Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Prequelization

I was drawn to Brother's Ruin, by Emma Newman, when I saw it on Netgalley, partially because of the premise, but mostly, I'll admit, because her book Planetfall got such great reviews, but I never got a chance to read it. So hey, I thought, I'll get out ahead of this new one!  But I have to say, I think this was the wrong place to start.

I'm on this novella kick lately, partially because I like the size--you know it's going to be a quick, tight story, but not in the spare fashion of a short story.  I just don't think I'm a short story person--I always want all the details laid out for me. No, when I want short, I want a novella, but sometimes that falls short of what I'm looking for.

The premise here is promising--Charlotte is a young woman who is happily engaged and becoming quite successful in her work as an illustrator (under a pseudonym, of course, because it would not be respectable for a young woman to have a career).  Her brother, with whom she's very close, suffers from ill health, so her income, in addition to those of her parents, helps keep the family afloat.

When her brother begins to suspect he has magical abilities, it looks like it might be the family's financial salvation; though magical training is compulsory for anyone with talent, their families are generously compensated.  But bringing the testers around endangers Charlotte in a way her family doesn't know--she's been hiding her own magical abilities to avoid having to give up her fiance and career. 

Now she has to make sure her brother passes his tests while keeping herself hidden--and uncovering complicating secrets about the politics of the city's maguses.

(Is maguses a word? Let's roll with it.)

So there's my back cover copy.  I have to say, a lot of this book is like a breath of fresh air.  Charlotte frequently considers keeping secrets the way people in books do to keep the plot moving forward, then blurts out what she was thinking anyway.  First, I find this relatable; second, it prevents Plot By Unnecessary Withholding, which I'm pretty much done with.

I loved how close Charlotte was with her family, and I thought this book did the best job I've read in a long time setting up why someone with special powers might not want to seize hold of the opportunities that come with them.  I've always been kind of skeptical of "I just want to be ordinary" as a beginning and end to a person's motivation. But the things Charlotte has to lose are laid out quite well here, and the mystery and possible discomfort that would come with the opportunity are made pretty obvious.  The premise felt grounded in a way that a lot of similar stories don't.

The drawback here is the pacing, I think.  There's too much setup, and then it ends all in a rush.  This actually felt like the first third of a book, and it should have continued into Part 2, rather than ending itself.  From the broader pacing (I was shocked to realize that I was closing in on the end, and that they were going to wrap everything up in what felt like just a few pages) to the scene-by-scene details (the domestic descriptions were important to evoke what Charlotte's life is really like, but there was just SO MUCH time spent on the family getting the house ready for fancy guests), the pacing felt off. 

As the first third of a novel, this worked swimmingly, and I will definitely read what comes next (because oh yes, this is just the setup for a bigger story).  But I was pretty disappointed to get to the end--not in an eager to move on way, but in a "that's all there is?" kind of way.  A sad feeling to be left with, even if it's a good problem to have.

(Thanks to Netgalley for the free copy for review.)

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

On the Rails

We had book club today, talking about The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead.  It's the first book I've ever read by Whitehead, and it was really an incredible book--painful and exhilarating and pretty explicitly a work of genius.

Unfortunately, I don't even feel remotely qualified to do a reader's guide for this one. It's just too...big? raw? intimate? It's a lot of these things, but most of all I'd say it's brilliantly structured.

Cora is a slave on a plantation in the South, which is pretty horrifying, as you might imagine.  Her mother escaped when Cora was young, leaving her on her own in a horrible situation and now, many  years later, Cora takes thee opportunity to run. She travels with another escaped slave, Caesar, on the Underground Railroad. In her travels, she sees different parts of the country and the different situations of black people.

It's kind of a Pilgrim's Progress of horrors. Magical realism isn't quite the right term, but there is the feel of a fairy tale or a parable about this. The first clue is the actual railroad that runs underground, on which Cora makes her escape.  It's not really dreamlike, not the way I expect magical realism to be.  It's actually much more realistic--different stations in different states of repair, and the characters wonder over who built it and how it works.

But it's also both ends of a metaphor--the railroad and the mysterious connection going to no one knows where. And at every point in the journey, each stop takes you on a tour through a lot of the horrifying things that have been done to black Americans through history. It's not literally an antebellum landscape--we get a glimpse of the Tuskegee experiments, of Jim Crow sundown laws (only worse, so much worse), of all kinds of horrors in all kinds of guises. 

Cora is an interesting protagonist--she's prickly and not terribly personable, and she's not an adventurous person.  Although she does several heroic things, she's not a hero.  I'm reminded of Sansa Stark--when you read a story about great injustice, you expect your protagonist to rise up and vanquish it.  But really, if the world was full of heroes there'd be a lot less injustice, and the most a person can often hope for is to survive and not be to horribly damaged by the journey.

