Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

I go for Terry Pratchett therapy when terrible things are happening in the news, so I eenie-meenie-miney-moed through Pratchett’s bibliography and pulled up Soul Music.

The events of Soul Music explain what makes Susan, Death’s granddaughter, into who she is by the time of The Hogfather. Susan is a student at a girl’s school and unaware of her powers at the start of the book. When Death abandons his post, Susan is forced to step in.

Meanwhile, Imp y Celyn arrives at Ankh-Morpork determined to make his name as a musician. He gets entwined with a supernatural guitar that is slowly killing him. Susan fights to change this.

Like many reviewers on Goodreads have said, this is a good read, but it’s not Terry Pratchett’s best work. It succeeds when Pratchett crams his ostensibly medieval world with rock & roll jokes. We get to see an early version of Hex, which is fun. And Pratchett manages to make the main antagonist the background radiation left over from the Big Bang, which almost makes sense.

Soul Music doesn’t work when it runs over plot holes. What did the Music want and what was it doing to Imp? What exactly did Susan and Death do about it at the end? This book left me wondering what it all added up to. It’s best read if you don’t concern yourself with the plot and enjoy Pratchett’s funny-as-ever one-off gags.

Right Ho, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse

I think I must have missed the joke somewhere.

I appreciate P. G. Wodehouse’s technical skill in Right Ho, Jeeves – the plotting is intricate, the who’s-on-first dialogue is witty, and Bertie Wooster’s point of view is a good case study in the unreliable narrator. But it just wasn’t my bag.

I think the problem was Bertie Wooster. He’s an upper-class twit with no reason to be alive. No job, no need of one, no family who needs him, not even any hobbies. His motive in Right Ho is to preserve the status quo. If Wooster doesn’t have any purpose in life, why should I care what happens to him?

Which leaves me baffled why Jeeves works for him. The man could get any position at MIT he wanted, so why does he work as a servant? If he’s gay, he has terrible taste. Is manipulating the British aristocracy his hobby? Damned waste of his talents. Is he a spy? My favorite explanation is that, like Steerpike, he’s planning the downfall of every aristocrat around him. That thought made Right Ho, Jeeves a much more enjoyable read.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

Legend has it that a spectral hound terrorizes an old country estate in Devonshire and the bloodline that owns it. Our heroes Holmes and Watson are called onto the scene when the latest heir to Baskerville Hall dies just outside his home without a mark on him. Next to his body, there is the mark of a giant paw.

What surprised me the most about The Hound of the Baskervilles is that it’s such a beach read. I expected a Dickens level of convolutedness, but this book is simple, clear, and short. In fact I’m a little disappointed because I wanted more depth. Doyle is good and spooky when he’s describing the moors, but the characters aren’t spooky and neither is the mystery. The book ends like an episode of Scooby Doo: (the ghost is just a cranky neighbor of theirs and a dog in glow-in-the-dark paint).

But like I said, beach read. The Hound of the Baskervilles is fun to read. It’s fun to read an entire mystery with the late Victorian attitude that science can fix everything. Doyle’s habit of describing every character in excruciating detail is also fun, and led to this knee-slapper of a line:

There were pride, valour, and strength in his thick brows, his sensitive nostrils, and his large hazel eyes.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson

6892870It was time to see what all the fuss was about. Although I accidentally started with the third book in the Millenium series, I don’t mind. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest gives a good explanation of what came before it and brings closure to the series.

Lisbeth Salander, a woman who’s wanted for three murders, shows up nearly dead of gunshot wounds in Gosseberga, Sweden. Her father, an ex spy, has an axe wound to the face. As Salander recuperates in the hospital, awaiting trial, shadowy forces try to make the whole situation disappear.

The book’s greatest strength is Salander herself. It’s fun to inhabit the mind of a genius computer hacker who’s uninhibited by the morality of mere mortals, though I wouldn’t want to meet her in person. Larsson writes with a crisp, dry style that even makes the infodumps interesting. I learned more about Sweden, the Swedish justice system, and the Swedish Intelligence Service than I ever thought I wanted to know.

The whole book was fun.

