book review: authority and acceptance

Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy is about a weird area on the forgotten coast in a future with nameless bureaucracies instead of specific governments. With all the namelessness what is named is important. In the first book, Annihilation the names were given to the specifics of the environment the biologist was witnessing. In Authority we go with the replacement director into the bureaucracy that sent the expeditions in the first book. By the third book, Acceptance, we’re discovering the depths of what came before and putting names to the weirdnesses.

While each book has delved into the mystery of Area X, the characters are the reason to keep reading. I found that Acceptance, because it had worked up to four viewpoint characters in three timelines, was a bit less drag-me-along I need to finish this last night than the first two. They were all really good, but if you want to stop after the first I think that’d be okay too.

I wasn’t sure what my reading life would be like after my kid was born (a little less than 4 weeks ago now). So far, I’ve been getting through things all right, though the dead time when your job is simply holding a screaming grub trying to let it be quiet again isn’t as conducive to in-depth concentration as I’d prefer. If I could listen to audiobooks I’m sure that’d work a bit better, but someone would always be distracting me. In any case, huzzah for ebooks that let me turn bages by tapping something that’s always lying flat where I put it.

book review: beast

Paul Kingsnorth’s Beast is about a man who goes out on the moor to be alone. A storm hits and he becomes more alone than he anticipated. Though there’s some fixing of broken ribs and fashioning a splint, the challenges in this story are far more internal. Time passes strangely in a mostly uninhabited world. Uninhabited except for the beast, which proves elusive.

This is the kind of novel that pulled me along, not by plot but by language. And then it kept me thinking with vaguely delirious yet important digressions.

It doesn’t use made-up language like Kingsnorth’s previous novel, The Wake and generally feels like a haunted house story, or maybe The Prisoner with a less well-hinged protagonist.

book review: annihilation

Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation is the story of a scientific expedition, where the scientists have no names because they’ll all be dead soon enough anyway. It was a creepy story of the psychology of people who are better off alone, the observers of nature, and how they are manipulated. It was deeply creepy and compelling, reminding me of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris or Peter Watts’ Starfish

Highly recommended, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the Southern Reach trilogy.

book review: new moon

Ian McDonald’s Luna: New Moon has no lovestruck vampires. Instead, it’s the story of a dynastic Brazilian helium mining company/family on the moon, three generations into the colonization. I loved this book mostly because it doesn’t just deal with family power plays (the matriarch, the scheming brother, the loose cannon brother, the brilliant lawyer sister, the outcast, the fashionable next generation) but the economics of living in a harsh harsh world.

On the moon, there is no law, only contract. You pay for every bit of carbon you consume, every drop of water, your bandwidth, every breath you take. It’s AI-mediated anarchocapitalism with lawyers (and lawyer AIs) negotiating everything. Which sounds hellish to live in if you aren’t one of the people on top of the society. McDonald does a good job of if not romanticizing the economic concept, at least leavening it with some perspective of the working-class.

I couldn’t help but liken the resource-extraction hellpit that the moon is in this book (with nice bits for the rich) to Alberta. But the moon is socially libertarian as well. All sorts of sexual diversity is normal, the powerful aren’t all white people, there are ways to help one another. So while the plot was interesting enough, it was the bouncing around between ways of organizing people differently I really liked.

All in all, it’s a very good social science fiction book, and only wish it wasn’t the first in a series (I loved the ending and wish it actually was one).

book review: weirdo

Weirdo is about a British cold case investigator in 2003 looking into a witchcraft-connected murder from the 1980s. The story jumps between the two timelines so we see these teenagers’ lives in a tourist town get disrupted in the buildup to the big crime while we watch the modern investigators try to unravel what actually happened. It’s not too bad.

I came across Cathi Unsworth as an author in a list of “women writing noir” which I was very interested in, since noir fiction is so male-dominated. Weirdo, however doesn’t feel like a noir book. It’s a fine mystery, but didn’t have the je ne sais quoi I was hoping for. Maybe it was just the witchcraft angle (which is handled well) that put it more in the realm of Carrie or the X-Files for me.

book review: breakout

Breakout was my first (non-graphic) novel I’ve read starring the badass criminal Parker. I’ve read some Parker stories in Darwyn Cooke’s great graphic adaptations, but never one of the Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) originals. This is what I imagine the James Patterson machines/Lee Childs of the world are wishing they were writing.

Parker is a badass (I may have mentioned this already). The book opens with a heist going bad and Parker being arrested. He immediately starts making a plan to break out of jail, but he needs a crew. So he makes one, but to get one of the people he needs he has to agree to a job later, which leads to… well a plot that just keeps on ticking over. Even if things don’t feel uber-realistic they feel very appropriate for  the story. The sentences are simple and the action is clear, never super subtle, but it’s just somehow so much better than an Alex Cross story.

If you like crime stories, you should really give one of these a try (and the Darwyn Cooke comic adaptations are also great).

book review: all the birds in the sky

Charlie Jane Anders’ debut novel, All the Birds in the Sky is great. The main characters start off as a couple of weird kids, one who talks to birds and another who builds a two-second time machine, and the story is about how they, well, interact is a clinical word, but it’s an appropriate one. Each of them embodies a different way of looking at the world off-kilterly, one through nature-magic and the other through mad-science.

It’s really good, but don’t expect it to feel realistic. For the first third of the book I was unsure why this wasn’t marketed as a more science-fictional Eleanor & Park. As kids there’s an assassin sent to deal with them but he’s not allowed to directly kill minors so he becomes their guidance counsellor and becomes really well-liked in that role. Then there’s a time jump to adulthood and the fate of the world starts to become an issue (and it loses some of that YA romance feeling). Later in the book it feels much more like The Magicians, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Makers or Seveneves.

One issue might be its optimism in the face of the end of the world, like there’s going to be an escape valve that we’ll actually all be okay. I think it walked the line well, but your mileage may vary.