Monthly Archives: June 2011
When I was an undergraduate, I meant to be an English major. I loved to read, surely I would be an English major, right? But when I got to college I was placed with the anthropology department for my freshman adviser, and I fell in love. People! An entire discipline about people! Figuring out why people do the things they do! It didn’t hurt that my adviser specialized in the cargo cults of Papua New Guinea, which led her to an interest in UFO movements. We studied all kinds of interesting stuff, I tell you what.
Margaret Mead was hugely popular once upon a time. She took her experience as an anthropologist and turned it into a career as a writer, columnist, and speaker. Alas, anthropology isn’t all that popular any more, and a lot of Mead’s own research has since been improved upon to the point where I can’t recommend it wholeheartedly. And Clifford Geertz, one of the great ethnographic writers, died just a year or so after I graduated. But I love anthropology, and I love recommending it to people, so even though there’s no such genre as “popular anthropology” any more, I have made it my project to amass a collection of books about people I can foist off on people and say, “Here! Isn’t this awesome?”
- Ishi, Last of His Tribe by Theodora Kroeber (who is Ursula K. Guin’s mother, for the fantasy fans out there). This is an anthropological classic, still fascinating today. Ishi was what they called the last surviving member of the Yahi people of California – in his tribe, it was forbidden to speak your own name. Kroeber wrote his biography, and this is pretty much all we have left of an entire way of life.
- Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. More psychology than anthropology, this book is an enthralling exploration of studies on why humans do things that don’t make rational sense. Because we’re human, is Ariely’s conclusion. I love that he argues that we should change our social systems to fit our brains, rather than trying to change our brains to fit our badly-designed systems.
- Stiff by Mary Roach. I love all of Roach’s books (although Bonk was a little disappointing), but this is still my favorite. Stiff follows the life of a corpse – how forensic scientists study them, how funeral directors care for them, how cemeteries and crematoria dispose of them. Fascinating (if slightly grisly) stuff.
- Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt. Yes, it’s a study of traffic patterns. Also traffic control measures, drivers’ perceptions and attitudes, and the social history of the American relationship with cars. Vanderbilt has put together a fascinating study of something most of us do so often we don’t think about it any more – and offers some great reasons for why we should.
- The Great Cat Massacre by Robert Darnton. Another classic of the field, this one in history, Darnton pieces together the culture of early modern France from the texts we have available. Great stuff, from his attempts to understand just why people would find it necessary to slaughter all the cats in a city to his descriptions of – and quotations from – the Rousseau fangirls.
- The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher, my favorite book for which I can never remember the title. Language is complicated stuff, moreso when you’re a mongolot like me, but Deutscher explains things clearly, with a friendly, casual tone that invites you in to learn what you can. (He even managed to make Hebrew structures understandable to me for a while, which I remain incredibly impressed by.) If you’ve ever had the slightest interest in the history of human communication, you’ll want to take a look at this.
I always used to resent the idea that I ought to read nonfiction to learn something – I read it because it’s fun. Got any fun nonfiction reads to share?
Where I got it and why: From the library, since there isn’t a bookstore in town with a copy and I needed it NOW. Third in Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet.
Recommended?: Oh yes. But this is definitely a series you read in order — get the first two first, and look forward to this one.
Review: There is something about these books that causes me to get stuck about halfway through, leave it be for a few days, and then pick it up and drive straight on to the end. I’m not sure if it’s a lull in the action or what, but this is the third time it’s happened. I am so glad I did pick it back up, though, because this book is easily the best in the series so far.
And a warning: we have reached the point where it is inevitable, there will be SPOILERS for the earlier books in the rest of this review.
Some fifteen years have passed since the events of A Betrayal in Winter. Otah is now Khai Machi, responsible for an entire city. He has, scandalously, only one wife, and his only son Danat is sickly. His daughter Eiah, being a teenager, is starting to act out, despite the careful guidance of her beloved Uncle Maati. Into this relatively blissful domestic scene comes Liat, the former lover of both Maati and Otah, with her grown son, who had been raised by Maati when he was small but who is now so visibly Otah’s son that his presence is likely to cause even more scandal. Not as much, though, as the news Liat brings with her: the Galts are going to attempt an invasion.
