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Thursday, April 19, 2018

I'd kinda rather lie and say I loved it

The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth, #1)The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm not trying to be difficult. Or contrary. I just didn't really like this book. I almost gave it 4 stars, because assigning 3 stars to a Hugo Award winner looks like you want a fight. I don't.

To be clear, right up front, this is a well written book, and I like the author. I'd like to meet her, and shake her hand, and ask for her to sign a copy of something. That would be an honor. But I didn't enjoy reading this particular book. The novel might be up your alley. If so, it may well be a 5-star favorite of yours. I hope it is. In fact, I hope other people like it much more than I did.

For me, this was just a downer, and I usually don't finish books that I feel that way about. Being entertained and feeling a bit of joy are, for me, more motivating purposes for reading than FOMO or "seeing what happens" or being surprised or any other more esoteric purposes others have. The novel is more dystopian than I thought it would be, and the tone is unrelentingly grim, pessimistic, misanthropic, and disheartening. So, not too fun, at least not for me. Nothing good happens anywhere in this land of despots. [Spoiler, sort of. Maybe skip a line or two.] Well, there is a moment of freedom and domestic bliss, but the foreshadowing doesn't let you enjoy it. You know, by then, what will happen/has happened. Almost everyone in the story is untrustworthy, unkind, and unhappy, taught from infancy to be practical to the point of ruthlessness. There are no heroes to root for; even the main character is only occasionally sympathetic. I cared what happened to her, enough to keep on, but I didn't ever want to meet her. I didn't like her, even though I wanted to.

A dark tone is, for me, more tolerable in those books where the main characters are fighting to change what's wrong in their world, or when I have the feeling, as the reader, that something can improve. There is perhaps a hint of that, at best, but that's not really what the story is about. The characters, instead, are moving about, or being carried about, or being pushed about, doing whatever is in front of them to do without much choice or self-direction. [Spoiler! Stop!] Until maybe the last page, there's no drive for anyone to create a better life, or solve a problem, or intentionally attack a main conflict, and all that does is point to book 2. [Still spoilering] The nearest to a recognizable goal is Essun chasing after her daughter, but that feels like a waste of emotional energy when you get to the end of the novel without any sign of the girl. Really, the book has a lot of movement, but without goals proper to the characters we're following. It is action without clear purpose. (In that way, this novel is more like literary fiction, where the plot is more about the sum total of the characters' life situation than linear action toward a goal.) That kind of vagueness about the plot or main conflict can work, of course, but it's just not for me. The why? in my head never quite gets answered, and I want it to be.

The literary consensus is that this is an awesome book. Smart people who like novels really liked this one. I'm not in the mainstream here. Make of that what you will.

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Monday, April 9, 2018

A fresh look at history

The Silk Roads: A New History of the WorldThe Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a very useful history, looking at world events through a lens I had never considered: Central Asia's wealth and the West's efforts to possess it. The author traces the development of trade, empire, war, and colonization in the region that stretches from the Mediterranean to Western China, which was, of course, the location of the original "Silk Road." I found it very eye-opening, and most of it entertaining. (Where I wasn't entertained, I was still informed, which is a different reward.) :)

I especially enjoyed the ancient history part, which is why I started the book, but the modern history was equally informative. It showed how many forces have remained constant for millennia. The main idea is that Central Asia has been a source of great wealth throughout history, and the efforts to obtain that wealth (and guarantee its flow) has been a preoccupation of Western powers for thousands of years. Whether it's silk, silver, horses, spices, opium, rare earths, or petroleum that is capturing the attention of traders and speculators and governments, the effect has been to cause competition and war to obtain it.

One of the ways information is framed in this book is to show how much history is driven by trade and profit. Everything is about the money first, and the politics follow. That seems obvious, and has been pointed out endlessly everywhere, but it really informs every moment of history as it is described in this book, and explains better than anything I've read before the movements of people and growth of cities and spread of ideas, including religions. What struck me was the constant revelation of the great wealth of this city or that one, of this empire or that one, in places that are mostly blank in my understanding or only roughly penciled in. In regions that seem, in my mind, to be a deserted wasteland (metaphorically, since I know so little about them), huge numbers of people have lived and civilizations have thrived, with wealthy populations and advanced societies that included many educated, cosmopolitan people enjoying high levels of sophistication. Think Merv, and Balkh, and Samarkand, and Mosul, and Edessa, and dozens more that may seem familiar or may not.

