July 2011 wrap-up

July 31, 2011 at 11:17 pm (military SF, mystery, Nonfiction - history, science fiction)

Not especially to my surprise, I’ve fallen behind on reviewing the books I’ve read this month.  So here’s a quick summary of the ones I haven’t managed to write a full review of:

Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi (2008).  I’m not an unreserved Scalzi fan overall, but I enjoy his work.  This one is interesting – a parallel version of events in The Last Colony, explaining a bunch of things that happened from the perspective of Zoë, teenage adopted daughter of the heroes of the other “Old Man’s War” series.  It holds together quite well as an independent novel, though.  A lot of it revolves around Zoë’s peculiar relationship with the alien Obin – those who’ve actually read all the Old Man’s War series (which I found I hadn’t, actually) will know what I mean, and those who haven’t should get to enjoy the reveal.  Zoë is a really engaging first-person narrator, the personal and political events are very well done, and I recommend the book.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1819).  This concludes my reading of Austen.  She takes a noticeably different approach here, trying to directly undermine the conventions of the novel (the first line is “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine”).   More interesting is the portrayal of two (or perhaps three) fundamentally dishonest people, and how difficult they can make the lives of the honest and straightforward.  There are also bits about the danger of letting one’s imagination run away with one.  And of course a happy ending.  Certainly worth reading.

Buttons and Bones by Monica Ferris (2010).  This is one of the cozy mystery series I’ve been following, courtesy of the public library – my goodness, this is the 14th “Needlecraft Mystery.”  Anyway, the conceit is that Betsy Devonshire owns a needlework shop in a small Minnesota town, and has a knack for solving mysteries.  Not all of the series hits the mark, in my opinion, but this one definitely passes it.  Maybe I’m biased because it has a significant historical element – the mystery is about something that happened during or after World War II – but I think it holds together very nicely, and the needlework element was, umm, woven in particularly well.  Though I did figure out what happened before the characters did, which I rarely manage to do.

Planet of Twilight by Barbara Hambly (1997).  My son picked up this Star War tie-in from the library, and I grabbed it one day when I was looking for a bit of light reading.  Boy, was that a mistake: this is serious stuff, even grim and depressing.  And very well written, not that I’d expect less out of Hambly; I’ve read at least one really bad Star Wars tie-in novel, and probably would’ve ignored this one if it hadn’t had Hambly’s name on it.  Anyway, it’s a fairly involved mystery-type plot revolving around exactly what Seti Ashgad is up to, and what is going on in a nearly lifeless world called Renat Chorios.  There is also plague, nasty alien life forms, intrigue, etc.  And like I said, kind of depressing, but a good book.

The Garden Triumphant: A Victorian Legacy by David Stuart (1988).  A bit of nonfiction I picked up at the flea market a while back and have been slowly going through.  I wouldn’t call it a valuable reference book by any stretch of the imagination; it’s a rather rambling narrative, with only a few shallow attempts at real historical analysis.  But it was interesting, if one is interested in historical gardening (which I am, to a certain extent). 

Extremis by Steve White and Charles E. Gannon (2011).  Another library book – military SF, this time.  I think I may have read one of the earlier books in this “Starfire” series; at least, the life circumstances of one of the human characters seem familiar.  At any rate, the novel revolves around the conflict between alien refugees (their star went nova) and the humans who already colonized the plant they’ve arrived at.  Communication between the two is hampered by the fact that the aliens have an empathic/telepathic form of communication rather than a verbal one, and interstellar war is the result.  There is some good character work going on here, particularly with the aliens; the parallels between the two sides’ political situation are perhaps a little too obvious, but didn’t break it for me.  And there were some really good space battles, triumph and heroism, that sort of thing.  Not bad work at all.

This month I also re-read three Mercedes Lackey novels – one of them because it’s set almost entirely in cold winter circumstances (there was a major heat wave).  So, that’s a total of 13 new-to-me books read this month, plus three re-reads.

Yes, I read a lot.  That’s what the point of this month of reviews was supposed to be!  It’s no wonder I can’t find the time to fully review them all.