It has some problems. It’s heavy-handed: I get the point already that violence against women is bad, and breaking the Swedish constitution is bad. Computer hacking does not work the way that it is presented in the book. And it’s a pretty serious wish fulfillment fantasy for journalists. Not only does Mikael Blomquist have a full-time job at a financially solvent magazine, he gets to dash around protecting the vulnerable, exposing crooks, and earning the admiration of Swedish Intelligence agents. And for some reason everybody wants to have sex with him.

The book also has some worrying ethics. The protagonists of the book form a team effort to clear Salander’s name of the murders she didn’t commit. But Salander really is a criminal. She’s stolen billions, attempted murder twice, and in the epilogue, she’s an accessory to another murder. Her friends do a lot of breaking and entering and creepy-as-hell surveillance to help her. A doctor at the hospital intentionally misdiagnoses Salander to buy her time before she goes to prison. His actions echo those of the villain Teleborian, who misdiagnoses Salander to get her locked up in a mental institution. Why is this behavior okay when it’s done in the service of Salander?

I recommend the book. Though it’s odd, and Lisbeth Salander is terrifying, it’s a wonderful romp through Swedish society.

Love Trumps Hate

I’m saddened by the results of last week’s election. Tuesday night felt like this:

 

I was so wrong about the direction my country wants to head in and found out so suddenly.

I draw some comfort from the fact that the election was legitimate. I applaud the current administration for paving the way for a peaceful transition of power and Hillary Clinton for conceding with dignity.

The events have me thinking about my grandmother’s generation. Elizabeth Serbell was born in July 1920, a few weeks before women earned the right to vote in the U.S. Her family lost its fortune in the Great Depression when she was nine years old. She went to college before it was popular for women to do so. In the 1930s and 1940s, she saw the rise of right-wing authoritarian regimes throughout the world. After Elizabeth Serbell graduated from college, she worked as an oil chemist for the U.S. home front.

Democracy was sorely tested during World War II and won. After the war, my grandmother would have liked to go to medical school, but because of an influx of returning GIs, she didn’t get accepted. She earned a Master’s degree in biology instead. She divorced before it was common for women to do so and raised three daughters by herself.

Elizabeth Serbell lived just long enough to see Barack Obama elected president in 2008. She died three weeks later.

I think the worst things my country has ever done are the genocide of Native Americans, the internment of Japanese Americans, and HUAC. The underlying institutions of democracy survived these storms, though democracy did not necessarily come back quickly.

I am extremely disheartened that a man on the campaign trail can refuse to show respect for women, or people of color, or the press, or the rule of law. He can do everything wrong with his campaign, flub debates, run with disorganized leadership, and be rejected by his own party. He can be destined to face a fraud trial later this month. And voters accepted these things. At any rate, they failed to punish him for them.

I am married to a man who is a legal immigrant and a naturalized U.S. citizen. This election feels like a violent rejection of our family.

Now I hope that Donald Trump will break all of his campaign promises. My thoughts also turn to what to do now. On Facebook the day or two after the election, there was an outpouring of fear and anger. But there was also a surprising amount of solidarity. Here are some examples.

One ironclad pledge: If you know me well enough to be seeing this, and you or one you love feels unsafe from threats and violence where you are, my guestroom is yours, night or day, with or without prior notice. I will collect you and I will protect you. If you don’t already have my phone number, message me now to get it and save it in your phone.

In Florida, we know how to handle a hurricane. You put plywood over your windows, bring in the lawn furniture, and wait for the whole thing to blow over. You’ve got a limited window to operate in before the hurricane arrives. You do what you can early, because once the storm hits, ain’t nothing gettin’ done.

Many of the legal changes we’ve seen over the past decade have come about via executive order. A small (but important) number have come about via Supreme Court rulings. The former are likely to disappear come January 20th, while the latter have a plausible chance of disappearing over the coming years. Many folks are talking about taking advantage of the narrow window left to us to avail themselves of these options. I don’t pretend to be a legal expert. I won’t give you advice on how to proceed.

But I’m here to provide any help you need. No one accomplishes anything alone. This is especially true when we’re pressed for time.

You should know this is a standing offer, and it always has been. It doesn’t disappear on January 20th. But when you’re feeling lost and overwhelmed, sometimes things like this bear repeating.

