Eats Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. Don’t forget ‘laughs.’

Eats Shoots & Leaves

Read April 2014
Recommended for fans of writing, communicating
★   ★   ★   ★

I confess:  I frequently find myself self-conscious about my use of punctuation. A few years back, I even bought a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, but have yet to read more than a chapter or two at a time before discovering something else to do, even if it’s bathing the dog. Similarly, I procrastinated on reading Eats Shoots & Leaves, and I really shouldn’t have. Full of humor and information, it explains some of the easier nuances to punctuation in a useful and engaging manner.

The reason it’s worth standing up for punctuation is not that it’s an arbitrary system of notation known only to an over-sensitive elite who have attacks of the vapours when they see it misapplied. The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning… Punctuation directs you how to read, in the way musical notation directs a musician how to play.

Truss nicely covers the basics of beginner to advanced punctuation with chapters devoted to each:  a rationale for punction, the apostrophe and its many uses, the comma, the semi-colon and colon, the dash, the hyphen, and various brackets. She makes brief mention of the punctuation debate surrounding the Oxford comma, a concept I’ve heard referenced but didn’t understand (Is a comma needed on the noun before ‘and’ when you are making a list? Ex.: “I need to buy cream, coffee and sugar.”)  Use is reviewed from a British-English perspective, but she often makes note of where American-English differs (except for the chapter she hilariously ends with “unless, of course, you are in America“). By integrating short pieces on the history of that particular punctuation, she adds insight into language as an evolving process. In fact, she when talking about the semi-colon, hyphen and dash, she notes how usage is fading with hyphenated words, but the dash is enjoying a resurgence with texting. Examples are pulled from personal accounts, famous writers’ anecdotes, classic literature, plays and newspaper articles, adding interest.

Humor runs through the book, increasing its readability. Somewhat to my surprise, not only did I find myself enjoying it, but also unwilling to put it down. I found myself chuckling more than once, but that could just be nerd humor. For instance, in the section on apostrophes, she relates a law mentioned in a newspaper column, “the Law of Conservation of Apostrophes. A heresy since the 13th century, this law states that a balance exists in nature: ‘For every apostrophe omitted from an it’s, there is an extra one put into an its.’ Thus the number of apostrophes in circulation remains constant…” She also uses an engaging strategy of relating a particular story, say perhaps, punctuating Keats’ name, then continuing to reference that story as appropriate, making it into a witty running gag (Keats, St Thomas’ Hospital, Gertrude Stein, Starburst).

From the start, Truss acknowledges that those who insist on correct punctuation run the risk of being thought more than a little daft. One of the enjoyable aspects of her writing is how she is willing to acknowledge that truth, and yet continue to make her case for clear communication. One of my favorite sections of self-disparagement was when she calls apostrophe sticklers to arms: “Here are the weapons required in the apostrophe war (stop when you start to feel uncomfortable):

correction fluid
big pens
stickers cut in a variety of sizes, both plain
(for sticking over unwanted apostrophes)
and coloured (for inserting where apostrophes are needed)
tin of pait with big brush
guerrilla-style clothing
strong medication for personality disorder
loudhailer

I get that frustration–I really do. While I’m prone to be sloppy with grammar in general and to be forgiving of punctuation while reading books, nothing makes my spine crawl like seeing a post/text/note stating, “I had a busy day taking care of all my patient’s.” (Patient’s what, exactly?)  I wholeheartedly agree with her; punctuation facilitates meaning. It dovetails with my feeling that text messaging is inadequate for more than simple questions, partially due to the lack of nuance from our hastily typed phrases. Punctuation, tedious as it may seem, would help clarify those messages. Besides, if we don’t start using the colon and semi-colon, our little pinky finger on the right hand might start to wither away while we type. Truss says so.  All in all, a great refresher for one not versed in the upper echelons of punctuation philosophy and an entertaining read.

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Gulp. by Mary Roach. Adventurous, in a bumper-car kind of way.

Gulp

Read April 2014
Recommended for fans of digesting and laughing
★   ★   ★   for humor,     ★   ★   1/2  for information

While reading, I was reminded of long-ago biology studies, and the simplest members of Animalia that are little more than a gastric tube composed of cells. It’s astonishing, really, those primitive forms of waterborne life, and it emphasizes an interesting thing about animal anatomy, that we aren’t a solid, discrete, bounded organism: the environment moves through us as much as it moves around us. We like to think of “inside” and “outside” our bodies when in fact, it’s much more complicated. Those familiar with the gastrointestinal system (“the GI tract” in medical slang) understand that as a system rather continuous with the “outside,” it is one of the least sterile parts of our anatomy (the case could probably be made for skin as well). Perhaps that is why there are so many taboos surrounding what we eat, how we eat, vomiting, farting, defecation and such–all those different ways we process and exchange with our environment. Gulp. Adventures on the Alimentary Canal explores the GI tract and its unmentionables in an engaging way that is somewhat limited by basic scholarship.

One of her early paragraphs best explains her topic: “Yes, men and women eat meals. But they also ingest nutrients. They grind and sculpt them into a moistened bolus that is delivered, via a stadium wave of sequential contractions, into a self-kneading sack of hydrochloric acid and then dumped into a tubular leach field, where is is converted into the most powerful taboo in human history. Lunch is an opening act.

