Jul. 6th, 2016

[identity profile] littlerdog.livejournal.com
Book pile

There has been much reading since the last post, and these aren't even all of them--just the ones that happened to be sitting in a 'read' pile on the floor. They're not in reading order as that would require organisation and proper entry of data into libib. They're just books I've recently read.

Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold.

Memory cover

Book 10 in the Miles Vorkosigan series, and perhaps an odd choice when I haven't read 1-9, yet it was selected for the Mistressworks list, so here we are. The copy available on Awesome Books was a hardback, which isn't my favourite, but when you're buying cheap books online you take what's there. A nice, clean copy, anyway.

Memory was an easy read, but not a very satisfying one. It starts with Miles waking up, then goes into detailed flashback, and nothing much happens for about the first half of the book. When it finally gets going, it's interesting enough, and succeeded in fooling me as to the identity of the villain. But it reads more like a book for fans--perhaps not unreasonable when it's the tenth in a series. During the denouement I just kept wishing it would end.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.

H is for Hawk cover

This was a much-recommended book when it first came out, and certainly piqued my interest. When I saw the hardback on sale at 99p in a charity shop, I grabbed it.

Books that receive this much praise are often a disappointment, but I adored H is for Hawk. It's passionate, devastating, and, ultimately, hopeful. After her father's death, Helen Mcdonald is locked into a grieving process without apparent end. An experienced falconer, she branches out into goshawks, which have a bad reputation, and acquires a young bird she calls Mabel. The book follows Mabel's training, known as 'manning' as well as Mcdonald's slow emergence from her state of grief. At no point does Mcdonald hold back on the emotions of her grief, and of her repeated sense at failure in manning Mabel, even though she has a friend who assures her she's doing fine.

Interspersed with this narrative is a commentary on T.H. White (of The Sword in the Stone fame) and his trials and tribulations in failing to man a goshawk he called Gos. Mcdonald takes us through White's own book, The Goshawk, and alternatively weeps and rages over his failings and the bird's suffering.

Not for the faint-hearted, and to be treated carefully by those experiencing their own grief.

Heroes and Villains by Angela Carter.

Heroes and Villains cover

Heroes and Villains is a post-apocalyptic novel, of which women seem to have written far more examples than I realised before I began reading through the Mistressworks list. And yes, this is another Mistressworks book. It's also short, but makes up for that by being very dense with description and the evocation of the post-disaster landscape.

The book follows the story of Marianne, born and raised in a heavily-protected university environment, who longs for the freedom and wildness offered by the bike gangs who frequently raid the settlement. When she sees a young raider injured and gone into hiding, she sets out to rescue him. Her naive wish for adventure lands her in the middle of the gang's temporary base, and married to the young man she tried to save, and who has raped her.

Carter never shies away from stories other writers might hesitate to consider, and here we are obliged to see Marianne coping with her new husband, and enjoying sex with him despite an unpromising beginning. She's living in a dream where he is the only bulwark against the other raiders and their rough lifestyle and unhealthy environment. At the same time, she has to deal with another exile from the universities that dot the landscape--her husband's gay mentor, who keeps trying to kill him.

It's an uncomfortable and uncomforting book that refuses to conform to a mainstream view of women and their relationships with men. Suppose you did marry your rapist--and suppose you were attracted to him because of his potential for violence, because of his wild beauty, and because he's everything you're not supposed to want? These are the places we dare not look.

Such a book should probably be loaded with trigger warnings.

Queen City Jazz by Kathleen Ann Goonan.

Queen City Jazz cover

One of the best SF writers you've never heard of, Goonan, here creates an astonishingly dense hard SF novel that explores a future of nanotech and the use of DNA for information storage. It's difficult to believe this book was first published in 1994, as the science is bang up to date.

It's not exactly a post-apocalyptic novel, for the world--well, Ohio--hasn't been destroyed so much as radically changed. People live in isolated communities, fearful of the nano-plagues that drive the infected to build rafts and sail down to New Orleans, where the conditions are unknown and unknowable.