Okay, I do have a couple of talking points, in case you have a book group of your own.  Here are my questions.

1. What did you think of the interstitial chapters, where you get glimpses of other characters' back stories?  Did you feel like they fit together with each other?  They seemed to serve many different purposes; did they have anything in common?

2. What did you think of Ridgeway? Did he feel like a real person, or like an archetype of a slave hunter?  He stood for the institution--indifferent and implacable.  How did he work as a human being.  And, corollary, how did the character of Homer work for you, as an archetype/stereotype and as a person?

3. This is the worst question, but which state was the most horrifying to you?  Which atrocity struck you hardest.  I was surprised at the different answers in our group.

4. What did you think of the ending, both as a symbolic ending to the journey and as a place to stop the narrative?  What do you think would come next--or maybe I mean what would be the logical next place for this story to go?

Discussing in book club, we kept saying "so depressing, horrifying."  But the fact is that it was a beautiful book to read.  It was horrifying, but it also gave you enough space among the horrors to catch your breath and appreciate the storytelling that was going on here, and the craftsmanship that takes on the enormity of an historic experience and shapes it for a modern audience in a most accessible way.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Binti

Nnedi Okorafor is an author I've been meaning to read for a long time.  I used the excuse of my Black History month reading goals to pick up a few of her books, so I ended up reading the novella Binti and its sequel, Binti: Home very close together.

Binti got a lot of glowing reviews when it first came out, and I can absolutely understand why. Binti herself is such a lovable character--brave, smart, headstrong, and loyal. She's been accepted to the best university in the known galaxy, Oomza Uni. She's not the first human to go, but most people who travel are Khoush, while Binti is Himba. She's the first member of her community to travel off planet, and she pretty much has to sneak away.

On the ship to the university, though, the ship is attacked by the Meduse, a race with a feud against the Khoush. Binti survives, but she has to use every resource she has to stay alive and prevent a war.

The great parts of this book were the details about Binti and the people she meets.  Her connection to her people, the clay she wears on her skin, the mathematical skills she has--these details are lovely.  I got confused, though, when the ship was attacked and the plot started hinging on a random object she had in her pocket--a trinket she found in the desert years ago and carried for good luck, but that also turned out to have magic? technological? properties that saved her life.  I don't know if it counts as deus ex machina if it happens in the beginning of the story instead of the end, but it threw me off my stride, and it left me stumbling for the rest of the story.

In the second book, Home, Binti has been studying at Oomza University for almost a year and decides she wants to visit home, along with a new friend.  This is a fraught decision, because her family does not approve of her leaving, and her friend is from a race that has been at war with humans (Khoush, not Himba, but isn't a human a human?) for ages.

Again, I started off confused, because Binti was being hit by waves of anger that seem to come from nowhere, and also maybe an empathic connection that lets her know what her friend is feeling when it's far away. This part seemed very disjointed and unconnected from the narrative; I wasn't quite sure what it meant, either what it was describing or what that implied. 

Anyway, though, the next part of the story is really lovely and powerful as Binti undertakes the second space journey of her life.  Since the first one ended in terrible violence that has haunted her, the middle part of this story is a powerful recounting of facing trauma. I especially loved that it didn't have any easy answers; sometimes things are hard and sometimes they're easier, and she takes care of herself and feels a little better and maybe will continue to get better.  It's a very realistic sense of fallout from the previous story and I admire that a great deal.

Then at home, there are some really lovely family relationships to explore.  Again, the strength here is that nothing is black and white--her family loves her and is angry that she left.  Binti wants to belong and doesn't quite anymore. By leaving, she has become something different, something that their society doesn't have a place for, and it's not a simple thing to deal with that.  The nuances of how the different characters handle this and react to the changes in Binti--everything from her new friend to the different clothes she wears--are well-observed and generous, even to those who behave the worst.

There are further plot developments that seem to come out of nowhere--people and legends who come up in the middle of the book and turn out to have been a part of her history all along--that I found a bit confusing from a narrative perspective.  But I think that this is a different style of storytelling, with less of a through arc and more of an emotional arc.  I'm still wrestling with how to read it right.

There is so much to love here--the representation, the cultures, and the diversity that Okorafor brings to her universe.  And the depictions of complicated family bonds, and how it's not always possible for everyone to get what they want, is something I've always wished someone would depict in this way. I'm not sure I've found my footing on these books, but I can tell you that when the next one comes out (because warning: cliffhanger!), I will be picking it up instantly.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Death By Therapy; Therapy By Death

I'm so behind on my ARC reviews, guys.  Another by-product of the cold that won't quit.  But I want to tell you about all this stuff, even if it's no longer in advance!

