Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Review: I'm Starved for You by Margaret Atwood

I'm Starved for YouI'm Starved for You by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the first of Margaret Atwood's Positron series, a Kindle Singles release available exclusively for Kindle users. I'd gone in with the assumption it was a stand-alone story, but I was happily mistaken. Happily, because I'd love to know what happens next, and I'm not ready to say goodbye to these characters yet.

The story is through the perspectives of Stan and Charmaine, a married couple who's chosen to go to prison for economic viability. A company has set up a program, called Consilience, where one lives and works in the prison for a month, then lives outside it for another month. One may well be working for slave wages and under constant surveillance, but there are three decent meals a day, a roof over one's head, and the trappings of surburbia for six months out of the year.

Despite their strict monitoring (or perhaps because of it), Charmaine begins an affair, conducted in the fuzzy times between her suburban life and her return to prison. Stan finds a note she dropped for her lover, and mistakenly assumes the man's wife left it. He fantasizes about a woman so passionate, while going through the motions with a wife he believes too innocent for such things.

The story is told in present tense, which works so well that I kept forgetting. It's not because of a sense of immediacy, though; the story takes place over the course of several months. Rather, it's the characters' living from one moment to the next, compartmentalizing, so that present tense seems the only way they'd process their lives.

The characters were excellent. Stan and Charmaine appear boring, even to one another, but they have a lot going on. Charmaine seems the least sympathetic, considering she's having an affair, and her job involves a certain kind of moral fiber, but I found her fascinating, instead. Stan is doing his best to appear the upright citizen, even fussing about the terrible care the other guy who shares his house takes of the lawn equipment, but his steps to meet "Jasmine" are sneaky and underhanded. It never crosses his mind, what's really going on under his nose, and I found his innocence almost charming.

I had no trouble believing that these characters would choose the life they did. It actually sounded like a good deal, even compared to today's economic uncertainty. The world I'm Starved for You is set in is even worse than ours, with rampant crime and housing conditions in terrible shape. It seems like it might be the same world as Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, because there's a reference to headless chickens engineered to feel less pain, which could serve as a precursor to Chickie Nobs. The facility also seems like a precursor to the compounds in which Jimmy and Glenn grew up.

What I like best about this story is that, though it's a science fiction dystopia, it's not about the setting. Rather, it's a human story that's highlighted by the setting, and that calls attention to a lot of modern problems.

The story is wrapped up at the end, but it leaves more questions and an upping of the stakes. I already picked up Choke Collar, but there's no release date yet for Moppet Shop, so I may hold off on reading it until I can get through the whole series at once.

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Monday, October 29, 2012

Review: Heart of Iron by Ekaterina Sedia

Heart of IronHeart of Iron by Ekaterina Sedia
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the fourth book I've read by Ekaterina Sedia, and it's the most fast-paced. It's steampunk, set in an alternative 1800's Russia, and it borrows from the penny dreadful style one of the characters reads avidly.

The story follows Alexandra (Sasha) Trubetskaya, whose aunt shames the emperor into letting women into the university at St. Petersburg. Sasha meets a great cross-section of Victorian society there, including the English spy Florence Nightingale, Spring-Heeled Jack, and Chiang Tse, a scholar from China. Sasha's friendship with Chiang Tse leads her across Siberia on the newly built Trans-Siberian railroad, chased by British agents and the deathly cold of Russian winter.

The steampunk trappings (airships, submarines, trains before their time, machines that can play music) are mostly background, as well they should be. I'm always annoyed by narratives threads that break just to marvel at how cool the world-building is. Sasha is impressed by the modern age she lives in, but she has greater concerns.

What I really love about the setting is that it changes the focus from where we usually see Victorian or alternate-Victorian literature. This isn't set in Britain, or the western portion of Europe. This book resists British influence, and the characters are struggling against colonialism. If you can't get the notion out of your head that steampunk equals Victorian, this book may give you some cognitive dissonance. As for myself, I loved the alternate take.

I also loved the characters. Sasha has no powers or special strength to protect her, aside from an upbringing that gave her freedom to learn what she wanted. She's treading new ground, literally and figuratively, in a world not built for her. She disguises herself as a young soldier for her journey, but many of the people who help her see through her costume. They help her, anyway, because she shows strength and intelligence that earns their respect.

