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.

book review: revenger

Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger is his latest space opera and it is not very good. I often pick up one of his books thinking, “Why haven’t I read one of these in a while?” I was 2% into this one when I remembered.

It’s all tell and no show. Reynolds has characters that are cardboard standups engaging in cliche actions that anyone who’s ever read or watched better science fiction will see coming a million leagues away. In some of his previous space operas I know there’ve been enough good bits that I could deal with the plodding language, but none of that is in Revenger.

I can’t recommend such a formulaic and blah space opera, not when there’s such good stuff happening in the field these days. The Stars are Legion is a zillion times better than this, as is Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy (though that has more of a military sf aspect).

book review: ego is the enemy

Ego is the Enemy is a self-help book by Ryan Holiday. He takes inspiration from stoicism and business-people and artists to show how the problems facing the reader are all about ego and thinking as people we deserve anything in this life.

I read it because I’m passingly interested in the Stoics, especially in how they’re being brought back today, but this book is kind of an illustration of what happens when un-deep thinkers get a hold of ancient thoughts. I didn’t disagree with a lot of what he said, but it was very obvious this is a writer who has only had well-off white dude problems. Just accepting things and taking your licks is fine for people who are supported by the system that wants them to succeed (eg well-off white dudes in capitalism) but terrible advice for people who are getting trampled by the status quo.

This is a book designed to stave off the revolution, not change the world.

book review: flavor

Bob Holmes’ Flavor is a popular science book about the sense we use that’s one of the hardest to put into words. Holmes has interviewed scientists working on taste, smell, neuropsychology, genetics, soil composition, molecular gastronomy (and more) to really get into what we mean when we talk about how things taste, because it’s far more complicated than those old four-taste tongue diagrams you might remember.

One of the big takeaways from the book is that the difference between professional tasters (like wine-experts) and amateurs is more about the attention they pay and the vocabulary they have practiced with than anything specific in their tongues. It’s written in a light humorous fashion and though I would have liked a bit more in-depth explanation on a few points (how do we know a nerve is transmitting at maximum intensity?) this definitely provided enough facts to make me a bit of an insufferable dining companion.

book review: our place

Kevin Van Tighem has written about Alberta’s environment, and his concern for it, for over thirty years. Our Place is a collection of those heartfelt, thoughtful, researched essays.

The book is organized by themes so you get fishing pieces together, and hunting ones together, and the whole idea of segmenting up something that is large and whole get put together. This approach means the footnotes can get a little sad, especially when you read a hopeful essay from the 1980s where the hope didn’t really work out.

Even if you are not a hunter or a fisher, his writing about those practices is evocative and persuades the reader to appreciate the attention they reward. But in the end, what I appreciated most about the book was Van Tighem’s sense of the connectedness of all things, how attention and language matters, and how natural gas and tar sands exploitation is costing Albertans their souls.