Thursday, April 23, 2015

Harrison Harrison

Harrison Squared! Daryl Gregory's novel about the monster-fighting teenager has hit the shelves, starring Harrison Harrison, one of the main characters in the super-creepy novella We Are All Completely Fine.  My friend Brenda, an enormous Gregory fan, agreed to write a joint review with me.  My parts in green, hers in brown.  

Quick summary: we both like the book, though maybe not as much as we'd expected.  It's very much a YA book, with an almost whimsical charm--not what the novella might lead you to expect.  

BRENDA: I feel like Harrison Squared was made for me. I love Daryl Gregory and H.P. Lovecraft. In fact, I memorized “The Cats of Ulthar” for a speech in high school. That said, this doesn’t rise to the same level as my favorite Daryl Gregory books (Pandemonium, Unpossible and Other Stories, Afterparty, and We Are All Completely Fine). It’s entertaining and a fast read, but it doesn’t have the same sort of depth as his other books.

SHARON: The reason I wanted to read Harrison Squared at all is because of We Are All Completely Fine, but I think that served this book poorly, because they're quite different in tone.  I was expecting and hoping for something much darker, grittier, and more ambiguous.  This was very much a YA book, and I can't love it as much as I wanted to because it's standing next to the book in my head.

The tone caused me one other problem, which was that the details of this creepy, Lovecraftian little town were so over the top that it made it hard for me to really submerge myself in the world.  Harrison arrives at this school where there's a class on tying nets and swimming in an underground lake under the school and that history book!  The math homework! And he finds them as outrageous as I would, but there's no notice of this.  I mean, would these students be able to pass the MCAS?  How has no one else ever noticed the weird cultishness?  The details were wonderfully amusing, but I couldn't figure out how seriously I was supposed to take them.

This book feels like Harry Potter sometimes, when he’s exploring his bizarre school. It is entertaining (I laughed out loud at his History textbook, The Subjugation and Domination of Various Peoples and Lands: A Guide to Effective Government), but not particularly satisfying. It’s like the book started out as an ongoing inside joke:
  • Practical Skills – just tying nets
  • Cryptobiology – trying to reanimate a dead frog with electricity
  • English – textbook Catastrophes of New England: 1650 to 1875
  • Non-Euclidean Geometry
I loved the contemplation of the nature of memory in the prologue – “’facts’ I’ve layered on over time, like newspaper on a paper mache piñata.” This is one of the reasons I love short story collections that are obviously a person trying to create meaning by looking at the same thing in many different ways, getting to a point where the least true-to-life story is also the most “true.” I feel like a lot of Daryl Gregory’s work is like this. In particular, he returns often to the story of a relatively normal person dealing with the eccentricities of genius, including in this book. He even rewrote one of his novels as a short story (and vice versa) to continue to look at it slightly differently. I’m actually a little disappointed that Harrison’s supposedly fabricated memories are true.

I love the phantom limb sensation. I know that later it will be discovered that it is somehow metaphysical  and is warning him of the presence of something supernatural. Also, I love that the main character has a physical disability (“maimed and limbless” according to Coach Shug) that is at the same time integral to the plot and treated very matter of factly. I love characters like that (think MilesVorkosigan).


Neither the mother nor Aunt Sel are believable characters, and they don’t add much to the book. They’re too exaggerated. Which is one of the reasons why I dislike when we switch to the mom’s point of view briefly (outside of my general dislike of POV shifting).

I love love love Lub. He’s so free and cheerful and odd. And the juxtaposition between him and the way his people are depicted in Lovecraft should be jarring, but just seems original and creative.

I feel like I'm complaining too much; the other side of this simplicity is that the pleasing parts are so simply pleasing.  I agree that the mother was kind of a flat character, but I found Aunt Selina to be delightful.  She should never have been in charge of a young person, but that of course fits right in with a teenager trying to save his missing mother.  She's proud and impulsive and kind of brittle and I had a lot of fun with her.  I loved Lub, too, and the all the other teenagers you get to know (including the very weird and creepy Isobel and what's going on there I'd like to know!  There's a whole other book there.)

How did you feel about the end?  Ambiguous much?  This seems like it's setup for a series, but I'm not sure if the part that's still hanging will support it. 

I didn't see it as setting up a series so much as the hand coming up out of the grave at the end of a horror movie, showing that everything is not actually okay. I mean, how could you have an HP Lovecraft based book with a happy ending? 

Definitely too much of a YA book for me, though. This always happens when I get my hopes too high!
Other random thoughts:

  • Fingercant is cool. I want to learn it.
  • I knew immediately the Albatross was a boat. I hate it when characters don't figure out something obvious.
  • The Scrimshander is legitimately scary.
  • I want to read Thomas Glück’s book. It makes me think of Bloody Jack.
Yes to all of those, especially Thomas Glück's book!  This book was a lot of fun; it lost points only for the expectations I had going in. 

Thank you so much for reviewing this with me, Brenda!

*Review copy received from Netgalley.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


Instead of a review, an update, because I'm not wrapping anything up anytime soon.

