Monday, August 13, 2018

SecUnit of My Heart

I was about to name this post Murderbot of My Heart before I looked back and found out that's what I named the post where I raved about All Systems Red, the first book in Martha Wells' incredible, delightful series about everyone's favorite socially anxious, warmhearted killing machine. I can't think of another title, because "my heart" has to be in the post name, because my feelings are going to overflow.

There have been two more books in the series since that first post, and the fourth and final novella comes out in October, at which point I will be buying it on release day and weeping that there isn't any more.  That's what I did with Artificial Condition, the second in the series.  I literally had "Buy Murderbot" in my calendar for that day, which Brenda (who can see my calendar) assumed meant I was feeling particularly stabby that day. (She is now also a huge fan of Murderbot.)

Artificial Condition was excellent; our beloved SecUnit (who doesn't really refer to itself often by name, and whom I don't like calling Murderbot because I love it and won't let it be down on itself) is investigating the events that led to its former murderous rampage, to try to determine how it happened. To get where it's going, it needs allies--like ART, a superintelligent research transport (who learns to love media)--and work, in the form of a security consulting gig that is pretty much as straightforwardly a terrible idea as it seems.

Along the way, our SecUnit meets nice people, pretends to be human, interacts with other bots whose feelings about autonomy are pretty intense, and has to beat up some bad guys.  And watch some Sanctuary Moon reruns, of course.  (I would very much like to watch Sanctuary Moon; if someone wants to create some sort of fan webcomic or something, I would Kickstart that).  In sum, this was great.

Today, though, I finished Rogue Protocol, which I was fortunate enough to get as an ARC from Netgalley for review (thank you, Tor.com!). Artificial Condition was great, but Rogue Protocol was even better.  Murderbot's investigation has expanded to include GrayCris, the company that tried to kill Dr. Mensah and the rest of the survey party in All Systems Red.  SecUnit is on the trail of proof of larger evildoing by the company, and would like to get evidence to help Dr. Mensah in her legal battle with them. That's how SecUnit ends up with another exploration team, this time investigating a decommissioned terraforming installation that is maybe way more dangerous than it seems.

I love how full of good people these books are.  It might seem kind of sappy sometimes, if there weren't so many bad people, too. But so many competent people are doing the best they can here that you can't help but enjoy watching them all work together. There is another AI character in this one, and watching SecUnit deal with its feelings about Miki--all of those feelings, many of which SecUnit can't quite pin down for itself--is really what makes this all worth it.

I love that this set of books has such a clear character trajectory, as SecUnit really processes what it means to be a free agent in the world--not just that you can choose your friends and causes, but that you almost have to.  It's so clear to the reader that SecUnit is, for some definition of the word, "human" that watching it figure that out for itself is a huge, meaningful adventure to be on.

Also, super competence porn.  I never thought I'd be so excited about armed drones.

However many stars there are to give, this book gets more of them. I will be shoving this book at people for months.  Go read it, please! Now!

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Revenge Fantasy Satisfaction

Jane Doe is a good title, but it's simple and hard to search for.  The book, though--the book is a blast.  Apparently I'm having a moment of loving my non-neurotypical narrators.

Victoria Helen Stone's new novel (she's written many others under a couple of names) is a methodical telling of a woman out for revenge.  It's one of those books that doesn't really have much of an arc, and you're propelled on less by tension than by curiosity--the character sets out to do something and you watch her do it.  You can't look away.  It's competence porn about destroying someone's life.

See, our narrator, Jane, is not like most people.  The word she uses for herself is sociopath, though I'm not sure she meets the clinical definition.  She says that she does feel emotions, but rarely, and not urgently.  She does have the impulse control problems and lack of guilt and shame that might come with sociopathy, but , as she points out, that doesn't make her a murderer.  She has no reason NOT to murder someone--no guilt, no shame--but she doesn't particularly want to, either.

Until, maybe, now.  Because her best-and-only friend was taken from her, and the man responsible needs to pay.  So Jane leaves her high-power job and dyes her hair soft blonde and gets a job as a temp in his office, and waits for him to notice her.

And the wheels are in motion.

This was the book that I wanted the YA book Premediated to be. Watching a master at work is pretty delightful, and honestly, it was just glorious watching a woman move through the world without apology, calling out all bull as she sees it.

Thanks to Smart Bitches, Trashy Books for steering me right with this one!

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Undead Girl Gang

Because the title is so good that I can't improve upon it.

I wanted this book to be great, because of the title and because of the premise: Mila doesn't believe that her best friend kills herself, so she brings her back from the dead (along with a couple of other girls) to figure out who murdered her.  Creepy, delightful romp!

