1 Following

Amadan na Briona

Currently reading

Inherent Vice
Thomas Pynchon, Ron McLarty
The Best Horror of the Year Volume Five
Ellen Datlow, Laird Barron, Conrad Williams, Ramsey Campbell
Locus Solus (Alma Classics)
Raymond Roussel
Blackout (Newsflesh Trilogy, #3)
Mira Grant, Paula Christensen, Michael Goldstrom
Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade - Landry Q. Walker, Eric Jones

"Gah! My Eyes! I can see through everyone's clothes! I don't want to see through everyone's clothes!"

Supergirl, like all superheroes, has been through many incarnations. This volume collects in its entirety the six-issue run of "Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade," in which she is an eighth-grader sent to a boarding school by Superman after she "accidentally" gets rocketed from the Kryptonian city of Argo to Earth.

First of all, it's very much a children/MG series, not really part of DC's continuity. (As far as I know, Lex Luthor has never been revealed to have a little sister in the "real" DC Universe.) It's silly and comic and aimed at a very juvenile audience. In the first couple of issues, "Linda Lee's" trials are mostly those of being an unpopular dork in middle school, thus making her a stand-in for, presumably, many of her girl readers who will sympathize with the poor girl who's wonderful and special and yet everything keeps going wrong for her to make people think the worst of her.

Initially, her nemesis is "Belinda Zee," who is literally her evil doppleganger, created by exposure to red kryptonite. Since this is a MG comic book, Evil Supergirl doesn't try to kill her or take over the world... she just spends all her time making Linda Lee look stupid in school.

The later issues actually involve more superheroics. Time travel. Superman and Lex Luthor make an appearance in the climax. It's silly and complicated but fun, and there are quite a few references to the DC Universe; one of Superman's oldest and most classic enemies (besides Luthor) turns out to be the Big Bad, and Supergirl gets a visit from the 30th century. And while being a six-issue run for kids, the issues were mostly self-contained, there was a story arc that built up from issue one to the finale.

I am only giving it 3 stars because for me it was too juvenile and only moderately entertaining. However, I'd definitely recommend this series for the middle school comics reader in your family. In light of the disaster that DC comics has been lately on so many fronts, it's nice to see they can occasionally remember to publish fun, kid-friendly superhero comics.

"Was that a horse? Wearing a cape?"
One - LeighAnn Kopans I am a sucker for superhero novels, and I was intrigued by the author's marketing of this self-published novel. That's right, this is a self-published novel. Leigh Ann Kopans apparently found an agent, but the agent was unable to interest any publishers in this book, so Kopans decided to go the "indie" (I hate that disingenuous and misleading term) route and publish the book herself, with a professional cover.

She should have spent a little more money on editing; in general, I found the book to be written well, but there were enough grammatical errors, sentences that were missing verbs, and other clunkers that professional editing should have caught, that I would say this is a manuscript that could have been greatly improved with another round of polishing.

That also applies to the story, unfortunately. There was potential here, but weak worldbuilding and cardboard characters left nothing to distract me from the insta-love teen romance between Mary Sue and Mr. Perfect Cute Tame Huggable Boy, which unfortunately takes up more page count than the interesting stuff, like superpowers and evil scientist conspiracies.

One starts with some interesting ideas. It's a couple of centuries in the future, and there was a "World Uranium War" that released radiation into Lake Michigan, causing mutations and superpowers. Okay, that's a suspension of disbelief I'm willing to give the author as a gimme -- — it's no dumber than most superhero origin stories, especially in novels where you have to come up with a single origin for all the superpowered people.

A true Super has two powers, which is what actually allows them to function as supers. Explained this way, it makes sense — flame-projectors, for example, need invulnerability or regeneration along with their flame powers or they will give themselves burns every time they use their powers. Likewise, someone with super-strength but not a super-strong skeleton who tries to pick up a car... well, it won't be pretty. Teleporters, if they don't have super-senses to let them see where they are teleporting to, are likely to meet with grisly ends. And so on.

Merrin Grey is a "One" — she has just a single power, and much to the disappointment of her Super parents, it never became anything else. She can float, but she has no propulsion ability, so she can't actually fly. Most Ones' powers fade when they get older, but Merrin, unbeknownst to her parents, has continued to practice, unwilling to give up.

When she is finally written off as unpowered, she is transferred from Superior High, where all the super-kids go, to a "normal" high school. Here she meets Elias VanDyne, whose sweatshirts she will spend most of the rest of the book sleeping in.

I want Elias — kissing him was enough to tell me that, and I’m not stupid enough to deny it.

I want to fly more than I want him. Way more.

As unbelievable as it was, it wasn’t — could never be — it’s not flying on my own. If I fly with Elias, I can’t fling my arms out to the side and feel the nothingness speeding between the earth and me. Not unless he carries me.

And no matter how good it felt to kiss Elias, to be so close to him that I felt his heart beating in my chest and the vibration of his speech against my skin, I don’t want to let him carry me until I know I can carry myself.

Elias turns out to be a One also. Elias has some friends who are also Ones. Elias's twin sisters are Supers, like Merrin's twin brothers. There is a Hub, which is the super-secret-except-they-have-annual-expositions-for-all-the-local-high-school-students-to-come-see scientific facility that does research on Super powers. Merrin wants to go there because she thinks they can unlock the genetic puzzle that prevents her powers from manifesting.

Naturally, sinister conspiracies are uncovered, Merrin and Elias learn how to do Things, and two sixteen-year-olds realize their eternal totally mature and believable love for each other.

So first of all, this is a very, very girly book. If you like very girly books, you will probably enjoy it more than I did. I guess I should have been warned off by the cover, but hey — superheroes.

The romance is a much stronger element than the superpowers and the conspiracies. And I can tolerate romance. I do not expect sixteen-year-olds not to be googly and stupid for each other, because hey, hormones.

Yeah, so here is the cover for the sequel, Two:


You can practically hear the author squeeing.

