Category Archives: Reading

Review: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Wayfarers, #1)The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If the video game universe of Mass Effect were populated by Fraggles, you’d get this book. It’s a charming, sweet, lovely little soft-sci-fi escape, and you should read it.

Author Becky Chambers most succeeded at creating a ship full of characters who are unique species, each with little foibles but who all generally get along. Reading the book is like you just popped on the ship and they offered you a fizz drink, so you sit a spell with them and just hang out.

But that’s also my frustration here. The plot is haphazard and there isn’t a single thread of narration or a theme that runs all the way through. There are episodes, like you’re tuning in to an alien spaceship version of Big Brother except everyone is trying their damnedest to get alone instead of creating unnecessary trash drama. But it made the ending flat—you’re just turning off the show, no series finale, or, at least, not one that feels like an actual ending.

I’m torn, because this book really was just a charming respite from reality and I did so love the characters, but I feel like it could have had just a touch more plot and been a better overall experience for it.

That said, I will still be looking for the next one.

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Review: Lost Solace

Lost SolaceLost Solace by Karl Drinkwater
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In space, you are all alone—unless you have a hacked military AI to keep you company as you explore a strange ship.

Lost Solace is dominated by just two characters: Opal, a tough escaped space marine with lots of secrets, and her ship, which Opal has named Clarissa. This is a clever plot that shrinks the vastness of the decisions into something individual.

We don’t know much about the situation as the story opens: there’s a girl, a ship, and a weird, misshapen, alien ship floating near a black hole. And Opal is crazy enough to jump on board. The story chases down dark hallways full of creepy crawlies, dashed away from the space marines in close pursuit, and meanders down to find secrets against a ticking clock.

The aliens were my favorite: juicy and unique, haunting and definitely run-away-worthy. I struggled a bit with some of the sentence structure and grammar, though that may be because of the author’s Britishness against my American ear. By the end, I liked the plot a lot, but in the middle it sagged a little and some things that seemed obvious to me as the reader took too long for the very clever Opal to piece together. The action in the last act is truly top-notch, though, and I’m glad I stuck with it!

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Review: Do I Make Myself Clear?

Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well MattersDo I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters by Harold Evans
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Questions for Mr. Evans’ editor:
1) How intimidating was it to edit a book about quality writing? That must have been a great deal of pressure! The horror, had you let slip an errant comma! So I’m sure you paid quite close attention to the book. Which leads me to ask…

2) How hard was it to deal with someone so pugnacious that he collected, for years, sentenced he found abhorrent solely so he could one day combine them into a book to tell people they were so very wrong? I get it, they are good examples to illustrate his points. I am just guessing at the type of person Evans must be to have that kind of intensity.

3) can you explain to me why you would let Evans write a book about writing—presumably targeted to those who don’t write and/or read well—with such high-minded jargon? I mean, I’m a pretty consistent reader, and I’m a writer and editor—what I’m saying is I know words, and yet the “expensive” 10-dollar words Evans used caused even me to pause. If I didn’t read it easily, how could you expect the non writer to breeze through that horrible introduction?

4) How did you ever let the man publish so much political dreck? Honestly, it’s a problem. If he had wanted to write a book about politics and his opinions, he should have done so. But he didn’t. He wrote about writing, and I wanted to read about writing, so why is so much of the book NOT about writing?
Think of it this way: if you pay for a basketweaving class, would you get annoyed if the teacher spent most of the class droning on about how much he hates a particular pizza joint? Of course you would! That’s not why you’re there and he’s wasting your time.
See, editor, I think easily a third of this book is unnecessary political sniping. I want that shorter book, not this one.

That’s why I had to bail on this book. I can’t even tell if there is good advice in it. There very well may be, but it’s not really a book about writing. It’s a book about one man’s snobbishness, vanity, and dislike for the current political situation. It’s bloated and… well, not particularly clear.

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Review: Persepolis Rising

Persepolis Rising (The Expanse, #7)Persepolis Rising by James S.A. Corey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Because the last book seemed like a solid wrap-up, I went into Persepolis vaguely confused: what else is there to talk about?
Hoo boy, I’m glad I found out. James S.A. Corey managed to yet again take everything you know about the universe and spin it on its head. There were so many parts of this book where I gasped aloud. Oh no! How will our heroes overcome THAT?!
The biggest difference is this book has been set 30 years in the future from the last one. I don’t think that change was necessarily required, but it did open up a lot of new plotlines. Our crew has aged together, and what does that look like? How has Medina Station developed? What are the politics of so many colony worlds?
It’s a lot to take in, but you will be so glad you did!