Undead Girl Gang, by Lily Anderson, has a lot going on--possibly way too much.  I want to start with the fact that the Jennys read this at Reading the End last week, so check out their podcast for an excellent review that covers the good (friendship!), the bad (uniformly stupid adults), and the ugly (really wild misconceptions about suicide).  I agree with their entire review, so I'm going to cover most of this with some quick bullets:
  • The best part was the friendship that grows between Mila and her (resurrected) best friend, Riley, and the two other girls she accidentally brings back as well, Dayton and June.  "The Proper Nouns," as Mila calls them, have been popular bullies for years, but now they have a forced proximity/grudging respect thing going on, which is super charming.
  • The book has wild tonal swings from silly conversations about junk food to huge murder plots, but it skimps on some of the emotions you'd most expect in this situation, namely shock and any kind of existentialism. I don't think there's one conversation about what happens after the girls' seven-day resurrection is over and they go "back."
  • All the adults are horrible.  Mila's family is completely indifferent to who she is as a person, even as she's mourning her best friend. Her wicca mentor shoots up a house containing living people for VERY POORLY DEFINED REASONS. The school councilor seems pretty damned vapid (though I think the book tries to fake you out as though this was a misconceptions; I think it fails at that).
These are all the things that the Jennys lay out very well.  I think what bothered me most, though, was the logical inconsistency--or maybe just the failure of the plot to hold up if you look too close.

Which sounds dumb--I'm sorry, are there holes in your raising the dead plot? But the murder mystery gets extreme short shrift, to the point where you can use the Law of Economy of Characters to figure out who did it. I knew very early on, and I was hoping it was a fake-out, but no, it was just sitting there, right out front.

But going back to the beginning, there are all these moments where Mila figures something out--like "the murderer must be one of our classmates" and the book--neither in-story nor the author--does nothing to dissuade her from that.  Like, if there's a serial killer, it must be one of the students, because all the victims are high school girls.  I...don't think that's how crime works?

Or the wiccans are all "this is very dark magic; mess with the balance and it will turn back on you threefold," but....actually no?  There is (spoiler not spoiler) no actual magical comeuppance for the act of raising the dead.  That's a pretty big omission when a big plot line is about how bad an idea it is to raise the dead.  I mean, it actually goes pretty well, I think?

And without spoiling it any further, I will say that the explanation for why the killer did it failed to fit any kind of psychological profile I can imagine.  It was as though 75% of the book was written and THEN the villain was chosen and an explanation was given.  If you don't think back too hard and you squint your eyes, maybe it makes sense--his motivation makes sense--but nothing about him or his past actions or anything else fits in any way with the final explanation.

I'm sorry to be so moany--I will review a good one next.  And it was a sweet, entertaining book with a likeable but sourpuss main character and some charming friendships.  I was just not able to suspend my disbelief--in the emotional stuff, not the necromancy--enough to call it a good pick for me.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Literally the Best Ever

Romance is one of those categories that I think of as "I don't read much," but really it's more like "I like what I like and am meh on the rest."  I am mostly into historicals and rarely read contemporary. But now that I read Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (because so good), I end up putting the ones they love on my list.

This is how I read Jasmine Guillory's The Wedding Date (also Roxane Gay's cover blurb), which was sweet but sadly did not knock my socks off.  And it's how I came to be reading The Kiss Quotient, by Helen Hoang, which may very well be my new FAVORITE ROMANCE EVER.

Big, bold statement, I know. But oh my god, I keep having to put this book down to squee.  I keep telling my husband random things like "No, no, she's not stalking him, please don't think she's stalking him, it's a coincidence!" and "Sexual harassment!  Where is HR?" and "When will they admit it?"  It makes my little heart swell up.

Representation is a lovely and important thing that's going on here, with a half-Vietnamese hero and an autistic heroine, but honestly, that is an intellectual pleasure, and most of my pleasure here was visceral.  The sex (there's a lot) was like reading my favorite fanfic, in that it's both rather explicit and also under a lot of discussion, with a lot of conversations about what people like and what everyone wants. In my experience, fanfic sex is better than published sex, but this is an exception.

What romance needs is a reason for the protagonists to believe they won't end up together, and a reason for them to be together a bunch anyway.  The "fake dating" trope (catnip!) is going strong here, and while there are no reasons for them not to be together, there are believable reasons for them to think they won't end up together--real things that might be obstacles if they weren't both so wonderful.

I am writing this right before reading the end because I am so high on my excitement here that I wanted to talk about it.  I love how Stella's super logical mind works, and that we see her as a whole person--the strengths that autism gives her (her ability to logic her way through a lot of things), the weaknesses (the tendency to not realize she's said something hurtful), and the neutral things that aren't good or bad, but are just her (channeling her emotions into music; knowing what she wants; not being able to handle overstimulating environments).

I love Stella so much more than a lot of the impulsive and emotional characters who don't move through their worlds with enough sense.  Everyone here has so much good sense.  A++, would read again.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Backward Facing

Coming back after so long--well, I've read a lot of books in the past six months or so.  Don't worry, I'm not going to try to get caught up.  I'm going to hit the high notes, maybe a couple of low notes, and try to talk about the ones I got as advance copies, even though those are pretty much all out at this point.

