Two brief book #reviews

annihilationReviewlets, anyway.  I’ve had Jeff Vandermeer’s ANNIHILATION on my Kindle for what seems like forever– several months, at least, and I either got it at a scandalously low cost or actually for free.  One way or another, I don’t remember when I downloaded it, but I finally decided to start reading it the other day– mostly prompted by hearing some good things about the movie.

I don’t know what the hell I just read, guys.  On one hand, I blew through the thing in like two days, finishing the last 40% or so of it this morning while my son celebrated Spring Break by watching iPad videos and playing Mario Odyssey.  That’s actually a hell of a thing– reading, for me, is a very solitary activity, and the idea that I can get sucked into reading a book while there’s someone else in the room who is doing something that makes noise is pretty damned impressive.  And the weird thing is that most of the time while I was reading it I was vaguely annoyed by it.  I’m usually pretty quick to put down a book that annoys me, especially if I’m reading it on my Kindle and I don’t have to look at it staring at me from a shelf and mocking me with its unfinishedness.  There’s something just very offputting about the way this book is written that reminds me of a college lecture about Bertolt Brecht.  I know that sounds wankerish, and it probably is, but the prof (whose name I don’t remember) talking about how Brecht deliberately wrote his play (I don’t even remember the name of the play) to annoy and push away the audience really stuck with me for some reason.  I think Vandermeer wants you to feel a bit alienated by this book, which is both good and bad.  I mean, none of the characters have names, and they refer to each other only by their jobs, like “the biologist” and “the psychologist,” and if The Surveyor is talking to The Biologist, she’s going to call her that.

Also, and I feel like this is going to come off really weird, and I can’t explain it other than to hope that you’ve read the book and you understand, but all of the characters in the book are women, including the narrator, and there is nothing remotely feminine about any of them.  Which sounds like I think that Women Should Be Like This and Men Should Be Like That and isn’t the case.  It’s just … hell, the whole book is inexplicable.

Also: I watched the trailer for the movie after finishing the book and the two appear to have not a whole lot in common.  Part of me wonders if the movie is pulling in bits from the other two books in the series.  Which, despite having written this and not having much good to say about the book, I might buy anyway.

… someone, please tell me you’ve read this damn thing and know what I’m talking about.


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On the other end of things, I’ve been really excited to read Tomi Adeyemi’s CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE since I first heard about it, and I actually timed finishing the book before it to be able to start it as soon as possible once it got into my house.  I spent most of the book thinking it was supposed to be a one-shot (it’s not, it’s the first of a trilogy) and feeling simultaneously like it needed to be a bigger story and it needed to be pruned down a bit.  I like Adeyemi’s writing quite a lot and the broader story of BLOOD AND BONE, about a persecuted minority who used to have access to magic and for most of a generation has lost it, and the group of young people who are working to bring their magic back– is compelling as hell.  My problem with the book, and what made it a three-and-a-half-stars-rounded-up-to-four instead of the five-star I wanted, is that the book is just a touch too YA for my tastes. Which, y’know, it’s a YA novel, so that’s my reaction and not a flaw with the book, but the book employs four different POV narrators and has short chapters (five pages or fewer, most of the time) and so there’s an awful lot of recapping and restating and reminding the audience of the specific angst of this character as opposed to that character.  One character in particular discovers he has magical abilities he was unaware of and hates himself for it, which is great except that he has to hate himself anew for it in every one of his chapters, and it gets to be a bit much for me.

That said, the book’s unexpected ending and approach to the inevitable romantic entanglement of the characters wins it an extra star, Adeyemi’s wordcraft is solid throughout, and I want to know more about where this world is headed, so despite some reservations I’m definitely in for the second book.

tl;dr: I want you to have already read ANNIHILATION and tell me what you thought, and I want you to go read CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE despite the fact that it isn’t quite a home run for me.  The end.

#REVIEW: JADE CITY, by Fonda Lee

34606064Every so often, shit ends up working out the way I want it to.

