Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Review: Ghost on Black Mountain

Ghost on Black Mountain by Ann Hite

I met Ann Hite last Saturday at the Dahlonega Literary Festival.  She sat on both the panels I attended and at some point that afternoon, while sitting in the book-sales room, she was introduced to Zeus.  Hearing her talk about her book got me interested a bit, for one reason in particular.  I spent a lot of my young life in and around Black Mountain.  My maternal grandmother and a fair number of aunts and uncles lived there.  My mother lived there at various times.  Me-Maw, my grandmother,  didn't live on the mountain itself, but just outside the little town, in a tiny cinder block house with a cellar and a long front porch.  The house is gone now, mowed down for a highway project or something when I was 8 or so, and she moved to another house a few streets away (on Ruby Avenue, as it happens, which was my mother's name).  She died when  I was 11, and thereafter when we visited (more rarely) it was to stay with an aunt or uncle.

So, I had that connection.  It's a strained one, made of dim memories -- a rainy night when my mother and I drove up from Florida and Mom took a wrong turn, taking us up the curving hairpins of Black Mountain itself.  She was scared the whole time, as it was hard to turn around in the black dark and the rain, with no guardrails and not much road.  She didn't want to be on the mountain.  I don't recall ever going up that road again, but we may well have at some less memorable time.

My dim memories are made of sunlight and the smell of cool water, of biscuits and herbs, the sour green apples that grew in my grandmother's front yard and the cherry tomatoes my cousins and I would snitch -- so sweet!  We pinched her pinch-me-nots and hunted for four lead clovers, and even adventurously bit into the green rounded leaves for the sharp-sweet-green taste of them. The only place I ever chased fireflies was under those trees.

The two cousins I spent the most time with, Karen and Lynn -- Karen two years older, Lynn almost a whole year younger -- and and I hunted fox grapes in the little single lane road behind the house and made a yearly mission of damming up a little creek that ran nearby, hauling rocks and getting soaked every day.  They were jealous because I called our grandmother "Grandma" while they called her "Me-maw", as did most of my other cousins.  I always wanted to call her "Me-maw" so I could be like them.

 My mother was born in 1927, on the younger end of her 12 siblings, and her family moved around a fair bit between Tennessee and North Carolina.  I'm not sure when they settled in Black Mountain, but it was well before my grandfather died in 1956.  I know my mother went to highschool there and played girl's basketball, a secret kept from my grandfather by MeMaw.  My grandfather didn't approve of such things, just as he didn't approve of girls cutting their hair or going with boys.   My mother married at 19 to get away from him, to a man who abused her terribly.  The marriage was annulled, she told me.  I don't know the man's name.  She went on to marry 3 more times. Her second husband was also abusive, at least by modern standards, and, as far as I can tell, also local to that area.  The third was my father, her fourth and last my stepfather, both from out west.

So, I came into this book with a lot of luggage, shall we say.

The book itself tells a single braided story from several points of view, all female, and from different points in time.  It is filled with ghosts, of course, both malevolent and benign, but none who rattle chains or make walls bleed.  They are the manifestations of human guilt and love, shame and hatred, kept moving and talking by the living people around them.  When Ann talked to me about her book, she asked me to give some attention to the voices of her characters.  Some readers, I imagine, have told her that "real people don't talk like that", that she is stereotyping and insulting to the Mountain people.  All I can say is that I never noticed anything that didn't sound familiar.  In fact, the voices flowed over me as comfortably as my aunts and uncles talking around MeMaw's kitchen table.  If anything, Ann made them sound smoother and more educated than perhaps they really did, raising them up a bit rather than looking down on them.  More importantly, they fit the story perfectly and never drew my attention.

The story itself kept me reading -- I started and finished on the same day -- and, while I can't say it exactly surprised me, nothing was telegraphed to me.  I got into the lives of the women I met within the pages and tried to see the men in their lives as they saw them.  By the end, by the last page, I had tear-blurred eyes for no reason and for many reasons.

