Other Minds

Read September 2018
Recommended for fans of philosophy of thought, octopi
★     ★   1/2

Octopi, or the floppy floppy spider of the sea,”(source: ZeFrank)  are pretty freaking amazing. Godfrey-Smith agrees, which is how this book came about. As he notes on page 9,“If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of shared history…but because evolution built minds twice over. This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.”

Unfortunately, he tried to marry it with one of his professional passions, the philosophy of consciousness, and that’s where this falls quite short. The beginning chapters have a quick explanation of the evolutionary tree, and then start tracing the origin of life and neurons through a brief look at the fossil record. This is supposed to impress upon us how different we are from octopi, but if you didn’t already know that, I don’t know how you would have selected this book. So that was weird to me. Each chapter has a teaser opener of a real-life octopi situation, then goes into theory.

Julie has a very solid, thorough analysis on what went wrong, and why, and I strongly suggest it if you are wondering whether or not this is for you. I am occasionally in the mood for philosophy, but grow quickly tired of discussions of perception of pain, consciousness, and possible perception of self. To me, it quickly boils down to experience: I see something witness and try to escape potential pain/pain; therefore it experiences it enough that it deserves consideration, does it not? Does it actually matter if it conceives of itself as an individual? Whatever. That isn’t the point: the point is that these conversations quickly grow tiresome to me because it seems the ultimate in superiority complexes, all the more ironic coming from a race that can’t manage to not to destroy its own environment. And now I’m off track again. Anyways, here’s what’s interesting:

-octopuses can recognize people. They also tend to squirt water at things they don’t like. There’s numerous anecdotes of octopi specifically targeting a person they don’t like, or all new visitors to the lab.

-the Ediacaran period had peaceful creatures that were basically like bathmats that crawled around munching and seemed to not have sophisticated sense organs or protective armament. I have no idea what this has to do with octopi, but it’s a super fun visual image. I picture a herd of bathmats grazing on my lawn.

-cuttlefish are also cool, and may actually be color-blind, although they have the astonishing ability to blend with their environment.

-there’s a secret octopus garden on the east coast of Australia. Or in a Beatle’s song. Which is awesome.

There’s some neat colorplate photos in here, as well as some black-and-white drawings and illustrations in an attempt to help the reader with visuals (ie., evolutionary tree, the fossil record). The end chapter where he talks about studies at Octopolis are genuinely interesting, and I would have read much more about what’s coming out of there. Actually, now that I’m listening to it again, watching ZeFrank is a quicker, and more fun, and references many of the same octopus facts that were in this book.

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Vintage Murder by Ngaio Marsh

Read September 2018
Recommended for Marsh fans
★     ★   

Some things should be allowed to fade into obscurity, and the underwhelming Vintage Murder is one of them. Like Enter a Murderer, it is primarily a theater mystery. However, it opens in a shared train car as Alleyn is on vacation in New Zealand. While I had hopes of an Orient Express style story, the real mystery doesn’t take place until their first production in Middleton, a fictitious town.

There’s a great deal of dialogue, the majority of which takes place at the scene of the crime. Sadly, almost none of it contains the humor and playfulness I had come to associate with Alleyn, although there is one hilarious scene with a somewhat odd stagehand Shakespeare-obsessed stagehand at the end, strongly reminding me of Micheal Keaton’s performance in Much Ado About Nothing.

One of the oddest moments is an afternoon car ride and picnic interlude with a suspect during the questioning phase of the story, particularly because Alleyn has the permission of the New Zealand police to question the person in a more ‘informal’ setting. I realize, of course, that some of police procedural questions are time period issues, but I don’t think Poirot would have taken a suspect out on a picnic. It does, however, allow Marsh an opportunity to wax lyrical about the scenery.

There’s also a sideline in here with a Maori doctor, and Alleyn noting (and disapproving) a racist reaction among some of the theater people, as well as the New Zealand police. I suspect Marsh was chiding her fellow countrymen for their less thoughtful approach to the Maori culture.

