Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Review: Bird, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

Boy, Snow, BirdBoy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In theory, I like fairy tale retellings. I say "in theory" because I've read too many that disappointed me. Still, I'd heard good things about Boy, Snow, Bird, a take on the Snow White tale, and it seemed like a good concept to go by.

Boy Novak escapes her abusive father in New York City in the 1940's and winds up in tiny Flax Hill, Massachusetts. She has some trouble fitting in, but eventually finds a job she likes, and a man she could marry. His name is Arturo Whitman, and he has a daughter named Snow, through his deceased wife, Julia. Boy marries Arturo, and soon after gives birth to a dark-skinned baby girl she names Bird. It turns out, the Whitmans are white-passing. Most of them, at least. Arturo's sister, Clara, is dark-skinned. The family urges Boy to send Bird to be raised with her aunt. Instead, Boy sends Snow, seeing something in the girl that makes her fear for her daughter.

The narrative skips over thirteen years, then has us catching up through Bird's perspective. Otherwise, it's told through Boy's, which makes it hard to blame her as the evil stepmother. Bird's reaction, on hearing her mother described as such, is puzzlement. She watches her mother for signs of it, and ultimately dismisses the claim. The crux of the story is in why the person would accuse her of it in the first place.

Mirrors are a recurring theme in this book, as in the original Snow White tale. Boy is entranced by reflective surfaces, which Arturo initially takes for vanity. Snow and Bird write back and forth, and briefly discuss Bird's quirk of sometimes not seeing herself reflected in a mirror. Snow writes back that the same thing happens to her. The day Boy decides to give Arturo a chance, she's just had a vision of herself, reflected, hands covered in blood. Bird has a talent for mimicry, a reflection of a person's voice. And characters serve as reflections of traits others possess. Bird proves a reflection of the dark skin in the Whitmans' blood, and her grandmother can hardly bear to look at her for it. Snow reflects back people's best traits, and people love her for it.

I loved the language in this book. Sentences flow into dialogue which flows together, despite each character's distinct voice. Boy and her friends have a back-and-forth banter that evokes movies of that era, or Peter S. Beagle dialogue. Boy and her mother-in-law have a tight, formal presentation. Bird's dialogue skips along merrily, full of laughter and curiosity. Snow's is mild and checked, like she's always making sure she said the right thing.

Characters can be hard to keep track of, especially with the shift in perspectives. Bird knows several people Boy doesn't, but she also knows people by their last names (Mrs., Ms., Mr.), while Boy was on a first-name basis. I kept wondering if I was supposed to know the people Boy was talking about.

I also spent most of the book puzzled about people's motivations. I think the point of the book was to slowly reveal Boy's inner workings, but she makes some choices that totally baffled me. When Bird hears that her mother is evil, I wasn't as quick as she was to dismiss the claim. Some of her motives really do seem to be manipulative or spiteful, until the very end.

The book didn't end where I expected. It seems like the most interesting event is just gearing up when it breaks off. Except, this is Boy's story, and the fact that she takes those steps is all the reader needs to know.

As a fairy tale retelling, I'd call this book a success. It had its reason for using the Snow White framework, and it had a new story to tell within it, beyond just giving the evil stepmother a chance to give her perspective. I liked what Oyeyemi did with it. This is beautifully written.


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Friday, June 20, 2014

Review: The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood

The Robber BrideThe Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the sixth book in my 2014 TBR Pile Challenge. I always enjoy Margaret Atwood's books, but I can never make myself pick them up to read. The challenge seemed like as good an excuse as any.

The story is told through the perspectives of three women. Tony Fremont is a petite history professor, Charis (whose last name is never given, to my recollection) works in a spiritual gift shop and spouts New Agey nonsense, and Roz Andrews is wealthy and owns a women's magazine. All three have been betrayed by a woman named Zenia, and it's this shared experience that holds them together. Otherwise, they have very little in common. Tony is timid and lives inside her own head. Charis is evangelical about her respect for all life, and Roz is brash and bold. Roz is also the only one who identifies as a feminist, though all three exhibit different ideals of feminism. They believe Zenia to be dead, until, over lunch, they see her walk into the restaurant.