Did I enjoy it?  I'd say that's not a proper question about this book.  This isn't a story set down to enjoy, exactly.  There's too much pain and too little laughter for enjoyment.  In fact, the book might feel a bit shallow, the way a creek is shallow until one takes a wrong step and then you're up to your hips in icy water, smooth rocks rolling under your shod feet and denying you an easy escape.  It looks pretty and sparkly, makes a charming noise, but you can get hurt there.  Yes, you can drink the water.  It will keep you alive.  It can also kill you if you are careless near it.

Yeah, that's what this book is.

And, yes, I will have to hunt up her other books.  I don't read a lot of ghost stories or Southern stories.  I was born and raised in Central Florida, which is to the South what Cheez Whiz is to a good Gouda, so my accent, my viewpoints, and my essential self is not attached firmly to the region.  However, that desire to play in creek water, to haul the rocks around and change the song, will pull me back to her stories and her voices.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Proof of my Compulsive Need to Own Books

Might as well make a list of the books I have recently acquired from assorted sources over the last month, including the veritable dragon's hoard I dragged to my cave  home on Saturday.  I think it is evident enough that I have a problem.  I do not really want a cure, thank you very much.

From a B&N run
The Tropic of Serpents -- Marie Brennan
The Annotated Northanger Abbey -- ed. David M. Shapard (I'm collecting this set.  They are marvelous).

From two different visits to Boomerang Books

Red Mars -- Kim Stanley Robinson
The Harp of the Grey Rose -- Charles De Lint
Devices and Desires -- K.J. Parker

The Charterhouse of Parma -- Stendhal
Last and First Men /Star Maker -- Olaf Stapledon
Turning Back the Clock -- Umberto Eco
The Blank Slate / How the Mind Works - Steven Pinker

From the Clemson Literary Festival

Telling Stories, Talking Craft -- ed. Chris Arnold & Anthony Cook

From the Dahlonega Literary Festival

The Art of War for Writers -- James Scott Bell
The Kick-Ass Writer - Chuck Wendig
Plot Perfect -- Paula Munier
Mrs. Poe -- Lynn Cullen
Wicked As They Come / Wicked As She Wants  (I confess, I think these will be guilty pleasures, plus she charmed me.)/ Hit - Delilah S. Dawson
Nice Girls Don't Have Fangs / How To Flirt with a Naked Werewolf -- Molly Harper (more guilty pleasure, I suspect)
Fiddlehead / The Inexplicables / Dreadnought / Ganymede -- Cherie Priest
Ghost on Black Mountain -- Ann Hite
The Five Destinies of Carlos Moreno - George Weinstein


True Confession:  I only got 1/3 of the way through Cherie Priest's Boneshaker before, frankly, I chickened out.  I knew horrible things were going to happen.  I mean, ZOMBIES.  Usually that results in the terrible, and I'm not much good at the terrible because I'm a chickenshit coward and I don't much like to be scared.  However, now that I've met and talked with Cherie Priest, I somehow feel better about it.  I can't explain it exactly --  I mean, I've made it through most of the Dresden Files books, and any number of other supernatural horrible things books without much problem -- but now it feels more like a friend telling me a scary story instead of someone evil and unknown intending to deprive me of sleep by whispering how some old lady accidently killed her cat by putting it in the microwave to dry (THAT HAUNTS ME AT NIGHT! NOOOO!)  So I think I can pick up Boneshaker now and finish it, and march right on through her other books with defiance and smiles.

And, yes, I admit that I fight to resist the urge to pile all my books up, sit on top of them, and gloat.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Hey, I Went Somewhere. There Were Books!

Last Saturday, The Husband, the Wonder Poodle, and I all left the house and attended the Dahlonega Literary Festival in Dahlonega, GA.  Aside from being an unusually chilly day for this late in March, it was marvelous.  I met Kevin Hearne and Cherie Priest (with whom I shared many dog pictures), Molly Harper and Delilah S. Dawson, among many other authors I didn't know before, all of whom were chatty and funny and wanting to pet The Wonder Poodle.  Said poodle performed his duties with great aplomb despite many distractions and many dogs (a celebration of the Appalachian Trail was also taking place along the streets). If my back and my energy had not begun to flag, I would have stayed all day and come back the next day but the whole "It now hurts to sit" thing dissuaded me.

