Sunday, March 29, 2015

Theme Night!

I'm on a rip-roaring damned streak, book-wise.  Ancillary Justice was amazing, and then The Just City blew my mind (is still blowing it; I slowed down so we could read it for book club), and also I finally read Francis Hardinge, and The Cuckoo Song is as good as I've been hearing.  I have a slate of ARCs of sequels that I'm salivating to read (Shadow Scale and Beastly Bones), but I also have some things I've been eying for a while that I want to get to (The Seat of Magic and Imaginary Girls).  This is an embarrassment of riches, and I am not complaining.

So I'm in the thick of things, and in a few days I'll have a joint review of Harrison Squared for you, and my own thoughts on Otherbound, which I've finally gotten around to and find really fascinating and ambitious.  But the funny thing is that I'm having what I think of as a Stanislaus moment--one of those times when two random books you're reading coincide in a weird way that makes you blink and look around, like is this synchronicity, or coincidence?

Because what Harrison Harrison and Nolan from Otherbound have in common is a pretty unusual trait: both are teenaged boys who are missing a leg.

I suppose it's a small thing, but somehow it feels Deeply Meaningful to me.  Maybe I need more sleep.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Things We Do For Love

You look at the post title and you think that there are a thousand books I could be reviewing.  But it's none of them--the thing I did for love was read this entire book from start to finish.  Because my six-year-old son loved it.

He didn't just love The Secret Zoo; he got it--he understood what was going on, could always recount what had already happened and connect it to what was happening now.  He liked the corny names of the zoo places, he didn't mind the fact that most of the middle is nonsensical filler--the bad guys you perceive are not bad, there's a whole meaningless chase scene that's some sort of misunderstanding.

This is the kind of book that people mean when they say that kids deserve smart books--I mean, this is the cautionary tale part of it.  And you know, it's probably a third grade reading level or something like that.  But the language is just awkward and repetitive.  Thesaurus words are tucked in where their connotations are not quite right.  It's not explicitly wrong, but it's just not quite good

Also, the day is saved at the end when our hero convinces a penguin to believe in itself enough to fly.  Flying penguin saves the day.  Because physics has nothing to do with it.  (Yes, there is explicitly magic involved in the book.  But not around the animals or their abilities.  Somehow the animals are just super smart, the polar bear is not dangerous, and penguins can fly if they believe in themselves.  All apparently unrelated to magic.)

I'm groaning only because Adam's too little to know how a blog works, or to read this.  Because I know that it's possible to love books that are not great--I have read WAY too much Mercedes Lackey not to know this.  And I love him so much that I'm going to run right out and get the sequel, Secrets and Shadows, because he'll be thrilled. 

But maybe not till after we've read the first Harry Potter.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Blanche White, On the Run

As part of my goal this year to read more non-white authors, I've been scooping up lots of things that are a little bit outside my wheelhouse as they cross my radar.  This is how I ended up getting a copy of Blanche on the Lam from Netgalley.  It's the first in a mystery series by Barbara Neely, written in the 1990s and being reissued now. 

I don't read a ton of mysteries, and this one was unlike any that I'd read before.  Really, it almost didn't read as a mystery to me, since I wasn't even sure what the actual question was regarding what was going on until very late in the game.  There were clues and characters and things, but the level on which this book worked for me was a social examination.

Blanche is a black maid living in Atlanta, and she's in some trouble.  She's bounced some checks, and instead of a fine, she's sentenced to 30 days in jail.  With two kids (her niece and nephew) to take care of and already struggling financially, this couldn't be a worse situation.  So when her escort disappears in a scuffle at the courthouse, Blanche impulsively walks away.  Suddenly, she's on the run and in even more trouble.

Luckily, the cleaning service she works for has assigned her to a week-long live-in job outside of town.  Figuring this is a good place to lay low and make a plan while her mother watches the kids, Blanche shows up for work and finds herself on a rural estate of a strange family who clearly have a lot of secrets.

The secrets themselves don't come together till quite late in the book--there is murder, but it's near the end.  Mostly, there's a powerful sense of something very fishy going on, and an even more powerful sense that the absolute best thing a black lady with common sense can do is keep her nose out of it.  No, this book is carried by its observations about Blanche, the world she lives in, and how she holds her life together.  And in that, it's a gold mine.

