Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard

Servant of the Underworld
Read July 2014
Recommended for fans of genre-bender fantasy
★    ★    ★    ★    1/2

Looking for something besides medieval European-based fantasy? Too many werewolves just looking for love in your reading? Tired of airships and clockworks? (Note: I’m not even bringing up the zombie references, but yes, you can have too much of the walking dead). Aliette de Bodard’s trilogy Obsidian and Blood might just be the solution to the fantasy reader looking to genre-bend. The first book, Servant of the Underworld, is a fascinating stand-alone book, so don’t let commitment issues prevent you from reading.

Acatl-tzin, the High Priest of the Dead, is interrupted in the middle of a ceremony easing the passage to the Underworld for a dead noble. Ceyaxochitl, the second in command of the Mexica Empire, requests his presence at the scene of a crime. A priestess has gone missing from her chambers, and all that is left is copious amounts of blood and the odor of jaguar-magic. Although Ceyaxochitl would normally be in charge of the investigation, she has matters of the Empire preoccupying her at the moment, and besides–the chief suspect is Acatl’s estranged brother. Acatl’s relationship with the Underworld means he is particularly well-suited by both magical ability and forensic skills to investigate deaths. Unfortunately, attempting to clear his brother will mean Acatl will need to confront their mutual animosity. As the investigation grows more complicated, he’s forced to take on an aide, the cocky Teomitl, and even interrogate the gods. It seems the missing priestess is at the center of a great power struggle where almost everyone has a stake–except Acatl, who wants to avoid it.

Chichén Itzá

I can’t remember any fantasy that’s transported me more thoroughly to another Earth-time and Earth-culture. What is truly impressive, however, is that Bodard imbued the story with the feel of belief in the magics and the gods. I felt a empathetic connection. On her website Bodard states “See, I’m a writer–not a historian, not a researcher. I did my best with a mountain of sources, but I’m no expert and no Nahuatl, so it’s highly possible (and, indeed, highly probable) that the Obsidian and Blood books include some mistakes.” I don’t believe her–the world she created feels more authentic than most urban fantasies set in the here and now, and the fact that she actually shares further reference reading demonstrates more cultural respect than most. What is even more impressive is that she did it old-school science-fiction style, dropping the reader into a new world without narrative information-dumping. She admits to a few authorial cultural changes here and there, particularly shortening the incredibly multi-syllabic names, easing up on the human sacrifice and modifying the concept of dual gods, but it certainly isn’t anything but an expert would recognize. What I did note was the sense of place, the jungles and floating islands, the native foods, the elaborate dress. With her descriptions, I was reminded of ponderous stone statues at the Met, the steep stairs at Chichén Itzá, the rhythm of a Navajo chant.

Jaguar ‘cuauhxicalli’ sacrificial vessel, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City

There are a few shortcomings, none of much consequence. Occasionally a descriptive phrase or two for a character is repeated. Given Bodard’s thoroughness in outlining and detail, I’m guessing the repetition was intended as a person-clue as much as the names, which are occasionally similar. I expected to be uncomfortable with certain cultural aspects given prior knowledge about Aztec human sacrifice, but I was unprepared with the frequency of the ritual animal sacrifice. Eventually, though, Bodard helped me came to understand it, at least culturally. The ending, while satisfactory, is a bit too neat in some ways, as well as falling prey to a common fantasy trope. For some readers, the cultural immersion might feel too alien in a genre accustomed to wrapping 21st century beliefs in the trappings of whatever time period it chooses to play in (I’m talking to you, neo-Victorian steampunkers). Most significantly, Bodard does so well as the recreating a Meso-American culture from 1480 that it is a little challenging to empathize with the characters. Come to think of it, the way many sci-fi and fantasy writers get around the alien culture-empathy challenge is to give the reader a more modern human to identify with. So kudos, Bodard, for not including a time-traveler and challenging the reader to identify with Acatl. 

This isn’t a book that will appeal to everyone. It isn’t a quick, breezy beach read–it requires some mental stretching and attention. This is the thick, homemade dark chocolate version of hot chocolate, not the instant Carnation version with little stale marshmallows. If that sounds appealing, I highly recommend it. I’m looking forward to the next book.

Book trailer and sample chapter available here.

Posted in Book reviews, fantasy, genre-bender | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Jack Glass by Adam Roberts. Not at all transparent.

Jack Glass
Read June 2014
Recommended for  Vonnegut fans, Powers fans
★    ★    ★      1/2

A quantity of blood is spilled in this story, I’m sorry to say; and a good many people die; and there is some politics too. There is danger and fear. Accordingly I have told his tale in the form of a murder mystery; or to be more precise (and at all costs we must be precise) three, connected murder mysteries.

But I intend to play fair with you, reader, right from the start, or I’m no true Watson. So let me tell everything now, at the beginning, before the story gets going.

Such a promising beginning; a sly narration, word play, and enticing hints. A troublesome book; very well written, cold and only intellectually interesting characters, dysconjugate plotting, and rather engaging world-building. The result is a book that is clearly well-done but doesn’t ever reach that point of emotional resonance or engagement.