The middlemen all along the route took their cut, and that explains the dramatic push of poor Westerners to find a way around them. The desire for Central Asia's wealth explains the Age of Exploration. It explains the "Great Game" in Afghanistan and India, and it explains British Petroleum, and the toppling of governments. It explains (sort of) how the United States could first arm Saddam and then attack him, or revile Iran and then arm them. Specific examples of European and American colonization or exploitation explain anti-Western sentiment there far better than explanations I've heard since the 80s or 90s in media or elsewhere.

What the author does so well in this book is put this region of the world in the very center of history. Right or wrong, it changes how you look at events, and how you see life on the periphery. It's a "walk a mile in his shoes" exercise that has given me a great deal of insight into how people in the Middle East might see their history, their place in the world, and the relative trustworthiness of our government and institutions, or our corporations. When Westerners--British East India Company, or Exxon, or Soviet Russia, or Hitler's Germany--want to extract a nation's wealth, and then use that wealth to oppress the people in their own land, and treat those people and their needs as less significant, calling them "backward," or "tribal," and brutally suppress their very natural objection to that treatment... well, it's easy to see why they would consider that unjust. You can see why they would expel the colonizers. Why they would nationalize oilfields and railroads. Why they might still be angry.

There are other ways to look at all of these events, of course, but I found this perspective very useful. While it was sometimes uncomfortable, it was enlightening, and well worth spending the time investigating. In addition, the scholarship was excellent (beyond my ability to judge, that is) and painstaking, with extensive notes for the skeptical. So both for its excellent information and its unique perspective, I must highly recommend the book.

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Thursday, March 22, 2018

More good stuff from John Scalzi

Zoe's Tale (Old Man's War, #4)Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an easy one.

I like John Scalzi's writing. Just in general. He's got a sound, a patter, that is recognizably his, and he doesn't screw it up.

This is a good story, with a proven plot, good pacing, sympathetic and interesting characters, and (as always) clever dialogue.

It was interesting to read the same story as the previous novel told from a different POV. It wasn't, of course, the same story, but something new. I liked it.

(Only quibble--what do the aliens look like? Come on! Not every species, but a few, please! Anyway...)

Five stars, of course.

So, read the book already. Off you go. :)

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Saturday, March 17, 2018

Spoiler: the last bit's the best part

Control Point (Shadow Ops, #1)Control Point by Myke Cole
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I knew the author (from a distance) before I knew his writing. He's entertaining and provocative on a panel, and his twitter feed is worth following. I have found the author to be very intense to the point of confrontational on virtually every topic, but his opinions are generally well-informed and he has a knack for a brutal self-honesty that is disarming. It is more for these reasons than because of interest in the books that I bought and read this novel. And, as it turns out, it's good.

A lot is made of the military accuracy in this author's writing, and I agree that that's a plus, giving the fantasy elements a cool new look. Also, this is a very creative imagining of a world that has suddenly exploded with magic being confronted by military strength, and that premise supplies a lot of the fun. (A military fantasy of this type is not utterly new and unique, perhaps, but pretty new to me.) There is room for many more stories here, a wide canvas, and that's exciting.

However, to be honest, there were elements of this novel I disliked, and I almost felt led to assigning it a lower rating overall. [slight spoilers.] The middle of the novel is muddled; the main character flips his world view and his goals back and forth in a disorienting way, and we're asked to change our sympathies along with him. In the end I'm not sure who should have a claim on our sympathy. That can be a positive, making it thematically ambiguous, kinda like real life, but in an action-packed genre novel it often feels less like nuance and more like we're being tricked. (Or the author was changing his mind as he wrote.) I didn't like that aspect.

And in that middle section, Britton goes through a lengthy training that is analogous to the dull early part of traditional fantasy novels where the newly-minted magic-user learns how to handle his power, often with the help of a wizard type. Here, it is done in a sort of boot camp, which has its appeal, being a different flavor, but it still suffers from being too slow, too much like a long introduction. It's an origin story, which we probably need to kick off the series, but it's so full of his failures and suffering at the hands of brutal trainers and commanders, a barrage of bummers that isn't any fun, that I really wanted it to move on.

