Made Things by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Recommended for The Littles
Read October  2021
★   ★   ★   

On the upside, I can now spell ‘Tchaikovsky.’ Anything that isn’t spelled correctly is purely a typo. On the downside, the trouble with reading some of an author’s truly impressive works–in case you are wondering, Children of Time and Doors of Eden–is you just know when they aren’t really living up to their potential. Yes, I’m like that teacher in school who refuses to give the A to a perfectly acceptable paper because I know you can do better. Tchaikovsky can do better than this, so he gets an ambivalent C+ here, just like the programmers.

He draws a portrait of a city that seems to be divided between the desperately poor and the rich magical, and that’s about as fine-tuned as it got for me. But he keeps talking about the groups in those broad-brushed terms, rarely individual, so the city never comes alive for me. With even less physical detail than Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside–a similarly book that suffered a similar disjointedness–Tchaikovsky relies mainly on asides and commentary to create this idea of division:

“He was religious in that particular way that meant he took a sanctimonious pride in the whippings he doled out for petty offences, such as being poor and not running away fast enough.”

“And with just enough starry-eyed awe, the gutter urchin confronted the magnificence of [redacted], because if the mighty craved one thing, it was validation, knowing in their heart of hearts that they were never so grand as they styled themselves; even when they were made of gold and gems.”

“because the woman had bought a map of the palace downstairs from some poor human who’d been a maidservant for the mage-lords before she’d grown too old for their eyes to find pleasing, and who’d then descended by misstep and misfortune to end up in the Barrio.”

I suppose really, it’s because it’s all tell. The worst part is that I feel like I’m missing out on being told all the really interesting stuff about the young narrator, Coppelia, and about the poppets, Teq and Arc. Their ideas of how to grow and protect their society are more than a little ominous (we all knew we should be scared of dolls, right?), and yet their ideas on gender and reproduction add a nice touch of humanity to them.

It’s a rather straightforward heist scenario. Although he manages his characteristic plot twist, I did not feel as amazed or surprised as in his other works.

Remember what I said about abilities? His writing is usually above average, but this felt a little too purplish for him. Perhaps he’s better suited to the more literal prose of sci-fi?

“The workshops of her mind were minting sincerity in unprecedented quantities, depressing the market for years to come with their adulterated coinage.”

Honestly, Tchai–get a better editor and some time to breathe between re-writes. Your work will be better for it.

 

It’s one continuous buddy read with my fabulous buddies, Nataliya and Stephen. 

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Spiderlight by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Recommended for fans of D&D, questioning
Read October  2021
★   ★   ★   ★   1/2

This was bananas.

description

To be clear, I don’t mean ‘bananas’ in the wierd-fiction, ‘Authority’ kind of way, but in the ‘end up in a completely different space with all the Feels’ kind of way. I’m not going to say much without spoiling it, so I’ll put the whole review under spoilers.
Continue reading

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Burn for Me by Ilona Andrews

Recommended for fans of Kate Daniels, slow burns
Read October  2021
★   ★   ★   ★

I never read paranormal romances.
lie

Ok, fine. And I’m not in the Andrews fan club, either.
lie

I’ve only read this book one.
Oooh, big fat lie.

Well, that was unexpected.
true

Despite being a charter member of the Kate Daniels fan club, I’ve been hit and miss on the Andrews’ other offerings. When I read a chapter preview with leads Mad Rogan and Nevada in a kidnapping scene, I was out, and never gave the series another glance. But desperate times call for desperate measures. On a PNR stretch, I needed a palate cleanser after binging Singh’s Psy-Changling series. Among my most compatible friends, this was four stars (view spoiler) so I what else was I to do? Read literary fiction?

One of the biggest surprises is the balance between action and relationship; I’d only call it a PNR by the loosest of definitions. Nevada, the lead character, is a PI running an agency with the aid of her family: ex-sniper mom, mechanic grandma, two younger sisters and two younger male cousins. The agency that owns her firm has forced her into taking a ‘find and return’ case of a missing son on a pyromania spree, and absolutely no one thinks it is a good idea. As she’s tracking down the pyro, she runs into Mad Rogan, ex-military mage. Rogan runs his life like he’s in active combat, so it doesn’t go well–see kidnapping scene–when they first meet.