After the prologue by the aforementioned sly narrator, the first section/story, “In the Box,” is about seven men placed on an asteroid as part of their prison sentence. It will be eleven years before the ship returns, so until then, survival is up to them. A fascinating, brutal and uncomfortable character study as the seven men engage in the adult version of Lord of the Flies. The reader knowing that a murder will take place lends an interesting tension to the already violent group dynamics; I was poised on the edge of a reading seat wondering how and when it would happen. Oh, and the ending! A clever, disgusting, squeamish solution.

Onward then, to the next section, titled, “The FTL Murders.” In this section, we are treated to the structure of the 1920s detective novel, with a list of Dramatis Personae. Lead narrator is Diana Argent, an amazingly privileged and gifted young woman with an equally gifted twin sister, Eva. When visiting a world for “a spell of gravity,” someone is found dead. Appointing Iago, her manservant, as Dr. Watson, she regards it as her own personal mystery to solve for her sixteenth birthday. Eva is less interested pursing mysteries, preoccupied with solving an astrophysics puzzle for her thesis. This time, the murder occurs quickly; it is the notorious Jack who is missing from the story. While it was entertaining, it felt more frivolous than the first story, with many accessory characters lending confusion. The FTL, or faster-than-light engine, is introduced and begins to overwhelm the murder mystery. There’s a side emo conflict about unattainable love. At the risk of spoilers, I’ll desist, but suffice it to say, the mystery was alright, I failed to be surprised at Jack’s appearance, and I was thoroughly muddled by the devolution into FTL exploration.

The last section was “The Impossible Gun,” which sort of tied the sections together with a great deal of interplanetary politics (rounding out their beginning in the FTL story), coupled with another murder.  More interesting in the general world-building, I had rather burned out on the characters by then.

Roberts’ use of language is frequently wonderful in both expression and concept:

He’d sat there strapped in his seat…but actually he was hurrying towards his own death. Down to his last few breaths of air. His last hours alive. But he didn’t know!

None of us will know, of course. The weird grammar of death. You die, he or she dies, they die but there is no genuine form for ‘I.’ Not really. All know that, none know when.

It was partially his skill at language that kept me reading, more than any great fascination with the overarching narrative. No doubt there is lots of Meaning here about humanity, potential, goodness, motive–as well as brutality, rape, and callous disregard of life. But despite enjoying the mysteries, appreciating the writing skill, I found the larger motifs passed me by, and I felt a little like I had closed one of Satre’s stories when I finished. Or quite possible, Vonnegut, but as its been about two decades since I last read him, please don’t take that comparison as fact.

Quite honestly, Jack Glass works rather better if one considers them serial shorts rather than part of a loosely woven coherent tale. But, oh, what a beautiful cover–a stained glass print, bright, cheerful… and deceptive.

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California Bones by Greg Van Eekhout

California Bones
Read July 2014
Recommended for fans of heists, dark urban fantasy
★    ★    ★    ★    ★    

You ever have that experience where you finish a book, and are left feeling all discombobulated; not sure exactly what time it is because the sun set while you were reading, and actually kind of hungry because you might have missed dinner? California Bones did that to me.

It wasn’t an instant draw; it had blipped across my radar long enough to make it onto my TBR list, but it wasn’t until bookaneer’s review that I was motivated it to move it up. I picked it up from the library and was sucked into its pages until a solid two hours later. Unbelievably good, it was a breath of fresh air–the forceful Southern California Santa Anas, perhaps–blowing away an urban fantasy landscape cluttered with vampires and werewolves. Van Eekhout combined an almost-now Los Angeles with fast-paced heist, built it on the foundation of serious family drama, added an upbringing in a thieves’ gang, and wrapped the whole thing in some of the more interesting magic I’ve read in years.

“‘Our bodies are cauldrons,’ he said, ‘and we become the magic we consume.’ He often said things like that, things that circled around the perimeter of Daniel’s understanding, sometimes veering just within reach before darting away into ever-widening orbits. Daniel could remember the names of osteomantic creatures and their properties–mastodon for strength, griffin for speed and flight, basilisk for venom–but he grew lost when Sebastian spoke of the root concepts of magic.

The story begins with a quick flashback to Daniel Blackhand’s childhood, learning magic from his father Sebastian; then forward to a powerful moment his family is ripped apart by the Hierarch; and then a third jump into current time with Daniel working the open-air market. He lands from one frying pan into another fire, only to be offered the ultimate thieves’ job, complete with the opportunity to recover a very personal item.  At the same time, Gabriel, a bureaucrat and minor relative of the Hierarch, has the sense of unfamiliar magic in the vacinity and is troubled that some of the city powers are starting to talk of sedition. When he meets the handler and dog who were chasing Daniel in the market, it sets him on Daniel’s trail, and brings an unexpected chance to confront his own past.

The writing is enjoyable; fast paced, descriptive enough to cause a vivid image or two but never lingering too long, naval gazing at the scenery (I’m talking to you, Way of Kings). An almost perfect tone for the story, it waxes a bit lyrical when describing the magic of osteomancy in all its grim, powerful, glory. I found the degree to which Van Eekhout could make the The Hierarch and his six underlings menacing remarkable, despite their rare appearance.

