Book Review

More of Binti

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So I know I just told you all about Binti, the Hugo and Nebula winning novella, and I loved it so much I went straight back to the library for it’s sequel, Binti: Home.

This one, if possible, is even better than the first. Binti is dealing with the emotional aftermath of her traumatic trip off Earth and decides to return home and complete her woman’s pilgrimage to recenter herself and reaffirm her tribal connection. This time, at least, the trip was uneventful, but once she gets home, nothing goes the way she had planned.

The writing is smoother in this sequel and the story is incredibly strong and fluid. I love the language and I love the voice Nnedi Okorafor has created for Binti in these stories. They are full of beautiful metaphor and evocative settings and peoples. I also love how math has gone so far it’s basically magic at this point.

It ends with another cliff hanger than made me gnash my teeth with frustration, but the third one, Binti: The Night Masquerade is due out in January, so at least I don’t have to wait very long! I am terrible at being patient for other authors to write books yet take my own sweet time with sequels, so I have no grounds on which to demand books faster, but I do love Okorafor’s work and I can’t wait to read more.

Reading during NaNoWriMo

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Yes, I am immersed solidly in NaNoWriMo, and yes, I am still finding enough time to read! It’s the only thing keeping my brain from collapsing in on itself as the words rush out–words rushing in! Last night I blasted past the 20% mark a full day ahead of schedule and I’ve been writing all day between work and chores. Hoping to get to 25% tonight, we’ll see if I manage it! But back to books…

When I was at the Bureau of Fearless Ideas one day, one of the other volunteers had a novella that they were reading called Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. The cover caught my attention first for its striking composition and second because it implied a Black protagonist, which i am trying to actively seek out since it’s so rare in speculative fiction. I requested the book from my library and had to wait a few weeks to arrive, but when it did, I bolted through it.

The story and voice are striking from page one, and we are thrown into an Earth well beyond our current understanding. The main character belongs to a family of superior mathematicians and abandons her duty to her family to instead attend the most cherished university in the universe which requires leaving the only place she’s ever known as home. Needless to say, the journey to school is highly eventful and Binti must stretch her nearly psychic mathematical powers to their extremes in order to survive, while still staying true to her people and her home.

While on occasion the writing felt unpolished, it wasn’t enough to throw me out of the story, and I enjoyed every paragraph of this 90 page novella. There are strong themes  of home, and what it means to leave it, a question which we are faced with more and more in this global economy and culture. Binti is strong and resourceful, and her situation is relatively unique in speculative fiction, and for once we have a protagonist resolving conflict with wit and words rather than through blasters. It was quite refreshing. I also loved how the alien race was truly alien, in all of their aspects, and yet, mathematics allowed them to communicate. That tickles the scientist in me quite a bit. I highly recommend taking the time to read this, and I very much look forward to its sequel, Binti: Home.

From a Local Press

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So when I was at Geek Girl Con, I stopped by the Razorgirl Press table to chat and picked up a couple of books, and since I finally made it through the list of books waiting to be reviewed for City Book Reviews, I was able to pick one of them up.

I started with Trace by Ian Smith. The lead, Joanne Shaughnessy, is a young woman who was adopted as a child from China by a family in Montana and grew up not only as an adopted minority, but also as an amputee missing her right hand…and any memory of why it was gone. The story picks up as Joanne is trying to build a new life in Seattle after college having moved in with her best friend from high school. During her quest to figure out a way to deal with her phantom limb sensations in her missing hand, Joanne ends up discovering that she has the ability to sense imprinted memories on objects and stumbles into a an ongoing power play between those who have this gift and those who wish they did.

The first thing I want to say about this book is that although the author is a white male, he does a remarkable job creating a nuanced and realistic female, Chinese-American amputee. Not once did I feel like he went for the easy and stereotypical descriptors, and Joanne is well represented in all of her aspects, all of which had valid story aspects and were not used for tokenization or fetishisaztion. In fact, if any of the characters were lacking in depth, it was the white males in the book. But even them I found believable. So congrats to Smith on threading that dangerous needle.