For centuries the andat, the incredibly powerful beings held by the poets of the great cities, have protected them from the technologically advanced, militaristic Galts, but Galtic General Balatar Gice has dedicated his whole life to destroying the andat. No one, he thinks, should be allowed to have that much power – control over a being who could pull down whole cities with a thought, or destroy the crops of an entire country, or cause ravaging floods and devastation. He has gone into the desert that used to be the old Empire, he has found a poet of his own, and he is going to first destroy the andat and then any possibility that they will ever return, even if that means destroying every one of the great cities on his way.
All of the cover blurbs on this book talk about the amazing ending, which usually puts me off because most of the time, knowing the twist is going to come, I can predict it well in advance. Not so much in this case. The climax of this story hits that perfect combination of exquisite foreshadowing and total surprise – Once you get there you realize there is no way it could have gone any differently, but it was so completely not what you were expecting that it feels like a punch in the gut. In a good way, of course.
Abraham’s characters are exquisite, and as the world becomes more familiar the deeper you get into the series, the characters take their places as the highlight of the book. Otah, Maati, and Liat have all changed so much since A Shadow in Summer, grown both in wisdom and in their flaws, but they’re still deeply recognizable as themselves. It’s the characters who make that ending what it is, because it’s the characters, their drives and disappointments, the whole history of their lives, that make it so inevitable. It’s a wonderful study in how good people can do horrible things in pursuit of good causes, and there is no one, from the Galtic general to the treacherous mercenary, who you can really blame. Everyone is doing the best they can with the options they have, they’re just terrible options. It is, in fact, very like a Greek tragedy; if they were different people it would have gone differently, but they aren’t, so how could it?
In any other series, this would be the end. This book ends with an earthshattering change, but there are possibilities for growth and rebirth still visible. Most writers would have left it there, but there is another book in this series, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Series: The Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham
Heck with reviewing books one at a time, sometimes what you want is a big pile of books to lay up. (Especially as it heats up outside and all you want to do is sit on the couch with a glass of iced tea, a fan, and a book. Now that sounds like an ideal summer vacation.) My disappointment at The Unremembered has made me think about all the other fantasy books I’ve loved. Fantasy is such a huge genre; there’s so much you can do, so many exciting worlds you could explore, why read the same thing over and over? While I admit to a fondness for cheesy 80s fantasy (it’s what I grew up on), I can guarantee that none of these books are a Lord of the Rings ripoff, and they will all surprise you at least once. These are my favorite summer fantasy rereads.
- Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle – published in four volumes in the US as A Secret History, Carthage Ascendant, Wild Machines, and Lost Burgundy. Ash is a female mercenary captain in late medieval Burgundy, and she is going to save the world. Just not her own. This is fantastic alternate history at its very best.
- Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. This is a classic journey-into-the-underworld type story, but what an underworld! (I bought a copy when I was in London a couple of years ago, because it took me two days to figure out why I was so familiar with the Underground map when I’d never been there before, and then I just needed a reread.)
- Caught in Crystal by Patricia C. Wrede. Although she’s given up her old life, Kayl’s past hasn’t given her up, and she and what’s left of the friends of her youth have to finish what they started. Wrede was my very first writer crush – I was introduced to her through Dealing With Dragons, a sort of fractured-fairy-tale wonderfulness which you should also read – and I’ve loved this book for years. I doubt I noticed it at the time, but it features not only a female protagonist, but a middle-aged one at that. And yes, she kicks ass.
- The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. Fantasy thieves and con men. If you are the kind of person who likes that kind of thing, do you really need more? This is the sort of book they mean when they say “rollicking adventure,” and better yet, it’s the first in a series. (Red Seas and Red Skies is Locke and Jean plus pirates, and the third is coming out — someday.)