Elias is the ideal boy for Merrin (who, incidentally, is a super-genius and totally cute and her big "flaw" is that she has a semi-useless super-power, and anyone she likes turns out to be nice and anyone she dislikes turns out to be evil, and all of her guesses turn out to be right — yes, I am going to throw the Mary Sue card here). He's nice, and gentle, and sweet — but manly! — and loves his sisters, and never acts like a jerk, and even though he's in love with Merrin he never tries to do anything she doesn't want to do, and they are literally super-compatible and urgh-hurk!

Okay, on the plus side: I kind of like that Merrin is a genius and is neither modest nor boastful about it. And while Eliaskissykissywoowoo is the perfect boyfriend, Merrin has realistic reservations about boys after meeting some Super boys who are not perfect boyfriends. And the One/Two angle is actually rather inventive.

Even if you like girly YA romances, though, I felt this book failed in most other respects. For example, for a world with superpowered people, we sure don't hear much about them. They exist, but they don't seem to have done much to change the world. And for a world set in the 22nd century or thereabouts, it sure resembles our world an awful lot. They have smart-houses and faster Internet, but otherwise high school and suburban living seems to be pretty much unchanged.

But what really caused me to revise my estimation of the book downward, after some initially mildly positive feelings despite the onset of kissy-kissy-woo-woo, was the direction the plot took with the conspiracies and the villain. Namely:

1. Most plot complications came about from people just not telling each other stuff they could easily have told each other.

2. The villain's evil plan consisted of lying about things that... there really wasn't much reason to lie about. I mean, at the end I tried to reason out why everything had to be kept secret, instead of just telling everyone involved what they were doing. It was a case where enlisting voluntary cooperation would probably have been easier and less risky than playing cloak and dagger games and being Really Evil.

One is not terrible; it is aimed solidly at teenage girls who want to swoon over a cute guy, and if you are in that demographic, it's probably a decent pick. My bad for wanting a superhero novel.

2.5 stars, and normally I'd round up to give the author props for writing and marketing a self-published title that approaches professional quality, but I am rounding down because reading other reviews has revealed that the author has earned herself a place on one of those authors-behaving-badly shelves that Goodreads no longer allows. Bad author, Ms. Kopans: no half-star for you.
The Dispossessed - Ursula K. Le Guin I read Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy way back when I was a kid, but I am abashed to say that until now I had never read any of her adult SF novels.

The Dispossessed holds up amazingly well for a book written nearly forty (!) years ago. In fact, forget about the publication date and it could have been written this year. Except that hardly anyone writes this kind of slow-moving, thoughtful, idea-heavy science fiction any more. The Dispossessed won a Hugo, a Nebula, a World Fantasy Award, and the National Book Award. That was back in the days when winning a Hugo meant something.

(Sorry, John Scalzi, I like you, but... Redshirts? A Hugo? Seriously?)

The Dispossessed takes place on the planet Urras and its habitable moon, Anarres. Urras was the original world from whence men came, with a long recorded history and an environment much like Earth. (Goodreads librarians seem to have decided that The Dispossessed is the fifth book in the "Hainish" cycle. My understanding is that the other books do take place in the same universe, but are largely independent of one another. However, they are united by the Hainish, who apparently contacted all the races of mankind on different planets and revealed that they are all descended from common ancestors. This is a detail mentioned in this book, but not really very important.)

About a hundred and fifty years ago, revolutionaries from Urras fled that planet on a rocket to Anarres, and settled on the barren, habitable but stark and hardscrabble moon. They follow a philosophy called Odonianism, after the founder, a woman named Odo. Odonianism is true anarcho-communism, and so this book is mostly an exploration of two very different socio-political systems. Urras, as I said, is much like Earth — its most wealthy nations are essentially capitalist (what Odonians call "propertarians"), but it has a range of governments (what Odonians call "archists"). When Shevek, the physicist who is the first Anarresesti to return to Urras since the Anarres colony was founded, encounters Anarres society, he of course experiences culture shock, horror at their propertarian and archist ways, but he also realizes that it is not the authoritarian hellhole that all Odonians assume it must be.

He had been taught as a child that Urras was a festering mass of inequity, iniquity, and waste. But all the people he met, and all the people he saw, in the smallest country village, were well dressed, well fed, and contrary to his expectations, industrious. They did not stand about sullenly waiting to be ordered to do things. Just like Anarresti, they were simply busy getting things done. It puzzled him. He had assumed that if you removed a human being's natural incentive to work -- his initiative, his spontaneous creative energy -- and replaced it with external motivation and coercion, he would become a lazy and careless worker. But no careless workers kept those lovely farmlands, or made the superb cars and comfortable trains. The lure and compulsion of profit was evidently a much more effective replacement of the natural initiative than he had been led to believe.

A superficial and ideologically reflexive reader might think that Le Guin is praising socialism, that The Dispossessed is a novel that criticizes capitalism and democracy and authority in favor of some idealistic vision of anarcho-communism. (Notice how I conflated socialism and communism there? Well, the superficial and ideologically reflexive reader thinks they are the same thing. Le Guin knows better.) But inasmuch as she portrays the Odonians in a sympathetic light, as they are the protagonists, she also takes us through Shevek's entire life and his discovery of the flaws in Odonian society, the ways in which human nature conspires to undermine every utopian ideal. And shows how Anarres is a harsh and sometimes joyless place, even without violence or authority or force or compulsion. The Anarresti consider themselves a utopia and Urrasti society to be a dystopia; the Urrasti think the opposite.

Shevek, as a brilliant physicist who holds the key to what the Urrasti believe will lead to profound technological advancement (including making weapons, naturally), is warmly welcomed to Urras, where they do their best to subvert and seduce him. But Shevek came to Urras to bring the revolution back to the planet on which it was born.

I had to think about why this book so impressed me, and made me give it 5 stars, despite its lack of razzle-dazzle or action or high concept plotting. Part of it is Le Guin's prose, of course — she's a skilled and artistic writer who delves deep into human psychology and sociology and yet also manages to make the advanced, esoteric physics, hand-waved as it is, sound plausible and high-falutin' and sciency. (Keeping in mind, again, that this book was written in 1974!)

