Shards of Earth by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Recommended for:  fans of The Expanse, Star Trek
Read in July 2021
★   ★   ★   ★   

 
 

Sooner or later, Adrian Tchaikovsky is going to make me learn to spell his name. His output rivals Sanderson’s, but his willingness to explore more worlds, without the same meticulous detail that tends to bog down other authors, makes him fascinating to me. Children of Time was one of my favorite books of 2020, and while Shards of Earth doesn’t rival it, I found it  compelling.

An exceptionally long ‘Prologue’ is the lynchpin between two characters that we will follow the rest of the book. It begins: “In the seventy-eighth year of the war, an Architect came to Berlenhof.”Tchaikovsky is generally of the immersion school of sci-fi; he will give you the details, but you need to assemble the pieces, and the Prologue is no exception. There’s a lot of ideas dropped here, but the main one is that the unfightable and unknowable Architects are remodeling life as they encounter it, and to date, no one has been able to establish contact. This moment in time will be pivotal, and both Solace and Idris Telemmier will play major roles. Solace is a soldier in the Heaven’s Sword Sorority, “the Parthenon. Humans, for a given value of human. The engineered warrior women who had been the Colonies’ shield ever since the fall of Earth.” Idris is a Colonial and part of the newest ‘weapon’ deployed against the Architects.

The Prologue is a meaty piece of sci-fi, and I confess, after investing in it, I wanted it to continue. It was a version of The Expanse, tv show), space battle style, with human players against crushing odds in a complicated and only partially understood universe. Unfortunately, as the Prologue ends we get foreshadowing that the investment in world-building is about to pay uncertain dividends: “Thirty-nine years after that, they woke Solace from cold storage one more time and said her warrior skills were needed.” Thus the epic space battle turns into a new book, that of a contentious crew of salvagers caught up in galactic events.

If you’ve followed me more than a few minutes, you know I’ve been on a sci-fi binge, and the crew-of-misfits in space seems to be one that I gravitate to. Between The Expanse (the show!!) and Suzanne Palmer’s Finder series, I’ve been enjoying the outer reaches of the galaxy, at least after humanity has solved that pesky distance-spanning/lifespan issue. So when I say the rest of the story felt largely familiar, I’m not meaning any insult–it’s a subgenre I like. I did hope that Tchaikovsky would bring some of his particular ingenuity, specifically aliens and lifeforms that felt alien, to his version of misfits-in-space. Sadly, it was only near the end where I felt a little bit of that mental frission when I encounter something unique.

The odd-ball crew of seven contains two alien lifeforms and members of humanity from different Colonies, giving a glimpse into potential alien and cultural weirdness, particularly with Kittering, “a crab-like alien,” and Medvig, “an intelligence distributed across a knot of cyborg roaches.”Unfortunately, Tchaikovsky is willing to break genre rules about red-shirts, which means that the reader may reach out and connect with the different characters, but that experience may be cut short. Considering that this is the first book in what is presumably a series/trilogy, willingness to remove characters felt like an impediment to reader engagement. Contrast with The Expanse, which created a diverse group of people for the reader/audience engagement and took books to remove traces of their influence if they were removed from the story.

I’ll also note there were a couple parts where I felt we were getting a little more fantasy than sci-fi, stretching the realm of genre rules (much like the proto-molecule), so take that for what you will. There’s a bit about space travel and the unseen which is supposed to stand in for light speed/warp/etc and occasionally seems more mystical than science (don’t argue with me: I know science at that level is mystical. Read this and you’ll see what I mean).

On the whole, it was engrossing, literally keeping my focus for four hours of a flight. That deserves a bonus all on it’s own.

Many, many thanks to both Netgalley and Orbit for the advance reader copy. Of course all opinions are my own–you ever know me to be a mouthpiece for someone else? Also, of course, all quotes are subject to change. 

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The Scavenger Door by Suzanne Palmer

The Scavenger Door by Suzanne Palmer

Recommended for: 
Read in July 2021
★   ★   ★   ★   

 
 

Suzanne Palmer has been one of my authors to watch, and the first two books in this series are a lot of fun. The Scavenger Door closes a door on Fergus Ferguson’s adventures, although you know the saying about doors and windows. It’s an interesting book, taking a close look at Fergus’ Earth connections but his ‘finding’ challenges are less personal than the earlier books. It leads to a particular narrative schisms that lack the same emotional resonance as the earlier books.

