I wonder if I'd rather just watch the PBS series (enthusiasically endorsed by the New York Times, but that's tough when you don't own a television and...moreI wonder if I'd rather just watch the PBS series (enthusiasically endorsed by the New York Times, but that's tough when you don't own a television and don't really want to sit in front of the computer watching it online.
I very much enjoyed Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map and Everything Bad is Good for You, so I should probably give this a try.
This is the cotton candy of reading. Light and fluffy, but fun. Well, considering how nasty we're increasi...morePretty much the same thing as the first one.
This is the cotton candy of reading. Light and fluffy, but fun. Well, considering how nasty we're increasingly realize that sugar is, I'm doing a disservice to Carriger, since her books won't harm you.
Because this is steampunk, it does somewhat fit into the category of science fiction, which I frequently read.
But toss in vampires and werewolves and preparatory boarding schools for boys, heading for "careers" as evil geniuses, or girls, as intelligencers and assassins, and you're in a very strange world. The book focuses on the girls, although the boys come in as secondary characters. Keep in mind that these are early Victorian girls, wearing corsets and multiple petticoats — and those petticoats are part of the story more often than you'd expect.
If you want some innocent* quick and silly reading, you could do a lot worse.
*If you want something a bit less innocent, the author's Parasol Protectorate series is similar, but with actual lust-laden adults, albeit with many more vampires and werewolves.(less)
This is pretty close to being the perfect hard sci-fi story (for those not familiar with the term, "hard" indicates that it takes the effort to comple...moreThis is pretty close to being the perfect hard sci-fi story (for those not familiar with the term, "hard" indicates that it takes the effort to completely respect what is known about physics and other sciences). As far as I can tell, the technology and science here is perfect (well, I do have two qualms, which I’ll mention below).
First, props to Andy Weir, the author. This was a self-published book, which is very impressive. Apparently he was actually rebuffed by agents, who I am sure are hating their lives right now, seeing as how he not only later had it picked up by a real publisher (after climbing to the top of Amazon’s scifi Kindle titles) and in May it was optioned by Twentieth Century Fox for a movie, tentatively directed by Ridley Scott, with Matt Damon as our intrepid astronaut. I wonder if Weir’s toes have touch the ground since early March, when the book debuted at #11 on the NY Times hardcover fiction — which is as high as it got, and only for a short while, but that’s still astonishing for a very techie science fiction first novel. (See the reddit ask-me-anything transcript from shortly before the hardback came out — among other tidbits, you’ll learn that folks at NASA mission control were discussing the book while prepping for an emergency EVA on the international space station.)
So, yes, this is a tech-filled book, but that is understandable. Remember the movie Apollo 13, and how much the engineering mattered — how coming up with an ad hoc fix to a technical problem was a nail-biting crisis? Well, that’s what this entire book is, so while it is an exciting storyline, a lot of the story has to do with an engineer trying to solve problems that will save his life. And meanwhile, hundreds and thousands more engineers on earth are doing the same.
Tom Hanks was the star of Apollo 13, right? Well, many folks have pointed out that this story also resembles one of his other greatest hits: Cast Away. There is equivalent to the bloody volleyball here, though, much to my satisfaction. This guy really is too busy to go crazy, and the psychological pressures of being the only living person on an entire planet aren’t delved into very deeply.
For a genre novel, the characters are very well fleshed out. The hero, especially, but some of the NASA folks are also well detailed. The other astronauts on the Hermes craft, not so much, but they don’t spend too much time as critical secondary characters.
By the way, “tech laden” doesn’t mean this reads like the spec sheet for a new Mac Pro — the jargon isn’t for marketing purposes, but to actually show how a real astronaut would be solving these problems. It appears to be incredibly well-researched (and the author is an engineer, albeit of the software variety, but his “hobbies” include orbital mechanics, per his about-me page I know people that don’t have an engineering or science background that still have given this rave reviews.
So read this! And make sure you do so before you see the movie next year!
