Where did February go?

I’ve read a lot of great books this month. Most of them un-reviewed, so far, as I’ve also had to spend some time being an annoyingly malfunctioning fat robot.  And stuff.

Scribd, the book subscription app thing, is great. I love just browsing it and adding everything I want to read to my library. Then I discover sometimes titles are removed without any notification, and that’s… actually infuriating. It’d be fine if there was a notifications-screen so I’d know that “Oh hey that Chuck Wendig-book you tucked away, yeah, we made it disappear. Now you know before you reach for it only to find overwhelming gloom and disappointment.”

It’s not that I don’t have hundreds of other books to read, but… I like to know what I have available. I get kinda obsessive-angry about information where I find it insufficiently distributed.

I wish it was okay to bring books into MRI machines.

And did you know both David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson have done self-narrated audio versions of the novels they recently wrote? I like that. Even if it’s not Mulder-and-Scully stories.

I’m obsessed with liquorice. I put it in my coffee.

This is such a pile of dumb sentences. Imma go read some military-fantasy stories. Or play animal crossing. Or something.

Schismatrix plus, by Bruce Sterling

Schismatrix plus Book Cover Schismatrix plus
Bruce Sterling
Science fiction, cyberpunk
Open Road Media
Dec 30 2014 (first published 1995)
e-book
395

Schismatrix plus is one short novel (or novella?) called Schismatrix, followed by a handful of short stories that fit into Sterling's shaper/mechanist universe.   The shapers and mechanists of this classic cyberpunk vision are, of course, the humans who go for biological engineering, and the humans who opt for technological enhancement instead. They tend to violently dislike each other. For some reason.

...Yeah.  In the short novel,  I really struggled to find out what anyone's motivations were for anything at all.  I didn't even know why the protagonist, Lindsay, did most of the things he did.  Even at the end of the book, I don't actually know anything about him as a character - sure, he was described to have a romantic relationship and an arch nemesis kind of relationship, with other characters I don't understand anything about, except their names keep appearing, which implies they are supposed to function as characters.

If I sound frustrated - it's because I am.  While I really like cyberpunk, especially when it goes bananas and embraces aliens and terraforming,  I really, really struggled with this novel.  I can't remember the last time a book took me this long to read - I just kept putting it away because my brain was exhausted by frantically searching for whatever I felt I must be missing, some kind of key to turn this into a coherent story.  Something structured underneath all the shiny scenery.  But nope.   Obviously, Sterling's prose and I are not a good match.  Except, of course, for the fact that the short stories at the end are a wholly different experience.

I was flabberghasted. The stories are neat! Coherent and snappy and funny. They have a tone and voice I didn't find even a hint of in the novel.

My favourites were The Swarm, with its very alien aliens and very ugly humans,   and Spider Rose, for being terribly weird, but in a way that came together very well in the end.  It also made me much more interested in the alien investors.

My recommendation for this book would be to skip straight for the short stories and avoid the headache of a novel.  Unless, of course, you're a reader who doesn't mind being taken on a tour of look at all these cool things  without a single tangible character for company.

Starlight (vol. 1) by Mark Millar and Goran Parlov

Starlight Book Cover Starlight
Starlight vol 1
Mark Millar (author), Goran Parlov (artist)
Science fiction, Graphic novel
Image comics
Feb 24 2015
e-book
152

There are a lot of pop culture phenomena you don't actually have to have a personal encounter with in order to know it. Most of us don't have to read the Shakespeare in order to understand the shape of them and recognise references to Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet.   (But you could/should according to your own interests, of course! Just saying - most of us can recognise a tribute or parody or whaver even if we're not closely familiar with the original work.)  I've never read (or watched?) Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers, but I can still see them in Starlight.

I hadn't really heard much buzz about this one before I read it. I think it might be a hit with those people who were infatuated with Steven Erikson's Willful child because of its retro-trekkiness, though.  Some will adore this for being made out of genre staples and fashions that have mutated, or evolved, to become something quite different today.   Some of Starlight's charm probably goes unnoticed by me, because I don't have a pool of nostalgia for these particular tropes.   That said: This is still a charming story. It's sweet,  and a bit sentimental,  and I enjoyed reading it because what it does, it does well.

No, there aren't any very multidimensional characters here, or plot intricacies, or even a lot of theme,  but it has the compelling what-if:  What if a man from Earth went and became a hero on another planet - and then he went home to Earth, where no one knew about what happened, and no one believed him?

What if this man, Duke McQueen, is an old man by the time the alien planet reaches out for his help again?

