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Jhegaala (Steven Brust) (2007): Vlad Taltos visits his homeland while on the run from the Organization. This wasn't the book I expected (road trip with personal development and witty Jhereg). If it developed the "transformation" theme associated with the title, it was the transformation of the village Vlad visits, which I wasn't as invested in. The window dressing was very nice - reasonably interesting secondary characters, plot that didn't completely implode when prodded with a logic-stick - but I built up some anticipation based on the time-line skip between Phoenix and Athyra which wasn't fulfilled here.

A Fire Upon the Deep (Vernor Vinge) (1992): Reread. Space opera. The only countermeasure to a threat engulfing all high FTL civilizations is carried with a handful of sapients on one ship, the Out of Band II, and two children at the bottom of the FTL zone.

As usual, memory plays tricks. The "Net of a Thousand Lies" so strongly conjures usenet, my memory recalls more of it than is actually present ("hexapodia as key insight"), overlaying my subscriptions circa 199. I also forgot the horrific deaths of the Straumer children, what a brat Johanna was (in those circumstances? It was understandable brattiness), what a prick Pham Nuwen was, and how all of this came together in a riveting space opera. The "fun space opera" bit stuck. I think I had more thoughts on this, but they have been subsumed into...

The Children of the Sky (Vernor Vinge) (2011): Sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep; Tines' World after the Straumers and Out of Band II.

This book wins on raw entertainment. It's coherently written in clear prose about a fairly black and white moral dilemma. People are good or villains or misguided, and the misguided are redeemed. This is not a subtle novel. (One could argue that Nevil's wickedness is influenced by Recent Events, but that's not particularly subtle.)

Spoiler-cut. )

Amdijefri was my favorite part of Fire; Joanna and Ravna got to be rock stars in Children. This is more about personal taste than writing quality, I think. I am not a fan of traveling circus troupes, but I'm a sucker for tough girls and politics.

A Deepness in the Sky (Vernor Vinge) (1999): Reread; Pham Nuwen's Adventures in the Slowness. The first time I read this I missed the setup for the translators' revolt, so this time I tried to read closely for those clues.

Spoilers. )

At first, I hadn't planned to reread this, since I was pretty sure the library didn't have a paperback edition, and I had no plans to stuff a 700-page hardcover into my commute bag. (The commute bag is a Timbuk2 Classic Messenger, size small, awesome as long as the train reading is trade or mass market paperback.) So I was pleased to discover that Deepness benefited from being at the end of the alphabet during the last bookcase cull, and was on my shelf in paperback.

That was November. In December I started two nonfiction books, but didn't finish them; flipped through several Union-Alliance novels, and reread Heavy Time (1991) and Hellburner (1992) cover to cover. Heavy Time, about independent asteroid miners versus a large, corrupt, and bureaucratic corporation, has a resolution that is even more out of left field than most of Cherryh's novels, which is I guess what happens when your protagonists high cards are a salvaged miner-ship and Ben Pollard, part-time hacker and full-time pain in the neck. Hellburner is comfort reading for me. The rest of my December reading time was taken up with professional journals.

Numbers game: 6 total finished. 2 new, 4 reread; 6 fiction.
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Not a great month for fiction; guess it's time for a nonfiction binge.

The Exile Kiss (George Alec Effinger) (1992): Third book chronicling Marîd Audran's rise as Friedlander Bey's lieutenant and presumptive heir. This time, kingpin and lieutenant are thrown into Arabia's Empty Quarter and must restore themselves to the city while fighting a murder charge.

The Exile Kiss reminded me of Steven Brust's Teckla. For people who haven't read it, the relevant section is the professional assassin protagonist's awakening moral qualms about killing people for a living and his involvement in a criminal organization. Then he does the Omelas thing. In The Exile Kiss, Marîd questions his feelings about ordering an assassination, and while recognizing the sophistry of those around him, decides he doesn't feel that bad and orders people killed anyway. Something about lessons from Bedu nomads showing he must shoulder the burdens of leadership for the greater good. If the greater good means greater influence over others' lives and deaths, so be it.

One is cautioned to distinguish character ethics from author ethics, but either way, this one left a bad taste in my mouth.

The Magicians (Lev Grossman) (2009): This is so derivative. Or a commentary on other works, whatever. Brooklyn!Holden Caulfield is swept into not-Hogwarts and a world of magic, eventually to make his way into a Narnia-Oz-ish fantasy world. (What is this? "If Chabon can get out of the lit ghetto into the fruitful - ha! - fields of genre, I can too"?)

tl;dr, lots of handwaving and minimal spoilers. ) The Magicians can be praised for its easy accessibility to audiences raised on guardian Lions and magical boarding school adventures, but it lacks novelty and compassion, reducing its appeal to the fading charms of faddish popularity and conceit.

The Child Garden (Geoff Ryman) (1989): Picked up on the strength of Air when I desperately needed a bus book. I wish I'd purchased the $2 copy of The Sharing Knife: Horizon instead.

The edition I read was published by Small Beer Press. It is littered with sloppy copy-edit errors, like tooth-rattling potholes in the road of narrative. So future purchases from Small Beer Press will include spot-checks for actual editing.

The copy-edit threw me out of a story I wasn't sure I liked. The premise - humanity in a post-industrial scarcity Earth; half-cocked science cured cancer, which is key to living past forty; a time-disjointed narrative, skipping around Milena's mostly-linear life - teetered on the edge of suspended disbelief. Sometimes I fell over the wrong side. (The "child garden" of the title is one of the orphanages that raises the many children who outlive their parents' twoscore.) Sixteen year olds agonizing about their forbidden lesbian impulses - Bad Grammar, according to the Party and Consensus of the world - and their short lives and their other neuroses is more misery than I usually sign up for in my fiction. A larger-than-life dramatization of Dante's Inferno, genetically engineered "polar bear" people, viral transmission of a singing disease, and the end-of-novel confirmation that Milena isn't that reliable a narrator were more my speed.