Zenia is less a character than a force of nature. She's a chameleon, changing her looks, personality, and approach just to best insinuate herself into these women's lives to wreck them from the inside. She tells each a different story about her childhood, one that echoes each woman's own childhood trauma or resonates in some way. She lies to all three of them about where she is in her life, and she plants seeds of doubt in their own competence, as well as in how well they can trust the men in their lives.

Zenia could be argued to represent a lot of things. She could be the voice of a society that wants to punish the three women for not performing femininity. She might embody mistrust and doubt, sure killers of a relationship. I was leaning in favor of Zenia being an aspect of each of the women whose lives she ruins. On the surface, though, she's manipulative and remorseless. I recognized women I've known in Zenia, though I wouldn't flatter any of them by comparing them to her. She's an amalgam of the evil women pitted against women can do.

The narrative delves deeply into each of the three women. We get series of flashbacks for each of them that show their childhoods, how they met Zenia, how Zenia wrecked their lives, and how their present situations came about.

Interestingly, each of the women winds up in a better place because of Zenia's interference. Charis's Billy and Roz's Mitch were toxic, and the women are better off without them. Charis's grief is the catalyst for her going after an inheritance she deserves. Roz's magazine takes off with Zenia's help, and Zenia gives Roz's son the reason he needs to open up to his mother. While Tony mistrusts West after he returns from being used up by Zenia, he's more devoted than ever after the events, and she buys a lovely house in the meantime to distract herself from her grief. Not that I would argue that Zenia set out to do them any favors. That they were all better off after Zenia tore through their lives was not her goal.

I had to admire Zenia, in a way. She lies with perfect conviction, manipulates everyone around her deftly, wriggles out of consequences without even mussing her hair, and always ends up on top. She's resourceful, and always has a backup plan. We learn very little about her, and what we do learn is unlikely to be true. But we do see a woman who knows what she wants and how to get it.

This book is written extraordinarily well. That's not to say it was an enjoyable read. I spent much of my reading trying not to compare my own troubles with Tony's, Charis's, or Roz's. I sympathized most strongly with Tony, though I'm quite certain my story won't end so neatly. The book did lend me some new perspectives I hadn't considered. Despite my discomfort, I'm glad I read it.


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Review: Lady Windermere's Fan by Oscar Wilde

Lady Windermere's FanLady Windermere's Fan by Oscar Wilde
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The preface to this book declares it the book that launched Oscar Wilde's career. It certainly sounds like an earlier play, without the polish of his later works. It's still an enjoyable story, though, full of witticisms and observations on the human condition.

Lady Windermere is looking forward to her birthday party that evening when news comes to her of her husband's spending a lot of time in the company of Mrs. Erlynne, a woman with a tarnished reputation. Margaret looks into his finances, and finds a lot of significant payments to Mrs. Erlynne. When Lord Windermere comes home, he asks his wife to invite Mrs. Erlynne to her party. When she refuses, he invites her, instead. Margaret says she'll hit her with her fan, if she sees her. Then at the party that night, her dear friend Lord Darlington declares his love for her, and she's tempted, thinking her husband doesn't love her anymore.

Some of Wilde's most iconic lines come from this play, often spoken by Lord Darlington. As a bachelor suffering from unrequited love, he has the most freedom, and the most reason to be introspective.

This play isn't as tightly plotted as others Wilde wrote. There are superfluous characters, and a plot line about an Australian betrothed that goes nowhere. Later, Wilde mastered the art of making a character more than just a sly dig at society. These characters and plots don't take up a lot of space in the narrative, but they do make it a little more difficult to tell all the characters apart.

The ending of the play is surprisingly touching and romantic, especially for a satire. There aren't a lot of romances that show a married couple falling deeper in love. It was a sweet story.

