I was busy enough in early August that I completely forgot to make my book log post for July’s reading. Then in early September, I was on a cruise ship in the middle of the Mediterranean. So you get a SUPER-SIZED THREE MONTH EDITION! . . . which is still approximately the size of some people’s one-month edition. Oh well.
Onward to the books!
Arabella of Mars, David Levine. Read for blurbing purposes, and the author is a friend. The book is a splendid YA adventure that marries Napoleonic nautical adventure to Edgar Rice Burroughs under the auspices of a girl protagonist, and I already want somebody to write crossover fic blending it with Chaz Brenchley’s “Old Mars” setting (which presently exists only in short stories, so far as I know, but I eagerly await the novel). A race to prevent a murder collides with an interspecies conflict as the native inhabitants of Mars rise up against their colonial overlords. Fun.
Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes, Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver. I picked this up for the “Age of Empire” part and wound up reading the whole brick, which tells you something. Takeaway: HOLY SHIT MOUNTAINEERS ARE CRAZY. Seriously. Do not read if you are bothered by people losing bits to frostbite or just saying “yeah, okay, so thirty people have already died trying to reach the top of this mountain but let’s give it another shot.” Or by the section where they talk about women mountaineers and the sheer, gobsmacking sexism of one Galen Rowell, who not only tried to hold the women who summited Annapurna to a standard none of the men were expected to meet — not only made slimy innuendo about their sexual behavior — but did so in a letter he signed with his girlfriend’s name because “it would carry more weight.” Ahem. Anyway, good book.
Another, Yukito Ayatsuji. I no longer have my copy, so I can’t note the translator’s name. Japanese YA horror novel. I came very near to putting it down and not coming back, because dear sweet baby Zeus it took its own sweet time getting to the point where you learned anything concrete about the weird stuff going on. I’m also not sure how much of what bugged me about the narration is the author’s style, how much is the translator’s style, and how much is just Japanese doing its thing. I suspect a lot of the elliptical sentences where the characters hem and haw around things without quite saying them is a reflection of Japanese, but the (first person) text also had a habit of stepping back oddly to report what it had just done: the protagonist would ask a question, and then the narration would say “That was the question I asked her.” Etc. Interesting to read, but not really my cuppa overall, especially since the entire plot hinges on a specific unreliability on the part of the narrator. Which is why I no longer have the book on my shelves.
Elfquest, the Final Quest, vol. 1, Wendy and Richard Pini. . . . look, I can’t review this, okay? Partly because single volumes of graphic novels are pretty slight things and don’t leave me with much to say, but mostly because it’s Elfquest and I’m not very objective. I’ll try to say things when the whole story is done, but that won’t be for a long time.
Two Serpents Rise, Max Gladstone. I agree with those who say it isn’t as strong as Three Parts Dead, largely due to the leading characters: I am very difficult to sell on “I just met this person and now I’m totally obsessed with them.” On the other hand, this one pretty much had me at Aztecs. The city of Dresediel Lex is heavily based on Mesoamerican societies, with little reflections of that squirreled away in every corner of the worldbuilding, and the protagonist is the son of a priest a generation after the war against the gods left his father without a job. But the morality isn’t black and white: instead of torturing and murdering humans to keep the world going, now they torture and murder gods. Is that better? How about the ways in which Dresediel Lex is wildly out of balance with its environment, sucking down water faster than it can be replaced, and the price of that gets passed along to society’s lower classes in ways that are less obvious than cutting out their hearts but maybe not much kinder? Is it really justifiable to refuse to allow even voluntary self-sacrifice? (And if not, how can you be sure it’s really voluntary?) I said about the previous book that I would call it grimdark based on content but not on tone; that continues to be true. Gladstone explores the thorny edges of morality without assuming that everybody’s a shitheel at heart. I will definitely go on reading.
Gemsigns, Stephanie Saulter. So, I finished this book and promptly went to my computer to email Saulter and ask whether she wanted to blurb Chains and Memory (which she did, yay). Because this is a book about the gifts and disabilities of a genetic minority, and the question of where the line is between appropriate regulation and unacceptable abridgement of their human rights. Which is more or less what C&M is about. Plus it’s really good; it does an excellent job of balancing the larger-scale issue (the legal emancipation and protection of “gems,” genetically engineered humans who used to be the property of the firms that made them) with the more intimate stories of the actual people involved. I saw the big reveal with a certain character coming a long way off, but that’s okay — it was still effective. I need to pick up the sequel.
