Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Fortune’s Pawn

Rachel Bach
Completed 11/26/2016 Reviewed 11/28/2016
4 stars

I was really surprised by this book.  It’s space opera and I enjoyed it.  As my followers know, I generally don’t like space opera, but I seem to be warming up to it.  I think it depends on the book.  This one has a pretty good in-your-face kick-ass female main character and a good beginning.  Oh yeah, and I need to mention it’s the first book of a trilogy.  It’s a pick from my book club.  I usually don’t like reading books from series for book club because then I often feel the compulsion to read all of it.  But this one was so fun, I just might.

The book follows the adventures of Devi Morris, a mercenary who has risen high in her career.  Her goal is to get into the King’s elite corps, the Devastators.  You can’t join the Devastators, you have to be chosen.  A great way to get noticed is to get a security job on the Glorious Fool, a trade ship that gets into trouble so often that a one year stint on it is equivalent to five years anywhere else.  She takes the job and of course trouble ensues.   

Devi is a great character.  Her narrative is told well in first person.  I really got into her character with the narration.  I could understand her drive for perfection in her job, as well as her distraction by the handsome Rupert.  The same way she goes after her career, she goes after her men.  It was hilarious and heartbreaking.  I’m not positive, but I think this book passes the Bechdel test:  Devi converses with another female character and it’s not about men, which is so interesting to me because so much of the book is about her chasing a man. 

The plot is fun, it’s basic space opera, although being the first third of a trilogy, it doesn’t get too far into all the subplots.  The book is basically about Devi getting used to the motley crew of the Glorious Fool, her obsession with Rupert, and the introduction of the aliens of the universe.  Three of the four races are on the ship.  One is not, but we meet them farther in.  There’s an invisible monster that Devi has to fight and a mysterious monster that seems to be helpful and powerful.  They’re all pretty cool.

 This book gets an easy four stars.  It’s fun, it’s an easy read, and it was the sort of fluff I needed after a couple of good but heavier books.  As I started out this review, I may just follow up and read the rest of the trilogy.  The conspiracy plot was just beginning at the end of this book and I didn’t find it tedious the way I often find conspiracy and politics in space opera to be tedious.  Instead it set me up to want to finish the trilogy.  So surprise…I enjoyed a space opera and highly recommend it.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Larque on the Wing

Nancy Springer
Completed 11/20/2016 Reviewed 11/21/2016
4 stars

This is a difficult book to categorize.  I suppose it qualifies as magical realism, although I’m not an expert on that genre.  At the very least, it’s a fantasy about a woman with some magical abilities.  It won the Tiptree award which honors SF/F books which deal with gender issues.  It’s highly deserving.  This is perhaps one of the most creative ways of exploring gender issues that I’ve read in a long time. 

The story is about Larque, a 40-something year old woman with a husband and three sons who has the ability to make doppelgangers of herself and others.  She has made one of her 10-year old self that is causing trouble.  On top of that, she’s come across a hidden part of town where she gets a makeover into a sexy young gay man.  To make things even more complicated, Larque’s mother can blink away things she doesn’t like or blink them into forms she finds more pleasing.  By the middle of the book, there are three versions of Larque running around, the 10 year old, the gay man, and a plastic, soulless, virtuous woman.  Larque’s existential question is to either remain a gay man, or integrate all her selves back into one middle aged woman and reconcile the life she wanted for herself with the life she has.

It’s a complicated premise, and Springer did a terrific job of creating an understandable plot despite the complexity of the doppelgangers and the blinking mother.  The mother reminded me of Dolores Umbrage from the Harry Potter series, evil wrapped in a compact package, ignoring pleas for love and understanding so that she can see the world how she wants to see it.  It’s all both funny and frightening. 

There is a much referenced quote that I’d like to quote as well:  “Dimly, with her burning heart more than her mind, she began to understand why she had always liked gay men. They suffered, were persecuted, they were outsiders in a world where studbuck male heteros held all the power, they did not count, they were Other – the way women were.”  This quote speaks so perfectly to both women and gay men, on how we experience the world, as the Other.  And the timing of reading this quote in this book, when current events demonstrate how much the white male heteros are trying to hold onto all the power, was just perfect for me.

My only complaint with the book was that the 10-year old Sky was often too whiney.  I think she was supposed to be.  After all, she was supposed to be 10 and un-nurtured.  But it got to me after a while, and I felt distracted by Sky rather than feeling like she was integral to the story.  It all makes sense and comes together in the end, but her journey was just a little too annoying. 

I give this book four out of five stars.  I found it to be a refreshing piece of fantasy, or magical realism, or perhaps we could call it suburban fantasy.  It came real close to being five stars, but the annoying Sky character broke my love affair with the book.  I highly recommend it though for anyone who feels powerless, has unreconciled aspects of themselves, or feels unsatisfied with where they ended up in their lives.  

Thursday, November 17, 2016

What Did Miss Darrington See?