Fergus is adventure personified, but being on Earth has him full of feels, particularly guilt about his past and other’s exposure to his hazardous life. This leads to strange reflective pieces that have little to do with the mission at hand. Think of it, as it were, as the thoughts that fill one’s head during the moments driving to and from work. However, I’m not sure I particularly enjoyed those feelings as a refrain, the thoughts we have time and time again. I certainly got tired of hearing his, and welcomed the moments where he appeared to have an emotional breakthrough, as rare as they were. “Isla’s complaint that he was taking his gift too passively seemed to have legitimate cause… He was, he thought, very attached to his particular ideas of who he was, even if he was sure they were mostly wrong. The only thing he was sure about, in what he thought was a minimally biased way, was that he was good at finding things.”

It’s a good thing Fergus is good at finding things, because he has been handed an extensive agenda by the alien Ignatio. I confess, when I realized the extent of the tasks, I experienced a flashback to that moment watching Speed when–spoiler alert–I realized Sandra still wasn’t safe and now had to deal with a runaway subway car. Emotionally full, and ready to move on, or at least, stop and reflect. Alas, it wasn’t to be. That’s not to say the individual episodes aren’t fun, amusing, or challenging, because they are. It’s just to say that I lack a certain endurance for that kind of marathon task and would like to be home and tucked in bed by midnight.

Nonetheless, there’s no way that complaint should be construed as not enjoying the book. It’s just a lot, but that’s gonna happen when you have to save the universe. And seriously, I should have been expecting it, as Finder was a non-stop adventure from one end of the known planet systems to another.

It’s a good thing that I really enjoy Palmer’s writing and the tone. I’m definitely a fan of how she puts both words and ideas together, particularly that sly little humorous tone that comes about, but without needing to spell things out for the reader.

“Sorry if I’ve inconvenienced you,” Fergus said, feeling not sorry at all.

“Oh no, not at all!” the agent said, as if there had been no sarcasm in Fergus’s words. “Chaos is a delight. Without it, nothing new would ever be born, or learnt, or dreamt. But it must be considered. Not by you, I mean; it’s all way over your head.”

I’m definitely in the fan club, and if I don’t read this quite as many times as I read first two, it’s only because it’s so packed, I’d really like something a little less effusive. And because sometimes Star Wars is all you need.

Many, many thanks to both Netgalley and DAW for the advance reader copy. Of course all opinions are my own–you ever know me to be a mouthpiece for someone else? Also, of course, all quotes are subject to change. But I think they give nice insight into the thoughtful and entertaining writing.

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The Left-Hand Booksellers of London by Garth Nix

The Left Hand Booksellers of London by Garth Nix

Recommended for: ya traditionalists
Read in July 2021
★   ★   ★   1/2
 
 

I’ve bounced off Sabriel by Garth Nix enough times that I was hesitant to give his latest a try, but Nataliya’s fine review caught my imagination, along with–of course–the titular booksellers. It’s still recognizably the Nix from Sabriel, but somehow modernized. Not that modernized, as it is set in 1983. Like Daryl Gregory’s latest, The Album of Dr. Moreau, it is a time frame that resonates with me–Your tolerance for Boy George and the A to Z road atlas may vary. At any rate, though I flagged once or twice, I found it both entertaining and comforting.

Before Susan begins her first semester at a prestigious art school, she heads to London early to earn some extra money and search for information about her father. Although her mother could certainly provide details, she’s inexplicably vague (there’s a hand-wavy “drugs in the 60s” line, which is a surprising line to find). This brief interaction sets the tone of the entire book: it follows fantasy convention in the general absence of supervising adults (adults can be present, but from a distance), bills (rent? meals?), and legal implications while setting it in a modern age with guns, helicopters and listening devices. 

At any rate, despite being visited by strange water-mud-creatures in her dreams, when she finally encounters real magic watching Merlin skirmishing with Uncle Frank, she’s surprised by it. It’s a classic framing device for a reason, as it allows the reader to learn about the world along with Susan. Unfortunately, the magician–excuse me, Wizard–Merlin is generally vague on the big picture and tends to focus on the details. And, honestly, both Merlin and Nix take a major shortcut with their descriptions. If I read about hands once, I read about them thirty times. It was enough to make me wish I had an e-book, just so I could do a phrase scan. “He’s telling the truth, said Vivian. “We can nearly always tell. A right-handed thing, you know. ‘Verum ponderet dextrum.’ The right hand weighs the truth.

Perhaps because I’m even-handed, it manages to charm. The tropes have been somewhat ‘modernized,’ with Merlin a bit gender-bendy, Susan embracing her DocMartens and coveralls, and and the “family” of booksellers containing a mix of socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, blood relations notwithstanding. (Which is really the minimum of expectations I have these days, so yay, that). It’s a very honest book: everyone is sincere, even the villains, and grey areas are absent. I’m not complaining, mind you, but it does add to the ‘cozy’ feeling of the story.