Honestly, teaser chapters should probably be tossed out, because it was very misleading. It was the initial encounter where two people get the measure of each other, and Nevada walks away with a healthy perspective of the situation. Before they even met, however, Nevada gets historical insight into young Rogan, and it colors her impressions. Events conspire to continue to throw the two together, and much to my surprise, it was done well enough to permit growth of a kind of uneasy friendship. You know the kind–the one where you might have inappropriate thoughts, but you keep them on lock-down, even if the object of your thoughts flirts. It’s really beautifully done, the way they end up having reasons to re-evaluate each other every encounter, but without Andrews spelling it out for the reader. Nevada is definitely an empowered person that owns her skills and her feelings.

There’s a strong supporting cast, and Nevada is particularly interesting in the PNR world because of her over-involved family. I especially appreciated the multi-generational family. Grandma is a lot of fun, and well, let’s just say she’s twin to Stephanie Plum’s Grandma Mzur. Perhaps a little too carbon, but maybe there are all sorts of grandmas out there like that–I don’t know, mine definitely weren’t. Humor threads nicely through the story as well. There’s a number of one-liners that are well-integrated into the story without making it seem like all the leads are doing is trading quips.

For those who really want the romance, there’s a different spin on the sexy times in this book, but it’s not traditional consummation. Ymmv. I went straight on to the next.

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A Song for Quiet by Cassandra Khaw

Recommended for Khaw fans
Read October  2021
★   ★   

After a buddy read of Khaw’s Lovecraftian-themed Hammers on Bone, we decided to try the subsequent novella. I was hopeful that a new protagonist–a bluesman–would provide a change from the odd vernacular and breathe some new notes into the relentless picture of decay. Unfortunately, though there are bits and pieces of stellar writing, there’s also a lot of self-indulgent and purple prose that becomes just so much scat when Khaw tries to take it into the metaphysical. Add to it a protagonist that is only reactive instead of active with a wandering plot, and it devolves into a mess.

“What Deacon wishes for, more than anything else, is someone to tell him what to do in this period between hurting and healing, neither here nor there, the ache growing septic.” The time and place aren’t clear as we listen to bluesman Deacon plucking out a tune while on a train, but it’s clear when visions of hungry mouths chase him into a different carriage that segregation is ongoing. He heads to a diner, keeping the planned performance he and his father had booked up in Arkham, and finds he can’t escape the music.

There are intriguing ideas here, particularly the idea of music as a medium for cracking the Lovecraftian gate open. But it isn’t very well executed. The story is third-person limited, so we’re in on Deacon’s thoughts. But then Khaw interrupts herself for self-indulgent description:
“This is what Deacon sees in the windows as he weaves between the carriages:

One: The landscape, blurred into protean shapes. Jagged peaks thickening to walls, valleys fracturing into ravines, black pines melting into blasted plains. In the sky, the stars swarm, an infection of white, a thousand cataracted eyes. There is nothing human here, no vestige of man’s influence. Only night, only blackness.

Two: His face, reflected in the cold glass. Deacon looks thinner than he remembers, grief gnawed, cheekbones picked clean of softness. His eyes are old from putting his pa into the soil and holding on to his mother as she cried bargains into his shoulder…

Three: Mouths, toothless, tongueless, opening in the windows, lesions on a leper’s back.”

Except for the part about his mother, we really get nothing from this, as a reader. Sure, all vivid sentences. But what’s the point? It’s an interlude, only it’s visual, not aural. There’s a couple more, one much shorter, so it’s not narrative device. It’s indulgent set-dressing.

The rest of the story is in the same vein. The plot is even less cohesive than the last; it’s sort of a typical supernatural episode or Lovecraftian short story. The characters are in service to the plot, so we actually learn very little; their motivation is in response to story needs. We need a world-breaker for a final confrontation? Sure, we’ll bring in one, and we’ll make them irresistible to Deacon, although I’m not sure why. John Persons (haha) is brought back from the first story, mostly to scare Deacon. As a story, I don’t think it holds up to any scrutiny at all, and is best read for the language and quickly passed on.

Buddies David and Nataliya have nicely articulated thoughts on it.

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Bullshit Jobs A Theory by David Graeber


Recommended for people that want to think 
Read September  2021
★   ★   ★   ★   

I was expecting something along the pop-sociology lines of Malcolm Gladwell, and what I got was something far more profound. I wandered my way through affirmation, skepticism, analysis, comprehension, understanding and depression, so take that as a recommendation if you like. I don’t think I have the tools to critique it appropriately, but much of what Graber writes resonates.