Thankfully, it does move on, and gets really good, and is much more fun to read.

I hung in there, and rolled with the main character, and got the payoff. The last 50 pages is where the best action occurs and when the clearest conflicts are addressed. (When the main character tries to do a thing, and then does the thing, and you're still wondering if it was right or wrong to do the thing, your motivation as a reader becomes challenged. It's nice when you can finally root for the character to DO THE THING!) In the final sequence, the action moves forward again instead of sideways, with a much more entertaining and satisfying mix of setbacks and successes. I would've liked more of this, but you know, it's all good.

So, IMO, it's a good novel, a solid 3 stars, an optimistic 4. But if the series continues the way the first novel ends it will absolutely be worth hanging in there, because that was pretty awesome. Here's to hoping.

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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Not what I expected, but I liked it, so that's good

Tremontaine: The Complete Season One (Tremontaine #1.1-1.13)Tremontaine: The Complete Season One by Ellen Kushner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It didn't end up being quite what I thought it would be, but I liked it.

I expected it to be almost entirely a novel of manners fantasy, something between Austen and Moorcock. Maybe a little Gormenghast. There was some of that, particularly whenever we were in Duchess Tremontaine's POV, but that happened much less than I expected, and the society aspect was muted outside of a single fancy dinner. Kaab and the traders, with their Mesoamerican-style culture, were interesting and refreshing, but the clash of cultures and POV characters from many different levels of society made it more like a traditional fantasy than I expected.

All good. I like traditional fantasy, too.

A key feature of this novel (multi-part, multi-author) is its inclusiveness. Its characters are LGBTQ-friendly and sex-positive, which works very well without becoming heavy-handed or overwhelming the rest of the plot. Also, my favorite character, Micah, is clearly autistic or somewhere near that on the spectrum, and the author(s) do a good job of making her realistic and sympathetic and an integral part of the plot.

This is an enjoyable read, and I am looking forward to finding the second in the series, and looking for other things by the main author.

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Saturday, March 3, 2018

Agatha Christie Fools Me Again. Of Course.

Curtain (Hercule Poirot #42)Curtain by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

She's clever, that Agatha Christie.

I never solve her mysteries, but I have to admit that everything needed to figure it out was right there. It's just that there are so many red herrings to test out that I somehow never get to the right one...

Some of her ideas and some of the opinions expressed by the characters are so last century--as they should be, I suppose--but some of it is so modern. Sometimes it seems her thoughts are constrained by old British norms about class and gender and nationality, and then it seems she's laughing at all of us and subverting every idea.

She has fooled me and surprised me far more than I expected, and more than other writers I love. So this little detour into cozy mysteries might have to become a bit more extended.

Cool.

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Monday, February 26, 2018

Becoming an Agatha Christie fan, unexpectedly

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Hercule Poirot #4)The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Turns out, I like Agatha Christie.

It was the movie of "Murder on the Orient Express" that made me think I might. I enjoyed watching it, and then wondered about the original novel. I read it, liked it, and now read this one. Huh. Didn't expect to become a fan. I thought I would never be an Agatha Christie reader.

One of the great pleasures of reading an older novel, a novel on the edge of being a classic, depending on how you look at it, is that you know something about it already from cultural references, but like so many other bits of culture, it remains a gray area. I expected it to stay that way forever. Now I know something about the author and Hercule Poirot, satisfyingly filling in much of the gray, and I have joined the fraternity of readers who over time who have enjoyed these novels. (Hello, fellow reader! You knew something I didn't!)

I had to work a little to keep characters and their relationships straight, but the author does well to help one accomplish that. There is an expectation, of course, that a murder mystery reader will try to keep up, pay attention, but it is not a chore or like homework. The prose is brisk and pleasant, and the inevitable surprises are a delight. (Trying to think of a better word; only delight seems to capture it.) So my main expectation for a novel--namely, to have fun while I'm reading it--is met, and it was met more fully than I thought it would be. What a nice surprise.

Four stars because I liked it very much.

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