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A book about an extremely happy person, and about happiness being or not being genetic (and what that would mean for individual people and for society).

Hm. B(/K) tried to get me to read Powers, oh, nearly ten years ago now. I'm glad I waited, because I don't think I would have liked him ten years ago. I'm not sure I like him now (though I'm not sure I dislike him either, and I did find this book fascinating). For one thing, there's a fine line between the exuberance of celebrating knowledge and just plain showing off. A great example of the difference is comparing Sayers' Lord Peter novels, where Peter and Harriet effortlessly toss off epigrams from poets and writers through the ages just because they find it fun, to Jill Walsh Paton's Lord Peter sequels, in which Peter and Harriet laboriously construct quotations because it is expected of them by the readers. -- John M. Ford is one whom I think falls on the former side of the line, and Richard Powers -- I'm not quite sure where he falls. When Generosity had a nice tidily wrapped reference to the Francesca da Rimini episode in the Inferno, I couldn't escape the feeling that I was dutifully catching it like I was supposed to, instead of enjoying it (as is usually the case when I catch Ford's allusions). And I'm not sure the allusion went anywhere, which made me kind of sad. (Maybe it did, and I didn't catch the rest of the allusions, but I suspect not.)

But this is not the point I wanted to make, which is that it's actually rather fascinating to see the sorts of things Powers has to say about science, scientists, how science and scientists are perceived, and how the media interplays with all these things. Powers is undeniably a good writer.

This book is a good paired read with Intuition (Goodman), in that both are about science and scientists. Intuition differs in that it is mainly told from the viewpoint of the scientists, with occasional forays into the POV of an affiliated non-scientist (e.g., the wife and daughter of one of the researchers), while Generosity is told mainly from the viewpoint of non-scientists, with occasional forays into the POV of an implicated scientist. This, of course, meant I enjoyed Intuition much more, because I naturally tend to share the point of view of the scientist. A recurring theme in Generosity is that most of the non-scientist characters react with dismay and horror at the idea that happiness could be genetically based. I agree with the scientist character in the book rather than the non-scientists: how cool would it be if we could find a genetic basis for happiness and quantify it! That would be really interesting! Bring it on!

I also found Intuition to be a much more compassionate book. Not that Generosity isn't sympathetic, but the narrative authorial conceit necessarily introduces an extra layer of separation between the reader and the characters that didn't quite work for me, though it might for someone who is more attuned to literary conceits (and less deeply suspicious of them) than I am.

Here is the extremely positive review from Strange Horizons that convinced me to read it, though note that I did not find the book nearly as compelling as that review does (Kincaid seems to be much more interested in the literary tricks, for one thing). Also, the review thought the narrator voice should be equated with Richard Powers himself. I... got a different sense. If anyone else reads/has read it, I'd like to compare notes as to what you thought.
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Music: I heard Giuliano Carmignola playing the one of the Mozart violin concertos on the radio and was totally wowed -- it completely changed the way I thought about the Mozart violin concertos.

TV: Deep Space Nine. Oh, yeah, it's got the shiny happy Star Trek thing going, but it surprisingly... doesn't suck. Abigail Nussbaum talks about how it is actually kind of made of awesome, especially compared to other ST's and BSG.

Movie: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part I). I seriously loved this movie. A lot. (Even if I hadn't, well, it was the only movie I watched this year.)

Book (fiction): I read a lot of fiction books this year, both good and bad. Nothing that made my Favorite Books of All Time list, but some good ones I liked quite a bit. Ones that stick out: Demon's Covenant (Brennan) for solid YA; The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Diaz) for edgy meaningful SF; This House of Brede (Godden) for thoughtful comfort read (except for one bit which is extraordinarily not comforting) -- this is the book this year I'm most likely to actually buy to own.

Also, The Merlin Conspiracy (Diana Wynne Jones) wins a Special Prize for Being Exactly What I Needed to Read When Suffering from Labor and from Post-Partum Lack-of-Sleep Delirium. I should probably reread it to see if it holds up as being as good as I remember, given that I was, um, not in my normal frame of mind when I read it.

Book (series): Daniel Abraham's Long Price quartet. I haven't liked an adult epic fantasy so well since... well, for quite a while.

Book (nonfiction): Checklist Manifesto (Gawande). Catapulted onto my "everyone needs to read this RIGHT NOW!" list.

Reread: Folk of the Fringe (Card) and The Dispossessed (LeGuin). Both were in my memory as okay, but on reread blew me away with how good they were.
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Finishing up my 2010 posts over the next week or so.

I really liked all these and would have said a lot more about them had I remembered to post about them.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Diaz) - Really a quite remarkable book. Highly recommended. Unfortunately as I read this in half-delirious-sleep-deprivation mode I have forgotten anything I would normally have ranted about. I do remember that Abigail Nussbaum has a a very insightful and brilliant review, even by the rather high standards I expect from her.