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The King’s Shield by Sherwood Smith (2008)

July 29, 2011 at 12:30 pm (fantasy, LGBT)

It’s not fair, I know, to review just the third book in a series of four – especially when it’s a positive review! – but between one thing and another I never got around to posting reviews of the first two.  Sorry about that.  The good news is, they’re all still in print (I was actually able to pluck all the first three off the shelves in bookstores).

These are long, dense novels that primarily follow the career of Indevan Algara-Vayir (known to friends as Inda) from early adolescence to some time in his twenties.  They’re busy years, as Inda attends a military academy (Inda), is exiled and becomes a pirate-hunter (The Fox), returns home and helps defend his country against invaders (The King’s Shield), and tries to secure a peaceful future for his country (Treason’s Shore).

Other important point-of-view characters include Tdor, the girl Inda was betrothed to at birth; his sister Hadand; fellow sailors and pirate-hunters (especially Jeje and Tau); the crown prince and the king’s second son; and others I’m probably forgetting.  There are, in fact, a lot of point-of-view characters, many of them situational.  And some of them die.

Part of the novels’ density is that Marlovan society (that’s Inda’s home country) has a lot of formal, complex relationships, and a lot of the characters have both personal names and titles used as names (and which are in a foreign language, and some of which change during the course of the story).  These can be hard to keep track of.

Another part of the density is that this world is different from ours in a number of notable ways.  A couple of samples: the cities don’t need sewer systems, because the “Waste Spell” disposes of such things; and women can only get pregnant if they consume a certain plant, and sometimes not even then.  There are other more subtle but significant differences as well.  Smith lays out a bunch of it (as well as explanations that the characters are largely not aware of) here, if you’d rather have all the background up front.

Finally, the world has a long history that directly affects the cultures and politics that are present in it; some of it is explained, and a lot of it is just there.

It’s all fascinating, if you like dense tapestries of culture, politics, and war.  And then there are the characters – individual, interesting, imperfect, and subject to growth and change over time.  The difference between adolescent and adult versions of several of them is great, and very believable.

So much goes on even in the third volume that I’m not going to try to be specific about the plot.  Suffice it to say that the enemy approaches the shore; desperate last stands are made; politics turns deadly; secrets are revealed; people rejoice, suffer, and die.  These are great books, really intense experiences, and definite permanent additions to our library.

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Eager by Helen Fox (2004)

July 17, 2011 at 9:14 am (juvenile, science fiction)

My son insisted that I read this Juvenile-level science fiction novel; he thought it was very interesting.  And I agree.  It’s not often you find a novel of any description that manages to weave in questions about free will, the definition of “life,” corporate morality, and humans’ relationships to non-human things.

Technically, the book is about robots.  At some undefined point in the future, petroleum stocks have been depleted to almost nothing and society has divided up into the technocrat class (scientists), professional class (people with actual work of some kind), and everybody else – unskilled work is done by robots, so apparently most people are unemployed and living on the dole.  (The setting appears to be England.)

As the story opens, LifeCorp has just released its new-model robot, the BDC4, and the Bell family can’t afford to buy one to replace their damaged old butler robot, known as Grumps. Nor are they sure that they want to replace him, as he has a lot of sentimental value.  But an acquaintance of Mr. Bell, who is an independent scientist, has just developed a new-model robot of his own, and Mr. Bell agrees to bring the EGR3 home, where he’s soon dubbed “Eager.”

Eager is unique, because his “programming” is all based on (virtual) experience, much like a human being’s.  He learns like a human and also has genuine feelings, too.  Part of the story is about his attempts to learn what he needs to know and his questions about what it means to be a robot with such human characteristics.  The other part is about the peculiarities of the BDC4s, which Gavin Bell and his teenaged sister Fleur notice fairly quickly, and try to investigate.

The two plots interweave, at least in part.  I’m not sure they really work together perfectly, but it’s an interesting set of concepts and the book fueled several conversations about government and philosophy (and SF tropes!) with my son.

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Yellow Dirt by Judy Pasternak (2010)

July 8, 2011 at 1:14 pm (Nonfiction - history)

Subtitle: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed.