I liked characterization of Daniel, an ambivalent hero who is mostly trying to keep his head down after the destruction of his childhood. Gabriel is an interesting foil, essentially using the same strategy within the Hierarch’s organization. Side characters are fleshed out enough, and the fact that they are able to still surprised Daniel seems entirely possible. I rather enjoyed Emma and Max, who each played rather interesting sidekick roles to Daniel and Gabriel.

Plotting is quick and ultimately, contained a few unexpected twists. The heist is great fun at the beginning, the standard untouchable target. If it also employs a standard set-up of recruiting the team and planning for the gauntlet, at least it comes complete with humor:

Emma Walker had observed this routine for three consecutive weekdays before fishing his coffee cup from the trash and identifying the contents of his flask: tequila.
Who the hell put tequila in their coffee? It was disgusting and obscene, and it made everyone on the crew feel better about what they were going to do to Sergeant Ballpeen.

During the heist, crew member Emma takes a moment to wax poetic:

‘All my being,’ Emma whispered, ‘like him whom the Numidian seps did thaw into a dew with poison, is dissolved, sinking through its foundations.’
That’s from a poem,’ she said with some despair to the crew’s stupefied expressions.
‘Yeah, Shelley,’ Moth said. ‘It’s just we usually don’t do poetry during jobs.’

The humor nicely contrasts the dark feel of the osteomantic magic, and the compromising situations the team members find themselves in. At the moment, the first three chapters are available for free on Van Eekhout’s website. I highly suggest you give them a try.  All in all, it really worked for me, and I’m looking forward to immersing myself a second time–and eventually adding it to the paper collection.


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The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian
Read June 2014
Recommended for fans of astronauts, survival stories
★    ★    ★    ★    

Things didn’t go exactly as planned, but I’m not dead, so it’s a win.

Mark Watney’s wry evaluation is essentially the summation of his attempts to survive on Mars. After a devastating and unexpected Martian hurricane-force storm wrecks havoc on the Martian crew, NASA calls for an ‘abort mission.’ As Mark is heading to the vehicle that will provide escape from Mars and return the crew to earth, he’s impaled by flying debris, loses consciousness and is presumed dead as the object impaled his suit bio-computer. Ironically, his injury was caused by a piece of antenna that would have enabled him to let his team–or Earth–know he was still alive. What follows is Mark’s log entry of his strategies to survive on Mars and signal Earth that he is still alive.

I tend to avoid most ‘serious’ Hollywood movies because the emotional manipulation is so overt. For similar reasons, I was hesitant to pick up The Martian. A man abandoned on Mars? Cue scenes of astronaut training, sobbing family, distance camera shots of the Earth marble from Mars. But Weir did something interesting, and instead of heading for the maudlin center of a man’s isolation, he focused on the technical problem-solving by an intelligent, clever engineer with a juvenile sense of humor.

I was pleased to find that The Martian worked for me, despite a few story-telling bumps. The overall structure has a couple of rocky (get it?) moments, with jumps in time and place.  Although the primary story is taken from Mark’s mission logs, there are scenes centered on NASA as well as Mark’s crew members. One flashback of the crew felt particularly misplaced, but will undoubtedly fit right into the movie version. In terms of language, Mark’s voice is colloquial, and even when he’s talking science and engineering, his problem-solving relatively understandable for the reader. Mark’s skills and necessary solutions draw upon experience in botany, Morse code, computers, plumbing, chemistry, balancing loads, ramp-building–there’s likely something here most people can relate to:

Problem is (follow me closely here, the science is pretty complicated), if I cut a hole in the Hab, the air won’t stay inside anymore.

There’s even some science humor sprinkled in among the poop jokes:

All my brilliant plans foiled by thermodynamics. Damn you, Entropy.

What really sold me was Mark’s humor, as well as the focus on survival in an unusual environment. There’s a running joke regarding his attempts to entertain himself, only somewhat relieved after rooting through his crewmates’ possessions and discovering data discs filled with 70s memorabilia. Another ongoing gag centers on being the only human on Mars. Instead of despairing, Mark cracks jokes. It felt believable, an almost required personality trait for one of those daredevils we call ‘astronauts,’ and a very adaptive way of coping in small group situations. For some, the lack of overt emotional exploration might disappoint, but it worked well both to off-set the technical aspects, and to avoid the trope-ridden isolation angst. He does let a couple of moments of isolation and frustration shine through, more moving because of how rare they are.

It’s a solid four stars, and clearly headed towards movie status. An enjoyable, quick read instead of the emotional existential tear-jerker I was expecting, with a positive message about humanity.  However, when the movie version is finally made, I won’t need to see it–I’ve already seen Castaway and The Terminal. Adding Apollo 13 is unnecessary.

Posted in Book reviews, Science fiction | Tagged | 3 Comments

Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss. Read it and weep.

Salt Sugar Fat

Read June 2014
Recommended for people who eat
★    ★    ★    ★     1/2

We rarely get in the situation where our body and brain are depleted of nutrients and are actually in need of replenishment. Rather, he discovered, we are driven to eat by other forces in our lives. Some of these are emotional needs, while others reflect the pillars of processed food: first and foremost taste, followed by aroma, appearance, and texture.