I bought Jade City effectively at random– I was at a Barnes and Noble with a gift card burning a hole in my pocket and desperately searching for anything at all in the sci-fi section that looked like it had been written by a person of color.  Jade City was on my Amazon wish list, so I’d come across it the title before somewhere, but at the time couldn’t remember where– and, in fact, still can’t.  So I really bought the book for no other reason other than it was there, and it took me a while to get around to reading it.

You should go grab it and read it right now.

A Goodreads friend asked me the other day what “flavor of fantasy” this book was.  It’s a trickier question to answer than one might think, because here’s the thing: this isn’t really all that much of a fantasy book.  The best comparison I can make for it, honestly, is The Godfather.  Except in pseudo-Japan, which in this book is called Kekon, and while the Corleones were pretty explicitly all criminals, the No Peak clan, which all of the main characters in the book are members (or aspiring members) of, is almost more like a local governing agency than a mafia family.  The trappings are there, sorta?  And no one in the book is ever averse to using violence or various other forms of street mayhem when it’s necessary?  But there’s really no element in this book of having to hide from police, and if anything the book goes out of its way to emphasize how the clans help regulate the actual criminals.

So, the fantasy element: Kekon is the world’s only source of jade.  Jade, in this world, provides superpowers to certain people, known as Green Bones, who keep it in contact with their skin.  The more jade you can handle, the stronger you are; powers include strength, invulnerability, speed, enhanced perception, the usual bundle of Superman-esque abilities, more superhero-style than magical.  Not everyone can use jade, though; some people are simply immune to its effects where others (including most foreigners) are quickly driven crazy by exposure to it.  Jade exposure can also harm veteran Green Bones if they wear too much jade or go too far when using it.

So, yeah: Kekon is controlled by clans, and the clans tightly regulate the supply of jade and how much each clan has access to, and also how much can be exported to other countries.  There’s also a drug, called Shine, that cuts down on jade’s negative effects somewhat, allowing foreigners to use it at high doses and cutting down on jade sickness in Green Bones in smaller doses.  The drug is also pretty tightly regulated, although other countries are working hard at synthesizing it so that they can have their own Green Bones.

Take all of this and drop a clan war on top of it, along with a subplot hinting at no small amount of international intrigue– like, I can see future books in this series easily incorporating spy elements– as one clan begins smuggling jade to other countries without the others knowing and the other countries make plans to take control of Kekon’s jade production entirely.  Throw in a pretty damn compelling intergenerational family story that doesn’t even need the fantasy elements, a couple of awesome woman characters, and a subplot involving a petty street thief and you have what is easily my favorite book of the year so far, and an early frontrunner for best book of the year.   Fonda Lee is the shit, guys, and I can’t wait for the second book in this series.

Go read it.

Oh so that’s what’s bugging me

xhss9So I’m reading this book right now.  It’s the third book in a series that I think is going to be seven or ten books long, it’s 1200 fucking pages long, and the two books before it were both also over a thousand pages long.  I started it right around the first of the year and I’m barely a quarter of the way through the thing.  I feel like I sailed through the first two, and I really enjoyed reading them.  That said, it’s been a while, and I read so much that my recall is not always great.  At first, I thought that was the reason that this book felt like a slog– that I just didn’t remember the story well enough from the previous books and it was holding me back.

There really shoulda been a goddamn recap chapter in the front.  I mean, shit, your book is already twelve hundred pages long, maybe you give me another 15 to recap the previous 2200 pages in the other two books?  It’d be nice.

Something hit me about this book last night.  The big conflict in this one (so far) appears to be that the race (fantasy book, remember, so literal non-human race) that humans have basically been using as slaves since time immemorial have, for lack of a better word, woken up.  They were basically big strong mute servants until recently and now they’ve got their minds back.  And they are, rather understandably, somewhat pissed about the whole centuries of slavery thing, and so there’s a bit of Kill!  All!  Humans! going on out there.

The book expects me to be on the side of the humans in this conflict.  All of the main characters are human.  There’s been at least one, maybe two POV characters from the other side in previous books but he’s either dead or just hasn’t shown up; I literally don’t remember.