- Jhereg by Steven Brust. The first in Brust’s epic Vlad Taltos series, this is still one of my favorites: the story of an assassin and his telepathic flying lizard, and their quest to dominate the underworld of the Dragaeran city of Adrilankha. (At least for now. They’ll have other quests later.) Brust takes fantasy tropes and dances on them, with a hefty dose of wry humor. Get in on it now before the series gets any bigger: he’s churning them out at a rate of one a year, and he’s only got six left to go.
- Mélusine by Sarah Monette. Felix is a wizard of the Mirador, flighty, petty, and damaged. Mildmay is a former assassin, now the best cat burglar in the city. Not always the easiest book to get through, with half of it from the point of view of a man who’s gone so insane he cannot reliably identify humans as humans, but it’s a fantastic world, amazing characters, and the series builds most wonderfully.
I find summer terribly nostalgic for some reason, so I love using it to get reacquainted with old favorites. What are some of your favorite summer rereads?
Where I got it and why: After I spotted this in the Goodreads new release newsletter, I put a hold on the library’s on order copy immediately. I love true crime and history – this is two in one! Also, I am a huge fan of CBS’s Criminal Minds, and they used the story of the Mad Bomber extensively in the first season. (The specific episode references, if you’re looking for them, would be 1×03, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and 1×13, “Poison.”)
Recommended? Yes, if you like history, the 1940s, or are like me trying to track down books on every one of the serial killers, cult leaders, and other criminals mentioned in Criminal Minds.
Review: From 1940 to 1956 – with time off for World War II – George Metesky waged a one-man war against the Consolidated Edison Company of New York, New York. He’d started with letters, but by the 40’s, he’d escalated to pipe bombs, wrapped in a man’s red woolen sock and stashed at various locations around the city. He eventually confessed to planting more than sixty of the things, although only about thirty-some ever went off. (There is one in the Empire State Building, Greenburg reminds us, that has never been found.)
Greenburg renders the story of the Mad Bomber, as he was known, from a variety of perspectives – from the newspapers who followed his exploits to the police who tracked him to the psychologist who profiled him to, sometimes, Metesky himself. He also does a fine job of including quite a bit of historical context, helpful for those of us who do not have a ready-made mental picture of New York in the 1940s and 50s. (Mine always includes Cary Grant.)
It took me a little while to get into this book, partly because the first few chapters are more than a little confused. They jump backwards and forwards in time – clearly an attempt to start in media res, but since so many of the bomb incidents are so similar, it’s hard to get a grip on exactly when this is happening. Around chapter two or three, though, things settle down and start moving forward at a reasonable pace: Metesky’s personal life, his injury on the job at the Con Ed plant, his escalation from letter-writing to bomb-making, the collaboration of policework and journalism that finally identified the bomber, and Metesky’s long incarceration in the mental hospitals of New York.
The Mad Bomber was a landmark case in a lot of ways, from the way newspaper articles drew out the bomber by inviting him to communicate with them to the impact it had on sentencing and dealing with mentally ill criminals, and Greenburg touches at least a little bit on each of them. He devotes a whole chapter to the profile of Metesky created by Dr. James Brussel and how this widely-publicized tool impacted the later development of criminal profiling as we know it today, which I found fascinating, Criminal Minds fangirl that I am. The passages comparing profiling to Pliny’s descriptions of the physical characteristics of the criminal type seem to indicate a certain disdain for profiling on Greenburg’s part, which I can’t entirely disagree with. In just a few short sections he provides a perspective on the field I haven’t seen before, and for that alone the book was worth it.
Although a little thin at times, and drawing more conclusions about various actors’ internal thoughts than I generally like in my nonfiction, I found this a good overview of an interesting and complex case. Greenburg does an excellent job of situating the Mad Bomber case in its historical and cultural context, and draws attention to all of the wide-ranging influences it had. I enjoyed this quite a bit, and I would recommend it as a good summer read, if you’re inclined to find this sort of thing as fun as I do.
The Mad Bomber of New York: The Extraordinary True Story of the Manhunt that Paralyzed a City, by Michael M. Greenburg, was published by Union Square Press on April 5th, 2011. Find it on: Goodreads, Indiebound
Well, I’ve finally done it. I’ve admitted to myself that an ereader would make my life easier.