To all my queer, poc, non-christian, immigrant, and lady friends and neighbors – to all of you out there who now feel worried about your continued safety – I am here for you. You are amazing. If you need a listening ear, a hug, a shoulder to lean on in the days to come, I can do that. If there is some concrete thing I can do to help you feel safer (beyond donating to causes designed for these needs), tell me and I can try to do that too. I can’t magically make things ok, but we can stand together in solidarity and protect each other.

My Facebook friends are behaving better than I would ever have asked them to. The roughly 52% of the electorate who voted for Clinton or for a third-party candidate are still here. We have so much work to do. There really is no guarantee that anything is going to be okay, but we should still stand together and love one another.

Mind of my Mind by Octavia Butler

116254-_uy475_ss475_Wild Seed was my introduction to Octavia Butler’s work. I loved it. My edition contained a large chunk of Mind of my Mind, the next book in the series, which left me eager to learn what becomes of Doro and Anyanwu.

Mind of my Mind takes place in the 1970s or so, about a century after the events of Wild Seed. Both immortals have settled in California. The story focuses on Mary, the latest of Doro’s breeding experiments. As Mary comes into her powers, the experiment gets out of hand.

This book is one of Butler’s early works (her second), and it shows. The book feels unfinished. The narrative skips over great gaps of time in the middle as Mary learns to control her telepathic network and the writing is so spare that it cuts into the bone.

Within that short text, though, Butler raises questions about power and control. The telepaths are a race of people who have to prey on others to survive. Should they exist? If they already exist, what kind of ethics can they hold on to? Is Mary a villain? What about Doro?

The climax of the story was rushed but brought a satisfying closure to the story of Doro and Anyanwu. It’s not a happy ending, but it is a classic one, following in the tradition of Frankenstein.

Silver on the Road by Laura Anne Gilman

Silver on the RoadAnother well-regarded book that I didn’t like. I wonder what’s going on.

Silver on the Road by Laura Anne Gilman features an alternative West where the Devil rules the Great Plains, preventing the United States from expanding any further west than the Mississippi. Enter Isobel Lacoyo Távora, the Devil’s foster child. On the day of her majority, she walks up to him and demands a job.

It’s a Western with a Latina main character (cool) and a bildungsroman about the Devil’s new left-hand man (awesome). How do you mess this up? Somehow, Laura Anne Gilman manages to do just that.

The biggest problem with this book is that Izzy doesn’t have clear goals. The Devil throws her out onto the road to learn by doing, without explaining what she’s supposed to do. Izzy spends the first third of the book complaining that she doesn’t know what to do, instead of, well, doing anything. Which isn’t entirely Izzy’s fault. The Devil pulled a Yoda-level it-will-all-become-clear stunt on her. He’s not a Jedi, he’s a businessman. He’s the sort of boss who would be very explicit with his minions and make sure he gets results.

The narrator keeps telling us that Izzy is not a namby-pamby young woman, but tough and capable. Izzy’s actions belie this. (See the bit about the whining.) Early in the book, because of some emotional upset, Izzy loses her appetite and tosses away her breakfast. That doesn’t make sense! She knows how precious calories are out on the road. If she were tough and capable, she would stuff that into her pockets for later.

The descriptions of the land in this book are beautiful. You can tell Gilman has been to all the sites she writes about and loves them deeply. But I think I’d rather deal with The Mechanical, which got me angry and excited at the same time, than with Silver on the Road, which left me cold.

The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis

the-mechanicalFull of cool ideas, but with a frustrating writing style.

In an alternative 1926, the Dutch have taken over the world using armies of alchemical slaves. Magical compulsions keep the Clakkers in line. What could go wrong?

Jax, a household Clakker, inevitably comes into contact with a lens that frees him from his geasa.  He has to run up a steep learning curve to deal with his newfound freedom. Meanwhile, Berenice Charlotte de Mornay-Périgord, spymistress of what’s left of France, dreams of overthrowing the Dutch Empire. Her attempt to reverse-engineer a military Clakker ends in disaster. Jax and Berenice’s adventures bring them together and into an uneasy alliance.

There’s also Visser, who should never have been a viewpoint character in the first place. More on him later.