The book originates from an essay Graber wrote in 2013, “based on a hunch” about the phenomenon of bullshit jobs, or, more specifically, the type of jobs where people don’t do much of anything. He approaches it with the mentality of a cultural anthropologist, which is to say, someone who deconstructs a group’s beliefs, social systems and values in order to understand their meaning. The starting point for a cultural anthropologist, as learned from Professor Littleton, is the ethnography, where you basically ask people about whatever it is you want to know, and then fit it in a larger framework where you compare it with people in different demographic books or societies, and hopefully shed some sort of light upon the system (thus coming to the conclusion that this is all constructed bullshit, but I may be mixing up my French existentialism in there). Once his essay hit the web, it became somewhat of a sensation, and per his report, he had hundreds of people telling him about their own ‘bullshit jobs’ experiences. He extracted these stories to create this book. Realize, then, that this is what the more physical sciences would consider a self-selecting, biased group. As Graber himself points out, he has a suspicion that corporate lawyers and VPs are also bullshit jobs, but they aren’t the ones writing into tell him so. But at least it’s a starting point, right?

A key point is the definition of such jobs, defined early on: “A bullshit job is a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as a part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obligated to pretend that this is not the case.” (This is, of course, to be differentiated from shit jobs, which are horrible/low-paid but necessary). Such jobs can be further defined: “I found most useful to break down the types of bullshit jobs into five categories. I will call these: flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box checkers, and taskmaskers.” Flunkies are human decorations, existing to reflect the significance of their bosses/organizations, and have clear parallels to feudal societies. Goons enforce or aggressively manage company image (think soldiers, lobbists, PR specialists, corporate lawyers); duct tapers fix what’s broken, mostly because the system doesn’t want to fix or rebuild more efficiently; box checkers ensure companies are meeting a requirement that someone decided should exist (but will then ignore); and taskmasters, who either make up bullshit for others to do, or assign tasks to others. (Apparently there was a suggestion for ‘imaginary friends,’ which are the jobs that are supposed to make employees into a ‘friend/family’ group, but it didn’t make the cut. Personally, I’d totally target that category if I was in an anthropology class these days).

Then he starts to connect it to social media, which Graber thinks is perfect for pretending one is ‘working’ but isn’t, as a diversion that’s highly interruptible should one need to spring into action for a minute or two. He doesn’t linger there long, though, because his real points are two-fold: what does it say about a capitalist society that these jobs are allowed to exist (because in the perfect capitalism model, all inefficiencies would be stripped away), and what does it do to the person working that job?

“According to classical economic theory…The model human being that lives behind every prediction made by the discipline—is assumed to be motivated above all by a calculus of costs and benefits… Everyone, left to his own devices, will choose the course of action that provides the most of what he wants for the least expenditure of resources and effort.

“Much of our public discourse about work starts from the assumption that the economists’ model is correct. People have to be compelled to work; if the poor are to be given relief so they don’t actually starve, it has to be delivered in the most humiliating and onerous ways possible, because otherwise they would become dependent and have no incentive to find proper jobs.”

What’s even more interesting is that a lot of these jobs belong to the ‘service sector,’ the field of employment that supposedly is showing growth–although he points out, if you analyze the ‘service’ job by subcategory (or remove a fourth category proposed in 1992, the FIRE-finance, insurance, real estate), ‘service’ is rather flat, with growth only in information/tech and FIRE. He builds on this idea of economy, and wonders why it is that we persist in the belief that such jobs are necessary, and contrasts it with historical assumptions about work as well as human biology. Unfortunately, he veers away from the economics discussion for a bit to delve further into the damage it does to the human psyche.

“Most people in the world today… are now taught to see their work as their principle way of having an impact on the world, and the fact that they are paid to do it is proof that their efforts do indeed have some kind of meaningful effect. Ask someone ‘what do you do,’ and they will assume you mean ‘for a living.’” ‘Work’ is about the impact one makes on the world and identity, so work that lacks meaning creates a kind of ‘social suffering.’ He also points out the mental trauma of having a job that appears like it should be purposeful, but could actually be perceived as harmful (here he cites stories from a therapist in a jobs program and a ‘box-checker’ in a homeless shelter program).