In this House of Brede (Rumer Godden) - An odd book I liked quite a lot. Follows a nunnery over the course of several years. If you think reading about nuns, what they feel about their vocation with God, and so on, sounds very interesting, you will probably like this book. (It reminds me a little of L'Engle's adult novels.) If you think reading about nuns sounds like slow torture, you will probably dislike this book quite a bit. I fall in the former category. I got to this from Jo Walton's post at Tor. I've read the other book she talks about and will post about it in another post, since it is 2011 reading.

For the Win (Doctorow) - I'd read short stories by Doctorow and was not particularly impressed. This is my first try at a novel by him, and I quite liked it. Also, it's about gold farming in MMO's -- I mean, seriously, how could you not want to read about that! And he's not afraid to explain things like "what is inflation," which is awesome for a YA novel. It's a little one-note on "The solution is... to unionize!" but for the problem he postulates that is indeed the solution, and I didn't get the sense that he was advocating it strongly for problems for which it's not really the solution.

Also, it is available free, because Doctorow is just so cool that way. I do not understand his business model, however.

The Cardturner (Sachar) - This book is about bridge. I really think Sachar just wanted to write a book where he explained bridge to a YA audience. I loved it, but actually I'm not quite sure whether I should recommend it -- I am not at all the right person to ask, as I rather love bridge myself (though I haven't played in years... it brings back memories of staying up till 3 am in grad school...)

The Dispossessed (LeGuin) - Reread. I actually do have a lot to say about this, and will perhaps make it into its own post. Anyway, I read this in high school, but was blown away by it on this reread. Really very good.
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Dear people who write historical fiction, I have a request. Please actually read books written in the time period you are writing about so you have some idea of the style of the period. Also, if it's not too much to ask, maybe have a draft reviewed by someone who is passing familiar with the period? Thanks!

...That is to say, I really really liked a bit more than half of Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly: the half that is narrated by the 21st-century totally smart but angsty teen. The voice is really well done. The narrator knows a lot about music in a way that rings true to me (as someone who knows a fair amount, but doesn't have a degree in it) and is fascinating to read about. The minor characters (in particular I am thinking about her best friend and his mom) are awesomely hilarious. And halfway through the book I thought I knew exactly what was going to happen, but I didn't -- Donnelly didn't take the easy way out, and the book is way more satisfying because of it.

But. But some of the book is narrated through entries in a journal found by the main character. This journal belongs to a young woman who lived around the time of the French Revolution. Unfortunately... she sounds exactly like the 21st-century teen, stylistically. It really bugged me, to the extent that I would try to translate bits into French to see if it made sense as a French translation (usually not). It especially bugged me, I suspect, because I've read enough stuff written in and about that time period (courtesy of a French teacher in high school mad about the period and willing to feed my book habit) that I have a fairly good idea of what I expect to see stylistically. I mean, I don't expect much-- in a YA book I don't expect a fascimile of an actual person's writings or anything-- but I do expect a reasonable effort, which I felt just wasn't made at all.

Also, when you do things like have your character recite Shakespeare in the middle of the 18th century in France, even if I am engrossed in your story you kick me out of it *wham* because I suddenly start wondering things like "Are you reciting this in translation? Wha?"

And I'm sad, because I really liked it, and I do actually recommend it. Especially if you don't know anything about the French Revolution and so the things that threw me won't throw you. If you do, well... maybe? Know you will have to skim the journal parts.

I'm torn about reading more of Donnelly's work, though, because it seems that she really likes writing historical fiction, and I do not want to read historical fiction by her. More smart 21st century heroines, please?
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My sister wins. (Actually, she generally wins at life, but that's another story.)

The Checklist Manifesto is one of those books that I have not much to say about, because it is awesome. It is further a book that I think everyone ought to read, especially everyone who has any interest in health care OR complex tasks. Gawande writes very well and he totally won my love by running an experiment and then talking about possible alternate hypotheses that could explain the experimental results. Take that, Gladwell! Oh, it's not rigorous double-blind blah blah, but still! I take what I can get. It is also interesting to translate his central concept into e.g. my job, and how the chief programmer has been dunning "Test jigs! Test jigs!" into all of our heads for several years now -- it really is true, as he says, that all complex jobs use checklists; it changed the way I think about complex jobs by providing a unifying structure for them (I'd never thought to compare Chief Programmer's test-driven-development mantra to erecting a large building, but... Gawande kind of did).

This book did reinforce my distinct impression that medicine is stuck somewhere in the last century, technology-wise. I also feel this way every time I talk to the Kid. This is an actual conversation D and I had with her about her clinical research:

Kid: I like doing the data analysis, I just hate doing data entry.
Me: You know, we could write you a script to make that a lot easier.
D: Yeah, what kind of format is the data in?
Kid: Umm... No, you don't understand...
D and I (nodding sagely): Oh, a propietary format. Well, maybe we could figure out how to export the data you're interested in to a text file and...
Kid: No, I really think you don't understand. The hospital provides us with a printout, and I have to copy the data from that.
D and I: ...????????

