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I reread In the Garden of Iden (Kage Baker) (1997) in the run-up to vacation, because sometimes what you really need is some slapstick with tragedy. It's been... a decade? More than a decade? Since I originally read this, so I'd forgotten some of the set pieces: the "unicorn", the Christmas celebration, the dubious consequences of Sir Walter's deal with the Company. Iden has most elements of the Company series, in a nutshell, including that pompous git Mendoza's boyfriend. It's so good! The writing is fluid and smart and funny and the plot flows together wonderfully. Baker's early death was a great loss to the SF/F writing community.

The Winged Histories (Sofia Samatar) (2016): Samatar's second novel, set in the same universe as her first, A Stranger in Olondria. It's Samatar's take on epic fantasy. Histories is divided into four parts, presenting four POVs on a civil war in Olondria. I bogged down at the opening of the third part, almost exactly halfway though, which opened with second person present tense. (And by "bogged down" I said, "oh, no," and pulled the next book in the to-read queue.) This is nominally standalone, but I struggled to assemble a sense of the characters, their relationships, and what made their stories sufficiently compelling that I should keep reading. Histories also suffered from the tension of being epic fantasy and being critical of epic fantasy. It's hard to reach for an affecting touchstone Crowing Moment of Awesome while taking a hard look at the assumptions that make that Crowing Moment of Awesome so affecting. Also, epic fantasy just isn't my genre. On the outside, it looks like it should be. It's a genre that runs long in wordcount and intricate in worldbuilding. But epic fantasy rarely digs into the spin-off of the worldbuilding assumptions, the second order assumptions. GRRM unintentionally nailed it: The common people pray for rain, health, and a summer that never ends. They don't care what games the high lords play. I want to know what causes the Westeros wacky seasonal variation, how that impacts the society - I want some impact on society - and I really don't care about a bunch of people fighting over power. Power is boring, limitations set the state for interesting stories. Histories has the right idea - the characters have limits - but again, the execution is almost there.

Also, there's an xkcd graph that is relevant to this novel. I thought the plethora of fictional plants, animals, trade goods, what have you, was a Le Guin style ethnographic argument on cultural contextualization and atomization or something, but it's an example of epic fantasy imitating the forms of the genre's founders while forgetting that one of the founding giants was an obsessive philologist whose smash hit was a spin-off of his conlang projects (note the projects multiple). Okay, I exaggerate? But to make my point that the outward shape is reproduced, not the inner truths readers found in the reading experience.

Points for ambition. I want to like The Winged Histories, but the execution didn't do it for me on this pass. But apparently I want to talk in detail about its ambitious failure, which might get me to try other fiction by Samatar, or even grit my teeth and finish the second half. Eventually.

Lab Girl (Hope Jahren) (2016): I think this might have been an NPR book? It paid off very well for an NPR read, if so. Memoir by a die-hard plant nerd, focusing on the adventures of life in pursuit of the tenure track and also on the awesomeness of plants. It's a 304 page account of a lifelong love affair with green things. There's a relaxing effect of the writer skimming across her experiences, touching on the tenure track struggle, the desperate state of research funding, the experience of being a woman in academia and a field research science, adventures and misadventures in mental health, family relationships, and not delving too deeply into any one of these, except maybe the awesomeness of Jahren's partner in crime and research.

The City of Bones (Martha Wells) (1995): Scrappy loner with wacky survival abilities thanks to long-vanished Ancients - and his partner in dealing Ancient relics - are reluctantly drafted to save the world. Scrappy loners are one of Wells' go-to character types, which is useful for talking about societies, and the odd things that make up the culture, like burning people's bones to prophesy, or trading their sanity for mage powers, or engaging in high risk trades in Ancient relics, because money, against a backdrop of postapocalyptic desert scarcity. It's a bit Mad Max, minus the cars. And also with the strong female protagonists - loner Khat and his partner Sagai are drawn into high level intrigue by Elen, a junior Warder of the city-state Charisat. Elen and Khat have contrasting emotional arcs: Khat struggles to keep his distance from Sagai and Sagai's family, Elen struggles with stepping out of her mentor's shadow. If you like Wells' other fiction, you'll probably like this too.
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In December and over the holidays I read a number of Damon Runyon's short stories collected in The Bloodhounds of Broadway and Other Stories (1981). A writing giant of the 1930's, Runyon has a wonderfully distinctive fictional voice and smashing comedic timing.