It felt unusually good to be among so many readers and writers, even though I was at my most inarticulate, stumbling over my words and hyper-conscious of everything I said.  Ahh, the joys of anxiety!  I could have soaked up a lot more, spent more time chatting and listening (as it was a small festival, intimate, even, and it was actually possible to chat with the authors -- that's a huge treat).  Stupid pain.

I'm working on that, by the way.  Doctor's visit last week, e-rays and blood tests and new medication so I can sleep at night (but still wake up in the morning).  Who knows?  I might even start exercising.

I also wish I could relate specific, wonderful things said by these people, but it is all just a lively mush in my head.  Of course, if I'd really wanted to do that sort of thing I should have recorded the panel sessions, but that would have required me to remember I could even do that, and I had enough to do managing Wonder Poodle so people wouldn't have to step on him,

Still, I feel a bit more inspired than usual.  Several of them spoke to the problem I have, which is that of the internal editor not letting the words out.  It feels good to know it isn't just my personal weirdness making that happen.


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Review: Zombie Spaceship Wasteland

 Zombie Spaceship Wasteland: A Book by Patton Oswalt

"Bugdick, bugdick, oatmeal pants"

That is a line from an old hobo song about the glories of springtime...at least, that's what Patton Oswalt has told me and I am convinced.  The lines are on repeat in my head, because I listened to the audio version of this book (which means I didn't see the graphic novel part because I can't open the stupid PDF, but I'll mess with that later) and these were actually sung.

I can't really review this book because I can't adequately phrase my response to it in words.  It requires interpretive dance, I think, and possibly some tissue paper flower garlands.  I'm not much of a dancer, so I'm stuck.

Would I recommend others read (or, ideally, listen) to this book?  Certainly, but with caveats.  If you've never really understood D&D or Star Trek or Bladerunner, I'd suggest you read something else, as beautiful parts of this book will simply not be available to your interpretation.  If you have to Google Harlan Ellison or Warren Ellis because the names are completely unfamiliar to you, you might run into trouble (not because Oswalt discusses them extensively, but...it's handy background information to have while reading, like it's handy to know where Russia is when reading/watching The Hunt For Red October.)

Upon reflection, perhaps the line from the song is "Bugdickin', bugdickin', oatmeal pants."  It's a bit hard to tell over the pops and cracks of the recording.

Patton (I just want to call him Patton.  Calling him Oswalt is more pseudo-professional than I want to be, and calling him Sad Boy is just rude.) is so much fun to hear.  I woke up at 3 am with the beginnings of the day's headache, and decided to continue with his book (which I had started the previous evening) because it was plain I wouldn't be sleeping for a while and I might as well be entertained.  It was a good idea.  When exhaustion finally won out over pain, my mood was improved by....what, exactly?  Not his sunny outlook and smiling disposition, certainly, and I can't say I laughed aloud at any point.  I was amused.  Perhaps that isn't what a comedian really wants, but there it is.  I smiled softly and nodded my head and was amused.  I wouldn't have gotten up to go to the bathroom (well, as it was an audio book, I could take my media device with me into the bathroom and simply backed up to hear anything I might have missed during the time there.)  I was content to be listening.  I was curious as to what came next.  In fact, I kinda had to find out what he would say next.

So I guess Patton won.  I'm content with that.  I also suspect that if Patton Oswalt were to spew out some fake facts in his sincere "I'm a geek sharing my geekdom" voice, I'd go right along, and isn't that what we want from our writers?



Ahhah!  Everything is on the Interwebinet!  Check this and, at about minute 18, some of the hobo song bits show up (the audio book versions are better, of course).  Not my favorite, of course, but I suspect the bit was in process.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Review: Silver Screen Fiend

Silver Screen Fiend: Learning about Life from an Addiction to Film by Patton Oswalt

Patton Oswalt is one of those famous people who have drifted on the periphery of my awareness for years, always with this vague idea that I'd really like him if only I took the trouble to, you know, pay attention.  Oh, I caught his comedy specials when they showed up on Netflix or where ever (Youtube is my friend) (ok, I've seen them multiple times because Netflix is easy).  I read his Twitter comments if they drifted through G+ or read about his assorted feuds and blow-ups.  Since my movie watching is quite limited, I've only "seen" him in Ratatouille (and quite enjoyed him). Because of my complete lack of awareness of anything on TV from the mid 90s through to today (if it wasn't Mythbusters, I didn't know about it), I've missed much of his other work.

