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A few 2013 leftovers:

Star Wars: Razor's Edge (Martha Wells) (2013): Alliance-era hijinks. Light on plot in favor of plans going off the rails and better living through banter. I found I quite enjoyed Leia and Alderaani pirates survivors TOTALLY PIRATES have adventures. There are scrappy Rebels, and people who got in over their heads who are offered a second chance, and piratical villains who are painted wicked evil, so there's no question who the good guys are (Leia and Han and the Rebel original characters, of course! And Luke and Chewie). In the minus column, I picked out the wicked Imperial spy on the first try (but passed the character over as "too obvious", wasting a bunch of time worried other characters were the spy), but then, I did not pick this up for subtlety. I picked it up for Leia Organa using wit and skill to achieve her agenda. If there had been more plot to hang this on, I would happily have read another hundred pages of this novel.

Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite (Michael P. Ghiglieri, Charles R. "Butch" Farabee, Jr.) (2007): Nonfiction. Subtitled "Gripping accounts of all known fatal mishaps in America's first protected land of scenic wonders", Death in Yosemite sets itself a high bar for dramatic retelling. It doesn't always meet that bar. Since I wasn't reading exclusively to be gripped, but also to be educated on how to avoid becoming a statistic, I was okay with that.

What did I learn? )

Interesting statistics: waterfall and climbing deaths get significant press, but auto accidents, non-falls drowning, and hiking/scrambling mishaps are the top three Yosemite killers. Then it's "big wall" climbing deaths. Young men lead almost every category other than homicides, where they're overtaken by young women.

This isn't a book that necessarily reads well straight through, but is very interesting in pieces, especially when shared with others. I quite enjoyed several conversations about backcountry camping and national parklands that spun off this book. Recommended for people who might be headed in those directions.

And a late addition, an audiobook re-read of Asimov's The Caves of Steel (1953). One of Asimov's novels I recalled with affection, if no particular impetus to reread, until I had the hands-free highway option. The mystery was never the selling point of this novel, and Elijah Baley is less sympathetic than I recalled. I liked him for being open to changing his mind, based on new data, and I'd forgotten one of the most important examples of this, his feelings on robots, was heavily influenced by the spacers tweaking his brain chemistry. Oh Asimov.
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Saga, Volume 2 (Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples) (2013): Continuing the adventures of Hazel's star-crossed parents against the backdrop of a galaxy-spanning conflict. Continues to hit my buttons, especially the end-of-volume cliffhanger.

Kenobi (John Jackson Miller) (2013): Star Wars: the western! If you think about it too hard I am not sure it makes sense, but while I was reading it entertained me. The novels focuses mostly on non-Kenobi characters (OCs?) entangled in the life of xxx Oasis.

When the King Comes Home (Caroline Stevermer) (2000): Hail Rosamer, daughter of rural wool merchants and artist's apprentice, has less than no interest in politics. Politics find her anyway in a quarrel with a former co-apprentice, whuch tumbles her into larger intrigues.

Set in the same universe as A College of Magics, some hundreds of years previous, and centering around attempts to resurrect and control Good King Julian, a near-legendary figure 200 years dead.

Hail is a splendid narrator: impetuous, impressed with herself and her budding artistic talents. Stevermer's narrative voice us aware of Hail's less than charming aspects, and channeled through the young woman takes on a friendly wryness.

The plot is as light as the voice. Hail is thrown around by events, rarely conscious of or concerned by the larger or long term consequences of the desires she acts on. The kingdom's instability, the implications of the magics wielded around her, the politics surrounding conversations between her kin, her friends, her mistress, are secondary ir lost on her. Hail wants to make art, and be seen making great art, and plot slips in around the edges of those passions.

The Other Half of the Sky (Ed. Athena Andreadis, Kay Holt) (2013): Being an anthology Going back to an old review, I recap:

Are the ideas compelling?
Do the plots interest me?
Is the spelling and grammer readable?
Have the spelling and grammar been mangled for good reasons that support the idea or plot?