Beyond the excellent characterization, the story itself is fun and unique in its representation of a supernatural gift. The quiet suggestion that it is all a part of their chi and somehow related to her missing limb were well articulated and drove the story forward, especially how it worked together with neuroscience and technology. This was a definite page turner and I maybe spent more time reading it than I should have over the last few days.

The last thing I want to say is that this book also did an excellent job of characterizing Seattle (yay, hometown!) and the city came out feeling more like a character, more real, than I’ve found it in most other books set in the city. It was grounded, realistic, and all the little inside jokes about living in Seattle were well placed and utilized in the novel. As a (non-native) Seattleite, it rang true and was highly amusing. So thanks for that!

It does end with the suggestion of a sequel, so I’m hoping that might be in the works. I would definitely buy it when it came out!

A Delightful Change of Pace

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As many of you already know, I’m an avid fan of K.B. Spangler and her OACET universe of stories and web comics. However, her new novel, Stoneskin, takes place in an entirely different universe than the OACET series, though one might argue for it being in the very far flung future of that very same world. I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this newest novel, but turns out I was worrying needlessly. I made the mistake of starting the novel before bed, stayed up way too late, woke up early and was done reading it before lunch. And I want more; write faster, Spangler!

In Stoneskin, Tembi is a young bioformed human living on a planet far from the original Earth when she discovers that she has been selected by the Deep to be a Witch. Now, the Deep is a sentient life force, possibly other dimensional, with a puckish sense of humor that has decided it likes humanity and enjoys helping humanity spread through the star systems and the Witches it decides to communicate with and through are its envoys in our universe. Tembi is by far one of the youngest ever selected and it leads to an interesting and unorthodox training all leading to the eventual question as to why the Deep is changing its selection criteria and behaviors.

If that synopsis doesn’t intrigue you, it should. The plot is unique and fresh while at the same time drawing from masters such as Frank Herbert’s Dune and Robert A. Heinlein. Characterization is excellent, with everybody having discreet and believable motivations, even the Deep, whom we don’t actually get to have a conversation with and is most often characterized by the colors, sounds, and scents it makes its attitudes known by. The whole thing is thoroughly enjoyable and perfectly bite sized, and if you’re looking for a new dose of epic sci-fi, this is it. I cannot recommend it enough!

Diving into Jemisin

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When I asked for recommendations on speculative authors who were not cis-gendered white men (for now and forever referred to as CGWM), I received several recommendations for N.K. Jemisin. Funnily enough, at the same time people were recommending her to me, my husband was at Powells buying me her novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.

It wasn’t the novel of hers I’d planned on starting with, but I’m glad to have gotten it as it was a lot of fun. I wasn’t sure as I started it whether I could get behind the voice, but it quickly became clear that the memory issues of the protagonist and the slightly stilted and disjointed storytelling had a definite purpose and it won out in the end. This novel is a story about a young woman who is brought back into the fold of her royal family after her mother’s death and who struggles to understand her family and personal history while politicians and gods alike try and use her for their own ends.

It is a fabulous story, with some excellent writing, and I am not surprised she has been in the running for several major awards; they are all well deserved.  This story is at times poignant and sweet, and bloody and chaotic, and even a little bit (more than a little in one instance) sexy. If you like stories with strong female protagonists who take no nonsense and make their own space in their world, this is definitely a book for you. I highly recommend giving this a read.

One note on something I’ve noticed as I dive into this reading pattern: The female protagonists are all beautifully strong, but they also face cultural issues that I just don’t see protagonists of male authors facing: realistic  subjugation due to sex through micro aggression. It is shockingly realistic in the books I’ve read by female authors thus far, and I never realized it was something that was missing until I finally read it. There is something just so much more real about their struggle to me than most of the speculative fiction I have read before, and it makes the endings of the books just that much more satisfying for me when the ladies come out on top.

Beginning of a Literary Journey

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So I have decided I end up reading way too much fiction by white cis-gendered American men, so I am beginning a journey to read as much speculative fiction by authors that are NOT somehow in that category in one way or another. Preferably in multiple ways. To start off, I give you The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden.