I listened to an audio performance of this play, put on by L.A. Theatre Works. They generally hire good performers, though this one didn't have any names I recognized. The drawback is that it often sounds like it's being performed on a stage, and some of the lines are quieter than others, presumably as actors turn to address one another. Mostly, though, the volume remains consistent.


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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Review: Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Fuzzy NationFuzzy Nation by John Scalzi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've never read Little Fuzzy, the book this is based on. But I did like the premise, and I was curious what Scalzi would do with it. This book didn't take it in the direction I expected, which isn't a bad thing at all.

Jack Holloway is a private contractor for ZaraCorp, an interplanetary mining corporation. When he returns to his remote home in an otherworldly jungle, he finds a bipedal creature that somewhat resembles a cat. He grabs video of it to share with his biologist ex-girlfriend, Isabel Wangai, because it's a new species that no one knows anyone about. She comes out to investigate, to find a family of five living with Jack. After some study, she comes to the conclusion they're sentient. But if they are, ZaraCorp has to stop exploiting their world's resources. Jack and Isabel take to the courts to argue in favor of the cute little guys. But that may target them for extinction, if previous sentience hearings are any indication.

Jack is not a likable guy. If I knew him, personally, he'd be the sort I'd barely tolerate, and avoid as much as I could. He's arrogant, self-serving, antagonistic, and unrepentant. The narrative does change his attitude in many ways, but he remains much the same. Interestingly, the character he gets along best with is Mark Sullivan, Isabel's lawyer boyfriend. Sullivan is well aware of Jack's personality and deficiencies, and he isn't afraid to call him on them. He saves Jack from himself more than once.

Of course, because Jack is so unlikable, his shining moments are all that much better. His moments of selflessness say a lot about those deserving of his goodwill. And because he's such a jerk, he has less of a problem than anyone else in the narrative taking underhanded tactics or calling people on their obvious ploys. I thought Jack was a good example of how characters needn't always be likable to carry a story.

Despite a third of this story's taking place in a courtroom, it's interesting and dynamic. John Scalzi knows how to withhold information for dramatic tension, and just when to reveal it. The characters populating the story all help carry it along, and do a lot of make up for Jack's jerk tendencies. I loved Judge Soltan. She was like an interstellar Judge Judy.

I don't know what Little Fuzzy might've lacked that this was making up for, but I'm glad John Scalzi saw that need. This was a thoroughly enjoyable read.

I listened to this on audio, narrated by Wil Wheaton. Scalzi mentions in an introduction that he's especially glad Wheaton is narrating, for reasons the readers can glean. There's a character named Wheaton Aubrey VII, and Wil Wheaton captures his spoiled, bratty persona well. He does an excellent job narrating the rest of the story, too. He gets across the emotion in certain scenes so well, I teared up. From all the Scalzi books I've listened to audio, it seems like Wil Wheaton is his official narrator. I'm okay with that.


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Review: Deadlocked by A.R. Wise

DeadlockedDeadlocked by A.R. Wise
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a free promotion from Audible, the purpose being to entice readers to buy later installments. If one is a fan of zombie novels, one might be tempted. My reading and TV watching history notwithstanding, I am not especially.

Part one of Deadlocked tells the story of David, who's at work in his sales office when the zombie outbreak comes to a head. His co-workers are watching live news coverage of a school bus accident when the children start eating people. Meanwhile, hospitals are in emergency states, leaving people wondering where they can go for help. There's a mass exodus from the city, but the crushing mass of humanity is only making it that much harder for anyone to get anywhere. The streets are an all-you-can-eat buffet for the walking dead.

All David wants is to get home to his family. His journey takes him to the rooftops, then into the river at the edge of the city, into the harbor, and half-dead on the shore.

While there are some stand-out moments in this story, overall, it doesn't do a lot to distinguish it from any other zombie story. The premise of a father getting to his family to get them to safety, and having to tap into reserves of strength he didn't know he had, are admirable themes, but not original. The story is well-written and compelling, but it doesn't stand out much from other zombie stories, which throw another element in to mix it up.

