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The Books I Read: September – October 2014

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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

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.

ilia star trek motion picture

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

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.

The Books I Read: May – June 2014

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vN by Madeline Ashby

In the first chapter, a five-year-old child robot eats her estranged grandmother, python-style, and goes from kindergartner to adult in an instant from the additional biomass.

Good opening, and there are some interesting WTF circumstances (like robots were created to fill out the Earth after the rapture) but the rest stagnates. Once again, it’s a book where the robots don’t act like robots. They act like people. The only difference is they know they were artificially created. But other than that, they eat, they fall in love, they procreate. You can’t tell the difference. The interesting things are just background — they don’t come into play with the plot and don’t even make plausible sense in the scheme of the world.

The story is about programming as parenting. The problem is it felt more like a summer blockbuster action piece with chase sequences and romances that don’t blossom until the end, and for me, those just don’t work in a book format. It was a sludge to get through. It’s a promising idea, and it does use some tropes like the existence of smart “gray goo” and robots in/as families in new ways. I can see this appealing to those few who liked A.I. and Brazil.

Finding Laura Buggs by Stanley Gordon West

This is a YA historical fiction novel, a rare breed. It takes place in 1950’s Minnesota, the time when all those MST3K shorts and movies take place. The main plot is about a high school senior who just found out she’s adopted (really a black market baby) and wants to find her birth parents. I don’t know why any adopted kid would want to do that because there’s no way it won’t be a disappointment (there’s a reason they were given up), but I’m not adopted so I can’t say. Maybe I’m just made it’s a common plot catalyst. In between sleuthings, she visits an old folks home, goes out with her friends doing things you saw in American Graffiti, laments about the effects of war, and generally putzes around.

I feel like the story did a lot of pandering to Minnesota native. It makes sure to mention that it’s the Snelling streetcar, not just the streetcar that everyone knows and no one needs to mention by name. Also, it takes a long time to get events moving. The first third of the novel, Laura Buggs is trying to get info out of the ninety-year-old lawyer that served as the intermediary. After this she learns that old people are actually kind of cool, like in Recess episode 112 (57a).

On the other hand, it also made me wish I was there, eating chocolate malts and riding streetcars without parents to helicopter. It’s an enjoyable read, but I don’t feel particularly satisfied after it. There’s a real disconnect between the happy optimism of the first 75% and the whip-turn ending. I think it’s audience is more for Minnesota senior citizens who will appreciate the old times and a good mystery.

Kendra by Coe Booth

In the ghetto, if a boy does anal sex on you, it means he’s ready for a relationship.

This feels like Pride and Prejudice in the PJ’s. This was another of John Green’s recommendations of great books that aren’t bestsellers, but I’m not sure what he found in this one. It reads like a generic YA romance but with the trappings of so many early 90’s “gangsta” movies. Kind of. The main conflict is that Kendra’s mother is back after her post-graduate degree, and Kendra’s hoping she’ll finally take her away from the neighborhood and the strict-ass grandmother who’s been raising her for sixteen years.

But the bigger crux of the book is her boy crushes and her sexually acting out as a result of this negligence. Kendra’s better than that, but the past is repeating herself as she waffles between the nice guy and the bad boy player, as cliche dictates. Of course, as far as generic YA romance goes, it ends there. Kendra pulls away from sex with the bad boy at the last second, cautious of losing her virginity (for disciplinary and moral reasons). He doesn’t force himself or respect her wishes or grow resentful — he’s “going to need something”. That devolves into booty calls in the closet after school leading to the butt sex so she can remain “chaste”.

And after all that, the fudge packer confesses affectionate feelings for her. And they start going out together. Is this a realistic scenario? Yes. Maturity rides up fast in risky situations. Does it send a good message to American youth? No, it does not. I’m not going to say that a writer can’t write what he/she wants, but I’m a believer that books “teach you that dragons can be killed”. This moral seems to be, if you give up the rough enough, love is just around the corner.

The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green by Joshua Braff

The most John Greeny of the John Green recommendations that I’ve gone through so far. It seems like the subject manner is mild-mannered, but in fact, it’s awfully intense. To the point where I wanted to reach through the book and strangle some characters.

It takes place in the 70’s-80’s, following a young Jewish boy, the middle child in a very Jewish family, growing from kid to adult. His father is some kind of theater-director/entertainer and his mother is/was a SAHM until she wants to go to college. And there’s an older brother who’s his best buddy, but grows more rebellious and treats him like an older brother does. Kinda like The Wonder Years without the Vietnam backdrop.

But the big character is the father — the overbearing, Woody Allen-loving, temper-tantrum-having, overall-horrible human being father. Example: the very first scene is a moving-in party, where he drags every member of his family out in front of everyone for huge embarrassing introductions, like singing and dancing monkeys, showing them off like part of an act. Example: his son has a learning disability, but the father won’t accept that his son just isn’t trying hard enough. He sings praises of him to other people, but when the doors are closed, he rants and raves like a sarcastic, insulting baby. His father goes ballistic as the son keeps screwing up the Bar Mitzvah thank you cards with each try, because of the pressure. This causes an intense blow-up in the middle of the book where the father finally gets some people standing up to him.

The back of the book makes it seems like a dramedy, like “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”. It’s not. It’s about a dysfunctional family, and a mentally abusive father, combined with some coming-of-age and Jewish themes. It’s better than just “drunk dad beats his kid” a la Radio Flyer.

The End Games by T. Michael Martin

This is the book with the “Everything not saved will be lost — Nintendo message” epigraph. It sounded promising, but did not deliver. The beginning was better than anything after it. Then it just becomes typical zombie story with typical “humans are the real enemy” plot. The characters are stock zombie tropes.

It’s about a teenager and his little brother trying to survive the apocalypse. But the teenager has to frame the experience as a game, because the little brother is only five and will freak out if he thinks his life is in danger. Their goal to find their mother fades away after you get through the first act. On one hand, it’s nice to have the caretaker relationship between brothers. On the other hand, the book is mostly about survival, not plot points, like The Boy at the End of the World.

I was hoping the video game metaphor extended through the book, but it doesn’t. It acts more as a hook, and becomes weedy partway through. The book is really just a horror novel.

Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan

I don’t usually include comic books/graphic novels in these reviews, but I’m trying to catch up in this scene, and there’s a lot of good stuff I missed. This is one of them.

It’s an apocalypse scenario, not superheroes or science fiction. Simply put, all the men on Earth suddenly die, except for one. What happens next is so intriguing as he travels the world and sees how it copes. Simply put, it’s not all nurturing and caring. If men disappeared, the world would not become a haven. You still deal with Mad Max biker gangs, religious zealots, and desperate civilians.

I love this story. It’s heart-wrenching and realistic. It has characters, it has plot points. It doesn’t answer all the questions. It’s not about finding the goal, it’s about the journey to it, and what’s learned along the way. It’s about gender dynamics and group politics and what people do when their backs are against the wall, and the best thing of all — people solve things through cleverness and determination, not brute force.

Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome by John Scalzi

Scalzi released this as a companion novella to his upcoming book. You can buy it for a few dollars from Amazon or Nook or get it from for free, which I did.

It’s not so much a piece of fiction as a simple timeline of the backstory up to when I presume Lock In starts. It’s kinda dry. It feels more interested in imparting information than creating a story or memorable characters. Like Scalzi took his story bible and turned it into a novella. Which I don’t blame him for — I’d do the same thing. Good promotional material.

Unfortunately, I don’t know how necessary it is to read this if you plan to read Lock In. Scalzi says it isn’t, but it feels like there’s a lot of key details in this that lead up to something. But that something (people being able to enter others’ bodies and control them) may or may not be relevant. On its own though, it feels skippable.

Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper by Diablo Cody

Hmph, another book with a Minnesota setting. A vastly different subject matter, but still…

Diablo Cody (the person who wrote Juno and fine-tuned The Evil Dead remake) displays her humble beginnings with a memoir of her experience as an outsider in the live-action sex industry. I’ve read books from people inside, but they’ve grown bitter and resentful of the field. I read those as research for Black Hole Son, but I should have read this one first. I was afraid it would be too perky and positive, and I wanted gritty.

But this book is neither, it’s somewhere in-between. She writes with the same style in Juno, meaning quirky, creative metaphors that take sixty words to illustrate. I’ve never had to use my eReader’s dictionary function so much. Half the content is similes about her situation. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy them, but at a certain point, it’s ridiculous. But damned if it doesn’t get the point across in an entertaining way.

