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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Review: Scarlet (Lunar Chronicles #2) by Marissa Meyer

Scarlet (The Lunar Chronicles, #2)Scarlet by Marissa Meyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't know what made me give Scarlet a try when I found

such a chore. I suppose I'm just more forgiving of debut novels. Or more of a sucker for fairy tale retellings than I'll admit. Either way, this is a vast improvement.

Scarlet introduces the title character, who lives in rural France, wears a red hoodie, and has bright red hair. In case it's not perfectly obvious yet, it's a futuristic take on Little Red Riding Hood. We open with Scarlet furious the police have given up on finding her missing grandmother, when she meets a mysterious and very strong man who goes by Wolf. He knows where to find her grandmother, and off they go to Paris to rescue her, with a jaunt through the woods breaking up their journey. Her story is interspersed with Cinder's, who escapes from prison with a roguish thief who has a space ship, and tracks down Scarlet's grandmother, too, in hopes of getting answers about her past.

The narrative tension is vastly improved from the first book. There are no easy choices for our characters; they're often faced with causing one person's death, or causing several more, or their own. Cinder's reluctance to embrace her true identity costs her, but it also works to Scarlet's benefit. Nothing just works out for anyone; they have to use all their resources to fight a powerful enemy, and they still come out behind.

This book, at least, has a kind of resolution. It's not the resolution we might hope for, but there is a brief lull for the characters to catch their breaths before launching into their next task, and we have a good idea where they might start when the next book opens. The story ends on a hopeful note, with these two resourceful young women having found one another.

The love story in Scarlet is more compelling than in Cinder, though it's not without its predictable turns and cliché tropes. The characters are aware of how quickly it happened, yet it doesn't feel forced or rushed. Considering the circumstances, they'd both have to be fundamentally broken to feel nothing.

This is a promising progression of this series, and it's convinced me to pick up the next book. I feel like all Cinder lacked was another plot to offset the main one, or to introduce some of the greater conflicts we see in Scarlet. All of that is fixed in this installment. And now I find myself looking forward to book three.

I listened to this on audio, narrated by Rebecca Soler. Her voice was better suited to Scarlet's fiery temper and Wolf's quiet menace. Another narrator might have exaggerated the French accents the story called for, but they were subtly done. One of the android voices was rather more screechy than I liked, but it did fit the character.

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Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I can't say what inspired me to pick this up, except that it was available as an audio book through my library, and I didn't know what I wanted to listen to next. I'm glad I went in without expectations, because I think the author did a lot of things with this book I might have closed my mind against if I expected something else.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao tells the story of a US-born Dominican boy named Oscar de León, cursed to never find love. The narrative takes us from modern-day America back to the early reign of Trujillo, the Dominican dictator assassinated in 1961, and forward into the narrator's hope for the future. The story is actually a first-person account by Yunior, who doesn't step into the story until about halfway through. He falls in love with Oscar's sister and becomes Oscar's only friend, and witness to the curse plaguing him and his family.

Oscar is the consummate nerd. He's overweight, obsessed with all things SF, and spends much of his copious free time writing out his epic tales. In college, Yunior finds Oscar sitting in his room watching Akira most days. I was worried the narrator would blame Oscar's lack of a love life on his nerdy habits, but Yunior, himself, is also into geeky things, and he has no trouble attracting two, sometimes three women at a time. (Not that the women know how many he's seeing.) There is some fat shaming in Oscar's depiction, and, though we see how hard it is for Oscar to try to take up running, Yunior isn't terribly sympathetic to Oscar's struggle with his weight.

The story's attitude toward women is hard to pinpoint. As Oscar treats them like an unattainable goal to keep throwing himself at until he racks up enough Nice Guy points, and Yunior treats them mostly as interchangeable objects to have sex with, it would be easy to call this a misogynist narrative. Except, we also get several sections in the perspective of Lola, Oscar's sister, and we hear of their mother's struggles in the Dominican Republic as an attractive, dark-skinned girl. So the female characters we see in any depth are just as fully developed as Oscar and Yunior.

Most of my interest in this book lay in the perspective of Dominican culture, both in the Dominican Republican and in the immigrant communities in the US. I know precious little of the history and culture, and, while this is hardly a comprehensive lesson, it did lend me a lot of insight. Yunior is proud of his heritage, but he doesn't romanticize it. He's well aware of its limitations and how it shaped the immigrant communities he and Oscar are a part of.