The Mechanical is full of super cool ideas. Dutch alchemical robots. Robots versus glue. A secret language for slaves. A clockwork Green Lantern. Weaponized Calvinism. I like a book that sends me to Wikipedia, and The Mechanical had me looking up Huygens, Spinoza, and what the pineal gland actually does (it makes melatonin).

Tregillis squanders that potential with an overwrought writing style. He goes in for eyeball kicks and cheap grossouts, while I am a subtext and quiet horror kind of gal. He does scare me when he mentions in passing that “Don’t harm humans” is the lowest priority of the Clakkers’ hierarchical metageasa. He lets me figure out the implications of that for myself. But most of the time I’m treated to stuff like this:

The central courtyard of the inner keep looked and smelled like a charnel house. Berenice struggled to make sense of what she saw through the pink haze of one blood-clotted eye and the mounting fog of pain. A crumpled silver funicular lay amidst the crushed rubble of the ground station, its windows shattered and empty. Bodies strewn like wreckage. Parts and whole. Blood puddles.

It’s not scary because I know exactly what’s going on. Most of the book is gratuitous; I figured out pretty early that I could skip to the end of the fight scenes and the chase scenes to see who makes it and I wouldn’t miss much.

When body fluids aren’t spattering on walls, Tregillis raises an interesting philosophical question about free will. The characters regard free will and freedom as the same thing. Even Jax himself thinks enslaved Clakkers have no free will, and it is somehow granted when the geasa are taken away. But we can see him struggle against his geasa (and fail) and say whatever he wants to his friends because it never occurred to his makers to stop him. The Clakkers aren’t missing anything, they’re willed beings with shackles added. I really hope that Tregillis is working up to a point that free will doesn’t mean getting to do what you want.

Jax is too clever for belief. He’s lived for 118 years with his every motion spelled out for him, so I expected him to feel overwhelmed by having to make so many decisions so fast. But no, he runs the entire city of New Amsterdam a merry chase, making all the right decisions, then he hijacks an airship.

While he clings to the belly of the thing in midair he decides he needs to recruit the Clakker mind inside it to his side so they can both escape. He thinks the eyes are the windows of the soul and slams his magic lens into the airship’s eye. Which works. Earlier, he got his freedom when the lens got lodged inside his chest. And he hadn’t taken the lens outside of himself yet, so he had no good reason to think he could survive doing that. And in other parts of the book, he’s not sure if enslaved Clakkers even have souls.

The Dutch people don’t make sense, either. They go out of their way to pick on Clakkers even when they’re working properly. All of the people. Jax even notes that he thinks humans are all the same. He should be wrong. I’d expect to see at least a few Dutch people take them for granted, try to take them apart and get arrested, fetishize them, demonize them, fight for the abolition of slavery, but they all seem to react to Clakkers the same way. The Dutch Empire doesn’t have to work hard at their totalitarian state at all.

Meanwhile, Luuk Visser is a blithering idiot. He’s a secret Catholic priest, working as a spy for the French from within the Hague. He learns that most of his spy cell has been executed and one woman taken prisoner. In his guise as a Protestant pastor, he asks to see the prisoner and then kills her to keep her knowledge out of Dutch hands. Reasonable enough. But then the moron tries to go home. Of course Dutch agents are waiting for him there and take him prisoner.

And then he gets enslaved under geasa and turned into a machine for the Dutch. Since he can’t make decisions, he stops being an interesting character. I would rather have Jax and Berenice hear rumors that Something Very Bad happens to Visser, then later witness the zombie-like Visser thing. That would have been scarier.

Which makes Berenice my favorite character. She’s the only main character who’s a mere mortal, she’s not too good or too evil, and above all, she makes sense. She violates medical ethics after a cold calculation that her work will benefit France. When she brings a military Clakker into a French fortress to study it, it breaks free and kills over thirty people. Does she mope? She figures out a man sabotaged her glue and hunts him down. And she has a nuanced view of Clakkers. She accepts they’re sentient, but she’s still willing to take advantage of them. Her alliance with Jax could be a lot of fun.

I’m excited to see where Tregillis is going with all the neat ideas in this series, but I think I will skip to the end to see who makes it.