Some people criticized her for being too filthy or see the book as validation for her career choice. I don’t. I found it page-turning, and more informative than the other stripper books I’ve read (there seems to be an astonishing lack of good books about the sex industry). I know she didn’t become a stripper so she could write a book, but her motivations seem a little ambiguous. Still, she proves that she’s more together than lots of the other working girls.

I liked how she was able to examine differences at each kind of strip club, from high end to low end to sex store peep shows. And she talks about the girls she met, the boredom and thrills, and how her personal life affected her stripper life. It’s not strictly anthropological. It’s a little more like a LiveJournal made into a book. It’s sharp and witty, and even without the Minnesota ties I recognized, I would have enjoyed it. It reminds me of pre-Lena Dunham.

Vegan Vampire Vaginas by Wol-vriey

The biggest problem with this book is that it’s more about the sex than the story. It has bizarro elements, but really it’s just sex. Sex, sex, sex. Mostly bizarre sex — transsexual sex, vagina in a hand, living dildos. The plot stops as it takes multiple chapters to describe everyone’s sex life between days. If you’re into that, fine. It’s not the sex that bothers me — I’m a hard man to offend — but it has nothing to do with the story. Nothing moves forward.

Besides that, the characters don’t have distinguishable personalities. I can’t tell one name from the other. They play roles, not personalities. It’s like character soup, so it’s hard to figure out who wants what and where the story is going.

It’s like a portal fantasy, but I’m never quite sure of what the goal is supposed to be. For example, the main character is brought to the king because he (or his other personality, I dunno) knows where some stolen gold is. But the first thing they ask the truth-telling vagina-in-the-hand has nothing to do with this. It’s not lazily written, but it seems the plot is missing fundamentals of story-telling – characterization of the lead, character wants something, goes through obstacles to get it.

The Books I Read: July – August 2013

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she hulk diaries marta acosta
The She-Hulk Diaries by Marta Acosta

I had high expectations for this book — a novel about a superheroine who usually doesn’t make it past the comic books. I was hoping that, since Jennifer Walters is a lawyer, the book would be about some courtroom drama, a la John Grisham, but with the added complication of superheroes.

Despite it being The She-Hulk Diaries, She-Hulk is barely in it. It’s more about Jennifer Walters, her human form, and her “girl problems”. The crux of the story is Jennifer tooling around, talking to her friend, and trying to get a job. She spends way too much time obsessing over boyfriends — past, present, and future. I don’t mind romantic relationships, but she spends more time thinking about them than I prefer in my protagonists. Especially ones with a higher calling.

When she transforms (apparently she can do that — I thought she was always “on”), “Shulky” takes control. She’s not so much a raging beast as a party girl. Walters sits back and waits for her to finish her C-list heroics, then whoop it up at the opening of “pLace”. Thus the story feels like those chick lit novels scattered all over Barnes and Noble. You know, the ones with pop art and cocktails on the cover. The text is full of teenspeak, lists, quirky tidbits (even the place she works is named QUIRC), and short attention span writing.

The whole reason I like She-Hulk is because she’s not bogged down by these female tropes. She’s a super-strong, green-skinned women who uses the skills she’s fought for more than the ones she inherited. She’s confident, self-actualized, and capable, but has the hang-ups that freaks like the Thing and Beast have. That’s what makes her fascinating to me.

But in this she’s just another woman with insecurities, passive-aggressiveness, and a positive but cowardly attitude. The She-Hulk I want wouldn’t be worried about her ex’s fiancee. The central conflict of this book is whether or not the rock star guy she had a one night fling with still remembers her. It’s a plot that would be immediately resolved if the main character just TALKED TO THE PERSON.

I don’t want a She-Hulk that acts like Ally McBeal (even though Iron Man was in both). I don’t get any sense that any of this matters to the world, to Jennifer, and not to the reader.

shadow moon george lucas chris claremont
Shadow Moon (Chronicles of the Shadow War, Book 1) by Chris Claremont and George Lucas

One word: overwriting. To the point it’s unreadable. I made it through one hundred pages, and only one thing happened.

I was excited when I learned there was a written sequel to Willow, one of my favorite movies. One that goes beyond favorite because I grew up with it. You’d think the sequel, written by the movie’s writer/director and a famous writer of “X-Men” could make magic, but they didn’t. The novel seems so far removed from the original movie, it can hardly be called a sequel. They don’t even call him “Willow” anymore. It’s something like “Ulfric Goodmoon”. And nobody returns except the annoying Brownies are still with him. They’re not as charming in print.

I stopped reading before it ruined my nostalgic memory for the little dwarf that could, the greatest swordsman in the world, and a woman who actually had some agency and character in a time when Conan the Barbarian’s love interest got five words spoken to her.

absolutely true diary part time indian sherman alexie
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

This is a good book. I find it a shame that Sherman Alexie hasn’t written more. I was partly influenced to read this because I’d read and enjoyed “Reservation Blues” and partly because it had made so many “Best of Year” lists.

There’s very little that has influenced my opinion of native Americans in today’s culture than Sherman Alexie. He’s about my only source. Everything else, I can’t take at face value. I guess it’s like being black, you have to be it to understand, otherwise you just don’t get it. The story is enormously entertaining. It gets real, but there are also some loose ends, like his seizures and stuttering that don’t figure in.

scalzi the human division
The Human Division by John Scalzi

I really want Scalzi to branch out into new IP. He did so with Redshirts, which has now won the Best Novel Hugo. But then he went back to the OMW universe with a semi-serialized e-Book experiment.

It’s… I’m not sure what to say about it. It’s still Old Man’s War, it’s still Scalzi. It still feels like a novel, although it rests on a much more inconclusive cliffhanger than The Last Colony did. If you liked any of the other Old Man’s War books, you’ll like this too. Maybe a little bit less. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I like novels, and not a series of short stories. That’s just me.

speak anderson book cover
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

On the way to pick up “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian”, my eye caught this. I remembered Jim C. Hines talking about it, and remembering that it was about rape and selective mutism. Two subjects I’m interested in learning more about.

I was on-board with it for the first few chapters. A high schooler disaffected with life? Sign me up. But the story never starts. There are hints dropped here and there, but there’s no concrete narrative. No real goal or obstacles for the protagonist. Just a lot of complaining and sarcasm. There’s only so much vitriol I can read before I need a story or something.

And there’s an element of painting with such a brush of perspective. Not every high schooler is as vapid and mean and stupid as the characters herein. It’s like “Daria” the book, but played straight, which doesn’t work.

Then I finished it and read about it, and apparently it’s called a “problem novel” (a.k.a. social novel), which I went “this is a thing”? It’s a book where a social problem is illustrated through the characters in the book, and it’s not so much about the story but about the effects on the character. The story comes from the sociological theme, not the events or milieu.

So what I was complaining about in Speak speaks more about the mentality of the victim. It’s not just general grumpiness, it’s also about identity crisis. It’s not about the character trying to solve a problem or wanting something. It’s about illustrating what happened after the event. Like a denouement kinda thing. It makes me think that this may not be a novel I can judge as aesthetically as others I’ve read.

twilight sparkle my little pony book
Twilight Sparkle and the Crystal Heart Spell by G. M. Berrow

Um, I didn’t read this. It was… it was research. For my kids. But it’s at too high level for them right now. Yes, that’s it.

eleanor and park
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

This is the best book I read for this time period. Months later, and I’m still thinking about it, wanting to revisit it. Just like Looking for Alaska. In fact, I heard about the book from John Green, who does a much better job of reviewing it than me.

It’s a YA romance about two teens in 1986. Park is half-Korean, but well-off. Eleanor comes straight out of Scalzi’s “Being Poor”. The novel slowly, methodically treads the course of their relationship. From the first idle glances, to words exchanged, in and out of misunderstandings, parental involvement, and their own sense of self-worth. These are two one-winged angels that need to hold onto each other in order to fly.

It’s a love story that’s not ridiculous Harlequin bodice-ripping or teen Dawson’s Creek drama. It perfectly illustrates the emotions, the awkwardness, the time when holding hands was enough. I don’t know how Rowell was somehow able to write such small things with such intensity — the first phone call, the little gifts and mix-tapes, waiting for no parents in the house, the first make-out session. I feel like an old man, looking at photographs. And each picture brings me to that reality. Just for a moment, I’m back there.