Nonetheless, something about Nix and I just don’t quite gel. I think because he manages to be very specific when I’d rather he’d be vague, and vague when I’d wish he’d be specific. Here’s Merlin offering an explanation: “As a matter of fact, Norman did have a look for me. But by then it was five years, and he’s really on good for a month or two back. But there are… entities… who can help unravel the past or look toward the future, give clues to help work out what went on. So I went to one of them.” Helpful? No. Germane? Not really. I suppose it shows a facet of Merlin’s character, but since most of his conversations go along those lines, it doesn’t, not really. Ultimately, though Nix takes word count to give these hand-wavy explanations, do they really matter? Furthermore–and I’ll be super-blunt here–Nix mostly writes within the world of tropes, without bringing anything truly special to the table. Much of it feels mass market (spoilery stuff) with only a few scenes standing out.

What is notable is writing competence. It is action oriented, often scant on description, but with enough structural complexity to feel like I needed to pay attention. Occasionally Nix manages to capture a more ethereal or fairy-tale like quality with certain scenes. My favorites were the ones with the Grandmother(s), the wolf, and the undine, where the writing started to remind me of Charles deLint.

The Grandmother raised the flower and sniffed it again, her piercing dark eyes momentarily hooded, a smile passing across her thin-boned face like a glimpse of some small, colorful bird darting between dark and brooding trees.

A decent read, certainly, but not one I’ll be urging on everyone. Reminds me of DeLint, some of Wynne-Jones and maybe even that ethereal library series.

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Drug Dealer, MD by Anna Lembke, MD

Drug Dealer MD by Anna Lembke

Read June 2021
★  ★  ★  ★

Dr. Lemke isn’t the first health care practitioner to feel like a drug dealer, but she is one of the only ones to write a comprehensive overview of the relationship between prescribers, patients and pain pills. Drug addiction has been a hot topic in America for the last hundred years or so, but it’s ramped up in the past twenty as opioid addiction has hit more people close to home. I’m not particularly fascinated by the topic, but it is unavoidable in hospital medicine. After reading Dopesick, a Lifetime Movie of the Week masquerading as journalism, this book was recommended. I can see why, because it’s everything Dopesick isn’t: organized, largely factual, and comprehensive. If you want to understand the mechanisms behind the Modern Pain Factory, this will certainly help. 

There are ten chapters: What is Addiction, Prescription Drugs as the New Gateway, Pain Is Dangerous, Big Pharma Joins Big Medicine, The Drug-Seeking Patient, The Professional Patient, The Compassionate Doctor, the Narcissistic Injury, Pill Mills, Addiction-the Disease Insurance Companies…Won’t Treat, and Stopping the Cycle (abridged titles). Despite the broad overview, it’s only about 150 pages, not counting references, so it doesn’t feel as overwhelming as it could. In fact, according to my ScienceBrain, for the most part it is written extremely well, with each sentence providing information or an interpretive punch. I literally had highlights on over half the pages I read.

As a nurse who practiced in inpatient oncology from 2003 to 2020, I have to tell you that I witnessed almost everything she is describing, from the influence of drug companies on doctors (“Eat this steak dinner while we give you a presentation on our drug, XZD”), to patient care surveys (“Did the staff do everything they could to treat your pain?”), to teaching seminars on “Pain as the Fifth Vital Sign.” 

The writing is crystal-clear, and no one is spared: “The prescription drug epidemic is first and foremost an epidemic of overprescribing… today the extent to which doctors rely on prescription drugs, especially scheduled drugs, to treat their patients for even routine, non-life-threatening medical conditions is unprecedented.” She notes that in the 1980s, prescribing patterns began to liberalize, speculating that it was because of an aging population, more people living after complicated illnesses and procedures, and the growth of the hospice movement. But I laud her for this summary: “But to ascribe all the blame to Big Pharma is to oversimplify. The pharmaceutical industry was able to influence doctor-prescribing only by joining together with academic physicians, professional medical societies, regulatory agencies (the Federation of State Medical Boards and The Joint Commission), and the FDA.”

