Monday, 21 May 2018

Review: New Seeds of Contemplation

New Seeds of Contemplation New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I deliberately read this very slowly, a few paragraphs at a time, letting it soak.

It's an odd book. Some chapters I wanted to quote in their entirety; others I could have done without completely. Sometimes the author seems deeply insightful; other times, he seems like someone who thinks he's deeply insightful but is actually just opinionated.

It doesn't have a single argument or a single direction. It kind of wanders around, sometimes on topic, other times not so much.

At its best, it directs the reader towards a profound contemplation that's beyond words, symbols, forms, and any possibility of description. At its worst, it's the ramblings of a mid-20th-century Catholic with all the limitations of worldview that implies.

On the whole, I recommend it to people who are interested, as I am, in the Centering Prayer tradition and similar movements, but there are better (by which I mean, more immediately practical and better structured) books around from people such as Cynthia Bourgeault, Thomas Keating, and Richard Rohr.

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Friday, 18 May 2018

Review: Summerland

Summerland Summerland by Hannu Rajaniemi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I sampled this author's Quantum Thief, but bounced off it because it was both very high-concept and in a setting with a lot of new things in it that aren't immediately explained. This one is high-concept, but the setting is more understandable: the world of British espionage in an alternate 1930s, in which Lodge and Marconi have discovered a way to talk to the dead and to help people who die to remain conscious on the Other Side. There's a rivalry in Britain between the dead spies of the Summer Court and the live ones of the Winter Court. Lenin has formed the core of a powerful collective dead consciousness in the Soviet Union known as the Presence, and Stalin, exiled, is trying to undermine the Communists throughout Europe without exactly selling out to the West. There are lots of double agents, including the illegitimate son of the Prime Minister - the PM in question being fairly obviously based on H.G. Wells.

It's skillfully done, and threads the difficult needle of having disillusioned, unhappy characters who still strive to be better, or to do something worthwhile. That helped me to relate to them as protagonists. They inhabited a grey world, but not a completely hopeless or pointless one.

One of the main characters was the PM's illegitimate son, already mentioned; the other was a female agent who had been consistently passed over and not taken seriously because of her gender. When she discovers from a Russian defector that the PM's son has been turned, nobody believes her, and she has to decide who she can trust to help her bring him down.

Cue lots of complicated maneuvering and spycraft, along with some original worldbuilding around the concept of the conscious dead.

The plot managed to be complex and yet comprehensible, another thing that's hard to do. Overall, both impressive and enjoyable.

I received a copy from Netgalley for review.

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Thursday, 17 May 2018

Review: The Quantum Magician

The Quantum Magician The Quantum Magician by Derek Kunsken
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My background in quantum theory consists of understanding about one sentence in three in the quantum theory chapter of Goedel, Escher, Bach (which I thought was reasonably good going). And that was some years ago, so I am far from qualified to talk about the physics of this book.

That didn't matter to my enjoyment of the story; I just took the various bits of esoteric physics as sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic, and concentrated on following the complicated heist.

I do enjoy a good heist, and this is definitely one. There's the "assembling the team" sequence, the planning, the mini-heists gathering resources, the things that go wrong, getting in, getting out, the moments when we learn about plans beneath plans, the team member who betrays the crew... all the classic elements are here. I will say that I could have done with more clarity about exactly why the client needed the mastermind's help, and the topology of the journey they were trying to make, but even though it wasn't really clear to me until late in the piece where they were, where they wanted to be, and how the two were connected, I enjoyed the ride.

The characters all tend towards the haunted, miserable end of things, though not all of them are without idealism or a higher purpose. And the Puppets (genetically engineered miniature humans created to have a reaction of religious awe towards the people who created them, who have turned on those people and imprisoned them in order to protect them) creeped me all the way out; that was a nasty situation, complete with torture and abuse, and I personally could have done without it. I also didn't love the foul-mouthed genetically engineered undersea being. But I can admire an author's skill without enjoying all the things he does with it, and the whole complex book was managed with great skill - and came to a conclusion that I found satisfying, in the end.

I received a copy from Netgalley for purposes of review. The author and I both participate in the same writers' forum, which is how I became aware of the book.

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Review: A Closed and Common Orbit

A Closed and Common Orbit A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This author's first book took a step away from the standard space opera focus on adventure and action to focus more on the interactions and development of the characters. That was what people who liked it liked most about it, and in this second book in the series, she seems to have picked up on that and made it all about the characters. There's not a great deal of action (though there is a very light heist near the end), which isn't to say that there isn't tension, challenge, and danger. Both of the main characters have goals to pursue and difficulties to overcome, and in doing so, they change and develop and grow and come to their own resolutions.

The narrative weaves together two stories in two different places and timeframes, and there's a shared character between them, going by two different names in the two different stories. She's the main character of the flashback story, and a secondary but important character in the "present time" story, and both stories deal with the same theme: becoming a person.

Jane (as she's known in the flashback story) is one of a crop of girls created to sort junk in search of useful material; it's cheaper and more efficient to use girls than it is to use robots. She is, effectively, equipment. When she escapes and meets the AI of a downed starship, she begins to discover her personhood, in part through a children's VR story.