It’s also surreal that Eleanor looks almost exactly like my wife and that Park likes comic books and geeky stuff.

unnatural creatures neil gaiman
Unnatural Creatures: Stories Selected by Neil Gaiman edited by Neil Gaiman

Well, this ended up the same as the other short story anthologies I’ve read. Some I liked, and some I didn’t. Anthologies are always a crapshoot, and they’re always harder than a novel. I gotta get used to another universe and writing style every 5,000 words. I gotta figure out the new protagonist and plot goals over and over again. It’s a no-win situation. If you don’t like the story, it’s a slog. If you do like the story, it’s over too quickly.

The only reason I read this was because Neil Gaiman’s name was attached to it AND I found it easily at the library. Failing those events, I wouldn’t have picked this up.

chris kluwe beautifully unique sparkleponies
Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies by Chris Kluwe

This book consists of very short essays, most not more than 2 pages, about various topics, mostly sociological and political, and reprinted from Kluwe’s earlier printed articles. They’re all very angry, like someone’s LiveJournal rants, but aimed at a newspaper audience. Some feel like Andrew Ryan’s audio diaries.

He has creative writing in his similes, but really, he’s not telling me anything I haven’t heard before. And moreover, there’s nothing positive in this. Everything is bad, bad, wrong, wrong. I wanted a little glimmer of optimism, if for nothing else than to clear the palate. I want to know about things he likes.

Also, I was hoping for more personal stories, like what it’s like to be a pro football player and a geek, balancing family, nerdery, and footballery. (To his credit, there is a chapter that explains why he doesn’t include those sorts of things). I like stories, I like anecdotes. I guess I was expecting this to be more memoir-ish, plot-based, and not a collection of angry rants with creative swears.

peter pan barrie
Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

A re-read. After this, I plan to re-read Tigerheart. This is all in preparation for Fearless, the unexpected sequel to one of my few five-star books.

Peter Pan still holds up, but I think it serves better as a book that’s read to you, rather than one you read. The great thing is that Barrie sets up a huge world, but only ever shows a tiny sliver of the stories that exist in it. I think that’s kept up the appeal of Neverland. I wouldn’t be surprised if someday we see a renaissance like Wizard of Oz today.

The 2013 Hugos and Where You Can Find Them

hugo movie poster

BEST NOVEL (40,000+ words)
2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson (Amazon Excerpt) Skip it
Blackout by Mira Grant (Excerpt) Thumbs Up!
Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold (Excerpt) Either way
Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas by John Scalzi (Excerpt) Thumbs Up! WINNER!
Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed (Excerpt) Either way

BEST NOVELLA (17,500 – 40,000 words)
“After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall” by Nancy Kress (Amazon Excerpt) Either way
“The Emperor’s Soul” by Brandon Sanderson (Excerpt) Either way WINNER!
“On a Red Station, Drifting” by Aliette de Bodard (Excerpt) Skip it
“San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats” by Mira Grant (Amazon Excerpt) Thumbs Up!
“The Stars Do Not Lie” by Jay Lake (Full) Skip it

BEST NOVELLETTE (7,500 – 17,500 words)
“The Boy Who Cast No Shadow” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Full) Thumbs Up!
“Fade to White” by Catherynne M. Valente (Full) (Audio Version) Thumbs Up!
“The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi” by Pat Cadigan WINNER!
“In Sea-Salt Tears” by Seanan McGuire Thumbs Up!
“Rat-Catcher” by Seanan McGuire

BEST SHORT STORY (less than 7,500 words)
“Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard (Full) (Audio Version) Either way
“Mantis Wives” by Kij Johnson Either way
“Mono no Aware” by Ken Liu (Amazon Full) Thumbs Up! WINNER!

Related Articles
2010 Hugos
2010 Nebulas
2011 Hugos
2011 Nebulas
2012 Hugos
2012 Nebulas

The Books I Read: July – August 2012

bookshelf books

ready player one ernest cline
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

I was really looking forward to this one. I kept hearing all these tales about how it’s made for my generation and persona type, the geek who grew up in the 1980’s. It is not a grand epic book with grand themes. It is meant for a specific audience and never deviates from that. But if you are in that audience, you will love this book.

Unfortunately for me, I found out I am juuuuust a bit outside that audience because I was born in 1981, and most of the nostalgia is too early for me. Video games are Atari and arcade cabinets, not Nintendo and Sega. Movies are WarGames and Ladyhawke, not Batman or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Music is from Rush and Van Halen, not… well, I have no idea. I didn’t really listen to pop music growing up.

Nonetheless, this is my favorite book I’ve read these two months (as I knew it would be), and I hope the sequel moves the date up juuuuust a little bit.

jitterbug perfume tom robbins
Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins

For book club. This is… well, it’s hard to describe. It’s weird. Maybe I’ll start by summarizing it.

For 3/4ths of the book, there’s one main plot about a king in the past seeking immortality. We focus on him 75% of the time, and the other 25% is three other plot lines in the present. One is about a starving artist in Seattle trying to hit on a blockbuster amateur perfume, one is about a perfumer in New Orleans, and the other is about the brother co-owners of a fragrance company in France. The remaining 1/4th is all these plotlines merging together.

The main hook of the story is the colorful prose. And it is very colorful. The prose is fantastic to read — jazzy metaphors, extravagant similes, splashy hyperbole. It’s like every sentence is dessert.

But the problem is, you eat enough dessert, you start to get sick of it. And you want some meat and potatoes. I would love a short story written like this, but it’s too intense for an entire novel. It hinges on style over substance, and fore gos plotholes and cohesion for what’s neat and creative. There’s a lot of weird stuff, a lot of graphic sex. It feels like it was written by a hippie for hippies.

catching jordan
Catching Jordan by Miranda Kenneally

This is not the novel I was expecting, but it is still pretty good. I was sold on the tagline: the main character is a girl on a high school football team. Not just a girl, but the quarterback and the captain. And that’s not the big conflict. The big conflict is that a new kid, a new HOT kid comes in, threatening to take her position, and she has to choose between a boy she likes and sport she loves.

Well, that’s not exactly what happens. The threat of the new hotness is minimal at best — her position’s never in jeopardy. What she’s really torn about choosing between the new hotness or her best friend who likes her likes her. There’s nothing worse than advertising that fibs on the product in order to sell. Plus, they’ve been best friends since grade school and only NOW she realizes he likes her, after countless sleepovers and school projects.

The story is YA to the core, and hinges on implausible teen-ness. The only characters in the book are footballers and cheerleaders. Normally, I’d expect main screen time for jocks and cheerleaders with this kind of subject matter. But no one talks to anyone BUT cheerleaders and footballers.

And no one talks about anything but their relationships. That means guys only talk about girls and girls only talk about guys. No one has a life outside of school – no one talks about jobs, or family problems, or homework, or colleges, or non-football activities/hobbies, or other friends. They all exist in their football bubble.

The other big flaw is that the character development is two-faced. The girl quarterback constantly derides the cheerleaders for being slutty, indecisive, and flitting from boyfriend to boyfriend. Whereas she is just as gossipy and self-absorbed as the girls she purports to hate.

So if you’re looking for an awesome book about shattering gender stereotypes or a woman succeeding in a man’s world, not really here. But If you’re looking for a high-school romance that’s not in a cliched setting, this is it.

mary poppins travers
Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers

Goodreads kept recommending this one, so I picked it up from the library. It’s not great at all. Stick with the movie. The connection is tenuous at best, and features none of the wit, themes, or charm that made it great.

The plot has no cohesion. The chapters are more like vignettes. In fact, the very second chapter, the one after she’s been employed and the scene is set, is her hanging out with Bert. No establishing scene of her with the kids. And to boot, Bert only has a one-shot appearance.

Occasionally, something magic happens, like Mary Poppins hears the babies talking (babies that are not in the movie), or they take a magic umbrella to various spots around the world (which was originally cut for being racist). But it’s filled with stodgy Britishness, which makes the characters and the path they take unlikeable.

rage jackie morse kessler
Rage by Jackie Morse Kessler

I had previously read Hunger, which was about a girl fighting an eating/image disorder who becomes the Horseman Famine. This one follows the same formula, and is maybe a little bit worse. The first one dealt very well with eating disorders, keeping plausible and never going for TV-movie melodrama. Maybe because the author had an ED. Not so with War’s chosen psychological disorder.

In this one, the girl is a cutter/self-injurer. But I’ve studied this, and cutters cut to get the emotions out. They feel helpless, with situations they can’t control. They can’t control their rage, but they can control the pain, and thus control themselves*. This does not apply to our main character — her family life is ideal: two parents, non-screwed up sister. She plays soccer. And she does not demonstrate being emotionally stunted or repressive, a la Bruce Banner.