...Yeah. Medicine seems to have a lot of fancy machines and robots these days, but they seem not to have grasped the essential lesson of the last two decades being information access.
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Yeah, so, I thought i had things to say about Cryoburn, and then I went and read my LJ friends' reviews and found [ profile] lightreads had said all of them already. And somehow managed to do this without spoiling. So go read that review at DW if you want to know pretty much exactly what I think (well, okay, I'm not a lawyer, but I also did laugh at the commodified cryo contract swaps, because so true, and also so true about roving POV showing Miles' entitlement, and the title, and -- oh, just go read it before I quote the entire thing, I agree with it all).

I do think that the Miles books fall into two categories: the character-building ones (Memory, Barrayar, Mirror Dance, Civil Campaign) and the idea ones (Ceteganda, Diplomatic Immunity-- and Cryoburn). (Of course, all have elements of the other -- all have ideas and characters.) That is, I really kind of feel like Ceteganda came out of Bujold saying "Hey, I'm interested in exploring what a society with total control on reproduction would be like!" and that being the focus, rather than Miles. This book seems similar in a lot of ways -- Miles is the substrate, like a tortilla chip, whereby the guacamole or cheese dip of a cryogenics-based society is eaten -- perhaps tasty in himself, but there's so much more that's not about him. (Uh, yes, I'm hungry right now. :P)

But, of course, it's also about Miles.

And in that context, I respectfully disagree with [ profile] julianyap in a cut for massive, massive spoilers )

But of course I'm being somewhat hypocritical here -- if she had written the book that julianyap wanted, I would have been excited to read that as well. I wonder also if she just wasn't equipped to write that book, which I would also totally respect. I can't imagine that would be an easy book to write.

And I do agree I would love to see an Ekaterin-as-hero-mom book. It's totally hard to do. Connie Willis did manage it in a short story, "And Come from Miles Around," which I love.
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Okay, I finished Mockingjay. And... I liked it more than I thought I would. I actually did think it was good, though I certainly found the second half way way way WAY more compelling than the first (I have a couple more thoughts about this). More than that, it made me want to rant about it, which a) is a good sign, and b) usually means that it is both doing a lot of things right (otherwise I wouldn't care) and is seriously flawed (otherwise I'd just rave and declare undying love, which I'm not doing at all).

Mockingjay-destroying spoilers! I compare Suzanne Collins unfavorably to Sarah Rees Brennan, Megan Whalen Turner, and Lois McMaster Bujold. I've tried to avoid spoilers for any of their books, but there are probably mild meta-spoilers. )

ETA: GAH, I am sorry for the un-cut spoilers. Defective tag has been fixed.
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I blame my sister for the fact that I read these at all! That and running out of other books to read. But no fear, I just ordered Cryoburn!

The Compound (Bodeen) - Hiding out from nuclear war. This book was so full of gigantic plot holes I can't even tell you. A "subtle" comment in the first chapter or so means it is very easy to guess the entire plot of the book, such as it is, though I could not have guessed beforehand that the plot would also depend on a guy who runs a multibillion dollar computer company setting up a local wireless network in his nuclear shelter to connect to the Interweb in his private office that presumably has some sort of hardwired connection, while trying to hide from everyone else who is there the fact that there is a working Interweb. Uh?

I am Number Four (Pitticus Lore) - ahahahaha. Message: If you recycle, your (sentient) planet will give you Awesome Superpowers! No, I'm not making this up, Saving the Planet from Pollution is the reason given why the main character and his compatriots have magic superpowers. (On the other hand, if you pollute, you get to be an extra-super-strong-awesome-if-ugly soldier type who can kick the butt of Superpower!Nonpolluters, so there isn't really a tremendously huge motivation to recycle.) This book was hilariously bad, full of random infodumps, random magic with even more random explanations, blatant audience manipulation, and a three-month-duration-teenage Twu Luv romance. It did have its moments of Teenage Wish Fulfillment (having Awesome Superpowers really comes in handy when confronting the school bully, it turns out), but I do not recommend it.

I am currently working on a monster post on Mockingjay, which it turns out I have a lot to say about.
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Not to be confused with things that push my buttons -- these are things that make me bounce up and down and proclaim "This is awesome!" (and more likely to be plot- or meta-based) as opposed to things that make me fall utterly in love (which are more likely to be character-based).

-Stories that are ambitious -- that go off in a number of epic directions. Like, I love how Dune is about the problem of prescience and power struggles and Messiah legends and ecology! John M. Ford's The Dragon Waiting is about magic and vampires and religion and an answer to Charles Williams' Byzantium and the problem of Richard III.

-Characters who are plotting-within-plots. What I mean by this is something like Dune, where all the characters say one thing and mean another, and then they have some twisty plot they're trying to advance underneath that. I realize this can rapidly turn into laziness -- I think Dune is probably rather lazy in this regard, what with all the explicit notes on how the Baron really is communicating X when he says Y. But I love it anyway.

-Characters who are smart! Or at least not criminally stupid. If I want to read about really stupid people I'll pick up one of my old journals, thanks. I don't expect my fiction heroes to be perfect -- in fact that's boring -- but stupid is even more boring. (Here I must mention, not in a good way, Harry Potter, and even worse, George R.R. Martin's Dying of the Light.)