He’s not wrong about asking about jobs: in my efforts to start a non-illness, non-child related conversations with my patients, I often would ask them, ‘what kind of work do you do?’ I had thought about that carefully, knowing that there’s often a class issue going on there, but also that it played to having a life outside of hospitalization and yet wasn’t privacy-invasive. That’s what I mean by bias: Graber can make a generalization about what people value when asked what they do, but has he accounted for what is considered appropriate conversations in the public and personal discourse? I mean, of course you ask about work. What else are you going to ask that doesn’t sound invasive. (I asked a couple people if they lived/grew up around the hospital, and I felt like they thought I was casing their home for burglary). At any rate, what he’s saying makes sense, but that’s hardly the ruler we want to use, is it?

I really slowed down in the section on “Why are Bullshit Jobs Proliferating,” because it was depressing. At the end of the day, many of our institutions are money-extractors/concentrators, designed not to be efficient, but to squeeze money out of a system. “The moral of the story is that when a profit-seeking enterprise is in the business of distributing a very large sum of money, the most profitable thing for it to do is to be as inefficient as possible. Of course, this is basically what the entire FIRE sector does: it creates money (by making loans) and then moves it around in often extremely complicated ways, extracting another small cut with every transaction.” I was so out of my wheelhouse, I felt like I couldn’t argue with his conclusions, and at every point, they become more devastating: At p.157, Graber quotes Obama; “Everybody who supports single-payer health care says, ‘look at all this money we would be saving from insurance and paperwork.’ That represents one million, two million, three million jobs, people who are working at Blue Cross Blue Shield or Kaiser or other places.” That, my friends, killed me, because it shows how truly revolutionary we would need to become as a society to change things, and how very little chance there is of that actually happening.

As a final, parting gift to my idealism, Graber looks at how culturally speaking, the intellectual elite are an isolated in-group as well. Try this: “Conservative voters, I would suggest, tend to resent intellectuals more than they resent rich people, because they can imagine a scenario in which their children might become rich, but not possibly imagine one in which they could ever become a member of the cultural elite.” Unfortunately, Graber, like some of the best desconstructionists, doesn’t have a lot of hope to offer, but I do appreciate his unflinching look at where we stand. I think mentioning Universal Basic Income is about as close as he gets.

After reading so many fuzzy science pop-psych books, I appreciate his willingness to walk the reader through the steps of his logic. Sure, there’s a lot of anecdotal stories, but that’s the essence of what anthropologists do, is collate the stories and then pick out the common threads of meaning, and he does bolster them with other studies when he can. There’s a long bibliography as well as an extensive collection of notes. I found myself with a bookmark in the note section so that it was easier to flip back and forth as the ‘Notes’ were further explanations or asides, not merely references.

There’s more, of course; there’s always more. Try Wick or Trevor’s excellent reviews for more–and better–insights.

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Maui Snorkeling Guide 2nd Ed.

Recommended for snorkelers in Maui
Read in 2021
★   ★   ★  ★   ★   

Easily five stars. This was my snorkeling guide–and honestly, trip planning guide–to three weeks in Maui, both before traveling and once I arrived there.

There’s an introduction to snorkeling in general, covering etiquette, safety and general tips, then an introduction to snorkeling, as well as snorkeling in Maui. Their insight helped me clarify the months that would be better for meeting my snorkeling goals. The rest of the book is broken down by geographic areas, including Kihei, Wailea, Makena, ‘Ahihi-Kina’u, Olowalu-Lahaina, Ka’anapali, Kapalua, Molokini & Lanai. This edition also includes chapters on Maui travel tips, snorkel equipment tips, underwater photography and Hawaiian fish identification.

Clearly, everyone has different goals when snorkeling as well as different capabilities, so the authors include a table in the beginning that breaks down popular locations by their ranking, entrance type, exposure, depth, area, and fish/coral/turtle quality. That table was extremely helpful at helping me organize my priorities, as Maui has something like 80 beaches.

Maui is an interesting place to snorkel, because while there are beaches galore with sandy access to reefs, the snorkeling is generally exposed, which means currents, surge and rocks. I appreciated the guide’s advice, because even as an experienced swimmer, I felt like I had a sense of what to watch out for in each area.