I resisted for a long time. I don’t particularly like ebooks; I don’t like leasing books instead of buying them, and I like the physical heft of a novel. Besides, I said, I have a netbook (that runs on Linux and doesn’t like the Adobe authentication software). But I’ve been getting more and more ebooks, more and more things are available, and with all the egalleys I’ve been going through, well, I think it’s time.
First off: the Kindle’s out. I don’t like the way Amazon has been handling it, and I don’t want to support the way they’ve been doing business with ebooks. From the 1984 deletion scandal to their highly unprofessional single-company boycott of Macmillan to the unregulated mess of the Kindle store, I want nothing to do with them any more. (I have in fact stopped buying books from Amazon altogether and gone back to my local chain and indie bookstores, which is better for the local economy anyway.)
Now, I’m usually the type who prefers a cheaper third-party option to the big brand names, but unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of good third-party options in the ereader field at the moment. I haven’t seen one yet that manages to be even an adequate replacement for one of the big three. So that leaves me with the Sony Kobo or the Barnes & Noble Nook. I admit, I have a superstitious dislike of the Kobo largely because it’s been the ereader supported by Borders, and Borders is not the healthiest bookstore chain at the moment. The current version is, inconveniently, right-handed: there’s only one button, on the bottom right of the device. That pretty much kicks it out of the running for me. I’m sick of using gadgets that have been carefully designed for someone I am not.
That leaves me with the Nook. Fortunately, the Nook gets excellent reviews and looks to be one of the best options available. It handles PDF and epub formats, the two most common formats I’m likely to be handling ebooks in. It syncs with my Adobe Digital Editions for reading galleys from NetGalley. And it’s compatible with Overdrive, the system the public library uses for ebooks, which is huge for me. I haven’t used the library to check out ebooks yet, but with a reader I might give it a shot.
The only question left is which Nook to buy. I like the idea of eink screens, but the low refresh rate is a little tedious, particularly when you read as fast as I do. Then again, the Nook Color is more than $100 more expensive, so that puts it well out of my budget. Consumer Reports gives good scores to the new eink Nook, but I still think I prefer the old one better. (I do like that the ability to check out library books was what pushed it up above the Kindle.) I played with both versions in the store a couple of weeks ago, and I like the limited touchscreen and the manual buttons.
This is not the first step to abandoning paper books. I love my paper books. I like to have big piles of books sitting around, reminding me to read them. (Plus they make great insulation in the winter.) And the rights issue still exists: when you buy an ebook, what are you buying, really? I’ll probably stick to paper books for most of my purchases and end up reading most of the Project Gutenberg archive on my Nook. But, well, it’s time to join the twenty-first century. And you have to admit, an ereader is smaller to lug around than the Complete Works of Shakespeare, when you suddenly get a hankering for Falstaff.
Where I got it and why: as a free ebook from Net Galley, courtesy of IDW Press, in exchange for a fair and honest review. Thanks, guys! I read about this in Peter S. Beagle’s newsletter, but I was waiting for the trade to actually pick it up; the comic book store that is okay with girls is out of my way, and I prefer to collect trades anyway.
Recommended? Oh god yes. This is gorgeous. And if you’re not familiar with the story, this would be a fantastic introduction.
Review: When I was a kid, there was a movie rental place across the street from my grandmother’s house. You went in the door, down a couple of steps, and turned left into the children’s area. There, under the picture window, on the second shelf from the top, was where the VHS of The Last Unicorn lived. I adored that movie, and I’m sure I contributed substantially to the demise of that poor videocassette. When I was a little older, I discovered the book, and I loved it even more. This is one of my favorite stories, all about myth and meaning and magic, so of course I was thrilled when they announced a graphic novel adaptation, and I am overjoyed to tell you that it is not disappointing.
