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Review: For Us, The Living

For Us, the Living: A Comedy of CustomsFor Us, the Living: A Comedy of Customs by Robert A. Heinlein
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a novel, this book is pretty weak. But as a literary oddity (Heinlein’s never-before-published first work) and as a font of ideas, it’s incredible.
First, why it’s a crummy novel: there’s not much of a story; many of the characters are sketches; there are long stretches without any action; and characters are unrealistically accepting of bizarre things. I mean surely you’d ask some questions if the man you just met claimed he was from 150 years ago?
But if characters did bother with such fundamental questions, we would miss out on Heinlein’s Tour of the Future Wonders. Which is what most of the book feels like–a showcase of an ideal future, minus robot dogs but with large doses of nudity and acceptance of casual sex.
Heinlein had some really interesting, refreshing ideas for science fiction, particularly when you remember the book was written in 1938. In many ways, he was rather clear-sighted. In others, he would be terribly disappointed in our cultural failure to progress. I for one am looking forward to having my own personal helicopter/jet.
Perhaps the funniest thing Is what Heinlein thought we wouldn’t have accomplished by 2086–landing on the moon, a feat Heinlein would see managed a mere 30 years later. (How awesome it must have been for him to watch the moon landing!)
However, if Heinlein were to pop back in, Wayne’s World-style, I think he’d be disturbed by the fetishization of the Kardashian family’s goings-on; he’d be quite disappointed with our economics; and disgruntled by the populaces’ ongoing appreciation for clothing. Ah well.
“For Us, The Living” is a lovely jaunt down what-if road, but only if you’re up for contemplation. Seek compelling storylines elsewhere.

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Review: Neuromancer

 Neuromancer is undoubtedly an original, at what was once the cutting edge of science fiction, breeding a whole new genre known as cyberpunk, from which much of what we now take for granted was invented. I can see why it’s on many “must-read” sci-fi lists.

But I don’t much care for it.

Despite the reviews saying it’s about a hacker and a big conceptual challenge, the challenge I faced for the full first third of the book was just figuring out what the heck was going on. The main character, Case, is a washed-up drug addict and former “cowboy.” Apparently “cowboy” means “hacker,” but it took a lot of reading to really grok that. Case is pulled into a weird “team” of characters to kill an AI, which supposedly can’t be done, for reasons. I never really did figure out what motivated most of the characters to be willingly on this quest or interact with each other. A lot of imagined jargon is thrown at you from the outset, and I found it so foreign I had no context to help. And because Case is so drug-addled–particularly at the beginning–it’s immensely hard to figure out what is even real.

I really was confused when a brand-new character, a “razor girl”–woman with retractable razor blade claws–meets Case and then a scene later has sex with him. I’m all for characters being bonded and all, but they just met! And she tried to kill him! How is that attraction or flirtation? I almost gave up on the book then, but it’s a classic, so I persevered.

I got it, eventually, fell into the flow of the language and found the story, but I had already lost some of the mystique the book had held from being a first. I just didn’t love it.

However, I can absolutely see its value as literature. It is a definite pioneer of the new, of the future of technology. It tries to comprehend what eventually became the Web, and even though it is conceptually very different from today’s user experience, you can trace the gene pool.

The “matrix” looks an awful lot like Tron or Reboot and it’s an immersive alternate reality, perhaps like some movie in 1999 called, oh, I dunno, The Matrix. Dub step music almost certainly hardens at least partially to this book, as does almost any movie where a guy behind a screen can be a hero.

Neuromancer is an important book…but probably not one I’d read again.