Oh, my qualms. The first is a fairly minor spoiler, but the second is somewhat more revealing. I'm going to hide them both, although I don't really think either would reduce enjoyment of the novel for most readers. Still, if you are sensitive to spoilers, you should read the book first.
(view spoiler)[One of the biggest hurdles in putting humans on the surface of Mars is the fact that without a planetary radiation belt (because Mars has no magnetic field), it is a very deadly place. Weir alludes to this, mentioning that without protection he would not only get cancer, but his cancers would get cancers. Actually, he’d probably die of acute radiation poisoning long before that. While Weir acknowledges the problem, it isn’t really adequately dealt with. The biggest problem is his habitat, which has a fabric roof. Perhaps the carbon fibre reinforcing in the “canvas” provides enough shielding — at one point he states that it is EM proof, but it really isn’t clear that a fabric could do the trick. Trying to figure out how to shield astronauts against these high-energy particles is one of the bigger challenges associated with a mission to Mars. That he ends up on the planet far longer than the original mission called for probably would mean that he far exceeds the radiation does the mission had contemplated.
That flaw is the only science/tech aspect that concerns me, although I suspect there are others. The other flaw is understandable for the purposes of the story. It isn’t about science or technology, but an implausible plot device Weir had to create to make the story what it is.
And that is the lack of communications. While the astronauts are on Mars, they have four radios capable of reaching earth, some of which require retransmission by a satellite in orbit. Three of them disappear with the Mars Ascent Vehicle when the other astronauts make their emergency evacuation at the beginning of the story, and the fourth is wiped out in that same disaster. So the protagonist has no means of communication with earth. That, frankly, is just silly. Here on Earth, a satellite phone is a pretty common and lightweight device, even though Earth’s thick atmosphere and magnetic field make its job tougher than it would be on Mars. There is no way every EVA suit wouldn’t have a built-in satellite communications device. Indeed, he mentions that line-of-sight communication to someone just a few dozen kilometers away on Mars is tougher than communication with distant Earth, so it is certain that satellite-mediated communication devices would be as common as mobile handsets are here on earth. Every member of the team would probably have two or three radio-equipped devices within reach at every moment, and every one of them would probably be capable of communicating with one of the many satellites circling overhead.
It’s understandable that Weir would need the lack of communications for drama, but this is quite disappointing. Curiously, there might have been a way around both of these two flaws. A radiation storm caused by a coronal mass ejection could have fried all of the portable Mars-bound radio receivers, except for the shielded ones on the MAV. This would also have given Weir an opportunity to go into more detail about how the habitat’s shielding is somehow up to the job of protecting against radiation, since that risk skyrockets during such an event. While a particularly nasty CME might necessitate a mission abort, it wouldn’t easily provide a reason for one of the astronauts to be left for dead on the planet’s surface. The concurrence of a threatening sandstorm and a massive CME would stretch plausibility pretty far, however. (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
This book got my brain churning, but I’m not sure if it did so in a way that makes this a more appealing book to most readers.
But, first, some notes:
T...moreThis book got my brain churning, but I’m not sure if it did so in a way that makes this a more appealing book to most readers.
But, first, some notes:
The New York Times review was much more enthusiastic than I can account for. Maybe because I, unlike the Times reviewer, really dislike it when the technology in a contemporary science fiction story is pushed through the curtain of fantasy. But other readers might not be that prickly, so YMMV.
I love the title. Mildly clever, and so obviously intended to be clever that it is also ironically clever in that knowingness. I was actually a little disappointed that the author had his characters use the term, or at least how it were used.
Pacing feels slow through the first few chapters, before the major characters start interacting. Getting to know their individual backstories doesn’t really foretell the real drama/melodrama of the book. Eventually, the energy is cranked way, way up, and the by the end it became, at least for me, quite a page-turner.
This ended up reminding me a great deal of Daniel Suarez’ Daemon. In both books, a very, very central role is played by an exaggerated account of some of the worrisome aspects of today’s information technology, and in both cases, what the actual technology is capable of is blown so far out of proportion that I (a fairly astute information-technical guy since before time began) no longer was worried that the world depicted was of concern.