I wasn't really in the mood for this collection. Most of the stories were competent, sometimes rising to greater interest or experiments falling short of success. Finders feels like setup or prequel for something interesting. This Alakie... mangled grammer, trying to support the idea, but fell short of capturing my interest; The Waiting Stars set up interesting worldbuilding and ethical conundrums; Velocity's Ghost has an interesting plot twist around education, propoganda, and long-term planning; Dagger and Mask and Ouroboros are passive-voice stories that didn't play well back to back. Cathedral has a male narrator pining for a female character whose actions are pivotal to the conclusion; it was annoying. And so forth.

Contents. )
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Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong (Prudence Shen, Faith Erin Hicks) (2013). At one point posted online, the graphic novel follows the high school robotics team and the cheerleaders in their Prisoner's Dilemma quests to fund their respective obsessions. For people who are familiar with Shen's fannish works, some of her favorite, usually entertaining tropes pop up: arrogant, socially oblivious Nate and his unlikely strong-and-silent associate Charlie, the bridge to the cheerleaders; Nate's band of snarky robotics fanpersons; friction with authority figures; Charlie's superficial conformity to other people's desires as a coping mechanism. Hicks' black and white art is on a similar level: enthusiasm and energy carrying the reader over some of the weaker plot points.

Mild spoilers. )
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September was the month of finishing fiction which had been strung out, on hold at the library, or otherwise delayed.

Altered Carbon (Richard K. Morgan) (2002): cyberpunk/future noir recommended by my roommate. Ex-UN Envoy Takeshi Kovacs dies on an extrasolar colony, and is "resleeved" in a new-to-him body on Earth as part of a contract to solve another murder of a wealthy Bay City (San Francisco) corporate magnate. In a future where human consciousness is routinely digitized, murder of the body is still a serious crime... with several twists on the definitions of "alive" and "dead".

As part of Operation Test The Smartphone, I read this in audiobook format, voiced by Tood McLaren. It took me three months, off and on, to finish the 17 hour audiobook.

There were a number of contributing factors. This was a library audiobook, which meant I had to wait my turn after each 3 week loan was up. I learned audiobooks do not mix with most of my work tasks, where music does. Instead, this was my car/cooking/cleaning novel. (Do not ask if I listened during my commute. Split attention does not mix with bicycling in urban traffic, unless one is also fond of split noggins.) So this novel had limited windows of opportunity, compounded by competing interests (hi, NPR!).

A back-of-the envelope calculation suggests I would put in 7 to 9 hours to read a novel of similar heft (word count and complexity); the slower pace of spoken English gives one more leeway to pay attention to each word, and consider how the parts are assembled into a whole. Sometimes this is good, allowing the listener to absorb minutia and really establish the scene; sometimes it lets the listening reader to think too hard about what they're heading.

Cyberpunk isn't my native genre. Hardboiled angst tends to evoke questions about software engineering and liver damage, which really ruins the mood. The combination of genre and audio pacing didn't always work to the novel's advantage. I was always going to eyeroll at the protagonist's manly prowess (how adorable it is when all two major female characters sleep with him - at separate times, and is that a plus or minus?) but the Overdrive app recommended by the library didn't have a "speed up" function, so skimming involved skipping ahead in 5 second chunks. The chance to tally the "told" versus "shown" worldbuilding also didn't always work in the novel's favor. "Envoy intuition" looks an awful lot like "deus ex machina" spelled a little funny.

If you like boy's adventures with guns and body counts and a little future fantasy, this is fine. It's not particularly deep, but it kept me company when my hands were full and my brain a little empty.

Blood of Tyrants (Naomi Novik) (2013): This is the one where Laurence - oh yes, epic spoiler, but is it a spoiler if it's outed in the first five pages? - and it doesn't live up to its potential. I've had that reaction to the last several novels in the series, alas.

Octavia Butler's Patternmaster series. By internal chronology, as I read them: Wild Seed (1980), Mind of My Mind (1977), Clay's Ark (1984), and Patternmaster (1976). However, I'd actually recommend publication order, to see Butler's growth as a writer.