Seanan McGuire produces novellas at a thrilling rate, and I've been digging novellas lately.  I got Final Girls by Mira Grant (McGuire's more horror-ish pen name) from Netgalley for review recently after reading and loving Every Heart a Doorway.

The premise is the real draw here, and I think it kind of stands in for my feelings about the whole book. Esther is a skeptical reporter who's doing an investigation of a new type of therapy. This therapy, invented by Dr. Jennifer Webb, involves a complete virtual reality simulation of a novel trauma experience--basically, you get into a VR tank and have a completely convincing experience of living through a horror movie.  It seems like mostly the therapy is being used to heal very damaged personal relationships--by surviving a carefully controlled horrible experience, two sisters, or a father and son,  or whoever, can get over long-term feelings of antipathy to have a positive relationship going forward.

This brings up a LOT of questions, but I'll get to that in a minute.

Esther is skeptical because the therapy is a little too reminiscent of repressed memory therapy, which of course has been thoroughly debunked, but not before it ruined her father's life.

More questions, but give me a second.

During a demonstration, there are complications, and there you have most of the plot.

So there are three central stories being told here. The two that comprise most of the book are the story of the illusion--Esther and Jennifer, growing up together and encountering evil--and the violent story playing out at the clinic that sends the inside story spiraling out of control.  The framing story--Esther investigating this new therapy--might not even be worth counting as its own, but I actually found it one of the most interesting ones, especially from a worldbuilding perspective.

Because the new therapy was just meant to set up the story, but it raises SOOOOO many questions.  I'm not even worried about the scientific issues, like the fact that they can control dreams with drugs or see what's going on in the dreams with monitors (though that at least gets a nod in the story).  I'm talking about the viability of this business.  Like, you have a fully immersive VR system--one in which the subject has no idea the experience is not real--and your go-to application is...this?

Actually, I guess I think therapy is a good first application here, but therapy specifically based around healing relationships by inducing a shared trauma experience just seems...unlikely.  How many people have relationships in their lives that involve deep antipathy and a desire on both sides to get rid of that antipathy?  And are those the people who are trying expensive, cutting edge therapeutic technologies?  Are they really the ones who are being failed by talk therapy?

It just seems like a campy level of setup for an otherwise kind of serious story.  Like, I would expect this to be the premise of a very cheap, B-grade horror story, the kind that winks at you with its own silliness. The kind that is a movie on Spike TV. (Though now that I think about it, they actually made this movie and it was anything but cheap.)

I also found Esther's conflation of this with recovered memory therapy to be kind of spurious.  I mean, this is kind of the opposite--it's creating new, purposefully false memories. I could see a whole host of problems with it, but none of them are the ones Esther's looking for.

As horror novels go, it was engrossing and kept you wondering what would happen.  I really did enjoy reading it.  But what I walked away with were questions--so many questions, and not ones the story gave me a lead on. 

Also, would you ever go into an immersive virtual reality experience? Would it make a difference if you would know inside the story that it wasn't real?  I think my answer might be no, but I'd like to know yours.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Black History Month, Retrospectively

Two things about February: Black History Month, and the cold that wouldn't die.  This means that I have been reading a bunch of great books by black authors, and that I haven't been blogging about them. And now I'm in that place where the backlog of amazing books is intimidating.

So, in the interest of taking the job in bite sized pieces, let's do a run down of my February reading list.  My policy was to only start books by black authors in February, and I got some great ones in.

I read Nnedi Okorafor's novellas Binti and Binti: Home, which have gotten great reviews.  I didn't love the first one as much as everyone else did, but I thought the sequel was exciting and much stronger.

I also started the audio book Okorafor's The Book of Phoenix, which I'm still in the middle of. I liked the first part very much, but I'm not clear on where the story's going, and I'm wondering if Nnedi Okorafor just might not be a writer for me. Her manner of storytelling is very fairy tail-like, and I'm not actually that big a fan of fairy tales and mythology.

In February I also finished N.K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season, which we read for book club at work.  Not a lot of people managed to finish it--it's dense and DEEPLY world-buildy--but it was incredible.  Seriously, an unbelievable masterwork of storytelling. I am now creeping my way up the library's infinitely long waiting list for the sequel, The Obelisk Gate.

Just yesterday I finished Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, which has been getting a ton of buzz, and for good reason.  This is an incredible book and will win many prizes, I think. We'll meet for book club next week and I hope I can do a list of question after that.

Also a lovely book: Brit Bennett's The Mothers.  This is exactly the kind of book I say I don't like--it's pure literary fiction, a story of the closely observed lives of a young woman and the people around her in the wake of her mother's suicide.  The story centers around a church, and how the pain of many people can interact in so many ways.  It's sad and sweet and so, so lovely.