 

This was a fun, wild, and surprising ride through a revolution of identity for bots, humans, and demigods alike. I really can’t say enough good about this book: The setting is vivid and engrossing, and as an American it is just alien enough to set loose my expectations and allow full immersion in the crazy clashing of singularity and mythology. The characters are beautifully developed, and even though we are constantly jumping perspectives from chapter to chapter, everybody is fully 3-dimensional with their own unique motivations and beliefs and I was never lost in the jumps. The story itself is amazingly wrought, with several twists and turns and the feel of  a vortex–the deeper you get the faster you move. And it all spins down to one brilliant point of intensity before flaring out into a wonderfully satisfying conclusion.

I definitely recommend you give this beauty a read. I’ve got a few more on my list of to-reads, and a few I’ve already read and am reviewing for City Book Review (The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter and A Tyranny of Queens) and I will post those reviews here once they are live!

How Wonderful is Wonder Woman?

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I had the pleasure this afternoon of seeing the new Wonder Woman movie as part of the DC Extended Universe. If you don’t want to read everything I have to say, here is the TL;DR: It was excellent…for a DCEU movie. Backhanded compliment? You betcha. And if you have no idea why it’s so backhanded it could win a tennis match, then you will probably love the movie regardless of its faults.

Wonder-Woman-Poster_1200_1778_81_s

First, what I am happy about: This is a strong lead female who kicks ass and doesn’t let anyone tell her she can’t. If they try, she just does it anyway. Okay, she may be a little naive in her blundering forward, but it fits her character. Gal Gadot did an incredible job brining this suffragette inspired heroine to life, and Patty Jenkins did a right good job on the direction side of things, and fans are eating it up. The movie is breaking box office records for woman led and woman directed films, and hopefully Hollywood will take this is as a sign to create more movies with strong female leads and let women actually direct big budget movies now. Up until this movie, female directors weren’t often entrusted with blockbuster movie budgets, regardless of how well they direct. I am praying to all of high heaven that this movie breaks those glass ceilings in hollywood and we get to have more wonderful estrogen derived storytelling. We’ll see.

The male supporting actors did an amazing job, and Chris Pine was a darn sexy Steve. I wish Etta Candy had had more screen time because her comedic moments were priceless. Though Sameer’s line about being unable to find work as an actor because of his skin color and Chief’s acknowledgement that it was Steve’s people who committed genocide on his were almost too real, and beautifully placed. And the soundtrack, my gosh, that was thrilling.

But that’s where my happiness ended.

****SPOILERS AHEAD****

I feel like the writing was lackluster, and the actors did an incredible job in spite of it. Here were the main problems:

  1. The General and Doctor Poison failed to convey their motivation. Maybe it was the fact that the Doc has a ceramic faceplate that she couldn’t act past, or maybe it’s because they don’t give her any kind of motivation or explain WHY she’s got a faceplate. Major missed opportunity, especially when they use her as they did in the final battle. Needed some backstory there, and the General is nothing but a cardboard cutout of a villain. It felt like they were trying to do a Red Skull and failed. Frankly, I would have done away with the character of the General altogether and made a better individual villain out of Doctor Poison. Woman vs. Woman.
  2. You know how when you play video games or role playing games and you work hard to level up your characters? Then someone comes through with a cheat and skips past all the hard work? That’s what feels like happened with their Diana. She didn’t put the work in to earn her special abilities, she can just all of a sudden DO something cool and she’s like, well that’s cool, moving on. I’d expect a few more, “Where the hell did THAT come from?” moments before they reveal her heritage. But no, cheat code activated, let’s use that top level spell right here, right now.
  3. I felt like the movie was puttering along just fine, with a few small complaints, until we reached the point where Diana really goes after who she thinks is Ares. From there, nothing feels right. The pacing is wrong, the fighting is boring, and nothing is earned by the characters. There’s a couple of strong moments, but they’re cheated by almost amateurish special effects and fight sequences that should have been way more epic and inventive. For gods’ sake, you have two gods battling it out. Have some unique ideas about how to frame that and what they can do!
  4. Really? We’re going to end with a moralizing sermon about how love saves all? Oh F*CK you. It was here STRENGTH and PERSEVERANCE that saved mankind. Can a woman be STRONG? Or is that not allowed? Yes, Wonder Woman as she was first written was concerned with love, but she also kicked ass when kicking ass was necessary. Here, let me explain a little bit about where Wonder Woman comes from and why this makes me so mad…