Each location has the header from the table, and gives a short description of it. For instance, Polo Beach is “A small resort beach in Wailea… the paved parking lot and park area provided for public access to the beach is large with many nice facilities. The two resorts that use Polo as their house beach are the Fairmont Kea Lani Resort… like most beaches in South Maui, this one is best snorkeled before the wind and waves pick up.

Each location also includes information on the water entrance, which is nice particularly if you don’t want to take water shoes with. Where to Snorkel is quite explicit, and the same entry shows some of the detail you can expect: “Left End: start swimming out along the rocks that extend off the left end of the beach. The visibility is often very low close to shore, and there is not much to see. But, if you swim out away from the beach following the reef, the visibility improves some… the reef extends a long ways from shore but it gets deeper after about 1000 feet… if you have more energy, you can follow the reef back and keep swimming past the left end of Polo Beach and explore the area in front of the next bay over. There are patch reefs and spur and grove formations, up to about 400 feet offshore, in depths of 5-15 feet.”

Each entry also includes a list of what was seen, from fish to coral to ‘other creatures,’ which I appreciated–it helped me think about what kinds of creatures I should be looking for. They also have color photos of the beach and of various wildlife they found there.

Each entry also has driving directions, information on parking, which was invaluable in some sections, and facilities. Believe me, it’s important, because although Maui has a ton of beaches, not all have rest-rooms, most don’t have showers and very few have lifeguards. Just all the way around helpful.

I have a kindle paperwhite, so I don’t love reading it on my kindle, but the ebook format was really helpful going from beach to beach, since I always had my phone with me.

Blog posts on my trip with pictures of fish and such:
https://clsiewert.wordpress.com/2021/…
https://clsiewert.wordpress.com/2021/…

 
 
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Nalini Singh and Psy Changling

Recommended for: fans of shifty romance, psychic powers
Read in September 2021
★   ★   ★     1 /2

 

#2 in my chain-smoking. I don’t know what’s happened, truly I don’t. I probably have QB™ again.

At any rate, now I understand why Singh is so popular and approximately ninety books in this series. First, brilliant set up: a race of highly emotionally restrained but psychic people finally getting in touch with their emotions and the physical sensations in their bodies (we’ll set aside pain at the moment, but I’m sure Singh has that in store somewhere). Second, a race of changeling people that are in tune with instincts and sensation. Third, she’s an above average writer, unlike Laurel Hamilton, who started phoning it in somewhere after book six. Sure, there are tropes but at least they are smoked over with competent writing.

This does have the feel of first book about it, relying a little more heavily on those tropes than I would like, particularly lots of focus on dominant structures of changeling society–it’s basically boilerplate. But I assume it’ll get better, because Val said it’s her most favorite series ever.

I mean, thank heaven these are books, and not cigarettes, because I’m definitely inhaling.

 

Recommended for: people who liked book one, because you are going to get it again
Read in September 2021
★   ★   ★ 

 

It’s not horrible.

World-building got progressively intriguing. I admit to curiosity as to how Singh was going to keep forcing members of these two ‘races’ to interact enough to overcome prejudice. (As an aside, Singh, can we talk about ‘race’ in your world? Because I’m almost 90% sure you mean ‘species’ at most. I mean, everyone’s humanoid. How do you explain that?). And, not to be too spoilery, but is it weird that I found the most interesting character the juvenile (view spoiler) I’ll concur with Her Shrimpiness that there was a lot of cut and paste with the storyline, although unfortunately, Singh didn’t seem to be able to cut and paste the emotion of the characters from the first one. Which, you know, makes a romance less interesting. Definitely one for the world-building, and for the occasional appearances of Sacha and Lucas.

 

Recommended for: fans of shifty romance, psychic powers
Read in September 2021
★   ★     1 /2
 

 

Chain-smoking. Sometimes it’s because it is fun, an almost mystical experience of waving a small fire around, occasionally breathing in the smoke of a campfire that goes all the way back to memory. Then there is the angry kind, burning away the thoughts, trying to smoke out the emotion. Last, of course, is the necessary kind, the only kind that’s left after one has been doing it for too long.