The choice of language in this book can be disorienting. Yunior can go from talking like a professor to spouting Spanish profanity to a street lingo peppered liberally with the n word. It was discomfiting to hear that word dropped so casually, even by someone reclaiming it. Yunior's language choices are essential to understanding Oscar's troubles with fitting in, though.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is one of those books I'll keep thinking about long after I've finished reading it. There's a lot going on, even in what look like the most straightforward scenes. I'm not sure I could recommend it to anyone who wouldn't be angry with me for not preparing them, but the best way to approach it is unprepared, with your mind open but aware of where it's coming from.

The edition I took out from the library also included Drown, a short story collection. Most of the stories are about Yunior, the narrator of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. They cover his childhood in the Dominican Republic, his life in New Jersey and girlfriends he's had, and a boy without a face who features in two of the stories. The final story in the collection tells how Yunior's father came to the US and gained citizenship, and why it took him so long to bring his family to live with him. The stories lend some perspective to Yunior's characterization, and they offer more cultural context, but I wouldn't have picked them up on their own.

I listened to an audio edition of this book, narrated by Jonathan Davis and Staci Snell. I thought the former narrator did an excellent job of carrying most of the book, and the latter did a fine job on reading the few female-perspective sections. Davis sounded authentically Latino when the narrative called for it, though I can't comment on whether he sounded Dominican. He treated the material as a performance. I felt he stepped into Yunior's role in the story, rather than just reading his words. I'm glad I listened to this on audio, because the Spanish interspersed throughout the text is easier to get in context if you know how it's supposed to sound, and Davis's inflection made it a lot easier to follow.

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Review: The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

The Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English DictionaryThe Professor & the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this for a book club. With the difficulty I had getting into it, it's for the best that I did, because I would've abandoned it, otherwise. It turned out to have some interesting highlights, though I'd hesitate to recommend it to others.

The story of the Oxford English Dictionary is a varied and complicated one. This focuses mostly on two of the men who made it possible: Professor James Murray, who compiled most of the information that went into the dictionary, and Dr. W.C. Minor, an asylum resident who contributed many of the quotes used to capture the essence or history of words. The majority of the book focuses on Dr. Minor: why he was in an asylum, what he did while he was there, how his contributions helped. Dr. Minor has a combination of free time and access to books that proves essential to the making of this dictionary.

The structure of the tale isn't linear. It jumps around in time, starting with a tale of when Professor Murray and Dr. Minor first met. Only, it turns out, that's a sensationalized account people passed around as the truth. The real story is far less interesting, but you don't learn that until about three quarters of the way into the book.

Though it is true that Dr. Minor wouldn't have had the time to put in all his work on the dictionary without his stay at the asylum, to present it, as this narrative does, as wholly positive is romanticism of mental illness at its worst. If you asked Dr. Minor if he'd rather have contributed nothing and never been plagued by delusions of demons getting into his room through the floor, it's just a guess, but I'm willing to bet he would've chosen mental health. The illness later proves so distracting to Dr. Minor that he's unable to contribute further, anyway. Think what he might have been able to do if inspired to help and given full control over his faculties. Think what he might have accomplished on his own. We've come a long way from locking people up in asylums, but we still have a way to go in our attitudes toward mental health.

The book seems a bit scattershot at times, unsure what it wants to focus on. The dictionary, itself, is rarely discussed except in very dry academic terms, and Murray is barely a footnote. And yet it's not quite a biography of Dr. Minor, because it leaves out a lot of detail that might've shed light on his struggle. It doesn't even offer a psychological diagnosis until the last pages, nor does it touch upon the kind of Victorian psychiatry Dr. Minor would've been subject to. In its place, the book speculates, with little to back it up.

I found this an interesting read. I thought it captured the scope of the project of compiling the first English-language comprehensive dictionary well, and I picked up several interesting tidbits of information. In the end, though, I didn't find it readable enough to recommend others read it, unless they're really interested in the OED.

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Review: George Carlin Reads to You by George Carlin

George Carlin Reads to YouGeorge Carlin Reads to You by George Carlin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I remember George Carlin as a lot more open-minded. I suppose, when I was still in high school, his comedy must've seemed gleefully subversive. Revisiting these books mostly just made me sad.