How the two books differ is equally important, though: Shafer does a much, much better job at portraying living humans, with their neuroses and conflicts. I think he has more potential as a writer, although the infotech thriller subgenre that he’s chosen to enter might not reward him for that.
He actually scored big points in my mind when he drew “impact attenuators” — those big trashcans at dangerous spots on freeways, such as the “gore points” where guardrails divide continuing lanes from exit lanes — in an analogy with respect to the emotional traumas we sometimes face. It’s tough to come up with a new metaphor that good.
Another sign that he’s wasted on the thriller crowd: on page 13, his female lead asks, “How many people are you supposed to like? she wondered. Below what number are you attachment-disordered?” The Dunbar Limit is probably a good estimate of the upper limit of that range, but our world today is almost neurotic about how socially isolated we’ve become (cf. Bowling Alone), and this is a clever way of expressing that angst.
What really got me caught up in the unfolding drama was connected to my disbelief of the general trajectory of the plot.
I’m moderately confident that our current civilization is going off the rails in the next century — the heavy economic disruption we’ll undergo as climate change messes with us will shove around our over-leveraged economy enough that it’ll eventually go down like a too-high Jenga™ tower.
But even if we somehow dodge that bullet, the coming century or so will be very bad for the majority of the planet’s population, as the Luddite Fallacy is proven to be not a fallacy after all, and most humans discover they are not need in the production chain, and thus not actually wanted, and not powerful enough to demand a socialist inclusion in the emerging post-scarcity economy. That trend is the one that Shafer is aiming at, and I found myself pondering how my view of how that is likely to play out differs from his. And he didn’t win any stars with his narrative — but for reasons that would be spoilers.
I briefly considered giving him props for including Portland, but I realized that he was just pandering to the current cool kids on the block.(less)
I read Mitchell's multi-mini-story Ghostwritten, and found it less than exciting. I know folks raved about Cloud Atlas and it got the movie treatment...moreI read Mitchell's multi-mini-story Ghostwritten, and found it less than exciting. I know folks raved about Cloud Atlas and it got the movie treatment and all, but I remained hesitant.
Then I read the review of The Bone Clocks by the marvelous New Yorker literary critic, James Wood (author of How Fiction Works), and realized I have no interest in reading any more Mitchell.
Wood's essay, "Soul Cycle", is exactly what a long-form hunk of literary criticism should be. It does contain minor spoilers of this book, but it is also likely to gently dissuade people from reading the book until Mitchell cleans up his act, so the spoilers are in the service of good.(less)
There’s potentially a lot of promise behind this book, but as of today, it isn’t convincing enough.
The science and history presented in the first port...moreThere’s potentially a lot of promise behind this book, but as of today, it isn’t convincing enough.
The science and history presented in the first portion of the book almost make it worth reading, regardless of the flaws in the rest.
First, the discussion of the functional division of the various major structures in the brain was well done. For example, there is a great little diagram on page 29 that quickly and clearly delineates what the four lobes of the brain do (somewhat like this, but the book’s version is more parsimonious).
Then the authors shift to the convincing scientific evidence that different people perceive in sometimes substantially different ways, and that this is related to how their brain is wired. This is the Object-Spatial Imagery hypothesis, and it seems pretty solid. Primary visual processing occurs in the occipital lobe, but it seems that objects are recognized and processed in the temporal cortex, whereas spatial processing occurs in the parietal cortex. In other words, one part of our brain figures out what we’re seeing, but is clueless about where it is, while another knows where it is, but really isn’t clear on any details about what it is. Fascinating, but well supported.
This 2006 article is pretty easy reading, as science articles go, and has an embedded test that will quiz you on your preferred style; later portions show examples of the kinds of tests that correspond to what the different styles are good at. I long known that I’m great at spatial reasoning, and I’ve always been slightly mystified when people describe in great detail what takes place in their “minds eye”, but this explains it: I’m pretty close to zeroed out what apparently happens in the temporal lobe. On page 250 (the 12th page) of the article, there’s a “degraded picture” of a common object, and I literally couldn’t see it even after being told what was somehow hidden in there. (Strangely, I was going to say “I still can’t see it”, but when I looked up the page number, I was able to spot the object for the first time, but keep in mind I already knew what I was looking for.)