A coworker lent me Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale (1983), which is a brick-long love story to New York City, in the mode of magical realism. Amazing prose, inconclusive plot. )

It's a hot mess and I like it. The plot is a mess with absurd resolution, when any thread resolves at all, and the prose is over the top, and it doesn't matter, it's so bizarre it takes the reader right out of the world into the world of the story.

I tripped and reread Martha Wells' Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy (2004-2005), some of the Ile-Rien and Cineth short stories collected in an ebook in 2015. It's hard to succinctly talk about why I enjoy these so much. I love the way The Wizard Hunters drops the reader into the troubles Ile-Rien and Cineth face and gets the multiworld ensemble working together against their common enemies, and against the frictions individual characters face with "their" people. The Ships of Air develops the cultural blind spots both sides discover alongside a breakneck action plot. The Gate of Gods almost sticks the landing; there's a lot of landing to stick (Tremaine and Ilias! The reason for the Gardier invasions! Giliead and sorcery! Ixion! Florian and Ixion! What's going to happen to Arisilde! And oh yes, defeating the Gardier.)

And there is snark. So much snark and sarcastic humor.

"It's a grend," Tremaine explained, keeping her voice low. "It's got Gerard trapped."

"You saw him?" she demanded. "What's a grend?"

"A big... thing." Tremaine flapped her arms in a vague gesture. "We didn't see him, but he's got to be there. If it had already eaten him, surely it wouldn't still be hanging around."

Florian stared, taken aback. "You know, when you're optimistic you have a strange way of phrasing things."

Then I read The Death of the Necromancer (1998) for the first time. The Death of the Necromancer is set a generation earlier, focusing on the adventures of the previous generation as Nicholas Valiarde's attempt to avenge his foster-father's murder is derailed by someone else's plot, one that smells of banned magics. One of the joys of The Death of the Necromancer is seeing Nicholas surrounded by characters in his weight class. Co-conspirators Madeleine and Reynard have their own histories, ambitions, and agency - Madeleine's particular defiance of family tradition plays a role, as do Reynard's disavowed military connections - and mad brilliant drug-addled Ari, repeatedly called the greatest or most powerful sorcerer in Ile-Rien, is least as much a problem as a sorcerous help. I love the sense of place the descriptions of Vienne evoke. I also like Inspector Ronsarde and Doctor Halle, whose antecedents are fairly obvious and I do not care at all.

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (Lois McMaster Bujold) (2016): Being the latest in the Vorkosiverse, this time focusing on Vicereine Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan and her burning desire for six daughters; and also the start of a post-Aral romantic relationship with Admiral Oliver Jole, who has some life decisions of his own to make.

The e-ARC hit my smartphone on October 21st of last year, and I wasn't able to bring myself to open the book until March, when time and the tenor of other readers' spoiler-cuts had given some hints about how to adjust my expectations. And then I had lots of feelings that assume you've read the novel. )
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The Ships of Air (Martha Wells) (2004): Second in the Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy. Road trip, including worldbuilding, with political marriage of convenience, only by "marriage of convenience" the story means "and they actually are kind of MFEO" with the occasional secondary character death to make me feel vaguely like this is not pure swashbuckling indulgence. Wells does really good ensemble work, which I really enjoy. The end of novel character reveal was... eh, I'd been spoiled by a Gate of Gods blurb. But structurally, there'd been a little too much of Absent Character infodump to be anything but setup.