I liked how the romantic subplot turns out, too. There's some uncertainty, in the end, though it's clear she prefers Chiang Tse. Jack, who's good and deserving of love, doesn't win her just because he's the dashing, brave hero. Sasha wonders what's wrong with her, that she can't love him back, but she never forces it. Though Jack obviously wishes it were otherwise, neither does he. It's a far wiser and more mature outlook on love than I've come to expect in books with a romantic subplot, and I wish more books employed it.

Goodreads tells me I'd have to flip through some short story anthologies to read anything else Sedia has written to date. I may do just that.

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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Review: The City and the City by China Miéville

The City & The CityThe City & The City by China Miéville
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm not the first reviewer to note that this is a police procedural in a science fiction/fantasy setting. For me, though, this was something to be overcome, rather than a feature. I don't generally like procedurals, and this book brought out all the excruciating detail that makes me impatient and want to read something else. Despite that handicap, though, I wound up liking it.

The cities in the title are Beszel (pronounced in the audio "bay-ZHEL") and Ul Qoma (pronounced in the audio as "el-coma). They exist on top of one another, and the residents are taught from an early age to ignore the evidence of the other city's existence. It's generally easy to do, but there are places, which the text calls "cross-hatches," where the borders are thin. Only one such border is a legal checkpoint where people may pass without violating the deepest law of the land, that of Breach.

Our narrator is Inspector Tyador Borlu, a resident of Beszel who gets the puzzling case of a woman who doesn't seem to exist. A random tip from Ul Qoma points him in the right direction, but to acknowledge where the tip came from is to risk Breach. He finds a way around it, and argues her killer had to have breached, but new evidence refuting this surfaces, and he has to cross the border to continue his investigation.

The book consists of three sections, each taking part in a different version of the city. Borlu has a different partner in each section, too, and is increasingly humbled with each reassignment. His goal never shifts, though; he only becomes more and more determined to find the killer with each obstacle plopped in his path.

There's some infodumping in the text, as Borlu narrates as if he's writing a tourism guide, sometimes. The most interesting parts, I thought, were in the small tidbits he drops, rather than the droning paragraphs. He mentions, offhand, that Ul Qoma has the better technology, and that it also has worse poverty and a smaller population. It also has a trade embargo with the US, which adds a layer of politics on top of everything else.

I thought the dual cities could stand for a number of things: the Berlin wall, the ownership of Hong Kong by the British, the selective ignoring citizens of a city do with the less savory elements, or the very different lives people can lead in a city without ever crossing paths with other residents. It could also be said to symbolize the racial divide.

My biggest complaint about the book was that I was never convinced that breach was that great a crime. People are terrified of committing it, and, though Breach is mysterious and frightening, the consequences aren't that great. I couldn't figure out why it was so important that the cities not bleed into one another. That could be a theme of the book, about how we uphold values unquestioningly, and I never heard a strong case that it wasn't, so it's a weak complaint.

I listened to this book on audio. It was nice to know how to pronounce things, but the narrator had some flat inflection. I don't know if the infodumps were as boring as I thought they were, but a lot of the sections sounded like a professor droning on about things I didn't care about. The narrator was capable of inflecting, and had an intriguing English accent, so it was disappointing that I almost didn't listen past the first disc because his delivery was so off-putting. I'm glad I stuck it out, though.

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Saturday, October 20, 2012

Review: Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

Beauty Queens (Audio CD)Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm sure my enjoyment of this book was colored by my agreement with many of its premises. In Beauty Queens, Libba Bray promotes several opinions about corporate entities, pop culture, advertising, and modern feminism that happen to line up pretty closely with my own. Perhaps the book is less enjoyable if you don't agree, but I quite liked it.

Beauty Queens starts by crash-landing the 50 contestants of the Miss Teen Dream pageant on an unknown island. The girls are initially optimistic about rescue, but The Corporation, the faceless entity behind most of American life in this book, has a hidden compound on the island they don't want anyone to know about. That means leaving the girls to die.

But the girls don't die. The ones who survive the plane crash prove remarkably resourceful. Just because they're only valued for their beauty doesn't make them useless, and as they shed their backstabbing rivalry to work toward survival, their true strength shows.

The book is told in third person omniscient, with a little time spent in each beauty queen's thoughts, as well as some of the other characters'. Normally, I dislike omniscient, but it worked for this story. I certainly wouldn't have wanted to be in Adina's thoughts all book, and I fear that's who I would've been stuck with, otherwise.