Like Hunger, it also takes place over an extremely short period of time. There’s a lot of runaround and nothing much happens. There’s a lot of internalized thinking that feels like padding. The girl is fucking War for Christ’s sake. It seems like something exciting should happen, but I can find a key event except for the beginning and ending.

It also seems that key events in the lot would have higher consequences. For example, at a party, the main character disrobes in anticipation of a sexual encounter with a boy who’s already spurned her once (and she’s convinced in an extremely implausible teen-ness way). But it’s all a cruel trick, as the students burst in and take pictures and videos of her, a la Carrie.

In the real world, that’s sexual assault, child abuse, sexual abuse on a minor, and other crimes I’m sure I’m missing. Half the students would get arrested, and the story would blow up nationwide. Instead, it’s glossed over, and wrapped up at the end by finding some other kid to make fun of and forgetting about her. Not plausible. Christ, we’re living in a world where kids can sexually abuse themselves (by sexting pictures if they’re under eighteen).

*This comes up in Baby Blocks, available at fine Fan Fiction sites near you 🙂

scalzi redshirts
Redshirts by John Scalzi

Ah, Scalzi. You’re my go-to man for a good book. You never disappoint.

This book feels less epic than Fuzzy Nation, which felt even less epic than Old Man’s War. It’s good, but not great. If you’re a Star Trek nerd, you’ve already heard all the jokes. It’s really just a throwaway sci-fi cliche, drawn out very, very long. But only Scalzi could write a book like that and make it good. Although, as you can tell on the cover, the book has to tack on three codas and still falls short of 90,000 words.

It feels like nothing that happens really matters, because the main characters have no faces, no personality (although that might be the point). It might work as a high-level pitch, but not in fiction. Not if you want the reader to latch onto the characters and sympathize. The ending(s) feel syrupy and forced. I heard a lot of people were crying at the end, but I wasn’t one of them. Because the characters did not offer enough emotional capital to invest in.

I feel like it’s spread out too thin. I can almost see in the text that Scalzi was stretched too thin to give this book as much polish and thought as his other books. That it’s the result of being SFWA president, and taking care of a family, and a blog, and conventions, and all sorts of other things that I’m sure came up.

neil gaiman odd and the frost giants
Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman

I never thought I’d be able to read this one, because I thought it was part of some exclusive UK thing. But it was at my library. God bless those things.

I like it. It’s short and sweet, classic hero’s journey, coming of age, bildrungsroman. Takes place in Norse times with the fab three — Odin, Loki, and Thor. Plenty of Gaiman-style humor–bickering among superpowers, themes of innocent, charming story elements, plenty of magic. It’s hard to describe it without spoiling anything. But it’s a tasty treat, like an Oreo Blizzard.

lois lowry number the stars
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

Also one that kept being recommended by Goodreads. And it’s one of those books that everyone’s read, that you always see on the library shelf, but I never got around to reading. I think because the cover was never very appealing to me — Jewish star + Norwegian-looking girl = historical fiction = not interested.

And it is historical fiction, and an exceedingly simple story. But that’s not a bad thing. Simple stories need to be simply told, but that doesn’t mean their content is simple. Straightforward might be a better way of putting it. We follow a girl in occupied Denmark who watches the Germans tighten their grip, to the point where they need to help her best friend escape.

And it’s a good escape. But the story is told through the lens of the girl, so she doesn’t really participate. We watch her watch. This kind of book would be a great introduction to WWII and the Nazi movement. Like Schindler’s List Junior. Perhaps I am just too old to appreciate it for what it is. The moment’s passed me by. But I think even if I caught it at the right age, I’d still be meh.

the boy at the end of the world
The Boy at the End of the World by Greg Van Eekhout

The first chapter sold me on this. Unfortunately, same thing happened with Norse Code, another Van Eekhout novel. This one wasn’t NEARLY as disappointing, but still… my big complaint is that the story is more about survival and full of action, rather than character, cleverness, and intriguing plot. I guess that’s just my personal preference.

A boy wakes up as a result of an “Ark” preservation project. Except everything’s gone wrong, and he’s the only one who survived. And he’s got a cute robot for an Obi Wan. A boy and his robot story? Who could resist? And it is pretty good, but it’s not as much about that bond as it is about survival, and what happened to the world. Which I guess is all right. The book is somewhere around the middle-grade/YA border though. As a result, you get some kiddie stuff like the pet mammoth who acts way too domesticated (and poops a lot) mixed with scary stuff like a robot with good intentions for humanity. You know what I’m talking about.

fault in our stars john green
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Cleverness, on the other hand, abounds in John Green. This one’s far superior to “An Abundance of Katherines”. It’s the closest to the emotional impact of “Looking for Alaska”, but where that one was male POV, this one is female POV. My personal preference is still for “Alaska” (emphasis on personal), but this might be his finest work yet. It’s certainly getting him press.

It’s a tragic romance about a teen girl and a teen boy, both with cancer, and their daily struggles (spoiler: their daily struggles are much harder than ours, like being able to breathe). And it’s not schmaltzy like Nicholas Sparks — no one kisses in the rain, no one writes letters (well, they do, but in a much MUCH better way). It’s much more realistic, and the tragedy is the realism of dying. That it’s not glorious or romantic, but authentic. And that is so much more tragic and so much better. And so much of a good story.

The Books I Read: May – June 2012

bookshelf books
Columbine by Dave Cullen

I don’t know what you can say about a book like this. Columbine was the word poised on the lips of any high schooler. Everyone asked themselves if they were a potential victim. It got to the point where my sociology professors refused to read any papers about Columbine because they had read so many. Everyone spent the next 2-3 years asking why, how, and what can we do to prevent it from happening again. No one got any answers. And now it seems like everyone’s almost forgotten about the small-town tragedy. It’s especially important to me because it happened in my senior year of high school. In another life, a few tweaks here and there, I could have been one of the killers.

The book jumps around a little. It starts with a detailed description of the preludes to the event (an assembly, the prom, etc.) and the known, verified events of 4/20/99. Then it splits into two narratives. One is the aftermath and analysis thereof. How the cops screwed up, how the media screwed up, the heroes and maligners among the students. The other is a profile of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and their evolution into what they became. The book is one of the most complete, well-thought historical event analyses I have ever read (but I haven’t read many).

It’s nice to know after ten years in such a personally interesting event, what really happened. The untruths behind the trenchcoat mafia and Marilyn Manson. The influences and avenues they used to get the weapons they needed (that are still open). I never knew that the “Do you believe in God? Yes.” story was never corroboratable, or how non-methodical the massacre was. The media did a horrible job of reporting the truth around the event. The police and SWAT team did a horrible job of taking action. They could have saved lives if they’d taken more risk, but I don’t think they knew what they were dealing with. No one did, they still don’t. That’s part of the reason it fascinates.

Anyone who grew up plus-or-minus the Columbine era should read this book. You’re probably already interested in Columbine because you were one of them. This book is on the long side. But it’s well-written, explains everything with journalistic integrity, and gives great insight into why it became a thing, and why it no longer is.

captain bluebear
The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers

More like Captain Snoozebear, amirite? No? Well, I’ll work on it.

This book is awful, awful, awful. This is probably the worst book I have ever read. It was translated from German, but it does not translate. Its plot goes nowhere — there is nothing at stake and no tying thread. Any obstacles are immediately overcome and never revisited. It tries to be cute with a random illustrations (which are poorly sketched) and faux-encyclopedia entries a la Douglas Adams, but these are just failed attempts. You don’t have a book if all you have to offer to the reader is “whimsy”.

And this goes on for 700 pages. I’d like to repeat that because it’s vaguely important. Seven hundred pages of a story with no thematic thread, no character arc. Just character goes from A to B to C and encounters Alice-In-Wonderland style creatures that you never see again.

The aforementioned encyclopedia entries are the worst. It’s supposed to give brief descriptions of all the magical people and places that Mr. Bluebear encounters, but they never have a damn thing to do with the plot. They’re more like jokes. But there are SO MANY of them. It’s page after page of bullshit that has no relevance. The book is like a D&D Monster Manual. I got 200 pages into it and decided it was a waste of my life. My wife (bless her heart) did finish the book, but felt so drained from it, she put off starting another one for a few weeks. If, as an author, your book is so bad that it turns people off from reading other books, you should probably just kill yourself.