That both captures the strength and weakness of her writing; while good general information is buried in her text, it is largely hidden by metaphor and humor.

Divided into 17 chapters, the story loosely follows the physiological structure of the gastrointestinal tract, beginning with the sensations of smell and taste, then examining a variety of topics including ‘organ meats,’ chewing, stomach acid, saliva, swallowing, being eaten alive, overfilling stomachs, intestinal gases and flamability, colonic direction and stool. It didn’t take me very long to understand that this was the Trivial Pursuit version of the “adventures on the alimentary canal,” not the informative, organized tour designed to give insight in an entertaining way. As a nurse, I was rather hoping for a tour that taught in an engaging, non-professional style, not this collection of anecdotes, historical studies and titillating tidbits of taboos.

Content is largely based on a wide variety of scientific studies, both historical and current, and covering both human and animal. For those that may have little background in the topic, this could likely prove confusing. For example, the chapter on chewing jumps in time from 1947 to 1817, to 1979 to 1825. The continuity jumps challenge the lay understanding of historical developments and lack the feeling of developing a professional discipline. Also distracting were strange asides about the scientists/ food professionals themselves. Perhaps in an effort to humanize the science for the average reader, she also describes appearance and personality of a number of the people she interviews. (Personally, I found this the most distracting and least informative. If I want to read People, I would. But I don’t.)  The nose section (“Nose Job”), for instance, is largely about a professional sensory analyst named Langstaff and Roach’s own experience trying out as an olive oil taster. The chapter on taste (“I’ll Have the Putrescine”) is primarily about engineering pet foods that appeal to dog, cat and owner, and talks about various personalities at the organizations she interviews.

Structurally, I found it was less coherently written than Packing for Mars. There’s copious footnotes, but not for intellectual background as much as parenthetical anecdotes or commentary. As the text content was just as engaging and digressive, I found myself wondering why she bothered with the footnotes? Amusement? Trendiness? They seem to be a mix of further text detail or opportunities for her to hilariously comment on her own writing. I won’t deny they were often funny; I laughed out loud at her exploration of whether a human could survive inside a whale’s stomach: “While a seaman might survive the suction and swallow, his arrival in a sperm whale’s stomach would seem to present a new set of problems (1).

(1)I challenge you to find a more innocuous sentence containing the words sperm, suction, swallow and any homophone of seaman. And then call me up on the homophone and read it to me.

Content concerns aside, Roach has a strong storytelling gift.  Her voice is engaging and humorous, and is generally accessible. I found that she touched on a number of tantalizing issues in the field, such as our preference for sweets (mentioned in the taste tests for dogs), dyspepsia (hidden in a story about professional eaters and stomach size) and the growing interesting in how gut bacteria contributes to overall health (couched in a story about fecal transplants). Perhaps that is where some of my disappointment comes from, that she can be aware of some fascinating, topical issues in the GI field with enormous implications for people’s health, but then instead chooses to focus on the shock-studies of boa constrictor stomachs and dissolving live foods. Recommended for those in the mood for giggles and Science-Lite.

 

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Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor

Just One Damned Thing After Another

Read April 2014
Recommended for fans of comedic time travel
★   ★   ★   ★

Madeleine Maxwell has had two pivotal moments in her life to date. Her second moment arose after a former teacher suggested applying for a job as a Historian at St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research. During the interview, St. Mary’s is cagey about the exact nature of their work, but once Maxwell accepts the job, she discovers they are historians who use time travel to correct historical inaccuracies.  St. Mary’s has a certain eccentricity about it that appeals to her own rebellious nature:

We finished with a tour of the grounds… Even as I opened my mouth to ask, there was a small bang from the second floor and the windows rattled.
‘Hold on,’ said Chief Farrell. ‘I’m duty officer this week and I want to see if the fire alarms go off.’
They didn’t.
‘That’s good, isn’t it?’ I said.
He sighed. ‘No, it just means they’ve taken the batteries out again.’”

The story follows Maxwell as she undertakes orientation at St. Mary’s, trains as a time-traveler, and is challenged by her initial missions. As she and her fellow orientees embark on their first missions, the peril of time traveling becomes evident. As the Director points out to her:

Think of History as a living organism, with its own defence mechanisms. History will not permit anything to change events that have already taken place. If History thinks, even for one moment, that that is about to occur, then it will, without hesitation, eliminate the threatening virus. Or historian, as we like to call them.

Maxwell is fun character with a contagious humor and enthusiasm. Virtually without vanity, after changing into her new grey trainee jumpsuit, she notes, “Surveying myself in a mirror, I looked like a small, excited, ginger sack.” Interestingly, there is minimal personal background, except to learn that it was troubled, and books were a way out. It’s an interesting authorial choice, as it has the advantage of avoiding infodumping and tying the book to a particular point in time, but increases the challenge of creating a sympathetic, multidimensional person. However, her winning combination of spunk, personality and sass won me over. And the ability to hold her liquor. Usually.

There’s loads of humor in the book, creating chuckles all the way through. A scene where the Director is rebuking the staff for their flippant answers on their personnel files had me laughing out loud. Rather than one-note witticisms, humor here comes in many forms, from the mad-cap situations, to sly references (“thick as two short Plancks”) to generally clever writing:
I cut him off with a gesture and a complicated, ambiguous noise intended to convey–if you don’t ask then I won’t have to lie and you won’t have to take any action we might both regret, because, let’s face it, I’m not the only one up to no good here.
We both paused to contemplate the massive rule-breaking going on here.
‘Would you like some tea?’
‘Oh. Yes, please.’

