Afterworlds, by Scott Westerfeld

Afterworlds Book Cover Afterworlds
Scott Westerfeld
YA, Paranormal
Simon Pulse
Sep 23 2014
audiobook
608

Scott Westerfeld is a huge favourite with a lot of YA readers, and while I understand why that is - and have pointed other readers in his direction, myself - I wasn't really won over by the only book of his I'd read until recently, which was Uglies.  It might have been bad timing, as it came at the end of an initially enthusiastic but ultimately disappointing YA dystopia spree. (Which mostly means I was all "another one?!", and not exactly "this is horribad!")

But I did pick up Afterworlds. (Audio version, about which I will say: Nice. Clear, good voices. No shenanigans.)  I thought it sounded cute, and I was right: It was.  It's also an endearing bundle of motivation for aspiring writers - the ones writing in November and other ones - tidily disguised as a novel, in which we follow the daily life of debut author Darcy Patel - AND read her novel, in alternating chapters.  This is a neat setup, and really highlights how simple everyday things find their way through a brain and into fictional writing.

Personally, I was more entertained by the daily life of an author preparing a novel for publishing, than by the fantasy story with its death god hottie.  Darcy forming new relationships, while learning where she fits now, next to idolized authors and her old high school friends,  while simultaneously discovering a few new things about herself,  is - to me - surprisingly pleasant to read about.  It's like a perpetual daydream and wish fulfillment all the way, which is quite rare, and usually boring at length.  Of course, the other story, in which a psychopomp and a death god make eyes at each other while other things also happen,  is... nice.  Neither story would be good enough on its own, to me, but they go together okay.

(And hey, I'm not voicing an opinion on whether or not Darcy's debut adventure is realistic, because I have no idea. I know it differs from how it works around here, but "around here" is not "there", so there's that. And it doesn't really matter on the whole pleasantness scale of things.  I added this parenthesis because I happened to see the words "SO unrealistic!!" in someone else's review, which... it didn't even occur to me to comment on until I saw it, because I really took for granted it was supposed to be fun! rather than realistic!)

Would I recommend it? Possibly, as a feel-good read, to the kind of people who still watch old Friends episodes because it's comfortable.  (Or younger ones who do some kind of equivalent of that, I guess.)  Light comfort-books have a place in many lives. (This one has terrorists and afterlife and ghosts and all, but still.)

If you're looking for something more than niceness, you could probably choose better.

The Book Riot 2015 Read Harder Challenge

Not quite done talking about the coming year’s reading challenges, no! I could be typing up reviews of some recent reads, but I’m in post cheesecake exhaustion mode. They’ll come. Sooner or later.  I want to say something about doing Bookriot’s Read Harder challenge, instead.  Mainly that I’m doing it.

Yeah.

Most of the tasks aren’t going to be problematic for me, except… the poetry collection? I’ll need to figure out something. The “guilty pleasure” is also tricksy, really, but maybe I’ll just pick up a novelization of something Star Trek or Warcraft. I won’t feel terribly guilty, but it’ll do.  A “self improvement” book can be interpreted very liberally, but I am intrigued by one I have wishlisted because of the title How to stubbornly refuse to make yourself miserable about anything – Yes, anything! Well, you can see why. It’s likely I’ll pick a book about some skill to improve upon instead, though.

It’s just a couple of days left of 2014. It’s weird. Time is weird. Everything is. Except peanut butter fudge. Peanut butter fudge is yummy.  Do you do party things for new year’s eve, or do you, like me, hide indoors like a neurotic cat? Hiss, fireworks.

Merry something!

I’ve just chugged a mug (a mug with a santa on it) of spiced Christmas tea, I’ve had a glass of Christmas soda (traditional basically champagne-flavoured stuff – sugar-free for me), and I’m contemplating a breakfast of pork rib leftovers from the holiday dinner last night. And cheese cake. And cookies.

The 24th is the, uh, main event in these parts – today, the 25th, is all about leftovers (and hangovers, for some).  So I’ve already unwrapped stuff; clothing for the flesh vehicle, a promise of books-on-the-way-in-the-mail-oops-sorry.  Oh, and a secret santa (from a GR group!) gave me a kindle copy of A madman dreams of Turing machines, which I’m looking forward to. A lot.