George Carlin Reads to You is a collection of three of George Carlin's books on audio, read by the author with the kind of comic timing they deserve. They're not narratives; some of the jokes are one-liners, or they're just lists of observations. There are a few longer jokes, or stories about his upbringing, but there isn't anything to tie them together.

Unfortunately, a lot of his humor is of the punch-down variety. He picks on people with disabilities, complaining about being asked to stop referring to those with physical disabilities as "handicapped," and frequently stooping to poke fun at people with intellectual disabilities. I can already hear the George Carlin who wrote these books sneering at the "politically correct" terms above, but his lack of empathy doesn't make him funny.

Carlin seems to assume the reader is male, relating stories he assumes the reader will be able to relate to because they're just like him. He couldn't have written the book from any perspective other than his own, but his assumption I was in on the joke was often alienating.

The book wasn't a total waste of time. There were some jokes that got me laughing out loud, though their being framed by punch-down jokes often detracted from the humor. Carlin did have some interesting ways of looking at the world, when he wasn't reveling in being a jerk just to be a jerk.

If you like George Carlin, this is certainly George Carlin. I just remember him being funnier. I think I'd rather remember him from my favorite sketches, most immortalized on YouTube. This collection just makes him sound like an old man too set in his ways to learn better.

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Monday, August 18, 2014

Review: Emeralds to Emeralds, Dust to Dust (Oz Reimagined) by Seanan McGuire

Emeralds to Emeralds, Dust to Dust (Oz Reimagined)Emeralds to Emeralds, Dust to Dust by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is only one of the short stories in the Oz Reimagined anthology, but it was released as a standalone short story on ebook. I wish more anthologies would do this. I've read far too many anthologies I wish I'd just picked through for the reasons I bought the anthology lately. And, in this case, I don't think I'm enough of a fan of the Oz books to justify picking up the whole thing.

"Emeralds to Emeralds, Dust to Dust" posits an Oz beset by humans from our world, who crossed over the Deadly Desert and are now relegated to their very own Emerald City ghetto. Dorothy is all grown up, and is tasked with keeping humans in line, but they resent her for her status and for beating a path to a land that's less than magical to them. The story is a very short murder mystery. A body is found in the human sector of town, only it's clearly a plant to stir anti-human sentiment.

If you hold the Oz books as sacred or purely innocent, you're unlikely to enjoy this story. This takes a lot of the magic out of the world. Ozma is controlling and petty, and Dorothy is far more cynical than the young girl who was once horrified to accidentally kill two witches. Sand from the Deadly Desert is a drug, called Dust, that's potent and often lethal.

The alterations aren't without precedent. Considering what happens to wilderness not under federal protection, it's not a stretch to suggest that large numbers of human immigrants into a magical land may have a negative effect. And Dorothy couldn't possibly remain an innocent little girl forever. I'm not familiar with Ozma's role in the books, but power has, historically, gone to people's heads, and it sounds like Ozma has a lot of it.

If you're looking for a nostalgic stroll through the books you loved as a child, you may want to skip this. But if you're looking for a creative take on what may have been, I'd recommend giving this story a shot. It's a quick read, compellingly written, and easy for even those of us not as familiar with the Oz books to follow.

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Review: The Heart Goes Last (Positron #4) by Margaret Atwood

The Heart Goes Last (Positron, Episode 4)The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This might just be the most frustrating serial fiction ever. Not because of how it's written, but because of the publication schedule. This is most certainly not the end of the story, but there's no release date on episode 5, and this one came out over a year ago.

The premise behind Positron is a near-future dystopia, where people deep in debt voluntarily go into prison for six nonconsecutive months a year. The other six months, they spend in suburban paradise. Stan and Charmaine are happy with their choice to enter the system, until Stan finds a note he believes was left by the woman who lives in their house during their off months, and fills his head with all kinds of fantasies. Only, it's a code name used by Charmaine, so she can cheat on Stan with Max, the man who occupies their house during the months they're imprisoned.

Four installments in, Stan's death has been faked and the subversive forces are working on getting him out, while Charmaine is being ogled by the guy in charge at Stan's funeral.

I'm honestly not sure if I'm rooting for Stan and Charmaine's eventual reunion. The only things they have in common are that they lie to each other and lust after other people. Stan was momentarily interested in his wife again when he realized she was the sultry vixen he'd been lusting after, thinking all along she was boring and pure. But he's easily distracted by a defective sexbot, who imprinted on a stuffed animal instead of the man she was built for. And, while Charmaine genuinely grieves for her husband, there's a heavy burden of guilt involved, as she believes she killed him.