I came to the conclusion that first of all, this is a book that is only nominally science fiction. Or rather, while it is most certainly science fiction, it's not the "science fiction" part that dominates the narrative. The story doesn't need to be about a physicist on another planet; it just makes certain elements easier to explain that way. It's a story about how societies interact and how people interact with each other and how people interact with society. The Anarresti were interesting precisely because Le Guin put as much effort into working out the details of a global anarchist communitarian civilization - which is able to conduct advanced physics and make trains run on time - as most SF authors put into the orders of battle for their starfleets and the physics of their warp drives and the biology of their Slee'th'krin Hagaa'r aliens, etc.

Lots of folks on Earth say "Well, sure, communism is an 'ideal' society in theory, but it will never scale beyond a small community, let alone for an entire planet." So Le Guin goes about showing how it might work. And it really does work — but it's not a utopia. At one point, one of the Urrasti lower classes tells Shevek "At least on your world, no one goes hungry." And Shevek corrects him: "No one goes hungry while another man eats." In fact the Anarresti do go hungry during a rather harrowing global drought. Arguably the result of the environment, and the Anarresti's hardships largely the result of their having to settle on a barely-liveable planet instead of the lush Urras, but still, it's no utopia. Le Guin shows how a society in which no one has to do anything, no one can be made to do anything, and everyone can take whatever they like, actually works, through the mechanism of social norms and mores. People just do. And those same norms and mores also result in a slow bureaucratization, and institutionalization even in a society supposedly without institutions, and authoritarianism in a society supposedly without authorities, because people are still people.

My other conclusion, or maybe a corollary to the first, is that science fiction falls into two categories, broadly: Big Idea SF, and old stories dressed up as SF.

There can be a lot of overlap, of course, and I like old stories dressed up as SF. But as Star Trek was famously described as "Wagon Train in Space," a lot of science fiction is your basic war story, or rags to riches/orphan hero, or rebels against evil invaders, or crime thriller or detective mystery, etc., with androids and space travel and beam weapons or whatever. They are perfectly good stories, may even be great fiction, but they aren't really bringing anything new to the table. Enjoyable, but just another way to retell a story.

Big Idea SF is what science fiction, or "speculative fiction" to get all pretentious about it, is "supposed" to do when you are waxing pretentious about genres. Namely, explore ideas, posit hypotheses, construct stories around a what-if or play with science and technology in ways we can't yet in reality. This is how you come up with mind-bending stories, worldview-changers, science fiction that expands boundaries.

Most of this science fiction is built on the premise of some advanced technology, or climactic changes, or the arrival of aliens, or some other clearly fantastical element. In The Dispossessed, the advanced technology is the minimum necessary for plot purposes, the mention of offworlders (Hainish and Terrans and others) likewise. It's a novel of societal science fiction.

In my slightly snobby opinion, that's kind of what we should reward novels for with Hugos and Nebulas. With the big, big disclaimer that if you peruse my reading list, you will see I read and enjoy lots of books for no other reason than they were great war stories or detective mysteries with androids and space travel and beam weapons or whatever.

The Dispossessed is really a thinking book that would be, should be a literary classic, even if it must always struggle against that bright orange paperback cover that says "sci-fi."
One Man's Initiation: 1917 - John Dos Passos,  Jeff Woodman This is one of those anti-war classics that emerged from the Great War, with boys marching off singing patriotic songs about whipping the Huns, and discovering war as it was to be fought in the 20th century: trenches, machine guns, grenades, endless shelling, poison gas.

It was probably very powerful in its day. It still is a powerful and harrowing description of war, but the narrative is a sadly familiar one. If you want to read another story about how horrible war is, this is another story about how horrible war is.

One Man's Initiation has the anti-war message of All Quiet on the Western Front and the starry-eyed socialist idealism of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. Ending with a bunch of soldiers slinging philosophy and revolution in an atmosphere of alcohol and mortar shells, you can see how anything that might shake up the present world order must have appealed to them under the circumstances. Unfortunately, we also know how it turned out.

As a story, it's average, half-fiction, half autobiographical soapbox. I listened to it because it was an Audible freebie. Not a complete waste of time, but I find Upton Sinclair a much more compelling writer in this space than John Dos Passos.
The Barbarian Nurseries - Hector Tobar Let me be bold here: I think this book deserves to be a modern classic.

Not because it's the greatest book I've ever read. I liked it a lot, but it falls short of true greatness.

I am, however, comparing it to a lot of other classics I've read in the past few years, and in particular, the great melodramatic social commentaries like Bleak House, Mansfield Park, Middlemarch, North and South, Can You Forgive Her?, The Age of Innocence and so on.

Note that while I liked most of those books, I didn't love them. And I'm not necessarily comparing Héctor Tobar with the likes of Charles Dickens or Jane Austen.

But he does exactly what Dickens and Austen and Trollope and Eliot, et al did — in telling a story about characters caught in a particular time and place in rather contrived situations, he tells us about that milieu. And by telling a good story with vibrant and detailed characters, he makes the story interesting.

The milieu here is 21st century Los Angeles. Like most of the above-mentioned social commentarians, Tobar centers the story in a well-to-do household, that of Scott Torres and Maureen Torres-Thompson.

There's a wealth of details just in their names. Scott is a computer geek paper millionaire working at a start-up. He's all but abandoned the Mexican half of his heritage, including his Mexican father who was banned from his household by his wife for making what she considered to be a racially insensitive remark. Maureen is the very model of a nice progressive white lady who thinks racism and sexism and other isms are just ever so awful, while enjoying her stay-at-home mom status with floors washed, toilets scrubbed, meals cooked, and lawns gardened by underpaid Mexicans.

They both are and are not sympathetic people. Scott and Maureen really are pretty ordinary upper-middle class Californians with major materialistic blindness. Scott is utterly emasculated, Maureen is utterly emasculating, without being deliberately cruel. When she goes out and orders an expensive landscaping job, just as Scott has let go all but one of their Mexican help because the recession has devastated their savings and his company is struggling, it precipitates a conflict that leads to the second half of the novel.