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Review: The Sweet Spot

The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and WorkThe Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work by Christine Carter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was so persuasive, I implemented some of its suggestions even before buying and reading it!
It’s true. I first heard about The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work on the incredibly excellent radio program Think. I only heard the tail end of the discussion, but it was very convincing: that implementing a few routines and intentional habits into your life could make work, life, everything more copacetic.
And that’s how I started doing pushups as soon as I woke up. And then how I bought the book.
Carter does a great job in grouping concepts and providing both detailed research and easy action points. Because of that, I think this is the kind of book you read twice: once to grok it and let it really sink in, and a second time with a pencil and paper as you work out what you’re actually going to try to do.
The things she advocates are both really easy and seem like they’ll be very difficult to implement in real life. Most people already know they should get enough sleep, but allow themselves to stay up late anyway, for example. But even if you take only a little bit away from reading this book, you’ll probably be better for it. I fully intend to go back and complete some of the personal challenges Carter suggests. My favorite was outlining, literally, the top 5 most important things in your life, and only doing things that serve those goals. Oh, and I’m working on halting my habit of checking my cellphone at stop lights while driving, though “embracing boredom to allow for creativity” is proving easier said than done.
Why is this book only 3 stars? Well, it’s true that I liked it (what a 3-star rating on Goodreads means). But it felt a) a little sanctimonious and b) like doing literally all these things would make you a very boring person.
Carter often uses examples from her own life to explain how her concepts could be performed in real life. But these were the absolute low points of the narrative for me: the details of your childrens’ daily breakfasts (a “healthy meal of half an avocado spread on toast!”) just come across as a humblebrag for anyone who knows how much an avocado costs outside of California and how weird it is to eat that every single day. I was further (and possibly unjustifiably) irked when Carter got into her hard-knock story as a single mom…but she still paid for a regular, weekly housekeeper. #firstworldproblems? She gives herself a bedtime of 10 p.m. so that she can wake at 6 to begin her day–I had to wonder, does that ever vary?–and even went so far as so detail her wardrobe (if you have her as a speaker, don’t worry, you’ll know which of the three dresses she’ll be wearing!).
And yet despite the rigidity of her self-imposed habits, Carter never satisfactorily explained what it had gained her (except for the section on her morning workout routines; apparently that has led to some nice benefits). Presumably more creativity–but for what? Potentially more time with her kids, I guess, but they all sound relatively young, with early bedtimes?
Because of that, despite all the positive things I think I can get out of this book, I was a little distant from it and felt myself rebelling. What if I don’t want the same routine forever and always?
Honestly, Carter leaves room for that. She doesn’t necessarily want to make you accept her goals, but does want to teach you how to make your own. I’ll have to try it to see how well it works out.

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Review: Caliban’s War

Caliban's War (Expanse, #2)Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Vomit zombies, a missing child, a possibly sentient planet, a foul-mouthed grandmother politician, dirty-dealing intra-galaxy feuds, a kickass Polynesian warrior, a noble rogue spaceship captain, a brilliant scientist on the edge of despair—this book has everything you could want and more. It’s an engrossing space epic that lives up to the expectations of the first book and leads you desperate for the next one.
If you’re a fan of modern sci-fi shows like Firefly or Battlestar Galactica, and yearn for the depth offered by Asimov or the wicked-cool ideas about how real people would operate in space like in Ender’s Game, this is a book–a series!–you’ll need to pick up.

Following the first (also excellent) book Leviathan’s Wake, Caliban’s War opens with the personal drama of a kidnapped girl and the reappearance of a monster that can survive in the void of space and quickly spirals out to encompass a battle that stretches from Jupiter to Mars.

Our honorable but now-hardened Captain Holden stumbles into the kidnapping and can’t help himself from vowing to find her. Her father, Prax, a biologist from the solar system’s breadbasket planet on Ganymede, guides the crew of the Rocinante as they hurtle from planet to planet to unravel the mystery: who would kidnap a sick little girl…and many other children? And who unleashed the protomolecule monster that attacked hard-line Martian Marine Bobbie and her entire crew?

It turns out the bad apples from the previous book aren’t quite gone, but this time it’s beyond what Holden’s blurt-to-the-system go-to strategy can handle. Luckily he is saved by the fantastically written Avarasala, a shrewd and calculating–but ultimately good-hearted–politician from Earth (I sure wouldn’t want to get on her bad side!).

There are so many great, well-rounded characters in this book that it’s hard to make space for all of them in this review: just trust me. And still I get the thrill of adventure with the incredible, believable, descriptions of humans trying to accommodate life outside of Earth. Everything from the effects of different gravities on human development to what kind of plants would be most beneficial to grow on a space station, to the cultural issues that may stem from human colonies on vastly different planets–it’s a pleasure.

The only thing I can think to ding in this book is that it’s set in the far-ish future and yet frequently references 20th-century American cultural touchpoints (will Alien really still be relevant when we’re actually living in orbit around Jupiter?) but that’s done for the reader’s benefit, not for the realism. And it’s a heckuva lot of fun, I can’t deny.

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2014 Year in Books

I like to use Goodreads.com to catalog what I’ve read (and to write reviews for all of them). Sometimes I forget what I’ve read or wanted to read, and it’s a great app. This year, just like last, I participated in a self-appointed reading challenge: 30 books by the end of the year. I managed to get to 33. But as a bonus, all the books I read just in 2014 are in one neat little list.
Here are the stats:
Books read: 33
Graphic novels: 8*
Male authors: 14
Female authors: 13
Most-read author (page/word count): Margaret Atwood
Most-read author (titles): Gail Simone (5)
Genres: Fantasy, Non-fiction; Horror; Science-Fiction; Chick Lit, Literary; Graphic Novels; Mystery
Most common genre: Fantasy (12 titles)
Books by Genre: 
2014 books by genre
Favorite Book: The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller
Most-Hated Book: Sick Puppy, Carl Hiasson
Comics read as single-issues (and therefore didn’t count as a “book” in Goodreads): SagaBlack Widow, Bitch Planet, She-Hulk, Star Wars, Sandman prequel
*The graphic novel count is tough: I didn’t input all the single issues I read (they seemed too short to count as full “books”) and the collection of all the issues of Transmetropolitan counted as 1 book…but would have otherwise been 10. As such, Warren Ellis also gets recognition as a most-read author (10 graphic novels in one collected book).
What does your Year in Books look like? Any surprises?