Ryman won a Clarke for this; I can see why. The cancer biology wasn't completely unlikely in the '80s; the male pregnancy thing probably was pretty shocking and novel. (I'm curious about the worldbuilding: it's implied male pregnancy is terribly uncomfortable and almost certainly fatal. So why does any man go through with it? If that's supposed to be Milena's unreliable narration and a comment on the value of human life per Ryman circa '89, I'm only vaguely catching it.) However, Berowne and Mike's nonstandard pregnancies ring distractingly close to May's in Air, as do some of the other narrative themes - the handling of the gravitational angels, for example - which retrospectively makes Air look less mind-blowingly novel and awesome. Overall, this was on the weak side of "okay", aggravated by the copy-edit problems.

Dzur (Steven Brust) (2006): Vlad Taltos returns to Adrilankha, dines at Valabar's, and solves a little Jhereg problem for his ex-wife.

Inspired by The Exile Kiss, I picked up the several Vlad novels that came out after I decided I wanted to graduate from college and cut back on the leisure reading. Dzur was the first to come out after this decision. Five years later, it was okay but not great reading; I didn't care much about the mystery, wasn't engaging my brain to figure out the thematic connections, and was creeped out by the Vlad/Issola spoiler. Whatever was going on with the qualities of the Dzur in Vlad's delicious meal and less delectable machinations with respect to the Jhereg (Right and Left Hand), I was thrown out of it every time Vlad caressed his Great Weapon. No, I am not editing that sentence, I am passing on the raised eyebrow quotient.

Numbers game: 4 total finished. 4 new, 0 rereads; 4 fiction.
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Please bear with the length of this delayed double feature.

Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara (Colleen Morton Busch) (2011): Nonfiction. During the California 2008 fire season, a Zen retreat was evacuated under threat of fire. Ultimately, five long-term residents remained to defend Tassajara from the Basin Complex fire.

Better than nice. )

This was a quick, easy read: I picked it up Friday morning and finished it in Saturday afternoon. I felt like it added to my sense of Bay area community. Recommended if you're interested in Zen practice or fires.

Proust was a Neuroscientist (Jonah Lehrer) (2007): Nonfiction. Essays on the link between 19th and 20th C artists' insights and early 21st C scientific research. Walt Whitman, George Eliot, chef Auguste Escoffier Marcel Proust, Paul Cezanne's paintings, Igor Stravinsky's "riot" of Spring, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, and neurophysiology.

The first essay, on Whitman, was surprisingly entertaining. (Full disclosure, I loathe Whitman's writing. High school english inflicted "Song of Myself" on me during my period of vigorously rejecting all things transcendentalist.) This would have been better if I'd spaced out the essays; trying to read all of them without a break emphasized the collection's limited scope and Eurocentrism. It also suffered from trying to bridge science and the arts: with a foot stretching into each sphere, it did a very incomplete job rooting in either topic.

Fullmetal Alchemist, v.9-27 (Hiromu Arakawa) (2004 - 2010): EPIC WIN. I wanted something absorbing and fun for my train reading, and this fit the bill. My enjoyment makes it hard to write up: good entertainment is something I know when I see it. How do you pick out the components of pleasure when your brain is caplocking with happy reactions?

Thumbs up for awesome female characters, complex plot, detailed and coherent worldbuilding, and shades of moral gray. )

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (Jon Krakauer) (2003): Nonfiction. Interleaving of the 1984 murder of Brenda and Erica Lafferty by Brenda's brothers-in-law with a history of Mormon faith contributing to the environment that let men think God wanted them to commit murder.

The book has a weird depth (or shallowness?) of focus on one murder and all the history of fundamental Mormonism. )

Under the Banner of Heaven is interesting, but deals with people's cruelty in the drive for power, which makes for stressful reading. It's also sharply dated by its references to 9/11 and the absence of references to Prop 8. Worth reading if you're interested in the intersections of organized religion, power, and violence, but pack a strong stomach.

When Gravity Fails (George Alec Effinger) (1987): Fiction. A 22nd century Arabic punk gets the noir treatment. I will save the cognitive dissonance of the shift from FLDS to erratic Islam and the hilariously long list of novels I thought I'd picked up for another time. (This wasn't hard SF, Jerusalem Poker, or Srs Lit Bzns. Moving on!) I enjoyed the setting and atmosphere of the novel, without any particular attraction to the plot or protagonist, Marîd. Marîd suffers from saying he is a loner, relying on his native cunning to survive, between scenes of Marîd interacting with his girlfriend, buddies, and wider social network, and adjusting to some heavy-duty cyberpunk wetware upgrades with barely a pang. (Well, the denouncement with Hassan and Okking may be the pangs.) If I have to question whether the character's words and actions are congruent, and the book is not going for an unreliable narrator schtik? You're doing something wrong.

On the other hand, Marîd's low-brow 22nd century is an entertaining mix of bypassed cyberpunk and predictive power. Everyone has something like a cell phone, and information is power. The fringe elements that make up Marîd's social circle include transsexuals for whom somatic alteration was not cheap, but was possible; the surprise isn't that a female stripper used to be a boy, it's that she was a rich boy. The cyberpunk elements - wetware modifications that allow users to utilize personality modifications and knowledge add-ons - are one of the coolest elements in the story, cleverly and maddeningly presented as so mundane no one really thinks about what this means for the human condition, even as doctors evolve more sophisticated variations on the "moddies and daddies" theme. Such mundanity leaves the sense of wonder entirely in the reader's hands and mind, for a mixed experience.

Numbers game: 23 total finished. 23 new, 0 rereads; 20 fiction, 3 nonfiction; 19 graphic novel-ish, 1 essay collection.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Philip K. Dick) (1968): If PKD's purpose in writing this was to convince me Rick Deckard is Stanley Kowalski without the animal magnetism, it succeeded. If it is to set forth an argument that human beings will be petty and venal in most circumstances, it succeeded. If it's to envision a bleak postapocalyptic San Francisco, win. It's a venal story whose redeeming qualities are the local color (SF = love!) and curious reflections of 1968's nightmares. Robots are evil! In the future, Earth will be overrun by mechanical facsimiles of animals! And robots, too!

Every now and then, someone suggests PKD's fiction in my hearing, and I make the mistake of listening to them. PKD writes well-crafted stories I dislike, and I don't see a good reason to read any more of them at this time.