Patternmaster, written first, is the most removed from contemporary time: sometime in the future, humanity is divided into Patternist society, founded on extrasensory powers which bind together the Patternists, and allow them to control the unpowered "mutes"; and the Clayarks, humans infected with an alien disease that gives them superhuman physical powers, but robs them of conventional human agency. Wild Seed and Mind of My Mind explore the precursors to Patternist society; Clay's Ark develops the alien Clayark virus' arrival on Earth. A number of themes in the series are echoed elsewhere in Butler's work; all the novels other than Patternmaster deal explicitly with race and (somewhat peripherally) gender; Patternmaster explores the dominance dynamics which Butler resurrects through much of her work, all the way through Fledgling. The lawless America presented in Clay's Ark prefigures the state of affairs in the two Parable novels.

Saga, Volume 1 (Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples) (2012): Graphic novel. Space opera about a POW and his guard who have gone AWOL to get married and become parents as the story opens. The family themes, likeable protagonists, solid (so far) characterization, promising narrative framing device, and very, very pretty while equally functional art hit many of my buttons. This is not groundbreaking experimental work; this is a high point of an artistic era. I'm looking forward to future volumes.
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In the interests of getting my booklist up to date, everything pre-September is below, with notes as-is. 'ware incomplete thoughts and cryptic notes.

A reread of The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right (Atul Gawande) (2009) which has become indirectly relevant to my professional interests.

Peter Pan (or, Peter and Wendy) (J. M. Barrie) (1911):: Foray into Gutenberg as part of smartphone-as-ereader testing. Meh. This is a story which is a narrow, crisp window on a moment in a particular island nation's history; it does not transcend the constraints of the very dated writing to speak to the wider human condition.

Seven Years in Tibet (Heinrich Harrer) (1953, with new 1996 intro material): Mountaineer on Himalayan expedition is caught in India during the outbreak of WW2 hostilities, escapes from detention multiple times until it sticks in '44, stays in Tibet until fleeing ahead of the Chinese invasion of '50-'51.

And it is charming, in this colonialist "white guy out on a limb" way: quotes under the cut )

Finally finished Les Miserables (Victor Hugo) (1863) in June. No one warned me Les Amis could move into Occupy or the less outrageously unaffordable parts of the Bay area without missing a beat. I will refrain from excessive commentary sharing my feelings on Hugo's feelings, but wow, Hugo has a lot of strong emotion tied up in the inevitable forward progress of humanity. He also has a lot to say about the inequalities of the present day. And the one fuels the other, in a happy-for-fans spiral of narration and digression.

Finished a fast skim of The Amber Spyglass (Philip Pullman) (2000). I like Pullman's writing best when he's making up and exploring new places and people; Amber Spyglass has too many people, places, themes, plots, and a few Better Ideas piled all on top of each other and can't really support the weight.

In anticipation of the new Baz Luhrmann film, I revisited The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald) (1925). My appreciation for its literary tricks has increased with age, proportional to disinterested neutrality elevating to loathing of every. Single. Character. There may be an interpretation of Nick Carraway that isn't "go and do something with your life, kid", but until it's propounded to me, it's tough to imagine which characters I'd invite to a dinner party. (Guests ought to be interesting; nice may be optional. I would pay money for some configurations of interesting-not-nice character dinner parties.)


Aug. 8th, 2013 10:04 pm
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Lately I've been hitting the TV marathons harder than usual. First I caught Buffy S5, a season I mostly missed on the first pass, and which for some reason I had thought of as cheerful. Maybe calibration off S6 threw off my expectations? S5 has some excellent episodes - "Fool for Love" and "The Body" come to mind - but it's the excellence of questioning assumptions and making viewers cry.

My other marathon show has been Continuum S1. There is very little questioning of assumptions here. Cop gets caught up in a time-travelling jailbreak from 2077 to 2012, and fights crime and future terrorists in contemporary Vancouver, balancing justice against not breaking the timeline... or has this always been the timeline? Oh, and she's got nifty magic future tech, there's the occasional Betchdel pass, and Terminator has been namechecked. It's not perfect. The Terminator namechecking happened in an episode which was paint-by-the-numbers "your honored ancestors aren't as squeaky-clean as you thought, Ms. Keira Cameron". The writers are pushing a romantic relationship I can't get behind. Some of the directing, and certain chunks of dialog, well... but time travel! The Cameron-Fonnegra buddy-cop relationship! Only slightly magic future tech! Alec! (Alec is Kiera's adorable baby-faced pet geek in 2012, and some kind of shadowy corporate oligarch in 2077. Old!Alec is played by the X-File's Cancer Man; watch this space for OH ALEC NO moments.) Hacker-gamer geeks who just happen to be girls! Canadian actor bingo is played! It's not terrifically bright, or deep, or highbrow, but it keeps me entertained.