Araceli Ramirez is the Torres-Thompsons' cook/housekeeper. She gets paid $250/week plus room and board. Nannying and babysitting is emphatically not part of her job - she doesn't even like kids. But when a series of ill-timed miscommunications lead Scott and Maureen both to leave the house for several days, each believing that their two boys are with the other one, Araceli is stuck with them.

The specific circumstances that cause Scott and Maureen to be unaware that they left their kids with the housekeeper for four days, and that cause Araceli to decide that she needs to take them across L.A. to their grandfather's house, are a bit contrived, a comedy of errors engineered to be convenient to the plot. But once they get underway, it's an interesting journey, because Araceli is the real main character.

She is not a "heroine." She's not a "spunky protagonist." And she's certainly not a nice motherly Latina guardian angel. She's a serious, responsible, hard-working woman who has learned to live with bitterness and lost opportunities. To her employers, she's just the unsmiling housekeeper they dubbed "Ms. Weirdness." In fact, Araceli is an astute observer of human nature who only refrains from making sharp comments because her English isn't very good. She's a former art student who had to leave her university in Mexico City, and now here she is trying to keep these sensitive, imaginative gringa boys out of trouble.

Their adventure turns into an even more farcical comedy of errors involving the police, politicians, celebrities, political activists and race-baiters, with Araceli caught in a media firestorm.

Is there a profound message in this book? Not really. The Barbarian Nurseries doesn't tell us anything we don't already know. America assimilates, rich people tend to be privileged and entitled, rich liberals tend to think very highly of their never-tested principles, no one actually wants to get rid of illegal immigrants except a few politicized useful fools, and just because someone doesn't speak your language doesn't mean they aren't thinking thoughts.

But it's the situation and the characters that make this book. What did Dickens or Trollope ever tell us that we didn't already know? And no one who appreciates the old classics should criticize Héctor Tobar's occasional tilt towards absurdity.

This novel of modern culture and racial friction in Los Angeles doesn't get 5 stars because it didn't have the literary brilliance to make it one of my faves. I think what it was most missing, for me, was humor. There were times when it was almost a satire, but not quite. But still, definitely a recommended read.
The Burned Tower - Maryna Dyachenko,  Serhiy Dyachenko Picking up everything I can get my hands on from Sergey and Marina Dyachenko, I feel like one of those snotty fans of obscure niche bands who pride themselves on being a fan before the band was "discovered." The Dyachenkos are big names in Russian SF&F, but thus far have only three works translated into English: Vita Nostra, The Scar, and the short story/novelette The Burned Tower.

The Burned Tower was originally written in 1998, but has recently been translated and published by Tor. (You can download it for free: go get it!)

The tone, and even aspects of the story, reminded me a great deal of Vita Nostra. An innocent young man named Guy, working as a truck driver transporting beavers (!) has an unfortunate encounter on the road, resulting in him having to take on board a sinister hitchhiker. This hitchhiker seems to be a classic Trickster figure, but it soon becomes evident there is another theme in this story, of punishment and forgiveness, as Guy is brought to a place where once a terrible crime took place.

The story straddles the line between dark fantasy and horror. As with the full-length novels I've read by the Dyachenkos, there seems to be a lot going on beneath the surface and it's not always fully explained. They like teasing the reader with the dark undercurrents of a psychological thriller and mixing in a fantasy element. The whole thing is quite a mind trip.

Because of its length, I was a bit unsatisfied; it felt like perhaps an early draft of Vita Nostra, with ideas developed more fully in that book. But it's still a moody piece of dark fantasy unlike anything you are likely to find Western writers writing today.

If you found my reviews of The Scar or Vita Nostra intriguing, go download this 50-page freebie and see if you like it. If you enjoy it at all, I guarantee the Dyanchenkos' two (translated into English) novels are much better. I am hoping to see more of their extensive body of Russian-language fantasy translated into English, so I can say "I was a fan before they became big in the U.S...."
Journey into Mystery, Vol. 1: Fear Itself - Kieron Gillen

"The humans of the Internet are uncouth! When I said I was an Asgardian god, they called me a troll!"

Yet another series that has undergone major events since the last time I was paying attention to the Marvel Universe. So apparently Loki died, and got "reincarnated" as a younger version of himself who is Thor's adoring little bro again. Except everyone remembers him as the evil god of chaos who almost destroyed Asgard (regularly). Loki wants to prove he's a good guy... except he's still Loki.

While not being entirely caught up on events, I didn't need to be. This book has a mythic feel that fits the best Asgardian storylines, where Thor & co. resemble gods more than superheroes. And cute fourteen-year-old Loki, with his pinchable cheeks, prophesied since the beginning of time to be a villain unto the end of time, is a living question mark. Can a god with all that mythic baggage actually... turn out differently? And is he reaaaaally acting with noble intentions?

That is what is most intriguing to me, because as young Loki goes about trying to rescue his brother Thor (who a pissed-off, power-mad Odin has thrown in prison), he proceeds to go on various quests in which he screws with everyone from Surtur to Hela to Mephisto to Garm to the Midgard Serpent. Even at fourteen, he's already learned to use that trickster tongue of his to sow chaos. The kid is already playing "Let's you and him fight" with hell-deities far more ancient than him.

"Dire news!"

"You've already brought 'dire news,' Loki."

"Direr news!"

And, he obviously is also already starting to play a long game. Which he claims is for all the best reasons. But he is still Loki, and you can see even if he isn't trying to bring evil, spinning mischief is like breathing for him, and it's quickly spinning out of his control.

Really enjoyed this. I am sure, Loki being Loki, he'll have to go dark eventually. Which makes it all the more poignant that right now he's very much a kid who just wants his big brother Thor to pat him on the shoulder and tell him he done good.
Debris Dreams - David  Colby Dude, I can't believe you used sandcasters! No wonder David Colby has been contracted to write Traveller fanfic.

So here is my problem with Debris Dreams. It is everything I like in a SF juvenile. It's got action, hard SF, and a fun-but-serious space-based story in a zippy plot. And it's also got that all-important quality the kids love nowadays, inclusiveness. Which I think is totally cool. Yes, please, show more girls doing stuff, and gay people existing, and reminders that "spacefaring technological civilization" and "white people" are not synonymous.