Random chance, my Scribd subscription, and the latest attention Salon paid him made me grab his new book.  I picked up the audio version because, for reasons perhaps best not explored, I really, really enjoy listening to this man.  Seriously, if he will talk, apparently I will listen.  For hours. (And, yes, I have his earlier book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland in my audio queue, although I already started reading it earlier this week.).

Now, what have I to say about the book, and about the author, since this stuff is all memoir?  What is my reaction?  I think I have a pretend love for him -- that is, it's all in my head that I feel so much affection for this person about whom I really know so little except for what he says about himself and what others screech about him.  In my head, I wish I could sit down with him someplace comfortable, watch Godzilla movies, and listen to him pontificate about them endlessly while occasionally making my own comments.  The reality of that is 1) not happening 2) I am also afraid he'd eviscerate my lowbrow movie tastes 3) I can't think of anything I have in common with him that could be the basis of a conversation, with the possible exception of Star Wars, and possibly Star Trek, trivia.  And maybe we could discuss movies from the 1930s and 40s.  Maybe.  And growing up in suburbia in the 70s and 80s.  I'm a few years older than he, so my memory portal is a bit shifted.  I really don't know.  I can't imagine he'd want to talk to me.

Then again, I have that thought about almost everyone.

But I like thinking about a possible conversation.  He is, I believe, on G+ (Is that right, +Patton Oswalt ?) but I don't know that he pays the slightest attention.  Ghost town and all that.  Still, listening to him talk about his experiences, his thoughts, his memories, makes me wish I could talk with him.  Seriously, it makes me think he's like a real person, despite the being famous and being on TV and publishing books that make best seller lists.  I mean, I totally know that he's actual flesh, blood, memory, and experiences, like millions of others, but he still has that "Famous" aura which makes him one of the featured few while I'm one of faceless many.  I pay attention to him, while he doesn't know dick about me, and he has no particular motivation to change that.

I run into that thought a lot, too.  There's someone in the world who I admire, but it's a one way street where I can admire at a safe distance, but whatever comes back must be shared with everyone else on that street.  What's on the other end of that street is for the rare, the lucky, the few -- it's really a ridiculous situation.

What in the world would I talk about with him?  We could talk about depression.  That's something about which I know quite a bit, and he does as well.  And we could talk about The Princess Bride.

Which is how I am transitioning to the other book I've read this week, As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales about the Making of the Princess Bride by Cary Elwes.  There isn't a lot to be said about this book, which is why I am tucking into this review.  This is a sweet, fun, happy book about a sweet, fun, happy movie that I completely love.  There's no dirt dishing here, and that's fine, because it would be out of place.  Elwes also comes across as a nice human being, which is fine, too, because I'm perfectly content to think of him that way.  In fact, I'm perfectly pleased to live thinking he has no deep dark deeds kept secret from the wider world (just the usual flaws that go with being human).  As luck would have it, the movie popped up on TV while I was reading (well, reading and knitting, going back and forth because I do that).  Reading about the movie while watching the movie was perhaps the best way to enjoy the book.

I wonder if Patton Oswalt has read the book?  Or did he go to the 25th anniversary celebration of the movie?  Did he read the original William Goldman book before seeing the movie? (I ran into the book a few years before the movie, which isn't some mark of superiority, just good luck).

I suspect that, in my subconscious, these two books may melt together, and Patton Oswalt will be dashing about in black suede pants and a mask, offering peanuts and scotch to assorted large rodents.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Just Putting This Here So I Can Keep It



Hadn't heard the song until this video made the rounds a few weeks ago.  I've watched it at least 6 times now.  The song is strong, the dancing is blood and sweat and sweetness.  Must keep it handy.  I need this sort of beauty in my life to keep me in my life.

