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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Books I Read: September - October 2014



I Shall Wear Midnight (Tiffany Aching #4) by Terry Pratchett

The last of the Tiffany Aching books and an excellent ending to the series. Besides the first, I think this might be my favorite book of the four. Tiffany has finished her "apprenticeship" and is now the resident witch of her hometown. This means she's taking care of the community the way true witches do -- helping the sick who have no one to take care of them, easing the elderly to the next stage of life, fixing domestic disputes so no one knows she's really doing it. She's confronting anti-witches and land-grabbers and old fundamentalist ladies who simply don't agree with what she does.

We see a grown up Tiffany here, making and dealing with being an adult. She no longer has the wisdom and guidance of her fellow witches, so her mistakes are a result of a lack of experience (and a sharp tongue). But she does have the wee free men in her corner. You see her finally deal with some of the relationships that other books have let linger.

This book also borrows more from Pratchett's existing universe, as Tiffany travels to Ankh-Morpork.  This chunk in the middle seems to be catering to Discworld die-hards. It harms a little of the overall narrative, but the rest of the story makes up for it.

Unlike the last two, this one doesn't have a big bad or a problematic witch teacher. You get to see Tiffany being Tiffany, rough and gruff, practical but still scared. All in all, it's a very satisfying conclusion, closer to the magic of the first book.


Lock-In by John Scalzi

Lock-In is Scalzi's most serious science fiction novel yet, and one you've got to pay attention to. It's got a lot of heady issues. Not to say his other books, like Old Man's War, don't bring up existential puzzles. But they usually make up for it with whiz bang sci-fi gizmos or cynical humor. This one, no. It's essentially a police procedural that involves semi-artificial beings.

At its core, this is a robot story, but without artificial intelligence. A disease has rendered a significant portion of the populace catatonic, but new technology allows their brains to venture out in walking automatons. The Hadens (Haden's Syndrome is the name of the disease, and becomes the identifier of people with it) have created their own culture, like the deaf and handicapped community.  But the government funding that kept them provided for is about to be rescinded. That means a lot of opportunities for private companies, civil rights leaders, and millions of people who had been getting a free lunch wondering what's going to happen to them. This is all narrated to the reader through Chris, a Haden who's new on the FBI force.

It does what a good novel should do, not make answers but bring up questions, much like Gaiman's novels. But unlike Gaiman's novels, this one reaches a satisfying, concrete solution. I think the murder mystery was definitely the way to go. It makes a lot of the head-wrapping around the Haden culture (like people who hitch a ride in other people's bodies) easier to understand and a plot that keeps moving forward.

It's not my favorite Scalzi of all time, but it's pretty good. The world-building is at an intermediate level, and the characters suffer from his famous "blank slates, no development, no sympathy" that his other books have. But the fast and intriguing plot will keep you wondering what happens next.


The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

This book is not for me. I was on board for the first few pages, but I have a hard time getting into story where the main conflict is "do I choose this boy or that boy". I just can't sympathize with any character caught up in a dilemma of riches. Maybe this a thing girls go through, maybe it's a problem they like to read about. But it makes me want to smack them all in the face. Especially in this case, when the drama isn't even that good.

It has been three months since Lennie's sister died. Lennie always lived her life gladly in the shadow of her more exuberant sister, including vicarious romance with Toby, her sister's boyfriend. Now she's insecure about her feelings for Toby and the new hippie kid who just moved in and has "hella good hair" so he wants him to come on over and shake, shake, shake.

The sister thing reminded me a little bit of Frozen, but that's the only part that appealed to me. Like others of its genre, the plot is driven forward by misunderstandings, refusals to listen, misinterpretations, and other petty obstacles that could be solved with thirty seconds of talking.

The style is full of trite teenspeak and quotations way beyond their years (Lennie constantly reads Wuthering Heights -- isn't that about a mentally abusive man who marries his beau's daughter? -- but oh precious she is that she reads something so adult). At one point, it's revealed that the sister was pregnant at the time of her death, but no one raises a hand about how they, as teenagers, expected to raise it, earn money, get a house. Everyone was too entranced by the tragic baby romance.

This is for people who un-ironically enjoy the romances you see in Hannah Montana and The Bachelor. There are essentially no stakes, and the characters are too hippie-dippie to be realistic.


Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

Steelheart is a book about what happens when superheroes stop being polite and start getting real. Essentially they all become supervillains, taking over cities and ruling with an iron a steel fist. In fact, the entire city's been turned into steel and plunged into darkness.