I guess I'll see what future installments bring. I sure hope there will be future installments.

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Review: Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente

Six-Gun Snow WhiteSix-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I like fairy tale retellings. At least, in theory, I like them. I've found a lot I was dissatisfied with, often because the characters were shoehorned into their roles without a lot of character exploration. Despite the glut of Snow White retellings, this one sounded different enough it deserved a chance. Besides, it was nominated for a Hugo.

Six-Gun Snow White takes place in the Old West, in an untamed land populated by robber barons and the exploited native population. A silver baron, Mr. H, takes a native girl named Gun That Sings as his wife, without consulting her on the matter. He threatens to exploit her family's land to gain their grudging consent. She has a single daughter, and dies. Mr. H's new wife ironically names her Snow White, and spends much of the girl's childhood bathing her in ice cold milk to take the darkness out of her skin.

Snow White escapes her stepmother, and just in time, because, as in the original tale, the evil stepmother wants Snow's heart. The huntsman comes in the form of a bounty hunter who sees Snow as just another spoiled kid who'll be easy to track down. But she's clever and resourceful, and learns everything she can about surviving in the lawless lands. The dwarves show up as the women running an all-female town.

The ending of the story takes it in an odd direction. I suppose it would have to; everyone knows the iconic story, and we can't have a predictable ending. I would've had an easier time with it if I'd been clear on the relationship between Snow and her stepmother's mirror-child, the reason why the stepmother needs Snow White's heart. There's a strong bond between Snow White and Deer Boy, but I was never sure if it was familial or emotional.

The western angle on the Snow White story is a new one to me, and a non-white Snow White is a clever twist. And this Snow, for all her adherence to the plot formula, directs her own fate. She becomes the central character of the story, not just its victim. This is no damsel summoning woodland creatures with her innocence. This Snow White carries a gun, and doesn't hesitate to use it when she needs it.

Despite the many, many Snow White retellings, this one manages to stand out from the rest. I don't know if I'd call it my favorite, but it is compellingly written, with an excellent sense of character, motivation, and the importance of the essential symbols, like the mirror and apples. This didn't win the Hugo, but now I'm really intrigued about the novella that did.

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Friday, August 15, 2014

Progress: The Plot Thickens

Here I thought I'd written three books in 4 months.

Now that I'm finished typing up book one of the fantasy trilogy, I've been working on book two. I already knew it was longer than the first book. As I typed, I looked for things I could cut.

Instead, I found myself adding to the story. When I write my first drafts, I'm often in a hurry just to get the story down before I forget, so my second drafts involve expanding and clarifying. This one is no exception. I realized, as I reached the 2/3rds point of what I'd written of book two, I could easily split them without losing anything. In fact, it gives me room to explore some of the aspects of the world I glossed over to wrap up the book. There were several distinct points where I made the decision to leave a plot seed alone because it would've made the book that much longer.

And so, the fantasy trilogy is now a tetralogy. Or a quartet. I like quartet better. People actually know what that means.

It takes a lot longer to write new material than it does to type up a draft that's already written. My progress has slowed to a crawl. My hands are grateful for the respite, but I'm impatient to get back to typing up what's in my little notebooks. There's a weird kind of thrill in pulling apart what I wrote to form it into something better. I'm rarely in a better mood than when I solve a plot puzzle I've written myself into.

Meanwhile, my crit partner is going through book two of the urban fantasy trilogy, and she has a lot of good feedback. I should be working on editing, but I just like the dragon books more.

In my little snatches of between-time, I'm writing book three of the urban fantasy trilogy. It has the opposite of the above problem. I feel like I've run out of plot, and it's only just past the halfway point. I have a few ideas, but I won't know until I write them if they feel like padding. It's not like I'm writing very fast. I have time to figure out how to fill those pages.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Review: The Night of the Mary Kay Commandos: A Bloom County Book by Berkeley Breathed

The Night of the Mary Kay Commandos: A Bloom County BookThe Night of the Mary Kay Commandos: A Bloom County Book by Berkeley Breathed
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was lucky enough to pick up a pile of classic Bloom County strips at a library book sale. This is the only one of the set that I remember reading before. It also seems to be when the comic strip was at its best.