Wait, wait, I got it. More like CAN’Tain BlueBEAR it? Eh? Eh?

scalzi not fooling anyone take laptop to coffee shop
You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing by John Scalzi

Part of my purchases for Scalzi’s Planned Parenthood drive in the wake of the Susan G. Komen scandal. I really hate books that are just a collection of blog entries. Why don’t I just read it for free on the blog? All the archives are up there.

Nonetheless, this book is good for people wanting to make a career of writing. This book will not help you write better. This isn’t like Stephen King’s On Writing or Bird by Bird or any of those. You learn about writing for a living, whether that’s novels, ad copy, corporate material, or anything else freelancey, and what you need to do to make that possible. I think it will help you learn, in terms of principles of writing for money, not where to go to get jobs.

the native star hobson
The Native Star by M.K. Hobson

This book had a wonderful beginning. It started with intriguing characters — a good ol’ country witch (the sticks and herbs and perfumes and potions kind) in the Dr. McCoy vein, a hearthrobby lumberjack, and the stuck-up city boy with horrible secrets. It was an intriguing universe too — the old west with magic. It’s a hero’s journey story. The first half is great, but the second half feels paddy, where magic can “suddenly” do things just because it can. Just to provide obstacles for the heroes.

At a certain point the story feels more concerned with showing off what this universe can do and the “neat stuff” in it than it does on resolving the plot. It even needs a prologue to tie its beginning and ending together. And nothing in the prologue has any bearing on the plot in-between. I’m surprised this got past the editors — it’s one of the worst reasons for a prologue. It unmade the story for me from the best thing I read this span. Good idea, execution needs work.

gang leader for a day
Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets by Sudhir Venkatesh

Non-fiction. I can’t remember why I had this story on my “to-read” list in the first place, besides that maybe it was an intriguing idea. A sociologist entrenches himself in a Chicago gang and learns all the ins-and-outs, how they function, what they do to survive, make money, adapt. How do you live as a criminal? Gangs are one of the greatest cultural unknowns, perpetuated by TV and movie myths gorged with gangsta flavor and overhyped drama.

They don’t come close to telling the real story. Day-to-day life is different — punishment for breaking rules is meted out with punches and prevention from selling crack. Rewards are small. There are efforts to bring together gangs in midnight basketball tournaments. Drive-bys tend to be back-and-forth scuffles until two gang members negotiate for peace. Most families work communally to provide (one apartment in the projects might have a working oven, another a working refrigerator, another a TV). Wheels are greased with bribes and favors. Families blend together and gang ties determine what you can and can’t do.

This book does a really good job of showing how gangs work. The problem is at this point, it’s a little dated. The research is taken from the early 90’s. There’s no mention of cell phones or Internet. So sadly, everything might have changed.

robopocalypse wilson
Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

When I first heard of this book I was intrigued. World War Z with robots? Yes, please. When I heard it’d been optioned by Steven Spielberg, that was the clincher.

Unfortunately, the book was not as good as I hoped. It’s a series of events from different perspectives, like World War Z. But in that one, you really felt that all the ideas were explored, like a Beethoven symphony. This is a pop song. None of vignettes have enough meat to give you a character arc. It’s more journalistic, it’s not about the characters or the plot. It lacks the human story of a war. You could tell the author of World War Z cared about his subject. You can’t tell that in Robopocalypse.

World War Z explored its story in single person vignettes. In Robopocalypse, the stories are about four or five different characters, epistolary style. They tie together in some ways. But in many ways, not. For example, there’s the plotline about the Japanese guy whose love doll becomes infected with the robo-go-crazy virus. There’s only four chapters explore his story. One is about when his robot accidentally goes nuts, one is about the start of the revolution, one is about the defense he set up for it, and the last is when he deus ex machina’s the solution (in a way that’s totally implausible for any programmer).

There is no lead-in to anything. It’s like it takes the “come in early, leave late” motif way too seriously. It’s disjointed. There are huge events that take place with no build-up, so it’s like cheating. There’s a girl who gets robot eyes. At one point she joins the human rebels for the first time. Then the next time we see her, she’s coordinating army teams, with no explanation of how she got to that point.

The other thing is, well, the author. He has a Ph.D. in robotics, so I have no authority to say that he doesn’t “get” them. Plus it’s science fiction, so anything goes. But I’ve been working around computers all my life. I’ve seen how they think, and the author’s representation doesn’t gel with mine. They work with logic and conditionals. They can’t create, they make decisions based on anything but evidence. They can’t even generate random numbers, it’s not in their nature. They do nothing unless someone tells them to. But that’s not how it goes in the book.

It’ll probably make a good movie, especially with Spielberg attached. But it’s a mediocre book. There’s a story here, but it’s not a well-written one.

A Video Gamer’s Take on Lowest Difficulty Setting

bookshelf life lessons

I don’t think I need to introduce Scalzi’s “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting“. You know it, I know it, the American people know it.

I’m not going to say anything that hasn’t been said. Jim C. Hines made a great post of backing facts. This person re-emphasized the point with “driving a smooth road and not even knowing it”. And Dr. Sheila Addison helpfully gives us things you can do about it.

And it’s not like this is news. Remember that episode of The Simpsons, where Grampa is sitting at the kitchen table saying “It’s rotten being old, no one listens to you.” Lisa says “It’s awful being a kid, no one listens to you.” Homer jumps in and says, “I’m a white male, age 18 to 49. Everyone listens to me, no matter how dumb my suggestions are.” Then he pulls out a jar of “Nuts and Gum”.

I think the biggest reason people are knee-jerk reacting is that they now understand the issue and feel shame. I don’t think that was Scalzi’s intention, but it’s the inevitable result. And we now live in a society where you can’t shame anyone, can’t judge anyone, and everyone feels entitled. Shame is a great motivator. And if you don’t judge anything, don’t criticize anything, nothing changes. Because no one thinks there’s a problem.

My biggest beef with the essay is that Scalzi used the video game metaphor, but didn’t carry it to completion. All he said was it’s more difficult to get things done at harder difficulties, but he didn’t illustrate how that works. He even said this several times: “no simile is going to be perfect”.

But what if it was? The thing about video games is that difficulty setting can mean different things. Sometimes it means enemies deal more damage or take more. Sometimes it means fewer checkpoints, Sometimes whole levels are changed or skipped. Sometimes you can’t play the game because it’s too hard or too easy. Sometimes the difficulty meant nothing. (See Video Game Difficulty Tropes)

What can you expect when you first boot up the game World of… World? Keep in mind when you start the game, you don’t get a choice of what setting to play. And you only have one account. Ever.

All players have the same quest opportunities, assuming level, stats or prerequisites are fulfilled. But players on the harder settings have a 5 – 7% chance of refusal. That means if you accept the quest or mission, the NPC can change his or her mind, and deny you from accepting. For all time. Yes, this means some parts of the story may get closed off, but this is a random chance. If you want that item, you may have to buy it in the Auction House, or try a different quest.
If you are banned or suspended from the game at any time, players at Medium or Hard receive a 10% longer suspension period than players on Easy.
Woman players (available on Medium or Difficult setting only) receive a random amount of gold 75-100% of what the “Easy” player would make. Could be 100%, could be 75%.
Players who are non-White or non-Straight (available on Medium or Difficult setting only) receive 10-20% more random encounters. Sometimes you might get engaged in battle right after a hard quest, and you’re limping home with your loot, when you get attacked and killed.
Mana cost for magic spells is the same for players on all difficulty settings. However, for other players, the cost to do spells and buffs on players playing at Medium or Hard is increased by 10-25%. This might mean some players can not (or will not) heal you, for various reasons.
Once you reach a certain level, you can apply to be a GM. This is open to anybody. However, as a result of the difficulty settings, you’ll find that 85% of GMs started on Easy mode, and thus are of the SWM variety.
GMs assign each “petition” or “issue” a priority rating from 1-10. Players on Medium and Hard get an automatic -1 and -2 penalty to any issue they bring up.
Woman players (available on Medium or Difficult setting only) have a 18% random chance of getting kidnapped by an NPC for use in a quest. This means you remain immobile, essentially becoming an NPC, until a PC rescues you.
There is also a bug where Women characters have a chance of freezing up permanently. But since most GMs are playing on Easy, they haven’t put forth much effort to fix it.

Globally speaking, this is why you see more “Easy” players with higher levels, more positions of authority, and more wealth than others. Easy players will finish quests faster, earn more gold, and thus get to higher levels more quickly. It’s why you see RMT’s targeting more players on Medium and Hard, because they know, statistically speaking, those players will have less items by comparison to Easy players. Some of those players accept those deals from RMTs, for that very reason. Which encourages the RMTs to keep targeting them. And the cycle continues. And there’s about 6% more game drop-outs from players on the Medium and Hard difficulties.

