Friday, December 26, 2014

bittersweet six

It's gotten a little quiet around here lately. I can't even suggest that it's the calm before the storm, because I'm not sure when I'll have the focus and energy to write more consistently. The sad truth is that I have six books with partially finished reviews sitting in my queue here, going back to October, and about as much motivation to finish and post those reviews as numbers like that would suggest.

This is not the end - this is a blogiversary post, after all, if sadly uncelebratory - and I'm likely to still keep posting as I can, but I can't see the pace picking up any time soon. I am reading - I am almost always reading - but the energy to write about it seems to have vanished almost entirely.

But here is the good: I still get a lot out of writing these pieces, when I do get to them. I get a lot out of reading them years later, too, even when I'm dissatisfied with what I've said. I still delight in meandering around the (admittedly much, much smaller) circle of book blogs that I like to read daily or weekly or whenever the authors post. I still think about books exhaustively, I still love planning out and tracking my reading, I still love that feeling I get when I clear out my TBR stack in despair and try something completely random and new.

To those of you who have stuck with me, and continue to wander by every once in a while: thank you. Those of you whom I know, I consider to be my best bloggy friends - many of you I have known, through your writing, for as long as this blog has been around or longer. I'm inspired by your erudition and your commitment to reading and to writing about your reading, and I hope to be able to continue to share our love of and our thoughts on books for another wonderful year.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu

The Shadow Speaker
by Nnedi Okorafor
Hyperion, 2007
336 pages

Okay. This review is so unbelievably overdue, given I read this book for Aarti's initiative, A More Diverse Universe. But maybe I can get it into the same year. I had kind of hoped that this book would grow on me when I left it, but unfortunately that didn't happen. I was really excited to read this story, and I think in the end I was disappointed partially because of that.

Ejii is growing up in what used to be West Africa - and still is, but not any West Africa we recognize. After a cataclysm of proportions we start to recognize only as we get further into the book, magic has returned in a big way to Earth. Portals between Earth and other worlds have opened in places, animals speak, and certain humans have magical powers. Ejii is one, a shadow-speaker. She communicates with the shadows, which gives her some powers of telepathy and precognition. She is also the daughter of a man who was a violent, dictator-like, fundamentalist chief of the village, before he was slain by Jaa, the Red Queen. When the shadows tell Ejii that she must follow Jaa to an important meeting between the leaders of Earth and the other worlds, Ejii is torn. She's afraid to go, but curious and determined. So she sets off on the back of her talking camel, Onion, and soon realizes that her journey is going to be stranger, more dangerous, and more important than she could ever have fathomed.

It's not that the whole book was disappointing. So I'm going to start with the disappointing bits in a bid to end on a high note.

This wasn't a good book for me, personally, and I think it basically boils down to the fact that I'm about twenty years too old to really appreciate it. When I'm reading, characters are a key component of my enjoyment; these characters were extremely plot-driven, as opposed to having a plot driven by the character's choices. Characters did things that were utterly in service to the plot and seemed bizarrely out of step with what I thought their characters would do, which meant I was constantly reevaluating my understanding of each character. Not in a good way. It felt very disorienting and I didn't end up very attached to any of the characters. This is usually a death-knell for any book for me.

The thing is, if I was thirteen years old I would have loved this. The characters are BIG - everything is very melodramatic. The teens act like young teens - which would be great, except that most of the adults did too. As an adult I tend to like my characters more nuanced and less shouty and more emotionally consistent, especially if they are supposed to be important and intelligent world leaders.

What saved it for me was that the concept and the world-building are top-notch and really interesting. The setting was gorgeously-described - the descriptions of the colours and the smells and the sights were fantastic and fantastical. I also absolutely loved the language Okorafor uses: there are untranslated words that add so many layers of sound and tone to the writing, and the words that Okorafor makes up for the fantasy elements are magnificent and playful. I liked how the magic worked, I loved that it was never fully explained (because it wasn't ever entirely clear to the characters how they were able to do what they did, or how it was supposed to work - this, however, didn't feel lazy on the author's part, but carefully considered) and I was really interested in how the technology and the magic met and negotiated each other in this world.

But unfortunately, I do prefer my books to be more heavily weighed towards the character than the plot, and this was backwards for me. I think as an angsty pre-teen I would have just eaten this up - I've always been a sucker for interesting world-building, and the cultural background, so different from my own, would have been a huge plus - but as an adult it fell flat for me. I would, however, read more Nnedi Okorafor - I've got both Akata Witch and Zahrah the Windseeker on my list. Those are both books written for a younger audience too, so I'll have a better idea of what I'm getting into this time. I like her ideas and I'm hoping I can find some more consistent characters.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Redshirts by John Scalzi

Redshirts
by John Scalzi
Tor Books, 2012
318 pages

Oh John Scalzi. You are one of the big Good Guys in my world. There are so many reasons to be impressed with Scalzi and his writing, most of which one can glean from his blog and his Twitter feed, both of which I follow daily. He's not universally loved - someone with a blog tagline of "Taunting the Tauntable since 1998" is not going to be universally loved - but for someone with my sense of humour and sociocultural views, he's brain candy.

So are his books. They are clever, funny, extremely well-written, entertaining, thoughtful, and often moving. Well, the three I have read, one of which was non-fiction, so I suppose my sample size is limited, but I have faith. Old Man's War remains one of my favourite science fiction novels ever (and it's military SF, no less!) and holds the distinction of being the most fully genre-y book that my entire adventurous book club agreed was great.

Those of you who have watched Star Trek (any iteration) will be familiar with the concept of the redshirt, whether you know it by name or not. These are the minor characters, the ones who might not even have a name, who are along for whatever away mission might be happening, and who generally end up dead in order to prove that there's some sort of danger. Notice that with extremely rare exceptions, the main characters don't end up dead. They might end up injured, but not dead. It's the low-ranking extras who bite it.

Redshirts is about the ones who end up dead. Scalzi imagines them with real lives and loves and ideas, histories that are more than just pertinent to the storyline, and a realization that the way things are happening on their ship, the Intrepid, is statistically totally improbable. They are fighting to regain control of their lives, which means they are literally fighting for their lives - fighting The Narrative, an unseen menace that takes over people's minds, bodies, and even the laws of physics with disturbing regularity. And what's worse, as Jenkins, the conspiracy theorist who eventually convinces our main characters says, is that the sci-fi television show they're all living in isn't very good.

This is very clever, loving satire. It pokes gleeful holes in all the SF television tropes, but it does it in a way that is thoughtful - it really follows the consequences through - and what I really appreciated was that it wasn't only about the satire. It was also a book about friendship, love, and loyalty; about peeling back layers and asking the important and sometimes difficult questions. It was about fate versus free will, and even about what it means to die, and what it means to live.

I think having more than a passing familiarity with Star Trek in its many incarnations helped in the enjoyment of this book, because I really got it. I got the jokes, I got the references, and I appreciated all of them. It added an extra layer of glee.

But - and this is important - because of all the other wonderful things about this book, and the fact that it isn't just about the satire, you don't have to be familiar with Star Trek to enjoy the story. Or even get most of the jokes, because the relevant parts are explained. This is a funny book whether or not you know the backstory, and it contains far more than it appears at first glance. Highly recommended for science fiction buffs, and definitely readable for those of you who don't read sci-fi but think you might like it. It's an excellent entry into the genre.