I encountered one significant problem while reading, however, I have to apologize to Taylor and say, “It’s not you, it’s me.” As I am tremendously fond of To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis, comparisons between Willis’ and Taylor’s books were inevitable.  Similarities included (vague spoilers, natch): philosophically similar time traveling institutes focused on historical investigation, not exploitation; historians known for their nutty behavior; a wardrobe/costuming department; the concept of historians being unable to effect history; and the same penultimate discovery. But more important than conceptual parallels is a similar daffy sense of adventure and humor running through the book, with a little bit of star-crossed character leads. That said, Taylor’s plot is considerably more action-focused, along with a heavy focus on institutional dynamics.

Other concerns include a bit of vagueness on our present-day setting. This may well be intentional as a way to keep the storyline more focused on the plot, but I did wonder what exact time period the setting is. There’s reference to email, the “latest electronic retrival system” in the library, an “electronic scratchpad” for note-taking, GPS, “blasters,” and “transporters” that take the trainees away from St. Mary’s. It led me to guess mostly-current era, with a suspicious lack of cell phones/instantaneous communication that might have made a later plot point preventable. 

The other concern with mentioning for those that like the science part of the science fiction seems a little light. Pure speculation would be that Taylor’s strength is the history part of the story rather than the science details.  For instance, although they travelers “can’t bring anything back,” they can apparently return covered in mud and potentially contagious with disease. Willis acknowledges the disease/contagion problem in her series and deals with it in an interesting way, but the paradox hasn’t seem to occur to Taylor’s historians though they have to decontaminate before exiting the pod.  Also, although they are “forbidden” from interacting with locals, they end up doing it with some regularity, so it opens up those pesky time-line questions, which are promptly ignored. I’m not one that cares about timeline/causation generally (‘therein lies madness’) but it’s worth mentioning for those who might notice the logic gaps. My most significant final concern is some forced and questionably authentic relationship drama that seemed somewhat out of character for both parties involved. While I appreciated the resolution, it had a false note to it that seemed like character was sacrificed for some plot tension.

But all those are relatively small concerns, given that its ability to hold my interest. It was literally one of those books that I did not want to put down and will certainly hold my attention for a second read. Overall, it was an amazing first novel. A shout out to Richard at Expendable Mudge Muses whose enthusiasm and whole-hearted recommendation inspired me to read this book (and the next, naturally).

A final, memorable line: “It seemed very possible we would all be killed by idiots rather than villains, which would be typical.

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The Iron Jackal by Chris Wooding

The Iron Jackal

Read April 2014
Recommended for fans of pirates and Firefly
★   ★   ★   ★  

One can’t help but delight in the antics of Captain Frey of the airship The Kitty Jay. A swashbuckling rapscallion, he has an ego unsurpassed by his wit or his morals. Lately, however, he has found that his normally self-centered ethics are undergoing an uncomfortable transformation as he discovers he cares about his crew of misfits. The crew’s been together on The Kitty for awhile now, and they are finally feeling flush with success after their most recent exploits (The Black Lung Captain). The crew includes Crake, the “highly educated and eloquent” daemonist and his metal golem, Bess; Pinn, more muscle than brain, but determined to be an inventor; Harkins, a stellar flier with a severe anxiety disorder; Silo, a former slave with a mysterious past; Malvery, a doctor with a drinking problem; Jez, “who was half-daemon, and who was dead by most people’s standards”; and Slag, the irascible cat.

Crake was less than impressed. He’d been expecting someone fiercely intense, a wild-eyed savage of some kind. Instead he’d found a giant bearded raisin.

Characterization is exceptional, though undoubtedly many readers will recognize crew members as character archetypes from other sources. I couldn’t help but imagine Frey as Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean as I read, but many reviewers cite Captain Mal Reynolds in Firefly as well. It’s a compliment to Wooding, really, that he can weave a such glorious tale of adventure that it calls to mind other stories and characters we love. While the narrative largely follows Frey, it also spends time with each member of the crew. As they each undergo their own personal crisis, there’s opportunity for emotional development outside of Frey’s more egotistical perspective.  Wooding nicely captures the feel of a band of misfits choosing to trust each other even as they make contingency plans: Crake thought [Pinn] an odious, immoral dimwit with the intelligence of a cough drop, but he was crew, so that was that.

One of the challenges with characterization is how to have them handle conflict without endangering sympathy for the character. Wooding gauges the line nicely, creating Frey as a Jack Sparrow-like weasel whose morals usually come through in the end. When his crew questions him about the latest heist, Frey finds himself flailing as he tries to justify the plan:
“‘Aren’t we the bad guys?’ Pinn asked suddenly.
They all stared at him. He shrugged. ‘Well, I mean, we’re robbing them, right?’
‘We’re never the bad guys!’ said Frey, horrified at the suggestion. He was surprised the moral objection had come from Pinn rather than Crake. Pinn didn’t have any morals, so he probably just wanted the attention.
[...]
‘Plus,’ he raised a finger, ‘those on that train are gonna be armed guards. They’re paid to get shot. If people like us didn’t try to rob trains, they’d be out of a job.’
‘We’re providing employment opportunities now?’ Crake asked, deadpan.
‘Exactly!’ said Frey. ‘Greasing the wheels of foreign capital, and that.’
‘Cap’n,’ said Crake. ‘I do believe you know as much about economics as Pinn does about hygiene.’
Malvery mopped his pate, which had reddened and begun to peel. ‘Look, as long as we stop short of killing women and children, and we ain’t shooting adorable little puppy dogs in the face, I’m in.’