“It’s always books or crayons with you”, they say, and yes, that’s true.  (And I got coloured pencils too, which is basically crayons! Yay, me.)

Norway actually has a lot of holiday-related reading, first and foremost the phenomenon of Easter crime, but also: Christmas comics. They’re printed in a recogniseable rectangular format, featuring some new things, but mostly they’re devoted to the old, old favourites, like the Katzenjammer kids, Beetle Bailey, Blondie, Snooty Smith, and so on. Dozens! As a kid I used to whine until I got all of them (and read and re-read for months, of course) – but now I just pick up my own favourite; Bringing up father.

Some other holiday fiction highlights have been two ongoing things:  First, BBC4’s audio production of Gaiman/Pratchett’s Good Omens. You should go check it out.  Second, Mur Lafferty’s podcast reading of her second Shambling Guide novel; Ghost train to New Orleans. I think it probably works even if you haven’t read The shambling guide to New York, but I encourage you to read that one too, because they’re funny and clever urban fantasy books.  (There should be a link here, but you’ll find it if you search for Mur Lafferty in whatever podcast app/device you use.)

I got a few bookish gifts for myself. Michael Faber’s The book of strange new things (which I have coming up as a GR group read for January, and am excited about).  By accident, I swear, I suddenly saw amazon’s discount on the deluxe hardcover edition of Saga, the best graphic novel experience I had in 2014, so… so I ordered it. It may have been an act of self pity as I couldn’t quite concentrate on my Robin Hobb book while politely remaining in the room with the family discussing local family things. (I’m not local, I’m just here to visit and will flee again tomorrow, so I think I’m forgiven for tuning out during a 30 minute debate about the flooring in a house I’ve never seen.)

It’s always books and crayons with me. And leprosy.  How about you? Please tell me in loving detail about your book hauls!

Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie

Ancillary sword Book Cover Ancillary sword
Imperial Radch #2
Ann Leckie
Science fiction, space opera
Orbit
Oct 7 2014
e-book
359

I already wrote this review once, and had it eaten by tech, which is always infuriating enough to sort of put me off the whole thing.  But I have to talk about this book.

But first I'm going to talk about the first book, Ancillary Justice, which won basically all of this year's awards, and became known, I think, mostly for its pronoun-gender-thing.

It's not a spoiler. If you hear anything about these books, you'll hear about the gender thing.   Ann Leckie gives us a vast universe and the Radchaai empire, whose culture we learn about through scattered details: They keep their hands covered in polite company, they drink tea,  their starships are built according to this-and-that classes and standards - and their language, the language of our narrator, is constructed without gendered pronouns. The default is she.  Everything is she and her; mother and daughter.

I've known people who just couldn't read the book, as they found this too infuriating / confusing / stupid / etc.  Me, though,  I think it's absolutely brilliant.  At the start of the first book, I did try hard to puzzle out the genders of the characters, believing the author probably intended it as a clever guessing game. One that would be rewarded as the plot unfolded.

The great thing is; it's not.  I quit the guessing game once I saw that:  The genders of the characters were completely, utterly unimportant.  Knowing it wouldn't change a thing about the events unfolding.

And that kind of knocked the breath out of me, as I've never seen that message - that gender is entirely irrelevant to character - communicated and illustrated so very, very clearly, before.  I'm so happy to see it, and, consequently, so happy to spend time inside this universe.

(Of course, this language detail works several purposes: It makes it very clear that the Radchaai are alien in this detail that differs from most current human languages. It also shows, beautifully, how language shapes thought.  The narrator simply doesn't consider gender - when speaking languages with gendered pronouns, she often gets it wrong.)

I don't want to talk about plot, because it's a second book, and you really do need to read the first one before this. I can tell you the story picks up where the first book left off, new and intricate characters are introduced, new questions and mysteries and political conundrums are there for Breq, the narrator and protagonist, to solve, in her own characteristic manner.

The book wraps up neatly, though of course the series arc is looming, rattling its yet unanswered questions.  It's the best possible second-in-a-series: I'm satisfied and content, but I very eagerly want more, too.

Should you read it? If you read Ancillary Justice and loved it, yes, obviously.  (And should you read Ancillary Justice? Yes, if you're into somewhat philosophical space opera adventure with a smattering of AI, clones, military campaigns, intrigue, very alien aliens, and whatnot.)