On the whole, it feels like Marsh (or her editor) wanted her to do a more Christie-style book that is both serious and literary, or perhaps Marsh wanting to do her home country justice. Ultimately, it lacked the plotting and the sparkle to keep me entertained.

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Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

Read August 2018
Recommended for fans of ScoobyDoo!
★     ★    ★    ★  

Put on your pajamas, grab a bowl of Apple Jacks (my mom wouldn’t let me have Lucky Charms, my first choice in ridiculous sugars disguised as breakfast cereals), and settle in for a delightful romp through The Case of The Really Deep Lake.

Homages can wildly miss the mark, turning into tiresome parody after a few minutes (reference: most Saturday Night Life skits), but Cantero has done something marvelous, re-imagining the Scooby-Doo gang* as real, somewhat complicated people scarred by their youthful adventures.** Well, Scooby-Doo (©, I’m sure) is never explicitly mentioned. But we have a crew of four–sort of–and a dog, and they were made famous after solving the Mystery of Sleepy Lake Monster. They went their separate ways until Andy realizes that the mystery was never really solved, leaving them all more than a bit dysfunctional, and she decides to get the gang back together.

I won’t say much more, as bullet points are too reductionist for the complexity here. Suffice it to say that although I expected somewhat cartoonish capers, there was also an emotional depth that proved surprising. That said, I loved the dog, Tim, and his newfound love, Squeaky Penguin.

Cantero is very playful with the narrative, a technique other reviewers note as distracting and disjointed. Besides the ubiquitous point-of-view changes in everyone’s writing these days, occasionally the writing jumps from third-person limited point-of-view into screenwriting format, including cues. There’s also a number of made up words (sadly, not zoinks!) that I tended to find amusing.

[Pause while carol looks through other reviews]. There’s allegations of Native culture co-opting, which I’d argue are unfounded; there’s a difference between using a legend as a piece of a puzzle and claiming authority on said legend or culture.

Even more serious is concern over gender and sexual identities, incompletely portrayed. For me, a budding romance was awkward and gentle, the ultimate distillation of a non-definable relationship between two people. But I’m old, and feel less need to categorize or identify with definitions of sexuality and partnership. There are a couple other characters that have a more ambiguous kind of persona, and a number of reviews found those problematic. I did not. Some of it may be lost to translation. Some may be lost to Contero abandoning a more literary effort for Hollywood-style/cartoon-style reductionism. Whichever. For me, these things were small enough to overlook (honestly, the first instance was confusing enough that I just ignored it; the second is a plot point), but that may be a generational and/or personal issue.

Recommended for fans of Daryl Gregory; it reminded me quite a bit of Pandemonium and We Are All Completely Fine, although something about Cantero is sweeter, without being teeth-tingling.

 

*for heaven’s sake, don’t even mention “Scrappy Doo” to me.

**Example of the old-school Scooby Doo here.

 

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Escape the Fall (Southern Grit #2) by Harley Tate

Read August 2018
Recommended for fans of the apocalypse with guns
★     ★     

After reading the first book in the Nuclear Survival series, I wandered off to other stories and other apocalypses. Recently, however, I was cleaning up my kindle and thought I might give book two a chance in hopes of discovering the resolution. In book one of the Southern Grit series, a couple finds themselves in different cities when a nuclear apocalypse hits. From then on, their purpose is finding each other. When the plan for their meetup falls through, they have to make their way to their old house.

Narrative is third person, going back and forth between Grant and Leah. I found myself most interested in Grant’s story, as he was far enough towards his meta journey that he started to explore what ‘community’ is going to mean in the new world. Leah discovers it too, but she is such a Pollyanna that I had trouble enjoying her journey. Perhaps I’ve been a nurse too long, but I think the hallmark of an experienced ER nurse is the awareness that you can’t save everyone, both literally and figuratively. Leah acts more like a fresh graduate than anyone with a sense of public/community health.