Plotting is fun, with a typical heist scenario leading to one complication after another. Much like a movie, Iron Jackal opens with a shootout and foot chase, Frey outdoing his normal cowardly efforts as he chases Ashua, a former street urchin with valuable intel. Once Ashua is on board, the heist proceeds, only to lead to unfortunate consequences, unsurprisingly caused by Frey. The crew rallies round him even as each faces doubts and set off after the MacGuffin. But what an entertaining journey along the way! A variety of setting and political situations keeps the action from feeling repetitive. The end engagement is a unexpected, complex situation that points to the direction for the next book –but is not a cliff-hanger for this one.

Tone and voice are wonderfully balanced, able to maintain a degree of suspense and uncertainty while cracking jokes along the way. Witty dialogue is tempered by emotional turmoil, which places it a step or two above many action-focused stories. Frey and Ashua have a Beatrice and Benedick repartee (Much Ado About Nothing), while Crake frequently makes word jokes that only Ashua (and hopefully, the reader) understands:

“‘Why do I need a dictionary?’ Frey complained.
‘No reason,’ said Ashua. ‘Now let’s get down there and mortify some guards.’
Frey was caught in one of those moments when he didn’t know what somebody meant and couldn’t decide whether to pretend he did or not.
Pinn groaned, as if explaining things to Frey was extraordinarily tiresome. ‘Mordant means dead, don’t it? So mortify means kill, obviously. They even sound the same. Right?’ He looked at Ashua, who nodded encouragingly.
‘Oh,’ said Frey. “Oh! Let’s mortify some guards. I’m with you now. Didn’t hear you right the first time, that’s all.’
Crake and Ashua exchanged a glance, though it was hard to tell its meaning behind their goggles. Malvery tutted to himself. Frey had the distinct impression that a joke was being had at his expense, but couldn’t for the life of him figure out what it was.’

Extremely readable, it’s one of those books that swaggers into your afternoon, says, “don’t mind if I do,” kicking off boots and placing feet on coffee table. For the right mood, priceless.

 

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The Hammer and the Blade

The Hammer and the Blade

Read February 2014
Recommend for fans of classic buddy fantasy
 ★   ★   1/2

Mr. Kemp, forgive me. I enjoyed your book. Buddy sword and sorcery, against the odds, grit and luck, fun time.  It reminded me of an updated Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, or a more interesting Riyria Chronicles. It entertained me during a slow night shift when I needed to be entertained and to stay awake, so it was working against gravity, as it were, and it still worked. Kudos.  I completely would have given it three and a half stars if it wouldn’t have been for one major plot-point:

 

SPOILER–a women-victim thing going on here with the ultimate threat of a woman being made to conceive and carry a demon child.

WARNING: apparently I haven’t gotten enough sleep, because my language filter is broken.

It could be recent events in my life (1) (2), but I’m in one of my moods where the convention just annoys the fuck out of me, and it’s about time I say it.  I have a bone to pick with you all, authors, especially you fantasy and science fiction writers. You know–the fields that play with reality, imagining worlds, societies and creatures that haven’t been dreamed or encountered yet. So, why, why, why must you write the (female) rape threat into your book? The (female) rape scene? Is this really the only place your imagination can conceive the threat of domination?

Sadly, I feel fairly confident that you aren’t trying to bring awareness to an all-too-common female experience, since there’s a fat lack of representation of female roles in the rest of the story. Oh wait–whores–check. Mothers–check. Barmaids–check. We’re covered, fantasy guys! Write on!  Because you show you respect women in those roles, it’s totally okay!

Statistics vary somewhat (CDC stats say about 1 in 5 women have been raped and yet U.S. Department of Justice says only about 1.8 in 1000 in 2005 have been sexually assaulted/raped, but you know, their sample is done with people that live in the same location for three years, which is initially the most problematic thing that jumps out at me), but it’s pretty fucking certain most of the women you know have been sexually assaulted in some way at some point in their lives. There was a Booklikes discussion (initiated and hosted by Moonlight Reader) a few months ago where women shared how distressingly common, how very ordinary sexual harassment and assault is, and how often we don’t even bother telling anyone because (3). So when you use it as a, you know, story point, you better be damn fucking sure you use it with intention and thoughtfulness, because it’s going to feel a little close to reality for your readers–a reality, I might argue, that some are hoping to circumvent by diving into the depths of fantasy and science fiction.

It’s not fucking liberated writing if our only role is in the text as a sexual/violent object. You aren’t “standing up for women” if our only representation is dependent upon our sexuality, even if we are rescued by your male hero before it happens. Even if you indulge in a revenge fantasy on our behalf.