****END SPOILERS****

I found a wonderful book recently called The Secret History of Wonder Woman. It goes in-depth into the life and work of the gentleman who created Diana, Princess of Themyscira: William Moulton Marston. William grew up at the turn of the century and went to school when psychology was just becoming its own discipline. In fact, he was one of the first people to use blood pressure as a way to measure lying and arousal, which led eventually to the lie detector test. He was a strong feminist and supported the suffragettes in their pursuit of the vote, marrying his childhood sweetheart (who had just as many degrees as he did and was a career woman of her own) and carrying on a polyamorous relationship with a suffragette named Huntley. Eventually, they added a fourth to their unique arrangement: none other than the niece of Margaret Sanger who introduced birth control to the US and paid for it dearly.

Cover

Marston worshipped these women and insisted mankind would be better off if it reverted to a matriarchy. His long, rambling, and mostly unsuccessful career eventually led him around to creating Wonder Woman, his paragon of the perfect woman. She was strong, and independent; she was kind and loving. Most importantly, she was more than equal to man and, in one issue, is elected to be President of the United States. Mind you, this was all happening in the early 1940’s which was a last bastion of female advances before the 50’s made the women return to their homes. Diana was a feminist and a believer in female superiority. If Marston had heard those tepid lines about love at the end of the movie, he would have laughed himself silly. Yes, love is a strong weapon in the hands of women, but the movie would have been much better served by sticking to the theme of belief that they started to run with. It was much more powerful, and more in line with the identity of Wonder Woman.

Hugo Awards 2014 (Part 2)

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I’m back with the second installment of my reviews of the Hugo nominations for this year.

Novellas

The Butcher of Khardov – Dan Wells
When I first pulled this out, I admit I was judging a book by its cover. I was afraid it was some pulpy tie-in novel, but it is anything but. Wells has created an incredibly moving and heart-wrenching love story, dislocated in time, with a main character who has gone rather mad, in a world that is a steam-punk fantasy blend (Warcaster’s world, for those of you who game.) I’m going to vote this one best of category because of its subtlety and nuance, which I did not expect to find in a tie-in novel.

Six-Gun Snow White – Catherynne M. Valente
This was a very unusual take on the Snow White story, very dark, very gritty, and set in the Wild West. I would vote this best in category except I felt like she was trying a little too hard to shoe-horn in Native American mythology to the Snow White story and it just didn’t work for me. If I ignored that aspect, it was a fantastic and troubling retelling, just the way it should be.

The Chaplain’s Legacy – Brad R. Torgersen
At least this one didn’t suffer the same fate as his Novelette that’s up for consideration; this story kept me engaged and interested from start to finish. It explores themes of religion and belief and the interference of technology with our connection to the spiritual. It would have ranked higher in my list except that I felt like the main character didn’t really experience any growth. He’s still pretty wishy washy about his own faith by the end of the story and I wanted him to come down solidly on one side or the other by the time the story wrapped.

Equoid – Charles Stross
This was a unique piece of fiction blending the dry british humor of Pratchett’s ilk with the horror of HP Lovecraft. I normally do not care for horror myself, but I was actually able to enjoy this story, even with all the gory bits. However, I felt like it just wasn’t quite polished yet, almost like I was reading a draft, and not a published work.