Beauty Queens does suffer from some tokenism, but that's part of the point. The two POC (Indian and black) are there as tokens, and they know it. There's a deaf character, a gay one who also represents the lower class, a Jewish feminist, and a transgendered girl. (The book does an excellent job of always referring to her as a she, and the humor that arises from the situation isn't directed at her, but rather at the closed-mindedness of others.)

The girls all fit stereotypes about their states, but it's mostly by design. They refer constantly to what "the judges" expect of them, and it becomes clear that they've cultivated a safely stereotypical view to fit what the judges will expect of them. As I enjoy watching tropes get bent and broken, I loved it whenever we got a peek beyond the stereotypical exteriors of the girls.

The book contains a lot of biting satire. It covers a lot of topics, most notably: beauty pageants (especially those for young girls), reality TV, commercials, large corporations, the media, action movies (James Bond in particular), chick flicks, and Sarah Palin. It also refrained from condemning the girls for giving in to the culture they were steeped in, and from giving a blanket condemnation of things the girls liked. Mostly, this was accomplished by showing Adina wasn't right about all the things she loathed about the pageant and its trappings, and by showing she had a few things to learn, too. Adina started out thinking she was better than everyone else, but by the end, she learned she was lucky to count these girls as her friends.

Mostly, this is a book about identity, and how difficult it can be for a teenage girl to find it, among all the mixed messages inundating her daily. It's only after their secrets aren't important anymore that the girls let them go, and can finally find out who they are, besides one defining lie. It's a message I could've used as an angsty teenager, though I'm not sure I would've been ready to hear it.

I listened to this book on audio, narrated by the author. I recommend the experience. Libba Bray has a lovely voice, and she's up to the task of acting out several different voices and accents. No two characters sounded alike, though her British characters sounded Australian, to me. Also, I'd imagine the "commercial breaks" are more interesting with sound effects and music. The footnotes may take some getting used to, as they're marked with an alarm ding at the beginning and end. The audio edition also includes an interview with the author, though the questions aren't included.

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Thursday, October 18, 2012

Review: Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

DeathlessDeathless by Catherynne M. Valente
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first Catherynne Valente book I've read, though I met her at a convention a couple of years ago. I'm gratified to learn that I enjoy her prose, because I would've been sad to only like her as a person. Deathless is everything I'd hoped
  Winter Garden

would be.

Deathless is both a fairy tale retelling of classic Russian folk tales, and a story of survival in St. Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad from post-WWI to the start of WWII. It follows Marya Merevna, who stumbles across the presence of magic in her ever-changing world. She's claimed as a wife by Koschei the Deathless and her worthiness is tested by Baba Yaga, another Russian mythical character. She fights his war against the czar of death, V, meanwhile changing to become a harder, colder person. When the fated Ivan shows up to save her from Koschei, she finds herself torn between them, but ultimately chooses to return home, just in time for WWII to starve her nearly to death.

I thought, at first, that this was about being changed for the worse by loving the wrong person, but the story is more subtle than that. Yes, Marya becomes a demon for love of Koschei, but she embraces her transformation, in the end. I couldn't put my finger on exactly what the message is, except perhaps that magic is dead in the world, and there is no winner in war. There's also some smaller messages about the immortality of stories, the danger of power dynamics in relationships, the roles of men and women, why communism was so dangerous, and changing fate.

The book integrates many aspects of Russian fairy tales into the story, though I'm not familiar enough with Russian mythical tradition to comment on how well it was used. Still, I always like to see so many aspects of folklore tapped.

Many other reviewers have comments on the lyricism of Valente's prose, and I have no quibble with them. This book reads like poetry. Even the dialogue is in harmony, while at the same time sounding like something each character would say. There's a lot of repetition, which further reinforces both the lyrical quality and the fairy tale nature of the book.

I do have a quibble, though, and that's the book's plot-driven nature. For most of the book, Marya is bobbing along, pulled by the plot. I didn't feel that she was invested in any of her choices, until the end. I suppose that fits with another theme, but it's unpalatable to me. I prefer to read stories where people make choices for a reason that makes sense to me.

I listened to Deathless on audio, which I can't recommend. The narrator has a thick Midwestern accent that threw me out of the narrative more than once, and her pronunciation and emphasis gave me a strong sense of dissonance. These words are better appreciated spoken aloud, but not by this narrator.