Review: Lolly Willowes; Or, The Loving Huntsman

Lolly Willowes: Or, The Loving Huntsman by Sylvia Townsend Warner

First -- lookit!  My banner fits my template now!  Thanks goes to @snipped on Ello for the help, since my brain won't do that kind of thing anymore.

Second -- I forget exactly when this book landed on Mount TBR, but it recently fell into my hands and I started reading.  Now I'm trying to think exactly what my reaction to it is.

The first thought I had as I reached the end of the book was "Damn, once again the only solution for a woman to have freedom is to become a witch, just like in The Master and Margarita."  That book was actually written after Lolly Willowes was published, and wasn't published until decades later.  Lolly Willowes isn't political satire, but it is cultural satire, so maybe that's the echo I hear.

I find I can't talk about my reaction to the book unless I talk about the book, so if you haven't read this 90 year old book, I guess I'm going to spoil things for you.  Laura Willowes is born into the heavy quilted traditions of the Willowes family, in late Victorian England.  She's a self contained child, a quiet young woman, content with her relative freedom to wander the countryside, maintain the fixed patterns of her home in Lady Place, and look after her elderly father.  She has no interest in balls or parties, in flirting or dancing, in having a home, a husband, or children of her own.  Upon her father's death, she loses her freedom and is chivvied, without much resistance because she isn't the fighting sort, into the mold of the spinster aunt.  She lives with her older brother and his wife, and she dwindles into what they imagine her to be -- quiet, unassuming, acquiescent, ignorable.  They can give her the thoughts they want, attribute to her the feelings and motives they think best. She becomes Aunt Lolly, not Laura Willowes, and for 20 years that is who she is.

When she has her awakening and decides to become Laura Willowes, her brother and sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews all try to keep her in the niche they think she should fit.  She doesn't so much break free as slide out from beneath their collective thumbs.  She retreats to an odd little village in the country and settles back to a self-directed, quiet life, making her own little patterns.  When her family try to recapture her in the person of her self-centered nephew Titus, who comes to her little village to live and make her into Aunt Lolly again, Laura enters into a mysterious compact with a very different version of the Devil and becomes a witch. She discovers the odd little village is full of witches.  Being a witch is, at least in this book, just a way for one to be quietly self directed, allowed to be the shape one wants to be, to defy the heavy hands of social expectations.

Of course the book has just loads of symbolic meaning and interpretable material.  It's such a quiet, calm, matter of fact little story, just like its main character, only the facts in this matter are tinged with otherworldliness and oddness.  Still, they are facts and they are accepted with perhaps a little pop of surprise before being swallowed up as just part of the pattern.  That's how I reacted to the book.  It's soft, whispered pattern had little pops of surprise that settled into the whole as I read.  The surprises were subtle and seemed so small until after I had read them and digested them.  Once they were over and part of the whole, they grew and got more important.  Now they whizz around my head and unfold.  The things Warner is making fun of, the things she satires, are just a relevant now as in 1926, because the desire to make others fit into the niches we allow them (we being a cultural or a societal we) still exists.  The means by which people slide away from the expectations of others are often just as small and whispered, although we tend to give more attention to those who blast their way free, who try to destroy with flashes and bangs what fetters them rather than becoming misty and faint and just drifting out.

Yes, there's a proper metaphor.  This is a drifty, misty book, a book about a woman deciding what she does and does not like, and then setting about making her world into what she likes while repelling what she does not.  That's not the whole book, of course.  That's my bit of it.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Review: Hyperbole and a Half

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

Yeah, I know, old news.  I'm not worried about being up-to-date or cutting edge or anything like that.  I'm here because I read something and I am going to write about it.

I've been aware of Hyperbole and a Half as a webcomic for some years.  It's hard to be online and not be aware of it. However, its rise to Bestseller heights took place during the period of my own struggle with depression, so I was in no way able to, you know, be cognizant of much of anything.  Depression keeps a person very busy being depressed.

Allie Brosh talks about this.  Indeed, the chapters on depression were terribly familiar to me.