Fledgling (Octavia Butler) (2005): Octavia Butler writes a Mary Sue vampire novel. Seriously! Shori's an amnesiac genetic engineering experiment who can walk in the day, has the strength of grown vampire men, is 50 years old and looks like a 10-year old African-American human, and oh yes, survived the slaughter of her entire vampire family as well as all their human symbiotes.

As you may have gathered, this isn't my favorite Butler novel. It plays with power dynamics in Butler's usual mode, but in a "vampire novel!" context, exclamation point mandatory. Vampires are not my thing. Erotic relationships between adults and apparent children are really not my thing. Butler's usual writing talents couldn't overcome those handicaps to make this book interesting or memorably enjoyable for me.

The Outskirter's Secret (Rosemary Kirstein) (1992): Reread. If I won the lottery, there are two writers I could try to endow. Kirstein would be one of them. (Doris Egan is the other. Lois Bujold doesn't need my endowment; she regularly publishes in hardcover already.) I love the Steerswoman series for its worldbuiling, the protagonists, and general enjoyability. The Outskirter's Secret has my favorite worldbulding and a really fantastic Rowan-and-Bel travelogue.

A Fire in the Sun (George Alec Effinger) (1989): Sequel to When Gravity Fails. Marîd Audran, now one of underworld kingpin Freidlander Bey's lieutenants, visits his mother, investigates a murder, and foils a plot launched by Bey's major rival. Marîd continues to puzzle the reader with questionable characterization, grumbling about his lack of freedom while lapping the cream of servitude from his whiskers. The characterization seems inconsistent; it feels like Effinger had a Better Idea between When Gravity Fails and A Fire in the Sun, but didn't manage to completely integrate the retcon. The worst part for me was the giant brother-gun Effinger put on the mantlepiece early in the novel, which he never bothered to fire. Whether that was just sloppy writing or sequelitis in the works, it was poorly handled.

Numbers game: 4 total finished. 3 new, 1 rereads; 4 fiction, 0 nonfiction.
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Ten Years That Shook the City: San Francisco 1968-1978 (Chris Carlsson, ed) (2011): 328 pages of left-flavored essays on the late '60s / post-'60s / '70s San Francisco liberal scene. This wasn't great: it's SF History 201, and I needed City History 101. Also, the essay quality was uneven; a few were very entertaining and well-written, many were competent, and several had careless copy editing mistakes, such as an extra endnote. If the writer doesn't care enough to fix easy stuff like spelling and commas, can I trust they got the facts right?

Cut for space. ) Overall, the collection was mildly interesting, but so uneven I can't recommend it unless you have a lively pre-existing interest in accounts of that era. I'm taking recommendations for further reading on San Francisco history to feed my itch for local history.

Fullmetal Alchemist vol 1 - 8 (ch 1 - 33) (Hiromu Arakawa) (2002 - 2004): Manga. Brain candy. Addictive brain candy. I must apologize for the capslock in advance, because I know it's coming.

The premise: two boys try to resurrect their mother with alchemy. It backfires spectacularly. Now they're on a quest to get their original bodies back. I got as far as page 3 of the first volume before thinking, "this is going to be awesome, or a trainwreck. But it could be an awesome trainwreck!" And I was right! There is fridging (Nina Tucker), and the Ishbalan civil war is probably not social justice compliant, and I don't care. The story slides past the worst possibilities during the initially episodic storytelling and firms up nicely, adding vivid secondary and tertiary recurring characters as the plot develops an arc and the worldbuilding opens up. The female characters are at least as competent and likeable as their male counterparts. The story's focus is on the military, but civilians, kids, old women all get their moment to shine. The expanding storylines loop around and back into Ed and Al's quest, sticking to and heightening the premise's emotional core. In short? ROCK ON.

High points for plot, likable characters, and judicious killing of your darlings. )

Also, [personal profile] norabombay? FMA is fantasy, but it's heavily influenced by the European industrial revolution, so there are trains. Lots of trains. *Innocent face*

Maskerade (Terry Pratchett) (1995): Magic, mysterious deaths and the stage... Discworld does Phantom of the Opera. Pratchett's writing is a pleasant cup of tea, but very often I find it's high quality English Breakfast when I am craving Earl Grey. Or oolong. Or jasmine in green tea. I like the Discworld novels without the powerful attraction other people do.

Numbers game: 10 total finished. 10 new, no rereads; 9 fiction, 1 nonfiction; 8 manga, 1 essay collection.
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Anonymous comments on LJ have become almost entirely spam, so anon commenting's been blocked. If this is a problem, DW allows open ID comments, and dreamwidth invite codes frequently posted to [ profile] dreamwidth and/or [site community profile] dw_codesharing. Finally, LJ is free all the time.

Last weekend I watched Cowboys and Aliens and Captain America at the theater, and tried to distract myself from self-indulgent manga with a Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life. The distraction ploy backfired; the paragraph of strong feelings has been deleted. Cowboys and Aliens lived up to one review that it's the sum of its parts and no more. Captain America tried to be a faithfully gung-ho WW2 movie and succeeded admirably. To my shock, the black guy and the Asian-American guy lived. I'm assuming Red Skull will be back too.

I also watched Bride and Prejudice before a last-minute library return. I thought I hadn't seen it before, but I recognized most of the movie. So apparently it made very little impression last time I watched it, unfortunately.

Still reading Fullmetal Alchemist on the commute. )
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While most of these are novels new to me, it so happened that I had previous exposure to all three writers.

Kindred (Octavia Butler) (1979): Fiction. One minute Dana is at home, and a dizzying moment later she is on a riverbank, watching a boy drown. Ripped from 20th century Los Angeles to 19th century Maryland, Dana is compelled to keep alive Rufus Weylin, plantation heir and slaveowner - and direct ancestor of Dana's mother - in a time when a black woman is property to be kept in its place. Brutal and uncomfortable, compelling while not stretching my mind the way some of Butler's other novels have.