Ultimately, the writing is solid and does an adequate job. The characters are rounded, yet somehow generic, probably representing the epitome of the ‘good’ middle-class lifestyle. I thought the apocalypse was vaguely interesting; we continue to run into radiation poisoning issues. However, this makes Grant’s actions near the end particularly stupid and–yes–selfish., as he’s clearly aware of the dangers of exposure. But whatever; as a book it was sufficiently entertaining to be distracting, although there were some parts where I resorted to skimming. Yes, plot OCD is a thing.

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Survive the Panic (Southern Grit series #3)

Read August -Sept 2018
Recommended for fans of the apocalypse with guns
★     ★     1/2

With only two stars for the prior book, why did I go on to book three, you wonder? Book two focused on the estranged couple, Leah and Grant, making their way back to their home and presumably, each other. Since one of the aspects of apocalypse I enjoy is focus on survival in situations that are both familiar (your home environment) and strange (no electricity), I was curious to see what happened next. And, to be honest, I needed a low demand book that I could read only in short pieces.

Community. Leah and Grant are in their home and trying to figure out what to do next. Leah’s still healing from a head wound. Right before Leah arrived, Grant had set up a neighborhood meeting, hoping to bring people together for both practical and psychological reasons. Unfortunately, it didn’t go very well. Leah decides to work from the other angle, on a person-by-person basis, offering her medical knowledge to anyone who needs it. Tate does well as showing the various responses people have to crisis, from the outright ostrich, to the fatalist, to those that have faith in authority, to those that challenge everything, because they can. 

One of the premises he seems to enjoy operating with is the assumption that people will have to be self-reliant, because ‘authority’ in its many forms will be overwhelmed. Often there is an information vacuum as to why, which adds uncertainty to individual action. In the Southern Grit series, however, one of our protagonists has insider information, a plot point that reappears in this story. 

I’d have to say that this story was more enjoyable for me than the second, strictly because the focus has changed from reuniting to community. The various responses and ramifications keep the story moving. However, the last third unravels into an extended, Hollywood-style, extended hostage scenario that became tiresome.

(spoiler) [Even after our protagonists successfully ‘escaped,’ the antagonists returned for revenge. (end spoiler)] 

It took the focus back away from the community aspect of survival into a straight-up thriller-style conflict. It also relies on Grant’s military service, a plot point that seems to be reoccurring in Tate’s books. People who are unable or unwilling to use guns to defend themselves will die. 

Two facets of the ending pretty much assured that I’m not going to be returning to the Southern Grit series anytime soon. One was the sappy wish-fulfillment feeling of the military dude safely returning to his capable and sexy wife at the end. It felt like a ‘modern’ machismo romance (“separate but equal”). Two, the

(spoiler) [ gratuitous killing of the rest of their group. (end spoiler)] 

I think Tate has been trying to make a point in his series about community, but it keeps coming back to one that involves the death of anyone ‘unfit.’

Still, it’s competently written, even if I don’t agree with the thematic choices. A lot of the details seemed very authentic and understandable. I’d give the overall series a 2.5 on my scale, but wouldn’t go so far as to warn apocalypse fans away. It did provide me for food for thought as I’ve been walking my dogs through the neighborhood: how many of these people do I know? Would I trust? Could I (do I) have an interaction with? These are the kinds of questions a good end-of-the world story should raise, so I give Tate credit.

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Unquiet by John Connolly. Yes, very.

Read August -Sept 2018
Recommended for fans of detective thrillers with a twist
★     ★    ★    ★   1/2

Intense.