The art, of course, is the real draw for a Last Unicorn comic book, and it’s spectacular. It does seem to be a little bit inspired by the movies – there’s a strong resemblance in the art for many characters, particularly the side characters who show up and then vanish again. Schmendrick looks much more like his description in the book than he does in the movie, which I like, but Molly looks younger, which I don’t. I do like the way the unicorn is inked in a reddish sepia rather than the black of everything else; it makes her stand out and glow (which I think is another trick they used in the movie, now I think of it). And then when the Red Bull arrives! The chapter two cover featuring Mommy Fortuna is my favorite, though. She’s always been one of my favorite characters, and the drawing of her with all these little charms and tiny figures tied in her hair is perfection.
The script owes much more to the book than to the movie. It features several more episodes from the book that I miss in the movie – Arachne the spider in Mommy Fortuna’s carnival, Schmendrick’s history, the princess attempting to summon a unicorn before her wedding, and most importantly, the village of Hagsgate. (I will never understand why they left Hagsgate out of the movie and put the bosomy tree in. Hagsgate has plot relevance, but that tree! — never mind.) Plot-wise, it’s a fairly loyal adaptation. There are places, though, where scenes are incredibly rushed, and I almost wish Gillis had left out some bits entirely rather than put them in and have them feel clumsy and extraneous. (Said tree, for example – not bosomy this time, but still unnecessary.)
While the movie will always have a fond place in my heart, and the book will always be the most spectacular, this incarnation of The Last Unicorn is a perfectly respectable edition. The art is always good, and sometimes breathtaking, and while there are flaws in the script it does seem to grasp the point of the book a little bit better than the movie does, and to bring some of the quality of heartache to it that the book does so well. If you’re a fan of The Last Unicorn already you’ll want to buy the hardcover for your collection (I know I will); if you’re unfamiliar with it, this is a wonderful place to start.
The Last Unicorn, an adaptation of the Peter S. Beagle novel by Peter Gillis, illustrated by Renae de Liz and Ray Dillon, was published in hardcover by IDW Press on January 25, 2011. Find it on: Goodreads,Indiebound, Publisher’s website
(New to Me books are books I’ve just read that have been out for more than a year – whether that means “a year and a bit” or “several decades”.)
Where I got it and why: as a free audiobook from podiobooks.com. You can get it too! My dad has been recommending this series to me for a while, so when I finally got sick of listening to the radio on my half-hour daily commute, I loaded this onto my mp3 player. I’m glad I did.
Recommended? Sure, especially if you like character-driven narratives.
Review: Sometimes you just need a book where the fate of the world isn’t at stake, where people are not exceptional superheroes, where you can just kick back and hang out with some fun characters. This is that book.
Ishmael Wang’s life has been turned upside-down: his mother has just been killed in an accident, and since she was a company employee on a company planet, he now has thirty days to either become a company employee or vacate his company apartment. There are no company jobs available, so good luck! At a loss for what else to do, he heads down to the union hall and signs on for a quarter-share berth on one of the big solar freighters, and his new life begins.
Quarter Share is the story of Ishmael getting settled in to his new life on the Lois McKendrick, a solar clipper moving goods from one planetary system to another. He’s assigned a berth in the galley, and quickly makes friends with Cookie the chef and Pip Carstairs, the other quarter-share in the galley. (Berths are rated by the share of the profits they take: the lowest rank is quarter-share, up through half-share to full-share and then into officer country.)
This is an incredibly laid-back entry into the Hornblower In Space genre. Really, it’s not very like Hornblower at all – although it’s clearly derived from that kind of series, these are traders and merchants, not battleships. The plot revolves around the development of Ishmael and Pip’s trading ventures, and the most external conflict you get is a mugging and a bar fight, neither on screen.
It’s not boring, though. Ishmael, Pip, and Cookie are fun (if somewhat unbelievably good-natured: no one ever gets cross or impatient with one another), and there’s a fine cast of secondary characters that grows throughout the book. As a narrative, the book has some of the flaws of the serial format it was released in, with people being properly introduced much later than you might expect them to be and a fairly clumsy handling of foreshadowing, but it’s not too bad.