Should you not read it?  Well, do you get those annoyed twitches just thinking about the gender thing? Do you usually feel little or no interest in military SF / space opera?  Of course - there are better books for you, out there.  But, well, maybe you should try it anyway. Just sayin'.

Velveteen vs the junior super patriots, by Seanan McGuire

Velveteen vs the junior super patriots Book Cover Velveteen vs the junior super patriots
Velveteen #1
Seanan McGuire
Fantasy, Super heroes
ISFiC press
Nov 9 2012
e-book
212

I think the Velveteen stories were/are originally posted online, probably on Seanan McGuire's blog, but my first encounter with them was when this collection happened to be my first choice for testing the Scribd subscription.  It's also the first book I've read entirely on my phone, and, actually, reading on a galaxy note 4 screen works quite well for me. I do wish the app was a bit more customizable regarding font/background colours and sizes, but that's… a different matter entirely.  (But, just in case: Dear Scribd, at least give me night mode and screen brightness adjustment from within the app?)

Velveteen is a superhero. A female one, though probably not exactly like Ms Marvel or Wonderwoman (I plan on reading the new Ms Marvel, but haven't yet, by the way).  Marketing decided her superhero uniform needed to feature bunny ears. As if the leotard and heels weren't enough already.  It was supposed to make sense, because her superpower gives her a cute and cuddly profile, excellent for a younger audience;   She can control and animate things that are made to look like people or animals. Toys, essentially. Teddy bears and action figures and statues and what-have-you.  So cute, nearly harmless.

Right?

The story about Velveteen is also the story about Velma, the kid who was sold to the corporation and the team of the Junior Super Patriots, by not-very-loving parents.  She grows up like this, constantly in some version of the uniform, constantly learning to give the cameras a good angle.  Her teammates are Sparkle Bright, Action Dude, and The Claw.  We meet them all in flashbacks, through several of the stories in this collection.  We follow their development right up until Vel- Velveteen - reaches 18, quits the team, and gives up superheroing in favor of earning her rent through jobs in which serving coffee is the most heroic act of the day.

She inhabits a universe full of fantastic superheroes, many of which have origin stories featuring that unfortunate event with the irradiated maple syrup.  Her best friends are Princess, the magical hero whose powers are all of the fantastic abilities children all over the world tend to imagine fairytale princesses having. She can talk to woodland animals, sing enemies to sleep, run in high heels. Jackie Frost is the daughter of Jack Frost and the Snow Queen, the current guardians of Winter.  She travels on ice skates, on instantly-created paths of ice.

All of it is, of course, wrapped in Seanan McGuire's usual, easy, lovely storytelling. I expected nothing less, and there's a second collection of Velveteen stories out there, and I'm aiming straight for it. (There might even be a third! It really is Christmas.)

The Just City, by Jo Walton

The just city Book Cover The just city
Thessaly #1
Jo Walton
Fantasy, Speculative fiction
Macmillan-Tor/Forge
Jan 13 1015
e-book
368

Jo Walton's The Just City is a pretty strange book - and it's a kind of book I would have liked to read at pretty much ANY time in my life, even in the terrible, snooty Dostoevsky-reading phase.  She gives us this premise:  Athene, the goddess, decides to build a city using Plato's "The Republic" as a blueprint, as an experiment. It is inhabited by people from all over the timeline, several very famous ones, intellectuals and philosophers and others who at some point prayed to Athene for this exact thing- to get to live in Plato's republic.  While Cicero and Plotinus and other people from centuries back are mostly male,  most of the ones from later on are female.  They are the masters, teachers, the ones who come first, to plan and build the city, and make decisions and committees.  Athene brings them "workers" from the far-future to avoid the slavery problem. The workers are robots.

 

The children, the ones who are to grow up and become - or at least give birth to a new generation of - philosopher kings, are fetched from slave markets.  Among them is the god Apollo, who has taken on a mortal life, to learn certain necessary lessons about what it means to not be a god.

 

It's so beautiful; so ideal.  Except not everything is, of course.  Plato didn't describe everything in detail; a lot has to be improvised.  Some of the things he did describe, he was perhaps not very knowledgeable about.

 

Jo Walton always writes beautifully and gently about huge, important things, often disguised as simply the everyday lives of real, vivid characters. She knows exactly where to focus to bring out the incredible complexity of those simple, everyday lives.  (And she manages to leave me with a thought of "everyday lives" after reading a book with time travel and divine intervention...!)