The Snow Queen (Joan Vinge) (1980): Reread, first pass since my teens. Now I have the tools to articulate my lukewarm reaction! )

This wasn't great. The narrative wandered across two planets and bifurcating subplots that eventually (mostly) drew back together thanks to author shepherding. Scientific extrapolation was entertainingly hand-wave-y. The prose put one foot in front of the other. The worldbuilding was enhanced by the narrative sprawl, a plus that kept me reading. As a teen I actually bought one of the sequels and eventually got rid of it unread. This year I figured out what I was missing and got around to World's End, see below.

The Matisse Stories (A.S. Byatt) (1993): Three stories inspired by or mentioning a Matisse painting. I've been using "mimetic fiction" as shorthand for "slice-of-life fiction, usually not that interesting to me". These stories were in that mold: they passed the time but rarely pressed themselves into my memory. "Medusa's Ankles" didn't do much for me one way or another. I could see the craft that had gone into it, but didn't care. I saw the twist coming in "Art Work". "The Chinese Lobster" pulled me in by way of the emotions under the surface. I liked the unfolding layers: it starts out about a student complaint and widens into questions of art, suffering, and death. One of three isn't a great average; these passed the time, but I'm not inclined to hunt out more of Byatt's short stories.

World's End (Joan Vinge) (1984): Sequel to The Snow Queen, companion volume to The Summer Queen. BZ Gundhalinu goes on a quest to rescue his two older brothers, falls in with wildcat prospectors on a jungle-and-desert trek, and gets his crazy on.

An enjoyable reading experience is all about expectations. When I first read The Snow Queen, I expected good fiction, and couldn't put a finger why I felt so ambivalent to it. This year I broke a rule and skipped to the end of The Summer Queen. All those petty concerns about agency, agenda, and multi-novel time-versus-reward were swept off the table when I found out a secondary character got the wormhole technology downloaded to his brain from a relict of the Ancients Old Empire and kicked off an arms race.

Cut for space and incoherent spoilers. )

It should be noted, I was reading this the same week I was completing school applications. A little displaced stress seemed appropriate. So I can't say this was technically good, but it let me add sybil virus to Aurora chairs, needle grenades to your brother's chest, vodka and orange, and the snowglobe flashforward in the lexicon of so over your head, son. And I was vastly entertained in the process.

The Summer Queen (Joan Vinge) (1991): Co-sequel to The Snow Queen. Undomesticated equines could not keep me away from a whopping doorstop epic hinging on a economic/political scramble and one man's undeclared agenda. The core storyline - BZ, Moon, and the threat of empire - is pretty cool, but the execution was way too ambitious. Twenty years of storytelling are refracted through a Greek chorus of PoV characters scattered over five planets, in a Stephenson-sized novel, and somehow several character arcs still feel shortchanged. I anticipated several plot "twists", to my disappointment, and the Tammis-and-Merovy plot was an agenda trainwreck.

Disjointed plot reactions. )

Numbers game: 5 total finished. 4 new, 1 reread; 5 fiction.
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Feminism is Queer: the Intimate Connection Between Queer and Feminist Theory (Mimi Marinucci) (2010): Gender theory and I do best in small doses, so I like to check in every few years to see if my strong feelings on the importance of activism and the incestuous tedium of theory have abated. (Short answer: no.) I'd hoped for a survey of the current state of the field, but most of this slim volume is focused on getting readers up to speed on feminism and queer theory, devoting only the final chapter to Marinucci's analysis of their contemporary intersection. I liked that chapter, and I found the "Feminism Expanded and Explored" chapter useful as well, again as a reminder of the current state of the field from the author's perspective. For example, the reminder that feminism and LGBT are not intrinsically the same movement (see especially p90, on second-wave feminism "the personal is political" vs LGBT "in the privacy of my own house", and '70s arguments on constructed vs essentialist homosexuality in radical feminism vs gay circles). The book also does the "all answers are wrong" theory thing I dislike, finding reasons both gender-neutral and gender inclusive language are wrong (see especially p74). Good primer for a 101 or 201 level, but not what I was looking for.

Tales of the City (Armistead Maupin) (1978): A novel about a woman who comes to San Francisco on vacation and calls her parents to say she's not coming home. Note this was published in 1978, or I might have to change my username to Mary_Ann_Singleton.

The story follows Mary Ann's vacation, job search, and forays into the City social scene, expanding through her social circle, doubling back and rebounding. Part of the entertainment is tracking the inter-relationships: Mary Ann's boss's wife sees gynecologist Jon Fielding on the sly, after an extramarital affair; Jon has an affair with the boss, and used to date one of Mary Ann's housemates; the ex-boyfriend moves in and recognizes Mary Ann as the girl who hit on Jon in a previous chapter. And the entire novel is like that, a sense that within the city, there's some very small circles. Compared to that rich web of interrelationships, the characters themselves are sometimes thinly fleshed out, and there's a distinct element of "plot? What plot?" for much of the book. It made Tales very easy to pick up and put down, as I struggled with my own San Francisco, 2011, sometimes marvelling at the differences of 30 years, sometimes mapping locations against my own experience.

The Shadow Speaker (Nnedi Okorafor) (2007): YA fiction. Teenage Ejii has already seen one small revolution, when Jaa the Red Queen beheaded Ejii's father before his wives, children, and the rest of the village of Kwàmfa. When the shadows tell psychically-gifted Ejii she must leave Kwàmfa with Jaa to prevent a greater war, she packs her veil and goes on an adventure.

This is expanded from an earlier short story, or the short story was excerpted from The Shadow Speaker Either way, it inspired me to pick up one of Okorafor's other novels, Zarah the Windseeker. I liked it, and expected a similar colorful and semi-serious YA novel. The Shadow Speaker delivered, raising questions about the ambiguous powers of violence while keeping me entertained with the story of life after a world-altering event. It develops Ejii's character plausibly, as well as the character of her travel companion Dikeogu. Ejii begins the novel working through the uncertainties of life after a nominally Muslim patriarchy has been violently removed by a woman with a sword, and struggling with her Shadow Speaker gift, as well as her father's death. Jaa removed a tyrant by killing Ejii's father, while Ejii's mother, the chief's ex-wife, urges nonviolence as a key to lasting peace. As Ejii travels she learns more about her gifts, who she is, and the world around her. And what a world! Ginen's plant-tech makes another appearance, as does the future world history shaping Ejii's Africa. Slightly less lighthearted than Zarah the Windseeker, and perhaps more engaging for the older crowd because of that.

Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam (Zainab Salbi and Laurie Becklund) (2005): Nonfiction account of - well, read the (painfully unwieldly) title and subtitles. Salbi's parents were upper middle class socialities drawn into Saddam Hussein's social circle in the '70s, and compelled to stay there as Hussein drew more power, violence and corruption to him. Salbi narrates her experiences of living in physical comfort and emotional abuse in the wake of the Iraqi dictator's social circus, who she made herself into on international soil, and how she reconciled her childhood and experiences as an adult working with women survivors of war.

This is compelling like watching a snake, waiting for the moments when the terrors whispered at the edge of on-demand parties uncoil on center stage. Salbi's experiences are narrated through the double lens of a teenager's immediate and self-centered understanding of the world, refocused by answers elicited as an adult. It's a form of introspection I can empathize with. If anything, that's my significant criticism of the book. I expected I would have to reach more to understand where Salbi was coming from, but the narration is pitched for an American audience, and didn't stretch me the way I was expecting. Maybe not the best book to read on a gray San Francisco weekend, but compelling: a demand to bear witness to human suffering caused by the selfishness and greed of a few. This was published in 2005, when there was greater hope the US invasion of Iraq would have a quick, positive outcome; the thought of the last six years' events on the women and men of Baghdad mentioned in this book weigh on my heart.

Komarr (Lois McMaster Bujold) (1998): Fiction, reread. I didn't intend to burn through the entire novel, but compulsive readability and old habits sucked me in. This time around, I paid more attention to Ekaterin and Tien's relationship than Miles' antics. Trivia: Komarr was the first Bujold I bought new in hardcover.

Cryoburn (Lois McMaster Bujold) (2010): Fiction, reread. Usually, when I read a new novel by a favorite writer, I finish it, and dip back in over the next days or weeks to reread my favorite parts. Cryoburn is the only Bujold novel which I have finished and shelved with no "favorite bits" flip-through. It's not bad - at least, I liked it no less than Diplomatic Immunity, and more than the Sharing Knife novels - but I think the series had several very, very strong novels in short sequence - Mirror Dance, Memory, A Civil Campaign - and after expecting the giant spoiler since, oh, 1998, I was and am in shock at my lack of catharsis.

Spoiler time! )

This isn't the book I wanted, so Cryoburn suffers a great deal from misplaced expectations. On a second reading, I can sort of hear the thematic chord of frozen para-death, versus living to the max, but I still don't hear it clearly. On the one hand, I can see why the story is constructed that way: life happens, not when you expected it. On the other hand, I still feel the book's lighthearted, right until the shocking moment it's not, and the difference throws me badly.

Weather of the San Francisco Bay Region, Second Edition (Harold Gillam) (2002): Nonfiction. An overview of why SF weather does the wacky things it does. After passing this up more than once at the bookstores, I came to my senses and put it on hold at the library.

The short answer to the weather question still isn't that short, invoking global weather patterns, trends, and oscillations, Pacific ocean currents, and a heavy dose of local geography. Pitched at a teens-and-up lay audience, this gives a neat overview of a complex system, which I found an enticing appetizer. I'm hoping the "further reading" suggested at the end of the book is just as interesting.

My Fight for Birth Control (Margaret Sanger) (1931): Nonfiction memoir covering Sanger's crusade up to 1931. Technically finished on June 1, but I spent most of May slogging through this, I'm counting it. Single-minded, and not always good writing, sometimes listing a paragraph of supporters whose significance readers might guess from their inclusion. It's also tinged with a very pre-WW2 pro-eugenics agenda calling for "unfit" couples to avoid having children, as well as casual talk of "the races" fit to raise the hackles of modern activists. A pervasive reminder of the differences between eras. The memoir is as relentlessly focused as the title suggests; Sanger's personal experiences with marriage, motherhood, divorce (in 1913!) and remarriage are touched on only in the context of her drive for contraception. WW1 is primarily a barrier to easy travel on Sanger's trans-Atlantic American and European tours. The 1929 stock market crash and creeping Great Depression don't make the cut, even to impact fundraising.

Today I believe there are three great tests to character: sudden wealth, sudden power, and sudden publicity. (p197, 1967 Pergamon Press edition)

My Fight for Birth Control illuminates Sanger's professional agenda up to 1931, but any more personal insights must be imputed between the lines. For example, Sanger's divorce gets a page or two, and then there's no mention of romance until she remarries nine years later; at least one website claims she had intimate relations with several men, including H.G. Wells. In her memoir, Sanger goes out of her way to suggest otherwise, at least in Wells' case. It's a splendid reminder that memoirs usually have a purpose other than the perfect truth.

Biology trivia: Margaret Sanger isn't (directly) related to Frederick Sanger, the biochemisty who got a Nobel for dideoxy sequencing, the workhorse DNA sequencing method for a quarter of a century or so.

Numbers game: 8 total finished. 6 new, 2 reread; 5 fiction, 3 nonfiction.
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The Big Meow (Diane Duane): Third novel about with the feline wizards responsible for Grand Central's worldgates. This time, they're on a consulting trip to mid-20th C Los Angeles. I was fairly "meh" about this one; the question of "defeated entropy incarnate twice, what next?" is answered with "lovecraftian horrors, of course. And time travel. Again."

Implicit spoilers. )

Cat's Cradle (Kurt Vonnegut): Inspired by Mor's pining for a karass in Among Others, I snagged this from a library shelf. What Mor seems to have missed is that the major karass of Cat's Cradle isn't necessarily harmonious nor bent on increasing the net joy in the world. Cat's Cradle is clever, but not particularly nice, particularly with respect to its female characters. For example, the woman who is repeatedly described as a sex symbol gets to make one significant decision in the novel, and that decision is to die with her people.

Wiki tells me "[Cat's Cradle] explores issues of science, technology, and religion, satirizing the arms race and many other targets along the way." I'm starting to think that old satires make good reading for book discussion, but are rarely cheerful or uplifting. I don't like admire Vonnegut's thought-experiment on a moment in history, on the scientist as hero, on what people will do in the name of religion (or a religion-like cause), but I can admire its strengths.