-Correct discussion of science, particularly physics. Seriously, if I never read another discussion of the EPR paradox that says "This means you could transfer information faster than light!" it will be too soon. (Bill Bryson, I am looking at you! You are single-handedly responsible for several people I know having to be disabused of this notion.)

-A mindset that thinks scientists/the scientific method/analytical thinking are cool. The canonical example for me is Rosemary Kirstein's Steerswoman books -- actually those go a little too far in this direction, as I find her scientist-worshipping society a little too pat and a little too idealistic for my taste. But in general, books where a character has a somewhat analytical, skeptical view (e.g., Cazaril in Curse of Chalion) do well with me.

-Allusions to things I think are cool -- I will like you if you quote John Donne or e.e. cummings, and I will utterly think you are made of awesome if you show me you have read Charles Williams, Cordwainer Smith, or the Mabinogion.

-Meta/criticism of canon, if you're working off of some established canon. My favorite published example of this are John M. Ford's Star Trek novels, in one of which he takes down the entire approach to Klingons (um, be aware this was before Next Gen and all of that), and in the other he turns Star Trek into a musical. A book-length one. Literally.

Okay, I, um. I thought, especially once the last book came out, I was done reading Harry Potter fanfic and we could just ignore that episode in my life entirely, yeah? And then I stumbled across Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, an AU, where -- what would happen if a) Harry were brought up in a loving super-rational super-academic household, and b) everyone and everything in the HP universe was, well... more-or-less reasonable? (Not necessarily sane, mind you -- just not holding the Idiot Ball.)

It's like this fic took all the things that make me go squee! and plugged directly into those areas of my brain. Harry starts out by explaining things like observer bias to various people at Hogwart, and decides to run experiments to figure out how magic works! He explains Punnett squares to Draco in the context of blood purity! The first several chapters are a little one-note like that, but I don't care because I love that note! I would have loved it had it all been riffs on that, but as it progresses it also acquires a really interesting plot, layers on layers of hints to be explained, I think maybe every character in the entire fic is now involved in at least one secret plot, and I find the relationship between Harry and Draco extremely moving (and no, not in that way; it's gen/het).

Remember how in The Magicians I was practically mortally offended that on discovering Wood Between the World no one ever thought of doing any experiments? Yeah. This is the answer to that.

Note: this is a WIP. I don't read WIPs. I definitely don't rec them. This is what this thing has done to my brain!
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So for Christmas (yeah, my family doesn't do delayed gratification; we had Christmas presents in September because we all had things we wanted) I got a kindle 3! It is much nicer than the previous kindle iterations; in particular I and my wrists are quite pleased that the page turn buttons are much easier to turn, and for some of my applications (reading while the baby's eating) it is extremely useful that the page turn buttons are almost silent. It is still basically impossible to do anything other than read sequentially through a book, which is lame.

It is registered to my sister's account so I get to read all the books my sister is dying for me to read. She has been into dystopias lately, hence the following:

Birthmarked (O'Brien) - Message (maybe -- there are a number of hints that the author is gearing up to display a rebuttal in the next book): Life is sacred and we shouldn't be killing babies or telling people who to marry, even if they want to marry siblings! Huh. I liked it better than the Hunger Games books, mostly because there is some indication that the author knows that the dangerously naive main character is, in fact, dangerously naive, and doesn't think this is necessarily a good thing. Or maybe I'm too optimistic? This is the first in a trilogy, and I am suspending judgement until the next book as to whether the above message is really what the author is trying to convey. It also suffers from a bit of first-book clunkiness, but not overly so.

Unwind (Shusterman) - Message: The alternative to being pro-choice is killing 16-year-old kids. Huh. I don't quite know what to say about this book. I found it compelling. I did really like it. The writing is quite a bit more transparent and flowing than Birthmarked, in the sense that I never felt like I had to move past the writing to get immersed in the story. That being said, the premise is pretty much incredibly ridiculous, not to mention anvilicious (there is actually a conversation late in the book as to when life begins. Really!), and almost offensive to me, which really hampered my enjoyment of the book. The most offensive to me is the idea of "storking" -- in this book it is legal to stick your kid on a random doorstep. For some reason, probably because I know what my friends had to go through to get licensed to adopt, this really rubbed me the wrong way. But the book also gets points for an extremely chilling scene near the end. So... I dunno... if you're pro-choice and don't mind being beaten about the head with straw men, you might like it. Otherwise, you still might as long as you ignore the anvilicious bits. Of these three I found it the most compelling and the most inspiring of strong feeling -- even though some of these feelings were negative, I think that shows that he got some things right (otherwise I wouldn't care).

The Adoration of Jenna Fox (Pearson) - Message: Stop giving people antibiotics for stupid reasons! I liked it, and of the three the message is the most muted/least anvilicious. Plus which I actually agree with the point about antibiotics. It also has a fair amount about the role of government, which it treats in a relatively nonjudgemental way. Of the three I found it the least problematic and with the best treatment of the issues it's interested in, although not as compelling a read as Unwind.
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So after two not-very-pleasant months working too much finishing up projects and proposals (very pleasant months from the baby standpoint, though I didn't have enough time with her), I am at loose ends work-wise. (Not out of a job; but job pays by the hour and they have no hours for me.) Which is nice because I can hang out more with the baby and not be so stressed out, and less nice in that we are, maybe not hemorrhaging, but certainly dripping money right now, which kind of bothers me. (We've got savings, and this situation will hopefully not last more than a month or so, so right now the annoyance is not so much practical distress as it is pure mental "I'm not used to this!" -- the last time I spent more than I made in a month was the first month of grad school.)