My dear male writers who want to include sexual assault against women, I have some advice. First read The Sparrow. It kicked my ass and made me cry for a whole bunch of reasons. If you can do that with your theme/plot/scene, you have my blessing.

 

*****************************************************************

 

(1) You mean I really have to say “no means no” to get you to stop touching me? This is not you “expressing yourself.” This is you violating my space, asshat.

(2) Recent reads: Broken Angels, Woken Furies, Codex Born, The Merry Misogynist, The Hammer and The Blade, Rise Again: A Zombie Thriller, Pump Six and Other Stories, Blackbirds, The Summer Tree, blah, blah, blah.

(3) Because of a whole bunch of reasons, none of which need any fucking justification.

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The Minority Council by Kate Griffin

The Minority Council

Read February 2014
Recommended for fans of unusual UF
★   ★   ★   ★  1/2

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.

Well, sort of. Take two dislikeable tropes, refrigerator females and the drug scourge, and put them in the hands of a fine storyteller, set it a city with a millennia of history, and fill it with fascinating characters, particularly a reincarnated schizophrenic sorcerer, and you get something pretty amazing with a little side helping of ambivalence. 

The Minority Council is the fourth (and last?) book in the Matthew Swift series; however, he does guest appearances in the Magicals Anonymous series. Charmingly, the next book, Stray Souls, is hinted at in a couple of places. At any rate, Matthew Swift is a former sorcerer, reincarnated along with the electric blue angels who escaped from the phone lines. He becomes the reluctant hero, the Midnight Mayor of the city, charged with protecting London from magical destruction. Matthew, however, has a problem caring about the larger issues, and does much better on the concrete, individual level. He only ends up managing the Big Concerns when individuals he comes to care about are affected. The Minority Council doesn’t break this trend; in the first few pages, he meets Meena, a magic user of stunning power, and when she calls him for help, he finds himself involved in London’s underground magical drug trade. At the same time, a local council worker, Nabeela, is trying to storm into the Mayor’s office, intending to bring her cause to his attention. Little does she know that the scuffily dressed man sneaking in the service entrance is, in fact, the Mayor. She convinces Matthew he needs to see one of the teen hooligans who has been somehow changed and the investigation gains momentum.

I continue to love Griffin’s voice. She uses a first person narrative starring Matthew/the electric angels (he switches from ‘I’ to ‘we’ regularly), which does fascinating things with characterization. But it is the overall voice, a mixture of pensive and resolute, wonderment and observant that I enjoy, a voice that perfectly fits with Matthew’s split character.  I found myself wondering if Matthew the sorcerer is indeed ‘there’ at all, or if his personality is merely the electric angels impersonating humanity. It could be because I’ve been reading Richard K Morgan’s downloaded personalities, but I can’t help but see the electric angels as the same sort of phenomenon.

Then there’s the writing itself. Griffin uses words well, specific, slightly unusual choices that highlight and play with meaning. At times, shades of Douglas Adams. At times, flat out great. “At first I hadn’t realised that the voice had been addressed to me, but when I felt an expectation next to me, I looked round, and there she stood.

The overt plot of the book largely surrounds the relationship between Matthew and his Alders. Having been on the receiving end of the Alders’ willingness to use lethal force, Matthew isn’t inclined to cut them any slack. Matthew sums up the problems between himself and his Alders early on: “In theory they serve the Midnight Mayor, soldiers in his army… They were magical, they were dangerous, a lot of them were dabblers in high finance, and if all of this wasn’t enough, they liked to wear black and talk in short sentences to let you know just how mean they were. They were the banes of my life and it was of only some small satisfaction to think that we were, in our own quaint way, the bane of theirs.

A note of levity was introduced with Kelly, Matthew’s new Alder P.A. I’m afraid I’m becoming quite fond of her, always dangerous in a Swift book. But she of the eternal optimism made me laugh out loud when she points out: “‘You say that, Mr. Mayor!’ she exclaimed. ‘But you say it in your special brave voice and, you know, I’m really not sure if I can trust your special brave voice these days because, if you don’t mind me saying so, Mr. Mayor, there’s a very thin line between being brave and six months of physiotherapy and liquid foods.‘”

My problems with the series are hard to describe. As much as I wish it wasn’t true, bookaneer’s observation of Griffin’s use of the refrigerator female is sadly apparent. I admit to disappointment, particularly in a female author who ought to be aware that she’s killing off most (all?) of the strong women characters, good or bad. My other challenge centers around Matthew’s naivete. This is book four in Matthew’s reincarnation, and I started to feel like it is entirely too easy to use him as a cat’s paw in a larger scheme. He may feel like he is an actor, but remains largely an agent. Realizing that was one of the moments that made me question whether a sorcerer of Swift’s knowledge and experience was actually in the body at all, or if it was only the electric angels believing they are Swift–what other excuse explains the simplistic way they react with only shreds of intuition and little information?

However, Griffin does an excellent job balancing the drama of the story with humorous touches, one reason the series stands out among urban fantasy. There’s sophistication in the moral issues, and it isn’t always entirely clear that Matthew is right, however understandable his thirst for vengeance might be. The magic and magical creatures continue to impress, updated to a modern recognizable version–the magic of crime scene tape, bus passes, fairy dust, the vestments of the homeless. Overall, highly recommended, but this is one series I strongly suggest be read in order.