In this volume, Bill the Cat runs for president, with Opus as his running mate. Opus is called in front of a congressional committee to determine his liberalism, which takes him out of the running. Bloom County is ordered to meet a gender parity quota, only to learn there's already a woman among them, sparking a witch hunt. Oliver, the young black scientist of the group, discovers that cat sweat regrows hair, and its outlawing (due to "acking" side effects) turns it into a lucrative illegal trade. And Opus breaks into an animal testing facility in hopes of reuniting with his mother, leading to a run-in with the title characters ("Even their uzis are pink!").

This set of strips has Opus gaining prominence as a main character in Bloom County. Whereas earlier strips put him in more of a sidekick role, in these, most of the stories center around him. I don't think that makes him an author mouthpiece, though, unless the author suffers from very poor self-esteem. The strip never resists a chance to point out how awkward, effeminate, and undesirable he is.

The issues that come up in the comic strip kept up with current events very well in their publication in the late 1980's. Most of the punchlines reference the news soundbites in ways most readers would recognize. That doesn't make them foreign or hopelessly dated, though. We still talk about the media's reactionary nature, the War on Drugs, gender roles, animal testing, and divisive politics.

I've been enjoying revisiting these old strips. Dated as some of the jokes are, it's nice to finally understand some of them in their proper context. I'm glad I had the chance to do so.

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Monday, July 28, 2014

Review: Eat Slay Love (Living With the Dead, #3) by Jesse Petersen

Eat Slay Love (Living With the Dead, #3)Eat Slay Love by Jesse Petersen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the third book in the Living With the Dead series, a lighthearted look at the zombie apocalypse. This installment finds a ramping-up of the tension and stakes.

Sarah and David survived a zombie apocalypse that started where they were in Seattle, and they've made something of a name for themselves as they cut a swath through the zombie-infested countryside. In this, the third book, they're making their way to a rumored Midwest Wall, which supposedly stopped the invasion from spreading east. If it's real, it's possible Sarah's mother survived the outbreak, and that there's still a place where civilization is intact.

The vest majority of the book takes place in rural Oklahoma, where they pick up a former celebrity news reporter, barely escape an insular community of survivors, and meet a drug-addled former rock star. Both Sarah and David get a chance to show off what they've gained in the zombie apocalypse, as the threats get ever more dangerous and they're called on to tap all their resources.

All of the books are told in a self-help format. The first book is about saving their marriage with a common enemy, so the chapter headings are all themed after relationship advice. The second establishes their zombie-hunting business, so it's styled after business manuals. This one is more of a general/motivational self-help, which strikes me that the concept is running thin. It still works in this book, but I can't imagine how a future book might fit the theme.

There's a strong thread throughout this book about taking advantage of the zombie apocalypse, for better or worse. David and Sarah aren't the only couple who resolved their differences to fight zombies, and many characters tap into strengths that had been languishing in the civilized world. Obviously it's not an improvement for people turned into or eaten by zombies, and Sarah speaks longingly of the trappings of society, but the survivors are changed by the experience, mostly for the better.

I've read reviews of the fourth book that suggest stopping with this volume. It does wrap up a lot of plot threads. I'm content with where we leave Sarah and David at the end of this book. One gets the idea their story is done. There are a couple of threads still left hanging, but they don't seem they'd overly affect these two in the life they've accepted by the end of this book.

If you like humor and snark in your zombie books, I recommend this series. It's a nice change of pace from the grimdark that dominates the genre. There's still gore and death, but it's tempered well with levity.

I listened to this book on audio, narrated by Cassandra Campbell. Her voice generally captures Sarah's snark, though some of her emphasis and pronunciations are a little off. And by this third book, some of her voices for characters are indistinguishable. There were times when I couldn't tell if a character was speaking, or if Sarah was narrating.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Progress: Milestone

I finished typing up the first draft of my dragon story. It took longer than I thought, because I reworked as I went. More tension here, less bickering there, shortened rambling conversations, those sort of fixes. I don't think my beta readers will believe me that I cut about half the sex from the original draft.

I also had to write a prologue and an epilogue. Well, I didn't have to. I could've thrown the reader in without preamble. But parts of it are really hard to depict without slipping out of my first-person narrator for a bit.

The first time I tried to write this, I tried to alternate interludes with the story, but it killed the pacing, and I ran out of things for the other characters to do.