It’s hard for the non-medical person to understand, but Lembke does a nice job of laying out how all of those entities moved doctors to a point where they felt scheduled drugs were ‘just another tool in the toolbox’ (a very common descriptive term in pain management education). What I was hoping for is how some people are also their own drivers for pain. She talks a little bit about addiction, and how both nature–the genetics of addiction–and nurture–children raised in families with substance use, with trauma, conflict and availability all increasing risk–can increase likelihood of addiction. But chronic pain and addiction are more closely linked than we’ve been willing to admit, and that’s the part that is challenging to tangle out. After seeing a number of cancer patients in intense pain despite massive doses of narcotics–and I’m talking both habituated dosing and needing doses to the point of insensibility–I’ve been leaning into the idea of emotional/spiritual and even social pain, and I don’t think we can legitimately solve the addiction issue until we understand the complex phenomenon of chronic pain. Personal blah blah: [Clearly, I’ve spent half my professional life with cancer patients, which often means narcotics as disease advances or with surgical fallout. But the relationship to pain medicines also seems to bear a relationship with how the patient deals with their disease. Particularly with older people (“The Greatest Generation”), I’ve found myself teaching how narcotics can be life-improving. The emotional burden of pain and the inhibiting effect of pain on daily life –eating, walking–means controlling it is critical, and sometimes narcotics just seem to do it best and reliably. But they often dislike narcotics, perhaps because of stigma, but also perhaps because it signifies that the cancer is ‘winning’ to them. Yet I’ve seen others embrace the idea of pain medicines, and even with a generally non-physiologic painful condition, they turn to narcotics easily. What’s behind that? Untreated chronic pain? Coping mechanisms? This is the intersection that I’m fascinated by, and that medicine needs to address. (hide spoiler)]

Since this book was published in 2016 (!), there’s been a huge pulling back in prescribers writing scheduled drugs, much to the dismay of many patients. She notes in one section how at the heyday in 2012, 650 million oxycodone were prescribed, enough oxycodone to give every resident 34 pills. After crackdown on the “Pill Mills,” it dropped to 313 million in 2013. I fact checked this one for an update, and wow, it’s amazing. The CDC reports in 2012, 255 million opioid prescriptions were written in the U.S. Despite population growth, in 2019, it’s down to 153 million. (Hint: if you want prescription drugs, go to Alabama). The big unanswered question is what did we accomplish? Decreasing addiction or reducing medicine’s role in the phenomena? As I think we’ve discovered, the overdose rates are just going up as people turn to street drugs instead. Lembke talks a little bit about this path of prescription to illegal drugs, as pill mills dry up while addicts need their fix. However, if you look at prescriptions as the ‘gateway’ to opening up an addictive path–and Lembke surely does–we have hopefully reduced the addiction risk for the next generation.

As a psychologist, she also touches on the ‘types’ of patients she sees seeking scheduled drugs, and some of their techniques. I was most wary of this section, which is more broad categories of behavior more than DSM type criteria. She does note the busy crossroads of mental health conditions and addiction as well. I found her examination of the ‘professional patient’ phenomena intriguing, the idea of an illness diagnosis as both a profession and a way of thinking. I have to say that I’ve seen what she’s talking about. I did appreciate that she touched on disability payments and such as part of the issue–not to say that patients are faking anything, but that the system we have in place dis-incentives people for improving their health and increasing self- management. It was one of those ‘ah-ha’ moments that made me think of the Universal Basic Income movement and the potential impact it could have.

My other enlightening moment was in her discussion of insurance and addiction. I had read before that only 50% of addicts who go through intensive treatment are successful at staying off drugs for a year, and considered that a dismal success rate for treatment. But if we re-conceptualize addiction as a ‘chronic illness,’ and treated it with the same resources we treat other chronic illnesses, we could make a dramatic change in many lives. For instance, we invest in years of three-times-weekly dialysis treatments despite hope of reversing the condition. Likewise, if we stopped blaming addicts and started treating anyway, noting that we treat other biologically-inclined but self-influenced medical conditions like Type II diabetics. She lays out several possible paths at the end for reform, mostly dealing in the medical reimbursement model, parity, and more education of medical staff. There may have been more details, but they didn’t stick, because they are largely not going to happen.

This is a comprehensive overview done relatively quickly, with examples through a couple of detailed case studies to bring the human element. I finished, but felt like a few sections were lacking, particularly in the psychology of the patient, and in the neurological aspects of addiction. But when I flipped back through pages, I realized she did cover those topics in the same broader strokes as others–it’s just that I was hoping for something even more detailed. My analysis is that if you want a really in-depth look at a particular aspect of prescriptions and addiction, you will be slightly disappointed and should head towards a text with a narrower focus. But if you want to understand how we got to the prescription drug crisis, this is the book. 