Verity lives in a tiny community that worships a cult figure and by which she was adopted after being certified plague-free. Yet she has two curious bumps on her head, purpose unknown, which worry both her family and her. Verity longs to explore beyond her small world and to remember what she learns from the library's immersive couches, but her opportunity comes at a price. When a member of her community kills both her best friend and her dog, she must travel to Cincinnati in search of a way to bring them back to life.

(There are definite similarities up to this point with Heroes and Villains, see above)

Verity's trip to Cincinnati is fraught with danger and strange encounters, but it's when she penetrates the heart of the city that the story really begins. For Cincinnati's residents are caught in a cycle of impersonating artists and acting out stories that begins when the giant Bees awake from hibernation and continues remorselessly until winter returns.

Further, Verity discovers that she (and many other Verities both past and future) has been created for the purpose of finding a way to end this cycle, and return control of their own lives to Cincinnati's people. But is she up to the task? And what will she become?

A long and intense read that requires effort on the part of the reader, Queen City Jazz is also chock-full of references, most of which I probably didn't get. It would definitely reward insiders more.

Sister Noon by Karen Joy Fowler.

Sister Noon cover

My niece gifted me this book when she went home, stating clearly that she didn't recommend it. We'd both loved We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, but this book wasn't nearly as loveable, for reasons that remain obscure.

On the face of it, it's a Fantasy version of a tale familiar to those who've read books about the travails of poor, middle-class women attempting to present a genteel face to the world. Lizzie Hayes raises funds for a home for abandoned and illegitimate children, and even though she's only the treasurer, she keeps being called upon to make important decisions concerning the admission of children and their welfare. This inevitably brings her into conflict with the matron, who seems to be the only other person active in the running of the home.

But Lizzie's problems multiply when she meets Mrs Pleasant (who appears in the novel in several different guises) and learns, through Mrs Pleasant's nominal employer, that her own father may have murdered a young woman.

It's hard to know what in this novel is true, and what is an identity woven out of mystery and dreams. That's fine, but it's also hard to know if it's Lizzie's story, or Mrs Pleasant's in any of her multiple identities, or that of Jenny, the small orphan girl Lizzie is drawn to without much liking her.

Sometimes there's nothing wrong with a book; it just doesn't work for me. That may be the case here.

The Universe Against Her by James H. Schmitz.

The Universe Against Her cover

Many, many years ago, I read this book--or part of it--and it's stuck with me ever since. Stuck with me in the sense that I could remember Tick-Tock (but not her name) and some of the story, but neither author nor title. Finally I decided to cast my query onto the waters of the internet, and see what the tide brought me, and SF guru David Langford identified the book immediately.

The parts I remember are as good as I remember, but, to be honest, the book isn't all that good. It especially went downhill for me after the departure from the story of Tick-Tock, the giant, alien, telepathic cat, from the story. But it was lovely to know what book it was, and to read it again.

Telzey Amerbdon travels to the planet Jontarou to visit her aunt with her pet, Tick-Tock, who she found as a kitten and who appears to have a telepathic link with her. Unfortunately, the visit is a plot by the spiteful aunt to separate Telzey from her pet, who is apparently the last in a species of cats that once inhabited Jontarou. As those cats are now extinct, Tick-Tock must be impounded in the hope she can be used to repopulate the species.

But, as Telzey discovers, the cats are far from extinct--and they're very angry.

(end of part one)
[identity profile] littlerdog.livejournal.com
The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein.

Steerswoman cover

The Steerswoman plays with the reader's expectations, teasing them as to whether this story is "really" SF or if it's Fantasy. There's magic--or is there? Perhaps it's fakery. Or electricity. The reader must make up their own mind.

Steerswomen like Rowan (and a few men) are the keepers and disseminators of knowledge. They must answer any question they are asked or cease to follow their calling. In return, anyone who fails to answer their questions is blacklisted, unable ever to question a steerswoman again.

Rowan is intrigued by some gems or jewels that have turned up in various places, as if thrown across the land by a giant's hand. There's no obvious way they could have been made, or inserted themselves into trees. At the same time, they don't seem to have any particular value. Yet someone is determined to put an end to her investigation. For protection, Rowan links up with Outskirter Bel, and, despite the differences between them, they gradually become friends.