The old “left-brain/right-brain” comes in for a great drubbing, and includes some very interesting history, especially of Phineas Gage, a man whose improbably survival of a horrific accident led to tremendous advances in pioneering neuroanatomy. If you don’t know the story, you really should check it out. Even if you do know the basics of the story, you might not know some of the details, such as the fact that the iron rod was “three feet, seven inches long, and an inch and a quarter in diameter at its thickest point” and “landed more than sixty feet behind him” — after going through his skull!
But the worthwhile part of the book is over at that point.
The remainder explains the “top brain/bottom brain” hypothesis. They make the claim that, unlike most popular cognition tests floating around the world, theirs is based on actual science. But the connection is weak.
Here’s the gist:
The portion of the brain we’re interested (e.g., cerebral cortex, as opposed to the subcortical portion of the cerebrum or the brain stem) can usefully be divided into the top brain, consisting of the parietal lobe and the top of the frontal lobe, and the bottom brain, consisting of the lower portion of the frontal lobe, along with the temporal and occipital lobes.
I’m going to put more crudely than they do, but effectively the top brain is responsible for planning and the thinking associated with that in a very broad sense. The bottom brain deals with processing sensory input, as well as any associated complex thinking.
Everyone uses all of their brain, but — according to the hypothesis — we’ll rely even more on one of these (or both, or neither), depending on our temperament and habit, some of which devolves from genetic factors.
In their system, if you “rely” on both the top and the bottom, then you tend to use the “Mover mode”. If you rely on the top, but not the bottom, you’re a “Stimulator”. In the reverse, you’d be a “Perceiver”. If you don’t really rely on either, then you’re more of a go-with-the-flow “Adaptor”. Because their test might tell you that you “tend to rely” or “tend not to rely”, there are actually sixteen categories, so there’s some gray area.
The first problem is how they describe those categories. Even though they assert that none of them are better or worse, it will quickly become clear that the “Movers” are going to be the heroes here. And you can’t say you didn’t see that coming — after all, if you don’t rely on some major portion of your brain, you’re likely to run into some problems, aren’t you?
The first disturbing weakness in the “science” shows up when they provide the detailed descriptions of the four modes. They explain how two actual public figures and one imaginary person exemplify that mode’s behavior. One of the real humans is contemporary, the other is historic. Then there is a just-so story made up to “illuminate” the hypothetical person. This should get you wondering: of the many billions of people on the planet that must fit this category, this is the best they can do? Without conducting any actual tests on Michael Bloomberg (the ex-mayor of New York) or the Wright brothers, the author uses them as archetypal Movers. Are there any real “normal” human beings that walk amongst us that are also Movers? Because the best they can do is an almost idealized “Lisa”, who’s story ends with her considering whether to found her own startup.
The depictions of the other three modes are no better, although despite the author’s contention that none are really better than others, they make it increasingly clear that we’re gradually getting into loser territory. Everyone who isn’t a Mover had better marry well, so your spouse compliments there flaws.
Chapter thirteen introduces the test (which you can also take online, although no explanation is provided). The next chapter explains how scientific the test is, although it doesn’t take a very close reading to see some pretty gaping holes.
After writing hundreds of questions, they evaluated many hundreds of response from online test-takers, and figured out which questions correlated well with one another. To them, that means they’re finding questions that measure the same thing, albeit from different angles. Fine, as far as that goes. At that point, they tested how people’s scores on their final test correlated with well established standardized tests — a lengthy list is provided at the bottom of page 166. Frankly, that sounds backwards to me — design the test, and then see if it correlates to what you hoped it would?
The big problem is that the scores from the questions intended to measure reliance on top-brain functions are what correlated to all those tests (which cover quite a spectrum of psych tests), whereas… well, this is the way they put it:
Specifically, the scores on the bottom-brain scale did not correlate with any of the other test scores; this means that these scores are measuring something completely distinct.