 

 

 

Post-script:

It rarely makes the news anymore, but the government is continuing to investigate and prosecute those who were involved in the prescription drug crisis, although they are more than a few years behind. Just as I was wrapping up this book, details were breaking on the Sackler family and Perdue Pharma, and their lawsuit losses against multiple states. Then my medical newsletter provided me with yet another update: five doctors charged, four sentenced, for their role in accepting bribes and kickbacks for prescribing Subsys, spray Fentanyl in 2012. and the founder of Subsys,, Insys, sentenced for his role in the 2012 epidemic.

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A Ghoulish Midlife. Why yes, it is ghoulish.

Attempted July 2021
★ 

Read only if you are a middle-aged woman who lost the love of your life (but who also refers to your only son as the other love of your life) and want to imagine what it might be like to fall in love again with a magically handsome sheriff’s deputy who has teal AND blue eyes:

“I
found it hard to stare into his unusual teal and blue eyes. At the same time, it was impossible to look away. He didn’t have two different color eyes. They were a mix of teal and dark blue. Teal being the dominant color. I’d never seen eyes like those before.”

The writing sounds like something I would have tossed off for a hasty book review, minus my normal plethora of commas and semi-colons, and consists of moment-by-moment internal narration from someone totally unlike me:

“When I entered the kitchen and spotted the bottles of water, my hospitable side got the better of me. I put the bottles in a cooler and covered them in ice, then dragged them onto the porch. There. Now they had plenty to drink if they needed it…

I settled down at my desk to write, but my attention kept drifting out the window. I had the perfect view of their work truck and couldn’t help but notice how young and fit several of the construction workers were. I spent more time watching them work and admiring the view. I really had to stop myself from ogling before I was caught being a creeper. Plus, none of them set my insides on fire like a certain cop I ran into at the grocery store three days ago.

And I will not think about Officer Walker.

After lunch, during which I nearly convinced myself to make sandwiches for the entire crew, I sat back down to work. Oh, I offered to make lunch, but they politely declined. It was the mother in me to make sure everyone was taken care of. Maybe I’d get a pet to care for since my son abandoned me for higher learning.”

This is at 25% and the most magical thing that’s happened is that the house made a sound like breaking glass and scared the construction guys away. Oh, and an undead cat has made two uninteresting appearances. I mean, it’s a cat. It could have scratched someone and given it pestilent necrophages at the very least. You know what would be original? Ghouls as construction workers.

I tried to do my due diligence before buying, but was suckered anyway. There’s a reason all the reviews say, “good job setting up the characters.” At a quarter of the way through, I’m not even sure what our main conflict is. Selling a house that doesn’t want to be sold, perhaps, except it’s more on the line of Goosebumps than Poltergeist.

I’m not even going to get into the eighth-grade writing style. If this was in paper format, I’d fully expect 1.5″ margins.

If there’s anything that demonstrates the fallibility of Goodreads’ rating system, it’s the fact that this has managed to garner a 4.36 rating. [I’m not saying those other profiles are fake, because they are surprisingly fleshed out for the normal sock puppet accounts. But I do question their taste: most of them have a 4.7 rating for over five hundred books.  I need to go read about drug dealers to get this book out of my head.

Update: speaking of drug dealers, I have a book addiction. Because I had to know, am I selling this short? What’s the deal with the five star ratings? So I moved into skim gear and finished. It was both better and worse than I expected. Literally, nothing happens until 50%. You read that right. The reviewer who said, “this is all exposition” wasn’t exaggerating. The murder is kind of laughable. Relationships between the characters go from “hey, I just met you and I’m not sure I like you,” to complete trust and moving-in in a chapter. Worse, the protagonist turns out to be (brace yourself) a Super-Speshul Snowflake Deluxe, as is [her son. The good stuff: teamwork. A friendship with another woman who is as adventurous as our heroine is lame. A hilarious zombie butler.

I’m super bummed and irritated: why does the middle of women’s lives in urban fantasy have to be so boring and full of uncomplicated emotions and experiences? I’d agree with the reviewer who thought the characters acted like they are twenty. If there’s one thing life has emphasized, there’s way more complexity than I’ve found in this sub-genre, and I’m kind of pissed that it’s basically being sanitized. No kids + no husband = bored and sad. Life goal is return to ‘normal.’ Someday I’m going to write one where a woman owns her anger, frustration and joy and embraces the shit out of the changes.

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Suppose a Sentence by Brian Dillon

Suppose a Sentence by Brian Dillon

Attempted June 2021
★  ★

Literature analysis wonks only.

