Tuesday, June 25, 2024

The Thick and the Lean

Chana Porter
Completed 6/25/2024, Reviewed 6/25/2024
5 stars

This is the last remaining book nominated for a 2024 Speculative Fiction Lammy.  The winner was I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself.  I think it deserved to win.  However, this would have been a very strong runner up.  I was floored by the power of this novel.  It’s about a dystopian planet with capitalism run amok, where fat shaming has become engrained in the government and religion.  Corporations and ministers convince people that to eat is to sin.  The poor live on the ground, vulnerable to the rising seas while the super-rich live in towers.  At first, I was rather put off by the book, but after about one hundred pages, I had bought into the premise.  I was hooked.  

There are two main characters told in alternating chapters.  Beatrice is a teen living in a corporate owned community called Seagate.  Everyone there has bought into the societal and religious doctrine to eat as little as possible, as chewing, digesting, and defecating has become taboo, worthy only of animals.  Beatrice believes in the doctrine, but also believes food can taste good.  She wants to be a chef, but of course will have to leave home to live that dream.

Reiko has graduated high school with a scholarship to an expensive technical university where she can develop her amazing programming skills and have a chance at a good job.  She is of the lower class, the indigenous people who don’t cover their mouths when chewing and don’t starve themselves on nutrition pills, but are also not considered citizens of their own land.  When her funding is cut, she takes to a life of hi tech grifting to make her way to the top of society.

I think my initial hesitation with the book was that I didn’t like the circumstances of the main characters.  It was too bleak.  Sometimes a good book is too bleak to appreciate because you don’t want to enter that world.  However, I soon found myself very much inside Beatrice and Reiko’s heads.  They are both wonderful characters with fascinating arcs.  They start as na├»ve teens but grow into self-empowered women.  Neither is perfect, but they are both strong.  I enjoyed reading about them even when they were making bad decisions.  

One interesting thing about this society that Porter created is that the substitute for eating is sex.  Besides controlling hunger, society, particularly religion, has normalized sexual promiscuity as a form of worship.  Eventually, the reader realizes is that it has become the substitute for eating.  The book is not one big orgy, but sex plays a major role in how people interact with each other.  For people who are monogamous, it is almost as culturally difficult as wanting to chew food.  

The world building of this book is tremendous.  I was amazed at the imagination that went into extrapolating fat-shaming into a cultural, religious, and corporate norm.  When we finally get to parts where food is savored by the eaters, it is a splendid visceral experience.  

I give this book five stars out of five.  Reading it was profound, with the experiences of both Beatrice and Reiko, regarding food, sex, and simple control over their own bodies.  It’s a dark book and may be too much of a downer for some.  But I found it to be a worthwhile experience, provoking my own hangups around food and sex.  It’s well written and beautifully imagined.  Porter hasn’t written a lot yet, but I would definitely be open to more of her work in the future.

Friday, June 21, 2024


Robert Jackson Bennett
Completed 6/20/2024, Reviewed 6/21/2024
4 stars

I was surprised by how much I liked this book.  I hadn’t read Bennett since City of Stairs in 2018 and loved that book.  However, I didn’t remember I had even read it until a friend found it in my blog and pointed it out to me.  It was one of those really good books that just kind of slips out of mind considering the number of books I read a year.  I’m hoping this one sticks in my head a little better.  It’s a book club read and the first in a trilogy.  It features a kind of industrialized magic in a place so entrenched in capitalism, government no longer exists and the ruling merchant houses abuse their power over the people.  I found it a gripping statement on late-stage capitalism and the pursuit of the ultimate weapon to wipe out all the competition and remake the world.  This book was nominated for a 2019 British Fantasy Award and a 2023 Best Series Hugo.

Sancia is an orphaned thief.  She’s so good, she scores a lucrative deal to steal a powerful magical artifact from one of the merchant houses.  Curiosity gets the best of her and she opens the plain box holding it.  She finds an ornate key.  When she touches it, it speaks to her.  After forming a strange bond with it, she does not hand it over to her employer and she finds herself at the center of a grand chase by unknown assailants.  Soon, she is in race to keep the key out of the hands of those who would use it to remake the world.

The book begins a little mundanely.  It feels like standard fantasy fare with a thief and a treasure.  It’s not until the key begins communicating with Sancia that the feel of the book takes a turn and it becomes completely engrossing.  I found myself wanting to understand Sancia and Clef, the key, about her horrific past, and what that means for her relationship with the Clef.  Then all the intrigue between the merchant houses and the system of magic all make sense and gives everyone their motivation.  

The little group of people Sancia ends up working with consists of dicey characters.  She has no reason to trust them except for the fact that there is no one else to trust.  They are all generally likable, although they are all very flawed.  The one character who seemed the most trustworthy was Berenice, with whom, Sancia has a little spark of a burgeoning romance.  However, not much happens in this book.  I assume their relationship takes off further in the series.  Her two other companions, Gregor and Orso, I didn’t trust until the end of the book. 