The Gate of Gods (Martha Wells) (2005): Final novel in the Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy. More of the same! The later reveals about the Gardier were adequate, if not as much fun as Our Protagonists and their trans-universe journeys on the Queen Ravenna, a close cousin of the Queen Mary. I could read about Tremaine and the Rienish factions figuring out how to deal with the Syprians all day. The larger scale politics aren't as much sheer fun. I like Wells in "people in small groups work to overcome obstacles" mode. I like the sense of humor at work. Oblique spoilers. ) I'm mentally bookmarking that for the next time I need something to cheer me up.

The Statue Within: An Autobiography (François Jacob) (1987): The 1988 Franklin Philip translation. One of the scientists who netted a Nobel for lac operon work describes his life, 1920 to 1959.

It's difficult to tell what style is an effect of translation. A certain approach to the structure of a sentence, of a paragraph. Short sentences. Almost too short. The gulf between the writer and the reader, widened by a translation. Does the sense of familiarity, of a like-minded outlook, reflect true similarity, or an effect imparted by chance? Questions unanswerable without learning another language.

Without getting too bogged in the exercise of imitation, this is not the most brilliant or compelling autobiography ever. There's moments of character sketches, there's moments of contemplation, but when I thought Jacob was going to skip over his WW2 experiences I cheered, because I picked this up with science, and insight into the creation of science, in mind.

With that said, there are moments of great beauty and personal resonance in the book. Reflections of the roles luck, chance, serendipity play in life; that unfocused mid-twenty's period; the way Jacob describes falling in love. It's a mind I am glad I met in text, where I can read a presentation with unthinking absorption, and again with a critical eye, and maybe once more with both layers added to the context of a wider world. Especially when the narrative lyrically opens into meditation on some incident or theme, like here on isolation, and a particular moment after WW2:

Doubtless, one is always alone. But not to the same degree, not in the same way. In Africa, it was the sudden break with my whole past that had given me a sense of isolation. Returning to Paris, I should have found what I had been missing. But it did not work out that way. I felt out of step. I felt I did not matter a great deal to anything or to anyone. Loneliness had become a sort of natural setting, an element; and in it, I immersed myself, as both island and ghost. Perhaps I was missing the fellowship of fighting men. Perhaps I envied those who were active in a political party and could say "we." But I had an aversion to parties and their lies. For several months, the conquerors remained isolated by their victory, the conquered by their defeat. The time came to reunite. To smooth things over. Which revolted me. One evening near the Ópera, I entered a café. It was the hour when the colors begin to falter, to free themselves little by little from the sun before being lost in the oncoming evening: as the fish that one throws back in the river take on the color of the water before disappearing in it. Though the window of the café, I looked at the crowd going by on the boulevard. I was trying to identify people. To type them. To search their faces for signed. Signs of the hangman and of his victims. Clues to the torturer and to the tortured. To those who had fought the Nazis and to those who had done business with them. But everything was leveled, equalized in the evening's grayness. Nothing but smooth and neutral faces. All these people passed one another, ready neither to flee from each other nor to come together. The world was submerging the horrible tragedy that had lasted five years, closing over it like water over a stone. Then what would joining a political party be but a coat with holes? An illusion thrown over loneliness.
(p200 HC).

That moment of timeless theme and personal experience is sticking with me.

Dreamsnake (Vonda M. McIntyre) (1978): [personal profile] skygiants read it, so I decided it was time to reread this for the first time in more than a decade. The catalyst of the story is the novice healer Snake losing her dreamsnake, the symbol and tool of her practice, and setting out to explain her failure to her teachers - then switching up to seek out a new source of the rare, difficult to breed dreamsnakes to atone for her mistake.

The '70s, you guys. The Seventies. The tail end of the New Wave. So the narrative structure is loose: Snake's goals change more than once as she interacts with and connects to new characters. The "hard" technology of the Campbell years, spaceships and nuclear power, is not an unmitigated good or the inevitable march of progress. In this postapocalyptic landscape, the desert Snake crosses is dotted with radioactive craters, the deadly aftermath of a conflict so distant the hard fallout is its only legacy. The speculative elements are the social structures and genetics. There's unquestioned polyamory, and pretty frank discussions of sex, but homosexuality is oddly invisible.