Let's see, I finished Lock In, and also the tie-in novella, Unlocked: An Oral History of Hayden's Syndrome.  I basically stand by everything I said in my post from the middle of the book--it's a fascinating, well-written take on illness and identity, and the world building is amazing.  The mystery is good, too, though I definitely got lost in the middle, as I almost always do in a mystery, losing track of who we're talking about and which of them said what in an earlier scene.  But it's fine--a good mystery will carry you over those bumps, as this one does.

Unlocked came as part of the audiobook I listened to, and it was good, but I don't think it added very  much to the novel.  The viewpoints, the stories, and the process it described were all pretty much covered in the novel, and wound neatly in with characters and a puzzle, which made it more engaging.  It didn't really add anything, but I think it made a fine appendix to the main book.

I had started reading Otherbound, by Corinne Duyvis, and I was enjoying it a lot.  It takes a broad concept--every time this boy closes his eyes, even for a blink, he sees/hears/experiences someone else's life, a girl in another world entirely--and then addresses the very detailed nitty gritty around it.  It also shares major plot points with two other books I read recently; like the title character in Harrison Squared (review forthcoming), Nolan is missing a leg, and as in Lock In, the question of having control of your own mind and body is a significant issue here.

I did set it aside for a while, though, because I got my hands on Naomi Novik's new book, Uprooted, which I'm halfway through and completely in love with.  Whether or not you are a big fan of Temeraire (I loved the first one and kind of drifted away during the third), the first half of this book is a delight.  I'll let you know how the rest goes when I get there.

I read volume one of Jeff Lemire's Sweet Tooth, because the internet keeps telling me to (especially the Book Smugglers), and the first volume was good, though kind of disturbing.  I'll have a review when I've read more.  I've got a bit of a comics backlog right now, actually, with some ARCs and some library grabs and new volumes of Angel & Faith to get to.

Really, this is just a post of promises for real reviews that will be coming soon.  And they WILL be coming, honest.  I just need to get a little more reading in sometime soon.  

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Socrates vs. Plato: Smackdown

I need to take some time to come back from this rough stretch in the real world; apologies, and no promises.

But there have been some fabulous books to discuss in this period, and I'm going to start with The Just City, which we'll be talking about at my work book club next week.  I posted from the halfway point, but now I'm done and I think this is a good place to gather discussion questions before the meeting.

Some quick review points, though: the sequel/companion books, The Philosopher Kings, comes out in May, and if you haven't read the first one yet, you might want to wait for a few weeks, because I suspect that it's a read-one-after-the-other situation.  It's not so much a cliffhanger--well, maybe it's a cliffhanger.  It could be a very abstract, nonspecific ending, but I suspect this was one long story in Jo Walton's mighty, magnificent head.

Okay, without further ado, questions for discussion of The Just City, which you must read, preferably with your book club.

1) To what extent is this novel a feminist novel.  But wait, let's back that up a bit and ask: 1a) what is a feminist novel?  Which is a broad question, but this is a book for long discussions of meaning.  And after you answer that, then you can answer the main part of question 1.  I have no idea of the answer to 1a.  But if you rephrase it: to what extent are the positions and depictions of women in this society the main or driving force of this novel?

I felt like the idea of what a woman's position is or could be in this imagined society was really the most compelling, driving force here, and I think it highlighted the whole point of this book, which was where philosophy meets practicality.  Who's going to do the manual labor, and how are we going to deal with childbirth?

Which leads to SO MANY OTHER questions, like 1f) given that none of the masters has ever had a baby (male or female), how is it that men can't help with the child rearing stuff, or 1m) to what extent are the Just City's limitations around women caused by the fact that the majority of people come from ancient history, especially the men?  Or 1s) rape and its many aspects: did it freak you out that Maia had to face Ikarus over and over again?  Or that Socrates was his friend?  What does it mean to be friends with a rapist?  With one who doesn't realize what he did was rape?  Even after being told?

I could go on forever.  Maybe these should be separate questions, but then you get back to 1) to what extent are these questions the main problem of the novel?  Or maybe, is this--the situation of women here--a lens for looking at all kinds of privilege and entrenched prejudices?

I'm not sure about this; the masters are almost all white, for clearly explained reasons, but of course the children are all treated as equal, apparently.  It seems oversimplifying to say that this is about women and how they are treated, but really way too broad to say that it's about oppression in general.

I can already see that my question numbering system is shot to hell.  Anyway.

2) The main theme of the book is very much about the transformation of the general to the specific.  Theories are turned into principles, which become plans and then actions.  Where along this chain do most things fall apart?  Is this something you see in the rest of the world, too?  How does this relate to the trouble people have in seeing why someone different from them might need the world to be constructed in another way?

3) What do you think about the depiction of gods as characters here?  How do gods' motivations and considerations compare to mortals', and how are they scaled down appropriately.  Compare it to other books in which gods are characters (I'm thinking of NK Jemisin's Inheritance trilogy, but if you have others in mind, please mention them in the comments, because this in particular fascinates me).  How do gods understand mortals?  How do/can they care about them, and how do they manage their relationships with them?

4) Philos, eros, agape.  How useful is this construction of love?  What's so wrong with eros?  What did Plato have against eros?  I might need some actual Plato reading to catch me up here.