I am not on the side of the humans in this conflict.

There are hints that one character is going to take the side of the newly-awakened slave race, but those same hints imply that he is going to lead them, and I kinda don’t feel like a white savior narrative is going to improve this book any.

Oh, and the series has always explicitly associated blue eyes with social status, which I was willing to ignore the implications of previously but now is kinda looking upsetting given recent developments.  Like, characters’ eyes literally change color to blue if they achieve certain abilities.

So right now I’m at war, with my 2500-page investment along with a healthy dose of “give the rest of the book a chance; this may not work out the way it seems like it’s going to” on the one hand, and literally ten other books that I’d like to start reading and nine hundred more pages of this one to slog through on the other.

Feel free to provide advice if you’d like.

(Also: I’m not a hundred percent sure why I’m effectively subtweeting the actual book here; my Goodreads feed isn’t exactly a hidden thing.  But that’s how the post came out.  I dunno.)

On the books I read, and where I get them

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For the last several years, I’ve basically been boycotting Christmas.  With the single exception of my son, I’m done buying gifts for anyone at Christmastime and I don’t want anyone getting anything for me either.  I’m not a Christian.  I’m a grown man with his very own job and in general if I want something I can get it for myself.  The fact that the right wing has managed to make how I greet people during December into a shibboleth doesn’t help, either.  Fuck it, all of it.  I’m out.

My mother has had… some trouble with this concept.

I’ve tried to redirect her always-considerable Christmas energies (my list of “what I got” when I was a kid was regularly two or three times as long as anybody else’s, and we were never rich– Mom just really prioritized Christmas) away from my wife and I and toward my son, but “No, really, don’t get me anything” hasn’t sunk in.  She’s still getting me things, although I’ve gotten her to tone it down to one or two smaller gifts.  This year it was a Barnes and Noble gift card.  Just that.  And she practically begged me to use it.

I should not be surprised that my mother knows my weak spots.  Okay, fine, I’ll bend my principles and go get some free books, geez.

She also got my wife a card, and my son had some free-floating cash around, so we piled into the car yesterday to go to Barnes and Noble, and Christ if I wasn’t reminded yet again why I get every damn thing I read from Amazon now.  I used to shop at Barnes and Noble all the time and then they moved their store to the mall, and since then damn near every time I walk into the place it generates a blog post.  The mall is seven million miles away and the weather was absolute shit yesterday and the crowds and the parking lot and jesus why the hell am I doing this to myself and my family.  

A brief diversion: I have, for the last couple of years, been trying to aggressively diversify my reading, if not in subject matter than at least in terms of the authors I’m reading.  I’m always on the lookout for new authors, and in particular I’ve been trying to focus on women authors and authors of color for the last couple of years.  I wrote my top 10 books of the year post yesterday, and while part of me looked at it and went yeah, mission accomplished— eight of the eleven books were by women– another part of me noticed how blindingly white the list was.  Nine out of the ten authors.  In other words, white women, specifically, appear to be the beneficiary of this policy.

Okay, cool.  So this year I focus more on authors of color, right?(*)

Y’all have any idea how hard it is to find authors of color in the science fiction/fantasy section at Barnes and Noble?  Way harder than I thought it was going to be.  I started by going through my Amazon wish list and trying to find some of those books.  No luck on 90% of them.  I wanted to just scan through the new books, but they’ve gotten rid of that section in SF&F recently and everything is spine-out now.  Okay, start looking for authors with visibly ethnic-sounding names and/or using initials instead of first names, which is generally code for “woman author.”  No luck.  Hell, just finding books by women was difficult enough.

I mean, I eventually found three books, two from my wish list and one that I literally grabbed because I’ve heard of Wesley Chu and he’s Asian and I’ve never read anything by him.  But the whole process was unpleasant and took much longer than it ought to have.  Turns out discovery of new books is kinda complicated if all you have is the spine and the author’s name to go on.