Anyhow. More time to spend talking about books!

Dragonhaven (McKinley) -- I read this when nursing still took forever and was awful, and before E. could sleep through the night, and from that sleep-deprived state it was hilarious. It seems clear to me that McKinley was thinking, "Hey, I want to write a book about how awful taking care of a newborn baby is! And about having kids! And about watching a kid grow up! But I can't sell that to the YA market... I know! I'll make it about dragons!" Yeah. Oh, my baby didn't burn me when she was feeding (and has been a really good baby in general), but the narrator's half-delirious state was... pretty familiar. I can hardly say whether I recommend this or not, given the circumstances. I just thought it was interesting that she did that. And apparently got away with it.

Poison Study (Snyder) -- The book itself was fine, the usual fantasy fluff, plotwise and characterwise nothing special either good or bad, spunky girl hero, etc. -- but the romance made me beat my head against the wall. I found it both annoying (severe power disparities in relationships give me a headache) and badly written.

The Girl Who ... (Larsson) -- I read the second and third of these. Kind of. That is, at the point where Blomkvist has his second bout of complete middle-aged irresistibility to women, or maybe the third, I started to determinedly skim. I'm not sure I missed much except more product placement (yes, thanks, I really wanted to know Lisbeth had a titanium G4) and more of Blomkvist's sexual conquests. Though as someone who knows a bit of math, it bothered me more that Larsson has some really weird idea of Fermat's Last Theorem. (Briefly, he seems obsessed with x^3 + y^3 = z^3 being the problem, and not x^n + y^n = z^n. I believe the former can be proved pretty easily, though don't ask me to do it.)

I think I know why they are so popular, though. There's some really great villains-getting-their-comeuppance that just feels so very satisfying, the best example being Bjurman in the first book. Although I love this too, I'm not sure I think this is entirely healthy. I think the books I have liked best are ones where the villains don't get their proper comeuppance -- not that they necessarily get off scot-free, but sometimes they don't get satisfyingly punished. Because sometimes it's about other things... like the heroes. Or forgiveness. Or not forgiving, but getting on with life. Or what-have-you. Like life itself.

Next up: YA dystopias on the kindle! (Not Mockingjay, sorry. I'm supposed to get my hands on the copy around Thanksgiving.)
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Um, yeah. I'm still alive, really. So having a kid didn't really slow down the posting, but the going back to work really killed it. I also have been slowing down a lot on the reading, which didn't help the lack of posting.

Here's a six-month pic of the Not-So-Little One, with her typical bemused expression. (Though her head looks slightly larger than in real life.)

Let's see, what have I been up to lately. I just snarfed through Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which was an entertaining fast thriller read though rather disturbing, and also Larsson had this really weird habit of doing product placement for Photoshop and Apple, to the extent that I seriously was starting to wonder whether he got kickbacks from them. Also the part where the main character was irresistible to all women was pretty funny.

I also read the YA White Cat (Black) (thanks [ profile] sarahtales!) which I very much enjoyed for its alt-universe mode of a world where people can perform magic but it's against the law, thus making a Mafia of magic-users, though my sister figured out the entire plot within about two chapters of its beginning, and was subsequently kind of bored. (Still, [ profile] julianyap, I think you'd like it.)

I know there must be other stuff I want to talk about. The problem is that right now the only time I have to post is when I am too exhausted to work (uh, yeah, she wanted to play last night instead of sleep), and there's a pretty high correlation between that and being too exhausted to come up with the things I want to rant on and on about. Well, my big work project is over in two weeks and after that I may be cutting down on my work hours, so we'll see.
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I finished The Demon's Covenant this morning (when I should have been working) and I have been thinking about it and engaging with it all day (when I should have been working), and rereading lots of bits, and writing this when I should have been working, and I need to rave about it! Read Lexicon first, because this book totally and completely spoils Lexicon, and [ profile] julianyap should avoid it until the third book in the trilogy comes out (next year, I guess?) because while it doesn't end on a cliffhanger, it is clearly setting up for something big.

That is to say, I adored this book with a great and adoring and italics-inducing love that I did not have for Lexicon (though I liked Lexicon quite a bit). I'm not even sure I can articulate why, because Covenant is the second book of a trilogy, with all the problems that implies (not anything against this book in particular, just endemic to the second-book breed), and it didn't make me cry like Lexicon did (although mostly because I was in shock, and also because I was pregnant and hormonal when I read the first book), and it didn't have a super reveal like Lexicon. I think the plot was significantly less tight than that of Lexicon (and more dependent on characters communicating or not), though I might be wrong about that -- I need to reread the whole thing again to see. Her style with the ultra-short paragraphs always distracts me for a while -- it was around a third of the way through when I found that I had ceased to notice it because the story had drawn me in that much. And due to someone's review -- I think maybe it was [ profile] kate_nepveu -- Nick's sarcasm bothered me (which it didn't in Lexicon because I wasn't thinking about this problem), because he doesn't have the facility with language to lie but he can do sarcasm? Though it is sometimes howlingly funny, so I let it pass.