But as Rowan persists in investigating, the two friends are drawn further into danger.

I enjoyed this book. It sets up a believable and well-drawn society, and Rowan and Bel have strength, intelligence and endurance without being set up as superheroes. Their determination reminds me of Snake in Dreamsnake. My only difficulty was that Rowan's intellectual leap regarding the nature of the jewels struck me as coming out of the blue. I didn't feel enough groundwork had been laid for it to convince. A small blemish on an otherwise well-constructed book.

Where the narrative is strongest is in the interactions between Rowan and Bel. Both stick to their own principles while slowly coming to appreciate the other's point of view. As their friendship strengthens, so their characters gain depth. The young man whose help they obtain later in the story, William, is perhaps not quite so well characterised; in fact he's a bit annoying. Or maybe he's annoying because the author wants us to know, hey, this guy's annoying. But he means well.

Polar City Blues by Katharine Kerr.

Polar City Blues cover

Set on the planet Hagar, where life is mostly conducted after dark, due to the sun's intensity, Polar City Blues is a curious mixture of a detective story with a First Contact tale. It has an impressively diverse cast, including a furry and naturally mute telepath, and white people who are considered inferior to the dominant blacks.

Hagar, a Republic planet, is caught between the rival powers of the Confederation and the Alliance. When an alien carli from the Confederation Embassy is found murdered, Chief Bates must investigate while walking a tightrope of diplomacy. And when telepath Mulligan is swatted by an unknown power, and an unknown assassin targets any witnesses to the carli's assassination, ex-Naval officer Lacey must put her life on the line to identify the assassin.

Add to this a crashed pod, another murdered alien, his distraught soulmate and a spreading alien bacterium that makes people smell of vinegar (and itch. And ITCH.).

Despite the SFnal trappings, there's much here that's tediously familiar. Drugs and drug dealing. Prostitution. Crime bosses. Spies. Hate mobs. Some part of me wants something different from human life on a different world. A way of living that, if not better, is at least other. Yet even the presence of effective telepaths doesn't seem to affect the way people behave.

Then we have Buddy, the AI who's in love with Lacey, and also incredibly cutesy and annoying. At some point in his narrative arc, I wanted to put the book down and walk away. It is possible to go too far in AI/human love rivalry, I fear.

The book is readable, if a bit slow-paced, and there's plenty of intrigue for those who can wrap their heads around such machinations.

Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre.

Dreamsnake cover

Dreamsnake is unusual among post-apocalyptic science fiction in that new ways of living have been built, some of them technological, others closer to the land, and there's very little harking back to the past. The 'ancients' are mentioned and some of their buildings and their mistakes survive, but for the most part Dreamsnake's characters live in the present. As do we.

Snake is a healer who uses three snakes to diagnose and cure illness and disease. One is Grass, a dreamsnake, a species that originates with offworlders who are mentioned but never appear. Dreamsnakes are incredibly rare and the healers have had very little luck in trying to breed them. Yet at the same time they are essential to the healer's work--they bring comfort and ease to the dying.

When she is treating a boy called Stavin for a tumour, Snake misjudges the fear and hatred of his clan for snakes, resulting in Grass's death. Desolate and blaming herself, Snake resolves to return to the healers' hall where she was trained. But on the way she finds more people to help, and learns of a possible source of dreamsnakes. If she can bring dreamsnakes to her fellow healers, then maybe the loss of Grass will be forgiven.

The writing is spare and overall doesn't try to evoke emotion in the reader, which perhaps makes for a little distancing. But Snake is an interesting and compassionate character, who is also brave when trying to do the right thing. On her journey she introduces us to the different ways of living that have developed in the aftermath of what seems to have been a nuclear war. Tribespeople, desert people, horse breeders, recyclers, the closed and enigmatic city, all are glimpsed through Snake's eyes and so imperfectly understood.

The snake medicine is fascinating, being a mixture of breeding, training, and genetic manipulation. Snake can let the snakes free to hunt, drink or explore, knowing they will return to her when she taps the ground. But although she's immune to their venom, she's not impervious to being bitten. It's these small details that make the snakes realistic.

Overall, an intriguing and enjoyable read.

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