I'm a sucker for stories told from the below-stairs point of view; I'm always wondering about the teachers' point of view about the high schoolers in my YA novels, and the children who are on the run with your heroes to keep your action thrillers heartwarming.  So Blanche's very opinionated thoughts about her employers are delicious.  I love how she sits in their chairs and bathes in their tubs when they're not around, not for the luxury, but to claim back her own humanity when she's seen as a tool all day.  I love how she has a huge network of friends to call on, and the amount of investigating she can do with sheer gossip.

There's so much about being black in the world, in America, and in Atlanta here.  There's the unspoken solidarity that exists even when you can't keep secrets, and the risk of finding yourself overly fond of employers who don't see you as fully human.  Blanche's alienation from the people around her--her sense of her own differentness--was uncomfortable, but it was supposed to me.  It's what gave her the space to investigate, and our glimpse into it was really fascinating.

The next book in the series is called Blanche Among the Talented Tenth, and I have that from Netgalley, too.  I'm looking forward to seeing Blanche from a new angle--a working class woman in a ritzy black resort town.  I hope, as I keep reading these books, that I get a chance to spend some time with Blanche somewhere she feels completely at home, too.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

An Imperfect World

Alternate post title: Jo Walton is a brilliant genius.

Never mind her ability to write charming, fascinating, beautifully constructed stories that I love.  And don't just look at the incredibly different stories she takes on, from alternate 20th century history to Victorian dragons to domestic fantasy. (And I'm also not just saying that because she linked to my blog that one time.)

No, what makes me say "genius" is the kinds of enormous conceptual ideas she undertakes when she writes.  She tells stories that read as very feminine--personal, intimate, and based around the emotions and psychology of individuals and families, and that are often centered in the domestic sphere.  But she uses these stories to take on ideas that are every bit as big as any Great American Novelist might pick up (and my apologies to her for the comparison, as she's British; I don't know if the Great British Novelist is a thing). 

Lifelode was about love and family and complicated domestic relationships, but it was also about how time and memory work, and intimacy and geography and a lot of other things.  Farthing was a murder mystery with a charming, flighty aristocratic girl for a narrator, and also about the insidious appeal of fascism to the intellectual.  Tooth and Claw was about Victorian dragons, but it was also about how the strictures of culture are no less binding or real for being artificially constructed.

And now I'm reading The Just City (which I got as an advance copy from Netgalley thankyouverymuch) and it is blowing my mind.  Seriously, after Ancillary Justice I thought I'd met my quota of compulsively readable concept novels for a few months, but no, here's this gorgeous piece of work that has me wanting to read Plato, for crying out loud.

So the idea here is that in Plato's Republic, he outlined what the perfect society would look like.  The goddess Athene decided it would make a cool experiment to try it out, so she got some people throughout history (if you ever prayed to Athene to let you live in The Republic, you're in) and they started setting it up.  Children raised from age 10 (acquired from slave markets and ancient Greek orphanages), duties assigned according to skills, technology and art from across the ages come together to create an ideal world, with the hope that, raised on a diet of all that is Good and Right, the best of their generation will grow up to be philosopher kings.

What would happen if these ideas were put to the test?  Well, a lot of things, from disagreements to entrenched sexism, to ten-year-olds maybe not being quite as blank-slatey as Plato expected.  To Socrates himself showing up and turning things on their heads.

I was about to talk about all the themes, but so many of them come back to choice and consent and personhood.  This is stated very bluntly by Apollo, who shows up to learn about exactly these things, but it's reflected in so many ways throughout the story.  Slavery is a big one, since most of these children were bought.  The shadow of slavery hangs over things, from the robots who do the menial tasks (can a city claim to be egalitarian if someone still has to do the gruntwork?) to the children bought from slavery who, in different ways, don't leave it behind.  

The more specific ideas of consent and equality turn up, unsurprisingly, in the experiences of women.  Although Plato's society has women as equals, not everyone believes everything Plato said with equal ferocity.  The place of sex in society (because eros is inferior to agape and philos), the ways women have to deal with their own concerns (because if you tell everyone he raped you, they won't believe you and they'll look down on you afterwards), and the difference between the lives of the adults and the world they're constructing for the children (sex/procreation by lottery, anyone?) are all complicated and invite you to think your way through a logical society until the logic starts to fall apart under the constant footsteps of normal, flawed human beings, all trying to do their best.