And then we got up to the counter and the salesperson gave my wife her spiel about the membership card.  And we’re cool with that!  It’s your job, you go do it.  And then I got called over by the salesperson next to her and she did the same thing, and my son made it obvious that he was standing in between his parents and the first lady realized we were together.  And I didn’t have a card either, because the card costs $30 annually and I really don’t spend the $300+ every year it would take to make the card worth it at Barnes and Noble any more.  I’m not arbitrarily adding $30 to my sale so that I can save money $300 worth of purchases later.

So she leans over to me and snarks, again, in a really shitty sort of tone, “You’d have saved nearly half the cost of the card already if you joined up!”  And it’s at this point where you’re no longer just doing your job and you’re kind of being an asshole.  I already said I don’t want your card.  You’ve had the card for years.  I get it.  I have to spend $300 before I save any money and I’m not going to.

I opened my mouth, and alternate-universe me snapped “If I wanted to save money I’d have bought this shit from Amazon” back at her.  This-universe me, luckily, has a bit more sense and just said “No, thanks” again and we left, driving another seven million miles in snow and over ice to get back home, and I resolved to let the Goddamn post office do the driving for me from now on.  Because I’m in sales right now and I’ve worked a register plenty of times before and I try my very hardest to never be anything but perfectly nice to anyone on the other side of a register from me.

So quit making me work at it.

Also, lady?  Did you notice we were buying with gift cards?  Somebody else already spent that money.  I’m not getting your loyalty card today.  Between the two of us we got five or six books for like $10 and I don’t care about your card right now.

Ugh.

(*) Miss me with it if you have any plan to quibble with how I arrange my reading, okay? There are millions of books out there and I can’t read all of them, so I’ll use whatever the fuck criteria I want to decide which ones I spend my time on.  Thanks.

The Top 10 New(*) Books I Read in 2017

It’s that time of year again!  I am not a huge fan of the book I’m reading right now, and with three days left in the year it’s not likely that I’ll finish anything that merits addition to the list, so here are the 10 best new books I read this year, where “new” means “I never read it before,” and not “it came out this year.”  I read 89 books this year, a bit off my usual pace, which I blame on my job and the general “wouldn’t dying be easier?” tone that 2017 left all over absolutely every single thing in existence.  As always, once we get past the top 3 or so, don’t pay huge amounts of attention to the specific ranking.

(Also, are you my friend on Goodreads?  You should be my friend on Goodreads.)

Before we get started, though, the list from previous years:

9359808#10: THE DESERT OF SOULS, by Howard Andrew Jones.  I have a weakness for Conan books, and the sword and sorcery genre in general, and Howard Andrew Jones’ DESERT OF SOULS seriously scratched an itch for me.  I found it through Twitter, recommended by Saladin Ahmed, who tends to know his Arabian Nights-inspired prose pretty damn well.  There’s at least one more book in the series, which didn’t hit me quite as hard as the original, and some other pieces after that that I’m having some trouble tracking down for some reason.  The story is set in the real world– 8th century Baghdad, to be specific– but there’s magic and evil monsters and all sorts of fantasy fun to be had, and the voice of the main character is a pleasure to read.

07d#9: WHAT HAPPENED, by Hillary Clinton.  One thing that is sorely missing from this year’s list is nonfiction; I tend to swing back and forth on how much I’m reading (my book collection is probably at least 40% nonfiction) and this year definitely represented a marked swing away from nonfiction and toward escapist fiction.  WHAT HAPPENED was one of a very few examples to the contrary. I almost didn’t read it, as politics makes me ill enough on a daily basis without reading an entire book about the worst, stupidest election America ever had, but it turns out that Clinton is good at a lot of things, and one of those is writing books.  I would not have been strong enough to write this after going through what she did, and if I was strong enough, my book would have featured many times more uses of the word “motherfucker” than hers did.  It also would have been called “You Morons,” not “What Happened.”  There’s a good case to be made that everyone who voted for Clinton ought to read the book in the pure interest of history, but it’s still a good read on its own merits, especially if you’re able to temporarily disconnect yourself from the terrible consequences of the events it describes.