In my usual fashion, the only thing I remembered was the dreamsnake reveal at the end, and the irony that the healers' successful attempts to breed more dreamsnakes were accidents; I'd forgotten 90% of the novel. Snake's rashness, pride, and self-consciousness about her failures, I'd spaced out on those. The three-ness of the human relationships, and the three-ness of the snakes, is something I'd also spaced on.

I'd like to say there's a three-ness to the structure or themes, too, but that's not quite right. The wandering structure drapes over episodes about fixing things, either injuries or attitudes, in a way that I'm still thinking about. Spoilers. ) It's definitely SF in the postapocalyptic vein, rejecting the Old and trying out new things. I like that; even when it doesn't entirely work, I like it when fiction stretches my brain.
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Stories of the Raksura, Volume One (Martha Wells) (2014): What the cover says: less than novel-length stories set in the world of Wells' Raksura novels. "The Falling World" is one of the adventures of Indigo Cloud court, some time after The Siren Seas. A party led by Jade is lost on a trading trip, and a rescue is lead by Moon and Stone. "The Tale of Indigo and Cloud" covers a kidnapping which shaped later relationships between the renamed Indigo Cloud court and Emerald Twilight. It's a pretty serious history story, but also a story about Raksuran politics, as shaped by Aeriat and Arbora psychology and biology. If you like that sort of worldbuilding detail, you'll really enjoy the story. "The Forest Boy" is a story about young Moon, from an outsider PoV, and also about the bitter fruits of jealousy, which I found surprisingly moving. Chime's transformation is covered in "Adaptation".

Saga, Volume 4 (Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples) (2014): I was a little over-excited for this, which wasn't helped by the plot of these issues. The tropes in play were not the tropes I love. Spoiler-cut. ) Volume Five is still on the to-buy list, but it's been downgraded in urgency.

Finished a back-to-back reread of Leckie's Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword. AS is a middle novel, oh yes. I encourage readers to consider it in light of Cherryh's Foreigner series, where the narrator is not exactly unreliable, but questions the validity of his interpretations of everything in agonizing detail. There's this extrapolation from fiddly micro-events to the macro impact on the two-species planetary political scene. Breq is an unreliable narrator, with a trick of focusing on exactly what is in front of her and not cluing the reader into the wider context. Spoilers, and lots of speculation. )

Walk to the End of the World (Suzy McKee Charnas) (1974): One of those '70s dystopias where war and technology have destroyed the world, with cannibalism, and explicit descriptions of what happens to the bodies. I can see how the nuanced elucidation of the white males' racism and misogyny, alongside the institutionalized drug use (oh, the '70s) and casual homosexuality propelled this novel to a retrospective Tiptree, while being nauseated by the experience of reading about the horrific abuse of women, and did I mention the cannibalism?

(Tangentially, marijuana is not a hallucinogen. Unless the nuclear fallout caused some really interesting mutagenesis. Yes, it's a minor thing to notice, but the implication of hallucination-by-hash is the sort of detail that throws me out of the story.)

The worldbuilding is satisfyingly elaborate, while being right up there with The Handmaid's Tale for upsetting character-sanctioned sexual assault and related horrific human rights abuses. It's useful to read, as a complex well-executed story, and as part of the tradition of feminist science fiction, but it was full-on dystopia with barely the faintest spark of a better future.

The Wizard Hunters (Martha Wells) (2004): Fantasy novel, first in a trilogy.

Wells has this very direct approach to what could be very dark situations which can be extremely entertaining. Lots of snark in the middle of dramatic action sequences, lots of action relative to contemplation and internal cogitation, and this expectation that people can work together, even when they meet in the middle of a firefight. Or maybe that's especially when they meet mid-fight.