If you eat food, you should read this book.  Sugar Salt Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us caused a very conflicted reaction in me, because although American capitalism is founded on the principle of caveat emptor, the vast majority of people have never been given the tools and information to make informed decisions. And when the government, and by extension, public schools, align themselves with the food giants, surely it is unfair to put all the responsibility on the consumer. Yes, it is up to us what we eat–how we fuel our bodies. But without labels that reflect a real serving size, classes for every student on nutrition and cooking, and foods that a create repeat buyers, not daily nutrition, it seems like we are doomed. Moss gives the reader a crash course in modern packaged food development and the three cardinal points of salt, sugar and fat, its strong connection with marketing and consumerism, and its somewhat ethically challenged science (hello, Oppenheimer) that connects it with biology and craving.

The science

Starting with the best of intentions, scientists in the 1970s were trying to improve Meals, Ready-To-Eat (MREs) for the military, experimenting with enticing soldiers to eat enough calories on foods packaged to last three years. A pivotal scientist, Moskowitz, discovered two important taste guidelines. One, although soldiers would say they liked flavorful foods, they quickly grew tired of them, while a more neutrally flavored white bread they could eat every day. In other words, distinct flavors overwhelm the brain and make us feel full fast. Secondly, Moskowitz discovered that while we liked foods more as more sugar was added, that only worked until a specific point when it became “too sweet” and more unpalatable. Coined “the bliss point,” it set off a revolution in taste research. Research done by Drewnowski, an epidemiology professor, made similar progress with fat by devising a study using mixtures of milk, cream and sugar. He discovered there was no bliss point in his mixtures for fat, no point in which the participants would refuse to eat a high-fat mixture. Furthermore, adding a little sugar to the fatty mixes made them taste better. Even worse, when the sugar was added to the fat combinations, the participants thought fat had been reduced. Thematically, this will come up again and again, a central tenant of Moss’ research: our biology is being researched and identified not to benefit us, but to sell us more product.

The marketing

One of the more interesting points about Salt Sugar Fat is how well Moss humanizes people in the food industry, showing how individuals trying to make a living or pursue their own intellectual bliss contributed to the growth of addictive foods. For instance, he demonstrates how Kellogg was attempting to make the health food of his time, and how it eventually lost market share when other sugar-promoting cereals were created. When Kraft’s co-CEO started championing an anti-obesity initiative, and stocks started to slump as competitors gained, she was removed from her position and eventually left the company. When Campbell’s tried to cut back on salt in their soups, they lost enough market share that a new CEO announced they would be starting a new line–with even more salt. Sadly, a number of his sources are people who have come to regret their professional contributions as they’ve seen the effects of the rising obesity epidemic. But some really are out to just make the most money, and they blame you for your addiction to Cheesy-Poofs.

“The prevailing attitude among the company’s food managers… was one of supply and demand. ‘People could point to these things and say, ‘They’ve got too much sugar, they’ve got too much salt,’ he said. ‘Well, that’s what the consumer wants, and we’re not putting a gun to their head to eat it. That’s what they want. If we given them less, they’ll buy less, and the competitor will get our market. So you’re sort of trapped.’

So you see, people, its your own fault that we have Fudge-Covered Oreos, and Hungry Man dinners with enough salt for two people’s recommended daily allowance–you wouldn’t buy the low-fat versions. However, it does give me a faint sort of hope that by continued advocacy, consumers have a shot at actually getting products that appeal–and are actually healthy.

The government

Far from the nanny state protecting the citizen against herself, the government has played an active role in encouraging certain unhealthy foods as part of supporting America’s economic health. In 1985, the Department of Agriculture had a problem on its hands–Reagan wanted to decrease milk subsidies, which mean shrinking the cow herds, which meant a glut of beef at the market. Congress tried to help by creating two marketing programs, one for beef and one for milk and put Ag in charge of them. Remember the “Beef: It’s what’s for dinner” campaign? Yeah, if you are over thirty, no doubt you do. Or the dairy mustache that’s still making the magazine rounds? Those weren’t about our health, people.

There was a moment in the Salt section that mentioned processing, nitrites and cancer–I believe Moss might have even said leukemia. I started to feel sick–I work in that city with the Oscar Meyer plant and had noticed three or four patients with leukemia who worked there. It got even worse when Moss wrote about a report in 2007 by the American Institute for Cancer Reasearch. A research review of over 7000 studies, the researchers felt confident that meats increased the risk of cancer, especially charred and processed meats. In fact, research showed no amount of processed meat was safe. Even more disturbing–using those government funds, the cattle associations fought back, attempting to discredit and spin away the report. They, like the food giant CEOs, blamed it on us–on our alcohol, our obesity, our inactivity, our lack of vegetables. Processed meat was only one tiny part of the cancer problem.

My conclusion

What I especially liked is that near the end, Moss snuck in a loaded tidbit in the discussion of Oscar Meyer’s Lunchables line: “There is a class issue at work in processed foods, in which the inventors and company executives don’t generally partake in their own creations. Thus the heavy reliance on focus groups.” Processed foods are generally convenience foods, and are geared particularly towards busy parents who want to provide appealing meals with low preparation time, which generally means working-class parents, not people with the time to research recipes, watch Rachel Ray, shop at Whole Foods and spend an hour preparing and cooking dinner, even if it does make leftovers for the next day. So I appreciate the nod to the economics.