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Sunday, October 7, 2012

Review: The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

The Bloody ChamberThe Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Bloody Chamber is a collection of fairy tale retellings, which is one of my favorite things to read. I like modernizations and twists on well-known stories. This was not my favorite, though.

The title story is a retelling of "Bluebeard," from the young wife's perspective. It gives her a happy ending. "The Courtship of Mr. Lyon" is a Beauty and the Beast story, as is the third story in the collection, "The Tiger's Bride." "Puss-in-Boots" is a naughtier take on that legend, where the title character has a female ally, and his master's great ambition is to seduce a married woman. "The Erl-King" is a legend I'm unfamiliar with, but the theme seemed rather similar to "The Bloody Chamber." "The Snow Child" is a Snow White tale involving jealousy and necrophilia. It's short, but disturbing. "The Lady of the House of Love" is mostly a Sleeping Beauty story with vampires. "The Werewolf," "The Company of Wolves," and "Wolf-Alice" are all based around the Little Red Riding Hood story.

For a lot of the stories I read, I couldn't help but wonder why Carter had bothered to rewrite them. I suppose my perception is colored by those following in her footsteps to retell the stories in a more engaging way, but a lot of the retellings seemed pointless to me. I almost didn't pick the book up again after I read "The Snow Child."

It's also fairly repetitive. Of the many, many fairy tales known by modern readers, Carter picks seven for a ten-story collection. I might have enjoyed them more if I'd read them more spread apart. All together like this, and it only increased my puzzlement about why she'd bothered.

I suppose the collection does an excellent job of showing how fairy tales can be turned and twisted to become something new. After all, one fairy tale is turned into three different stories.

On its own merits, I couldn't figure out why people so highly recommended this book to me. The style didn't engage me, and reading it felt like there was a punchline I'd missed. Someone has to break ground, I suppose, and for that, Angela Carter gets some credit. As an enjoyable read, though, I don't see myself picking up anything else she's written.

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Friday, October 5, 2012

Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian GrayThe Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is yet another book whose premise is well-known, but that is worth reading, anyway, to get a closer look. Oscar Wilde was a first-rate satirist, and his biting remarks about modern society, marriage, love, morals, and Americans elicited many a wry smile out of me.

In case you haven't heard of it, The Picture of Dorian Gray is about a young man who has his portrait painted, and muses, as he gazes at its remarkable likeness, what a shame it is he'll grow older while the painting stays the same. He declares he'd sell his soul to have the reverse be true, and, apparently, some agent that can collect is listening. The full explanation for why this takes place is never given, though one could infer from the text that it's a particular convergence of circumstances. The artist's love for Dorian certainly feeds into it.

Most of what survives in popular culture shows the painting as an old man, though the book ends with Dorian at 36. However, every evil deed Dorian does leaves its mark on the painting, twisting and marring the features. I don't buy that people are ugly because they do terrible things, though I will accept it as a stand-in for Dorian's actions having no consequences.

I couldn't help but compare this to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, where a person who can get away with things soon takes advantage of it, to his detriment. I also compared this to Austen, with a lot of the text taking place among polite society. Wilde's characters are far more dynamic than Robert Louis Stevenson's, though, and far less polite than Austen's.

I can see why high schoolers might groan about reading this book. There are interminable passages of lists, or about strange stories that don't have much of anything to do with the plot. Also, most high school students have a mentality much closer to Dorian's than to Basil Hallward's, the painter who tries to lead Dorian to a life of morality. That Dorian should care about people who killed themselves because of how he treated them was a lot more obvious to me as an adult reader than it would've been to a 16-year-old me.

There's some reading between the lines that escaped me, though. Dorian blackmails a man, Alan Campbell, but the text never states what he knows about Campbell that later makes him commit suicide. I have a few guesses, but they're only guesses.

I listened to an audio edition of this book, narrated by Simon Vance. The audio edition was crisp and easy to make out, though I did find myself adjusting the volume when characters muttered or whispered, and back down again when they raised their voices. The dialogue was easily differentiated from one character to the next.

This book was far more entertaining than I expected, and I felt a lot of the social commentary held up well. I could do without Wilde's attitude toward women, though I could never tell if he was showing how much of a jerk a character was for talking about women that way, or if the character was an author mouthpiece. Regardless, I enjoyed it, and I'd recommend reading this for yourself, even if you think you know the story.

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