–I wonder what if I’m having fun, or am I avoiding something?–

This installment is both better and worse than the last; more plotting, less romance. A switch to the wolf-pack gives and a Psy assassin gives more insight into the different communities. The Psy community is ramping up their antagonism with the changelings and it feels like there are more pieces put into play. It’s a different narrative technique than I usually enjoy, as there are a few scenes that seem to have very little to do with what is happening in this book, but appear to be laying groundwork for subsequent plot and character development. ‘Implants’ are mentioned a great deal, and I see from peeking ahead that a couple of mentioned characters will be in subsequent stories.

–pass me that pack, will you?–

It’s intriguing on that level, certainty, because there’s are hints of societal-wide conflict coming about mental freedom and emotional freedom. But major, major down points in the continuing propping up of a controlling male and an emotional female. I had hopes that this relationship pairing might offer a new emotional dynamic (honestly, I would have accepted taking the characters from the last book and doing a simple gender-identity swap of the female hunting the male), but no, not in the least. There’s a lot of lip-service to not infantilizing the woman, but the action doesn’t follow through as our female wolf is rescued again and again. And don’t get me started on the trope of the fabulous male-virgin lover. Oi, people. Storywise, it’s just not about romance as much as doubts people have about their own emotional states and traumatized past. It’d be different if they did more working through it as a couple, but mostly they struggle on their own (I’ll take my role models where I can get them, even in a PNR).

–excuse me, do you have a light?

 

 

Cannibal Princess

★   ★   ★

There’s a cute little short on Singh’s website about Lucas and Sacha attempting to tell an appropriate bedtime story to a couple of leopard cubs:  https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/4263966035  Not intregal to the plot, but as Singh tells is, a ‘cut scene’ of domestic life.

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Steel’s Edge by Ilona Andrews

Recommended for: people that read the rest of The Edge series
Read in August 2021
★   ★   1/2

 

Fourth and currently last in the Ilona Andrews ‘Edge’ series, Steel’s Edge ends the current arc that began in Bayou Moon. Thinking about my review finds me reflecting on the series as much as the final story. Perhaps the Edge was originally conceived along the lines of individual paranormal romances set in a shared setting, but they evolved into a Kate Daniels-type external conflict story arc with a reoccurring opposition. As such, I think the most satisfaction would be obtained reading these in publication order. There is a quick background in each one, but Andrews did a superb job weaving together characters who reappear further along in their individual lives. Those reappearances, I think, is what makes the series so appealing. In particular, the two young brothers who first made their appearance in On the Edge, Jack and George, end up reappearing in book three and four with major roles. And that would perhaps be both the strength and weakness of the series: do you want a physical conflict-laden urban fantasy, or do you want a paranormal romance that focuses on the emotional–physical development–between the leads? Both On the Edge and Bayou managed to balance these reasonably well, although Bayou lost its hold near the end. Fate’s Edge edged farther (sorry, couldn’t help myself) into focusing on the oppositional conflict over the relationship story, and Steel’s Edge basically repeated the oppositional conflict structure. I suppose, in romance terms, these all follow a ‘romance through shared combat’ format (is that a thing? That seems like that should be a thing) and have varying competency.

One of the other interesting things to me about this series is how much of our character’s lives are contextualized by family and relationships. In the first book, Rose has a dead mother and a missing father, but is guardian for her two young brothers and has a very involved grandmother. Cerise in Bayou Moon comes with a large and involved extended family, two of which end up being leads in the last two books. Although if you scrutinize, you’ll notice the pattern: one partner with a large, involved family and one partner with minimal or absent family. It feels like quite a contrast to the more common PNRs out there where there’s a young twenty-something woman in dating mode and usually reliant on a couple of friends for guidance. Curiously, in all of the books, a well-meaning family member takes at least one of leads aside and gives a “I’m not sure you are considering this,” kind of talk that provides moments of doubt to our leads. I actually appreciated that, because I think it’s the more well-meaning but challenging aspects of connecting that considers the individual in context of a life story and community (not just, ‘sure, they’re hawt, but can they support themselves’ kind of storyline).

Another fascinating thing for me is that Andrews clearly tried to have unique female leads in each story that represented a variety of less traditional backgrounds: Rose, essentially a single mother working as a cleaner; Cerise, another head-of-household carefully managing resources; and in this one, Charlotte, older, established professional and recently divorced. Only Audrey, in Fate’s Edge is a more traditional female lead in terms of developmental stage.