The elderly superhero idea is enormously appealing to me - it has been since before I ever came across Frank Miller's The Dark Knight returns, though I struggle to identify earlier examples of it.   When you look back at a character's adventures from his or her viewpoint a few decades later, it makes sense for those memories to have no more depth or sense than the short action snap-shots;  Duke McQeen punching evil amphibians,  Duke McQueen rescuing the princess from evil things, Duke McQueen punching something else, presumably evil.    Once you get to a place where you can have thoughts about things you did 20-30-50 years ago, it gets harder to inhabit those memories, to remember your motivations and fears and ideas at the time.  It gets flat.  Like colourful still-images without a detailed narration.

(Mark Millar also authored Superman: Red son,  which is appealing in much the same way: What if baby Superman didn't plonk down in the US, but in the USSR instead? What if?)

If this collection is branded volume 1, then, presumably, there's going to be a Starlight vol.2, at some point - which will be interesting, because I didn't register any very obvious story points to pull sequels and follow-ups out of.  Though - I can probably imagine a few ways for it to go.  The one thing I find delightful about the retro action adventure style, however, is that it can do anything without breaking its own form.  There can be offspring or forbidden romance or clones or entire worlds and societies bringing in the next part of the story, even though you never heard or suspected anything about these up until that point.  This can be intensely annoying when done unsucessfully, but Starlight? I think it can pull of nearly anything.

Trees (vol. 1) by Warren Ellis and Jason Howard

Trees Book Cover Trees
Trees vol. 1
Warren Ellis (author) Jason Howard (artist)
Science fiction, Graphic novel
Image comics
Feb 24 2015
e-book
160

Warren Ellis probably helped shape my thought patterns through my teens - he wasn't alone in that, of course, but it's hard to forget that peculiar thrill of being a tiny teen, discovering Spider Jerusalem for the first time. (Which made it doubly amusing to see that very character mentioned as inspirational hero to the 12 year old protagonist in Paolo Bacigalupi's Zombie Baseball Beatdown, heh.)  Thus, I pay attention when something new pours out of this author. Like the first volume of Trees.

The trees aren't trees, of course. They're imposing, terribly tall and massive things. They plonked down on the planet ten years ago, and there's no doubt they're alien.  They are likely to be the work of someone intelligent, with agency. It's too bad they don't recognise us as intelligent life.  Or, indeed, recognise us at all.   Humans are being thoroughly ignored, and there is no apology offered for the ruined cities or the lethal stuff that comes out of the trees sometimes.

This kind of first contact scenario - the one where we turn out to be too alien from each other, too different - has always been a particularly terrifying one. And appealing.  The uncanny is a stimulating brain buzz.  (Every Lovecraft-enthusiast knows that buzz.)

So this story isn't really about the silent, ominous trees. It's about those people who try to make life go on below them, around the roots.  There are several viewpoint characters, with great diversity - a trophy girlfriend is offered skills and knowledge to get out of her venomous environment. Her mysterious teacher talks to her about the trees, too, but not as much as he talks about ways to kill someone.  A young artist from rural China comes to an sprawling kind of commune, an experimental city around a tree, in which he makes discoveries about his own sexuality and draws cityscapes.  There's a big bunch of Teaching Moments in here, actually - making Trees another pretty good graphic novel for helping people figure out ways to think about certain things.

There are other storylines; heavily political ones, and the (likely) red thread of the continuing Trees series; The scientists at the Svalbard research station who study the trees and obtain new knowledge about them - and a whole new set of reasons to be very, very scared.

 Trees needs a bit of time to get rolling; I wasn't really immersed until well after the halfway mark. This is okay, graphic novel series are often like that, building slow to be something wonderfully massive - but it makes a good example of why I don't ever try to follow these things through single issues.  Even this collected volume ends where I feel like things are just starting to get really interesting.

The artwork is a good fit for the script, too.  I never pause to think about it during the dialogue and action, which is actually a big thumbs up - but I slow down for the larger pictures of the world scattered around the bases of the trees.

I'll definitely be here for the next volume. Are characters going to reappear? Maybe new storylines? Existing storylines might spiral out of control entirely? And what's up with the trees, right?!  I'm very interested in seeing how this maybe-dystopia turns out.  Go read it if you're in the mood for a chunk of spicy  what it means to be human.  (You might have to wait for the next volume if you're more interested in what it means to be a tree.)

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow Book Cover The Sparrow
The Sparrow #1 (stand-alone but... has an optional sequel)
Mary Doria Russell
Science fiction
Transworld Digital
First published in 1996
e-book
515

Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow is one of those books I've had orbiting around me for years, repeatedly recommended, often appearing in lists together with other books I've loved, or mentioned in comparison to other science fiction novels with some kind of religious theme.  This one is often given the tagline Jesuits in space!, which is... kinda right, kinda completely-insufficient.

I finally read it.  It's been a few weeks now, and it's still oddly difficult to gather my thoughts about it.