So why did I adore Covenant so much more than Lexicon? This book does have a huge advantage over Lexicon in that SRB isn't trying to juggle Nick's POV (Mae is a satisfyingly normal POV character), which was always a very delicate balancing act. (Having said that, I must also add that Nick's POV was crucial for that book, and for setting up this book.) Because of this POV switch it's hard to tell -- but -- I think, as well, the writing also improves a good deal in this book (although there was definitely the odd simile where I was all "uh, what?"). And it was in this book that I (finally) fell in love with all the characters. I love all of them! Including the villains. I think this is partially not being hampered by Nick's voice, and partially because SRB does much better with the long form, as I tend to get distracted by the distinctive style and the wit in the short term; even though she has particular characterizations in mind, it can take me a while to see them.

The other reason I adore this book may be that it explicitly and implicitly engages with the Great Questions of literature (according to the best teacher I ever had, who taught us Brit Lit and, tangentially, about life): what does it mean to be human? What is this thing called love? (Lexicon also mentioned these questions, but much more implicitly.) One character is explicitly looking for this answer; the other characters provide different perspectives. One character, we come to see, is the epitome of what it means to be human and to retain your humanity in the face of disaster. Another character is the epitome of how one's humanity can be sucked away, little by little, by one's choices and by what one becomes accustomed to, while one retains the habits of a human being (and one who seems pretty nice, at that). Yet another character has one single thread of humanity, with everything else subsumed to that single thread to such an extent that it is twisted out of human provenance. The character who has explicit claims to be the least human is not in fact the least human character in the story, though he may appear so, and I think this is a deliberate shading by SRB.

Oh, and then love. Romantic love is discussed, both between the YA characters and between adults (two sets of estranged spouses -- both these romances happen way before the time of the book and are mostly just alluded to). And more than that, familial love (yay!! I despise how most YA books focus on romance, as if the majority of people you knew paired up as teenagers). What is love? Does love die? Yes; sometimes you fall in love with something on a pedestal, something that's not a real person, and that love may die. But also love does not die. (I must confess that although I enjoyed the scene where Mae explains how love dies, I don't see what the point of it was -- it doesn't seem like it serves any purpose, or that the person who was listening to her uses that information at all. Unless I missed it -- I was reading the last bits pretty quickly because I was so engrossed.)

A continuation of this discussion, only with spoilers! )
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Sherwood Smith kept being recommended to me as something I would like given that I like Megan Whalen Turner, Diana Wynne Jones, and the like. So I got all the books our library had by her (a grand total of two... as I keep remarking, our library is a bit hit-or-miss), which are the two in the title.

Crown Duel was an early book, I think; at least, it feels very much like it. I never really did get into this one. I think part of it is that I need to read the sequel, but still, it never quite... went deeply enough.

A Posse of Princesses was picked up by our babysitter (college freshman) before I got to it, and she really liked it. And, you know, I did too. It's really really cute. It's like... Pride and Prejudice written for teenagers, with magic and princesses. I mean, it's definitely a kid's book, no doubt. But it's adorable, like a kitten, as is the main character, and doesn't pretend to be horribly serious (whereas I kind of got the impression that Crown Duel was supposed to be serious, but it wasn't). Also, kudos for having an important supporting character who is both an airhead and is seriously talented. Because people are really like that!
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[ profile] winterfox's excellent review panning Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (thanks for the link!) pointed out that Jemisin says (about the character who most embodies my complaints about Eeeeeevil characters) the following:

See, the way I see it — others’ mileage may vary — one of the staples of epic fantasy is clearly-delineated good and evil... So I needed there to be one absolute, unadulterated ratbastard in the story, and [character redacted] was it.

And to keep [] absolutely evil, I needed to keep [] relatively unknown. I don’t know []'s back story.
But this is all I know about []. It’s all Yeine needed to know. And it’s all either Yeine or Iwanted to know, because it’s hard to plot another person’s death if you know them and understand them.

There are so many things wrong with this that I don't even know where to start. Let me just say that this is completely contrary to my entire philosophy of life and literature. I have gone from "not really interested in next book" to "by no means picking up next book."
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So before reading this I read a bunch of reviews that really really liked this, and (I am a creature of contrariness) I think I would have liked it better had some of them panned it. It's all about the expectations. I try, actually, whenever I see a movie or read a book, to expect it'll be bad, because if it turns out not to be bad I'm really pleasantly surprised. (For example, the Abraham Long Price quartet got quite mixed reviews, and I very much liked it, though it did have its flaws and thus I can tell I might have thought worse of it had it had only positive reviews.) Anyhow, here's my take, and maybe someone else will like it more because of this review?