This is the story of David, a boy with a mission against the super who killed his father. He joins with La Resistance, eager to show his skills and the encyclopedia of knowledge he's been gathering all his life in preparation for revenge.

This book has a lot of action, and I've never been a fan of action scenes in novels. The mediums just don't translate. You don't see novelizations of The Fast and the Furious (and if there are, don't tell me, I don't want to know). But the strengths of the book are the straightforward style and the concrete characters. Each member of La Resistance has a personality and a look (for some reason they remind me of Team Fortress 2 characters). The POV from David's perspective helps keep the story grounded. For instance, instead of epic battles you lose track of, you see David's role in it all.

My two disappointments were that it seems overly oriented to a male audience (trope of female character that exists to be girl who doesn't like him at first but once he proves himself changes her tune). Lots of cars and guns and superheroes and action scenes. The other is that the reason people with powers become evil is intrinsically linked to their powers, not simply a result of absolute power corrupting absolutely.

But the energy and overall fun factor of the concept are going to keep me reading the rest of the series.


Fly on the Wall: How One Girl Saw Everything by E. Lockhart

Doesn't the title sound like a Lifetime movie?

It's short, but doesn't have very much plot. It's supposed to be about a girl who Franz Kafka's into a fly, so she can know what boys are really like, what they talk about, what goes on when girls aren't there turning them into monkey-idiots. The thing is, it doesn't seem like her big problem is understanding boys, but getting people to understand her. She goes to an arts high school where her teacher frowns on her refusal to branch from a comic book style. Her parents spring a divorce on her, then her mom leaves her daughter behind while she goes on a week-long cruise (this makes it convenient to be a fly for a week). She's not boy-crazy, like I'd expect out of a plot like this.

It's better than Cycler insofar as learning about the gendered Other. But like Cycler, it doesn't go as far with the idea as it could, and uses too much melodrama. The titular fly on the wall literally doesn't leave the locker room, and there is a lot more to teen males than what happens there. It's like studying polar bear behavior only in the zoo. There's a significant portion of the text dedicated to discovering boys' penises, which she constantly calls gherkins. Is this a northeastern thing?  I've NEVER heard anyone use the word gherkin, least of all as much as she does.

But it's easy and short. I think you'll get something out of it, as long as you're not looking for much.


Saturn's Children by Charles Stross (unfinished)

I talked some about this book already. It's just not a story for me. It's for complex people who like complex stories. Critical acclaim? Award winner? Maybe, but I just couldn't stand it. It's for people who like Dune, Ringworld, and other "essential science fiction". If you can appreciate that, fine. But every Charles Stross I've tried to read has left me bored. I guess this isn't my place.


Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci

Nothing special at all. And in fact, kinda boring. It's just a series of things that happened, and the title makes it sound more interesting than it is. She's not boy proof, she's just an anti-social asshole. She's Miss Independent until some cute guy transfers schools. Of course. But this takes place in Hollywood, so Miss Independent has the added weirdness of mimicking a girl from a Matrix pastiche, so much so that she dresses like her and wants to be called by that character's name (which is "Egg"). And this character is described as looking kinda like Ilia from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Appealing

She's a bitch for no reason, and combine this with the weirdness of living with a mother who's an old sci-fi starlet and a dad who works in special f/x makeup. I learned more about growing up in Tinseltown than anything else. That includes the character and her motivations.

And her change comes unprovoked. It feels like "The Girl Who Became a Beatle" -- a forced idea that has nothing to do with the title concept. At least "The Sky is Everywhere" had style. This just has an unlikeable character being unlikeable. I would have rather heard the story of a likable girl with those kind of parents doing a Hollywood movie thing (kinda like my opinion of Landline needing more TV writing).


The Night Sessions by Ken McLeod (unfinished)

Also mentioned in my article with Saturn's Children. I heard it had an interesting take on robots, but it never got to the robots. It was about a very thick built world around politics and religion, two topics I cannot stand to read about. I'm just not interested in material like archaic religion or the U.K. or the murder of a bishop when Christianity has become a niche religion (I assume.  I really didn't understand much of this book).

It just wasn't entertaining for me. It was more work than it was fun. It had no characters. The big ideas were the characters (which I find to be a trapping of science fiction that keeps it from being regarded as seriously as literary fiction). There are just other books I'd rather read.
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