwing Life After Life across the room at the thought of subjecting yourself to all that again. Is this a mainstream thing? It reminds me strongly of the quotidian slog of Possession, turning into something much more interesting most of the way through, with a brilliant wonderful ending.
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Hild (Nicola Griffith) (2013): Historical fiction in 6th C Anglo-Saxon territory, where textile production is both integral to the worldbuilding, and does extra duty as a recurring metaphor for the politics the protagonist is involved with. It's a wonderfully dense novel, both in the plot and the sense of immersion in Hild's perspective. Griffith balances the warmaking and politics of territory with policies of taxation, the good and bad harvests, economic strategies, and Hild's interactions with her family and household. Tight third PoV narrative voice us all this with an undertow of Hild-ness in the midst of sheep and war.

Hild's awareness that she plays the game of thrones, combined with her sense of isolation and tight kin bonds, may be familiar to Cherryh fans. Definitely recommended for readers jonesing for a story where thought and the occasional manipulation of other characters play a significant role. The major caveat: the novel rewards close attention. This is a rare case where I wanted more family trees in the frontispiece.

A few plot and thematic elements also reminded me of Jo Walton's The King's Peace / The King's Name duology. KP/KN is set a few universes over from ours, in a British Isles analog in fragmented disarray following the withdrawal of a Roman-like "civilizing" force. The novels are the memoirs of one of the unifying king's fighters. (There's a prequel, The Prize in the Game, that hasn't floated to the top of my to-read stack yet.) In sharp contrast to Hild, in KP/KM the gods are real, manifest in miracles and face to face interactions as well as some prophecy or destiny stuff. This does not stop people from manipulating religion for secular ends. Hild and KP/KN share the spread of a unifying monotheistic Christian or Christ-like religion, the often bloody attempt to unify an island nation, and a particular attention to women's roles and relationships. Walton is inventive in building a world a little to the left of ours, Griffith in meticulously evoking a plausible secret history. They converge in the sense of verisimilitude the novels evoke. So it was The King's Name I wanted to reread after finishing Hild, rather than, say, Cyteen.

(Tangentially, Hild and Ari are on the "never allowed to hang out together" list. Even if they get along, the gamesmanship would be ridiculous. And if they didn't get along, they'd probably rend the political fabric of the known universe.)

Currently slogging through Life After Life, a mainstream novel executing a flavor of the Groundhog Day trope.
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Two novels very good in very different ways:

Star Wars: Razor's Edge (Martha Wells) (2013): Reread. A fun SW romp. Wells is really good at the sort of second-order worldbuilding I can't get enough of. Not just saying "abandoned mine taken over by pirates" but digging into that premise, and bringing out the sense of things pirates might do with an abandoned mine: yes to shooting galleries and slave pens, no to routine maintenance. Very standalone, which is a plus and a minus. Sometimes, it's really cool to see authors tie into and interpret existing material (from other writers, I, Jedi comes to mind); sometimes it's fun to see what new ideas authors can come up with (Alderaanian pirate ship!).

Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) (2006): Fiction set during the Biafran War, or the Nigerian Civil War, of 1967 - 1970. Picked up after an NPR interview with the author; it's certainly a capital-L Literary novel. The reader can engage on the level of "Richard wants to be a Writer more than he actually writes"; or the psychology of Odenigbo's affair, and Ugwe's horrified reactions; or Richard and Olanna sleeping together, especially in the context of Richard's dismissiveness toward the expat community*. Certainly it's possible to be gripped and bored by turns during the war itself, as the conflict radically alters the characters' lives: middle- and upper-class Igbo like Olanna and Kainene struggle with privation, and Ugwe is drafted, exposing readers to the ugliness of combat and how the chaotic military life affects those fighting.