A lovely review tempted me, but alas, this only lives up to its premise if one is well-versed in All The Writers. I thought perhaps it would contain sentence construction deconstruction (parse that, if you will), which I could still relate to, or meditate on life (as good literature does). I confess, I also hoped to find certain sentences inspiring, a sort of literary chapbook by someone widely read. However, I found most of it largely uninteresting and unrelatable, relying on references to classical writers and engaging largely in literary criticism and contemplation over the personal.

It begins with Shakespeare, an amusing but slight paragraph-long piece. The sentence: “O, o, o, o.” What are they telling us, these four diminishing ‘O’s? (Or is it five? The full stop, you might say, is the last and smallest circle.)

I read the James Baldwin one–he of absolutely sublime deep thinking on identity and love–and this is what Dillon chose: “They thought he was a real sweet ofay cat, but a little frantic.” He then proceeds to talk largely about Norman Mailer’s piece, “The White Negro,” compare when the two authors have met, and then go into ‘ofay,’ a word that might be used to “describes a particular kind of white desire to condescend and become otherwise, to inhabit Afro-American culture, if only as hipster spectator.”

The Susan Sontag one also disappoints. “I took a trip to see the beautiful things.” Following that intriguing quote is essentially an essay comparing whether or not Sontag superseded Donald Barthelme, another writer. It then segues into the tone of the piece and how it’s similar to her non-fiction writing, and then the final two pages are devoted to analysis of the film it appears in.

Virginia Wolf was more of what I expected. The sentence he uses is 181 words, from the opening of “On Being Ill,” written in 1926, so I won’t quote it here. Here, finally, was the sort of deconstruction I imagined: “Seven times–four hows and three whats–the sentence invites us to anticipate a logically and artistically satisfying terminus. With the final ‘how’ we may reasonably expect that the grammatical, argumentative, and symbolic denouement is just around the comma-swivelling corner. Instead, we embark on a mysterious paratactic excursion, with no punctuation and no hink, for what seems an age, that our destination is the dentist’s chair… The sentence has allured us a long way, but I’m not certain I follow, not even sure that ‘this’ consists of, never mind the ‘infinitely more.'”

Fluer Jaeggy, who I don’t know at all: “Paper storage, fragments of delirium eaten away by dust.” begins promisingly enough, with Dillon briefly reflecting on a distaste for verb-less sentence fragments. Unfortunately, the quote comes from Jaeggy’s description of Thomas DeQuincey’s writing (note including of DeQuincey in an earlier essay), and Dillon spends the rest of the piece analyzing Jaeggy’s discussion of DeQuincey (talk about navel-gazing) except for a final two paragraphs wondering about the meaning of the sentence and so he returns to the original Italian to translate. A fascinating idea! “Paper storage’ is a curious choice on the translator’s part, because the phrase depositi cartacei (literally paper deposits) suggests a kind of bureaucratic or legal deposition, an official amassing–and it refers to the things themselves, not to the action of their archiving or the space in which they’re placed.”

Ultimately, this was like sifting panning for gold-leaf, sifting through convoluted and chewy sentences in order to find little bits of sparkle. If your reading background contains a wealth of pre-20th century works, you might be better served than I.

Essays containing sentences from: Shakespeare, John Donne, Sir Thomas Browne, Thomas De Quincey, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, John Ruskin, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, Frank O’Hara, Elizabeth Bowen, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Robert Smithson, Maeve Brennan, Roland Barthes, Whitney Balliett, Elizabeth Hardwick, Susan Sontag, Annie Dillard, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Janet Malcolm, Fleur Jaeggy, Hilary Mantel, Claire-Louise Bennett, Anne Carson, Anne Boyer.

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Julian at the Wedding by Jessica Love

áJulian at the Wedding

Read June 2021
★  ★  ★

A follow-up to the adventures of Julian discovering mermaids, this suffers in comparison.

I continue to love Love’s artistic sensibilities, but almost none of the pictures felt as vibrant or as unusual as in the the mermaid story where there were a variety of people, dresses and fantasies. I also remain somewhat confused by the choice of background page color, as it seems a little too dark to let Love’s color choices pop into something really eye-catching, although it does work with white lace. Perhaps she was thinking of white wedding and contrast, but blues and greens have trouble standing out.

IMG_0914

The story is minimalist–Julian and friend are the flower children at a female couple’s wedding then go to play after–but perhaps the value is in normalizing those occasions.

While Julian and the Mermaids (a great drag queen band name, btw) was a fun book that I added to my own library, this is one that lacks the beauty and story to really spur me into love.