That said, Debris Dreams is so earnestly look-at-me-do-you-see-how-inclusive-I-am? that it seemed that the inclusiveness often substituted for characterization and worldbuilding.

For example, Drusilla Xao, the main character. After reading this book, I know she's gay, and she's a spacer of mixed Anglo-Chinese ethnicity, like most spacers, and she's gay, and did I mention she's gay? Also, she's really quite lesbian.

Drusilla's desire to meet face-to-face with her long-distance Earthbound honey is supposed to be the hook, the driving force that motivates her, the thing that gives her hope, as she gets drafted into a war against the "Loonies," separatist Lunar rebels who blew up the space elevator, killing Dru's parents and thousands of other people and crippling interplanetary commerce.

However, Drusilla basically goes from scared teenager to war hero in the space of a few months (and a mere handful of battles), and her connection to Sarah (whom she calls "Sarah-bear") consists of chatty emails with emoticons and !!!!!! and flippant teenspeak that sounds very early 21st century, full of cultural references that would be unbelievably dated to think teenagers fifty years from now will be using them. Drusilla never does stop being a scared kid, and yet she winds up being the best soldier, the leader of every team, and often the only one to survive relatively unscathed. I believe the author intended a deliberate contrast, between the "hardened combat veteran" Drusilla appears to be in the media and the scared-shitless teenager who only first picked up a gun a few weeks ago that she is inside, but this isn't really executed convincingly because Drusilla never quite comes to life.

Possibly it's because I am jaded and do not buy "True love and soulmates over the Internet even though we've never met." Almost never happens (especially between teenagers) so I really doubt it's going to work out that way in the late 21st century between a spacer girl and an Earther. The Drusilla/Sarah sequences generally made me think the author was just going for the cheap squee.

Likewise, the Chinese American Alliance. Umm, okay? That's about what we get in the way of politics — the geopolitical axis has shifted, North America has been through some crashes and slumps and such, and now we have a Chinese American Alliance as the dominant hegemony, against the Loonies who have unspecified grievances for which they launch a terrorist attack followed by a war. So Chinese American Alliance is an excuse to make everyone biracial and insert random Chinese into the dialog.

There's a little bit of Starship Troopers in this book and a little bit of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and comparing David Colby's debut novel to Heinlein is probably unfair. I did like and appreciate the science (and the author kept the gushing "ain't this cool!" to a minimum), and the action sequences were pretty good and quite bloody, and there was some sense of the scars the bloodshed was leaving on Drusilla.

A good story and decent addition to the genre. Debris Dreams is very much a debut novel, with some writing weaknesses born of self-consciousness and trying too hard, but I hope David Colby matures as a writer and writes more SF like this. It's only 3 stars, but a solid 3 stars.

Silver on the Tree

Silver on the Tree (The dark is rising, #5) - Susan Cooper

Fire on the mountain shall find the harp of gold
Played to wake the Sleepers, oldest of the old;
Power from the green witch, lost beneath the sea;
All shall find the Light at last, silver on the tree.

This was my Harry Potter, you kids.

It is still magic.

September 2013 reread

I still remember the day in fifth grade, many, many years ago, when the school librarian told me that the book I'd been waiting for was in. Silver on the Tree, the fifth and final volume in Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising sequence.

It was this cover:

Silver on the Tree

I had torn through the first four books. (I think I read the first one, Over Sea, Under Stone, out of order the first time, which was okay because it's kind of a prequel to the rest of the series.) With the second one, The Dark is Rising, I was hooked. For some reason I had to wait for the fifth book, though. When the librarian handed it to me, I was thrilled... but also sad. I remember that distinctly. I was sad, because I was about to read the last book and then it would be over.

I remember loving this concluding volume, but also feeling such sadness when I was finished because the series was over.

I haven't felt anything like that since, until a few years ago when I read the entire Harry Potter series in a month. While the feelings were not as strong because I'm older and more jaded, and while I can certainly recognize Rowling's flaws as a writer, the fact that Harry and his friends in their silly boy wizard fantasy world managed to conjure some of the same emotions I once felt as a ten-year-old is the reason why I credit Rowling with having created something truly timeless and special, even if I can point to a dozen fantasy series that are objectively better-written. I don't know what that "special sauce" is in a children's book series that makes it transcend plot and prose and curl literary fingers around your heart, but Rowling had it, and Susan Cooper had it.

Now, I am not much of a rereader. I almost never reread books. I understand a lot of people reread their favorite books often. There are people who boast of reading the entire Harry Potter series a dozen times. (I read them each once. That's it.) It's a habit I just don't get, even if I realize I am the unusual one. To my way of thinking, there are thousands of books I'd like to read and will never get to before I die, so why waste one of the finite "reading slots" allotted to me in my lifetime to a book I've already read?

Still, now and then I do reread something, usually something I read so long ago I've forgotten it. Maybe in twenty or thirty years I will reread Harry Potter.

Over the past year, I cautiously and with some trepidation approached my favorite childhood series once again. Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising. I was afraid the series I loved so much as a child would be a pale, childish shadow when read as an adult who's read thousands of books since. I've read the Chronicles of Narnia and the Lord of the Rings (well, I lie, I have never read the LotR all the way through, I need to do that one of these days) and lots of other fantasy, MG and YA and adult and grimdark. So nothing can be as new and fresh for me as Susan Cooper's books were when I first read them, nor as tragic.

I didn't want to find out that they just weren't that special, though.

To be honest, I enjoyed them on my reread, but yes, I'm an adult now and these books are written for children, so they just didn't enthrall me the way they did when I was ten. A fine series, and great, descriptive, evocative writing — Susan Cooper is so much better than J.K. Rowling when it comes to putting words on the page and imagery in your head.

But until the last book, it was a pleasant nostalgia trip, but as I expected, they have aged perfectly well but they have aged.

Then I got to the last few chapters of Silver on the Tree. And... it wasn't quite the same. Not quite. But I felt it again. That ten-year-old inside me remembers.