Reread O Jerusalem (Laurie R. King), which has not aged terribly well.

Power skim of The Knife of Never Letting Go (Patrick Ness) in preparation for reading the sequel, The Ask and the Answer. Knife was more violent than I remembered - not surprising, I read it from a Tiptree nominee perspective, and focused more on the feminism elements on the first read - and continues to descend into suffering and human brutality in Ask. I'm wishing for an editor to cut the trilogy down a bit; these books are long reads without much levity. How Ness plans to pull a happy ending out of the three-way war with the threatened co-option / destruction of the impending fourth party is beyond me.

Spoilers, discussion of violence, and spoilers. ) Ness is doing something interesting with the trilogy, but two-thirds of the way through I'm wondering if this ride is going where I want to follow.

Power reread of Childhood's End (Arthur C. Clarke), classic science fiction tale of the end of Earth. Very much a thought experiment; the characters seem to exist mostly to further Clarke's exploration of an End of Days idea.

A Midwife's Tale (Laurel Thatcher Ulrich): Nonfiction. A meticulous reconstruction of midwife Martha Ballard's life through her diaries. I didn't expect to find a post-Revolution Maine woman's life so interesting, but Ulrich lays out a fascinating puzzle. Her assembly of facts and fact-finding tools turns fragments of formal records, oral histories, and Ballard's diary entries into a sense of one Maine community at the end of the 18th C and the beginning of the 19th. Ulrich's agenda is to reclaim the legacy of women who worked tirelessly without leaving obvious marks on the world; their energy sustained people, rather than records. My exposure to Very absorbing in unexpected and welcome ways: I'd strongly recommended this to anyone interested in feminism.

I also reread Darkover novels in April and May. More about that later.

Numbers game: 7 total finished. 4 new, 3 reread; 6 fiction, 1 nonfiction.
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Friday night I finished Tales of the City. Whoever suggested I was Mary Ann Singleton: good call!

If you're ever looking up lyrics, "Karma Killer" is Robbie Williams. "Karma Police" is Radiohead. Don't mix these up.

I have a verbal offer for a temp job with a commute that makes me question my sanity. I'm waiting for a written offer before emailing the hiring manager about where I can put the bicycle I don't own yet. Which will be coming with me to and from Caltrain. Seriously, sanity: where did you go?

(I have an excuse to buy the bike I've wanted since moving to San Francisco, that's where it went!)

With classes done, and being between FT work, I have entirely too much time on my hands.

For reasons likely related to all the above, I have been rereading MZB's Darkover novels. They're one of the candy bars of fiction: cheaply available and not high art. But sometimes, you need a Three Musketeers bar and The Forbidden Tower. (Cursory google suggests a fangirl generation imprinted on Regis and Danilo, who win the woobie award, but I fell hard for the OT4.) There's an entire separate post to be written about MZB's interactions with the fan community, and which books are best / worst / most historically interesting, but wow, I'm picking up currents and rivers and entire oceans of MZB's personal politics I didn't notice as a teen. I really want a Three Musketeers bar. Drat.
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Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History (Laurel Thatcher Ulrich): Strong entry-level feminism primer. If I were trying to do a women's history or women's studies 101 , I'd love to stick this on the book list and cherry-pick case studies. The author coined the title phrase in a graduate paper on colonial women; in the prologue, she reflects on its separation from its original source.

Liked. )

I'd like this even more if there was more focus on the activism of the late 20th C, but that's out of Ulrich's academic focus. Instead I get many examples outside of my usual historical range, and read about women's history I would not have found on my own.

The Gate of Ivrel (C. J. Cherryh): The themes you don't notice when you're 17 are the most telling when you're 27. Vanye kills his brother, refuses to commit honorable suicide, is exiled and symbolically shorn of his honor, and after two years dodging avenging clan-kin, refuses three offers to be welcomed into a family/social unit (Liell at Irien, Roh and the Chya, Erij on the road to Ivrel), and goes pelting after the woman he cursed for binding him at the beginning of the novel. What I didn't notice were the callbacks to really pulp-ish sword and sorcery; the two-sons-plus-one family dynamics (seriously, what was Vanye's dad thinking? I sense Author's Hand); how much of the novel various characters spend wounded; the body count. I was an innocent young woman.

The first time I read The Gate of Ivrel was around the same time I found The Best of C. L. Moore, so I was ready to draw Morgaine and Jirel comparisons; I wonder if I shouldn't have made a detour through Fritz Lieber or other fantasy novelists first. The setup reads now to me more like a young writer asking, "what if I took these pulp tropes, only I made the mighty leader a woman?" than a reaction to or conversation with Moore's stories.

White Coat, Black Hat: Adventures on the Dark Side of Medicine (Carl Elliott): I cannot for the life of me remember why I put a hold on this. It's an op-ed. Elliott attacks big pharma with the passion of the disenchanted (MD-PhD now teaching bioethics; someone who's smart and organized) to the degree I find myself looking for elided facts, appeals to irreverent authority, appeals to the common man (aka the Jeff Winger Student President Debate speech), and other emotional tricks that obscure the fact I'm probably on Elliott's side. Stop trying to sway me with emotion and give me statistics, and highlight the potholes that are getting skipped to get the book finished. If, quoting Elliott quoting a Carnegie-Mellon study, "coming clean means playing dirty" (p94), what are his motives for writing this book? I finished this thin book with the reflection I wanted to read the original research, or better research on Elliott's examples, not re-written column pieces stitched into hardcover format.

The Midnight Mayor (The Inauguration of Matthew Swift) (Kate Griffin): Sequel to A Madness of Angels; urban fantasy with a high body count and not a phouka or unseelie court in the worldbuilding. Usually I don't find much entertainment in urban fantasy; there's too much love of the fantasy elements and not enough city love. This is not a problem in The Midnight Mayor: London is a character in its own right. Isn't there a lowbrow sci-fi novel where books come to life, embodied as the main character? And Dune is represented by, well, desert and sandworms? When Griffin's writing, London feels a bit like that: alive and sense-of-wonder in its own right. Since that's how I feel about San Francisco, I think this is the best thing ever.