Now, it’s entirely possible for a player on Medium or Hard to complete the same game, and have the same game experience as someone on Easy. All of the above are random chances. There’s no reason a player on Medium or Hard can’t reach Level 85 as fast as a player on Easy. But is it likely? … Hell, no.

Scalzi’s essay feels like being blamed for something you didn’t do or have no control over. But the easy thing to forget is that this is a blanket statement. Mileage may vary. The “Lowest Difficulty Setting” theory is meant for examining large groups and trends over time. Like the “Bechdel Test”, it’s not meant to be applied with a narrow scope. When applied to individuals, and dinged with every nuance and nitpick, it loses the broader focus of making a point about global patterns.

That being said, I can’t disagree with the statement. And there’s nothing I can do to change my difficulty setting. The best thing I can do is stay mindful of it when I go about in life. I am very aware I have it quite easy, in many, many, many ways which have nothing to do with my orientation, gender, or race. It is a certain level of power. And the important thing is to use that power, that advantage, for good.

The Books I Read: March – April 2012

bookshelf books

the immortal life of henrietta lacks rebecca skloot
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

A non-fiction book that’s basically two different narratives. One is about a breed of cervical cancer cells sampled that are able to thrive in culture — which has been a tremendous boon to scientists. With a constant supply of unchanging cells, research has opened for developing commercial drugs, IVF, and vaccines. This part also brings up issues of medical ethics and who owns your cells.

Because the other part is about Henrietta Lacks, the person from whom those cells were “donated”. Also her family, and the author’s journey to find out about her. Henrietta Lacks died shortly after her cells were taken, and both she and her family were poor and ignorant, never really knowing that part of Henrietta Lacks was still floating around. The main character of this story, besides the author, is Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter. At this point, she’s an old woman, and she’s paranoid (and probably senile) about helping some white lady write a book, since many people have tried to cash in on her “fame”.

My favorite part is the discussion about the medical ethics, the politics of medicine, the evolution of the use of HeLa cells, and generally the part that doesn’t have to do with the family. Not to say that part wasn’t interesting — I learned more about the reality of poverty and people in it from this book than others. But I guess it’s because I’m like the doctors — I don’t need to know how the sausage is made to enjoy it.

However, Rebecca Skloot did. In fact, she describes that as her inception for the book. Virtually no one knows who it was that donated the cells that saved thousands of lives and propagated billions of dollars in research. Or that “donate” is a highly suspect term — doctors did not treat black patients with much regard, because, well, they couldn’t fight back. Or that it shone light on the questionable medical practices regarding non-whites and the poor and ignorant. To this day, despite the fact that their grandmother innovated billions of dollars of medical discoveries, her family still can’t afford health insurance.

Despite this, they still aren’t very interested in getting any money from HeLa cells. They are happy that their family was able to help so many people. Except that they seem to think that there are “clones” of Henrietta Lacks walking around London. Even after the author explains over and over what that means.

That’s where it gets a bit obnoxious for me. Skloot demonstrates tremendous patience with Deborah Lacks who seems to be senile, and reacts with sudden fits of neurosis. She acts like a mental patient, so that the book becomes almost padded with “crazy woman obscuring the truth for the sake of word count”. I guess I’m not describing the book very well. It’s a good read, and interesting. But it doesn’t feel like a book for me.

live and let undead
Live and Let Undead edited by Hollie Snide

Hey, I’m in this one! Along with a lot of other cool stories about zombies.

You know, I gotta admit, I’m a pretty hard sell on anthologies. I’m not a short story reader. And the idea of reading stories about the same damn thing, over and over, sounds awfully repetitive. Especially for such a niche topic in a genre within a genre. In this case, not just zombies, but zombies at work.

This anthology does a pretty good job of keeping the variety up. There’s horror stories, there’s funny stories, there’s romantic stories, there’s touching stories, and sick stories. It’s a thick volume too (and my story’s way at the back).

an abundance of katherines john green
An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

John Green floored me with “Looking for Alaska”. It has been years since I read a book like that — a book where I wanted to be in that universe, where I felt like I was the main character, where I went through the same emotions (you can read my previous review here and here). An Abundance of Katherines is… not so flooring. It’s missing something. I think the characters and plot seem too implausible — wacky, but not realistically wacky.

The main character is a snobby child prodigy who can anagram anything. Despite his feelings of alienation and being all up in his head (because he’s gotten dumped for the nineteenth time), he still constantly shows off. The thematic thread through the story is that he’s working on a math equation to predict who will be dumped in a relationship — an objective formula based on subjective variables(?). Also he keeps dating only girls named Katherine (not Catherine or Kathryn). I’ve never even met nineteen girls with the same name.

His best friend is a fat, quick-witted Muslim named Hassan who seems to have a thing for Judge Judy. Ladies and gentleman, this character doesn’t exist. It gets even more implausible when Hassan convinces the mopey main character to take a road trip. They’re both eighteen, freshly graduated, and decide to go down to bumpkin-ville, where they then take up residence in some stranger’s house who offered them a busywork job on the spot going to other strangers’ houses and collecting oral histories. Maybe it’s my conservative, safety-conscious Midwestern upbringing, but RED FLAG! RED FLAG!

It seems like John Green decided to turn 180 with his writing style on this one. No more melodramatic high school. Now it’s fast times, introspection, and loads of obnoxious footnotes. I’d like to read his other books (I hear “The Fault in Our Stars” is good, and sounds like it takes a bigger page from “Alaska”), but this one seems highly skippable.

john scalzi fuzzy nation
Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

My favorite thing I read this month. The plot isn’t very dissimilar from H. Beam Piper’s version. Both revolve around issues of sentience and environmentalism. Both end in a lengthy courtroom drama. And both plots tie up with the same “deus ex” revelation. But Scalzi’s version has all his fast-paced, snarky, quick wit. Although, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Piper’s version takes its time to explain the issues they’re facing — why it’s so hard to define sentience, how both parties plan to mount their defense. Scalzi’s version has more action. It’s plays like a movie, with interjected action sequences that could be lifted out without losing anything. Granted, it’s a fine movie, but it lacks the depth of both the original material and Scalzi’s previous works. The main character is kind of a dick, and the stakes don’t seem as important as before (constant negotiations for the gobs of money from his claim instead of how do you define a human vs. animal?). On the other hand, the main character is a dick a la Tony Stark, and it’s damn funny to watch him outwit just about everyone who crosses him. He manages to be the kind of guy we want to be, but not be around. It’s a beach read.

the girl who was on fire
The Girl Who Was on Fire: Your Favorite Authors on Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games Trilogy edited by Leah Wilson et al.

I bought this book for a few reasons. One, I enjoyed the Harry Potter essays so much. Two, the eBook version had some bonus material based on the movie. Three, I’d just seen the Hunger Games movie and wanted to sound smart when talking about it.

I don’t think these essays are as good as the Harry Potter ones, for a few reasons. One, the authors weren’t as well-established. They seemed too New York Times snobby (they certainly aren’t my “favorite authors”). Two, a lot of the essays kept covering the same material over and over — Katniss is a strong woman, Peeta vs. Gale, social issues. It could also be that there’s less material to cover, given that there’s only three books. And each of those books tend to repeat each the same material.

I don’t see any real reason to read this one. Unlike Harry Potter, I think The Hunger Games is too contemporary to become a legend. It’s a sign of our times, and those times, they are a-changing. And don’t think this revelation makes me happy. But I don’t see a real reason to recommend this.

www:wake robert j. sawyer
WWW: Wake by Robert J. Sawyer

I’ve had this book on my “to-read” list for a long time, since it was nominated for a Hugo. I was doing my first Hugos and where you can find them and read the excerpt about a blind teenage girl in high school who liked math and web surfing. I thought “this is an awesome character. I’d like to read about her.” But the opening chapter did not lead to the story I thought it would be, like Scott Westerfeld.

The story I thought it would be was about this cool blind, math girl and about her personal life and how she copes being smart and disabled and boys and socializing. In fact, there’s almost nothing of that and plenty of math essays and Crichton-esque infodumps. I’m sure they’d be fascinating, if I was into math. But I’m not. The main thread is about an operation to get her sight back, but a backfire lets her “see” the World Wide Web, although most of the text is her trying to interpret what she sees.