So you see, our biology is being exploited. As a nurse, and a sugar-aholic (you know how often I’ve referenced chocolate in these reviews!), I have to say I believe that the closer we eat to real food, the better off our bodies are. You want to prevent cancer? Exercise. Eat a diet low in processed foods, low in meats, and high in raw fruits and vegetables. Processed foods are not only bad for our bodies, they are bad for our psychology and our taste buds, because they teach us to tolerate high levels of salt and to crave high levels of sugar–so much so that real, unadulterated food starts to seem ‘boooooring!’ We’ve set our sweet and salt taste points so high, we wouldn’t recognize a naturally sweet orange when we tried it (did you ever wonder why they used to be put in Christmas stockings as a treat?). But clearly it is up to you, dear consumer, so educate yourself.

Posted in Book reviews, Non-fiction | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

Murder of Crows by Anne Bishop

Murder of Crows

Read June 2014
Recommended for fans of urban fantasy, shapeshifters
★    ★    ★      1/2

Don’t judge me. I just read book one in this series (Written in Red)–twice–and so what else was I to do but full speed to the second? Besides, there’s nothing like an addictive book to keep one wide awake through night shift, and the second installment in Bishop’s Others series continues to fit the bill. Yet while I enjoyed the second excursion to Bishop’s innovative urban fantasy world, I found it somewhat less engaging than the first.

This series grabs on three accounts: one, the unusual conception of an alternate-history earth; two, the variety of non-humans; and three, a steady pace of new experiences as we move through the world. Unfortunately, while Murder largely repeats story elements of the first book, it somewhat compensates by fleshing out of the world beyond Lakeside. It becomes quite clear–if it wasn’t already–that while the humans may have the population, the Others have the elements on their side. Literally. Thus, while it is possible for the Others to lose small-scale skirmishes, they hold the ultimate weapon/ ‘solution’–an earthquake, landslide, hurricane or other natural disaster capable of destroying a town.

For those new to the Others, Bishop has imagined an earth physically similar to earth now. The world is known as Namid, and the inhabitants Namid’s creations, lending a mythical touch to world origins. Areas around the Mediterranean and Black Seas were given to humans to thrive in relative isolation. When humans sailed the Atlantik Ocean, they found the continent of Thaisia, inhabited by Namid’s other creations, the earth natives–the terra indigene–also known by humans as the Others (talk about literally naming self/non-self!). This installment is somewhat focused on expanding the reader’s view of the lands outside the town of Lakeside, and of the larger national politics by expanding on events in Jerzy, and introducing towns of Ferryman’s Landing and Talulah Falls. At the same time, Bishop tries to maintain focus on the blood-prophet Meg, her relationship to Courtyard leader Simon Wolfgard, and her continued integration into the Courtyard where the Others of Lakeside reside. Meg still faces the threat of the Controller trying to recapture her, and the Others still face the threat of a deadly combination drug that alters their very nature. The plots end up converging in an utterly predictable but satisfying way.

Perhaps it sounds banal. Parts of it certainly are: the pseudo-modern names, Meg’s Speshul Snowflake status (to know her is to love her), the predictable budding romance between Meg and Simon, the humanizing of the Other (literally!) through pizza, dog treats and horror-movies. Yet, it is engagingly readable. Undoubtedly, part of it is the attempt to balance out the personal with the larger political, giving a little something for all readers. Shared focus on dialogue and world-building means one will engage if the other starts to flag. And then–very rarely–Bishop unsheathes the claws of her world, giving it an intriguing edginess: the ritual self-cutting; the absolutely inhumanity of some of the Others; the feeling that some humans–and some Others–would very much prefer not to co-exist. Finally, there’s the sense that the heart of the book is in the right place, and while it may take time to get there, Bishop is not going to betray the reader. If she wipes out a city, she’ll at least save the children. Meg and Simon will eventually get together. No major lead characters will be harmed in the making of this book. In a genre currently obsessed with ‘dark fiction,’ that’s no small pleasure.

Interestingly, despite a rather disappointing first read, I felt it held up well on the second read-through. In fact, I was able to read more slowly, with attention to the human-politics issues. While I gained greater appreciation for where Bishop is heading with the series, I remain vaguely troubled that there’s a theoretical underpinning or two in the world-building I’m ignoring. I don’t have the same sense of confidence in world-crafting that one finds with Sanderson or Harrison. There’s also a few writerly annoyances creeping in–the absolute gender division in characterization, the repeated descriptions of main characters (Tess=hair, Simon=growling) that speak to a lower level of sophistication of writing than I think Bishop is capable of. Here’s hoping that it’s a second-book slump, and not a downward spiral. I’ll definitely be catching the next.

Recommended for fans of urban fantasy shapeshifters/ paranormal romance.

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The Passive Solar House by James Kachadorian

The Passive Solar House

Read June 2014
Recommended for passive solar design enthusiasts
★    ★    1/2

I’ve long been fascinated by Earthships, so when I saw this book on an Earth Day display at the library, I thought it might be time to broaden my understanding of environment integrated building. Which the first few chapters were rather interesting reading to the layperson, it turns out that the book is largely directed at the home builder specialist, with at least half the volume focused on worksheets and tables for calculating heat load, cooling needs, window performance, back-up systems and so forth. Clearly, my local librarians have underdeveloped PR skills. Still, it was worth a few hours of consideration for those interested in home building and design.