In the other story, she's known as Pepper, and (picking up from the first book, where both are minor characters), she has convinced Lovelace, another ship AI, to take the risk of inhabiting an illegal body which passes her off as human. Taking a new name, the AI struggles with the limitations and unfamiliarity of her new situation, makes an alien friend, and shapes an identity for herself in the process.

While the pace sometimes slackens to linger on description for a touch longer than I would prefer, the narrative questions are clear and compelling, and move the book along well. The characters' relationships and their internal emotional life are very much the focus, but were so well handled that I never lost interest or felt disengaged from their struggles.

Overall, a fine effort, and I look forward to the sequel.

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Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Review: Arabella The Traitor of Mars

Arabella The Traitor of Mars Arabella The Traitor of Mars by David D. Levine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was very capably written, and on paper I should have loved it; determined young female protagonists who are intelligent and competent and independent are a feature I look for in books, and here we have one. Somehow, though, I never connected with Arabella emotionally, and while I didn't dislike the book, I also didn't love it.

There could be several reasons for that. One reason may be the stiff, cool language of the (alternate-universe) Regency setting. I've enjoyed and emotionally connected with books with that kind of setting before, though, such as Melissa McShane's Extraordinaries series. It wasn't my dislike of the gory battle scenes, though I'm not a fan of those; they came late in the book, when I was already feeling disengaged.

The other main problem I had, and perhaps the main reason for my coolness towards the book, was that I was working so hard to maintain suspension of disbelief. The basic setting (a solar system in which there is air everywhere and sailing ships can voyage through it between the planets) requires quite a robust effort to swallow by itself; I'm OK with the planetary-romance conceit of an inhabited Mars full of canals and an inhabited Venus full of jungles, but the physics of the air-filled solar system made no sense to me, and nor did the idea that people pedaling to propel the ships would make a significant difference to their interplanetary speed. I have a similar struggle with the dragons in the Temeraire series (who cause suspiciously few supply problems, and can fly amazingly well, for such enormous creatures). I appreciate that part of SFF is suspending disbelief, but some premises make it harder than others.

On top of this unlikeliness, too, there are a few others layered. For example, the inciting incident of the whole book is that the heroine refuses to accept the Prince Regent's plans to conquer Mars and exploit it for Britain. I appreciate that, as he mentions in his afterword, the author was trying to write an anti-colonialist novel, but I'm afraid I never believed Arabella's rebellion against the comprehensively held mindset of her time. Even when I reminded myself that the American colonies had rebelled and thrown off British colonial government, I still couldn't help thinking that that was emphatically not because anyone there respected the native inhabitants and considered resisting colonialism as such to be a matter of self-evident natural justice. On top of which, Arabella is an example of the White Saviour trope; real resistance to colonialism was almost universally driven by indigenous peoples themselves, and although the Martians play an important and respected role in the resistance, they don't initiate it and they're not at all the centre of the plot.

And then there's a fortunate and somewhat unlikely coincidence at the all-is-lost moment that saves the day, putting a further heavy burden on my already overstrained suspension of disbelief.

Ultimately, I think I didn't love it because I didn't believe it.

I haven't read the previous two books in the series; there's enough catch-up at the beginning that I wasn't confused about the events of the backstory, but it may be that I would have been more emotionally engaged, and perhaps even believed more easily, if I'd been through the process of following Arabella's earlier adventures, rather than having them briefly summarized. Who knows?

Your experience of the book may be different, and I will say that the writing craft is at an admirable standard. I couldn't quite bring myself to drop it down to three stars, but it's at the lower end of four, for me.

I received a copy via Netgalley for purposes of review.

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Friday, 11 May 2018

Review: The Epic Crush of Genie Lo

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've shelved this as both "YA" and "supers", because the protagonist is 16 and the overall feel is of a supers novel. The youth of the protagonist doesn't at all mean immaturity, though, and the superpowers are connected to the classic Chinese "folk novel" Journey to the West.

I happened to read a version of Journey to the West recently, and it was interesting to see a modern disapora Chinese take on it. I have to agree with Genie Lo's assessment that Tripitaka was pretty pathetic.

Genie herself is the reincarnation of someone who features heavily in Journey to the West - exactly who is a surprise to her and to the reader, so I won't spoil it. But she is also very much a modern Chinese American teenager, dealing with parental and internalized pressure to excel, get into a good college, and get a good job, not least so that she can move away from the Bay Area and therefore her mother.

There is a minimal amount of high-school angst, which is kept in the background; Genie is not so much angsty as angry, and takes no crap from anyone, least of all Sun Wukong the Monkey King. Despite her attraction to him, which is leavened pretty strongly with irritation.

Her voice is a delight. "This was a car accident, and now burning clowns were spilling out of the wreckage," she remarks at one point. There are a good few unexplained Chinese terms; Wikipedia was my friend here, though I did read some of the book on a plane where I couldn't look up words and phrases on Wikipedia from my Kindle. None of the Chinese was essential to understanding the story, and the emotional tone of the reference, if not its exact meaning, was always clear from context.