Jessica Amanda Salmonson, ed.
Completed 11/13/2016 Reviewed 11/14/2016
5 stars

This is an anthology of feminist supernatural short stories written between 1850 and 1989.  Almost all the stories have a ghost, but none are truly horror stories.  At least not like how we consider horror today.  They are just mostly ghost stories with the most common theme of women trying to be authentic.  None of the stories are man-hating, although one of the stories has a man who is rather a cad.  They are almost all simply about fulfillment in a woman’s life, or the lack thereof, and that issue brought forth by the appearance of a ghost. 

Many of the older stories are classical gothic story-telling.  A few are magical realism.  Several deal with lesbian relationships, or at the very least have homoerotic overtones.  Some of these in the older stories feature what was known as Boston marriages, relationships between two women who lived together without the support of a man.  The relationships were not always sexual, but in these stories, the implication that they were is pretty evident.

I really enjoyed most of the stories.  I found them quite emotionally engaging without being maudlin or soapy.  There were only a few I didn’t care for.  One, “The Teacher” was about a man who goes back to visit an old school teacher who barely remembers him.  Another, “Pandora Pandemonia” was a short piece mostly filled with classical imagery.   I didn’t get either of these stories.

Two pieces really stood out for me.  One was “The Little, Dirty Girl” by Joanna Russ.  I was surprised by this piece because I’ve only read novels of Russ, and they are Science Fiction and very avant-garde.  I found her novels difficult to understand, but this story was not only understandable, but very touching.  It’s about a woman who sees a little girl wearing a dirty out-of-date dress.  The girl follows the woman around and the woman eventually begins to take care of the girl.  It soon becomes evident that the little girl is a ghost although she manifests quite physically.  It also becomes clear that the girl represents the woman’s inner child and helps her reconcile her own mother-issues.

The second piece I really liked was “The Doll”.  It’s about a woman who becomes obsessed with a life-sized representation of the former mistress of a castle.  This is one of those stories with homoerotic overtones.  The editor does a great job of providing introductions to each story.  These intros are really helpful in inspiring thoughts and questions about the stories.  Particularly, it made me wonder if this is really about suppression of homoerotic feelings, or about closure in obsessive relationships.

A third story I wanted to mention is “A Friend In Need”.  It’s a relatively newer story about two women who discover they were each other’s imaginary friends growing up.  It explores what we sometimes will do to get through abusive childhoods.  This story was imaginative and emotionally gripping. 

I give this book five out of five stars.  It’s the first book in a long time to which I had an emotional response.  I started out appreciating it academically, but then with each story, it drew me farther and farther in, so that by the last story, I was simply captivated.  I don’t expect everyone to have the same response to this book.  The stories are a lot more subtle than what we’re used to.  But if you’re up for a subtle set of stories written by women about women, then I highly recommend this anthology.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Trouble and Her Friends

Melissa Scott
Completed 11/6/2016 Reviewed 11/9/2016
2 stars

“Trouble” is the username of India Carliss, a former hacker who gave up her underground life traversing the net to be a network admin for an artist’s colony when hacking became criminalized.  She left everything behind, including her friends and girlfriend.  Three years later, someone is causing trouble in the net using her username, implicating her in illegal activity.  Trouble and her ex go on a quest to find the culprit uncovering a much more sinister plot.

I’m not a fan of cyberpunk, but this book won a Lambda Literary Award, and Melissa Scott has won more Lammies than any other author.  So I thought I’d give it a try.  Unfortunately, it just reinforced my dislike of cyberpunk. 

The story takes place in both the virtual world, written in italics, and the real world, written in normal font.  At first I thought I’d like this.  The imagery of the virtual world is reminiscent of movies like Tron, with lots of bizarre colors and shapes representing networks, data, and bulletin boards.  Yes, this book is over twenty years old, so the cyber bulletin board phenomenon is still at its peak.  After a while, though, it felt pretty simplistic and hackneyed.  Worst of all, reading italics for too long put a strain on my eyes. 

The one thing I have to give this book props on is the prose.  In general, it’s quite good.  It was easy reading from that perspective.  Where the book lacks is in the plot.  There isn’t too much of one.  The book can be divided into two halves, the first half being Trouble and her ex, Cerise, individually fretting about Trouble getting into trouble, and the second half, Trouble and Cerise fretting together about Trouble getting into trouble.  Okay, there’s a little more than that.  They take a journey to a town that’s both virtual and real to find the non-Trouble.  They meet some mildly interesting characters along the way.  But it mostly felt like nothing really happened, and most of the dialogue is rehashing the plot to that point.   

I think the book was missing tension, particularly tension between Cerise and Trouble.  You would think that the relationship between the two women would be fraught with tension since Trouble just walked out on Cerise three years earlier with nary a word.  But Cerise was too forgiving for me and their working together was much too easy.  There’s some mild sexual tension, but even that seems unrealistic by normal standards of human emotions.  Life’s messy, but little in the interaction between these two was messy. 

I give this book two out of five stars.  It just didn’t do anything for me.  Finishing the book became a mechanical process.  I really didn’t care about Trouble or her friends, or her enemies.