The book is very well written, with multi-dimensional characters and an unbelievably complex magic system and society.  I was constantly amazed by unfolding description of the society, including its founding by a king who tried to tap into the power of the gods, that is, the making of everything.  It kept me intrigued right up to the end, which of course leaves you hanging and wanting more.  I don’t know if I’ll actually follow through on this trilogy, but I wouldn’t be averse to it.

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s exciting, fast paced, and one of the best world-building books I’ve read in a while.  It felt very original and well thought out.  I liked the main characters and eventually loved Sancia and was pained by her backstory.  And I was pleasantly surprised by the little romance between her and Berenice.  But the star of the book is Clef, the key.  He ties everything together and makes what could have been just another thief fantasy something extraordinary.

Thursday, June 13, 2024

The Road to Roswell

Connie Willis
Completed 6/7/2024, Reviewed 6/7/2024
2 stars

I was sadly disappointed with this novel.  It’s supposed to be fun fluff.  For the most part, it was cute.  Unfortunately, it suffered from the same tired formula Willis has used in most of her books.  People don’t listen to the protagonist, they talk over him/her, the protagonist gets into some kind of trouble, someone saves them.  My disappointment was compounded by a tediously trite ending.  I’ve really liked some of Willis’ other books, including Blackout and Passage.  While they had the Willis formula, the circumstances and specifics were enough to make them terrific books.  Roswell simply didn’t have enough interesting circumstances or specifics, despite it being about UFOs and aliens.  The one thing it had going for it: it was a very fast read. 

Francie goes to Roswell to be the maid of honor at her college roommate’s wedding.  Shortly after she arrives, she’s kidnapped by an alien and forced to drive it into the New Mexico desert to some unknown destination.  Along the way, they pick up others:  Wade, an alien abduction insurance salesman; a sweet little old lady casino aficionado; a UFO conspiracy theorist; and a western movies fan in an RV.  But there’s more to these characters than meets the eye.  Everyone is hiding secrets.  As they travel together, they figure out how to communicate with the alien and Francie and Wade figure out that it needs their help to find another alien out in the desert, and it’s of utmost importance.  

As far as characters go, I actually liked them.  I thought they were a well-rounded collection of pushy people.  You may ask about Francie, the protagonist.  Was she pushy?  Actually, she had a pretty strong self-editing brain.  She didn’t need the people around her to prevent her from talking.  She prevented herself just as much.  But she was nice.  Wade clearly has massive secrets.  The hints in the text are pretty obvious, but I kind of liked him anyway.  And just when the jokes seemed to run out with a character, Willis introduces a new one.  

I’m not sure whether I liked the alien, who Wade and Francie nicknamed Indy because of the way he whipped around his tentacles.  Indy reminded me a lot of the character named Cheese from Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends.  He’s comical, but if used too much, is just plain annoying.  I did like the process of Indy learning to “speak” in English, learning jargon from all the Westerns’ DVDs on the RV.  However, Indy’s mode of communication, letters or characters scrolling across their tentacles, was bizarre and a little tough to accept.  I like the concept of imagining different communication modalities, but couldn’t totally buy into this one.  

I know quite a few people who really liked this book.  I give it two stars out of five.  It would have been three stars, but the end killed it for me.  It was just too trite and formulaic.  If I’m going to read any more Willis, I think I’m going to stick with rereading the Oxford Time Travel series.  I’d recommend them to people new to the author.  To Say Nothing of the Dog particularly is much better at being a fun book than this one was.  

Friday, June 7, 2024

The Archive Undying

Emma Mieko Candon
DNF 6/2/2024, Reviewed 6/2/2024
1 star

This is the first book I did not finish (DNF) in a very long time.  I found it simply unreadable.  I got 150 pages in, about a third of the way through the book, and had to put it down.  I had no idea what was going on.  I’m pretty sure the author did, but I did not.  I found a review by one of my favorite authors these days, Rebecca Roanhorse.  In it, she articulated every issue I had with the book, and then some.  I hope I don’t repeat what she said here, but my main issues overlap with what she wrote.  For some inexplicable reason, this book was nominated for a 2024 Lambda Literary Award.  

From what I could tell, the plot went something like this.  The world was controlled by AI’s.  They collapsed or self-destructed and destroyed their central cities and killed many people in the process.  There are some people who still can communicate with the AI’s.  They are called relics.  The main character Sunai is a relic.  Sunai may also be a god, or maybe just an eternal.  I wasn’t clear on that.  But he heals very quickly, maybe even gets resurrected.  Despite this, he has a bum ankle.  Sunai’s been squandering his life with booze and anonymous sex.  After one such hook-up, he finds himself on a rig and the guy he had sex with is now his boss, Veyadi.  Adi is a doctor, I think, and the mission of this ship is to find the remains of an AI, or its city and temples, or something like that.  Then they come back and someone asks Sunai to go on another mission.  He brings Adi along even though Adi is disgraced or wanted by the Harbor.  I wasn’t clear on that either.  After a while on this mission, I gave up.  