Spoilers, book 2 and 3. This isn't a perfect novel, but I was entertained. )

"A Room of One's Own" (Virginia Woolf): Nonfiction. An essay which has been on my "to read" list for years. Woolf calls for the elevation of women in writing in a way that makes me think of a later woman's writing, and a progressive / reform political party formed of "the people that matter". If one were teaching Feminism and the Written Word 101, I'd have students read this, then read Audre Lorde's "Master's House" back to back, because Woolf's attiude is exactly what Lorde attacks. If all upper class women of the 1920's were this elitist and focused on their semi-bohemian artsy lives, I'm relieved to be long removed from that time and place.

And yet - without the Virginia Woolf, do you get Lois Bujold? Or many of the post-Woolf authors I like, female and male? Acknowledging both the contributions to a tradition and personal weaknesses in the same person is something I struggle with.

Zombie Spaceship Wasteland: A Book By Patton Oswalt: Nonfiction / essay / memoir of a high school D&D / sci-fi geek turned standup comedian, the sort of person who knows people who know that zombies can live underwater, they just don't like it (p98 HC). Oswalt grew up in Sterling, VA, part of the greater DC exurb tedium which I know from intimate personal experience. Title from essay of the same name, which is written in the language of my people: "Darth Vader is, essentially, a Zombie, born in a Wasteland, who works on a Spaceship." (p99) "The Matrix films are about a hero, Neo, who doesn't realize he is a Zombie, and also doesn't realize he's living in a Wasteland, until he's woken by Morpheus, who de-zombifies Neo by bringing him aboard a Spaceship." (p101) "Hey - why do heroes always "wander" the wasteland?" (p103). Light and funny, and sometimes sort of awful, as good comedy so often is.

Among Others (Jo Walton): Fiction: 15 year old Welsh girl at English boarding school, with a limp, a diary, a grievous family situation, and a yen for libraries. Plus or minus the fairies, this was my 1996. It's hard to say if I like Among Others over the feedback squeal; I had to keep reading or I wasn't sure I'd finish it. Some reviewers dislike the mish-mash of genres - boarding school, fantasy, semiautobiographgical mimetic, etc - which I'd say is part of the fun. The only genre stance the novel takes is falling on the fantasy side: in the book world, magic is real (and not very nice).

After skimming half of Paladin of Souls, I reread Bujold's The Hallowed Hunt. The pacing is terrifically uneven, the first half wending along asking "is this my plot? What about this?" and finally turning on Horseriver and the Wounded Woods. One gets the impression Ingrey would very much like this story to be about someone else, please, while he and Ijada neck in the back of the theater; fortunately for me, Ingrey is not the driving - writing - hand.

Numbers game: 8 total finished. 6 new, 2 reread; 4 fiction, 4 nonfiction.
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My brain is fried; instead of studying, book log.

Bone Dance (Emma Bull / [ profile] coffeeem): Sparrow, vodoun and the City. This came to my attention in a "gender in SF/F" context, an element which was played for characterization rather than questions of gender; or maybe for Sparrow's community identity rather than self identity. Eventually, I realized the vodoun elements weren't metaphorical; the metaphysical is real. It significantly changed how I was parsing the novel.

Bull's novels are well regarded by people whose reading tastes I broadly share, but I didn't love War for the Oaks, I've started Freedom and Necessity twice without making it past the first 30 pages, and I wasn't particularly taken with Bone Dance. Partly it was the mid-novel realization I was reading a story that wasn't in the book, but I may just not find much appeal in the writing strengths on display. I might reread Bone Dance again at some point, but I'm in no hurry.

Hestia (C. J. Cherryh): Sam Merritt, Earthborn engineer, builds a dam on colonial Hestia.

IIRC, this was a trunk novel, and it shows. ("Trunk novel": written and shoved in a trunk to be forgotten, usually for good reason.) Cherryh got much better at infusing depth into her writing and her fictional cultures, but in this novel the human-alien interactions are wincingly bad. Man meets exotic yet attractive cat-like alien woman and forges a cultural bridge. This reads like every Campbell-era short story ever - Merritt's an engineer! No one, not even the author, uses his first name, except the alien woman! - with a few surprises. Sam doesn't press forward with Campellian confidence, and the colonists win a place on Hestia by losing their civil engineering project. Adaptability, not aggression or applied technology, carries the day.

This is far weaker than most of Cherryh's novels, but prefigures a lot of the themes and characterization tools seen in later stories. The Jim-Sam-Meg relationship prefigures the "brother of chance"-protagonist-romantic love character-sets elsewhere, particularly the Rafe-Paul-Jillian triangle in Voyager in Night. Also, Jase-Bren-Jago, and Tristen-Cefwyn-Ninevrise, and I am deliberately skipping looser variations on the idea (cough Grant-Justin-Ari cough). The theme of single humans (especially men) as the bridge, and become more like the Other, crops up everywhere: Sten Duncan and the Mri; Elizabeth McGee and tower culture in 40,000 in Gehenna; the entire Foreigner series; Thorn in Cuckoo's Egg; to some degree Tully and the hani. I enjoyed playing the trope game, but I'd never hand it to someone without significant screening and warnings.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration (Isabel Wilkerson): One of the "NPR reads", books that get good press and 200 person waitlists for library copies. It's justified: The Warmth of Other Suns raises the profile of the movement of African-Americans from the rural South to Northern cities. It also frames the migration in terms of extra-American immigrants, asking about the psychology of the urban newcomers, as well as the different challenges, especially racism, faced by black American nationals. Engaging, easy read; Wilkerson sometimes repeats information, which I found irritating, but it's useful for re-orienting as she swaps between the three primary stories she follows. It's been overhyped a bit, but Wilkerson's writing is solid and worth reading. Seek out and enjoy.

Exile's Gate (C. J. Cherryh): The fourth book about Nhi Vanye i Chya, swordsman, and Morgaine the traveller and gate-closer. Reread.