Got that? Because that is all they’re going to say about it. There is no evidence given that the bottom-brain scores have anything to do with bottom-brain functionality. Or, if there is, it didn’t occur to them to provide it (I suppose I may have missed it, but I double and triple-checked). All we know is that the “something completely distinct” being tested is statistically consistent amongst the question, but not what it actually is.
The remaining chapters go into using your knowledge of your mode to learn to play well with others, blah blah blah. Honestly, at that point I was almost skimming, looking for a life saver that would rescue my opinion of this book.
How I scored, personally, also affected my judgement of the book. I don’t think that is a great reason for anyone else to dismiss it, since I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I’m an outlier in many ways, and since those are none of your business, I’m not going to provide any substantiation. However, I will say that I was tagged as a lean-towards Stimulator, which came as something of a surprise, since neither my actual life nor my inner thinking bears any resemblance to what had been described in that chapter. What I actually spend far too much time doing came closest to the librarian described as the hypothetical Perceiver, but that requires that I not rely on my top-brain, which is laughable.
I didn’t give this one star for two reasons: the first is that the introductory chapters are interesting, and worth reading. Get a copy from the library and read through Chapter Six, and you’ll have a quick and easy read about some interesting aspects of neuroanatomy and cognition. Don’t buy a copy, because these authors shouldn’t be rewarded for what is honestly shoddy work.
But the second reason is more nuanced. Enough of what they are working towards seems sensible that this could be a deeply flawed first hint at a better model of how people’s behavior emerges from how the brain is used.
Instead of everyone falling into four modes (or along two intersecting spectrums, which is what the sixteen categories hint at), what this suggests to me is that the more high-functioning you are within a context, the better you’ll use the relevant portion of the brain. Or, probably, the reverse: the better you use a relevant portion of your brain in a certain context, the more high-functioning you’ll be in that context.
Visualization along the spatial/object spectrums is a good indicator: people that can easily image spatial information would be better at navigating, for example (something I excel at), while someone poor at object visualization would make a poor illustrator. In fact, the last two pages of the book returned to an excellent example of this, referring to a research experiment that tested the spatial/object visualization hypothesis.
Pairs of people were assigned the task of navigating a maze (video-game style) peopled with “Greebles”. The navigation task required spatial visualization, the Greeble recognition required object recognition. If one or the other skill was missing from the team, they’d score poorly in the game. If the people with the required task were assigned to appropriate roles, the team scored very well. All that is as one might expect.
However, if the correct skills are present between the two, but those people are assigned to the wrong tasks, it got interesting. If they couldn’t communicate, they did horribly, but if they could talk, they quickly recognized that the trick would be for each to direct the other, and they scored quite well.
The PhD author, Kosslyn, was the last-named author of the paper that described this (the link is above). In coming decades, it seems certain that we will decode which functional structures of the brain do what, and it seems reasonable that the ability to actually perform those functions well will require strong neural linkages to the other brain structures that provide executive function. This book hints at that direction, but poorly so — it should have been shelved for a few years until a clearer picture had developed, and more evidence for any model could be prevented. (less)
Not quite as strong as the first two in the series.
What Jones did very well with this series is bringing to life enjoyable primary characters that are...moreNot quite as strong as the first two in the series.
What Jones did very well with this series is bringing to life enjoyable primary characters that are flawed in ways that are simultaneously amusing and understandable. The young heroine here keeps telling herself she must be nicer to Peter, who is a seriously clueless young man, as well as to others, but she keeps being distracted by how irritating they are. I suspect her target audience is the tween, and from what I vaguely recall of that age, there's a good deal of anxious self-doubt to get through, so providing a role model that is likeable even as they go through similar struggles is delightful.
The closing chapters of this volume suffer from what I'll term the Chrestomanci Syndrome: one or more of the characters are benevolent magic users that are so powerful that everything is tidied up without any sense of struggle, even though the great majority of the story had been about a gradually increasing sense of chaos and trouble. Having someone parachute in (well, metaphorically) and solve all problems might be A Good Thing in a story for a toddler, but it certainly doesn't belong here.