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Review: Dragonsong

Dragonsong (Harper Hall, #1)Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dragonsong is a quick light read that brings dragons big and small to life. This book would make a great transition for the How to Train Your Dragon lovers out there.

Despite this book having “Volume One” predominantly on the cover, I have no idea if this is the first book in the series or not: it reads like the first book in a variant series off an original, but I had the hardest time figuring out where to start. Since this one claimed to be a volume one, I jumped in here. But I may have guessed wrong.

Interestingly, it claims to be “science fiction,” but aside from the foreward, which tells the reader this takes place in an alternate Earth and mentions some sci-fi mumbo-jumbo, Dragonsong entirely reads like a YA fantasy novel. (In fact, the foreward mostly makes it seem like someone dared author Anne McCaffrey that should couldn’t sell fantasy as sci-fi. I guess she managed it…sorta?)

And that’s not at all a bad thing–particularly because it was written before “young adult” was even a genre.

The story focuses on the awkward and gangly Menolly, a girl from the Sea-Hold, a grim and rough sort of place. She is disparaged for having a talent in music and her parents–the leaders of her Hold–forbid it, for fear of disgracing the hold. After she badly cuts her hand, it seems music is out of the question anyway. In frustration and a fit of teenaged pique, Menolly leaves her home and stumbles into a nest of the secretive and mysterious fire lizards–pocket dragons, essentially. With her clever tunes and kind heart, Menolly wins the trust and adoration of the fire lizards, particularly nine, who follow her and are bonded to her. When she ultimately has to return to civilization out of necessity, she finds people respect and admire her for her skill with the fire lizards, and her music is appreciated rather than castigated.

This is the kind of story that I wish I’d written. I enjoy the storyline very much, but compared to modern similar stories, it’s barely sketched out, there’s not any closure or explanation (why did her father think it was wrong for girls to sing, but later other people think it’s more than ok?), and it just sort of mentions pivotal moments. It feels incomplete or hurried. I wish we could see a much longer version of this, with a great deal of backstory, richness, and detail. I want to know more about the dragons! I want to know why it’s so peculiar that she could impress nine! I want to know why some places are so closed-off but others are super-casual.

I may be in luck: McCaffrey has written a lot about the dragons of Pern, so maybe there is more for me to find out. As an introduction, this book was pleasant, easy, and… relatively insubstantial, more of an appetizer than a meal.

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Review: Stone Mattress

Stone Mattress: Nine TalesStone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Margaret Atwood’s collection of nine short stories retains her incredible ability with the written language. The writing cannot be faulted, but the collection is awash in quiet tragedy. Furthermore, when the first several stories are not stand-alone but overlapping narratives, but all the following are utterly separate the book feels… well, like half a book pasted together with a bunch of random stories.

I hesitate to say I didn’t like Stone Mattress–with such memorable and haunting prose, how couldn’t I?–but this maybe wasn’t the right time for me to read a book so sad.

Whether intentional or not, all the stories in this collection are threaded through with the slow tragedies and indignities of old age. And there are many: lost memories, lost sex drives, lost eyesight, lost independence, lost purpose, lost spouses… The losses weigh heavily.

Even the stories supposedly not at all about old age, such as “Lucus Naturae,” could be read as being about old age and its unstoppable reach, as insidious as fear of the different and the strange. And just as final in the end.

As I said, it’s not a bad time for me to read about old people being attacked by the young, their homes burned to make room for the younger, bitter generation. It’s not a good time to read about an old writer who has become unhinged from reality, choosing instead of let herself be dissolved into the fantasy land she spent her life creating. But then, is there ever a good time?

My grandfather passed away suddenly recently, and I finally got to visit my other grandfather, who is suffering from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease and could not remember who I am or why I was there. Between these two experiences, Stone Mattress is a very raw and close collection for me. It’s too much like the real tragedies I noticed in both situations.

There aren’t many books that tackle the hoary edges of time. We often assume, as a culture, that old age is the end of the line, that all stories must be told past-tense. For that reason, that bravery, Stone Mattress is a welcome treatise…even if I’m not ready to think on its meanings and significance. When you’re in a suitably contemplative mood, muster your strength and try this collection.

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