The editing was mostly good, though a few more commas might not have gone amiss, especially to avoid "let's eat Grandma" errors. There were sometimes exclamation marks and question marks ending the same sentence; I put this down to voice, though it's technically questionable. Neither of these things diminished my enjoyment enough to drop a star.

Overall, the pacing was compelling; the balances and interactions between plot and character, high schooler and superhero, and eastern and western were well judged, and produced a book that had some depth to it; and I enjoyed the main character's voice so much that I felt five stars were justified.

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Thursday, 10 May 2018

Review: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There seem to be two camps regarding this book.

Camp 1 likes it because of the warmth and kindness of the characters.

Camp 2 finds the characters wishy-washy and the plot lacking in tension.

I found myself in Camp 1, and (given the complaints I've seen from Camp 2), was surprised at how much external and internal challenge the characters faced. It's true that the tension wasn't generally sustained over a long period; people either resolved their issues or set them aside as unsolvable and moved on, like adults do. But there were definite threats; I was expecting something along the lines of Nathan Lowell's Share stories, where brewing decent coffee or finding something profitable to make some side money with are major plot points, and the stakes seldom get much higher than that (at least early on; later, a tragic death comes out of nowhere, which put me off the series). No; the crew's survival and their wellbeing are threatened several times, convincingly, and they have to work together to overcome their problems.

I appreciated that at one point two people who dislike each other have to work together, and while they still dislike each other afterwards, there's more of a connection.

Was it a touch slow-moving? At times. It does tend to linger on things that are atmospheric and create a mood, but don't do a lot to advance the plot, although they often do deepen the characterization. I can also see how one reviewer I know found the manic Kizzy more annoying than cute. It's a book not without its flaws, but if you go into it with the somewhat counter-genre expectation of it being more of a warm, human story than an action movie, as I did, it has its definite strengths as well.

One oddity: the phrase "some time" (a certain amount of time) is consistently, and incorrectly, styled as "sometime" (an indefinite point in time); there's also "anytime" when it should be "any time". Also, there are question marks and exclamation marks combined in the same sentence. Otherwise, the editing is good.

The worldbuilding is largely the standard space opera stuff, including a diverse set of alien races that are still mostly bipedal (and, despite various numbers of digits, have apparently adopted the decimal system as a standard). I was dubious about a couple of the astronomical details, but there was nothing fatal to my suspension of disbelief. The galaxy, we come to understand, contains people who are corrupt, greedy, cruel, deluded, violent... but the main characters are not those things. They've overcome, or are currently living with, significant issues, and these have made them, on the whole, kind, accepting, and gentle beings. Even this isn't universal; the fussy engineer, though he has a character development arc, ends up still fussy, prickly, and poor at social interaction, though we do learn why.

I came in with the vague impression that this might be a happy-happy feelgood book in which nothing happened and everything was handed to the characters with no real struggle. That isn't the case, though it's somewhat closer to being the case than in more standard action-oriented space operas.

I certainly enjoyed it enough to read the sequel, which I found even better.

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Review: Magic Eater: An Uncanny Kingdom Urban Fantasy

Magic Eater: An Uncanny Kingdom Urban Fantasy Magic Eater: An Uncanny Kingdom Urban Fantasy by M.V. Stott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genuinely funny, in a bumbling British loser-who-knows-he's-a-loser kind of way. Content warning for plenty of contextual swearing.

Scruffy around the edges as far as editing is concerned; the commas, hyphens, and especially apostrophes need a good tune-up, but I only spotted one homonym error (birth/berth).

This is urban fantasy with a strong British flavour, a high body count (to which the protagonist is not indifferent), and an action-packed plot. It uses the old amnesia trope, but does a decent job with it.

Part of a series which in turn is part of a larger world; I would read another if I was in the right mood.

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Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Review: The Time Rescuers

The Time Rescuers The Time Rescuers by Alan Crosby
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an interesting mixture of YA and the spiritual/cosmic genre. Although the author states that he's a Christian, it isn't as explicitly Christian as one might expect from that; there are some points made more or less in passing about modern materialism and lack of belief in a spiritual dimension, and about modern (lack of) morality, but the cosmic setup is not classical Christian cosmology.

It's a YA adventure, with three kids brought from different times and places to take part, on humanity's behalf, in the fight against spiritual invaders with ill intent. While they agreed to do so, they weren't exactly volunteers, and one of them (the New Zealander) quite understandably doesn't completely trust their recruiter. They only have the recruiter's word, for some time, that his side is the right one, though the villains prove their villainy soon enough.

I felt that the kids were the weakest part of the story. Usually, with an ensemble cast, there's something that each one can do that nobody else in the cast can do, and that another randomly selected person couldn't do as easily, and I didn't feel that either of those things was true here. In fact, for a long time, the kids' contribution wasn't looking as if it would be particularly significant; and in the end they seemed more catspaws than heroes, though each of them did step up at various times (and make mistakes at various other times, driven by their emotions). There was some character growth and some growth as a team.

I did enjoy part of the story being set in New Zealand, and appreciated that the kids were motivated by concern for their parents. Overall, I liked it, but I didn't love it, and wouldn't go out of my way to seek out a sequel.

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