During World War II, the United States needed uranium.  The Navajo Nation had uranium deposits and needed jobs and money – and was glad to be helping the war effort, as well.  After the hot war, the Cold War required uranium for American nuclear weapons.

But the mining was carried out with no safety standards.  No ventilation, no dust remediation, no breath masks, and not a word to the workers that the substance they were excavating might be dangerous.  Pasternak notes that this was true at mines worked by whites as well, but truly vast quantities of uranium were mined on the Navajo Reservation by people who often did not speak English and usually were illiterate.  This went on for approximately twenty years.

For about forty years, many of the Navajo people lived next to mine tailings piles that scattered dust all over their homes and workplaces, and drank water contaminated with uranium and arsenic. Having no idea that the “yellow dirt” was dangerous, people used the tailings to make concrete for houses and floors.  For decades, the mines themselves were left open to the elements and anyone who wandered through.  Cancers and birth defects became common causes of death across the reservation.

All together, there were about sixty years of occasional individuals trying to raise the alarm, and being silenced by business interests, government interests, bureaucratic buck-passing, and lack of both money and the willingness to try to get the money to clean up the hazards.  Even when money was available, it was often tied up in language that addressed only a fraction of the problem.

Meanwhile, a town in whites’ territory whose residents had done equally foolish things with the local uranium mill’s waste material (used it for fertilizer, for adobe, etc.) had every scrap of contaminated material cleaned up and properly disposed of, and the yards, houses, etc. repaired and replaced (or even improved).  Part of that, the book makes clear, was because the town’s problem caught the interest of a powerful Congressman.

In fact, it seems likely that the Navajos’ problem has only been dealt with because it caught the attention of a powerful Congressman, Henry Waxman.  In 2007 – a year after the author’s newspaper series about the slow-motion disaster appeared – he brought the heads of the relevant agencies in front of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.  They listened to Navajo testimony, and testimony from several of the people who’d tried to help in the past, and got reamed out by another interested Congressman, Tom Udall.

You can read a transcript of the testimony here.   It’s not all that long, really.

You can also read this book.  It’s painful, but necessary.  Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.  And frankly, it would be all too easy for the agencies who are supposed to protect these people – just like the rest of us – to drop the ball again.

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The Prince of Ill Luck by Susan Dexter (1994)

July 7, 2011 at 7:19 pm (fantasy)

Another book that’s been sitting unread on our shelves for a while, which is a real shame, because it was a creative and fun read.  It’s apparently first of a trilogy called “The Warhorse of Esdragon,” but it does just fine as a stand-alone novel (we haven’t got the other two).

The warhorse in question (Valadan) is not really a new idea – sired by the wind, don’t you know.  The poor Prince Leith, though, with his horrible curse of bad luck, is a wonderful fellow and I like him very much.  The Duke’s daughter Kessaline, on the other hand, is not nice at all, and I’m still not quite willing to believe they’re in love with each other at the end.

At any rate, Leith was shipwrecked, runs across the lost horse, winds up (with the horse) in the duchy of Esdragon, and accomplishes the task Kessaline had set for her suitors (climbing a glass mountain).  This annoys her no end, since she’d intended the task to keep the suitors occupied while she slipped away to find her missing father (who went to look for her missing mother).  On learning that her mother is a witch, Leith insists on accompanying her, in the hope that she’ll be able to remove the curse.

It’s a long scramble across a surprisingly unpopulated landscape, with key events including deliberate food poisoning, getting lost in a mine, slaying a chimera, and having two different parties looking for Kessaline catch up with them when they’re very close to their goal.

I enjoyed the book, except for Kess.  I just can’t work up any sympathy for her, even though there are reasons for her aggravating nature.  But I like Leith and Valadan, and the twisting of various fairy-tale themes in the novel.  And I have to wonder if this series would do better in the current market, with Mercedes Lackey splashing fairy-tale adaptations all over the place, than it did back in the mid-eighties.