Wakulla Springs – Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages
The only reason this story is not my absolute number one pick is because I don’t think it belongs in the category for a Hugo. No matter what the authors say, I don’t classify this story as speculative fiction. Yes, the characters talk about all the myths surrounding the springs, yes there are a couple moments that are unreal, but those moments could be the result of hallucinations on the part of the characters, or projection, and, to be honest, don’t lend much at all to the story. If you took them out, the story could function just as well without them. In my mind, this firmly removes the story from the realm of speculative fiction. That being said, it is an absolutely beautiful story spanning three generations of a family and their connection to Wakulla Springs, so you should definitely go read it. Just don’t expect a speculative fiction story.

Fan Artist

Graphic Novels
I missed two of these as they weren’t included in the downloadable judging packet, so I had to go track them down.

Time – Randall Munroe
I am definitely voting this one best in category as it was a new and unique form of graphic novel, a time lapsed experience on the internet that was absolutely beautiful. And what should the Hugo go to, but something new, unique, and exciting? Munroe has been creating fantastic art with a fabulous scientific bent for years now, and its about time something of his was up for nomination. You can travel through Time here.

Saga Volume 2 – Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples
I got volumes one and two from the library and worked my way through them quite quickly. The art is gorgeous and the story line is unique, but I’m still going to put this in second place to Time, simply because Time’s concept is so unique. I also felt that Saga is a bit abrupt in its presentation and could use a little more nuance in its pacing, and there are a few panels in it that are simply there for shock value, which I really don’t care for. But Saga is definitely more engaging, and better written, than the other three graphic novels up for consideration.

Next week, will be the start of Novels! And definitely the art categories. We’ll see how many of the different award categories I can actually make it through, and give them a thorough enough consideration to actually make a judgement call…

Hugo Awards 2014 (Part 1)

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As many of you know, I’ve started reading for the Hugo Award this year, and I wanted to keep you all apprised of the work that’s up for consideration and what I think of it, mainly so that when voting comes up in a few weeks, I can remember why I liked, or didn’t like, certain stories…

That being said, I’ve made it through a few categories already, so here they are, in the order in which I liked them, favorite, to least favorite:

Short Story

“The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” – John Chu
Chu has created a new world where, if you lie, water falls on you from nowhere. Literally, if you tell a whopper, you’re absolutely drenched in cold water. He takes this unusual setting and juxtaposes it with a problem that many people are actually facing today: the struggle of coming out to your family. It is a beautifully written piece, the struggle with the main character’s cultural and personal identities is well balanced and the whole thing makes your heart ache. Definitely voting for this one to be best in category.

“Ink Readers” – Thomas Olde Heuvelt
This fantasy involves a town who is responsible for making sure the wishes wished during a certain festival are fulfilled by their rituals. There is a lot of twists in this one, so I don’t want to say too much more, but it is a passably fun story. The only reason this one falls to second place for me is I felt like it was trying a little too hard to be foreign in the way the prose is presented and its ends up just being a bit convoluted.

“Selkie Stories” – Sofia Samatar
“Selkie Stories” was a total ‘meh’ for me. Its well written, but, as it even says at the beinning, “I’m tired of selkie stories.” This one really didn’t feel like it touched any new ground in the genre, and, in fact, it summarized a lot of older selkie stories within it. If someone was less familiar with that genre than I am, it may have been more enjoyable, but to me it just felt like the same old, same old.

“If You Were a Dinosaur My Love” – Rachel Swirsky
If I could downvote for the Hugo, I would for this one. It is overwrought drivel of the kind I would expect a middle schooler who was pining over the popular boy to write. Just don’t even go there…

Novelette

“The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” – by Ted Chiang
I have long been a fan of Ted Chiang, particularly of Lifecycles of Software Objects. I think that novella is absolutely stunning, in both story and design, and so when I saw he had another short story up for consideration, I was stoked. Happily, he does not disappoint with this Novelette. “…Truth…” is a wonderful piece exploring what it means to tell the truth and how we deal with language and memory and how that affects said truth. It juxtaposes a futuristic society debating the pros and cons of a new technology that allows for perfect recall and search-ability of memories to an older story during colonization of a missionary teaching a tribesman how to write and keep records. Definitely try and find a copy of this, if you can, because it is amazing, particularly if you like your speculative fiction to have a bit of meaning behind it.