And that’s when the story stays on track. There are four or five other narratives going on at the same time, none of which connect to the main plot and none of which wrap up by the end of the book. One is about the Chinese government shutting down the Internet. Another is about a Chinese dissident. Still another is about a chimpanzee at a zoo that can paint portraits. And still another is this entity coming into existence who only speaks in existential dialogue as he tries to figure out his “self” and “the other”, except you don’t know that it’s an emerging AI until the end of the book. And by the end of the book, all of these threads are still hanging in space.

There’s nothing at stake for her. She gets the operation, it doesn’t work at first, but then it does. There are no consequences — if it doesn’t work, nothing changes. The few parts that are about her personal life are so cliche they could have come out of Dawson’s Creek. There’s the hot guy at school who asks her to prom, gets too touchy-feely, and there’s tears, but she forgets about him a page later. Then, as if throwing the audience a bone, she “confronts” him at the end by insulting his hockey team. Collectively, that’s as far as you get for her human side and it takes about ten pages.

I wanted to know about how she gets along with others, but instead I’m reading about her eye implant and math equations. There’s no real goal. The plot proceeds upon a long continuous line with no hills or valleys. It reads like a very long prologue to something (it’s the first part of a trilogy, I guess). Maybe if you read a lot of Robert J. Sawyer, you’d like it. But what it says on the tin is not what I got when I opened the can.

The 2012 Hugos and Where You Can Find Them

hugo award

And of course, as soon as I’m done reading the Nebulas, the Hugos get announced. Lots of crossovers this year though.

Remember — the Hugos are a popular vote, voted on by anyone who pays money to Worldcon to become a member.

BEST NOVEL (40,000+ words)
Among Others by Jo Walton (Excerpt) (Google Books Preview) (Amazon Excerpt) Thumbs Up!WINNER!
A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin (Excerpt) (Google Books Preview) (Amazon Excerpt) Thumbs Up!
Deadline by Mira Grant (Excerpt) (Amazon Excerpt) Thumbs Up!
Embassytown by China Miéville (Excerpt) (Amazon Excerpt) Skip it
Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey (Excerpt) (Google Books Preview) (Amazon Excerpt) Thumbs Up!

BEST NOVELLA (17,500 – 40,000 words)
“Countdown” by Mira Grant (Excerpt) (Google Books Preview) (Amazon Excerpt) Thumbs Up!
“The Ice Owl” by Caroly Ives Gilman (Interview)
“Kiss Me Twice” by Mary Robinette Kowal (Full) Thumbs Up!
“The Man Who Bridged the Mist” by Kij Johnson (Excerpt) Either wayWINNER!
“The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” by Ken Liu (Full) Thumbs Up!
“Silently and Very Fast” by Catherine M. Valente (Full) Skip it

BEST NOVELLETTE (7,500 – 17,500 words)
“The Copenhagen Interpretation” by Paul Cornell (Full) Skip it
“Fields of Gold” by Rachel Swirsky (Full) Thumbs Up!
“Ray of Light” by Brad R. Torgenson (Excerpt) Thumbs Up!
“Six Months, Three Days” by Charlie Jane Anders (Full) Thumbs Up!WINNER!
“What We Found” by Geoff Ryman

BEST SHORT STORY (less than 7,500 words)
“The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu (Full) Either way
“The Homecoming” by Mike Resnick (Full) Thumbs Up!
“Movement” by Nancy Fulda (Full + Audio) Either way
“The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu (Full) (Audio) Thumbs Up!WINNER!
“Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue” by John Scalzi (Full) Thumbs Up!

And finally some observations.

First, it is totally awesome that Jim C. Hines got nominated for best fan writer. I don’t even know how he got it, he actually posts as many pictures of neat Lego sculptures as he talks about science fiction. I can’t imagine what he must be feeling right now — he’s just a regular guy who only gets the time to write on his lunch break, like me. But this proves that the little guy can make it into a recognized author. And its inspired to dedicate more strength to my writing, less time to funny videos and Internet kerfuffles. I need to focus on the positive. I’m not going to become a science-fiction writer by being a cynical, argumentative person. The more time I dedicate to hate and insults is less time I’m writing.

Next, like I found last year, some of the nominations are very strange. One, under “Best Dramatic Presentation (short form)” is “The Drink Tank’s Hugo Acceptance Speech” given at last years Hugo’s for best fanzine. It made a splash last year, but I didn’t watch it until day. It’s passionate, it’s lovely, but… well, maybe I’m missing something, but aren’t these awards supposed to be for creative works? I guess one of the criteria for creation is that it’s got to be pre-planned or engineered, at least in mind. This is not acting, this is not a planned skit. This is simply a spontaneous reaction.

Then, there’s John Scalzi’s “Shadow War of the Night Dragons”. This… well, this story was an April Fool’s joke. It was meant to mimic a real book release, written as a parody/satire of the prolific trend of dark fantasy. You know, girls with back tattoos and daggers looking at the moon. But… it’s a joke. A long form joke, yes, but, it’s really not meant to be taken as serious literature. Although Scalzi makes a good point about humor getting a nod. That’s fine, I’m all for funny. But it’s like the situation in The Producers, where someone attempts to make something bad and it’s critically revered. Ah well, sour grapes.

Related Articles
2010 Hugos
2010 Nebulas
2011 Hugos
2011 Nebulas

The Books I Read: January – February 2012

bookshelf books

Holy Smoke. Last edition, I read seven books in five months. This time I read eight books in two months! Thanks eReader, but it also probably helped that I was reading at work too. Onto the books! More exclamation points!!

Lightning by Dean Koontz

My wife picked this for book club because it was one of her favorites growing up. I liked it too, and you know what’s weird? The character has the same name as her. I don’t get to read books I’ve previously read too much. I’ve got so many on my to-read stack, the idea of repeating books seems negligent. I would re-read books if I could, especially ones I read in my teens. Now that I’m an adult, I gain so much more perspective. Both in terms of maturity and now as a writer. I can see the things I missed the first time around.

For example, the biggest problem is that the story takes a long time to explain the plot. I only remembered the interesting half — as Laura is growing up. The other half which I selectively amnesiaed was Stefan setting up explosives in some building, and watching the “gate”. But we don’t know why, who he is, or what he wants, besides keeping Laura from dying. This building of tension would be fine, if we knew what the stakes were. Plus the explosives never result in any consequences to the plot. It falls flat because there’s no investment (and because it doesn’t work). If I was writing this, I wouldn’t have included any of Stefan before the halfway point.

When I first read it, I had no idea he was a nazi until he says that he is. And I still wouldn’t have any idea now, if I didn’t know the ending. I guess Koontz kept it ambiguous for the big reveal. I also didn’t remember how annoying the comedienne best friend was or the main character conveniently knowing someone rich up the ass AND an underground gun dealer working out of Chuck E. Cheese who has access to super-lethal nerve gas. What I’m trying to say is that the book is more flawed then I remember. Rose-colored glasses and all that.

Mapping the World of Harry Potter: An Unauthorized Exploration of the Bestselling Fantasy Series of All Time by Mercedes Lackey, et al.

This was written before “Deathly Hallows” came out, so a great deal of the essays deal with now defunct speculation over “what will happen?” Even so, it’s still fun to see what people were thinking and how many of their predictions were eerily accurate. For example, one suggests that Harry must fight Voldemort alone, that Harry will not die, that Harry will die, that Neville will take a larger role, that Hermione and Ron will get together, that Snape is not as evil as “Half-Blood Prince” made him out to be.

Besides the predictions, it’s also great to read analysis of a literary series I know about and love, so I can see exactly what was done right and wrong. I learned that the Dursleys have a purpose beyond comic relief, why Snape has so many creepy fan girls, the series’s roots in “English boarding school” books, and not only why Dumbledore died, but that he had to die, because he’s the mentor on the hero’s journey. My favorite is the last essay that details a “what would happen” scenario if Voldemort does win. Basically, Hermione goes medieval. I wouldn’t have minded seeing that ending either.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

I had this on my “to read” list for a long time, and I finally got it for Christmas. I had no idea when I was reading “Soon I Will Be Invincible” that I already had a book by his brother in my possession. I just didn’t make the connection to the names, probably because “Invincible” was an impulse read.

Midway through it, my interest started to wane. It’s so grim. I know it’s trying to show the darker side of the Narnia/Hogwarts “magical escapism” fantasy. And I was interested in that concept too — I always wondered why a guy who can control dragons and set people on fire with his mind is content to stay hidden from the world, tinkering with candies that make your tongue swell. But the main character never seems to want to seize that opportunity either. Maybe the scope of the novel is too high. Maybe there’s not a strong enough goal for him, besides to learn magic at not-Hogwarts. Maybe that’s part of his character (it’s a boring one, if it is).