the-stars-are-legion-final-cover#8:  THE STARS ARE LEGION, by Kameron Hurley.  I keep seeing pictures of this book with LESBIANS IN SPACE as the title instead of the actual title, and I honest to God don’t know if they’re real or not.  I definitely want one if they are.  The hook of the book is pretty simple; there are no men, none at all, anywhere, and everything and everyone in the book identifies as female, but while that’s initially intriguing it’s not quite enough to hold an entire book together.  Luckily, it doesn’t need to be, as the story is typical Hurley Weird: dueling worldships hurtling through the void, decaying societies, rebirths and reincarnations, time loops, and genocide.  Y’know, YA stuff.  This book’s meaty as hell and is probably going to get a reread sometime this year.

Screen Shot 2017-12-28 at 1.45.39 PM#7: KILLING GRAVITY, by Corey J. White.  This year’s winner of the Warren Ellis I Want To Eat Your Brain And Steal Your Writing Powers award, KILLING GRAVITY is the book whose pure wordsmithery blew me away the most this year.  I am admittedly mostly a story guy; I can overlook workmanlike writing if the story is awesome, but it isn’t terribly often that beauty of language can overcome a bad story.  Luckily, this book has both; the tone and voice of the book are phenomenal, and the story itself, involving psychic assassins, cloned squirrel-thingies, and a shitton of just general badassery is absolutely enough to keep me enthralled.  This is somehow the only exemplar of Tor’s novella line on the list, which surprises me, as I liked their output a whole lot, and at 160 pages it’s probably the best pound-for-pound read on the list, if that phrase means anything.

71BbpPa_l8L#6: AUTONOMOUS, by Annalee Newitz.  I’ve read one of Annalee Newitz’ books previously, SCATTER, ADAPT AND REMEMBER: HOW HUMANS WILL SURVIVE A MASS EXTINCTION.  I bought this having forgotten I’d read that book, as once an author gets slotted in my head as a Nonfiction Person I don’t always remember they exist when and if they switch to fiction.  With respect to Ms. Newitz, I don’t want any more nonfiction from her, because AUTONOMOUS is so Goddamn good and I want lots more stuff like it instead.  I wouldn’t think that patent law and pharmaceuticals would really make for one of the best books of the year, but I guess that’s why I didn’t write it.  The main character is a pirate who lives in a submarine in the bottom of the ocean and produces illegal generic versions of patented drugs.  One of her drugs goes wrong and produces instant addiction, followed by unpleasant consequences, and we’re off to the races.  Throw in a romance between a human and a war robot and one of the more subtle takes on global warming I’ve seen in a book lately and I’m a happy reader.

51s465hRHsL#5: WAKE OF VULTURES, by Lila Bowen.  Lila Bowen, also known as Delilah Dawson, is an author who I’ve read several books by and had always bounced off of me.  She runs around with a crew of other writers whose work I like a lot but after four or five of her books falling flat I was ready to declare her work Not for Me and move on.  Well, okay, maybe Delilah Dawson is Not for Me, but Lila Bowen?  I’mma read the hell out of Lila Bowen’s next book.  WAKE OF VULTURES is basically urban fantasy, but transplanted into the Old West and with a former slave as the main character.  (So, uh, okay, maybe not so urban, but I hope you know what I mean.) I’m a hard sell for urban fantasy, but the setting change makes it work, and Nettie Lonesome’s voice as a character makes for a compulsively readable book.  I took way too long to get to this book– it sat on the shelf for forever, and there are now two more books out in the series.  I’ll be getting to them soon.

9780345548603#4: A PLAGUE OF GIANTS, by Kevin Hearne.  Speaking of the cool people that Lila Bowen hangs out with, Kevin Hearne’s been on my list of faves for a while, and when I heard that he’d started work on a proper Epic Fantasy Series as a follow-up to his excellent IRON DRUID series, I was insanely excited.  A PLAGUE OF GIANTS is different enough from his previous work that I’d have been hard-pressed to identify him as the author after reading the IRON DRUID books, but that versatility is a strength, and the framing device of the story– a bard basically giving a multi-day oral history lesson to a large crowd, by taking on the appearance and speech patterns of the people talking while performing, is unlike anything I’ve ever read before.  I’m chomping at the bit for the next installment on this one; it’s getting pre-ordered the second I find it available on Amazon.