 

I enjoyed the book very much, and I'm happy to know there is a sequel coming.  The Just City ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, actually - at least the way I read it.  (Not in a way that left me unsatisfied, it wrapped up nicely - but it left intriguing questions I can't wait to see answered.)

 

Who should read this? Um, nerds. No, I mean, uh. I think it probably helps to have some prior knowledge of (or enthusiasm for) central names from the history of philosophy, though it doesn't have to be extensive.  People looking for a calm, philosophical bit of speculative fiction, I guess.  People who will devour all things related to Greek mythology.  People who read anything Jo Walton writes.

 

Who shouldn't read it?  People looking for an action adventure, or who twitch unhappily at the mention of things like "renaissance" or "Socratic" or even "the three parts of the soul". (I don't mean to imply it's not an accessible novel - read it if you feel the least bit curious! - but I do know there are people who find history quite painfully boring, traumatized by school or whatever, and… yeah, disclaimer ahoy.)  To be honest, I think this book is pretty obvious about what sort of book it is, and you will probably recognize it as something to avoid, on sight, if it's really not your kind of thing.

End of 2014 read-a-thon: TBR

image
Reading in festive environment

Ho-ho.
Today’s task for the read-a-thon  is… to post my TBR for the rest of the year.

Well – easy bits: I will finish Seanan McGuire’s Velveteen vs. The junior super patriots and Jo Walton’s The just city, for a total of about 400 pages.

Then, I think, almost definitely, I’ll read Gone girl (I haven’t, yet!) and Veronica Mars: Mr. Kiss and tell.

Then I have no idea. New shiny fantasy (City of stairs) or long-postponed sequel fantasy (Robin Hobb or Patrick Rothfuss) OR I change my mind entirely. I’m going to shoot for 8 books including the already-started ones, and probably only leave this couch to change into PJs and eat fistfuls of hazelnuts…

Plucked: A history of hair removal, by Rebecca M. Herzig

Plucked: A history of hair removal Book Cover Plucked: A history of hair removal
Rebecca M. Herzig
non-fiction
NYU press
Feb 3 2015
e-book
280

A history of hair removal. What? Yes. You know how long people have been obsessing over hairy ladylegs? Forever. Well, no, but a long time.

I wanted to read this book because, first of all, I love micro-histories - historical accounts of very specific subjects, like, well, rabies. Or hair. Also, because I had just recently touched on the subject in The Poisoner's Handbook, where the mentioned use of thallium for hair removal made me incredibly, endlessly grateful for being born when I was, and not a century earlier. I get to have the privilege of naivete. Most of the time, it really is okay for me to assume "It's being sold in the shops, so it has been through testing and been approved for its intended use, so it is probably safe and won't hurt me terribly." That privilege, that safety, is a recent thing, history considered. Once, you could get away with selling people a hair removal cream that caused nerve damage and/or death, as long as some hair could be observed to fall out, too.

You'd think it didn't get worse than that, but then the new fabulous depillatory supertool came along; x-rays. I don't have to talk about that, do I? SO many people lined up for x-rays, even when the potential dangers were known; they resided in quiet, secret clinics, much like certain other dangerous, but desperately demanded, treatments. Thousands, thousands of women looking to shed the mustache.

Lasers aren't harmless either, but that's the ruling method, these days. Just don't look at the pictures of the laser burn damage, or the cases of unfortunate patients who had laser treatment stimulate MORE hair growth. Look away; The important thing is to be clean and 100% hairless from the eyebrows down.

Excessive hair growth is only really a problem, an ailment, a horror, for women. (And possibly, historically, military men who need to avoid lice and also keep their faces smooth so that gas masks will fit.) This book talks a lot about that, how the image of hairy legs and armpits came to be so strongly associated with radical feminism; in short, it's because there was good reason to ask why on earth anyone should have to spend so much of their time removing perfectly normal, clean, healthy hair from their bodies.

And - imagine living in a time before anyone knew anything about hormones. If you had a ladystache back when no one knew the words "endocrine disorder", you were a circus freak, or likely lesbian, or whatever was associated with a female fuzzy face at the time. You used your secret concoctions and veiled your face and suffered the prejudice and that was the end of it. No estrogen/testosterone balancing treatments, no checking out the rest of your hormonal functions to look for connections and clues.