Cut for space, limited spoilers. )

This is Wells in awesome compulsively readable mode. I had a vague idea I'd pause between The Wizard Hunters and its sequel, The Ships of Air, to read the earlier Ile-Rien novels I'd picked up at the library. Then I read the first chapter of the next novel online. And the second. And... as soon as I could, I went back to the library to check out The Ships of Air.
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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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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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2012's going down as one of the less consistent book log years.

The Best American Science Writing 2010 (Jesse Groopman, editor; Jesse Cohen, series editor):. Table of contents below, ask for reactions to any titles that strike your interest.

ToC )

The Best American Science Writing 2011 (Rebecca Skloot, Floyd Skloot, editors; Jesse Cohen, series editor): Not as good as the 2010 edition, with a standout for "The Mathematics of Terror" for comprehensively demonstrating the need for better math education in the States.

ToC )

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance (Lois McMaster Bujold) (2012): Despite serious consideration of suicide by Komarran balcony, implied war crimes, that ImpSec thing that probably wasn't insured, and the laying to rest of unquieting family tradition,s this was charming without ever being challenging. It's... it's fluffy. A gooey warm-feeling novel, with few sharp edges. At some point I'll appreciate CVA for what it is, rather than what I'd like it to be.

Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen) (1813): Reread. Classic romantic story of two proud, intelligent personalities forced to reflect on their flaws, and reassess their assessment of the character of others. P&P took three tries to accomplish the first complete reading, which may be a strong argument for letting people find books at their own speed and maturity. It's grown on me; I doubt I will ever be Darcy's partisan, but the wit and observation of human foibles that weren't appreciated by a teen have greater appeal as I get a little more sympathetic and less judging.

Emma (Jane Austen) (1815): The focus on a young woman with more energy and self-regard than application in a closed society made for curiously relevant lunchtime and public transit reading. When I was giggling at Emma's matchmatching schemes instead of reviewing for the board, or absorbing the narrative's reflections on the anxieties of Society (Highfield, classroom, and/or workspace), Austen's people sense seemed uncannily universal.

I reread The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (Robert Heinlein) (1966) in that way you do. As I get older, I have a harder time taking Heinlein's characterization seriously.

The Cloud Roads (Martha Wells) (2011): Moon, orphan and wanderer of the Three Worlds, is reunited with his people, and must face challenges of integration, trust, and the Big Bad.

Cut for length and minor spoilers. )

This isn't deep: I marathoned The Cloud Roads and its sequel in one weekend, and didn't have much impulse to reread after closing the second novel. The ancilliary comments about the Arbora (nonwinged Raksura, usually the makers, sometimes ground fighters) and Aeriat (winged, usually the leaders and fighters) also highlighted, how to say it? Who gets the bulk of the writer love. I mean, flying people, what's not to love.

The Serpent Seas (Martha Wells) (2012): Sequel to The Cloud Roads. Moon had been consort to Jade, sister queen of the Indigo Cloud court, for eleven days; nobody had tried to kill him yet, so he thought it was going well so far. Moon's integration into a Raksuran court and their relocation to a new home is interrupted by the theft of a core element of their new home.

Rich worldbuilding... sometimes a little too rich. But the characters are awesome. )

So I have mixed feelings: on the one hand, fun adventure novels. On the other hand, the second-order worldbuilding is sometimes not as clever as I'd like.

The Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring (JRR Tolkien) (1954): Reread. I wasn't foolish enough to open The Hobbit before watching the new movie, but late fall is Tolkein weather.

The Siren Depths (Martha Wells) (2012): Third novel and sequel to The Serpent Seas; Wells fills in missing pieces of Moon's history, and he lays to rest some of his angst. Some of it! Don't worry, there remain plenty of unresolved issues for future novels to deal with. )

Numbers game: 10 total finished. 8 new, 2 reread; 8 fiction, 2 nonfiction.


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