Okay, everyone has to stop everything, because it's an FMA:Brotherhood first-time viewing party. With macros and ROT-13 and CAPSLOCK and the episode 10 spoiler, guys, the commentary is kind of awesome.

My fiction reading has been through the floor for... longer than I'd like to think about. It makes me feel better to see that others have recovered from such doldrums. Currently I am failing to read The Emperor of All Maladies in favor of TV, shotgun rereads of old favorites, and an audiobook experiment with Altered Carbon, sci-fi noir with limited redeeming value. Audiobooks don't mix well with most activities other than driving, but find a niche for car trips longer an half an hour.


Jun. 29th, 2013 10:17 am
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After nearly six months, I have finished Les Miserables! On my original "before the end of June" timetable, even.

Still absorbing the ending - Marius, don't give in to the blackmailer, silly man - but feel free to kick off discussion in comments.
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For reasons which don't need exploring at this juncture, I am trying to finish the last 300-odd pages of the Brick by, say, next Friday. Book four - Les Amis, Marius, Marius moping after Cosette, Eponine's death, digressions into the inevitable progress of history from darkness to light - was such a drag that I deliberately took a break before starting book five.

And in book five, I read Enjolas' impassioned words as he realizes that no one is coming and there will be no revolution. "Citizens, the nineteenth century is great, but the twentieth century will be happy." (p1191) But from this end of the century, I must suggest that, no, the 20th C was not happy. There was not the uplifting of men. Enjolras is charismatic, and wrong. So wrong. A riot in the streets is not a great way to enact progress or equality.

So that is why I am finding the last two-fifths of Les Miz a reading challenge. Dying for your principles is easy. Living for them is way harder.

Does Hugo recognize this? I think so: Valjean is the major protagonist, not Enjolras. Valjean generally wants to live. But I am not sure, because Hugo also likes to kill characters left, right, and center. So it's hard to figure out whether I am receiving the message Hugo is trying to send.
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I finished the second... section? Book? ...of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables (1862), continuing to switch between the Brick and the Gutenberg translation as appropriate. Hugo is not writing in the 20th century novel format, he is expounding his feelings in narrative format. So one reads about dolls, and femininity, and convents, and other things too. Note that all the quotes are from the Gutenberg translation. )

When the "who needs an editor" conversation comes 'round again, I'm throwing Les Miserables into the ring for Hugo. There's these moments, like the burial of Mother Crucifixion, which are awesome, and these pithy bits about the soul of France buried in "Waterloo", but much of this is obscured by Hugo's fundamental indifference to narrative momentum (my interpretation).

After heroic slogging through Waterloo and the convent, I got bogged down early in the third book and set aside the Brick for a reread that would free up a few brain cells. Well, that was the intent.

I reread The Golden Compass (Philip Pullman) (1995) and it was everything I remembered: breakneck action, plucky protagonist, mind-blowing worldbuilding, stunning cliffhanger. The Golden Compass establishes a world with several interesting deviations from ours - daemons, long-lived witches, the monolithic church, the Svalbard bears' high and inhuman intelligence, Dust, the alethiometer - that each contribute to the sudden yet inevitable climatic twist. The Subtle Knife (1997), second in the "His Dark Materials" trilogy, isn't as good: it tries to introduce a host of new characters on top of the first set, with their own attendant sub-plots. Not all of them are well-introducted, and several of them make the reader want to brain Pullman with his own sense of irony. It's not delicious, it's over-salted. Less than 50 pages into The Amber Spyglass (2000) I really wanted a completely different novel, one with about 10 less protagonists. It's okay to tell your "war against Heaven" story from one or two PoVs with the occasional omniscient breakout! In fact, it would evade a lot of problems with the unending enticements of infinite worlds, and the Mother Hangup, and that thing where the Roger thread almost entirely drops out in the second novel and comes back in a half-hearted way in the last book! Not to mention the siren call of the Great Man theory of history in a thematic muddle with the Kingdom of Heaven / Republic of Heaven / Other Republic of Heaven conflict. Also, the witches were awesome in the first novel and sorf of sidelined in the second and third novels, this makes me very sad.