The story is told in alternating chapters, swapping between the before and the after.  This works quite well for the story, although it's also partly responsible for the most uncomfortable part of reading this novel, which is basically that key events are packed into very few pages by the end.  It feels unbalanced, because it deviates so much from the expected pace of a novel,  but I can't really consider it a flaw - given the nature of the story, I can't imagine it done any other way. It makes sense.

A lot of readers will complain that the introductory/set-up part of the book is too long.  For me, this didn't register as a problem, because I'm carried through the pages by the characters, who are vivid, bright, and easy to like.  Emilio Sandoz, a linguistically gifted priest, is the gathering point through an odd series of events in which a radio signal from space is received, and the signal turns out to be music.  It's a baffling kind of first contact. As it turns out, the Society of Jesus is more interested in it than anyone else is, and thus Sandoz and his friends - who happen to be scientists and engineers with all the relevant expertise - go into space in search of whoever produced the music.

They arrive at Rakhat, and - complications ensue.  That's about as much as I feel safe-from-spoilers in saying about the plot.

What does it mean for the book, to heavily feature space Jesuits?  I'd say not much really, because it's not preaching to the reader. There's a lot of discussion about religion and the nature of God between the characters, but this is the stuff that makes the book into tasty philosophical science fiction, and I like that kind of thing. Especially when it comes out of characters who are proper characters, and never simply cardboard figures onto which the speech bubbles may be taped.  They discuss faith, and the other timeline, the after part, makes sure the question is always there: Can faith survive whatever is about to happen on this planet?

I recently read Michael Faber's The book of strange new things, which is one of those books where reviewers kept mentioning The Sparrow,  for no good reason at all, really.  I say this as someone who really liked Mary Doria Russell's novel and really disliked the other one, of course.  They are astoundingly different books, despite the one-line summary "religious person on alien planet" -  though the main difference, for me, is that Russell gives me characters and events I give a damn about, and Faber... didn't.   (It's unfair to compare books this way, but, well.)

The more time I've had to think about The Sparrow, the more I like it.  It has a sequel, Children of God, that I hope to get around to reading soonish. I've heard it does a good job of smoothing out the end of this book - which was abrupt, but not insufficient.

The voice and theme of the novel reminds me of Octavia Butler - and perhaps a bit of Margaret Atwood.   Thus, fans of those will be the most obvious people to recommend this one to.

As far as science fiction goes, this one is heavier on social science and spends less time on the hard science bits. Stay away if you only accept science fiction in which tech is in constant focus. Obviously.

 

Flex, by Ferrett Steinmetz

Flex Book Cover Flex
Ferrett Steinmetz
Urban fantasy
Angry robot
March 3rd 2015
e-book
306

Obsession is magic.  You obsess enough, love something obsessively enough, it can become a power to wield, tearing right through things like physics.  Felinomancy,  deathmetalomancy, artomancy, videogamemancy - every flavor imaginable.

It is, however, not an entirely common thing. And after what happened to Europe, 'mancers are hunted. Killed or hauled away to be put under control.   Some of them really are criminals; they've distilled their magic into a drug,  transferring an unflavoured kind of power to normals.

And then the normals learn that there are some laws;  Any gain must be followed by a loss. After the flex comes the flux.

Protagonist Paul Tsabo  was entirely unprepared to find out there was anything exeptional about him. All he has in his life is paperwork. Forms and check-boxes and signature fields.  Bureaucracy, that's what he does - and he does it well.

What can you really do with that kind of specialized power, though? He can't save his daughter from being hurt and injured by somebody else's out-of-control flux.

Maybe he could save her from death.  Maybe he could get some kind of revenge.

How far do you get with the magic of rules and regulations when facing down people who will have nothing to do with them?

...

I loved Flex.  All the thumbs up and all the stars checked.  It was really an easy book to love, for many reasons, one of which I tweeted somewhat incredulously: "This book has a female character who gets to be described as pudgy AND pretty with no BUT inbetween the two?!".

And that's just the tiniest little happy thing about this read.  (But I encourage you to dwell on it, because that character is so, so rare.) They are great characters, I believe in all of them - maybe a little brighter and with more visible inked outlines than most,  in a way that reminds me of Lauren Beukes' first couple of novels.   A little sprinkling of at-his-most-coherent PKD, even. The magic system is hallucinatory and delightful. I have SO much ooh and aah for this.  Flex is a debilitating punch in my happy-dork-grinning face,  and... well, I intended that to sound like a good thing, because it is.    About the prose, you may simply infer that it works seamlessly with the content - I never stopped to think about it, which is, by all accounts, a positive review.

I'm also very much aware there's some nice and roomy plot space at both ends in which both prequel and sequel would fit comfortably.   Just sayin'.

So.  Did you like Moxyland and Zoo City? Maybe you've been enjoying Seanan McGuire? Or perhaps curious about urban fantasy with fewer vampires and more nerds?  Or - just find the idea of a bureaucromancer entirely irresistible?   Read it! Go!