I also started and am still reading both Tiny, Pretty Things (Jenny: murder bunheads!), by Dhonielle Clayton and Sona Charaipotra, and You Can't Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain, by Phoebe Robinson.

February has been a really terrible month for my body but an incredible month for my mind.  Hopefully now that we're deep in March, I can get back to telling you all about the latter!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Post-Hamilton Post

It was amazing. It was glorious.  It was just what you want it to be.  The music that I know by heart, the same, but with enough subtle changes to make every bit worth listening to. The dancing was amazing--just the dance alone would have been an incredible show.  The acting was such fun to watch, and there are so many details in action and expression that it brought a whole new level to how wonderful the album already is.

Absolutely delightful.

And now I have a cold, thanks NYC, so back to our regularly scheduled posts next week!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

This Hiatus Brought To You By....

Hamilton!

That's right, no bookish post today because I'm on Broadway, baby, with the hottest ticket in town in my hot little hands.  Full report to come!

In the meantime:

I Heart Patreon

I have a million more reviews I need to write, but I've wanted for a while to do a post about Patreon.

I love Patreon. I love being able to give money to creators I love, especially those whose product is online, or sporadic, or whom I consume through the library and don't pay directly.  I love the idea that I can pay a small amount for something I value online.  For the most part, if you're in my blog reader and you have a Patreon, I am very happy to be giving you money.

So who do I support?

Webcomics!

Tom Siddell's Gunnerkrigg Court is the big one; he was the first one I sponsored, and it was so exciting to see that he is making about the same amount from his Patreon per month as I am at my job. (That equates to less after taxes and fees, but either way, he's making a living wage from his art.)  I find this incredibly inspirational.  I will say that he is a complete professional--his posting schedule is like clockwork and I don't think he's ever missed a post.  I really hope he's living the dream as much as I imagine he is.

I also support Ngozi Ukazu's Check, Please!, which is insanely popular and another one that's making her a full time living. I support this one at a lower level, partly because there are WAY fewer updates. She does maintain an active Twitter feed for the characters and posts sketches pretty regularly, but the fact is that I don't follow all those (and actually find a lot of the supplemental material hard to navigate). But the comic is amazing and worth my money, so by gum she gets my cash.

Drew Weing writes The Creepy Casefiles of Margo Maloo, which I don't even remember how I found.  I got in on the ground floor of that one, though; I read the first couple of pages and it seemed to have potential, so I figured I'd give him some money and see where it went.  It's a good comic, and I feel like I'm watching the mythology get richer and the story get better as he goes.

Bloggers.

I am a complete sucker for an advice column; most of the ones I read are in newspapers (I pay for an online subscription to the Washington Post because of Carolyn Hax), but I've been reading Captain Awkward forever. I actually emailed her once and suggested she open a Patreon so I could sponsor her; I don't flatter myself that that's how it happened, but I'm glad it did.

Siderea is a blogger I learned about specifically because her sponsorship model is a bit unusual; it's per post, rather than per month.  If she posts, you pay; if not, you don't.  She actually posts small, casual posts at a fairly normal rate, but her long, carefully researched analytical posts are incredible and totally worth the money.  I've read her nearly-novella-length exegesis of the first part of Watership Down several times. She's been writing a lot about politics lately, and her realism and pragmatism are very reassuring to me.

I've been reading the Lady Business blog for a while; they just started their Patreon and it hasn't got a ton of momentum yet, but I'm glad to sponsor it.  They are a go-to source for feminist geekery, and where I get most of my non-Buffy fanfic recommendations, as well as a lot of great, in-depth recommendations for TV, movies, and books that are directly up my alley.

Creators.

There are a few artists who aren't producing anything special, but whose work I love so much that I sponsor them in a small way just so they'll keep creating things for me to read.  There's Ursula Vernon, on whom I've gushed in the past, and Linda Medley, whose Castle Waiting is so wonderful that it's worth the years of waiting and paying for in the interim.

I actually don't sponsor any podcasts yet; I've only recently become a real podcast listener, and some of my favorites aren't sponsored (Gin Jenny, Whiskey Jenny, I would sponsor you!). Ursula Vernon has podcasts; I already give her money.  But I've also been listening to StoryWonk's Dusted (Buffy podcast) and I've got a whole bunch of things that I want to try an episode of--when I get my lineup lined up, I'm probably going to add some podcasters to this list.

I love Patreon.  I love that I can be a small part of something that can make a big difference together. I love the idea of the artists whose work I value making a living doing what they love.  Patreon is something I'm so glad exists, because this is exactly how I want to be spending my money.