*"But this was expatriate life. All they did, as far as [Richard] was concerned, was have sex with one another's wives and husbands, illicit couplings that were more a way of passing the heat-blanched time than they were genuine expressions of passion." (chapter 21)

But there's the other level, too, where one remembers this is a novel, where the author has made choices. The choice that Olanna and Keinene do not speak for years after Kainene's lover sleeps with her twin Olanna; the significance of Olanna and Kainene's twin-ness; their shifts in fortune and friendship with the struggles of Biafra. So it's tempting to read extra signficance into each character and relationship: European Richard's infatuation with angry Keinene can become a metaphor, as does his impotence, literal and narrative; the child Baby, not just Olanna's lover's daughter, might also be a symbol of Biafra or the Igbo attitude toward Biafra. Kainene's disappearance is not only the open wound of family missing in war, for months and years, but carries extra weight as it occurs during the dissolution of Biafra. Even the PoV choices - Olanna, her lover's servant Ugwe, Richard - become significant, especially in light of the romantic affair that fractures the narrative, and the strained relationship between Olanna and Keinene. Even the lack of perspective from the passionate revolutionary Odenigbo comes into play.

Next up: Hild has floated to the top of the to-read pile, yay!
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Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (Anthony Bourdain) (2007 edition; original pub 2000): Specialist writes about his beloved field, warts and all. A colorful mash of frank minutia, which I loved; blunt honesty; and just a dash of machisimo. The colorful recollections of knife accidents and burned hands don't always make for appetite-enhancing reading during lunch or dinner, but the emphasis on narrative by anecdote makes this a fun book to read on the bus and train.

Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison (Piper Kerman) (2010): Prison memoir; picked up after watching the first season of the show. Knowing the writer is telling a story, it's interesting to compare the book to the series, and to consider how those diverge from the lived experience.

My Real Children (Jo Walton, 2014): Being a double life framed within the slippery memory of a woman with advanced Alzheimer's.

It feels like Walton writes a novel when she has a new experiment to try. Cut for space, incidental spoilers. )

If anyone else has read My Real Children, I'd love to hear your thoughts on it; this was definitely more of a thinking than feeling novel for me.
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What better day than reading Wednesday to tackle the backlog of the last - ahem! - months of things read?

Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco (Jason Henderson) (2013) gives what it says on the tin. The author enters a discourse on the car and car alternatives in San Francisco, viewed through the interactions of three major camps defined by Henderson: progressives, neoliberals, and conservatives. That concept I found an interesting lens for viewing some of the history of transportation in the City, but the execution was somewhat draggy. Perhaps it's a side effect of the intended (academic?) audience? The prose is decent, but less than brilliant, hampered by several quirks or writing choices. It may be a philosophical choice to obscure some parties' names - forces of history versus Great Man? - but ultimately I think some of the elliptical references to, say "the recently elected [public official]" instead of explicitly invoking Agnos or Jordan or Brown undercuts the enjoyment of placing the events and the writer's interpretation of events into a larger context. Also, it damages the book's long-term relevance to people outside the scholastic/social justice hard core. Speaking obliquely of the 2011 interim mayor who said he was not running for mayor and then did is relevant information, but why not just say, "Ed Lee, interim mayor who..." for the person stumbling across this in 2020?

I was also disappointed to see scant attention to another sort of mobility, the physical body's perceived or actual capabilities, as a component of car-centric "automobility" and alternatives. Calls to improve transit and increase trips by bicycle are great, but the failure to acknowledge the role of physical and mental ability to negotiate alternative transit options was a notable gap that could have benefited from greater attention.

It would also be interesting to hear the author's take on the flurry of taxi-like services like Uber and Lyft. On the one hand, expanding ride-share expands non-auto-owning options for urbanites, a progressive goal; on the other, the target audience for these services seems to be a smartphone-savvy class the author might not consider particularly progressive.

When the Hugo nominee lists were published, I put Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie, 2013) on hold, and got to read it in June. It's a strong first novel, but after finishing it I was surprised it vaulted to the Hugos. Then I looked at the rest of the list, and started listing the things it does: a solid workmanlike job with a double-stranded narrative, tricky PoV issues, a great job with the relationship between Seivarden and Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen, big fat space opera worldbuilding delivered in reasonable chunks that (1) set up a mid-novel plot reveal, (2) takes your "the future will be genderblind" and says, "oh really, let's play that out to a logical conclusion" in understated efficient and effective tight-third narrative, (3) get really creepy with respect to police states, concepts of self, and concepts of culture if you start thinking about it... and it became less surprising.