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Codex Born by Jim C. Hines

Codex Born

Read April 2011
Recommended for fans of Jim Hines

★   ★   1/2

All I can think of is the Goblin King in Labyrinth: “Such a pity.” Creative ideas, a streamlined plot, a love of books–all are fabulous ideas, and all undermined by cumbersome execution. I really want to like this series–I like Jim Hines‘ public persona, I really do, particularly his willingness to be an advocate against rape and rape culture. I haven’t yet read his Goblin King series, but I suspect his strength might be in the YA genre (as well as non-fiction, given his blogging and journalism), because barring a detailed sex scene, this would be satisfactory young adult fare. As an adult genre book, I was too bothered by a lack of polish and sophistication to enjoy it.

Particular to fantasy is the concept of world-building, familiarizing the reader with the world rules of the imaginary. In this case, the introduction to the Libromancer world is muddled; in attempting to avoid the common hazard of info-dumping, orientation to the world starts with a conventional teach-the-student introduction with a twist– a new student trying to teach Issac how to use an e-reader. Within pages, they are called to a case, which progresses into Issac giving his relationship status to an unfamiliar werewolf, and then his professional updates to a psychologist friend. I almost suspect that a quick info-dump would have been more succinct and clear, instead of these stilted conversations and references that the reader is left trying to put together into a whole.

Narrative is first person, alternating between Issac, Libriomancer and magic researcher, and Lena, the spunky dryad. Issac’s sections initially focus on solving a couple of mysterious wendigo deaths, but soon evolve into self defense as he and Lena are attacked by mysterious metallic insects. Lena’s narratives are about her life before Issac, spanning over fifty years from her creation to the time she met the psychologist Nidhi. The coupling doesn’t work well, largely because they are almost completely separate storylines with nominal connection. Person change, time change, setting change, change in magic focus; a story within a story can work when done well, but this one attempted too much.

Some will likely enjoy the main plot, a confrontational situation which relies a classic attack/counter-attack against Big Baddie. Problem-solving relies on a series of bigger/more clever weapons to overcome the next obstacle.  I had a hard time maintaining interest once the outlines of the conflict became clear. Although I enjoyed the Libriomancer strategy of using a book to solve the problem technique, it really just became an arms war by finding the next clever tool. Complications arose with a group aligning itself with Big Baddie, and I found that to be a more interesting storyline and application of magic.

Thematically, there’s a couple of aspects that seem particularly emblematic of a lack of sophistication. One was Issac’s conviction that by sharing magic with the world, the Libriomancers could make a difference with the world in preventing/curing disease, solving hunger and restoring world peace. Well, not quite, but you get the idea. It’s the conventional, “why, why must we keep our powers secret” trope that mostly comes out of the main character’s inexperience and lack of sophistication. As one character points out to Issac, “you can judge what I did five hundred years ago when you don’t even know the story, or you can get busy dealing with the attacks against us now.”

Leaving aside writing issues, I realized one of my more serious barriers to enjoying the books is that I don’t like Issac, the main character. He’s a bit of a self-indulgent jerk, convinced of his moral superiority, neglecting his health in pursuit of his mental/sexual interests (and thus risking more later when he is worn out), committed to his research despite it going into forbidden areas, quick with a snarky remark, and willing to put his apprentice, others and himself in danger if he believes it is right. While these have potential as interesting anti-hero qualities, his affection for his spider and for Lena and his passion for research isn’t enough to make me care deeply about him. They redeem him just enough to keep me reading. He’s also one of those main characters that feels a ton of guilt whenever he’s part of a situation where “innocent bystanders” get hurt (hello, Harry Dresden!) but it doesn’t seem to prevent him from continuing all the risky behaviors mentioned above. As a final hypocrisy, he likes to throw his authority around as a Libriomancer (witness his behavior with vampires, weres and most non-humans), but then question those in authority above him. So, you know, kind of an ass.

Even the part that was redeeming in the last book–the fantastic Libriomancer idea of mass belief making a book ‘real’–started to feel a little contrived, especially when he gave a shout-out to one of John Scalzi’s books in one of Issac’s book searches. It was too much confluence for me, since the way I discovered Hines was through a mock-up UF cover challenge he and Scalzi both did to show the inherent sexism in UF covers and to raise money for charity. I appreciated the humor and insight, and the willingness to engage in a little self-depreciation. Unfortunately, that highlighted the irony in the cover for the Codex, which features a muscled, midriff-exposed female holding a sword. Too bad he didn’t have as much control over his own cover–although Lena is described as “short and stocky,” you’ll note that while the cover model may not be a size 2, she certainly isn’t a size 14 either.  She also tends to wield dual blades, slightly less heavy and phallic than that lovely greatsword on the cover. I get it, authors only have so much control. It just adds a bitter aftertaste.

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Hard Day’s Knight by John G. Hartness

Hard Day's Knight

Read August 2011
Recommended for fans of snarky male vampires

★   ★   1/2

 

More than anything, this book reminds me of a teenage boy; gawky, awkward, and the wispy remnants of childhood sweetness around the edges. Maybe a few spots on his face, and a tendency to cover seriousness with annoying flippancy, but with the potential to become something interesting in a few years.