So, His Dark Materials: starts with a bang, gets tripped up in its own themes. I'm still working through The Amber Spyglass, we'll see if I make it through, or do a "good bits" skim.

Continuing the theme of worldbuilding as a strength, Stray Souls (Kate Griffin) (2012) continues to rock the London of her Matthew Swift series, but will be a hard sell for people who aren't familiar with those novels. The protagonist, Sharon Li, barista and addict of self-help books, starts a facebook group and meetup for people with magical "problems" after she starts walking through walls, and gets sucked into solving one of Greater London's latest magical crises. The story's a little too wrapped up in whether Swift is going to pull strings offscene or have a more significant role (spoiler: he does). In this story, I am less concerned about what Swift and the angels are getting up to, because this is supposed to be about Sharon and her Magical Anonymous group. So that was less than awesome. I don't know if I'm parsing something more in the horror genre with urban fantasy sensibilities, or what, but some parts of the novel didn't mix well with over-lunch reading. On the plus side, I liked Sharon, and I like the ongoing theme of city living as grimy and smelly and buying on credit because you have no money, with clean well-kept offices being the exception and often tangled up in some eldritch horror. There's a sequel coming out this year; if Sharon is going to cross paths with the Midnight Mayor, I am pining for Sharon and Penny to hang out. Shaman and apprentice urban sorceress, what could possibly go wrong?

Numbers game: 3 total finished. 1 new, 2 reread; 3 fiction. Les Miz and The Amber Spyglass in process.
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For the holidays, I asked for and received epub copies of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House novels (1932 - 1943), most of which I reread over the first half of January. They have held up surprisingly well. I was worried about Little House on the Prairie, one of my favorites, where the Ingalls family tries to establish a claim on Native American land, anticipating the government will force relocation of Indian Territory. The novel is surprisingly not-awful at respectfully presenting the Native Americans' rights to treaty land and to be treated as human beings, despite the lens of the Ingalls' prejudices and manifest destiny. And, of course, the Ingalls depart Indian territory at the end of the novel, relocated when the army tells them to leave. The tone of the departure is that the Ingalls were the problem, not the Native Americans. So it's not perfect, but it dances between the attitudes of the time and the attitudes of a more modern era in a way I can live with.

At some point, I will reread Farmer Boy and On the Banks of Plum Creek, which for some reason I started and didn't finish. Oh right, my library hold for Scoundels came in.

Star Wars: Scoundrels (Timothy Zahn) (2013): IT'S A NEW ZAHN SW NOVEL AND IT'S HEISTFIC. WIN. Giant twist-revealing spoilers. )

Since then, I have been reading the Brick, also known as Les Miserables (Victor Hugo) (1862). The Brick's nickname is instantly explained when one holds the paperback 1,460 page Fahnestock and McAfee translation, published in 1987. I'm alternating it with Project Gutenberg's 1887 Hapgood translation as appropriate. So far I am through book one of five.

Notes so far: I am heavily influenced by [personal profile] cahn's reread, in conjunction with the [personal profile] skygiants reread. I didn't discover the bookmark function on the ereader until book 2 "Cosette", so I have very little to say about book 1. That's okay, because two opens with Waterloo, the famous 50 page break from narrative.

I am not an English major, nor do I play one online. )

I look forward to getting back to Valjean; one gets the impression Hugo is boxing him in with tangents, cutting off the lines of escape from revolution and social justice and striving for self-improvement until those are the only choices left.

Numbers game: 7 total finished; 7 fiction. 6 reread, 1 new. Working on Les Miz.


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