It's interesting to reflect on changes of genre between the first book (published 1976) and Exile's Gate (published 1988), but I'm rereading Gate of Ivrel and want to finish it before digging into that topic. I would briefly like to note it's 400 pages to the earlier novels' 200 - 250 pages, and reads very obviously as an addition to a closed trilogy. Minor spoilers for all four books. )

Cherryh's bibliography suggests she's always been a prolific author, but her novels of the late '80s and early '90s are prolific and diverse: Exile's Gate has one foot on each side of the fantasy/epic and science fiction sides of the divide; Cyteen (science fiction) and The Paladin (historical fiction) were published the same year as Exile's Gate.

The irony of bookending the month with novels that include evil body-snatching Those Other Folks and The Scary Woman On Humanity's Side (Bull: Frances; Cherryh; Morgaine) is not lost on me.

Numbers game: 4 total finished. 3 new, 1 reread; 3 fiction, 1 nonfiction.
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My hours sleep / caffeinated drinks ratio is edging towards one. I feel fantastic, whenever my eyes uncross, but I dimly sense there's been some intellectual impact.

A Daughter of the Samurai (Etsu Sugimoto): Charming memoir of a Japanese immigrant to America. Picked this up after Lois Bujold mentioned it on the LMB mailing list. My first reflection was, "this delights in the way Hitty: Her First Hundred Years charms," which is less of a surprise when one considers they were both published in the 1920's. Sugimoto's memoir is written in a light-hearted storytelling style, recalling details of her experiences growing up on the western side of Japan, in what's now part of the Niigata Prefecture, as well as her stories of attending a missionary school in Tokyo, living in America as a wife and mother, and her temporary return to Japan after her husband's death.

The gentle tone glides past shadows of other stories: how did her husband die? How did Sugimoto support herself as a widow when she returned to America? After her husband's untimely death, it was expected she would return to Japan, but what moved her to move back to America? Sugimoto gracefully speaks of both sorrow and joy in her life, opening a window to another time and place.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (N.K. Jemisin): Heiress to a minor kingdom is summoned by her grandfather and named one of the three candidates to be heir to his authority over all the kingdoms. Yeine has her wits and her mother's training to defend her against family politics and fettered gods with a plan to end their slavery.

Long, thematic but no explicit spoilers. )

I wasn't overwhelmed by the story or characters, but I was intrigued by the worldbuilding. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the first in a trilogy; my lukewarm reaction to the first novel means I'll be waiting to see what other people think of the second and third novels before picking up anything else in the series, but if you're in the mood for "god of light and order is not equal to god of right" fiction, you'd probably like this.

The Privilege of the Sword (Ellen Kushner): Sequel to Swordspoint; briefly discussed previously. Duke Alec summons his sister's daughter from a country estate to settle a family break and have his niece trained as a swordsman. Niece Katherine expects a different sort of Season on the Hill in the wake of her uncle the Mad Duke. (I just love that phrase.)

Kushner is a charming stylist, but her plots are not nearly as intriguing. I liked Katherine, and I wanted to like the story, but I was disappointed that events didn't unroll to illuminate character or story very efficiently. For example, I can certainly make up a story about why Alec and Richard simply cannot be together despite their love, but I was sort of expecting the writer to explain how the characters got from Point A at the end of Swordspoint to Point B in Privilege of the Sword. I also hoped for some clever thoughts on Katherine taking up a role that was both traditionally male and beneath her class, but these didn't materialize. I can make inferences from her atraditional romance with Marcus, and her relationship with Artemisia, mediated through their mutual love for the "The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death", a novel-in-a-novel, but I was hoping for more explicit authorial intent and less Choose Your Own Adventure.

Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits (Linda Gordon): Picked off the library shelves on a whim. Dorothea Lange went down in history for photographing the iconic "Migrant Mother" picture of the Depression era, but also made significant contributions to national documentary photography and the San Francisco arts scene. Okay bio with significant weaknesses. )

Perhaps I'm judging on tone; perhaps I'm holding a female biographer to a double standard. However, this sort of writer construction from bare-bones accounts happens more than once: Lange and the FSA photographers, her thorny relationship with her mother, how her childhood polio might have progressed. It pushes the bounds of creative nonfiction right out of biography and into storytelling, a disappointing development. I'm not inclined to recommend this, unless you're looking for a generalist bio and can remain aware of its flaws.

A Madness of Angels (Kate Griffin): Matthew Swift comes back to life. Inspired by the American cover, I described this as "Castiel in London" for [personal profile] norabombay. The book is in that vein: high on concept and worldbuilding, a little low on characterization. Spoilers. )

I backslid and reread the back half of Cherryh's Regenesis. I stand by my earlier assertions there's a smashing good 300 page novel threading through some serious bloat.

Numbers game: 5 total finished. 5 new, 0.5 reread; 3.5 fiction, 2 nonfiction.
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I finished finals for my two evening classes early Christmas week, and relaxed in the assumption that online classes wouldn't begin until late January. Fortunately, I checked the schedule before my mistaken assumption became a crisis.

Last semester's lessons on not getting emotional when presented with bad teaching are already getting a workout, thanks to an online lecturer's email that "I tried the powerpoint interface and it worked for me. . . call IT if it doesn't work for you." So there's an email in IT's inbox. I am disappointed that someone is stuck in the 20th century and optimized the ppt slideshow for IE (where it still won't print), but if IT can tell me how to extract a .ppt for PDF via some browser, I will cope.

My online classes use iTunes U for lecture distribution, so I am condemned to iTunes exposure. "Uninstalled" is too gentle a word for my high volume, high speed, highly negative reaction to iTunes' vile interface and file mis-organization "system". I'm treating it as an overgrown download manager, and plan to watch my lectures in VLC player.

I ignored all these problems today in favor of investigating Goodwill's scarf offerings and finishing The Privilege of the Sword. [ profile] charlie_ego, did you have the problems with Katherine's lack of agency that I did? I think young Richard and Alec's short-sighted behavior as twentysomethings in their Swordspoint days makes a certain amount of sense, considering the characters. It may be realistic for Alec to continue to be fairly self-centered in Privilege (pun unintended but too appropriate to edit), but I was very annoyed Katherine didn't ask why her uncle the Mad Duke wanted her to be a swordsman, or what his plans for her might include. It was an extraordinarily distracting oversight.


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