The mystery driving the story is mediocre; it is a fairly predictable case of possession and summoning. It’s been used in quite a few urban fantasy books (both detective and a couple of PNR) and there’s nothing that makes it stand out in HDK. What’s slightly unusual is the narrator and his best buddy are a couple of “average Joe” vampires who retain a lot of their humanity. ‘Humanity,’ that is shown in a tendency to play Xbox in their boxers, constantly engage in repartee, and basically live in a bachelor pad strewn with dirty clothes. One has delusions of heroism, displays a tendency to wrap his pudgy body in spandex and an utility belt, and is rather sweet in his earnestness. Harness has the witty banter down perfectly, but while I appreciate humor and the occasional running joke, these two banter all the time, both with each other and within the narrator’s description. Fun, if you want a book that isn’t particularly serious or dark–think Robert Asprin’s Myth series–and without a lot of tension. It definitely made me laugh a time or three.

There are still a few lumps and bumps in the plot, particularly as it pertains to the investigating female detective. She seems obsessed with placing James in handcuffs with little provocation within minutes of meeting him, and the ploy to involve aid the guys’ involvement in the case is pretty thin. Her instincts are right, however, as James isn’t a particularly law-abiding vampire. Here too he displays a teenage-only level of scariness–mostly deception, robbery and vandalism.

There’s a feeble attempt to develop some romantic potential with the detective, but Lilith is a much more interesting and believably created lust interest. The other side character that is interesting is Phil, the fallen angel. The role and resolution he plays in the plot is very satisfying.

The structure of the book is unusual, with some of the longest exposition-type character background being given in the end as everyone prepares for battle. That was a new take for me in storytelling, which I appreciated, but I’m not sure that it worked particularly well. It was kind of pace-destructive to be giving background on turning into a vampire before heading into conflict.

Overall, I’ll put the next book in my TBR list, but will likely look for it at the library.

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Children of God by Mary Doria Russell

Children of God

Read April 2011
Recommended for fans of conceptual sci-fi, aliens. ethics

★   ★   ★   ★  1/2

Epic. Read it shortly after reading The Sparrow, and I’m glad that I read both together. Although it might stand alone, some of the characters are the same, and the story firmly builds upon experiences and events in The Sparrow.

I didn’t rate it 5 stars for a couple of reasons. One, occasionally Russell has the habit of dropping non-plot vital but important information in the space of a sentence, so if you tend to skim or even if your attention wanders, comprehension will suffer. An example would be along the lines of “It was many years into her widowhood when…” lets you know that the husband in the prior paragraph died. She actually does this again with one of the most pivotal characters

[ spoiler]

The Paramount, after a battlefield confrontation. I had to re-read the section two or three times to make sure I understood this is where the story ended for the alien man that was mainly responsible for Emilio’s repeated rape. It was a jarring note to have such a central character’s story fizzle out with someone mentioning his dead body on the field.

[end spoiler]

Second, because the scope of the story covered decades, not just years, time was treated in a very disjointed fashion, moving very slowly in the beginning, and then jumping through the years at the end. I got a little of the sense of, “let’s just wrap this up now, shall we?” from the narrative.

Barring those two complaints, it is a beautifully written book, with multidimensional characters. Despite the detail and complexity of the plot line, it is a mediation on religion, race and forgiveness, so it satisfies on many levels. I felt it deftly avoided preaching, while perhaps echoing a Socratic dialogue at times. The ending was genuinely a surprise. Incidentally, one of the few books that’s made me cry.

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Woken Furies by Richard K. Morgan. Furious? No. Confused? Yes.

Woken Furies

Read April 2014
Recommended for fans of Richard K. Morgan

★   ★    

Some times a book doesn’t get to be judged as a stand-alone work. When it’s the third book in a loosely connected series featuring the same lead character, what happens in books one and two are going to affect book three’s read. After enjoying Broken Angels (second int he series, review here), I immediately requested Woken Furies from the library. Sadly, it was a serious disappointment both as a series installment and as a stand-alone read. Be warned: this is a long review, mostly because I want to elucidate my specific concerns, as there aren’t many reviews that don’t praise this book.

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Synopsis:

Tak Kovacs is back on his home planet in a sub-standard sleeve (body), borrowed as the part of a deal with a mid-level gangster. He’s having a drink in a local dive bar when he finds himself defending a disoriented woman against persecution. It turns out she’s committed the sin of running around town with her head/body uncovered, and the priests want to punish her. Kovacs takes exception, a brawl ensues and he and the woman flee. Shortly after, he’s introduced to her mercenary crew and bunks down for the night with them. Sylvie, the woman he rescued, is deCon, a heavily electronically augmented and networked person. The crew takes contracts fighting against sentinent human-killing machines in the wastes, and have been networked together.  After being attacked during their sleep and a crew member dies, they all decide to flee to the waste, enabling them to upgrade Kovac’s sleeve and revive the fallen crew member. Once resleeved, Kovacs learns he’s been tracked by someone he knows all too well–an illegal copy of himself at a very young age. At the same time, Sylvie seems to have caught a virus and is behaving erratically, possibly displaying another personality. He and Sophie flee the wastes for a border town as events accelerate.