I love the Socratic dialogues.  I love the different information you get when you switch points of view, and see Apollo's take on the masters, and the children's take on their world.  I love that Socrates keeps trying to get the robots to talk to him (I'm only halfway through the book, but I'm pulling for a robot uprising led by Socrates).  I love everything about this book, and I'm thrilled that the sequel, The Philosopher Kings, comes out in June.  I'm absolutely preordering it.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Frances Hardinge: Finally

The blogosphere has been telling me to read Frances Hardinge for agesFly By Night was the first one I heard of, but somehow I never got around to it.  And then everyone started talking about Cuckoo Song, and I wanted it, wanted it so bad I went out and got the sample from Amazon.

And finally read it.  Loved the sample.  Went to buy the book.

Found out that it had been removed from the site.

What?  Why?  Who knows?  Some kind of US/UK rights thing, I assume; it'd been out in the UK for a long time, but was not "officially" out in the US yet?  Something like that.  I've been stalking it ever since, for months now.

And then: Netgalley!  Oh, Netgalley, I love you, in spite of your enabling of my really-starting-to-be-worrisome addiction.  The publisher let me have a copy of this to read and good lord, it was so good.

Here's the thing that's cool--it's NOT mind-blowing.  Like, this book is not about turning my world upside down and causing me to rethink my understanding of consciousness or free will (I'm looking at you, Ancillary Justice). It didn't bust anything wide open--it just did what it was doing--a book about a girl who begins to realize that not everything in her life is as it should be, and that reality is not what she thought she knew--absolutely perfectly.

Triss wakes up in bed, sick and miserable.  Her parents are solicitous; the doctor is not worried.  She fell into the river, you see--she even remembers climbing out and stumbling home.  But why are her memories so oddly distant?  Why does her little sister scream at the sight of her?  And what is this wild hunger she can't satisfy?

There are so many good moments in this story, I just want to list them off to explain how they accumulate to make the book amazing. I think what it comes down to is that at every point where things could have been formulaic, that formula was tacitly acknowledged, and then either subverted or happened to fit in with the story.

Take the title.  You've got a girl with confused memories, magical elements, and a title about a cuckoo--it's not long before you start thinking about changelings.  But this is not a book where you sit through the first act thinking, "God, I hope we're not leading up to a big reveal at the end that she's a changeling, because duh."  But no, not even remotely--Hardinge realizes how much of this you are probably figuring out, and she doesn't let you get bored with the details as revealed.  You watch Triss come to the conclusions that you've seen coming, and every step down that path is worth it.

There are all sorts of beats that you expect to hit.  When Triss realizes that her sister, Pen, might be right about her, she approaches her, and you expect an unlikely alliance to form.  But Pen screams at her and sends her away.  If later they confront each other and form a relationship, well, it's not the one that seemed obvious and clear from the beginning.

People whom formula leads me to believe will be allies or enemies end up being nothing so clear cut.  People make mistakes--huge ones--and have to live with the consequences.  People change, just a little bit, just enough to think maybe they can do better. 

And every character in the whole book is the hero of his or her own story--you could choose anyone and write a whole book about their adventure.  If it was Triss's mother, it would be literary fiction about finding her way through depression and motherhood.  If it was Pen, it would be about the biggest mistake of her life, and what sisterhood means.  If it was Violet, it would be about setting yourself free from the past.  If it was the Architect, it would be about fighting the system to save your people from oppression. 

Do you know how hard that is?  How enormous an accomplishment, to contain all of those viewpoints, and yet to keep us locked in with Triss, invested in her best interests at the expense of others, or even of what you might like to have happen?  And it feels effortless, inevitable, like nothing at all.

This book is the highest craftsmanship.  It was an absolute pleasure.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Romance Title Quiz, Part 4: The Quizzening

There's a delightful batch of new romance novels coming out this season.  I just couldn't resist!  Remember the rules: in each category, three options are real titles and one is my own variation on the theme.  This one's pretty easy, I think; I wasn't feeling very creative today.

Previous quizzes are here, here, and here.  Enjoy!