And I’m not fond of any book where characters hate their parents when there’s no reason to. “The Tree of Life” did that. When we visit the romantic interest’s parents, she vehemently hates them. She hates them because they don’t really talk to each other. She hates them because they do self-indulgent stuff. One is concentrating on a report about fairy music (which may or may not exist) and another spends all his time transforming the house into various fancy historical architectures. Yet, they’re still together, they raised her well, they apparently love her, there’s no abuse or discipline, and they support her studies. Well, fuck you book. What do you want out of parents? I’m sorry we’re not all made out of solid gold.

I guess when you learn magic, you can only change the world in “subtle” ways. Can’t let the secret out. That would ruin the whole thing. In case you can’t tell, I’m calling bullshit on that because A) that’s implausible — no one can keep a secret and B) who would want to? You’re now a superhero. But when they graduate, the book becomes “Magic & the City”. The group gets a Manhattan apartment where they fiddle around, have casual sex, and get drunk ALL the time. I mean all the time. Maybe my body is different but I can’t believe you can consume this much alcohol per day and still function. I get a hangover if I’m dehydrated and have 2 Captain’s Cokes.

Why do I feel I would appreciate this book more if I lived on the east coast? It seems like rich white kids messing with power and getting everything they want, and no one is happy. Or maybe it was aiming for that audience, written NYT bestsellers list in mind. The thing is, it’s a good book, but I’m not sure I want to read the sequel. It’s just so gloomy. It’s not a fun story. But it’s not boring, and it has some terrifying moments. Maybe the TV show will work better.

Boy Toy by Barry Lyga

I’ve wanted to read this for a long time. It’s a YA book about a high school student who had a sexual affair with a teacher when he was twelve. Now he’s eighteen, about to graduate, and he is angry. And he has every right to be. He feels extremely ostracized, mostly by his self. He hangs onto what he has — baseball and math, as he has flashbacks to his sexual assaults incidents of abuse molestations… I guess there’s no real good word to call it. Because there’s a huge double standard when it comes to this sort of thing. And it’s nice that the story is written in such a way that there’s no thing you can point to and say “if we eliminate that, this’ll never happen again”.

And it fascinates me. Not to diminish anyone who was in this situation but, as far as the “dominant, aggressive, older male with younger female” relationship goes in writing, it’s been done to death. “Dominant, aggressive older female, younger male” is not. Especially with stories like Mary Kay Letourneau, Debra Lafave, and Pamela Rogers Turner. It follows the mental state of the boy very nicely, as he struggles for normalcy in his current relationships, and how his past troubles color him. But he’s really coloring himself.

Once again Lyga knocks it out of the park (baseball!). I haven’t read a book of his yet that I didn’t like profusely. I got exactly what I wanted — an answer to the question of how a boy gets in a sexual relationship with a teacher. The only thing I wish was that we got a little more insight into the teacher. We never really learn her deal. Was she abused? Was she just unhappy? What was her motivation in starting this relationship? She makes a confession, so there has to be something in there. Maybe this is like real life, where the state keep the victim and victimizer in the dark about each other’s state. And that is the scariest part.

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

My recommendation of the month months. I was almost going to make it Boy Toy, but this book was just too much fun. It’s also the first real Terry Pratchett that I’ve read (the exception being Good Omens co-written by Neil Gaiman). Dunno why it took so long, some authors just slip around the radar from time to time. Maybe I was afraid because he’s so prolific, so well-liked, and all his books take place in “Discworld”, which must be a giant universe by now.

But I didn’t need to know a damn thing about his previous books to read this. My favorite part is the setting — a small town in… Scotland? Northern England? Made-upland? Not sure. But it’s cool, because it’s about a daughter and her relationship with her grandmother, the town “might-be-a-witch-not-sure-I’m-not-gonna-ask”, one of the many shepherds. I love everything Pratchett says about shepherding, like burying one with a piece of wool to let God know that this was a shepherd and maybe didn’t go to church every Sunday because when sheep give birth, you gotta be there for that.

And the funny thing is the titular “wee free men” are only in about half the book (but scattered throughout). And they’re hilarious too. They speak in thick Scottish accents and love drinkin’, fightin’, and stealin’. And they swear fealty to a little girl who’s a smart cookie due to trading vegetables for lessons at the local bazaar.

My only beef is the last part, where the final battle with Generic Queen Witch drags on for quite a few chapters. It bobbles back and forth between “is it a dream or isn’t?” and repeats the same tension. Not to mention that the bad queen has no strong beef with the protagonist, so the dramatic conflict has nothing invested in it.

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson

An old man with little physical strength and no hiking training decides to travel one of the hardest and longest trails in America. Hilarity ensues.

Bill Bryson returns with… not his best narrative, but not his worst. It’s not a must-read by any means, but parts of it are entertaining. Especially if you’re into hiking. I am not. He experiences annoying fellow hikers, equipment quirks, and frightening himself with bear attacks. Those are entertaining parts. Then there are other parts which are pure description of the purple mountain’s majesties that don’t work for me, punctuated by random histories of the trail — what it could have been and what it is.

I still like Thunderbolt Kid best. Once his fuck-up friend leaves in the first half, the book takes a nose dive into tedium. It’s too bad he couldn’t have deleted those parts and just left the highlights. Hiking is hard to make a compelling story, unless you have bears. Of which, there really aren’t any.

The God Engines by John Scalzi

When John Scalzi announced that he’d be donating all proceeds from Subterranean Press eBook sales for Feb. 1-8 to Planned Parenthood, in response to the Susan G. Komen kerfuffle I jumped on board. A) I love contraception B) I got a new eReader that needed some love and C) it gave me an opportunity to read some Scalzi I wouldn’t have purchased otherwise. I bought his writing book, a short story, and his Hugo-nominated novella – The God Engines.

It had been on my “to-read” list for a while, and seems to be Scalzi’s first try with fantasy. Dark fantasy. But it still has plenty of space action. It reminded me of the Old Man’s War trilogy with the contrast turned way down and added religion. But it’s a hella awesome combination – space opera with “mythological religion” – two great tastes that taste great together.

But I gotta air one beef. And I didn’t realize this until I was doing my fun thing where I look up trivia/info about the story. I saw this review that called attention to one component — the established harem on the ship designed to give the crew “release”. That’s all fine and dandy — not uncommon practice for this level of cultishness — until Scalzi points out he never assigned any pronouns to the prostitutes. No physical gender characteristics or anything that could define as this, that, or the other.

This is creepy. It’s clever, but it’s creepy. And I’m not sure how I feel about it. On one hand, it’s a neat writer trick, one that I didn’t see coming. I guess it’s a technique to let the reader fill in the blanks with what he/she wants to. Which is the sign of a good writer. On the other hand, now that I know that the prostitute could have been a girl or a guy, I feel icky. All I can do is imagine him as a guy. Maybe it’s my instinctive homophobia. Maybe in my mind, if the character has no gender, it’s potentially both — a hermaphrodite or someone like Pat.

I also feel betrayed by the author, that he fooled me. Maybe it’s that I know how the trick is done. Maybe it’s that I feel, as a writer, omitting information for the sole purpose of messing with the reader is not cool.

Hunger by Jackie Morse Kessler

This book is really short, more like a novella. Nonetheless, I love the concept. Death calls upon a teenage girl with anorexia to be Famine, one of the horsemen of the apocalypse. It’s something I should have thought of. I like the parts that seem real for anorexics — constant calorie calculation, excessive exercise, obsession with what she eats (to a point where it starts to interfere with the narrative), and denial.

But I was a little sad that, despite being a horseman… horsewoman of the apocalypse, there is no apocalypse. And I’m not sure what her purpose in being Famine was. One says her job is to spread chaos, another indicates she’s supposed to pave the way for War, to work in tandem with Pestilence. Or is she supposed to eliminate hunger?

In fact, that’s what she does, once she starts to understand it, to feel the joy that satisfied hunger brings. And she ends up killing War, then renouncing her crown, making her stint seem pointless pandering to dark fantasy nerds. The four horsemen stuff is kinda what I came here for, so it was disappointing that most of it was about the girl and her horse. There are other books in the series though.

And they don’t wrap up nice and tight either. Her disease is still there after the climax and she seeks help. I think the author did a good job and gave me what I wanted — a plausible portrayal of an eating disorder + a little dark fantasy.