However, since no one is going to read these looking primarily for dramatic coherence, it actually doesn't hurt too much. Although Diana Wynne Jones is apparently compared to J.K. Rowling, this isn't Harry Potter (although the titular House is pleasantly reminiscent of Hogwart's).
Definitely a pleasant addition to a young person's bookshelf, and a nice mindless brain-candy read for adults.(less)
Dreams and Shadows, by C. Robert Cargill, is a paranormal fantasy that is worth reading. It definitely has problems, but it doesn’t deserve having the...moreDreams and Shadows, by C. Robert Cargill, is a paranormal fantasy that is worth reading. It definitely has problems, but it doesn’t deserve having the first few reviews on Goodreads being so incredibly negative.
I suspect the author has stumbled into a trap: some of those that might like this book are going to not like it with a passion — enough to write a scathing review — while those that enjoy it will struggle to put into words just why. That is because the many attributes that make this a good book are scattered, and can’t be conveniently placed in a single, breathless narrative.
There are real flaws, and then there are style choices which some people don’t like.
To me, the biggest difficulty is that the story has little tension in it until the second half. The first half is good storytelling, but has all the emotional potency that Snow White has, once one is an adult. This isn’t mere worldbuilding — there are characters unfolding, and plots beginning their slow arcs — but it is far too tempting to give up, before the going gets good. And it does get, good, even to the last pages.
Another problem is that interleaved with the narrative chapters are “educational” chapters, nominally extracts from books about the fae. While this is a moderately clever way of getting around the “show, don’t tell” rule of storytelling, it still slows things down with the artifice. It is much better than one character lecturing another, certainly, but much of the information given in these interludes could have been elided. Having several children in the tale, who are naturally asking questions, was already adequately smooth way at providing necessary background information.
Here are a few things that seem to anger, disgust, or merely disappoint:
There is violence and gore here. Characters you like will die, and characters you don’t like won’t die, or they won’t die satisfactorily. Frankly, if that really bothers, you, then go back to reading children’s stories. I’m more dismayed when an author has all of the readers’ favorites survive, regardless of the danger of the quest or the mayhem swirling around them.
The author is unfortunately compared to The Chosen One, Neil Gaiman, who is trendy in this domain the way Tesla is to science fanboys and fangirls. I’ve read enough Gaiman to understand why the marketing folks would toss his name in there, but to downgrade an author for who someone else has compared them to is, frankly, a vile thing to do. If the author had made such a boast, then it’d be fair; if not, judge the book on its own terms.
The worldbuilding is a bit mixed, with middle-eastern Djinn and the Native American Coyote trickster mixed in with otherwise northern European faeries (mostly Irish, as far as I can tell). Oh, and fallen Angels. This has really worked well for Jim Butcher in his Dresden Files, but I can’t say I consider it anything more than an adequate device. A real artist would invent a whole new mythology to serve (e.g., Tolkein, Herbert), but I’m not asserting that this is a five-star book; just that the rating in the high-threes is more earned, and the reviews in the one-to-three range are too harsh.
That said, although Coyote’s role could have gone to Puck (púca), for the story to work, the author needed more gravitas. Given the role Coyote is playing by the end, the gravitas really is necessary.
What makes this a very good book is the way the author doesn’t simply increase the tension (and violence, and gore) as the story arcs higher and higher, but how the philosophy that lies beneath the story is gradually revealed, showing the inevitability of that clash. The world of humans and of fae that Cargill lays out isn’t stable, and the character of Colby is a well-crafted answer to that problem, although he isn’t always a very nice person. (less)
The cartoon treatment makes this critical (or hot!... sorry) but somewhat academic topic more manageable. Those who are have already formed beliefs an...moreThe cartoon treatment makes this critical (or hot!... sorry) but somewhat academic topic more manageable. Those who are have already formed beliefs and conclusions on the subject are unlikely to be swayed, but there are undoubtedly plenty out there who aren't yet sure what to think, and this is their book.