1) Everything you need to know is on the cover.
a. One More Night with Her Desert Prince
b. Seven Nights at Sea
b. Tempted by Her Italian Surgeon
c. Married for the Prince's Convenience
2) I've always wanted one of those! 
a. A Mistress for Major Bartlett
b. A Millionaire for Cinderella
c. A Sword for Her Sheath
d. A Hellion in Her Bed
3) There's nothing sexier than sleep deprivation. 
a. The Seal's Miracle Baby
b. Baby Twins to Bind Them
c. The Texan's Twin Blessings
d. For All the Babies
4) I think they're talking about a horse?  (I hope they're talking about a horse.)
a. Mustang Love
b. Stallion Magic
c. Midnight Thunder
d. Saddled and Spurred
5)  Adventures with garden tools.
a. When a Rake Falls
b. The Lady Finds Her Rake
c. And the Miss Ran Away with the Rake
d. This Rake of Mine

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Corruptions of Power

Okay, was this going to be a spinoff of the Ancillary Justice post in which I discuss the idea of power, and the huge imposing problem with the whole YA dystopian fiction genre being that it's all about overthrowing things and not about what you establish in its place?  I feel like it's a huge subject on which I have only very obvious things to say, but it's one of many topics where I feel like there's a big, complicated issue in the real world that you can't wrap up neatly and so fiction almost never looks at head on: namely, what it means for the good guys to win when it comes to ruling the world.

Let's back off a second and talk about K.J. Parker's novella Purple and Black, which I also read earlier this week.  I discovered K.J. Parker very recently thanks to Jenny, and I am completely hooked.  But where Blue and Gold was clever with a whisper of melancholy, Purple and Black appeared to be clever but just ended up being flat-out tragic.  I don't know how I would have felt if the cover hadn't called out how sad it was, because it just looked clever until you get to the end, and then it's like a knife in the gut.

Without giving too much away, the theme of this novel is whether it's true that power should always be given only to people who would much rather be doing pretty much anything else.  One character talks about how the temptation to use power when it's given to you is so good, so pure--you have it in your hands to make things better--not in a bad-guy totalitarian way, but in a practical, hands-on way.  So you start to try it, and then before you know it, you are a part of the machine, and the machine is always the machine--full of cogs that grind and grind.

The story is pretty fun--a newly crowned emperor who never expected to inherit has no one to trust, so he enlists his old college friends in important offices of state. The book consists of letters between Nico, the emperor, and his friend Philo, whom he's sent to handle insurgents and border raids on the edge of the kingdom.  Philo has zero knowledge of the military, but he has a copy of The Art of War and a sound head on his shoulders.  Official correspondence is accompanied by personal letters between the two friends, and they are both very likeable and thoughtful.  It's fun watching Philo become a strategist.  It's heartening to watch Nico try to make the world better.

But the moral complexity in this story leaves me thinking about Breq from Ancillary Justice, and how she can deal with Anaander Mianaai--whether she can trust even the "good" Anaander, or whether "bringing down" the Radch is a thing that can even be conceptualized.  I mean, looking within the story you can see that going to the interior of the Radch, past the empire to the home planet, is going to be the endgame of the series.  (I'm not allowed to read Ancillary Sword till the book club finishes the first book). 

But I'm thinking more abstract: what does a post-revolution government look like?  Does it always look like the Reign of Terror or the Ayatollah's Islamic Republic?  Can you replace an entire government without destroying everything it's built and killing a bunch of people?  Is the replacement government ever going to be anything but a new kind of despot?

This carries me back, though, to the play I saw this weekend, That Hopey, Changey Thing, which was about a family dinner party on election night.  I'm not quite sure what the play was about (it's part of a cycle and I suspect it'll come together a little bit when I see the next one), but one of the things that was going on was that a room full of Democrats were, one by one and with varying levels of reluctance, that they were disheartened that the Democratic party was so much less pure than their ideals.  That Obama didn't live up to all his promises, and that pundits were really mean to Sarah Palin and that darn it, they're just another big political party, not the grassroots folks I want them to be.

The surprise and chagrin that these characters were feeling kind of shocked me, and it's partly because of the dynamic I'm talking about here--power corrupts.  Being a political party means fighting, it means being partisan, it means that they're trying to, essentially, rule the world.  Is there some level on which a guy trying to rule the world is ever, ever going to be trustworthy?  I mean, I believe Democrats are better than Republicans because their party platform is based around taking care of people, not systems, and giving people freedoms, not taking them away.  But that doesn't make a politician anything except a politician.

This is why Naboo elected a teenaged Natalie Portman to run the planet.  It seems like a bad idea, but really, is it any worse than any other political system?  And it makes me wonder what kind of government Leia and Luke and Han have set up since they brought down the Empire.

Sorry, this was barely a book review.  I think I'm just worried about the world.  Or maybe the Radch; I sometimes have trouble telling them apart.