Okay, so, there were a lot of things it did right. Some fairly neat worldbuilding; the story of the gods was pretty interesting; yes, fine, it is the antithesis of racefail. The writing is fine, though the narrative is interspersed with Portentous Comments that I found offputting at first, but gradually we come to see the reason for them, which is pretty cool actually.

But, you know... I am kind of a sucker for characters I care about, or, failing that, characters that are at least just a little tiny bit sympathetic. In particular, I very much like to have evil characters who have understandable motivations. (Saruman and Denethor are, let's face it, way more interesting than Sauron.) Well, in this book, there's the protagonist, whom I could never quite get myself to care that much about, but who is at least more-or-less sympathetic, and everyone else. One minor character who is sympathetic but gets a fairly small amount of screen time. Gods who get a lot of screen time but who are, well, gods, and therefore by definition hard to sympathize with. And a whole passel of Eeeeevil characters who apparently have nothing better to do than sit around being evil and oppress people (meanwhile, lying, enslaving, murdering, torturing, and every other bad thing you can think of; I suspect the only reason there were no puppies in blenders around is that I don't think there are puppies or blenders in this world), for no good reason I can see except that they are Evilly Psychotic, which I don't really find a good reason. This goes on to the point where we eventually learn that the Eeeeevil characters' idea of a fun party is, literally, torturing someone -- it kind of made me roll my eyes, which I think was not the author's intention.

Now, I must admit the climax was cataclysmically (literally!) awesome and almost worth the price of admission. However, I probably won't be picking up the sequel unless someone can assure me there's at least one character I will care about. I may go read another Octavia Butler instead (I'm carefully rationing the ones left unread since there will be no more); if you want to read something that's actually interesting and nuanced and thoughtful regarding race and dominion vs. slavery, and violence as an offshoot of these things, that is what I would recommend.
cahn: (Default)
I find Gladwell entertaining but frustrating and irritating, and his books seem to be getting worse. This one told me a lot of things I already knew and followed them up by drawing erroneous conclusions.

Okay, one thing I didn't actually know was that the way league hockey players are chosen in Canada, by having a cutoff date of Jan 1 and picking promising players when they are relatively young, privileges those who are born right after Jan 1 (since for small kids, a differential of months in growth and strength is pretty large). So that was interesting. However, Gladwell then goes on to say that if Canada only had two hockey leagues, one of which had a different cutoff date, say, July 1, it would have twice as many hockey stars! Uh... well, that's true, but so would it if it had two hockey leagues both of which had the same cutoff date, or if it had two hockey leagues where the players were chosen by, I don't know, hair color. The point is, having that artificial cutoff date makes it unfair for wanna-be hockey players born later in the year, and means the hockey league isn't utilizing the inborn Canadian hockey talent in the best way, but the number of hockey stars is a constraint artificially imposed by the size of the league.

The whole book's like that: sloppy. We learn to our vast surprise that you have to practice to be good at things, who knew? And that kids with parents who nurture their kids' skills turn out to be better at those skills in general than those who aren't that lucky! Bill Gates was not only smart, he was also lucky! (And yet another inconsistency: Gladwell asserts that everyone in Gates' computer club had the same opportunities Gates did, yet at the end of the book he bemons that Gates was the only one who had these opportunities. Uh, which one is it?)

And then there's the summer vacation thing. Gladwell has this argument that Asians are better at school than US students because they don't have summer vacation, and they don't have summer vacation for deep-seated cultural reasons: because working in a rice paddy means you work all year, unlike wheat farming where you have large down periods, which gave rise to the idea that students should also have large down periods. Uh, what? Maybe it's because Gladwell isn't a girl, but anyone who's read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books knows that winter wasn't exactly people sitting around twiddling their thumbs. And kids worked all year round. When they weren't in school they were working in other ways. (Laura, when not in school, got jobs sewing and so on.) His thesis just Makes No Sense At All.

And yet I will probably keep reading his books. They're the book equivalent of Cheez Balls. Not particularly good for you, probably not real cheese either... but addictive.
cahn: (Default)
Read Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet. It's a fantasy set in a vaguely Japanese-ish setting, so gets meta points right away for that. I want to call it an epic fantasy -- epic things happen: there's a war that consumes, well, maybe not the entire world, but all the parts of the world we know about, and enormously powerful magical beings, and a hero... but to call it epic fantasy brings up visions of Robert Jordan, and it's just about as far from that as possible. For example, the enormously powerful magical beings, the andat, are also slaves to poets, who capture them by crafting very specific descriptions, and have (as one might deduce from the preceding clause) extremely specific powers: Stone-Made-Soft can do exactly what his name implies with any sort of stone, but can't do anything else.

It reminds me a bit of KJ Parker or Joe Abercrombie, but with actually likeable characters. (The relationships between the characters are the most important and interesting part, to me.) And, while Parker's Engineer trilogy might be summed up in the word "engineer" or perhaps the phrase "Rube Goldberg machine," I would describe these books as... elegant? The overall impression I get is one of elegance, anyway.

