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.


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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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Sunday, February 25, 2018

Founding Fathers--A Reflection on Hamilton

George Washington is one of our forebears, a Founding Father, an American ancestor. But he's not my grandpa, or great-grandpa, or any number of greats. Probably not yours, either.

Not related to any of these people...

Neither is Ben Franklin, nor Thomas Jefferson, nor any of those guys. Even though we're are not really related, we still consider Washington and the others as forebears, as our spiritual ancestors. They are our Founding Fathers. In some ineffable way, they belong to us, and we to them, even if we're not related in any real way.

If you are American, by birth or choice, they belong to you, too.

That is why I believe the casting in Hamilton is so important, and so deeply affecting. Seeing Washington portrayed by an African American actor is striking, and stimulating to one's imagination, as if we've opened a door we didn't know was there. At one level, it is touching to see this potentially-divisive historical figure embraced by a black actor, as if his flaws and shortcomings with regard to race have been forgiven (whether or not that is the case). On another level, though, it opens up possibilities in one's mind, of America as it could be, and as it could have been. Sure, Washington in real life was a white man, but he could have been a black man. (How?)

Like this: America is black. The United States is a black country. In every sense that America is white, it is black. So, of course, its founding fathers are, too. Or could have been.

America is also Asian and Hispanic. [Latinx, if you prefer.]

And Native American, of course, with even greater primacy.

When we hold up as our founders only the white men who signed the Declaration, or who led armies, it's an unspoken but subconsciously-understood argument that the country was theirs, won by them and possessed by them, and that they passed it on to their white children. It's a white man's founding myth. So, for white Americans like me, it's proof that we are the *real* Americans, the true inheritors of the nation. African Americans, then, are uncomfortably tacked on later as the step-children we never meant to have. Every other ethnicity is resentfully accepted into the family like unfortunates who are fed at the edge of a wedding feast--with self-congratulations for our charity and condescension, even as we wink and nod to one another in silent understanding: they're not really part of it all, they aren't the same, they aren't really inheritors of America because they aren't like the real Founding Fathers.

Well, I recall that I'm not actually related to them, either, so why am I privileged?

(Can I dispense with the race argument? If we go back enough generations, yes, we'll have a common ancestor; but that's true of all of us. Why should I feel more closely connected to a white man or woman with whom I share an ancestor some 30 generations ago than a black man or woman who shares with me an ancestor 100 generations ago? To me, that's a meaningless distinction in degree. I'm sure racists will not find this argument persuasive, but I hope others will feel as I do...)

What matters more to me is that we share America. That is how we are alike, how we are connected. Fellow Americans--with the same forefathers.

One of my great-grandfathers, the only one I know about, was a soldier in the Civil War, in a New York state regiment. Not famous--just a soldier. I'm proud of who he was, though I never knew him. He was long gone when I was born.

(That's Great-grandpa, with the beard. Mom's dad is just behind him.)

What if he had fought for the South instead of the North? I've wondered that sometimes. Would that change me, or change who I am? Am I better or worse because of what my actual blood ancestors did?

I don't think so. As far as I'm concerned, any man or woman who was part of America, for good or bad, was my ancestor, my forebear. My American family, I guess. All the white men and women of past centuries, even those who held slaves, are my American forebears, and I have to embrace them, but so are all those unnamed, unknown slaves. They were all part of the America we inherited, and they were all as much my ancestor as Washington or Lincoln or millions of other white people I'm not related to by blood. They also did their part; they built this country, too, literally and figuratively. Besides that, any Native American or Inuit of any tribe, whether they've left living descendants or not, is also my ancestor, one of my Founding Parents.

Nat Turner is one of my Founding Fathers. I can claim him as my American ancestor with the same pride, and with the same justification, as I could with any other historical American. I'm as related to him as I am related to John Adams or Ulysses Grant.

And Frederick Douglass. And Sojourner Truth.

And Sacagawea, and Tecumseh, and Sitting Bull.

And millions of unknown and unnamed others who helped build America, men and women of every color and ethnicity. They are my forebears, and every other American's. I claim them, and celebrate them, and feel pride in their accomplishments, with the same justification as I have for feeling any of that toward FDR, or JFK, or Mark Twain, or Ernest Hemingway. Not in a similar way, but in exactly, precisely the same way.

America is white and protestant. It's also black and Baptist, and brown and Muslim, and English-speaking, and Spanish-speaking, and Hopi-speaking, and Urdu-speaking. It isn't that America is becoming those things--it always has been all of that.