If you like zombie stories, you'll probably like this. I enjoy them, but not enough to invest reading time in this one.

I listened to this on audio, because Audible was giving it away for free. It was entertainingly read. I thought the narrator was a good choice. He has a good everyman sound.


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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Review: The Nerdist Way by Chris Hardwick

The Nerdist WayThe Nerdist Way by Chris Hardwick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I only know Chris Hardwick from his hosting The Talking Dead on AMC. The premise of the book didn't seem terrible, so I thought I'd give it a shot.

The Nerdist Way is a self-help book written specifically toward self-identified nerds. It capitalizes on traits stereotypically associated with being a nerd, and advises ways of thinking about self-improvement that build on other knowledge, like tabletop gaming or chess. Hardwick is quick to point out that he's no expert, just a guy this stuff worked on. He discusses a lot of his journey toward self-improvement, and the obstacles standing in his way.

The book covers self-improvement in three stages: the mind, the body, and time. The first section deals with how a person might be getting in one's own way with implementing change. He specifically addresses anxiety and panic attacks, which he, himself, has had to manage. The second section focuses mostly on fitness, with a little lip service paid to diet. The third dilutes a lot of time management and priority advice into a practical set of guidelines for using the 24 hours allotted you.

I found the middle section to be the weakest. Hardwick conflates weight and health, and never clears up the misconception. He is coming from it from the angle that he was at his least healthy when he was overweight, but he later mentions that people were most concerned for his health after he'd lost the weight and was too skinny. It would be difficult for someone told by a doctor they need to lose 75+ pounds to relate to Hardwick, who reports a difference of 30 pounds between "doughy" and emaciated. While it is valuable to strive to be healthier, weight isn't an accurate measure, especially when you're comparing two people side-by-side.

While the book uses gender-neutral pronouns throughout, there are places where he invokes attitudes common to the male nerd that alienate women. He flirts with the "you deserve hot women" attitude several times, and depicts nerds as unilaterally liberal and open-minded, despite the historic blind spots the community has had in regards to women and minorities. I understand he's a guy writing this book, and therefore has a guy's perspective, but a little awareness of blind spots would've been nice.

All-in-all, though, Hardwick gives his advice in a self-deprecating, easygoing way that makes it sound realistic, and even desirable. He doesn't lay on guilt trips or make blanket judgments. He comes across as just a guy, chatting with friends non-judgmentally about what worked for him. He even hands out experience points for having finished sections of the book.

I listened to this book on audio, narrated by Chris Hardwick. It probably detracted from the middle section, because it's a lot harder to figure out how to correctly exercise when someone is telling you the specifics while you're doing something entirely different. For the most part, though, the narration was a plus. Hardwick has good comic delivery, and his self-effacing remarks are a lot more obvious when he says them aloud. I laughed while listening to this book quite a lot.


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Review: Hen Frigates by Joan Druett

Hen FrigatesHen Frigates by Joan Druett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I like to read women's stories throughout history. Princesses Behaving Badly told of women who should've been famous for their status, but who were often forgotten after the gossip died down. They Fought Like Demons tells of women who dressed up as men to fight in the American Civil War. Sea Queens is a YA take on lady pirates. Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace is an intimate look into a Victorian lady's private life. I picked up Hen Frigates on a recommendation that it would be along those lines.

And it was, indeed. This tells of the women who joined their husbands at sea in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Women played ambassador, tended to the sick, raised livestock, helped mend sails, struggled with seasickness and rough seas, gave birth to and raised children, and sometimes even helped crew the ship, all in restrictive, heavy skirts. (One woman in these accounts wore trousers; the rest went about the ship in fairly standard laundry day garb.) The stories are told in their own words, as many women kept a diary while on board.

The book is full of information about naval life in general during the 18- and early 1900's. It contains maps of sleeping quarters and ship layouts, guides on naval lingo, definitions of types of sails, illustrations of the various kinds of ships, and lots of information about the general life onboard, for hired sailors as well as the wives.