The most confusing thing was that Candon took everyday words and changed their meanings:  Archive, relic, Harbor, ENGINE (yes, in caps), etc.  Also, the names of the AI’s and the ships were all very similar.  I think there were giant robots that wandered the countryside causing mayhem and tried to destroy the rigs Sunai and Veyadi were on.  And rigs were some kind of ships that floated like boats but also could traverse land.  I’m not sure if they could fly as well.  Lastly, the point of view changed occasionally.  The majority was general third person omniscient.  Other times, there was something in italics that I think was first person.  And there was second person narrative as well.  I didn’t know who was narrating the first and second person POVs.  From reading other reviews, the POV changed more frequently as the you got farther into the book and it got even more confusing.  

Character-wise, I think I liked Sunai.  He was a bad boy.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t figure out what he was doing and the decisions he was making.  Apparently, he made a lot of readers mad doing a lot of terrible things.  I hadn’t gotten to that part before I put the book down.  I couldn’t figure out Veyadi at all, other than it seemed he was falling for Sunai.  

I think the prose was good in spots.  Candon chose lots of pretty words and made pretty sentences.  However, the world-building was as confusing as the plot and characters.  Occasionally, I would find myself understanding a page or two and think I was finally catching on.  Then there’d be a turn of events, or dialogue between characters that would lose me again.  

I give this book one star out of five.  It reminded me of Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning, which I also thought was unreadable.  After reading other online reviews from readers, it was clear that many people did not understand the book.  Still, some of those people loved the experience.  On the Worlds Without End site, only four people had read it so far, giving it 2, 3, 4, and 5 stars, respectively.  I’m the fifth reviewer and I give it one star, amusingly rounding out the ratings.  

Sunday, June 2, 2024

Bang Bang Bodhisattva

Aubrey Wood
Completed 5/27/2024, Reviewed 5/27/2024
5 stars

This is another 2024 Lambda Literary Award nominee for Speculative Fiction.  If I had just read the tag line, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up.  It’s cyberpunk noir, two genres I generally don’t like.  Turns out, I really loved this book.  I read it in a day.  Well, technically, two days.  I started at ten in the morning and finished at one the next morning.  I found it well written, fast-paced, and above all I understood everything going on.  Usually, cyberpunk loses me in the usually large amount of invented jargon.  This book takes place only ten years in the future, so all the technology is just a little more advanced than today.  And even though a lot has to do with streaming games, which I don’t play, I understood enough that I didn’t get lost.  I also don’t always like noir, but this mystery really pulled me in.  This book really clicked for me and I forced myself to stay up to see who the murderer was.

The story is about an ex-cop PI named Angel who often teams up with a transitioning woman named Kiera to help with cyber research and occasionally getting into places he has been banned from.  One day, he gets a job from his ex-wife to find her new husband whose been missing for a week.  Turns out the man is the attorney for Kiera, helping her with pro bono work to help her change her legal identity.  When they find the attorney’s body and call it in, they are immediately made prime suspects.  More bodies pile up and Angel and Kiera get more and more implicated in all the deaths.  In addition, Kiera meets and kind of falls for a person named Nile at a party who mysteriously disappears.  After finding Nile’s hand chopped off at their apartment, they look for them too, since it seems the disappearance is related to the murders.  Since the cops are focused on Angel and Kiera, they must do their own investigating to clear their names.  Their only lead is a burned stick of Nag Champa incense left at every scene.

The best thing about this story is the rocky relationship between Kiera and Angel.  Angel is a gruff guy who’s almost old enough to be Kiera’s father.  Kiera is an almost thirty-year-old who does odd jobs for money.  Despite the love-hate relationship between the two, she always goes back to helping him because the money’s good.  But now they’re tied together because of this murder rap.  The result is a buddy story with lots of light and dark humor.  Their relationship also brings out the theme of finding and sticking to one’s authentic self against all the odds.  I really liked them both and got a kick out of their constant banter throughout the investigation.

I thought the writing was terrific for a thriller, with just the right amount of prose amid the fast-paced dialogue.  The descriptions never slowed down the action, but provided the right amount of world building and mood setting.  I thought the ending was very realistic as well, leaving enough uncertainty of the final resolution for each character to let you guess for yourself how it would end.  We do find out who the murderer is, but we’re left guessing about Angel and Kiera’s final decisions.  I thought it was a great way to end a book.  

I give this novel five stars out of five.  I was floored by how much I loved the characters and their personal journeys through the mystery.  I also thought the state of the world was masterfully imagined, so much like our own today, but extrapolated ten years in the future.  I would definitely read more by this author.  I think she has a great vision and a wealth of personal experience to pour into her stories, considering she’s also a biracial trans woman with both and inside an outside view of what’s going on in our society today.