The genesis of the book came from Kachadorian’s experience with the oil crisis in the 1970s and believing a partial solution to the energy crisis could be addressed with better home design. Unfortunately, then, as now, many people have reservations about how comfortable a home can be using solar heat, as well as concerns about more eccentric-looking design. His solution was to use concepts of improved home siting, stressing integration of home design with the specifics of the site–latitude, orientation to sun, and consideration of how the sun moves through the year. He then added a passive collection device, similar to a design called a Trombe wall, which collects heat through the principle of mass absorbing solar radiation, then releasing the warmed air during the evening as the mass cools.

Kachadorian’s system uses concrete ducts under a concrete slab under the house as the  passive heat collector and air flow system.

solar_slabGeneral design concerns seem to center on moisture issues and potential radon issues (a rather serious issue in the midwest). I didn’t realize it while reading, but Kachadorian makes a point in to address those issues in a small section on “Soil Considerations” in an early chapter. Key to the system is a radon venting drain pipe, and soil preparation beforehand to minimize water collection.

One aspect many people will undoubtedly find attractive is that his designs seem to be based on more ‘traditional’ style housing, particularly a New England saltbox as well as a longer shotgun-style house. However, to floor plan geeks like myself, there’s far too little of house design, and far too much calculating heat loss, etc. The basement is lost in this concept, a potential detraction, particularly for midwesterners used to having basement storage, furnace, laundry, water heating–and tornado escape. I had hopes for more design insight from a chapter called “Three Projects” which shows three different passive solar houses: one in Colorado, one in North Carolina and a Canadian ‘retrofit.’ Unfortunately, although it was likely intended to protect the privacy of the owners, information on the projects largely consists of two or three photos with a testimonial from the homeowner. However, a chapter on a “Sidehill Variation” actually walks the reader through a building plan with step-by step instructions on the full set of worksheets, which seems like it would be useful for a reader who would be interested in implementing the design. The edition I borrowed also had a CD with open-source design software and a photo tour of the homes.

There’s also a short chapter on interior design for the solar home. Given the prevalence of worksheets and calculations, I’m not sure if that was an effort to appeal to the more casual reader, or a way of padding the book. Regardless, largely unnecessary and better suited to a different style book.

Overall, I don’t know that I’d recommend it except for someone who had more experience in the field and could approach it with a more discerning eye than my own. I’d certainly welcome commentary from any design friends as I have a sense it is not as simple as Kachadorian would have the reader believe. Nonetheless, I appreciate his willingness to share his concept and release it as an open-source resource.

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Kindred by Octavia Butler


Read June 2014
Recommended for Americans who read
★    ★    ★    ★     1/2

Octavia Butler amazes me. She writes science fiction that is full of complicated ideas about race and sexuality that are completely readable. I’ll innocently start reading, thinking only to get a solid start on the book, and suddenly discover I’m halfway through the story. That isn’t to imply she’s a light-weight, however; her works are emotionally and ethically dense, the subject of numerous high school and college essays. A recent read of Dawn (review) inspired a number of recommendations for Butler and a buddy read of her book Kindred

The quick summary: Dana is a young woman in Los Angeles moving into a new apartment with her husband when she is suddenly pulled into the past. She saves Rufus, a young red-headed white boy, from drowning, finds herself on the wrong end of a shotgun, and is suddenly returned to home, only to discover mere seconds have passed for her husband. Kevin, also a writer, wants to challenge her story–except that he saw her vanish and reappear three yards away from where she was.  As they struggle to understand the where and why, it isn’t long before she is pulled away again–this time to save Rufus from burning his house down. She remains longer this time, discovering she is now in Maryland in the year is 1815, at the plantation home of Rufus’ father, Tom Wylein, and slavery is still a very active practice. The story continues through several more time changes as Dana attempts to understand the reasons for being pulled back in time, her connection to Rufus and her strategies for staying alive as a black woman in 1815.

It sounds rather deceptively simple, but has such emotional and ethical complexity that it is a powerful read. The genesis of the story occurred when Butler was attending Pasadena City College during a time when the Black Power Movement was very popular. She heard a young black man blaming older black people for “holding us back for so long” because of their servility/acquiescence to dominant white culture.  She realized that he lacked historical context for his peoples’ lives and didn’t understand their survival strategies. Kindred was a way to revisit that history and see how a ‘modern’ person could cope with their knowledge and experiences. While she originally envisioned Dana as a male character, she realized that there was no way a man would not be perceived as threatening in that situation, and she couldn’t write realistically without him getting killed, “that sexism, in a sense, worked in her favor” (Callaloo, “An Interview with Octavia E. Butler,” C.Rowell, Winter 1997).

While it is technically science fiction, Kindred is more like a mix of historical fiction and modern fiction, similar to Connie Willis’ Time Traveler (To Say Nothing of the Dog review) series. Butler adeptly avoids a common genre trap, and doesn’t bother explaining the mechanism for time travel. Another successfully avoided trope was disbelief of the protagonist, a technique I appreciated. Many authors allow character to get lost in the  self-doubt of an “am I crazy?” reaction, but this focuses on the essence of the experience and identity issues caused by the struggle to survive in 1815. Dealing with a slave plantation means the narrative is strongly focused on race. Interestingly, however, Butler allows the reader to develop a ‘racial-neutral’ character feel for Dana for the first few chapters; it is only when Rufus refers to Dana as a ‘nigger’ that the reader realizes Dana is black. Later, Dana relates how she and Kevin met, leading the reader to the realization that Kevin is white, and the challenges they face as an interracial couple are enormous from one century to the next.