33128934#3: STILLHOUSE LAKE, by Rachel Caine.  I read STILLHOUSE LAKE in two or three huge gulps, staying up much later than I wanted to to finish it because I couldn’t stand the idea of going to bed without knowing how it ended.  I’m a big fan of Caine’s, and this is her only series without even a whiff of the supernatural about it– it’s a very 2017 type of horror novel, where the main character is both the ex-wife of a serial killer and the target of an army of relentless internet assholes who have decided she was an accomplice in her husband’s crimes and deserves to be punished for her actions.  It’s a chillingly realistic type of horror and one of a very few books that genuinely scared me while I was reading it.  I just finished its sequel KILLMAN CREEK, and while it doesn’t quite stand out as strongly as STILLHOUSE did (and also lacks that amazingly evocative cover, which would have sold me the book all by itself) it’s a great follow-up.  There’s a third book coming soon but I think the series works well as a duology.  We’ll see where they go next.

f043712f-4655-4c8a-b60f-fca1e4c6ca9f#2: THE HATE U GIVE, by Angie Thomas.  While not my favorite book of the year, I think THE HATE U GIVE is probably the most important book I read in 2017, and in particular I think this book needs to make its way into a whole lot of school libraries.  All of them, in fact.  The title is a Tupac reference; he once claimed that THUG LIFE stood for “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody,” and… well, we’ll just say the book is well-named.  The story is about a young woman whose best friend is killed by a police officer, so it’s a bit triggery and, well, on point given the current fucked-up society we live in.  It’s a hell of a book and everyone should read it, or at least see the movie when it comes out sometime next year.

(SIDENOTE: I also read DEAR MARTIN, by Nic Stone, which is a very similar book in a lot of ways– in fact, the biggest difference is that DEAR MARTIN is about a male character and not a young woman.  I think DM suffered from having read THUG first, and while it’s absolutely worth your time it didn’t blow me away the way THUG did.  Read them both, but read THE HATE U GIVE first.)

30279514#1: DREADNOUGHT and SOVEREIGN, by April Daniels.  Here is the most impressive thing about DREADNOUGHT:  I read it in February, and it is still so much on my mind in December that there was no real competition for it being the best book of the year.  As much as I loved the other books on this list– and you don’t get on this list unless I loved your book– there was never anything this year that came close to how much I loved DREADNOUGHT… unless it was SOVEREIGN, the sequel, which also came out this year and was just as good.  That’s practically impossible.  Superhero prose is pretty rare in general; comic books have such a stranglehold on the genre that most people don’t even really consider superheroics as proper fodder for a prose novel.  Teen Danny Tozer accidentally inherits the powers of Dreadnought, the world’s premier superhero, and one of the first things Dreadnought’s powers do is reshape Danny’s body into his own personal ideal, which means Danny becomes Danielle.  It’s a great superhero book, a great teenage coming-of-age book, a great exploration of how society treats trans people (the main villain of the second book is a TERF) and all around a fantastic pair of novels and the best two books I read in 2017.  I finally got my wife to start reading DREADNOUGHT a couple of days ago, and she hasn’t been able to put it down much either.  Go buy this, guys.  You’ve got Christmas money lying around, I know it.

Honorable Mention, in no particular order:  DEFY THE STARS, by Claudia Gray; YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO REMAIN INNOCENT, by James Duane, HAND TO MOUTH: LIVING IN BOOTSTRAP AMERICA, by Linda Tirado; FLYGIRL, by Sherri L. Smith; THE COLLAPSING EMPIRE, by John Scalzi, THE TRESPASSER, by Tana French; A SONG FOR QUIET, by Cassandra Khaw, and DOWN AMONG THE STICKS AND BONES, by Seanan McGuire.

Worst book of the year: ORIGINS, by Dan Brown.  I literally don’t think he can write a worse book than this one.  Let’s all hope he never tries.