However, the other chapters -- some of which I had seen online, usually passed to me by my beloved friend Jammies of Curmugeonette infamy because she always knows about this stuff before I do -- had me laughing so very hard I flopped bonelessly on the couch and flapped my hands at The Husband.  I know I drooled a bit.  I might have peed a teeny amount, but that could also be because I've turned 50 now and everything is out of warranty and thus prone to malfunction.  Still, there was much, much laughing helplessly.

I love that much laughing.

I did a quicky search online for Allie Brosh and Hyperbole and a Half.  The weblog still exists, but it is static and silent.  I wonder what she's doing now, and how publishing a book (and all the other marketing items -- calendars!  Note cards!  Date books!) has altered her life.

I also read two other webcomics-turned-books: Cyanide & Happiness, and Ice Cream & Sadness: More Comics from Cyanide & Happiness.   Again, this is a webcomic I see from time to time but do not follow myself.  I read the books with a sort of fascinated horror.  My sense of humor, I will admit, is, ah, very individual.  I often watch and enjoy comedy without ever laughing.  I also do not enjoy some kinds of comedy which others find hilarious (for example, almost every sit-com in the last 10 years.  In fact, I think the last such show I did enjoy was Northern Exposure, and even that wore out by 1994).  I didn't find much in the books that was funny, although absurd humor usually appeals to me.  Yet I read them, lingering over particular strips and puzzling over text.  I don't feel much draw to read more, yet I do see why people read and link to the comics.  Just because I don't get it doesn't mean they have nothing to give.  Like I said, I spent some time on them myself.  Still, they don't excite me much.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Review: A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark



A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark by Harry Connolly

Purchased this on Tuesday and finished it last night, which is pretty fast for me these days.  I have other books with markers in them (I always have books with markers in them) but this one pushed to the head of the line as soon as I read through the first chapter.

I am also going to be super paranoid as I type this, because I'm going to make mention of typos and formatting problems, which means a Karma Boomerang could be heading for me at this very moment.  I've already caught myself typing "eff" instead of "egg" three times now.

There are tropes in paranormal mystery books -- kick-ass main characters (if female, she's sexy enough that at least 3 of every 5 guys she meets wants to sleep with her), a settled magic system, and the main character gets beat up at least once.  Secondary characters require rescuing or, if the author is going against trope, rescue the main character.  Bad guys are destroyed in the end, but (in a series) some sort of darkness will follow the main character until the next book, upping the stakes each time.

Connolly pretty much looked at the tropes and said "Fuck that noise".  This time, there's little to no kick-assery, magic is the vague and hard-to-wrap-your-head-around thing I've always suspected it to be, and the lead character is a little old lady (but not Miss Marple).  Marly Jacobs  (maybe I'm attached to her because we share an initial and a name?) is trying to keep things peaceful in Seattle, trying to get all the magical folk living along the non-magical in acceptable ways.  Connolly managed to create this by showing, not telling (remember when the teacher told you about that in creative writing?) and building up the explanations a little at a time while things are going on.  Best of all, I didn't have a clue as to the actual bad guy until the reveal (loved the "clue").  Oh, and a nice Godzilla/Pacific Rim Monster Stomp to spice it all up.

I enjoy a good Monster Stomp.  Extra Points for that.

I read this in the B&N Nook e-book version, and there were technical problems -- small ones, but when I hit them, I had to stop, look it over, and then re-enter the book.  Typos I can handle -- I don't like them, and I bemoan the economic reasons that have removed proofreaders from the editing path (even the best copy editor can miss things).  A few moments of questionable editing, like an empty room that, in the next sentence, was full of furniture, and some problems with confusing dialog attribution, made me stop and thing "WTF?"  However, the story and the characters were strong enough that I could take a breath and keep going.  I have run into such in weaker books and just stopped reading.

Best of all, this is set up nicely for a series I would read as the books come out.  I liked the characters, the world, and the premise.  I want more.  Hell, I'll even offer to proofread just so I can get the book first (haha, not joking at all).

I now await the Boomerang.


