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Vast by Linda Nagata.

Vast was inadvertently omitted from the two Book Pile reviews, despite appearing in the Book Pile photo. Ooops.

Vast cover

This is a Mistressworks book, and also the third book in a trilogy, so again I was playing catch-up. It's very hard sf, which I often struggle with, but fortunately there is also lots of characterisation and events and stuff happening to keep the not-overly-scientific reader engaged. Even though I knew that the characters couldn't, strictly, die, due to the tech that enables the storage of their personalities and the creation of replacement bodies, there was still one point in the book where I feared for their lives. It takes very strong writing to achieve that level of involvement.

The crew of Null Boundary are fleeing the Chenzeme, who have launched a surprise and devastating war on human colonies. Pursued by a Chenzeme warship, they attempt to adapt Chenzeme biotech to their own purposes, in order to save themselves and their ship, while seeking the source of the Chenzeme and the reasons behind their hostility.

Strange though the Chenzeme are, the human(?) crew are almost as strange to us. They can make shadows of themselves to undertake routine tasks, then return with the results. One crew members is infected with a virus that both drives and enables him to convert others to a doctrine of communality. Another has blocked off huge chunks of his own memories. They interact in unfamiliar ways. Nagata has created a futuristic humanity that feels alien, yet is believable, however strange. The enemy Chenzeme are only marginally less comprehensible.

This is a long, dense, difficult book, not to be embarked upon lightly. But well worth the voyage.

My Ántonia by Willa Cather.

My Ántonia cover

There is irony in the title here, for Ántonia never "is" Jim Burden's, but at the same time he presents here the Ántonia he knew, "his" in the sense that in this first-person narrative we see her only through his eyes.

This book takes us into Jim's life after he is orphaned and shipped out to Nebraska, arriving at the same time as Ántonia, who is a few years older than him. She and her family have travelled all the way from Bohemia to make a new life in America, but seem unable to make a go of it.

As Jim grows up, he observes the lives of his neighbours, both on the farm and then in the town his grandparents move to, Black Hawk. Jim is a sympathetic narrator, observing and describing without necessarily condemning, and sometimes it's possible to see the woman's hand behind his character. Not a criticism--more an observation.

It's a lovely, beautifully-described, poignant book that draws you in even though nothing much is happening. Well worth a read.

Nebula Awards 2010 Showcase, edited by Bill Fawcett.

About time you read this, you say. Well. Okay. I have much much older books than this, unread, yanno!

Nebula Awards Showcase 2010 cover

This book is a mixed bag of short works and extracts of longer works from the winners of the 2010 Nebulas, as selected by the SFWA. I read all of it except the long poem and the article by Mike Resnick.

Best Novella 'The Spacetime Pool' by Catherine Asaro didn't really work for me. Janelle is snatched from her lonely everyday life by one of a pair of brothers, twins, each of whom needs to marry her or die. There's Ruthless Sexy Brother and Ruthless Cruel Brother and kidnapping and will-she-won't-she-be raped. None of this is to my taste. Plus, there's one somewhat painful sequence where Janelle feigns ignorance of mathematics in order to entice RCB to give her a clue to how to escape. RCB is obviously stupid to comply, and the whole scene is contrived to the max. Janelle attempts to use her mathematical knowledge to calculate how to return to her own world, only to discover it's hopeless. So she throws in her lot with RSB, even though RCB has sworn to destroy his brother with his substantially larger army.

Where the story does shine is in the enigmatic world Janelle enters, which appears to be at about the medieval level while having a far more advanced history. Janelle's attempts to puzzle out why this should be so, and to work out the functioning of the portal of the title, are far more interesting than the machinations of the twins. It would have been fascinating to have explored the world a little more, and its apparent revulsion for the learning that has deprived it of a large number of its population.

The next work of fiction (the fiction is interspersed with articles about the history of the genre) is an extract from Ursula K. Le Guin's YA novel Powers, which won Best Novel. The quality of Le Guin's writing is so much better than Asaro's that the contrast is felt. Relaxing into the narrative, I started feeling an urge to read Powers again. Le Guin is an astute but compassionate observer who never lets you write off characters, but insists you understand them, flaws and all.

Kate Wilhelm's 'Rules of the Game' is next, a funny short story in which a widow sets out to rid herself of the ghost of her philandering husband. Not deep, but well observed, and offers wry but gentle laughs.

Then we have 'Pride and Prometheus', a bizarre mashup of Pride and Prejudice with Frankenstein. It's not nearly as well written as Pride and Prejudice, and also ignores the marginalia of what actually happened to Bennett sister Mary, but it has to be said it's a lot better written than Frankenstein. Beyond its device, however, I couldn't find much to attract me in it. Mary doesn't really come across as the Mary of Austen's novel, Victor goes on to his fate anyway, and, er, that's it. I guess it's okay if you like that kind of thing.