The Martian, Andy Weir. I basically picked up this one on the strength of an XKCD comic, because that is me yes sign me up. I could criticize the writing in some respects; these days I am very alert to the challenges of writing the sort of first person narration where the protagonist is consciously telling their story to someone, and there were places where I think Weir could have done a better job shaping Mark Watney’s recordings to sound like the way a person would actually record their thoughts. (Also, there were some very jarring shifts in the third-person sections of the book, though I’m not sure how much of that was an issue of ebook formatting — there may be breaks in the print edition.) However, all of that should come with the salt of “and then I devoured it in a single sitting.” Take that for what you will. 🙂
Not Our Kind, ed. Nayad Monroe. Anthology; I think I backed a Kickstarter? <lol> It’s difficult to remember which books came from what source. Short stories about alien perspectives. I’m bad at reviewing anthologies without going through them story by story; it pretty much always boils down to “I liked some of these and didn’t like others.”
The Confusion, Neal Stephenson. Lordy, I don’t even remember when I started reading this one. Possibly February of last year, which is when I finally finished Quicksilver, though I said then that I was going to take a break, so maybe not. I know that by the time I picked this up again on my vacation, I had utterly lost track of what was going on. Then I remembered that I had described the previous book as “a giant pile of words and characters and events and places and historical tidbits [which] wanders vaguely in the direction of several different things that might, in the hands of a different writer, be a plot.” And you know, if I wasn’t sure what was going on while it was fresh in my mind, it didn’t much matter if I didn’t know what was going on now. So I kept reading, and it kept being amusing, even though I really don’t know where the hell it’s going in a more macro sense. If you like Stephenson and historical fiction and don’t mind a whole lot of rambling, these are excellent. Otherwise, probably not for you.
The Check Your Luck Agency, KS Augusin (Cara d’Bastian). I bought the omnibus ebook on somebody’s recommendation; so far I have only finished the first volume. Not sure if I’ll keep reading. The concept sounded great: the protagonist Ursula Formosa works for a business in Singapore that “checks your luck,” i.e. investigates to find out whether your sudden good or bad fortune has a supernatural cause. Nineteen times out of twenty, it’s utterly mundane. The twentieth . . . unfortunately, the story is kind of shapeless, especially when you take each volume on its own. There’s a case, which turns out to be non-supernatural. Then Ursula gets recruited for a TV show, which has zero connection to the first half of the book. Oh, by the way, all that time she spent telling you she doesn’t believe in ghosts and the supernatural? Apparently she can see ghosts. And she admits they’re real. Which would be fine if she expressed disbelief to the other characters, but she expresses it in her own head, too, in ways that don’t actually read like her being in denial, and then she’s like “oh yeah ghosts are actually real and I can see them.” I like the setting detail; it’s pretty clear the author knows Singapore well, though she’s uncomfortably prone to broad generalizations about Asians en masse. But the story really isn’t hooking me, and the writing isn’t, either.
The Islands of Chaldea, Diana Wynne Jones (finished by Ursula Jones). I don’t know where DWJ’s sister picked up the manuscript to finish it, but I do know that I can feel the difference. The ending felt rushed, a few too many revelations coming up too rapidly, with not enough time for their implications to breathe. Still and all: I had to read it, and I’m glad I did.
Living in Japan: A Guide to Living, Working, and Traveling in Japan, Joy Norton and Tazuko Shibusawa. This is specifically a book about the arc of culture shock (and reverse culture shock when you go home), written by people with a counseling practice who deal with those issues a lot. Its major flaw is that it’s really, really short: I would have loved to see it fleshed out with example scenarios, rather than just mentioning “people may have trouble with X” and then moving on.
Turbulence, Samit Basu. I think Rachel Manija Brown recommended this one. A plane full of people on a flight from London to Delhi all get superpowers based on their dreams: this ranges from a supersoldier to a little girl who is a full-bore anime magical girl. It’s amusing, though it has a substantially higher body count than the tone led me to expect. I wish it had delved further into the ethical questions it raised; possibly the sequels will do so? One of the characters can basically control all kinds of digital stuff, and at one point he decides he’s tired of waiting around for the others to get their act together and do stuff to improve the world, so he goes and starts flinging money around online, bankrupting bad people and giving their money to good causes. Then he finds out this has backfired and made things worse and led to a lot of people dying. I wanted the story to keep going with that, but instead it dropped that aspect and went for a more conventional showdown — with the characters questioning the entire “conventional showdown” motif the whole way, but still, it kept going. And then it ended with some wildly unaddressed questions about the ethics of mind-control powers. So, entertaining but uneven. Also, the text is unfortunately riddled with comma splices, to the point where I had to keep reminding myself the book wasn’t self-published. The copyeditor must have been asleep at the wheel.
Writing Fight Scenes, Marie Brennan. I needed to fix an error in the ebook, and wound up finding several more as I went through.
Himalayan Circuit: A Journey in the Inner Himalayas, G.D. Khosla. A slim book from the ’50s, written by an Indian civil servant who participated in an expedition to some remote valleys for official purposes. If you want to write about that kind of terrain, he has excellent descriptions of the landscape, though he only touches on the inhabitants relatively briefly. It’s also surprisingly hilarious in places, like his extended description of what it’s like to ride a tiny Himalayan pony.
In the Labyrinth of Drakes, Marie Brennan. Page proofs.