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Review: The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English DictionaryThe Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Professor and the Madman wavers between pleasant and prolix. I guess I should have predicted a book about the writing of the most famous dictionary ever known would tend toward magniloquence (yes, I had to look that up in the OED), but the writing is so overstuffed with words that it leans toward purple prose.
Winchester is fond of showcasing his own vocabulary by using words with similar meanings all strung together. An example from a random page: “An asylum was to Doctor Johnson no more than a sanctuary, a refuge.”
He also is big on adding imaginary details, such as the sputtering of candles and the whistles of Guy Fawkes fireworks. This kind of “detail” is added with such a heavy hand that it becomes clear a lot of the book is less fact than prettily constructed/reconstructed ideas of what maybe the facts could have been.
As another reviewer noted, there was a great deal less about the actual construction of the OED than I would have liked, and a whole lot more going on and on and on about how tragic Dr. Minor’s life must have been… despite only some sketchy real details. I guess you are welcome to pity a lunatic who murdered a man, even while he is well-cared-for and given extra privileges the other asylum-folk did not have, but the whole of his life seemed very humane and civilized to me—and he was unquestionably a danger to others, so what else of a choice was there? (I even found myself wondering if a modern-day Dr. Minor would have been given the same care. My conclusion: probably not.)
The story is also told in leaps and starts, flitting around to whatever part seems best for Winchester rather than a logical unspooling. That’s fine, but also detracts some from the book’s nonfiction standing and makes it tricky to follow in points.

All in all, an okay book and an acceptable diversion, but it says something that I preferred the cannily selected dictionary entries at the start of each chapter over the actual chapter in several spots!

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Review: The Dispossessed

The DispossessedThe Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
My first thought after finishing The Dispossessed was, “damnit, why aren’t science fiction novels considered book club reads?” Because all I want to do after reading this is talk to someone else who has read it!
The story follows a man who lives in a purely socially communistic planet who is striving to achieve his purpose in life: create the grand unifying theory of synchronicity in physics. To follow the ideals of his people, he finds himself traveling to the nearby capitalistic planet, showcasing the ways in which neither society—and perhaps no society anywhere—is the paradise it may seem from the outside.
The writing is complex and that makes the book a little challenging at first, but it quickly absorbs you into its ideas. And it is mostly a story of ideas more than actors, though there are many.
So I wish I had someone to talk through the ideas with, such as:

  • -how many other fiction novels include a reference to breast feeding? Is this inclusion because LeGuin is observant or because she is a woman?
  • is pure social communism desirable or possible?
  • how are we like the capitalistic society? Is that good or bad or both?
  • is time a straight line, a circle, or something else?
  • where can I get a decorative mobile like the one hanging in Shevek’s and Takvar’s rooms?
  • the concept of having the only one name is fascinating, but has its challenges. Would it be worth it? Total individualism?
  • the description of Shevek and Takvar’s relationship is beautiful without seeming much like a romance. How is that different from other writers? Genres?
  • how does the structure of the story (the back and forth of the narrative) impact the unfurling of the story as a whole?
  • how should we view Shevek’s assault on the woman in Nio Essa be viewed? Cultural misunderstanding? Mistake? Rape attempt?
  • is the possessiveness and control over women’s bodies an innate part of a capitalistic society or is it just an outgrowth of the way ours (and therefore Le Guin’s) was shaped?

Get to reading, kids. There’s a lot to discuss!

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Review: Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me GoNever Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

  1. I’m starting to think any book under the genre of “literary fiction” has to meet one of three definitions:
    1) Has a plot that is mostly some kind of allegory but when you get down to it really just means nothing much happens.
    2) Include detailed but detached and unexciting descriptions of sex. This shows you, the writer, and you, the reader, are adult, and have had sex, but that you totally don’t care about it.
    3) Steals ideas from science fiction without any of the important science and plausible future parts of science fiction, thus keeping the genre “prestigious,” unlike the genre or pulp fiction the ideas originated in.

Never Let Me Go manages to hit all three definitions. Bravo. Much like an Oscar-winning film can never be a comedy, it seems an award-winning literary fiction can’t have anything happy in it.

Never Let Me Go has an entrancing and incredibly detailed narrative form; the main character, Kathy, is conversational and rambling, like she’s telling you her story as she takes you on a long winding drive through the English countryside. She gets introspective, and the story ebbs and flows with her memory, darting off on little tangents as she tastes the memory on her tongue.

Other reviewers praise this novel as a meditation on the human condition. I see it more as a story about a mean girl at boarding school who no one bothered to intervene against and a bunch of people who have absolutely no agency. What happens in the book? Absolutely nothing. Much of the story is told in the past tense, but even then, the characters had very little action. It’s like watching a high school class on an over-hot day; sure, little dramas flare up, but nothing really happens and it won’t matter at all by the next day.

Some people–I imagine folks who aren’t familiar with good sci-fi or movies like The Island or Gattaca or Star Wars or Jurassic Park or shows like Dark Angel or Star Trek–praise this book for its content about clones. But–*yawn*–that “twist” was screaming from very early on and utterly unsurprising, and moreover, utterly undeveloped. As I said, it is as if Ishiguro wanted to take the ideas of sci-fi without dirtying his hands with actual science fiction. He hand-waves away all the pertinent questions about how this works or why the clone people are totally fine it with all and do nothing to resist. Even perfectly mundane questions like ‘what does a carer actually do?’ and ‘are clones different from regular humans at all? 4 kidneys, perhaps? Spider-silk milk? Need special injections to avoid the Anything at all?’ are never even broached. (Personally I choose to believe clones had multiples of desirable organs, accounting for the ability to donate multiple times without dying.) So for fans of sci-fi, the book doesn’t really contribute to the conversation about the ethics of cloning at all. The only “new” thing is that the clones are uncaring about the whole thing, and even that is just sort of a shrug and a “just because.”

The book was very well-written but disappointing. It never did anything with the story. Also, the author uses the phrase “completely daft” a few too many times. Daft indeed.

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