March 2015 Take Control Of Your TBR Pile Challenge

The challenge is hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer
The challenge is hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer

Another monthly reading challenge! I have a terrible record with these things, but I can at least state loudly that I want to delve into exisiting TBRs in March.

I’ll also say this, though, because it’s on my mind a lot lately:  I refuse to feel bad about acquiring/stockpiling/collecting more books than I can read in any timely manner. It brings me pleasure to have them.  To know they’re there for me. Mostly I choose e-books, for many reasons (it is mostly to do with built-in reading light and one-handed book grip and dysfunctional wrists, actually – and shelf space) – but yesterday, for example, I chose to purchase an old hardback from the library flea market table while I was there to pick up my long-awaited Ms Marvel.

But I like this March mission. I’ll try to get my imminent ARCs out of the way this month, and then devote myself to who-knows-what in my unread piles.  So very many choices…

The buried life, by Carrie Patel

The buried life Book Cover The buried life
The buried life #1
Carrie Patel
Dystopian, mystery, science fiction
Angry Robot
Mars 3 2015
e-book
336

Recoletta is an underground city with only vague memories of how it came to be underground. Only a very select few are allowed to own or read history books, and there aren't that many of them to go around.  There aren't many books at all, but that's okay, because life in Recoletta is stable and quiet.  Or it was, before the first murder occured in the wrong part of town.

Inspector Liesl Malone is on the case, but it isn't long before it's taken away from her.  She's not from the posh neighborhood, and they have their own security force in place. Malone is clearly not invited to learn their secrets.  Which, of course, is a good enough reason to pursue the case anyway.

When a novel presents a world without, or with very restricted access to books, that's like the bat signal for political dystopia. It doesn't even require further comment.  In The buried life, we follow a handful of characters through an ominous series of events, never focusing on the background texture for very long at a time.  But it's there; you can tell.  You know it will zoom out, eventually, and let you know exactly what you're looking at.

Except - it doesn't, quite.  I enjoyed the read - it's a very entertaining adventure, the characters are bright and distinct, and the atmosphere seeps into every corner -  but oh, I wanted to know more.  This means, of course, that the novel has done a good job, because this is going to become a series, and readers like me will tag along to learn all the things.  I am super annoyed when I read the last page of a novel and still haven't answered all the questions - and sometimes, that really does suggest a flawed book.  I don't think this book is flawed at all - just, you know, somewhat on the annoying side of "What do you mean, you're not going to throw the entire history-of-the-world infodump at me immediately, even though I want it badly!".

As for the murder mystery plot, it's a satisfying pageturner.  I'm always relieved to get some investigation and procedural action with characters who aren't overly concerned with their own hard-boiledness.  At least, not all of them.  There's even a bit of romance tucked into the story, understated, but clearly visible all the same.

If you're even more crankily impatient than I am, you'll probably want to at least postpone this read until a sequel is out - but if you're not, and looking for approximately three hundred pages of good entertainment in the "Oops! We messed up the future!"-genre, then go for it. Go!

Three parts dead, by Max Gladstone

Three parts dead Book Cover Three parts dead
Craft sequence #1
Max Gladstone
Fantasy
Tor Books
Oct 2nd 2012
e-book
336

My January reading choices turned out kinda deity-heavy - good, because it accomodates many interesting things, and this novel in particular takes the whole god-belief-ecosystem and puts it into an organized court of law. With necromancy. And lawyers who really aren't human beings anymore.

If those last few sentences weren't enough to tell you whether or not you'd be into this book, I don't understand you. But I can give you more reasons to start reading - for example, Tara, the protagonist, is female, non-white, and gets to have an entirely non-romantic plotline.  She's extremely competent, but not above a few less-than-stellar decisions.  There are gargoyles.  They're up to more than just hanging around grimacing on rooftops.

Tara didn't graduate with a lot of grace, but graduate she did.  And she may not have known how best to help her home village, but... she certainly tried.  All things considered, she's probably better off working for the firm Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao.  Even if it means going up against an old acquaintance in court.

Three parts dead  is, you see, made out of several kinds of awesome. Including a city with character. Alt Coulumb and its scarred buildings paint a vivid picture - or as vivid as it can be under all that cloying fog, anyway. Again, a case of "I'm so glad this is a series and there are already a couple of more books out". (Sometimes it's smart to put off starting a series until it's had some time. Take that, pre-order-maniac brain!)

Note: When you look this book up on goodreads, you'll find it on both the "Contemporary fantasy for guys"-list and the "Speculative fiction that passes the Bechdel test"-list. That's cool. At least I think so.

The next book in the series is Two serpents rise, and I... will get to it. I'll probably try to be up to speed for when Last first snow comes out in July.