The story is currently 123,915 words, which is a respectable length for the genre. I already know the next one is longer, but who knows how much of that can go?

I'm looking forward to typing up book two. I enjoy this story.

Review: Tales Too Ticklish to Tell by Berkeley Breathed

Tales Too Ticklish to Tell: Bloom CountyTales Too Ticklish to Tell: Bloom County by Berkeley Breathed
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Several months ago, I found a pile of Bloom County books at a library sale. Of course I snatched them up. I have fond memories of reading these when they were new, though I didn't understand a lot of the punchlines at the time.

In Tales Too Ticklish to Tell, Breathed's style was pretty well cemented. When you think of Bloom County, you think of these character designs, and this type of humor. It's bitingly sarcastic, a little absurd, and allows for no sacred beliefs to go untouched. Media scandals, TV evangelists, scapegoating, gun control, short attention spans, and objectification are all examined and skewered in turn.

As with Loose Tails, what surprised me was not how dated the jokes are (and some of them really are), but by how well some of them hold up. If you ever need a reminder that the media has always been lazy and sensationalist, look no further than its depiction in Bloom County. The characters regularly comment as they watch the news or read the paper, and we see how their local paper distorts what it hears to make an attention-grabbing headline. Above-the-fold scandals were the clickbait of their day.

There are places where the author lets his unconscious biases show, but, for the most part, the satire is evenly doled out. Some of the characters lean liberal or conservative, but they're all poked at in equal amounts. And, when the ultimate man's man, Steve Dallas, is taken and turned liberal, he's an object of ridicule, and his old friends are horrified. If one considers Opus the author's mouthpiece, then it's clear which way the author leans, but an argument could easily be made he's not.

I don't know how much entertainment value these comic strips have for generations who didn't live through what they parody, but, for someone who can remember most of what they discuss, it's fun to revisit them. They hold up surprisingly well, and finally understanding jokes that flew right over my head when I first read them is gratifying.

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Monday, July 21, 2014

Review: Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Cat's CradleCat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I won this book through a giveaway at Roof Beam Reader. It's the first full-length Kurt Vonnegut book I've read. I was unprepared. Though, I'm not sure any amount of preparation would've been enough.

Our unnamed narrator is researching material for a book about the day the atomic bomb first went off, from the perspectives of family members of Dr. Hoenikker, one of the scientists who invented it. In the course of his research, he learns of a substance called ice-nine, which can change the properties of water so that it needs a much higher temperature to melt, invented by Hoenikker. He notes its potential for worldwide catastrophe, then thinks nothing of it. Nothing, that is, until he winds up in an island nation where the inventor's three children converge, and our narrator is drawn to events that lead to ice-nine's release into the world.

Throughout the book, the narrator describes a philosophy he's taken on in the place of the Christian religion, called Bokonism. It posits the uselessness of religion and the meaning behind seeming coincidence. At first, the reader is led to believe this is a longstanding belief he's been assimilating for years. It's only as the book goes along that one realizes how recently he picked it up, and that, when he speaks about events most people would assume will happen after the book wraps up, he's foreshadowing.

The book is told in satiric, rapid-fire prose. The chapters are short, and they read as vignettes saturated in irony. Bokonon teaches our narrator that man is the only thing worthy of being regarded as divinity, but the behavior of human beings in this story is far less than divine. People are selfish and greedy, and, above all, hypocritical. The island nation our narrator visits has outlawed Bokonism and is sworn to execute its founder, but it turns out that all its citizens practice it in secret, even the leaders who've made it a crime worthy of painful execution.

I can't remember the last time I read speculative fiction written in this time period that didn't evoke the Cold War. This one makes its analogue plain as day, evoking the atom bomb from the very start. The message is clear: people are self-destructive by nature. Giving them a weapon that could destroy us all can't end well.

There are some aspects of the book that made me uncomfortable. I couldn't tell if Vonnegut didn't realize he was being racist, or if he was making fun of the sort of people who'd say such things. The way he presents comments about Newt's height make me think it's the latter, but it's a close thing.

This is an odd book, but not an unpleasant read. It goes at a nice clip, and it has plenty of wry satire to entertain. It seems a bit preoccupied with its satire rather than characterization or language, but it can be forgiven. I'd liken it to the movie Dr. Strangelove, at least in tone. I'm glad I got the chance to read it, so I can quit treating Vonnegut like an obstacle to overcome, and instead view him as a writer I'm sometimes in the mood to read.