Yet, through all of this, Butler avoids the didactic tone that might alienate a reader. She she explores differences in thinking by recounting Dana and Kevin sharing perceptions, and by developing supporting characters that also have their own point of view on adapting. Unable to demonize Rufus, Dana is pulled both by human empathy and by a more unknown connection and actually can’t write him off if she is to survive–in both 1815 and 1976. The relationships between all the characters were quite complicated, and I appreciated how much it added to the story. I generally shy away from historical fiction and was still absorbed. Butler managed to surprise me a couple of times with the plotting, and her characterization is absolutely human; I suggest reading her on that basis alone. Highly recommended.


A shout-out to 1stAvenue for agreeing to a buddy read and inspiring me to read this book!

Posted in Book reviews, Fiction, genre-bender, Science fiction | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club

Read June 2014
Recommended for fans of fairy tales, romance
★    ★    ★    ★     1/2

Retelling something as familiar as a fairy tale can be a risky proposition. In some cases, magic can come out of the details as an author elaborates on a classic. For instance, I happen to love Robin McKinley’s book Beauty, a take on the old tale “Beauty and the Beast.” On the other hand, when she re-told the story again twenty years later in Rose Daughter, I didn’t care for it at all. So I brought few expectations to my reading of The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, a retelling of the fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” To my delight, I found a creative, emotionally complex story that takes the  original in an empowering direction.

In most versions of the fairytale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” (a German version is titled “The Worn-Out Shoes“), the story focuses on a challenge to discover why a king’s twelve daughters wake up in the morning with holes in their shoes (one version here). The king is baffled and frustrated, and offers a reward to anyone who can solve the mystery–but if not, then off with his head. Many have been died after falling asleep during their watch. Before accepting the challenge, a soldier meets an old woman who gives him a magic cloak and warns him not to drink anything from the princesses. After the soldier pretends to fall asleep, the princesses dress, go through a secret passage to an underground lake, row across and through a forest of metallic trees, and spend the night dancing with princes at a ball. As they return, the invisible soldier breaks off a piece of a tree, first silver, then gold. On the last night, he steals a goblet from the ball as proof. When the king demands an accounting, the soldier provides the proof and is rewarded by marrying one of the princesses.

Clearly, the origin story is a complex bit of fairy tale, with princesses that are complicit in the deception, a father who is outside it but cruel with his consequences, and a ordinary man using magical gifts to catch the princesses in their dishonesty. Girls versus their father, a common man versus princes, and duplicity all around.

Valentine takes these elements and heads into a very interesting direction. Twelve girls are growing up in a wealthy but isolated household in early Prohibition New York. Rarely permitted outside, or even invited to the downstairs levels of the house to visit their mother, they are ruled by their father in an extremely circumscribed life. Jo, the oldest, has met her mother only a handful of times, and the youngest haven’t met her mother at all. It falls to Jo as the oldest to negotiate on behalf of the sisters with her father. Told in third person limited, largely from Jo’s point of view, Jo ponders her nickname “The General,” arising from the unenviable position as enforcer/mitagator of her father, but yet attempting to protect them against his rage. Unfortunately, her efforts are often underappreciated.

A ripple of relief ran through the room. It was too loud, too happy; it was a gloss over an unspoken thrum of mutiny so sharp that Jo felt like someone had snapped a rubber band against her wrist.

Early on, Jo and the second oldest, Lou, would sneak out to the movies where the girls would learn new dances. Natural talents, dancing became a way to escape their limited lives. As each successive sister was delivered upstairs, she was eventually taught to dance by her sisters. In an act of desperation, Jo suggests sneaking out to go dancing–she knows if she doesn’t let the girls blow off steam in some fashion, they might simply run away and be lost forever.  The night out dancing is a success, giving the girls hope, a reason to exist and a source of joy and discussion to fill their days. They danced through their nights, unattainable to the men at the clubs:

The girls were wild for dancing, and nothing else. No hearts beat underneath those thin, bright dresses. They laughed like glass.

Trouble begins on two fronts when their father decides to actively intrude in their lives. As he schemes to marry the girls off, he gets wind of stories about a bevy of girls dancing at local speakeasies. An ad in the newspaper strikes fear in Jo as soon as she learns of his plans.

The girls could hope that these husbands, wherever her father planned to find them, would be kinder and more liberal men than he was. But the sort of man who wanted a girl who’d never been out in the world was the sort whose wife would stay at home in bed and try to produce heirs until she died from it.

The last section follows the girls as they discover life outside their father’s house. I rather enjoyed that Valentine took her story a step beyond the simple “they escaped and they all lived happily ever after,” and looked at the challenges of making a life, and how different the idea of success could be for each sister.

She was still trying to discover how people related to each other, and how you met the world when you weren’t trying to hide something from someone. It was a lesson slow in coming.