5) Tangentially related, how do you think the author managed the fact that all these people are basically living and arguing about Plato's ideals without actually managing to answer many of the questions that come up?  It seems only natural to me that answers would never be satisfactory, but it feels like Plato lays out all these answers that just lead to more questions, but no one in the story tries to lock down further answers, as though Plato was the only one who had the authority to declare things firmly True and Right. Does that seem natural?  Don't you wish someone had answered some of these questions?

6) Also, don't you now want to have a Socratic dialogue?  Have one with me!  I'm available for arguments and discussions.

There's so much more--slavery, Kebes, robot sentience, Athene's temper, cliffhanging, babies!  Damn this is the most readably meaty book--or meatily readable--that I've encountered in a while.  I preordered the sequel, which I NEVER do.  Can't wait for book club!

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

In Real Life

In my life, anyway, everyone has strep.  My house is full of strep.  Adam explained to me that the nurse told him that every surface at school, including the table where he eats lunch, is just covered with strep.  Good times.

I need to read more comics; I can plow through those faster and get more finished.  Memo to self.

Also, I'm having another big coincidence in my reads--two books that start out being about something else but end up being basically about losing control of your body, being trapped in it with no volition.  Freaky stuff.

More when we make it out of Strepland.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Lock In: Early Days

I'm on an incredible roll with "issue" books.  Not just YA, either, but books that are just all about making you think about Big Subjects and the Meaning of Things.  There are a few in the pipeline right now; the one I want to talk about here is John Scalzi's Lock In

This one, more than any other recently, is explicitly an issue book--that is, the plot is secondary to exploring in detail a world in which the issue is played out. The idea here is that some small but significant percentage of the population--3%, maybe?--has been affected by an illness that results in "lock in," a state in which the brain cannot control the body whatsoever, though the mind continues to function perfectly.

The illness, Hayden's syndrome, strikes across class barriers, and money is no protection, meaning that there are just as many well-off Hayden's sufferers as poor.  The book takes place 20 years after the beginning of the epidemic, and technology has caught up with the needs of this new class--neuroscience and robotics allow Haydens to participate fully in society.  But a new law is ending government support for these people, and the political situation is dicey.

So that's the setup, and then you have this novel about Chris Shane, a Hayden from a wealthy family whose father is running for the Senate and who has just joined the FBI's squad dealing with Hayden-related crimes.  There's been a murder, and there are political overtones, and etc. 

Okay, so the summary is interesting and all, but I'm only about a third of the way into the book, and besides, I hate summaries.  They either give things away or they bore me to tears), But the thing I'm finding interesting is all the ideas here, sociological and political.  The first thing that jumps out is the tension between the people who are working to cure Hayden's and bring those who are locked in back into control of their own bodies, and those who consider the notion that they need to be cured insulting.  This reminds me very much of things I've read about the Deaf community, and the idea that seeing it deafness as a handicap or disability is offensive.

Now, it's not a perfect comparison.  A Deaf person can participate fully in the community--particularly the Deaf community--with relatively little support.  A Hayden needs to have his or her body taken care of constantly, needs complicated and expensive surgery to be able to interface with a robotic "threep," and needs a lot of technology to interact with the world.  The fact that all of these things are free from the government, while exactly the world I would like to live in, seems kind of unlikely in a United States that doesn't even have real universal health care.

Then again, the idea that non-normative bodies and abilities and ways of being in general are not defective is a big one in the world today, one that I wish I was able to incorporate more deeply into my own thinking.  I have very entrenched notions around "right" and "wrong" ways to be, and while I can look at those notions and disavow them, on a gut level I react to things as though there's a right way to be, a best way to act.  (Hint: I'm usually doing it wrong.)  Anyway, so this is pressing some of my own buttons, even though in theory I am behind the politics of the Hayden's radicals here. 

Even more interesting, though, is when the political gets personal.  Our protagonists's father has made his career as an advocate for Haydens, trying to make the world see them as people, but it's not easy.  Shane faces small prejudices, microaggressions, "no offense" moments, and awkward conversations.  Shane handles it with grace, barely even seems to register these moments, but as they pile up, you as a reader begin to get the slightest feeling of what it's like to live in the position of walking around as a special interest citizen.

Oh, here's another thing--I have no idea if Chris Shane is a man or a woman.  The book is told in the first person; a threep has no gender.  I'm actually listening to an audiobook, which is read by Amber Benson, and a female reader often implies a female protagonist--but there's another version of the audiobook read by Wil Wheaton, so that doesn't really help. 

Now, Ancillary Justice might have primed me for really not worrying about my protagonist's gender, but this does bring up another issue, which is sex.  So far, Shane's sexuality has not come up at all.  I have to assume it'll come up--I mean, how can you have a whole society of people who have normal-feeling bodies that they can't move and not address their sexual feelings, or even romantic ones.  But I've noticed the absence of information around this subject, and I'm hoping it's something that will come out soon. 

Not because I need romance in the story, but because if you're going to sell me a book that depends so heavily on a cultural, political, and anthropological examination of a society in which X is a factor, you really need to touch on all basic human needs--food, shelter, work--sex. 

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.