Silver on the Tree relates the final battle between the Dark and the Light. It brings together all the characters who have been serving the cause of the Light throughout the first four books, sometimes together and sometimes separately: the Drew children, Jane, Simon, and Barney; Will Stanton, the last of the Old Ones, simultaneously a pre-adolescent boy and an immortal wizard with all the magical knowledge of the ages at his command; Bran, the albino boy taken out of time to fulfill a destiny set for him a thousand years earlier; and Merriman, of course.

The Dark Rider returns too, along with a White Rider, and all the other forces of the Dark. Susan Cooper didn't write a plot so full of crafty easter eggs as Rowling did, but like Rowling, she will make use in the last book of things mentioned in all the preceding ones. Will and Bran have to go on a quest that resounds with Celto-Arthurian mythology, and the Drew children have their own mortal part to play. All that was fun and splendid and rich, that alone would have made this the best book of the series.

But the ending — in which there is love and loss and sacrifice on a scale that probably only J.R.R. Tolkien or CS Lewis have approached in children's literature. Definitely not Rowling. I'm sorry, killing an owl and a Weasley or two is cheap tear-jerking. But the part that John Rowlands plays in the final confrontation, even after learning the truth about his wife, was about as intense as a ten-year-old reader could probably have grasped, when conveying adult feelings of grief and loss. Followed by the arrival of the King, and Bran's decision, and then... Will, left alone with the Drews, and what they lose as well.

It's a happy ending - the good guys win, of course. And Susan Cooper's finale is more bloodless than Rowling's. There's hardly any actual bloodshed throughout the series; for all that the Dark is the manifestation of everything evil and selfish in the human heart, the child protagonists are always protected by "rules" that limit when the forces at war can do direct harm.

But it's a very bittersweet victory. You can see them walking off into the sunset, and know that it's over.

5 stars for the child in everyone's heart.
The Girl of Fire and Thorns  - Rae Carson, Jennifer Ikeda This wasn't a bad book. This was a book I probably would have liked well enough when I was twelve.

Princess Elisa is a pampered princess, basically a nice person but she's always been overshadowed by her older, prettier, thinner, smarter, more ambitious sister. Lazy, spoiled, fat Elisa is in for a rude surprise when she learns that the king of a neighboring country has arrived to marry her. Getting married off like this isn't so shocking per se — Elisa is a princess, born and raised, and she knows how these things work. Of course there are politics behind the match, and her husband, Alejandro, turns out to be a decent enough guy. But when she rides off to her new home, she learns that there are a lot of other things going on that she's been kept unaware of, or maybe just hasn't paid attention to because she never expected she was going to do much of anything important.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns does several things quite well. The first is coming up with a somewhat clever new take on the Chosen One trope. Elisa has a "godstone," a magic gem embedded in her navel since birth. According to the religion of the local countries, this makes her, yup, a Chosen One. But "chosen" for what turns out to be a matter of considerable doctrinal dispute. Elisa finds out that small nuances of scriptural interpretation differ on whether or not she's actually supposed to, and in fact, is expected to, die. The people who think the Chosen One is supposed to die are even willing to help her along towards her fate. Needless to say, she's not too keen on this and rather prefers the "Elisa-does-not-die" interpretation.

The use of religion was another thing the book did well. For people who complain that not enough fantasies treat religion seriously and realistically, this is probably a good book for you. The religion practiced in The Girl of Fire and Thorns is never spelled out precisely, and there is no mention of Jesus, but other than that little omission, it is pretty easily read as a form of Christianity. Complete with rival denominations and scriptural differences and Elisa reacting with shock and disbelief to discover that the "bad guys" worship God and go to church too. And they actually think they're the ones who are right!

This is a low fantasy world that more or less resembles medieval Europe, with small kingdoms locked in border disputes, but the environment is arid desert, and the culture resembles medieval Spain or Portugal somewhat more than the familiar Anglo-Saxon/Norman model. Politics and worldbuilding were not overstated or belabored, but they were definitely there.

Why not more enthusiasm, then? Well, the sophistication of the plotting hit the YA ceiling, and the writing, while decent, mostly emphasized Elisa's emotions and character growth (and admittedly, she does grow considerably) and I'm sorry, girly books are not my thing and this was a girly girly book. I am fine with fantasies starring a female protagonist, but the inner life of a teenage princess wondering if she's too fat for any man to find her desirable is definitely a narrative that is compelling and wonderful for someone who is not me.

Also, the "godstone" is pretty much what the name implies, a deux ex machina at the end.

The writing was fine, the story was fine, but it's aimed at a younger, girlier audience, and I'm not interested in continuing the series.
Homicidal - Paul Alexander,  Paul Christy This Kindle short/Audible freebie is a "true crime" story about Lonnie Franklin Jr., the serial killer known as the "Grim Sleeper" because he supposedly stopped killing for over a decade, before resuming.

Lonnie Franklin, Jr.

The real story here is not so much Lonnie Franklin. As serial killers go, he's not very interesting. He is your basic working-class schlub, in and out of trouble with the law, who ran a chop shop in his yard that all his neighbors in South L.A. knew about. Naturally, most of the women he killed were prostitutes, drug addicts, or otherwise troubled women living in environments where no one is really surprised when they go missing and/or turn up dead, and not coincidentally, mostly black. Which is where the real story, such as it is, is revealed in this scant book.

The author milked a single case to cover a really broad range of topics, and for the short length of this book, he took on too much. Covering California from the 70s to the present day (as of this date, September 2013, Lonnie Franklin has not yet gone to trial), Paul Alexander tries to connect the history of race relations in L.A., particularly with its notoriously corrupt and brutal police department, the AIDS epidemic, the rise of crack cocaine, the Rodney King riots, the history of DNA evidence, and the large roster of other Los Angeles serial killers, to his main story. Most of the connections are tenuous at best.

The author's main thesis is that the LAPD has a history of corruption and incompetence, a case that's hard to dispute, and that this led to them not catching Lonnie Franklin earlier, which is probably true but some of his specific accusations are a bit of a leap.