Spoilers discuss plot and worldbuilding. )

I am not certain I can say this rewards close attention in the manner of some SF classics, but I am sufficiently intrigued to look for Leckie's shorter works and keep an eye out for her next novel. Certainly would encourage others to read this, but with the caveat to bring adjusted expectations.

For reasons I am having a bit of a middling-gray tea-time of the soul, but in this time of self-reflection I was graced with a ray of light, or at least validation that I'm not the only fool in the world. Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Antifragile (2012), a tedious mix of ego and One True Theory which confuses anecdotes with inductive reasoning*. Personal weightlifting goals as an entry point to biological "overshooting". Unnamed high school acquaintances as a door to psychology. Feelings on the "inexorable disloyalty of Mother Nature". (Cruel betrayal by the laws of physics. Wow.) And I find that, somehow, I am not all that enthused by analogies of failed entrepreneurship to dead soldiers. The loss of money and being laughed at is a crisis from which one might recover; unless one is religious, being killed has no Chapter the Next.

*Author: "No, you do not understand. Go read Black Swan and the light will shine upon you."
Me: "Maybe, but given the ratio of ego to insight, I find myself strangely reluctant to waste more time on this prating. Come back with an endnote including datapoints replacing each instance of isolate personal experience, mister. If I want thought experiments I will revisit New Wave science fiction and its inheritors."

The concept of examining that which is harmed by chaos (the fragile), that which is neither harmed nor benefits from chaos (the robust), and that which benefits from randomness (the antifragile) seems like a good idea, and the book came recommended as "interesting", but I think it's time to chalk this up as "superficially intriguing, unforgivably sloppy execution" and move on, before I devolve into asking "is the author saying type systems should be antifragile and constructs within a type class should not be?" which is going to end with a five-paragraph rant on infrastructure deprecation and sustainable value extraction from high-diversity ecosystems (of organisms and businesses).

Dis-rec, unless one brings a drinking game.

On impulse, I picked up World War Z: An Oral Histroy of the Zombie War (Max Brooks) (2006), a post-apocalyptic mockumentary of an international zombie plague. Zombies are very much not my thing, but fragmented narrative where the reader is expected to pay attention absolutely is up my alley. Much of the book was a fine dance between queasiness (zombies, ew) and assembling the implicit narrative. There's some enjoyable second-order worldbuilding details, as the interviewees reflect on their experiences: initial cover-up attempts; humans fleeing early outbreaks, not necessarily smartly, and the consequences; novel military tactics; individual and collective survival actions.

I am told the movie based on the novel focuses on an action-adventure Brad Pitt character seeking first Patient Zero and later an utterly ridiculous biological shield from zombie attention, in ways strongly divergent from the tone and themes of the novel.

Julie E. Czerneda's Survival: Species Imperative #1 (2004) is the first Czerneda novel I've picked up in, oh ten-plus years, when I read her first novel, A Thousand Words for Stranger (space opera, with telepaths, and aliens, and telepathic aliens who look sufficiently human for a romantic thing, with amnesia). Survival is in a similar tradition of space opera. Research-obsessed scientist is unwillingly, even unwittingly drawn into interstellar politics! There are aliens! There are life-threatening cross-species miscommunications! There is emotionally significant long hair! There are terrifying interstellar conflicts between aliens! The main character has four given names, opting for the gender-neutral "Mac" over Mackenzie Winifred Elizabeth Wright Connor, and who can blame her?

There's some interesting twists on space opera embedded in the sprawling narrative: intersections of biology and interspecies diplomacy, strong professional friendships within and across genders. Our Mac has Romantic Tingles for one character, a Coulson-esqe secret agent man, but that's one (running cold and hot) thread of a much larger social tapestry. At least as important is her relationship with another - female - researcher, and by the end of the novel it's looking like that friendship is going to drive far more plot than anything to do with Mr Romantic Tingles, tying into her interactions with an alien researcher and the plot twists associated with his secretive species.