'Trophy Wives' by Nina Kiriki Hoffman is entirely different: an original, thoughtful and touching story about two women helping a third escape from marriage to an alien toad. The story presents strange people in a strange world living odd lives, but their relationships and their dilemmas are familiar and apt.

M.J. Engh's 'Talking About Fangs' is another it's okay if you like that kind of thing story. A neat twist on vampires, it's still, unfortunately, got a lot in it about vampires, who have been done to death.

Of the Rhysling Award winners, only F.J. Bergmann's Eating Light stood out for me. It's a beautiful, clever poem that I would like to frame and stick on the wall so I can reread it occasionally. Its originality is breathtaking.

Flora's Dare, by Ysabeau S. Wilce, won the Andre Norton YA Award, and I read the extract from it with interest. It's exciting, kinda cyberpunky, and takes you into a world that is difficult to sort out. Very tempted to put it on my wishlist.

The last piece of fiction is 'The Streets of Ashkelon' by Harry Harrison. I've read it before but couldn't resist reading it again, because it is just so damn good. It tells what happens when the non-superstitious Weskers encounter a Christian missionary, and it doesn't end well. Beautifully written, well thought out, and utterly ruthless in the logicality of its ending.

I'm not interested in talking much about the non-fiction because, to be honest, I wasn't all that interested while reading it. The history of the genre pieces were largely an exercise in seeing if any women got mentioned--I think I came across C.L. Moore and Judith Merril, the spelling of whose name always eludes me.

feather boy by Nicky Singer.

feather boy cover

This is a book the other half bought for me from one of the charity shops we frequent. It's not something I would have chosen for myself.

Robert is bullied at school, and on the way to and from school, but through a relationship with the elderly Edith Sorrel, whose own son died at Robert's age, he begins to find courage and inner strength.

Stories about bullying...usually something I avoid. But I worked my way through this book and found it fairly rewarding. There's good complexity in the characters and the book doesn't take a monochrome view. But I don't want to write any more about it because I don't particularly want to think about it.

Four: A Divergent Collection by Veronica Roth.

Four cover

Completism will be the end of me. This book is basically the opening scenes of Divergent before Roth decided it wasn't working with Four as a character and switched to writing about Tris, plus some deleted scenes. It is a completely unnecessary book. But, yanno. Fans.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers.

Lots of my friends loved this book and I wanted to love it too. But.

The Long Way cover

Human clerk Rosemary Harper joins the crew of the Wayfarer, a tunnelling spaceship with a diverse crew. On their way to create a subspace tunnel for a tribe that's recently allied with the GC, to which the crew belong, they have various adventures, including a raid by pirates.

It's a fun book in many ways. The characters are mostly well drawn and very different, although Corbin, the kinda-sorta villain, is something of a cipher. We get to know the ship and the crew and to understand their work. I liked best the team of Jenks and Kizzy, the two techs, and Kizzy especially is fun (kinda like Holzman in Ghostbusters). But the narrative is episodic and patchy, and the book tries too hard to be PC for my taste. Yes, it's frothy PC fun, but sometimes too much sugar is too sweet. So I didn't like it as much as I hoped I would.

And, ouch, a prologue by any other name is still a flipping prologue.

Meridian by Alice Walker.

Had I been looking for something bitter to cut the sweetness of the previous book, I couldn't have chosen better than Meridian. It is awash with pain.

Meridian cover

This book's non-linear narrative tells the story of Meridian Hill, who goes from being a school dropout with a child and a deadbeat husband to a stalwart of the civil rights movement in the South, on the way getting an education at a college singularly ill-equipped to hold her. Even when almost crippled by illness, Meridian keeps fighting for her people's rights. There is nothing fluffy about this book; it's a no-holds-barred look at real people and real struggle. Painful but true.

The writing is consistently good throughout, although there was one point where I had to read back and still couldn't follow the shift in the narrative. There may have been a scene break omitted; I don't know. Overall though Walker draws her characters at least as large as life, and you don't mistake one for another.

The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier.

Another book that holds people up to the light and doesn't really like what it sees.

The Scapegoat cover

Unlike Meridian, however, this book deals with much smaller issues--the fortunes or otherwise of the family of the Comte de Gue, a prick of the first order. Jean the Comte takes the first opportunity to swap identities with his chance-met doppelganger, John, and leave him either to convince the world he's not the Comte or to try to sort out the Comte's troubled family, including a morphine addict mother, an estranged sister, and a daughter who sees visions of the Virgin Mary.

John the not-the-Comte wades into the family and also acts pretty much like a prick, treating the Comte's pregnant wife as he imagines the Comte would treat her and dashing off for pretty little trysts with the Comte's compliant mistress.

It's not an awful book; it's just full of awful people. Meh.
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