The book does acknowledge the superstition about women at sea; some wives fretted they would be blamed for storms or disease or other misfortunes. But it doesn't stop the women from accompanying their husbands. Some women die at sea, some from childbirth and some from disease, and one wastes away because she can't keep food down. Overall, there were enough women at sea that landing at a port became a series of social calls, visiting with old friends one had encountered before.

Though many of the women are writing during the Victorian period, and they all have at least enough education to write, none are the wilting flowers the time period is known for. They remark on troubles with little more than a sardonic remark, the gravity of which has to be gleaned from their husbands' accounts of the same events. The most common complaint is boredom; once they run out of embroidery thread or sewing, many of them resort to learning navigation or other useful aspects of ship life. They're strongly discouraged from mixing with the sailors, though.

The book recounts two instances of a woman taking over the ship. In one case, a daughter puts down a mutiny after her father dies at sea, and navigates home. Another woman is left in control when disease ravages the ship, and she has to navigate, crew, and tend the sick while she, herself, suffers the illness.

Unfortunately, I ran into the same problem with this book as with They Fought Like Demons. The book covers so many women, and in such a scattershot way, that it was hard to follow any one narrative. It gives glimpses of various aspects of these women's lives, without going into much depth. The various sections are by subject, which are only loosely organized, at that.

I learned a lot reading this book, though, and not just about women I'd never heard of before. I found out a lot about the daily lives of sailors during this time period, and what it was like to sail on one of the old sailing vessels, before steamboats halved the time it took to cross the Atlantic. Interestingly, it was the ushering in of steamboats that quashed the practice of women at sea. The owners of the ships claimed the wives were too much of a distraction, and banned them. The book wraps up with the observation that wives aren't a distraction in any other vocation of the time period.


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Sunday, June 8, 2014

Review: Rip-Off, produced by SFWA and edited by Gardner Dozois

Rip-Off!Rip-Off! by John Scalzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this up because one of its stories, Mary Robinette Kowal's "The Lady Astronaut of Mars" has been nominated for a Hugo. Twice, actually, but that's a whole other story. Like all anthologies, I found it had its high and low points. The good stories were really, really good, so I forgave the few I disliked.

The premise behind this anthology is that each of the authors took a famous first line, and wrote a whole other story following it. Some of the stories also borrowed other material, either from the same story or from others. All came up with an entirely different story, steeped in science fiction or fantasy elements.

"Fireborn" by Robert Charles Wilson posits a world where there are the upper class, called the fireborn, and the ordinary peons. Our ordinary human protagonists, Onyx and Jasper, stumble across one of the fireborn practicing her dance, and learn of the world within the privileged bubble. They're drawn into a contest taking place at Harvest, the prize being a trip to the Eye of the Moon. The question becomes, how much will the ordinary humans let themselves be used? Lightspeed Magazine has made this one available to read online. I found the concept behind this story interesting, and I liked Onyx's perspective.

"The Evening Line" by Mike Resnick tells the story of an ugly man winning big at the races, and his sudden influx of lady friends, vying to marry him for his money. The perspective character, Harry the Book, takes bets on which woman will win the day, while the man insists he has no interest in any of them. Women are painted as gold-digging harpies, devious and underhanded and sometimes violent. If you find stereotypes funny, you'll love this story. I did not.

"No Decent Patrimony" by Elizabeth Bear paints a future created when an elite few can take a treatment to live forever. Edward has just survived an explosion that killed his father, and invites an intrepid journalist to come interview him when he returns from the hospital. Conspicuous consumption means something very different in a world with subtropical temperatures in New England year round. One of my favorites.

"The Big Whale" by Allen M. Steele retells Moby Dick as a pulp detective novel. Many of Melville's other characters make cameos, as well. It was creative, but not terribly memorable.

"Begone" by Daryl Gregory was another favorite. It starts with the opening line of David Copperfield, then tells the story of a man kicked out of his own life. I won't spoil where it goes from there, because half the fun was in realizing where it was going, but anyone who loves 1960's sitcoms will get it sooner than those who prefer their TV from the last decade or two.