As in all fairy tales, characters exist largely as archetypes. With twelve sisters, it’s hard to achieve a great deal of individuality with each, but Valentine succeeds with a few, particularly Jo, Lou (the second oldest), and Doris (the sensible one). I thought Jo’s emotional dilemma was well done. The father is perfect; elegant, controlling, and all implied threat.

The setting of New York during Prohibition was nicely done. I’ve read a number of books that were quite enamored of the 1920s, but focused on the setting at the expense of character. Valentine achieves a nice balance between the magic of the clubs and plotting. My chief complaint was a writing style that felt awkward. Additional thoughts and commentary were often given in parenthesis, and the purpose/voice weren’t always clear. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the way Valentine’s tone and word choice was able to capture the emotional magic of a fairy tale but incorporate it into a real-world setting.

Overall, I’d call it a delightful improvement on the original tale. I’d highly recommend it to fans of fairy-tales, sister bonds, coming of age stories and gentle romance.

Thanks to NetGalley and Atria books for providing me an advance ereader copy.  Quotes are taken from a galley copy and are subject to change in the published edition. Still, I think it gives a flavor of the magical writing.

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The Dragon’s Path by Daniel Abraham

The Dragon's Path

Read June 2014
Recommended for fans of epic fantasy
★    ★    ★     1/2

I cut my reading teeth on fantasy and science fiction. A regular at the local library, I had gone through their “SF/F” offerings by early teens (which is how I came to read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant) and relied on my babysitting money and the local Waldenbooks for more current fare. The scarcity of material meant I re-read books I owned many, many times. As a result, when I encounter something that feels new in fantasy, that has a fresh take or inspired writing, I tend to gush (in case you are wondering, both N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon and Frances Hardinger’s Fly By Night were dazzling takes on the genre). I was intrigued with the positive buzz about Abraham’s epic fantasy The Dragon’s Path and had it on my radar for some time. Unfortunately, it felt surprisingly familiar.

This feels like a self-consciousness book. You know; the kind of book that clearly started with a Big Idea instead of a great story. Abraham has both writing experience and Notable Writing Connections around him, and The Dragon’s Path feels like a genre idea in search of storytelling finesse. In fact, in an afterward interview, Abraham mentions that this book was his foray into a full-length Epic Fantasy. Had it been less self-conscious, or integrated better, or maybe had I just been generally new to the fantasy reading experience, I might have enjoyed it more.

There are four viewpoints in the story along with a fifth character who appears in the prologue and final act. Two viewpoints in the story intertwine early on: Marcus, a former elite soldier turned mercenary, and Cithrin, a half-blood orphan ward of a banking house. Then there are the separate stories of Geder, minor noble and sometime scholar, and Dawson, childhood friend of the king and a highly ranked Baron. They mostly start in the city of Vanai, Marcus trying to get free of likely conscription and Cithrin sent out with a wagon from the banker’s house in the last caravan to leave the city. Geder is experiencing his first campaign and discovering it isn’t nearly as awe-inspiring as the written stories. Dawson is scheming against another Baron in an attempt to spur the king to action. Marcus and Dawson are both experienced while Cithrin and Geder are naive and undergoing journeys of self-discovery. Overall, I enjoyed the characterization. While certainly genre typical, they feel rounded enough to be enjoyable. I was interested in Cithrin’s maturation, and the way the traveling troupe took her under their wing. Marcus was admirable but predictable as the heroic archetype (complete with dead wife and child), and Geder the bumbling youth that gets his chance at power.

A few reviewers make a point of remarking on the uniqueness of Cithrin’s role as female financier and the role of economics in the story, but I confess, I was strongly reminded of Silk in David Eddings’ The Belgariad series and his frequent lectures and demonstrations of the economics of trade and the psychology behind business strategies. Quite honestly, it felt familiar–although still enjoyable. While I respect the idea that Abraham wanted the perspective of the individual as he explores the path to war, changing from four different story lines presents a world-building challenge that doesn’t ever quite resolve. There are the Free Cities, each with their own political history; the Severed Throne, it’s rival and their political intrigue; and thirteen different races. I got the sense that certain events were supposed to be significant, but I rather lacked the context to understand why. Dawson’s plot line with complicated scheming meant to oppose other factions was particularly challenging to follow.

One aspect that sets Abraham apart are are moments of lovely writing:

It was an evil that the city would weather, as it had before, and no one expected the disaster would come to them in particular. The soul of the city could be summarized with a shrug.”

“‘Good,’ Lerer Palliako said. He was hardly more than a shadow against a shadow, except that the starlight caught his eyes. ‘That’s my good boy.’

A reviewer I admire mentions that it is one of the few books she re-read, and felt like a re-read was worth it for the extra understanding, once the reader has the general world-sense. I don’t doubt that. The trouble is, I’m no longer a 12 year old limited to the small fantasy section of the local library and my local bookstore. I can barely find time to re-read the few books I feel were excellent the first time around. I have no doubt that a re-read will give me more insight into the dynamics between the races, and the politics behind the Severed Throne–I’m just not sure I care. But I think Abraham will have a great epic for a new generation of fantasy readers to cut their teeth on.

Posted in Book reviews, Epic fantasy, fantasy | Tagged | 2 Comments