That social tapestry is one reason the novel takes so long to get moving, flirting with sabotage and investigations before stretching out for places unfamiliar to Mac and the reader. The prose is workmanlike third person tight-ish, with one quirk: the italicized-thoughts convention is in third person past tense. So something like, "A rustle of synthrubber as Emily came to sit beside her. With their hoods and capes, the two of them, Mac decided, must look like small yellow tends themselves (DAW pb p21)" would be "A rustle of synthrubber as Emily came to sit beside her. With their hoods and capes, the two of us, Mac decided, must look like small yellow tends ourselves in most novels. Flouting genre convention is no bad thing - see Ancilliary Justice - but generally I enjoy it most when there's a reason the trends are being ignored. In this case, with much of the narrative hewing closer to ground familiar to the McCaffrey-Lackey-ish generation, it didn't encourage reflection on the cool or interesting things the story was doing so much as it threw me out of the narrative pretty much every time it cropped up, throughout all 435 pages.

I'm feeling no burning rush to tackle the sequel. This was entertaining without leaving me a burning desire to find out what happens next, so it'll probably be saved for bus or airplane reading when I'm in a Big Fat Space Opera mood.



The current book in hand is Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (originally published in 2001; reading the 2007 edition with a new forward), which strips any romantic illusions about fine restaurant dining from the reader.
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After three years of storage, I hung up wall art. It only took two trips to the hardware store (six months apart), moving a bedstand and a bed, maneuvering a 10' ladder through a 6' door, and about three hours.

Oh right, I also read more books.

Actually, I listened to more books: in late December I started Dun (Frank Herbert) (1965). When I finished that in late January I turned to A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L'Engle) (1962) which was read by the author, a fascinating experience; and when in February I finished that I tried The Forever War (Joe Haldeman) (1974). Audiobooks are in some ways more intense than reading a novel - one cannot skip ahead - but also can be more shallow, if one's attention wanders. The book-reader also makes a difference, more on that below.

It wasn't my intention to re-read three disparate and excellent science fiction works back to back; it just worked out that way.

Dune was a great road trip book. It moves so slowly. The ratio of contemplation to action gets pretty grim. Plots within plots within plots! Wheels within wheels within wheels! At a mellow reading pace! Perhaps the slow unfolding is why I have such a distorted memory of the novel; a great deal of the middle had been compressed in my memory.

Listening to A Wrinkle in Time was much like a bedtime story from a beloved grandmother. L'Engle's reading helped me really appreciate Meg's passionate frustrations, both from her perspective and the perspective of someone who is not (currently) struggling with the challenges teenage girls face. It also kept my sense of humor alive through some very Meg Murry-ish days.

I last read The Forever War in late high school or early college. At that time the SFnal, vertiginous effects of time dilation really stuck with me. This time the story's roots in Vietnam parallels were more obvious: time and experience, or more recent ambiguous conflicts. For the most part I listened to The Forever War in a few circumstances - while driving, that sort of thing - but in the last chapters I desperately wanted to read through the chapters I didn't remember to the sections I did vaguely recall. But I was also enjoying the reader's rendition so much I didn't want to pick up the physical novel! I hadn't expected the auditory component to become such an important part of the reading/listening experience. So I spent a weekend doing house chores with a war-novel-by-way-of-smartphone stuck in my back pocket.

My current physical reading is Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Franciso (Jason Hnederson( (2013). I am bogging down in the first chapter, hampered by a focus on mobility in the cars-bikes-trains sense, with - so far - very little contemplation of the body's ability to get up and do. I love cycling, but I would not recommend it to people with limited strength, or medical conditions which impair endurance.
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Kate Nepveu links to a drift compatibility discussion, and I think one could argue Julie and Maddie are TOTALLY DRIFT COMPATIBLE on that Spoiler ) alone. *sniff*

Which reminded me that I have read books!

Code Name: Verity (Elizabeth Wein) (2012): WW2 fiction about two friends, English and Scottish, spy and pilot, and a mission in occupied France that goes sideways. Emotional wrecking-ball which had a great deal of research poured into developing a line of argument the author's story could have happened. Spoilers, all the spoilers. ) Marked as teen/YA, but I'd rate this at the more mature end for the grim experiences as a captured spy and related emotional wrecking-ball qualities.

I reread large sections of Parable of the Talents (Octavia Butler) (2000) in January. Mild, pervasive spoilers, assumption of familiarity with the story under the cut. )

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