"The Red Menace" by Lavie Tidhar starts with the first line of The Communist Manifesto, and from there shows us an alternate version of the 1930's, where Russia has a whole other dimension to play around in, and only they have the technology for passing back and forth. Interesting concept, but I think I was supposed to feel more of an attraction between Anna and our perspective character. There was too much politics cluttering up their romance. Or, there was too much romance cluttering up the politics. Either way, it didn't quite work.

"Muse of Fire" by John Scalzi tells of Ben Patton, a scientist working with plasma. His muse, Hestia, is trapped in Hell, but, if he can stabilize the plasma state, she'll be free. He's the only one who can see her. But, as his project comes closer to the testing phase, his co-worker, Rebecca, seems more and more interested in him. And Hestia is a jealous muse. This one is available as a separate ebook. I enjoyed it, though it wasn't my favorite, as with many other readers before me. It had the most recognizable narrator, certainly.

"Writer's Block" by Nancy Kress starts with Edward Bulwer-Lytton's famous "It was a dark and stormy night," and shows a writer struggling with where the story goes from there. Her writer has a few good ideas of where it goes from there, but his wife criticizes all of his ideas. Then he finds incontrovertible evidence she's been cheating on him, and that she's poisoning him, too. And just who is Violet, and why does she keep showing up? I'm amused by metafiction, so I liked it.

"Highland Reel" by Jack Campbell is set in the Scottish Highlands, and tells the story of Mary Chisholm. She's lost her land, her family, her very identity. Until she treks back to take back her home, and finds a village full of strong, attractive Highlanders where sheep pastures used to be. It seems too good to be true, but she doesn't discover the truth of it until she meets a young British soldier, there to find soldiers to fight at Crimea. This story snuck up on me, and I wound up liking it a lot.

"‘Karin Coxswain’ Or ‘Death As She Is Truly Lived’" by Paul Di Filippo starts with the first line of Huck Finn, and retells the tale as a female boat captain on the River Styx. Karin is more Tom Sawyer than Huck, and the tale is a lot more grown up than the one Mark Twain tells. When her ex-husband shows up on her boat, she agrees to help him get his girlfriend back from one of the Lords of Hell. But only because it's so amusing to watch him fail. I had my quibbles about this story, but it's ultimately funny and irreverent.

"The Lady Astronaut of Mars" by Mary Robinette Kowal calls up Bradbury-era SF, with its punch card technology and nostalgic view of a time that never was. It's available to read online, on Tor.com. It's touching and sweet, and I shouldn't have listened to it before a site visit, because it almost made me cry. I loved it. Worthy of a Hugo nomination.

"Every Fuzzy Beast of the Earth, Every Pink Fowl of the Air" by Tad Williams tells an alternate account of the creation of the world, as influenced by God's daughter, Sophia. She has the angels quite confused with her changes, like allowing birds to fly and putting fish in the water. She decides bugs need to hide underground or in rocks and trees because they're gross. While Gabriel frets about how God will take all this, Metatron observes all of this with a kind of fascinated wonder. I thought this story was cute.

"Declaration" by James Patrick Kelly didn't seem like the best choice to wrap up the anthology. It tells of a near-future where people can fully immerse themselves in the online world, and of the teenagers fighting to be allowed to spend all of their time in that world. Remeny (Hungarian for "hope") wasn't the best choice of narrator for the story. She follows around the ones making decisions and taking a stand, but her role is only to observe. Once she gets all of the pertinent information, she signs off, accepting the decisions other people have made.

This collection was released as an audio book. That's the only form you can get all of the stories in, though you can find some in SF magazines or other anthologies. For the most part, the narrators were a good choice, though the last one seemed to ignore context entirely, thereby changing the meanings behind a lot of interactions.

Overall, I liked it. The high points were excellent, and the low points were forgivable for the stories framing them. If you want a good sampling of what speculative fiction writers can do, this seems a fair representation.


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