Connolly writes detective-style mysteries with a dash of supernatural elements. The trouble is, neither Parker, nor the reader, is entirely sure what might just be unusual and what might be somewhat otherworldly. Parker, his lead character, has been haunted by the ghosts of his wife and child since they were killed, and once again, Parker is struggling with their ghosts. They’re real enough that others can sense them, although his estranged wife, Rachel, points out that in her perception, ghosts are kept alive by people refusing to let go of the past. Parker is still at their house in Maine, taking small jobs like the one for Rebecca, who has a stalker. It turns out that the stalker has a somewhat sympathetic cause, trying to find Rebecca’s father, a psychologist who worked with abused children, and who was last seen about the same time as his own daughter. Parker, empathetic both to woman in distress and parents of missing children, finds himself drawn deep into the case.

“I turned. A man appeared to be standing among the tress. If I looked directly at him I could see only branches and spots of moonlight where I thought he was standing, but he seemed to appear more clearly when I looked at him with my peripheral vision, or if I tried not to focus on him at all. He was there, though. Walter’s reaction was evidence of that, and I still recalled the events of the night before: the glimpse I had caught of something at the edge of the forest before it faded away; a child’s voice whispering from the shadows; words scrawled on a dusty windowpane.”

I literally had to take breaks from this book. Not because it was horrific, but because it was so intense. While building the plot tension, Connolly creates a vivid world with lush description. There are tiny moments of humor that made me smile, almost gratefully, with the opportunity to provide breathing space. Here’s one tiny bit, right before Parker heads into an emotionally fraught interview in a Supermax.

“His uniform was starched and pressed, and everything that was supposed to gleam did so spectacularly. There was a little more gray in his mustache than before, but I decided not to point that out. Beneath his gruff exterior, I sensed there was a sensitive child just waiting to be hugged. I didn’t want to hurt his feeling, singular.
‘Back again,’ he said, in a tone that suggested I was forever bothering him by knocking on the door at all hours of the day and night, demanding that I be let in to play with the other kids.
‘Can’t stay away from men in jails,’ I said.
‘Yeah, we get a lot of that here,’ he replied.
That Joe Long. What a kidder. If he was any drier, he’d have been Arizona.”

 

There’s also solid social commentary snuck in about Supermax prisons, mental health, and the complicated issues around child abuse. As always, the lovely writing encouraged me to go slow, to linger on each image. I wanted to find out the end, but yet dreaded the final confrontation, the solution that I knew would be terrible and heart-wrenching. Without doubt, I’ll go on to the next book, but I might wait a spell before doing so.

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Surviving the Evacuation: Book Three: Family by Frank Tayell

Read August 2018
Recommended for fans of book two
★     1/2

It would be years before I would connect an Extra Special Vacation Episode of Happy Days with the phenomenon known as ‘jumping the shark.’

 

Alas; for me, the shark was well and truly jumped in book three of the ‘Surviving the Evacuation’ series. Book one was about Bill coming to terms with the changes in the world and working out how he could survive. Book two was about discovering other people, throwing in a political wrinkle about how zombies came about. In this, book three, Bill and his tiny band of survivors head toward the coast, following rumors of a large group surviving on an island. They eventually reach a half-way house and discover far more about international apocalypse politics than anyone wanted to know.

The plot continues to be filled with odd plot points–thank you very much; I’m aware I’m talking about a zombie book–that result in deux ex machina solutions. In the midst of plain ol’ survival issues, Bill decides discovering if he is a ‘carrier’ of the virus is an important issue. Oh, and maybe we can create a vaccine out of his immune status if he isn’t. As if mere survival wasn’t enough, the undead have started to gather into hordes, like wildebeest in the savannah. The discover that competition over nuclear submarines is still a thing. But helpfully, Sholto, Bill’s brother, appears to have been trained by Jason Bourne. There’s more, of course, but these are the kind of plot points that move an apocalypse book past the exploration of what survival means into a bizarre kind of war movie. Can you even have international politics when we don’t know if other nations survived?