But what becomes glaringly evident, though it's the one thing the author doesn't spell out, is that the reason Lonnie Franklin wasn't caught earlier was that the women he killed didn't matter. They were mostly poor African-American women from the bad parts of L.A., either living/working on the streets or not far from it. The very name given to the murders initially - the "strawberry murders," so-called because street slang for women who traded sex for drugs was "strawberry" - tells you what the police and the media thought of them.

"Wrong zip code. They’re dead where it doesn’t count."

— Mike Fletcher, The Wire

Homicidal was somewhat interesting, but much too broad and the coverage consequently superficial, with the author's conclusions not very well-supported. It's not much more than an expanded magazine feature on a fairly unremarkable loser of a serial murderer.
New Avengers, Vol. 1: Everything Dies - Jonathan Hickman The "Illuminati" presented in this volume is new to me, though apparently it's been a thing in the Marve Universe for a while — representative from several superhero teams/groups meet in secret to try to "manage" the truly world-threatening crises, unknown even to their own friends and family and teammates.

As much as I liked this book, it was hardly an "Avengers" title, even with the participation of several Avengers past and present. The Illuminati now consists of Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic), Hank McCoy (the Beast, replacing the deceased Charles Xavier), the Black Panther, Dr. Strange, Captain America, Tony Stark (Iron Man), Prince Namor (the Sub-mariner), and Black Bolt, of the Inhumans. Among them they possess the Infinity Gems.

The crisis is the destruction of the entire multiverse. They discover that "incursions" are occurring which cause two parallel Earths to collide, and only one can survive. So the obvious moral dilemma is that by saving their own world, they are dooming another one.

I liked the characters rather more than the story, which seems to be a MacGuffin hunt with guest appearances by everyone from Galactus to Dr. Doom. The "villain," the Black Swan, is very derivative of Galactus's heralds, or the Harbinger from DC's old Crisis On Infinite Earths. With obligatory push-up bustier. I did not find her or her origin story very interesting.

There is a lot of interpersonal tension (like Black Panther swearing he's going to kill Namor, since apparently he killed a bunch of Wakandans), and Captain America, as the voice of inflexible right-and-wrong morality, ultimately having to be "dealt with" since he won't go along with the lesser-of-two-evils approach the rest of the team is willing to accept.

Reed Richards is Mr. Pragmatism, Tony Stark had very little dialog. Stephen Strange is haughty and mystic, the Beast is grimly realistic, and Namor is an asshole. The Black Panther doesn't like anyone, and Black Bolt, of course, says nothing.

I will probably pick up the next volume, just to see how the sudden but inevitable betrayal happens. This is an interesting story filled with some of Marvel's heaviest hitters, but it's really not the Avengers we are familiar with.
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack (Burton & Swinburne, #1) - Mark Hodder,  Gerard Doyle Steampunk is all the rage nowadays. The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack seizes the trend in an intriguingly weird story that turns history on its head, thanks to the inept bungling of a time-traveler who, in our world, was one of the most notorious urban legends of Victorian England.

I am not really a huge fan of steampunk. Actually, to put it bluntly, I think most steampunk is stupid, an excuse to mix corsets and Anglophilia with science fiction.

But I enjoyed this book a lot. It's rip-roarin' well-plotted adventure, with a fine attention to historical detail if not scientific plausibility.

There are lots of things Mark Hodder does right. His alt-history is a colorful blend of historical figures and fanciful inventions. It's not science, it's Science! When a time traveler from the 22nd century goes back in time to 1840, the date on which 18-year-old Edward Oxford attempted to assassinate Queen Victoria, he inadvertently causes the assassination to succeed. The changes that result from Victoria's death are not merely the loss of "Victorian" England, but a 19th century England in which Technologists build ornithopters and geothermal power stations and air trains, while eugenicists engineer messenger dogs and parakeets, house-cleaning cats, and elephantine horses. Meanwhile, Libertines and Rakes are rival factions preaching a complete overthrow of the social order. Mesmerism and other "magical" practices are real, and genetic engineering on humans is beginning.

Adventuring, two-fisted pulp style, in this steampunk bizarro world are the famous explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton and the poet Algernon Swinburne. Burton crosses the sinister time-traveling "Spring Heeled Jack," thus becoming ensnared in his calamitous attempts to unscrew history.

The use of actual historical figures is cleverly done. According to 19th century lore, Spring Heeled Jack was some sort of superhuman demi-rapist, running around England sexually assaulting women by tearing their clothes off. Hodder actually comes up with a logical explanation for "Jack's" behavior, and for how the loon could be a time traveler. I also appreciated his use of historical personages and events. Edward Oxford was a real person, and his attempted assassination of Queen Victoria is a historical fact; Hodder makes strange fiction out of it. He uses real people like Richard Burton, Algernon Swinburne, and Lord Henry Beresford of Waterford, with cameos by Oscar Wilde, Charles Babbage, and others. I was particularly amused at the eeeeeeevil evolutionists being led by Charles Darwin and Florence Nightingale. There was no insertion of overtly fictional characters — i.e., no Sherlock Holmes or Allan Quatermain. It's almost like a bent world that might have been.

That said, this book gets 4 stars for story and content, 3 stars for writing. I suppose some of the writing tics that bugged me may have been a deliberate attempt to emulate the writing style of Victorian pulp adventures, hence Sir Richard Burton constantly being referred to as "the King's agent." But having long chapters of exposition narrated to us by the expedient of characters eavesdropping on the bad guys as they conveniently monologue their life history and then spell out their plans in detail? Lazy. Entertaining as heck, but lazy. Hodder is a great storyteller, and the pace never flagged, even during the monologues, but the plotting was sloppy. And like most steampunk settings, there's a lot of suspension of disbelief required, since steampunk cyborgs, talking orangutans, and genetically-engineered housepets are not a logical consequence of killing Queen Victoria, even with a time traveler letting slip a few hints about the future to inquisitive 19th century scientists. Still, accept that history has been kicked onto its side and anything goes, and the plot flows right along.

A great read for any fan of steampunk, an entertaining read for fans of historicals who don't mind fantasy.