The Kindle edition saves paper, and at about $10.50 is a pretty inexpensive way of getting this, but you can't pass it on to others after reading it. For a few bucks more, you can buy it and keep it in circulation. If you're annoyed with Amazon, Indiebound can point you to a local book merchant that sells it.
Then there's the even greener option. My library has six copies. You can check to see if any library in your area has one here.(less)
Three and a half stars really. The technobabble limits the audience, but scifi geeks will find it pretty well done. But it felt a bit arbitrary, oddly...moreThree and a half stars really. The technobabble limits the audience, but scifi geeks will find it pretty well done. But it felt a bit arbitrary, oddly. I am intrigued enough that I'll try to get to the sequel.(less)
I jumped straight to the final two to start with the ones I was most interested in, but every story here is worth reading.
1. ★★★☆☆ Tough Times All Over, by Joe Abercrombie
Light, clever and amusing, and fits in with the theme of rogues several times over, but anything more would be a spoiler.
2. ★★★★☆ What Do You Do?, by Gillian Flynn
Not in the fantasy subgenre. But I'm not sure what genre it is in, so I'm going to call this psycho fiction, because it delves into psychological stuff in several ways. First, it gets nicely into the head of the protagonist; second, there's the element of psycho, qu'est-ce que c'est? And finally, there's some nice tension because you really don't know quite what is going on, and who is doing what to whom.
Well, other than the handjobs. It's pretty clear who is doing those.
3. ★★★★☆ The Inn of the Seven Blessings, by Matthew Hughes
Pleasant — nothing too fancy, nothing too clever, but good craftsmanship. The characters are begging for more depth, but can't really get it in a short story, I guess.
4. ★★★★☆ Bent Twig, by Joe R. Lansdale
Heh heh. I don't know what this was, but it was fun. A Texas town full of ne'er do wells, beating each other up. Hicks with honor versus scum. But very well done, whatever curious sub-sub genre it's representing.
5. ★★★☆☆ Tawny Petticoats, by Michael Swanwick
6. ★★★★☆ Provenance, by David Ball
This historical fiction was almost a five-star story. Very well told, but there just a little too much convenience in the denouement.
7. ★★★☆☆ The Roaring Twenties, by Carrie Vaughn
A nice little story in the sub-sub-sub-genre of paranormal urban historical fantasy. Really three and a half stars, but what can I do?
8. ★★☆☆☆ A Year and a Day in Old Theradane, by Scott Lynch
The weakest of the bunch, although that judgement is undoubtedly affected by my prior reading of his Gentleman Bastard series. Lynch adheres to the same formula he uses in those books (although his characters here are mostly women), one that is initially quite exciting, but eventually palls. His heroes are thieves stealing from socially superior but morally inferior miscreants, and start out arrogantly overconfident, are foiled and imperiled, but always are more clever than their even more egregiously arrogant opponents and manage — surprise! — to turn the tables.
9. ★★★☆☆ Bad Brass, by Bradley Denton
Kin to chapter four; more Texas.
10. ★★★☆☆ Heavy Metal, by Cherie Priest
I was disappointed in the single steampunk novel of Priest's that I read, principally because of her casual disdain for the laws of physics. That's tolerable if magic is invoked, but that wasn't where she sited that particular story. Here she's on firmer ground. Kind of a variation on the modern urban paranormal story, except completely rural instead.
11. ★★★★☆ The Meaning of Love, by Daniel Abraham
This one starts off with a pretty hackneyed plot, but the author spins it out very well. Noble thieves again, though.
12. ★★★☆☆ A Better Way to Die, by Paul Cornell
Probably deserves more than three stars, but I'd been drinking rye.
13. ★★★☆☆ Ill Seen in Tyre, by Steven Saylor
The story itself is unexceptional, but nice. But what really caught my attention was the invocation of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. That's right, the curious phenomena when something you've just learned of suddenly pops up when you least expect it. Also known of as the Observational Selection Bias to less imaginative cognition-geeks. Anyway, I just got around to reading a queer little paranormal novel by fellow San Franciscan Fritz Leiber, who turns out to be famous for his fantasy series involving Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and suddenly they show up in this short story. Serendipity, you say? Fates have decreed that I should read that series, you say? Hmm, maybe... but it's eight novels long! I don't have that kind of time.