Steel’s Edge had the potential to be the most interesting, as Charlotte was a healer and in a later, post-established relationship phase of her life. But I found that it’s focus on the anti-slaver concept made it a challenge for me. It is hard to square the idea of romantic love with systematic destruction of an underground slavery organization. It calls for extreme tonal shifts. Some readers called it ‘dark,’ but I think it’s often quite conflicted, not sure if it wants to be about love, or about the mission. The last third involves running a sort of con and results in Charlotte doing a lot of education with Lark about dresses, poise, and, believe it or not, a color wheel. I also wonder if they skimped a little on research for this book, because when Charlotte switched into society mode, I had a hard time squaring it with the young but accomplished healer (‘The Healer,’ as was said earlier). But I hated nothing so much as the sudden appearance of plastic surgery as part of accomplishing the con. That, I really didn’t find realistic or acceptable, and I doubt any legitimate healer would.

I enjoyed the blossoming romance and mature connection between Charlotte and Richard, but found that it seemed to disappear once they reached the sex point. I realized that in all of the books, the leads reached physical intimacy by 60-70%, and then after that the focus shifted in varying degrees to the oppositional conflict. In Steel, there were actually fade-to-black moments in their relationship that surprised me, given the romance reputation of the series. I think that was actually the part that I missed the most, having expected more of a ‘romantic’ book that expounded on intimacy–not just sex, but developing understanding and connection between two people.

I suppose the conclusion is that don’t let the reputation of romance–or the covers–scare you off if you are an Andrews fan. There’s significant attention to their trademark world-building and fighting scenes in all four books, and the recurring ensemble means some interesting character development. For me, it was an uneven book and possibly the least favorite of the series. However, as Emily said in her review, it’s been a long time since I chain-smoked a series, and while it may say quite a bit about me, it should also say quite a bit about how well the Andrews can tell a story.

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

Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw

Recommended for: 
Read in August 2021
★   ★   ★   

Khaw’s name pops up every now and then, and I’ve generally avoided her books as they seem to be firmly in the young/new adult genre. However, when Tor offered Khaw’s Lovecraftian detective novella as a freebie, I was intrigued. Luckily Nataliya and David helped me capitalize on the momentum with a buddy read.

Some authors can do short stories and novellas. They know how to make a tight little plot arc while fleshing out the detail just enough to make us feel full while hinting at lands beyond the borders of the story. Zelazny is clearly a master, as is Peter Beagle and Naomi Kritzer. Khaw has a bit to go before she can fully manage such brevity. She spends a lot of word power on adjectives, and frankly, unnecessary descriptions that add to the rhythm of the narrative without contributing much else. It’s billed by the publisher as a Lovecraftian detective story, but it feels like Khaw mostly wants to just play in her world, as well as offer some commentary on our own.

“I stroll into the factory with the post-lunch crowd. The boys, plump on bad lager and cheap Indian takeout, don’t give me a second look. Not when I peacock through the front gate, brash as new brass, and certainly not when I trespass into employees-only territory. Good. I’d have felt bad for their molls if we busted the furniture together. This might be the twenty-first century, a time when dames can hustle as well as any testicle-swinging Joe, but London’s no place for a one-income family.”

When the story opens on a stereotypical Raymond Chandler (I assume; it’s been awhile) detective in his shabby office, there’s ambiguity with the narrator’s time period owing to the language:

“Usually, it’s dames trussed up in whalebone and lace that come slinking through my door. Or, as is more often the case these days, femmes fatales in Jimmy Choos and Armani knockoffs. The pipsqueak in my office is new, and I’m not sure I like his brand of new.”

Intriguing, though jumbled. Even more interestingly is that it seems to be deliberate, since the lead, Mr. Persons, has an awareness of his language oddity: “These days, it’s all bae and fleek, bootylicious selfies and cultural appropriation done on brand. That puts me in a weird linguistic space…” I’m not saying I hated it, because after a while, it felt a little like language jazz to me. But that ambiguity definitely resulted in me giving as much attention to trying to decipher the narration as the plot.

Speaking of plot, it has odd little spurts and stalls to it that left me wondering if Mr. Persons was indeed going to take the job, and how much damage there might be in his doing so. In retrospect, I rather feel like Khaw was using him to take a tour of her setting. But it is a quick read that my kindle put at about an hour, so storytelling issues that may have become more off-putting in a longer story were easily glossed by.