IMG_0915

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Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Mercy

Read June 2021
★  ★  ★  

There’s at least two ways to read this series, and your enjoyment will depend on which you choose (choose your own adventure!) Do you:

  1. Read quickly, surface-details only, not pausing to question characters and plotting. 
  2. Read deeply, discussing the details and character motivations.
  3. Surprise! You can also do both and discover that it falls apart with scrutiny.

When I read quickly, it’s usually because plotting pulls me along. An unpredictable plot is catnip, and spurs me to invest in the story and pay attention. Interest strengthens if plotting passes a sniff test and there’s emotional drama. So when I first read through Mercy, I thought it a decent finale to the trilogy, particularly after the tea plantation drama of book #2. There’s just as much tea but far more action, and number of interesting plot developments. But that speed and interest comes with a cost: ignoring the sustained focus on the crew’s various emotional dramas and Breq’s similarly human emotional landscape. 

The first chapter does a decent job of reviewing the events of the prior book, as well as explaining a few ambiguities that had erupted. (If only Leckie had decided to share them in book two!). Nonetheless, I’m sure it’ll be helpful to readers who took time between books. While intrigue is non-stop, endless cups of tea will appear, although only as a indication that Important Conversations Will Follow. It’s too bad, really, that Leckie fixated on the ritual of tea as her indicator for ‘civilization,’ because there was the potential to add more cultural world-building. (Oh, correction–this time we also talk about tea-cakes). 

But Leckie’s characterization remains overall weak, with Seivarden and Ekalu’s emotional drama about a microaggression-laden compliment distracting from both planetary and interstellar-level events. I honestly couldn’t think of why it was included, unless it was for Leckie to use it as an awkward and overt ‘teaching point’ for readers who don’t understand the insidiousness.

Breq herself remains a black box, unable to share details on her strategy until post-event. It’s an annoying authorial tick that relies on nothing more than slight-of-hand super-power skills. And don’t get me started on why Breq’s continues her focus on racial politics of the planet and station when she has a galactic empire gunning for her. We do remember, right, that this is the embodiment of an A.I. that participated in numerous racially-motivated wars? There’s not enough character depth to explain how she’s decided that different races of people should have equal rights. Then there’s her own shaky double-standard of certain missing people who are still in ancillary storage. It all adds up to a character that isn’t interesting as much as inscrutable, which leads me to conclude shaky characterization.

All my prior objections of the series remain: missed potential for world-building and shaky underpinnings (spoiler: when did Breq decide to switch to Freedom Fighter?) but intricate plotting with a lot of forward movement. Don’t scrutinize too closely and it’ll be an okay ride.

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A Man of Shadows by Jeff Noon

A Man of Shadows by Jeff Noon

Read June 2021
★  ★  

In the end, it comes down to feeling, as much as it pains me to say, and this was solidly uninteresting. Whether an unlikeable protagonist, stock characterization, or predictable plotting, I couldn’t say. Remember when you were young, playing with toys and spent all morning setting up your Lego world/Barbies/miniature houses, but then quit playing an hour after the story finally started? That’s this book. 

Our [insert stock here] hard-boiled detective takes the case to find the [insert trope] missing girl (who is, indeed, referred to as a girl). It takes him to Burnout, the last stop both literally and figuratively, in the Dayzone, an area devoted to light. Noon loves this idea so much that he interrupts his story to give us an excerpt from ‘Guide Book: The City of Lights:’

As the traveller enters Dayzone, a constant haze will be seen over the streets, caused by the many billions of light sources the city uses in its tireless quest for brightness. The sky, the real sky, which even the oldest residents cannot remember seeing, is hidden behind a vast tangled web of neon signs, fluorescent images, fiery lamps, gas flames, polished steel struts, and decorative mosaics of glass. Light cascades from this canopy, its radiant chaotic beams caught, reflected, multiplied, back and forth between the shining walls of the office blocks and municipal buildings. Lower down, further sources of illumination are fixed to every available surface, adding their own brilliance to the city. Chinese lanterns swing from cables stretched across the roads, floodlights bathe the scene, powerful spotlights follow cars and pedestrians as they move along.

But this is not enough; next stop is a bar in Shimmer Town, where the reader is to learn about time. “Chronostasis. The syndrome was becoming more prevalent. Some Dayzone residents got so confused by all the different kinds of time on offer, their minds couldn’t take it anymore. Time slowed down to zero, a space where nothing ever happened.” We also learn about the serial killer Quicksilver, who is able to kill someone in between one moment and the next without being seen.