***
Book Riot challenge met: a book published this year

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Review: The Maxx issues 1-16

The Maxx by Sam Kieth

I remember many years ago, catching the animated version of The Maxx on -- I think it was MTV -- and being both fascinated and confused.  I think I looked through a few issues of the comic.  I might even own some, tucked into storage somewhere.  It's been a long time.  I can't remember those details.

But I remember my fascination with this weird, deeply weird, and complex world.  That lasts.

So, I had the chance recently to read the first 16 issues of the comic (I'll be picking up more since they are being re-released in a newly colored e-book version).  I will have to read them again.  I am going to read them again.

It's a comic full of questions and few answers, perhaps another version of that adolescent tendency to be obscure in an attempt to be "deep" and "significant".  However, it works.  These questions are not just questions of characters and plot and "what is that?"  We question reality here.  We question identity.  We ask "what is everyone's trauma?" and "how does anyone deal with the awfulness we inflict on each other?"  Legitimate, if thorny and painful, questions.  Questions for which there are no easy, or perhaps any, answers.

Good job.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Review: Ancillary Sword


Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

For a book I anticipated so much that I pre-ordered it, I took a very long time to finish reading it.  Now, at least half of that is just me and how my brain works, but half of it was certainly with the book.

This book is work to read.  It isn't bad work, or very difficult work, but it is thinky-thing work.  There are still the obstacles from the first book -- the handling of gendered language, for one thing, and the nonspecificity of characters' physical attributes. The main character, Breq, where our point of view lies, doesn't notice these things because they are not necessarily important, either personally or culturally.  For me, this is both fascinating and disconnecting.  So, I have to work around that.  It is good work to do.

There is also the "mystery" of the book, the questions it poses and then attempts to answer.  In the first book, Ancillary Justice, the reader shared ignorance with the main character -- we didn't know what Breq didn't know, and we discovered along with Breq.  This time, however, Breq knows more, but we aren't in on it.  Sometimes that got a bit oppressive for me, and I was frequently trying to catch up.  That was work I didn't enjoy so much, because I felt distracted from what I enjoyed in the first book -- how the world was constructed and how Breq dealt with it.  The conflicts in this book felt a little pulled from the air, although I strongly suspect they connect more to what will happen in the next book.  This book leans in two directions and didn't quite stand up on its own, which, again, I think is not unusual in the middle book of three.

Perhaps that is what made this slower reading -- this is the middle book of three that will tell a complete and complex story, and on this book's shoulders are all the duties of connecting the big events that started things with the big events that will end things.  That's hard work for an author.  I don't think Leckie failed on this -- I see paths, I see connection lines -- but that the particular style that worked to bring Breq to a distinct goal in the first book don't work as well here, but she has to use it because doing otherwise would tear everything apart.  Instead of letting me in on the story, it held me a bit at a distance so as not to "spoil" things.  Leckie also doesn't use the typical "clues" of series books:  very little dropping the events of the past in as references, or standing at some future point looking back to foreshadow other things.  I'm a series reader, so I'm familiar with those tropes. They aren't here, or are subtle, and while I think that is a positive for the trilogy, it creates some problems and I noticed the bumps, which I think slowed my reading.

I did enjoy some of the games Leckie is playing with gender this time, though.  Again, the language creates in the mind of this Western reader the vague idea that the world is peopled only with females, although this isn't actually true (the Penis festival underlined this idea nicely).  One secondary character is depicted as a sexual predator and abuser.  We do not know this character's gender at all, but we know that at least one victim was male or at least distinguished as being a "brother" to another character.  This subtle bit of plot casts shade on the idea that only men are predators and abusers who seek power over others (a typical male role) while not doing a "See?  Women can, too!" thing.  It just batted at the stereotypes, knocked them around, and made me think about them differently.  That's a successful action for a book to create.  Leckie is very good at poking at the stereotypes typical in science fiction without making an issue of her poking.

Of course, I have the next book, Ancillary Mercy, on pre-order.  I also intend to hunt down some of her short fiction (perhaps she has a collection?)  Leckie is well worth reading, even if her writing makes me work.  Maybe because her writing makes me work.