Everything that inspired curiosity and appreciation in Book One was well and truly gone by the end of this one. Perhaps I am wrong, and perhaps Bill is essentially the same person from book one, trusting in his childhood friend and responding with remarkable naivete to his situations, hoping for the best. But now having survived in the wider world with months of the zombie apocalypse under his belt, he displays no further planning, analysis, or, as it’s euphemistically called, ‘situational awareness.’ Far from the Girl Scout mentality he first displayed, he waits until he’s in a fight before realizing his knife is ineffective: “The weight was too much, the balance wrong. Without the two fingers from my left hand I couldn’t handle the weapon properly.” This was the same person that made his own spear, practicing with it until it became relatively safe. But somehow, Bill pretends he’s learned his lesson, if only it wasn’t repeated ad nauseum 75% of the way into the story:

“What I said next was cruel, but it was necessary. I was starting to get a measure of this place, and it was dawning on me that I’d made a big mistake going there so unprepared.”

I found myself outlining passages, marking a ‘TSTL’ more than once. I ended up setting the book down for some time and might have left it for good if it weren’t for that annoyingly completionist drive I sometimes have.

The first book in the series was fabulous, an ‘I Am Legend‘ type story that captures all the complexities end-of-the-world stories are capable of exploring. The last two books, however, have been steadily sinking. Still, I’d recommend the first book, with the caveat of stopping after. Yes, I know it’s hard. Yes, I know there are more stories/episodes/seasons. Just Don’t Do It. Save yourself the shark experience, and treasure a perfect memory instead.

 
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The Wild Dead by Carrie Vaughn

Read August 2018
Recommended for fans of apocalypse settings, mysteries
★     ★    ★    1/2

The one-minute review:

There’s loads of descriptions and reviews out there about this book, which surrounds solving a murder in an isolated community. The setting is a post-Fall world with limited resources, which is what ultimately elevates it above the average cozy mystery for me. Characterization is solid, although the description of just how tired Enid is had me exhausted by the end of the book. Although I found the world vaguely intriguing, it lacked the character connection or plotting that could have made it unquestionably four stars. I was supremely unsurprised by the murder; my only surprises were the behavior of Enid’s co-Investigator who is fresh out of training and the community dilemma of the falling-down house.

Vaughn’s writing has definitely improved since I last read her ‘Kitty the Werewolf’ books, but she’s almost too good at it this time: everything about this book is pensive and melancholic. While I enjoyed skill in the writing, I experienced the same kind of feel that endlessly unpleasant weather brings.

Opening page:

“Most regions Enid visited, she could find something to love about them, some enticing and beautiful detail about the landscape, the people, the mood of the place. A reason fold would want to stay and scrape out a living in less-than-ideal situations when a dozen other settlements had more resources and less disease, and would gladly welcome extra hands. Even the rainless, baking salt flats at the southernmost end of the Coast Road had isolation to recommend them, for those who wanted to be left alone. And just to show that every place had a reason for existing, the people of Desolata household there exported the sold they collected form the flats on their own trade route.

But here in the Estuary, Enid had to consider for a while what exactly the appeal was. Over the damp marsh where the San Joe River drained, clouds of bugs rose up through a sticky haze, shimmering with heat. Squealing gulls gathered, circling on slender wings, drawn by some rotting treasure. There were no orchards here, no pastures, no rippling fields of grain.”

Okay, maybe a five-minute review.

 
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Rivers of London: Detective Stories by Ben Aaronovitch

Read July 2011
Recommended for fans of Neil Gaiman
★     ★     ★  

Ben Aaronovitch is a talented writer. And a very, very slow one. I try not to complain, because at least his books are dense enough that they tolerate re-reads and re-listens. But eventually, I miss the world of the Folly and turn to the graphic novels. Detective Stories is one of the more satisfying novels to date, at least in terms of story complexity and Ben’s voice. Structured around Peter’s application for an advanced position as Detective Constable, he reviews four cases with Detective Chopra, including a couple from when he and Leslie were partners. There’s one that involves a ghost and a seance that was really well done, and gave the artists a chance to play with their 50s-60s styles.