A perfect example is Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud, by Elizabeth Greenwood.  This book was published last August, so I've had an advance copy for more than I year; I read it a few months ago, though. 

This book has some great meat with maybe a little more filler than I'd like.  The author is inspired to start looking into faking one's own death after a joke she and her friends made while lamenting their student loan debt.  This is a fine jumping off point, but she kept coming back to the idea throughout--the idea that this is something she's considering, at least on some level.  Any part where she thinks about doing this herself is kind of thin.

That said, the research she does is pretty great.  I was especially interested in the death fraud investigators and the death fraud coach (my term).  The "coach" is someone who helps you live off the grid to whatever extent you want, and who "theoretically" understands how to go further than that.  The insurance investigators have seen the whole deal, though, and I would watch a trashy network show about them tracking people down to small countries in other hemispheres where it's pretty easy to bribe a medical examiner.

There are a few stories of people who got away with faking their own deaths for a while, which is about as close to a success story as you can come (true successes don't ever have their stories leaked).  People who were caught years later after setting up new lives. It appears to really take a sociopathic streak to do this--or a dearth of community ties, I guess, but each of these people left family behind in ways that come across as pretty harsh.

So yeah, a lot of fun stuff in here, with a little more about the author's personal and emotional journey than I wanted in this particular book. Something a little more reporter-style, a bit Mary Roachier, would have been nice, but this is a very solid outing. 

My first review in months!  Feels good.  I need to get my legs under me, though; I could be funnier.  Still, welcome back!

Monday, June 11, 2018

Back from the Brink

Hiatus? What hiatus? I don't know what you're talking about.

Seriously, I'm dusting off the keyboard and we'll see if I have words to say about things. I definitely have a bunch of books that I've read, though--quite a backlog, in fact. My Kindle--a new one!  April's battery ceased charging; my new Kindle bestie is called Protagonist and we're getting along just fine.

I love getting a new Kindle because it comes clean and pristine and I can just put the books I *most urgently* want to read on it.  This works for about a week. I think it's an ADD thing that every book it occurs to me to read is urgent.  Or maybe it's more that I'm afraid I'll forget about them, so every interest becomes an urgent one.  Anyway, we're up around 200 books on Protagonist.

That's what the blog is for! I can't delete the ones I've read till I talk about them!  So let's go through the advance copies that came out last year; the throwaway freebies that I don't actually remember anything about; the books I composed eloquent reviews for but never wrote them down.  Let's revisit.

Also! I work at a library now!  I have 50 books checked out!  It's gonna be a heck of a ride!

Next post Friday; talk soon, chickies!

Monday, March 19, 2018

Trashy True Crime Is Trashy

I have a big ol' soft spot for police procedurals (any kind of procedural, really), and I saw an ad for the new series Mindhunters, so when I saw the book by John Douglas on the library shelf I picked it up.

I mostly picked it up to flip through, and this is the kind of book that rewards that kind of dipping in and out, in that it's episodic with short descriptions of crimes and then how the author/narrator brilliantly solved them.  It's very much like a bunch of less-nonsensical episodes of Criminal Minds (because they took all their terminology from this book). 

So to that extent it's working for me?  I mean, I like watching the puzzle pieces put together, and descriptions of horrible things never really sink in very  much for me. so there you go. 

But the most notable thing about the first half of this book (and half of a 400-page book is a lot of pages) is that it's about the Mindhunter himself--this is a memoir.  We learn about his youth and the hijinks he got into and how he met his wife and the trouble he gave his superiors when he was in the Air Force and and and.  Douglas is fond of his own sense of humor; though he doesn't make jokes in the book, he describes funny incidents or jokes that he made.

And because a lot of it takes place in the '70s in the boys' club of the FBI, a lot of it is INSANELY sexist. Like, he describes his courtship of his wife with only about three anecdotes, and two of them involve him making humiliating sexual jokes about her in public. After dinner with a friend in a hotel restaurant, they're riding the elevator and he and his friend start talking about how much she's going to charge them the next time they're in town and who'll bring the whipped cream.  At their first pre-Cana class, he convinces her priest that they met at a topless bar.  She laughs in both of these anecdotes; I seriously did not.

He is very respectful of victims, witnesses, and survivors when discussing cases, but he describes every woman he dated and female colleague with what a bombshell she is, how attractive and vivacious.  He talks about how working with a female coworker put one of the Mormon guys on his team in a bad spot with his wife. I could go on and on.

Now I'm in the second half, and it's much more what I was expecting: crimes and their solutions, concepts like signatures and stressors, techniques like staging interviews and setting up stings.  All great.  But the sour taste of casual sexism and the super-macho life he's told me all about made me a lot more uncomfortable than all the crime.  Because this is what the good guy looks like.