Clearly all these things will eventually come together, and just as clearly, light and time are giant metaphors. The girl, Eleanor, is found, then lost, and when Nyquist decides he needs to become her protector, I tried to settle in for a rehash of Senlin Ascends, another book I bounced off of.

Breaking down the why is not easy. It does come together in the end, in a way that should be satisfying. But by then it was so profoundly uninteresting to me. Did I get tired of the tour through Dusk, the in-between from Night to Day? Did I develop antipathy for Nyquist’s growing time-lag turning him erratic and paranoid? Did I find the overt symbolism tiresome? Did I once again tire of the female as holy grail plotting? Was the weird for weirdness’ sake a chore?

It could be all of these things. When I stalled out around page 100, I set it down for a month, hoping that it was a mood-based rejection. But I fared little better after a hiatus, and only finished through sheer stubbornness and a switch to skim mode. Though Noon, by other reports, operates in the New Weird along with Miéville and VanderMeer, he lacks Miéville’s momentum and build, and VanderMeer’s commitment to the unfamiliar and strange. This time, New Weird didn’t take.

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European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss

European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theadora Goss

Read June 2021
★  ★  1/2

To be blunt, this was a chore. Though the premise was intriguing–the female children of some of book-history’s most villainous men come together as a Society–the execution made it an exercise in perseverance. 

But that core idea–so clever! Take the idea of female=uncontrolled=wild=nature=monster, band them together, give them a mission, and surround them with both real and literary figures. But there’s a constant interruption of meta elements, which proves tiresome. The story is ostensibly written by Catherine, one of the young women, as a means of earning money for the group. It is frequently interrupted with discussions among the characters about how they might be portrayed, or objections to what is being shared. Vaguely amusing at the start, it becomes significantly less so the fourth or fifth time it happens. By the time we reach the penultimate scenes, it’s annoying.

“DIANA: I wasn’t petulant! I’m never petulant. What does that mean, anyway? I think you made that word up. Are writers allowed to do that?

MARY: I am certainly perturbable! Catherine, you’re describing me as though I were some sort of female Sherlock Holmes, which I am not, thank you very much.

DIANA: That’s not such a bad comparison, actually. You’re as annoying as he is…

After our previous adventures, Joe had agreed to spy for our heroines. And if those heroines keep interrupting me, this story will never get started.”

Even more significantly, the pace is wildly uneven, veering back and forth between action and florid detail of who was thinking what, at what time. While the action merits some attention, there’s a level of detail that is truly unnecessary. For instance, take the appearance of a dog whistle:

“It is a common dog whistle,’ said Beatrice. ‘I borrowed it from the Count’s groom, who uses it to signal the wolfdogs. They were first invented by Sir Francis Galton to determine the range of hearing in human beings and animals. Human ears cannot hear it–as the rest of you saw, Mary was not affected at all. But those of a dog can–or a cat, or a vampire. A cat can hear sounds higher than a dog, and a vampire, I conjecture, can hear even higher. We can use it to distract and disable [redacted]. But those of you with particularly acute hearing will have to carry India-rubber earplugs to protect yourself from its sound.”

And this is why it’s a 700 page book: there’s two (plus) extra sentences for every paragraph. Yikes. Trying to pick my words carefully here, I’d say that this might appeal to the sort of reader that likes a lot of detail but minimum effort. But what about the clever allusions, the reviewer wonders? Doesn’t Goss introduces us to a historical figure that provides a bit of free psychological profiling of two of our heroines? Doesn’t that require inference? Oh, but it is spelled out shortly after, reader. In case we missed the conclusion, one of the other characters clarifies it. It’s like that all the way through, and I think that, in part, accounts for a lot of the feeling of disinterest. 

What’s good? Goss is not incompetent with her words. The setting was well-realized. A fair amount of things happen, so despite the leisurely pace, it’s not precisely boring. I still love the concept, and the idea of these young women growing in their self-knowledge and owning their own power is a fabulous idea. I like the idea of ‘science’ playing a role. There’s a fair amount of diversity, and attention to class differences. If you can let go of the meta, it’s kind of fun to have guest appearances from famous historical figures brought into the story.

I’d say it’s boilerplate 1890s-ish supernatural with two things setting it apart. One, Girrrl-Power. Two, the idea that Dr. Moreau, Dr. Hyde, Van Helsing and many others are all members of an Alchemical Society that is dedicated to advancing knowledge and mankind through ‘scientific principles.’ And since it’s 1890 (ish), no one has exactly discovered a code of ethics, and who is easier to experiment on than children?

Still, there’s no excuse for 700 pages, unless Goss was trying to write Jonathan Strange for the young/new-adult set? Now that I think about it…

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