 

Acting as intermission are a couple one-page stories (I hesitate to use that word, as they are more like ‘setting, thing, action, consequence’ than stories) that are less successful. This clever-fox driving one kind of eluded me.

 

 

 

 

 

The graphic continues the structure of setting apart Peter’s sarcastic/informative inner voice with actual dialogue. There’s a lot of acronyms, which is only fair, as the entire premise is one of inter-department discussion, but the additional asterisks of explanation are a bit distracting. As usual, the end pages have a cover compilation. This one also includes a brief history of the Metropolitan Police, which was interesting. But. But. But. I like actual words and all that around a story, so can’t we just get a short story where Peter thinks about these things while chasing ghosts?

Leslie and Peter

Four stars for the narrative/ plot, a weak three for the structure. In the history of the graphic novels, I’d say it’s one of the top two. Call it three and a half, rounding down because it’s an effing graphic instead of a book.

 
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American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Read July 2011
Recommended for fans of Neil Gaiman
★     ★     1/2

American Gods, a meandering tale of a book, took me at least two tries to get through, despite my gravitation towards urban fantasy.. The concept of “old versus modern” gods is an intriguing one, and I can always get involved in themes of belief, stories and myth. It didn’t always work, however, and was completed at stuttering pace. Transitions can be rough, and it’s not always clear where a particular chunk of narrative is heading. I feel like part of it is that we have indeed lost the old gods, and many people need a little background on Gaiman’s creatures in order to appreciate the tale he’s telling. Often it’s well done, but at times it interrupts the flow of the narrative.

I often enjoy Gaiman’s imagery, although occasionally it’s self indulgent, seemingly for the sake of being shocking, like the woman that swallows a man through her vagina during sex, and a dead person vomiting maggots.

A few loose ends don’t particularly seem pertinent. (spoilers follow in this paragraph) such as the leprechaun that gives Shadow a gold piece, which Shadow then is moved to throw it into Laura’s grave. I’m not sure of the point of that subplot either–the power of belief?

I’m never particularly moved by Gaiman’s use of language, but he has a deft hand at characterization. Characters and ideas are clearly his strengths. I loved some of the old gods, and thought Mr. Nancy and the Chicago family particularly well done. The new gods were less well done, though the concept is a fascinating one. Most of the time is spent on the internet/tech and media gods, and they are done well enough to be immediately annoying. However, the pantheon gets a little fuzzy at this point, particularly in Gaiman’s decision to largely leave out “modern” organized religion–as Anubis and Bast and such were worshipped by Egyptians, it seems fair to acknowledge Jesus as more than a hitchhiker in Afganistan. I wonder if he avoided it for complexity? Controversy?

The voice and tone is narrator is emotionally removed from the story, but I felt it suited the tone and scope of the novel well. I liked Shadow and felt he was a very believable character for a while. Emphasizing his numbness and distance helped explained how he could be so blase about the return of his dead wife and Mr. Wednesday’s abilities. It’s interesting that after his initial questioning and challenging of Mr. Wednesday and the leprechaun, he accepts the rest of the magic at face value.

I have mixed feelings about the ending. (spoilers follow in this paragraph) I’m a little disappointed that Shadow chose to “rest,” and wonder if it’s inconsistent, as all along he’s been Wednesday’s man, paid to work and protect him. And the fact that the plot of the novel is a double con–well, I too feel more than a little betrayed. It seemed weak that both old and new gods took Shadow’s announcement and popped back to reality, ready to abandon the fight then and there. Certainly their animosity had to be based on something, and removal of primary motivation doesn’t remove built up antagonism.

Worth noting that I sold my copy to Half Price Books, because it’s space on the shelf was worth more than the slim chance of re-read. Two-and-a-half stars, rounding down because my memory assures me I don’t want to touch it again.

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