It must have been an enormous relief once some bright doctor decided to look into glands.

The book is very thorough, and tells a history of not only body hair treatment, but of Darwin, racism, medicine, science, feminism, and culture. Unfortunately, a lot of it is quite dry, and I feel like I'm reading the encyclopedia entry on the topic, rather than a book which should have room for more of a... voice.

In the end, it's not my favourite of micro-histories; if it was, it wouldn't have taken me weeks to get through it. It didn't make me want to read the next chapter, despite my interest in the subject.  I actually want to know more about how, and why, native Americans shaved their faces.  And I'm reminded of a book I'm pretty sure I once added to my TBR about the wonderfully human concept of disgust, but I need to remind myself which one that was, exactly...

It’s the end of 2014 Read-a-thon

Read-a-thon hosted by BookingAwesome
Read-a-thon hosted by BookingAwesome

It’s the end of 2014 read-a-thon runs from December 20th to the 31st.   I’ll be spending the holidays with family for most of those days, but that usually does give me a lot of good reading time – possibly except the one day I will be travelling for hours by car, because I am not built to cope with reading in cars.  I have developed a preference for fantasy for the season – probably because of the lingering sense memory of getting up early every morning during the school vacation to watch the old BBC-produced Narnia series. Or just because fantasy settings often feel cozier than science fiction ones, even if the fantasy is pretty grim. (One year I spent the holidays with Abercrombie’s The first law-trilogy.)

That goal of reading at least 2000 pages? Doable.   Re-read a 2014 favourite? Not sure about that one.  My own, personal goal? Hm – reduce the number of pages of titles stored on my kindle by 1, at least.  (8 titles fit on one page, and I have… 20 pages. Of unreads. 160 unread books just on there.  Minus a handful of monthly subscription magazines, I guess.)

I probably want to read Robin Hobb, or Patrick Rothfuss, or Diana Wynne Jones, or all of them. Maybe get around to Gone girl, too.

Top ten: Books read this year

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the Broke and the Bookish.
Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the Broke and the Bookish.

2014 has been an awesome year in books. I’ve made a lot of very fortunate choices in reading, and it’s kind of hard to narrow down to ten favourites.  I’ll try to mention ten in no particular order and see how that turns out.

  • Saga 1-3 by Brian K. Vaughan / Fiona Staples (graphic novel series). Beautifully illustrated space opera romance with robots and ghost babysitters and stuff. The 4th volume will be out on the 23rd of December, at which point I will be visiting not-so-urban places and far away from both my mailbox and a graphic novel supplier – so for me, that pleasure will likely have to wait until January. (If I’m lucky, my box set of Lock & Key will arrive in time for a new year’s read, though!)
  • Ancillary justice by Ann Leckie.  I’m currently reading Ancillary sword, the follow-up, and it promises to be as good or even better. Smart space opera.
  • Anathem by Neal Stephenson.  It’s hard to find the words for how much I loved this. I don’t often wish for a 1000+ page book to be three times as long.
  • We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. I’m glad this was nominated for interesting awards, because it might not have come to my attention, otherwise.
  • Cibola burn, by James S. A. Corey. Part of the brilliant series the Expanse, every volume of which is a reading highlight for me. It’s hard not to have too-high-hopes for the coming TV adaption.
  • The Rhesus chart by Charles Stross. Also a part-of-a-series thing. This one has magic as a kind of applied mathematics, where programmers may accidentally summon… things.
  • Blindsight by Peter Watts, and…
  • Echopraxia by Peter Watts. Both of these had me rambling, still rambling, and it’s been months.  Beautifully dense SF/horror.
  • The three-body problem by Cixin Liu.  This gave me a lot of the same joy as the Peter Watts titles did. It’s brilliant.
  • Symbiont by Mira Grant. I’m such a fangirl. It has a lot of tapeworms.

…And that’s just cherrypicking out of a year of good stuff.  Maybe a more useful thing would have been a top ten of standalone-novels or at least first-of-series? Then again – the ongoing series I find myself keeping current with probably bring me the books I get the most joy out of.  (Makes sense, because they’ve already levelled up past the barrier “would you be inclined to read a few hundred pages more of this stuff?” )