So Hamilton performed with POC is not a gimmick; it is the story of America with American actors. Those sad people who feel that "their" America is going away have it wrong--it never belonged to them; at least, not any more than it belonged to anyone else. No color defines the country. No language. No religion or lack of religion. If anything, it is our laws and ideals--especially as we slowly improve them--which tells us who we are. We were created equal. We have (should have) the same rights, and the same freedoms, and the same expectation of a happy life.

Humans are tribal, unfortunately. We usually cooperate with our tribe, however we define that, and too often deny the humanity of every other tribe. Humanity should be our tribe, I think (and I'm not the first to say that, I know), but maybe that's too ambitious for America in 2018. But can we make America our tribe? Can we embrace our Native American Founding Parents? Can we recognize our African American Founding Parents? Can we hear our neighbor's music as one more sound of America? Can we accept all of our varieties of American as precisely equal in "American-ness"?

Maybe it's hard. Maybe it's impossible for some. Maybe none of us can get all the way there. But I think the payoffs are worth the attempt. Besides doing the right thing, besides increasing justice and brotherhood and sisterhood, besides reducing and eliminating the lingering effects of privilege, and besides growing in compassion, who doesn't love a big family?

Thank you, Lin Manuel Miranda, and Hamilton, for a beautiful tribute to America as it might be, for a vision of who we can be. Well done. May it open many hearts and minds.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Where I meant to like the novel more than I did, and I'm sorry

Binti (Binti, #1)Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

[Some spoilers--veiled, but still spoilers.]

This book won awards, so I don't need to say that there are things to admire here. Of course there are.

Speaking for myself, not as a critic, I like the setting; I like the main character; I like the original world-building. But the plot is disappointing, and I didn't much enjoy it.

The story relies mostly on luck (two miraculous bits of luck) and very little on the actions of the main character. When she does act, it is only to present an argument and wait on the decision, like a court awaiting a jury's verdict; the resolution to the conflict is out of her hands, robbing the scene of most of its drama. It's like a game decided by coin-flip.

Binti comes from an interesting and complex society, and she has unique and exciting skills. So much is promised, and so many questions are raised, but there is very little payoff, and few questions answered. I hope I find the answers and excitement in the sequels.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Where I say what's right with Django Wexler's books, for those who didn't know yet

The Guns of Empire (The Shadow Campaigns, #4)The Guns of Empire by Django Wexler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you read the first three books, you probably already know you will enjoy this book, so you don't need someone (like me) telling you so. If you haven't read the first books, there's not much point in me telling you to read this one--I'll suggest the first book, which I also liked very much. Off you go. ;)

So, with no real audience for this review, I'll still say into the void--this is a great book. Great series, actually, and I highly recommend all of it. There are a lot of reasons to offer up my praise, but the two most compelling, for me, are the author's handling of characters and the realistic portrayal of a military campaign.

In reverse order, since this is going into the void anyway, one of the most impressive things about the whole series is the accuracy and completeness of the author's portrayal of war and soldiers, of camp and campaign and battle. The action and descriptions ring true, with the force of genuine scholarship, so that whatever errors it might contain are beyond my ability to detect or trip over. The effect of that, of course, is that the story hits home more deeply because the reader (well, me) believes it more. In addition, and this is not a minor point, it makes the story more fun.

Returning to characters, this is also a strong point from the beginning of the series. The author has not only created a number of well-drawn, comprehensible, captivating, distinct, round, dynamic characters with interesting arcs, but he has given us as many female characters of that type as male. More, perhaps, if I were to take a tally, and maybe someone wants to accept that job....

Winter is my favorite character--complex and damaged but noble and heroic--though I also love Bobby, and her arc here is spoilerly awesome. Sothe's action is fun to read, and Cyte has become a new favorite, and on and on. I also admire Marcus, and identify with him, and see Janus as an impressive, complex, mysterious, iconic leader, and enjoy any scene with Give-Em-Hell, etc., so there's a great balance that, to me, feels organic rather than forced.

This sharing of the narrative load among many personality types, between men and women, and between civilian, soldier, noble, and officer, makes the story feel more layered and satisfying, as well as more significant thematically and emotionally. And more fun. This helps carry the reader on (well, me again), which matters, because even though it's a long (comparatively long) book, it seldom drags. It's nearly always a pleasure to start the next chapter.

So, in a nutshell--good book. I liked it.

One book to go. It's out in hardcover, so that's cool... but that would just not look right on the shelves next to 4 paperbacks. Nothing I can do. It's a thing. So, I'll have to wait just a bit. But I'm looking forward to it. And in the meantime I may check into his kids' books. They look good, too. :)

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