While Quarter Share and the sequel Half Share are now being released in print, I think I’d still prefer them as audiobooks. The author reads it himself, and he has a wonderful reading voice, very soothing and well-matched to the style of the narrative. Cookie’s accent changes dramatically about halfway through, which is a little disconcerting, but overall he does a great job with the variety of characters.
Overall I really enjoyed this slice-of-life story of life on board a solar clipper, full of appealing characters and actually very accessible discussions of profits and trading. There are six books in the series, and I already have Half Share loaded up and ready to go. If you’re interested in checking them out, the author has a website for the series, with all the books available for free download, at SolarClipper.com.
Where I got it and why: I read an egalley from NetGalley, courtesy of ChiZine press. (Thanks guys!) I leaped at the chance to read this, after reading the first book in the series earlier this year.
Recommended? Absolutely – if you’re okay with huge amounts of violence, foul language, heavy drinking, and M/M sex. (And that’s just one character…)
Review: Okay, this is another one of those books I love so much I don’t know if I can be coherent about, but I will try. I read the first book in Gemma Files’s Hexslinger Trilogy earlier this year, when I spotted it on the shelf at the library and was intrigued by the blurb’s promise of ex-Confederate gay western wizards, and I liked that one, but I *loved* Rope of Thorns.
It’s 1867, the American West, a world slightly different from our own. For one thing, it contains hexes – people who can work magic, frequently violent and nasty (both the magic and the hexes), who live in a constant state of hunger, drawing magic away from their environment and from any other hexes they run into. They tend to be solitary creatures. In Book of Tongues, we meet Asher Rook, a former preacher turned hex after he was hanged for assassinating his commanding officer in the tail end of the Civil War. Now he’s head of his own little outlaw gang, rampaging across the West, taking what they like and killing folk who get in their way. Rook’s lover is Chess Parteger, a gunman, queer and not ashamed of it, red-headed, flamboyant, and nasty. They’re joined by Ed Morrow, a Pinkerton detective, who’d been sent out by his boss to test out a device for identifying hexes before they become dangerous, but who gets sucked in to the gang a little more deeply than he’d expected. Oh yeah, and there’s an ancient Aztec goddess who’s trying to take over the world. She wants Rook as her consort, and she has…plans for Chess, her “little husband’s husband.”
Okay, I’m going to try to discuss Rope of Thorns without giving too many spoilers for the wonderful ending of Book of Tongues. Suffice it to say, Chess is none to happy about how that played out, and Rook is off with his goddess in the newly-built Hex City, while Chess is out for revenge and Morrow is either still following him around or trying to keep him in check.
I love Chess. He’s a wonderful character, full of fire and anger and passion. He changes a lot through the course of the books, but he’s mostly unconscious of it, and it only shows through when he’s called upon to act and does something that surprises even him. The characters overall are great: Ed Morrow still unsure of what he’s doing; Yancey, who rapidly becomes Chess’s female counterpart; Songbird and Pinkerton and the relentless Sheriff Love.
The worldbuilding is glorious too, so deeply believable it seems almost real, like the best of historically-set fantasy. Files’s hexes and gods fit perfectly into the mythology of the Old West that grows in the American psyche. Not just the old stereotypical Hollywood version, either – this series fits right into the modern bleak Western tradition. It reminds me of Deadwood, True Grit, Carnivale. (Lots of Carnivale, actually.) And Rope of Thorns introduces an Apache warrior I hope we see more of in the final book.
The thing I love most about these books is how *fun* they are. I mean, they’re fairly bleak, there’s an apocalypse in progress, and the body count is huge, but Chess is having so damn much fun you can’t help but get carried along with him. I can’t wait for the final book, A Tree of Bones.
Rope of Thorns came out in May – you should be able to find it on bookstore shelves, but if you can’t, order it. It’s worth it.
Book of Tongues came out in 2010.
If you’re interested in the series, I also recommend the author’s blog, where she’s currently discussing a lot of elements of the new book – no spoilers for the new one, but some spoilers for Book of Tongues.