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Review: The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century by Ian Mortimer

The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth CenturyThe Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century by Ian Mortimer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My interest in history is in the everyday. Random facts and dates and politics may tell me what shaped the world we have today, but I want to know what people were doing while all that went on. This book, then, was right up my alley. And it was in my 2014 TBR Challenge because otherwise, I was never going to get around to reading it.

The book is, as the title says, a guidebook for anyone wanting to visit England in the 1300's. It discusses customs, fashions, crime, justice, economic classes, conditions living in cities, food, travel, people's homes, and, briefly, the Black Death. It's the first history book I've read about the time period that doesn't dismiss research suggesting the Black Death was viral. But there are entire books devoted to that particular puzzle. In this, it's little more than a footnote, except to note how its effect on lifestyles and the population.

The book is absolutely packed with information. It covers any aspect a person visiting from our time period needs to know so they don't stick out. It presents the populace not as clueless rubes, but as people living their lives and worthy of respect despite their lowbrow humor.

Unfortunately, the Time Traveler's Guide isn't terribly readable. It's excellent as a resource to consult to get a good idea of the flavor of the time, but, as a cover-to-cover read, it's rather dry. That exhaustive research and thorough information doesn't take long to get tiresome. It's like that person at a party you were sorry to ask about their area of expertise when they're still going on about it an hour later.

Overall, this is a valuable resource for anyone who needs to get the flavor of everyday life during the time period. I recommend keeping it on hand to consult as needed, rather than reading all the way through at once. I'm going to keep it on hand, but I'm not going to read it as I did this time around again.

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Review: The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

The Midwich CuckoosThe Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I realized after I picked up this book that it was abridged, and that the only unabridged audio is a performance. I have no idea what I missed, but I did listen to a compelling story, worth delving into the source material.

If you've heard of The Midwich Cuckoos, you've probably seen one of the Children of the Damned movies. I've heard of it through Seanan McGuire's InCryptid books. There's a race of cryptids called Cuckoos, and they're much like the creatures described in this book, with a greater variety in appearance. Sarah gets her last name from Gordon Zellaby, the layman who studies the strange children.

The book describes a small town in the English countryside, struck mysteriously by a sudden sleep that lasts a day and a half. Anyone passing into the radius immediately falls asleep, and wakes up when dragged back out, usually by a hook. Our narrator escapes the daylong sleep because he and his wife are away celebrating his birthday.

Soon after what everyone calls the Dayout, all of the women of childbearing age realize they're pregnant. Initially they make these discoveries separately, but, when they start risking their lives in ever more desperate measures, the town doctor talks Angela Zellaby into rallying them around for mutual support. When they're born, all of the children have a particular shade of blond hair, and golden eyes. And their mothers start to do their bidding, whether they want to or not. As the children grow older, at twice the rate of normal children, Gordon Zellaby starts to notice some other remarkable things about them.

Despite the book's overall patronizing tone (the women are "hysterical," and not in the funny way), it captures the crux of many pro-choice arguments. The women lament being used as a container, remark they feel used, and there's palpable tension as the due date grows near. Many of the women unsuccessfully try home abortion techniques, and risk their lives in the process. Surely even the most staunch abortion foes wouldn't argue the world was better off with these fictional children in it.

Mostly, Midwich Cuckoos evokes Cold War panic. The notion that the children are there to destroy society within is hard not to see as a parallel. The truly terrible events in the story are triggered by actions taken by the Soviets.

The book, then, is dated in some ways. It most shows its age when one of the characters remarks that, at least the children aren't black. I can only hope he wasn't meant to be an author mouthpiece.

The choice of narrator for this book is a curious one. The narrator participates in very little of the story, and serves only to tag along and observe the most interesting parts. He even has a convenient job in Canada that takes him away from the village for the 8 years where nothing much happens with the children, and he returns for a visit just in time for things to come to a head. He doesn't add any commentary or opinions that enhance the story.

This book is well worth a visit to the original material, despite how dated it is. If nothing else, it's a glimpse into how classic scifi/horror was crafted. The genre hasn't changed much in the intervening decades.

As mentioned above, I listened to this on audio. Despite the fact it was abridged, it was a pleasant listening experience. Jeremy Clyde's performance didn't detract from the story, and added to it in places. He was easy to understand with a consistent volume.

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