14. ★★☆☆☆ A Cargo of Ivories, by Garth Nix
Meh. Completely arbitrary.
15. ★★★★☆ Diamonds From Tequila, by Walter Jon Williams
Very nice! Our charming but barely moral anti-hero is a Hollywood star, struggling to unravel a murder during production of the movie that he desperately needs to succeed. I'll have to check out the author's The Fourth Wall, which introduced the fellow.
16. ★★★★★ The Caravan to Nowhere, by Phyllis Eisenstein
Spooky, and flawless. A tale of drug addiction and betrayed trust in the desert.
17. ★★★☆☆ The Curious Affair of the Dead Wives, by Lisa Tuttle
The mood and setting of this paranormal Victorian mystery were wonderful, but the characters were just a bit too smugly and simplistically drawn (the fellow Jesperson too much of a competent male), and the mystery itself too arbitrary to be dramatic.
18. ★★★★☆ How the Marquis Got His Coat Back, by Neil Gaiman
I have to confess, despite the mortal peril it may put me in, that I am not among the crowd that worships at the foot of Neil Gaiman. He writes nice stories, even very nice ones, but while the are undeniably precious, they aren't in a way that captures my undying adulation. That said, this is a nice story. It is an adjunct to his book (or, more properly, his novelization of his television series) Neverwhere. If you like his stuff, you will enjoy this, of course.
19. ★★★★☆ Now Showing, by Connie Willis
I don't even know what this was. A hyperbolic riff on the name of the book, coupled with a commentary on consumer manipulation, disguised as a silly romance? Most of Willis' research was apparently done on IMDB, whatever it was. Anyway, it was fun and frothy and gets three stars for that, and one more for being completely unexpected.
20. ★★★★★ The Lightning Tree, by Patrick Rothfuss
Rothfuss is famous for The Name of the Wind, which was a stunning debut, marred in my estimation by his over-capable hero, Klothve. This story stays away from Klothve, focusing on a day-in-the-life of his fae sidekick, Bast, and is the better for it. By avoiding the overly dramatic life of his nominal protagonist, his narrative skills really get a chance to shine. There are no spoilers here with respect to the novels, and this story would be a lark even to those that haven't touched the series.
If this is the high point of this collection, I'll be satisfied. If there's better, I'll be floored.
21. ★★★★☆ The Rogue Prince, or A King's Brother, by G.R.R. Martin
Gently disappointing, but somewhat disconcerting, too, in how provocative that is.
Martin has obviously been in the biz long enough to know the adage to show, not tell, right? But this story is all a telling, with nary a tidbit of dialog or action. In one sense, it seems to be an experiment. Instead of the kind of driving narrative we know to expect from a page-turner, we get a historic, almost biblical, recitation of events. The only way this is acceptable is because Martin's Westeros is undoubtedly intimately known to the overwhelming majority of those picking up this fat collection, and he's winking and teasing us. To anyone else, the story will be an opaque collection of names and events with no context to provide any drama.
To those in the know— inevitably, only a indulgent subset of those — we get a distilled essence of the kind of dynastic politics that forms the backbone to his epic. One way to look at this is as a story outline, the dry textbook version before he has reanimated the personalities and the twisted intricacies of their relationships.
Finally, I suspect the wink and the tease is also about the absurd heights that the HBO series has added to the already stratospheric expectations he faces. To anyone who has only seen the television program, this story will be incomprehensible, as it contains none of the lurid melodrama that Has become the show's trademark. Readers, accomplished in using their own imaginations, and not a cinematographer's craft, will be those that can brew a satisfying cup of tea from the dry leaves he provides, and will be reminded that the best drama is in their own imaginings, and the best authors merely provide careful hints and nudges. He's a tricky man.(less)