“The Lady Astronaut of Mars” – Mary Robinette Kowal
This is a heartbreaking story about the first woman who went to Mars and the latter days of her life on said planet with her husband. It is powerful, and moving, but I felt like the end didn’t quite deliver on its potential, hence it drops to my number two spot for this category. It deals a lot with the question of failing health in old age, responsibilities of the generations to each other, and similar topics.

“The Waiting Stars” – Aliette de Bodard
An interesting read, with a fascinating premise, about genetically/cybernetically enhanced humans as the core AI/computer system for ships. The precise details are left purposefully vague, but it sets up a tidy little conflict with a race that believes that this sort of thing is utterly immoral. Again, this dropped in my esteem because I felt like the end didn’t quite deliver, plus the beginning was a little hard to get into and understand what, exactly, was going on.

“Opera Vita Aeterna” – Vox Day
“Opera…” is an interesting fantasy story, featuring an elf studying human religion as though it were a separate magic system from what the elves know of. I rather enjoyed that part of it, the theological and cultural discussion of what religion is and can be, but then the author throws in what I felt was utterly unnecessary carnage, leaving me feeling ‘meh’ about the whole story. There was a lot of potential to create a powerful message about belief, but in the end it just ended up another story about revenge.

“The Exchange Officers” – Brad R. Torgersen
I actually got bored and stopped reading this one. Its space-opera-y but didn’t feel like it was covering any new ground. I skimmed the latter half of the story and, even knowing how the story came out in the end, had absolutely no desire to go back and finish it, so we’ll just leave it at that.

Graphic Novel

The Girl Who Loved Doctor Who – Paul Cornell & Jimmy Broxton
I felt like this was a fun twist on the ‘character visits our world where he is just a character’ trope. Good art, fun story, all around enjoyable.

Girl Genius – Kaja & Phil Foglio
I felt like this one was just trying too hard, with everything. I liked the art the best out of all three, but the writing itself felt stilted and awkward.

Meathouse Man – George R.R. Martin adapted by Raya Golden
I opened this, and closed it again. I have the same problem with this as I have with Game of Thrones: utter gratuity. There is no point to all the nakedness and blood other than to be nakedness and blood and I just don’t feel it adds to the story. I’m all for a good sex scene, or a rousing massacre, but they really need to serve a definite purpose to the plot, and I just don’t feel this does. Sorry Martin fans…

Next up, Novellas! I’ll eventually make it to the novels, I promise…

Finding Hidden Gems

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We had stopped by our local used book store a couple weeks ago while we were out and about and I happened to see a book by Diane Duane that I hadn’t previously known existed. I was very familiar with her Young Wizards Series, and loved them dearly, and here I was, presented with a science fiction novel, Starrise at CorrivaleI got quite excited and bought it immediately, and sat down to read it post-haste.

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but what I ended up getting was…very different from what I was used to reading from Diane Duane. The Young Wizards books are very straightforward, with pared down language and a no-nonsense, everyday sort of manner which works well in contrast with the high fantasy she is injecting into the modern world. The opening pages of Starrise, however, were flowery and overly descriptive, setting a lovely scene, but not in the slightest what I’d come to expect from Duane’s writing style. I even went to my bookshelf and grabbed the first of the Young Wizards books to make sure I wasn’t imagining the difference.

Once I got over the initial shock of such a different tone, I started to enjoy Starrise. It is very much a space opera, with blazing guns, marines, aliens, and evil corporate plots. it manages to avoid being cliche for the most part, which was refreshing, and the characters are all engaging and surprising. One interesting note: these sci-fi novels are actually set in the world of a game, Star*Drive, which I had no notion of before picking up this book. They manage to avoid the trap that most licensed books fall into, as they do not require any familiarity with the game to follow and enjoy, and Starrise is a full and complex story of its own. I find many licensed books to fall short on those aspects, so this was a nice change.

If you are in the mood for a somewhat pulpy space opera (which, admit it, we all want now and again) I’d go track down a copy of Starrise at Corrivale. Its well worth the hunt.