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The I Inside by Alan Dean Foster (1984)

July 7, 2011 at 6:42 pm (science fiction)

I had to share the incredibly cheesy pulp-era-style cover of this book, which has been lurking on our shelves, unread, for some time:

That would probably be why I hadn’t read it, even though I generally like Foster’s work.  I’ll give the artist some credit: the female protagonist is indeed brown, not white.  Needless to say, however, nothing like this scene (or either costume!!) appears in the book.  Ugh.

So, Eric Abbott is a design engineer who’s led a quiet and unassuming life in Phoenix, AZ.  He has no idea why a momentary glimpse of a woman in a passing car sets him off on a journey to find her, except that he’s in love.  Lisa Tambor obsesses him; and when he finally meets her, amazingly, she falls in love with him, too, and they decide to escape to the interstellar colonies.

There are a lot of things not right with the situation, of course, not least of which is Abbott’s sudden tendency to display superhuman strength and reflexes.  The way no one (including the lady herself) will tell him why Tambor can’t leave her job and marry him is really annoying, though I suppose they were all correct that explanations wouldn’t change his attitude and would have been a terrible breach of security.  Abbott’s stalkerish behavior is unnerving, and might be particularly disturbing to some, but at least he remains polite about it almost all the time (and apparently truly can’t help it).

Of course there are explanations of most things, which eventually get a Dramatic Reveal, followed by other and even more interesting revelations.  The story also involves exposure of dystopic elements in the near-utopia that has developed on Earth thanks to the influence of the Colligatarch, a supercomputer that suggests solutions to problems of all kinds.  From that angle, it’s not just an SF adventure story, but also a mildly didactic one.

Overall, it’s an amusing light read.  To my mind, other than the dated future technology (no cell phones or meaningful Internet!), the book’s biggest flaw is that Foster is really not at his best when writing romantic dialogue.  I mean, really not at his best.  Which is too bad, since there’s a romance at the center of this novel!

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The Ring of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud (2010)

July 5, 2011 at 6:48 pm (fantasy, historical fantasy, teen)

I enjoyed Stroud’s “Bartimaeus” trilogy, and this prequel to the series does not disappoint.

Bartimaeus is what humans call a demon – a spirit dragged from its native dimension by a magician, and enslaved.  These spirits don’t like this – not being enslaved, and not being in our physically painful dimension.  They are not nice creatures, but one thing that the books make clear is that it’s entirely possible that this is far more the fault of the magicians (who are not nice creatures either) than the innate nature of these beings. After thousands of years of interaction between the two, though, it’s hard to be sure.

At any rate, the original series was set in nineteenth-century London, and revolved around Bartimaeus’ enslavement by a young magician of that era.   The new book explores a period when he was enslaved back in the age of King Solomon.  Stroud improvises freely on Biblical sources here, to interesting effect.

The thing about these stories is that they’re written primarily from Bartimaeus’ point of view, and that’s what makes them.  Because Bartimaeus is obnoxious – clever, perceptive, and nearly incapable of keeping his mouth shut when the potential for a wise remark passes by.  And he’s also, despite everything, capable of appreciating the physical world and, on occasion, of not holding his repeated predicament against it and every person in it.  Or maybe it’s just that he dislikes some individuals more than others.

I think you really have to read the book to understand, actually.  It’s definitely worth your time.

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Emma by Jane Austen (1816)

July 1, 2011 at 7:25 pm (Classics, mainstream)

As part of my intermittent effort to read more of the classics, I picked up a complete works of Jane Austen at the used bookstore last month, and I just finished Emma today.

It was a bit long, in my opinion, but the portrayal of the different characters was engaging and in some cases too sympathetic.  I’m not sure I could willingly put up with the behavior of Miss Bates and Mr Woodhouse (one an incessant chatterbox, the other an incurable hypochondriac), but apparently I’m not as polite as the early nineteenth century English gentry tried to be.  Ah well.

For a while there, I took a real dislike to Emma, and hoped to read that she’d wind up an unhappy old maid.  No such luck; and, really, she did reform and start working on being less proud, high-handed, etc., so I suppose I don’t begrudge her the happy endings.  Much.

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