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–Isms

While Morgan clearly has strengths in technology building, he is less innovative with cultural building and ends up relying on problematic stereotypes. The most concerning is a fanatical religious order whose members believe in male control of women and that women need to be covered for modesty. The readers first learn of the order in the bar, but the issue continues to crop up as the fanatics pursue Kovacs.  Unfortunately, because the order appears to be modeled on Islam, it feels more like thinly veiled current social commentary than sophisticated sci-fi allegory, as well as clear current-world secularism (and understand, this concern is coming from a non-religious person). Kovacs reinforces this theme noting women required to wear head covers, and voicing anger over the masculine control over women’s lives as he goes through this book. Actually, at first my assumption was that the veil issue was surrounding the data-cables and hardware in Sylvie’s head, which would have made for a far more interesting and appropriate use of veiling (since the order was renouncing sleeve technology). I wish Morgan had gone there instead.

What’s not to appreciate about the defense of female self-control? Well, while it could have been an interesting entry point into a traditional sci-fi exploration of cultural norms, it instead comes off like a straight white Western male protesting the hijab without understanding. There is a strong thread of frustration in various feminist movements that Western protests of female head-covering/body covering is cultural imposition, rather than truly supporting women’s self-determination, and Morgan’s depiction of the issue certainly seems guilty of that imposition. Later in the book, Kovacs dismisses the order as a relatively new institution, and thus is somehow delegitimized from freedom of choice. This concept was touched on briefly in the first book of the series, Altered Carbon, because the order rejects the stack/resleeving technology, but it was without the genderized connotations. 

The whole mess becomes significantly more problematic when it is later explained as a vendetta against a woman Kovacs once knew (loved? the specifics are glossed over) who was killed for trying to get her daughter re-sleeved. It ends up being the worst sort of trope; that of the straight male moved to violence through grief/loss, with a cardboard prop of a female as justification of his behavior. Added to the problem is the specific story problem of Kovacs’ conception of women in this book largely as sexual objects; in particular, having sex with two different women, oogling a few others, and referring to at least a couple more in his past. In short, he comes off as the most annoying type of defender of female rights, the one that wants women to be free to fuck him. Any potentially useful book discussion in institutionalized control of women ends up being undercut by its casual and careless mention.

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Storytelling problems

The thinly veiled-religious stereotypes and general sexism were distracting, but ignoring those highlighted other problems. Particularly, some of the character development shortcomings of Kovacs. At the end of Broken Angels, we were left with an almost hope, a sort of spiritual cleansing and expression of grief, a tired mercenary who just wanted to rest. In Woken Furies, the title is quite literal. Kovacs is full of rage, furious and angry at everyone, except the moments where he decides to articulate himself to his friends and complain that “nothing changes.” His vendetta against the religious order is one symptom of the rage, but it becomes more confusing as Kovacs discusses the futility of overthrowing governments. Instead of character progression, it becomes character backsliding, and it isn’t even clear why the change took place. Last we saw, Kovacs was vacationing with a couple of former teammates and sitting on a pile of money. How did we get to the broken-down miasma of rage and indifference left on Harlan’s world?

However, even more serious problems for me came from long dialogues about political insurgencies. I felt like I was reading crib notes from one of my political texts back in college. As Morgan never went into detail about Kovacs’ life as an Envoy, there is little sense of the stories behind his ideology, and thus the dialogue comes off as just so much dogma. Morgan is no longer telling a story; he’s elucidating a political analysis. Even worse: it isn’t a particularly inspired one (“the revolution just perpetuates the old crap with different leaders”).

Last on my criticisms is that Morgan used the semi-mystic Envoy background as general deux ex machina. “Envoy intuition” became the reason for Kovacs’ conclusions (except he was so often wrong in a majority of cases–”intuition” provided just enough forewarning to get him out of trouble safely, although companions didn’t fare so well). There’s all the times that “Envoy training” helps him distance himself and reign in his anger–except in all the cases when it explodes. A reunion with his Envoy teacher would be a perfect opportunity to explore more of that history. Instead, it becomes an opportunity for some explicit sex scenes.

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Positives

Storytelling until Kovacs and Sylvie left the wastes was enjoyable; more focused plot, clear immediate and larger conflicts, interesting sci-fi angle with the sentient machines and the networked humans, interesting characters developing a ‘team’ feel somewhat similar to Broken Angels. I’m neutral on the writing; lets evocative than prior books, in this book Morgan seems to rely on sci-fi slang to stand in for descriptive concepts/world-building. By far the best part of the book was the exploration of the neurological enhancements on the mercenary personnel, and further implications of what that may mean in a society that has already digitized people’s personalities. Digitization is then connected to the Martians at the end in one of the more satisfying sub-storylines of the series. Although–dare I say it–it felt a little Matrix-y at the end. You know, Viva la revolution and the individual and all that.

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Had I been Morgan’s editor, I would have had him take out the revenge plot against the priests, leave out the issue of the female veil and concentrate on what he does so well; imagining the possibilities of this kind of technology. Personally, I would have also cut the sex scenes as well, as they did little to add to the story, and in fact, likely detracted from it.

Ultimate judgement is my competionist self is glad I read it. The story-loving self enjoyed the tech and the chase, but became annoyed by the sexism and religious intolerance. The character-loving reader self enjoyed the beginning, became extremely bored with Kovacs new rage-fueled persona, was disappointed by the character degeneration from the Kovacs in prior books, and then puzzled by further inconsistancies in character. In short, I’m not sure I can recommend it. Set your bar low.

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