I honestly can’t tell if the language was purple, or just descriptive. I often liked it, and I suspect it achieves it’s Lovecraftian vibe. I definitely felt like this story had a miasma, right down to the green decomposing smell. It’s just when taken in cumulative that it started raising questions. Still, you can’t deny the imagery: “The building in the distance, with its boneyard of chimneys, its cellblock windows, is like the corpse of a god that’s been left to rot, picked-over ribs swarming with overall-wearing insects.”

In the afterword, Khaw shares some of her thinking on story origins and dedication. I appreciated that; while I don’t think she quite achieved her goal, I do admire what she was attempting.

Apparently, there’s a follow-up in the world, and I’m definitely looking forward to taking it on with my buddy readers.

 

 
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A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

Recommended for: fans of magic schools, Murderbot
Read in August 2021
★   ★   ★   ★   ★ 

Undoubtedly five stars. What makes it so? The ability to capture my attention and hold until finished, the daze of finishing, and the desire upon finishing to flip to the beginning and start reading all over again. Sure, it has some shortcomings. But I haven’t felt like this since the first Murderbot. I was on the fence for months over this book. On the plus side, a number of my friends loved it. On the negative was the label young-adult and everything that has become shorthand for–love triangles, clothes choices, and relationship drama. But Nataliya and Jennifer sang a siren song of buddy reads, and I gave it a shot, thinking I’d read a couple chapters then set it down. Oh, no–I finished it the same day.

Why didn’t anyone tell me the lead is a Murderbot?

Objections to this book are many, and likely played a role in my hesitancy. Chief among complaints is the combination of ‘slow pace’ and ‘narrative-heavy’ style Novik uses. I, perhaps unsurprisingly given my history, loved it. The lead, Galadriel, or ‘El,’ is a conflicted, isolated young woman who has been told from her youngest memories that she’ll be responsible for death and destruction, and her magical affinity and skills seem to point her the same direction. She asks the universe for a cleaning spell; she gets one to incinerate everything in it’s path. Other magical people are aware of this and avoid her, while the mundane people just avoid her in favor of her gentle, healing mother. She’s become an outsider looking in, with only her mother having faith that her ethics are equal to her potential.

I feel like Novik and I must have read that same books as a child. Those books centered on introverted young women who felt like outsiders, heavy on the internal narrative and personal skill development and low on social situations. Definitely Robin McKinley and Patricia McKillip, with a heavy dose of fairy tale retellings. Uprooted was nice, although as I aged, found the development of relationship between the young lead and significantly older male wizard a bit too uncomfortable for modern times. It’s one of those things that makes me think we had similar tastes, though, as there was a high prevalence of the exact thing in those childhood books (Anne McCaffery, McKinley again). Now she’s taken that head-voice heroine to boarding school in A Deadly Education and I couldn’t be happier with her modern, cynical twist (Gideon, without the non-sequiturs).

So it turned out that the major detraction is actually a feature in my books. What else? When I dug around, I discovered there’s also a couple of items that provoked accusations of racism. I’ll be honest, both scenes gave me a ‘huh?’ moment on first read. But even more honestly, probably for different reasons. The mention of dreadlocks was done awkwardly, though in my case, I put it down to modern authors’ tendency to make sure they are being inclusive and Novik’s lack of describing our character’s looks. The modern Arabic language book with it’s picture of the car and people being hit didn’t make sense to me either, mostly because the school seemed intent on teaching her mass-destruction skills, not ones on the scale of three or four, and to be really honest, the only incident with cars that immediately came to mind are all the ones we’ve had lately in the U.S. at anti-45 protests.

I like to think that I’m reasonably aware of many of my short-comings and prejudices. I appreciate people might perceive it differently, I’ll throw out that both made me feel Novik was modifying her story for the audience, but in a more inclusive, albeit awkward, way.

The good stuff was everywhere: a lead character complex enough to realize some of her attitude was defensive and maladaptive, supporting characters that were developed enough to have both flaws and positive traits, a cast that included gender representation and a multinational cast, a conflict that became more about the environment than interpersonal angst, with lots of interesting magic and creatures to keep the fantasy element strong.

Definitely a book that has earned a place in my library and will be re-read until the sequel is out September 28. Here’s to my inspiring buddies, Nataliya and Jennifer, and to Emma for a great discussion!

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