I liked the first two books in the quartet much more than the latter two. The first two are more about people, and the latter two are more about the epic (though both have aspects of the other). The latter two suffer a lot, I thought, from the plot arcs being driven by (large) actions of the andat, which to me smacks a little of deus ex machina. (I also had a fairly severe problem with one of the motivations for a key plot point in the fourth book.) The first two books, of course, have andat actions as major plot points, but the actions themselves are quite a bit smaller and therefore seem less like authorial manipulation. However, that caveat aside, I think this is the best epic fantasy series I've read since... since Attolia? (Though I do not love and adore it like I do Attolia; that would be entirely too much to ask.)

Speaking of which, though, I have also read A Conspiracy of Kings, which I love to little bits and pieces, although my favorite is still King of Attolia.
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Oh, good gosh, that was pretty intense. The Knife of Never Letting Go is YA SF, and begins in a town that is solely made up of men all of whom can hear each other's thoughts. I liked it a lot and it goes at rather a breathless pace, but not so breathless that it can't also have some nice character arcs and say interesting things. Most of the plot (including the very end) was pretty transparent to anyone older than YA (though there was at least one plot element (the sacrifice, for those who have read it) that caught me by surprise, if only because I was so deeply engaged in the book at that point), but it was still very much worth reading to get there. The only thing that really annoyed me was a somewhat blatantly manipulative tearjerker moment. (It did, in fact, accomplish its purpose; there were definitely tears in my eyes in that part. However, there are other emotional moments in the book that are less obviously manipulative.)

However, [ profile] julianyap should consider himself warned that (although I think you would quite like it; it reminds me a little of a cross between M.T. Anderson and The Hunger Games) it is book 1 of a trilogy, the third of which comes out in September, and ends on a cliffhanger.
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The little food machine (whom I shall also probably refer to as Princess Baby The First) is quiet right now for once, so I shall indulge myself with a quick post instead of doing the sixteen other things I really ought to be doing. (By the way, this post is dedicated to Harvey Karp's Happiest Baby on the Block, without which you would not be getting a post at all. YAY SWADDLING.)

Once again Deaver was alone on the boundary between the pageant wagon and the town, belonging to neither-- yet now, because of the show, belonging a little to both.

From Orson Scott Card's Folk of the Fringe, which I reread the first week post-delivery. Dystopian-future-SF short stories featuring Mormons and non-Mormons. I think it's amazing stuff, and reads much better now I'm in my 30's than it did when I was in my teens. I wish Card had gone more this way-- I enjoy hearing what he has to say about community (and family as a subset of community) and belonging, but he doesn't do nearly as much of that anymore, choosing instead to focus explicitly on Families Forever. Mind you, I do think Card is at his best when he writes about Mormons, in fact, because it frees him up to actually, you know, think about ideas (and almost all of his Mormon-centric stuff has stuff that contraindicates theology for a True Believer), as opposed to Giving You a Lecture.

"Powers preserve me from thickheaded, self-centered, cocky teenage wizards!"

Diana Wynne Jones, The Merlin Conspiracy. If this isn't a shout-out to Harry Potter (the publication date is 2003) I'll be very surprised, although of course in context it has nothing to do with HP. I really, really liked this one. (Though [ profile] nolly, I suspect this is the DWJ you read which made you decide you might not like DWJ. If so, all I can say is, yeah, you're probably right.) Any other author would be content with one-tenth of the imagination DWJ has, and it's in full display in this book, which pulls in Arthurian tropes, Welsh tropes, a world with a lot of hard radiation, the Little People, and an elephant, among other things. It's a sort of vague sequel to Deep Secret, which I didn't realize until after finishing it, and honestly it stands rather better on its own than as a sequel (where is any mention of Maree?) - but I just love the mad rush of ideas, plus which DWJ has that elusive quality that I absolutely love, where her descriptions can go between prosaic-English to wild-elegant-Welsh, with humor as well:

"Forgive me," [the King] said, looking up at the Count of Blest. "I haven't exactly done well, have I?"
"Others have done almost as badly," the Count of Blest said, quite kindly, riding on.

Speaking of humor, I just reread the Attolia trilogy-so-far (Megan Whalen Turner). My favorite bit has always been

"...and I threw an ink jar at his head."
..."I had not pictured you for a fishwife."
"Lo, the transforming power of love."

These books are The Best. Oh, well, The Thief is mildly entertaining, but I don't love it with overwhelming passion the way I do Queen of Attolia (though YES, I have vast trouble with the relationship) and King of Attolia (which I just love, partially because I pretend like some of the relationship from the previous book does not exist, or is tamped down a couple notches), though one must read The Thief to get to the good stuff in the later two books. Although, as [ profile] julianyap points out, Gen is rather a Gary Stu, I love them madly anyway -- Turner has a precise, elegant way of writing; and her elegant plots remind me of Bujold's or Brust's in the neat way they hang together. Really, these are some of my favorite books (maybe top 20 or so) I am SO psyched for Conspiracy of Kings, due out at the end of March. If you have not read them you should go read them right away. Just be warned about The Thief not being quite as good, and Queen having the somewhat disturbing relationship thing (though, when I think about it, somewhat less disturbing than Twilight).


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