Also, I must confess that this debut novel, which was wobbling a little shakily between 3 and 4 stars, earned its fourth star when it ended with my very favorite Swinburne poem:

From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.

Good enough for me to consider the next volume in the series when I am in the mood for a beach read.

The Best Horror of the Year Volume Five: 5

The Best Horror of the Year Volume Five - Ellen Datlow, Laird Barron, Conrad Williams, Ramsey Campbell Nikishi by Lucy Taylor: No real surprises, but still gruesome and written like Lovecraft if Lovecraft had style. A diamond thief, Africa, hyenas. Sex and disembowelment. 4 stars.

The hyena slinking toward him, though, was no trickery of vision. A sloping, muscular beast with furrowed lips and seething, tarry eyes, it angled languidly down the duneface, its brown and black fur hackled high, its hot gaze raw and lurid.

Little America by Dan Chaon: Skeeery feral children in a post-apocalyptic world. A good demonstration of the short story form: there is obviously a whole back story here about how the world went to hell and children turned into monsters, and about Mr. Breeze and Peter on their doomed road trip, but almost none of it gets explained. Yet the reader can use his imagination to fill in the blanks.

Review to be continued...
X-23 - Volume 1: The Killing Dream - Marjorie M. Liu, Will Conrad, David López This volume apparently is relatively late in the history of X-23, but it has a helpful summary of her history in the back, narrated by Wolverine, so now I know more or less what her story is.

The summary reminded me why I stopped reading X-Men way back when - every other issue introduces some new global conspiracy and a new recurring villain, and since villains never, ever die permanently in comics, 50 years later you have like a bazillion nemeses each of which is "The X-Men's greatest enemy!"

Anyway, basically this volume tells about X-23, the kill-happy little Wolverine clone in skin-tight low-rider leather pants, deciding she doesn't fit in with the X-Men and their New Mutant proteges, so she decides to strike out on her own to find herself or some such happy Kerouac bullshit.

Naturally, she stumbles into a secret underground desert laboratory which is actually controlled by one of the X-Men's "greatest enemies." You know, one of those greatest enemies who's supposedly dead but isn't.

Gambit is along for the ride, and there is lots of angst and bloodshed and a tiny bit of soul-searching as X-23, the born assassin raised to feel no empathy or morals walks around like a robotic killing machine with occasional flashes of conscience.

The story was typical late-series continuity sprawl, but you didn't really have to recognize all the players to follow it. X-23 is sometimes drawn as an ordinary teenage girl (with claws) but usually in skin-tight stripperware.

It's the skintight rubber corsets and shit that annoyed me the most about this volume. Every. Single. Female. Character. Yes, yes, I know, it's not like this is new. Chicks have always been scantily clad, pneumatic, and immune to gravity in comic books. But it was so over-the-top here. Why would a female clone of a super-macho supervillain mastermind walk around in short-shorts, half-corset, high-heeled boots and a cowboy hat? I mean, really? Has the entire Marvel Universe become Stripperworld?

From "X023: The Killing Dream" photo X-23MsSinister_zps36e95306.jpeg

Even the fourteen-year-old boys who are being pandered to here should be able to tell that they're being pandered to.

So, the other thing I found a little bit dismaying was the buckets of blood. Now, I'm not one of those nannies who is a fan of the 50s era Comics Code Authority. But for the longest time, it was an ironclad rule in comics that Superheroes Do Not Kill. When a hero did actually kill someone, it was a Very Big Deal. That loosened up a bit starting in the 80s, but I think it was appropriate that you had this very clear moral line, with consequences. Wolverine was massively popular in part because he actually broke that code, regularly, and yet, you rarely saw him actually killing someone (and usually Marvel would punt and say that those mooks he carved up weren't really dead after all).

In contrast, X-23 goes through this book cutting down bad guys right and left. Blood and guts everywhere. And she has a few conversations with Gambit about it, but ultimately they're both kind of "Meh, some folks need killing."

This is a stark contrast with X-Men comics of old. Given that even the mainstream X-Men seem to have less qualms about deadly force, I guess I'm just a bit unsettled that the comics kids are reading today show superheroes who are basically okay with bloodbaths.

That's it, you can punch my Old Fogey card, I am officially complaining about Kids Today and the Decline of the Media.

But while I'm grinding this axe, apparently X-23's origin includes a "cutting" phase ('cause she was angsty) and some time being pimped out on the street. Okay, that's just gratuitous angst-porn.

So, X-23 seems like a character who could be interesting, if not terribly original (she is a clone, after all), this lost kid who was created to be an unfeeling assassin and has to figure out how to hold onto her humanity. But at least as executed in this volume, it's mostly sulk, brood, and slash. Very meh 2.5 stars.
Beethoven's Shadow - Jonathan Biss Music is kind of like go — I love listening to experts dissect the esoterica of it and go on about subtleties my unschooled mind can never appreciate. Even understanding the vocabulary is tough — what does that mean, that one sonata is "thicker" than another or that the "color" is different?

The difference is that I know a tiny bit about go and actually enjoy it, whereas I have no musical taste at all, and less talent. I mean, sure, I listen to music, but I don't even know why rock fans say Nickelback sucks or Kurt Cobain was a genius. It's all noise to me, and some noise I like, some I don't. I like Beethoven and Mozart and Chopin, but to me it's all "piano music." I know, horrible, right?

So, this short, really an extended essay about the author's relationship with Beethoven's music, was kind of interesting to listen to but completely lost me, because my last experience with actually performing music was playing the clarinet in junior high school. (I sucked. Really, really sucked.) I've never even touched a piano except to plonk on the keys annoyingly. I could not distinguish between a good but not great piano player and a world-class virtuoso to save my life.

Jonathan Biss is apparently a world-class virtuoso. (Sorry, I'd never heard of him before.) And Beethoven's Shadow is a 19,000-word musing on his musical education, and his project to play all of Beethoven's sonatas. I listened to it because it was a freebie on Audible, and I tend to download those if they look even half-interesting. This was about half-interesting to me, but I'm sure for a more refined and knowledgeable aficionado of Beethoven, or someone who actually knows how to play the piano, it would be much more so.