Posts Tagged With: wogf reading challenge

The Sword of Rhiannon by Leigh Brackett – A Review

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Finally, I’ve reached the end of the Women of Genre Fiction Challenge I signed up for back in May! I’m a little late, but I’m done! Continue reading

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Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh – A Review

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Eleven down, one to go. That’s how things stand with me and the Women of Genre Fiction Challenge I took on back in May. Not sure if I’ll get review #12 posted before 2013 comes to an end, but #11 is here right now.

For some reason, I haven’t read much C.J. Cherryh. In fact, before starting Downbelow Station, I can only remember reading one other of hers, and I don’t even remember what it was. It’s been a while.

Thanks to this Hugo-winning book, I’ll be amending that.

Downbelow Station is the first novel (not including the prequels) of Cherryh’s Company Wars series and takes part in her Union-Alliance universe. Published in 1981, it’s a complicated story, setting up a universe where a giant corporation (Earth Company) has become wealthy exploring the stars, building space stations around uninhabitable planets, all except for Pell’s World, a planet inhabited by the Hisa (called Downers by the humans who inhabit Pell Station, which orbits the planet).

When the novel begins, war has been raging between the Company and the Union, a group of colonists who have chosen to declare independence from Earth and the Company. The Union augments its military strength with clones. The Company has a fleet of warships commanded by Conrad Mazian. There is also a loose confederation of Merchanter ships involved in all this. Pell tries to maintain its neutrality and do business with all three groups: the Company, the Union, and the Merchanters. A crisis point starts the narrative of the novel, with one of the Company warships (led by Signy Mallory) unloading hundreds of refugees from another space station that’s been attacked by Union forces, causing the disruption of the people living on Pell.

There’s a lot more to the novel than that, but if I give you the whole synopsis, you’ll be reading for hours before even getting to my opinion of all that plot. Suffice it to say, there is a lot of political intrigue amongst all the groups and within them, except for the Hisa, who act more as observers than anything else. Or so it would seem.

I really enjoyed Downbelow Station. It took a while to get into as there is a lot of world-building/info-dumping in the first chapter or so, all of which is necessary to give the reader any idea of where they are. The book is a slow read, as well, because Cherryh’s prose is occasionally plodding and there’s just so much going on.

But I think the story makes up for those problems, and it eventually becomes an exciting read. Cherryh does a fine job establishing her universe and the conflicts therein. She also succeeds when working on the smaller scale of Pell Station and Downbelow (as the stationers call Pell’s World), translating the bigger conflicts to a more personal level, with stationers fighting for control of Pell against Union and the Mazianni (the Earth warships) alike. Her characters are decently drawn and she made me care about them.

The Hisa definitely fall into the “noble savage” trope of so much fiction. They’re sentient primate-like folks, assumed to be childlike by the humans that deal with them, but then surprisingly deep when they need to be. While reading, I went back and forth in liking them and not. Ended up settling into the liking them box, mainly because of Satin (Sky-sees-her) and her journey up to Pell to meet “the Dreamer” and see her planet’s sun, something the hisa on-planet can’t do, because their skies are always overcast.

Another thing I liked about the book was that both men and women were in positions of authority without any sexist weirdness. I loved Elene Quen, a former Merchanter married to Damon Konstantin, one of the leaders of Pell. She finds herself back in space aboard another Merchanter ship (hers was destroyed by the Union) and ends up doing significant work to bring about peace talks. This announcement of hers made me bust out crying, because I’m just a dork that way.

This is Quen of Estelle. We’re coming in.

Signy Mallory, the commander of the warship Norway, is also incredibly bad-ass and I would love to see Sigourney Weaver play her, if a movie was ever made of Downbelow Station. It would be a fun film, for a lot of reasons. I’m kind of surprised it hasn’t happened yet. I guess rebooting Star Trek and Star Wars is just that much more profitable, huh? 😉

(4.1/5)

Categories: Books/Authors, Women | Tags: , , , ,

Mindscape by Andrea Hairston – A Review

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Mindscape

In my last WOGF reading challenge review, I remarked on how one of the main points of Native Tongue gets bogged down amidst all the other plot threads Suzette Haden Elgin tries to bring together. That point being the attempt of a group of women Linguists to create their own language, a necessary thing given their oppression. Andrea Hairston brings up a similar point in her 2006 debut novel Mindscape and does so in one sharply written paragraph–one amongst many.

All the thugs is laughin’ at me, but I don’t go off. I take a deep breath, work calm in my center, like Ray Valero do to act. Ethnic throwbacks be like the ole Israelis bringin’ back Hebrew after two thousand years, after so many words was fightin’ against ’em. Why anybody wanna speak the truth, raise they children, know themselves with gas chamber language? Survival be havin’ words to call home, havin’ idioms and syntax to heal the Diaspora. In your cultural rhythm and rhyme, that’s where the soul keep time. — Lawanda Kitt, p. 51

The rest of Mindscape is like that: a lot of heavy things said that, at least to me, doesn’t get lost in a stew of wobbly prose.

Mindscape is a complex tale of a future Earth dealing with the aftermath of the invasion of some sort of alien/magical barrier that has cut the planet into several regions that can no longer interact with each other except for when seasonal corridors open up in the Barrier. All of these regions are constantly at war until a seer/prophet/something named Celestina convinces everyone to sign a peace treaty, ushering in a new era, presumably. She is then assassinated.

So much for the prologue.

The rest of the book concerns the aftermath of the treaty signing. Like I said, it’s complex and Hairston leads us through with the help of five perspectives: Elleni, Celestina’s spirit-daughter who might not be completely human; Lawanda Kitt, an ambassador called upon to interact with the rulers of a rival region; The Major, a man of mixed loyalties, one of which is Lawanda; Ray Valero, a celebrated actor who finds himself in the position of having to be a real hero; and Aaron Dunkelbrot, an entertainment producer with an interesting past.

Through these five people, Hairston shows us a dystopian world where epidemics rage, poor people who don’t have the “right” appearance become Extras in snuff films, “ethnic throwbacks” fight to not be disappeared while gene-art mutations flourish, and a chosen few try to communicate with the Barrier to figure out its plans.

I enjoyed Mindscape quite a bit. Hairston’s prose is delightful and her characters are strong and interesting. The story carried me right along, and her insights into race and culture never felt preachy or heavyhanded. My only complaint might be that the ending felt a little rushed with a ton of plot threads coming together all at once. It’s a minor complaint, though, and I’m looking forward to reading her novel from 2011, Redwood and Wildfire. 4.85/5

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Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin – A Review

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Suzette Haden Elgin published Native Tongue, the first book in this eponymous trilogy, in 1984. I was 22 in 1984.

I remember Reagan’s election and how many of us on the left (I was already quite at home way over on the left wing) were frightened by the possibilities, many of which have come to pass. I also remember the beginnings of the backlash on feminism, a backlash that just keeps growing 30 years later. So, I get where Haden’s coming from with her story of a dystopian future USA where women have lost all their rights and are now the property of men in worse ways then they were before the second wave of feminism. My 22 year-old self would have eaten this book up and looked for more.

I’m sad to report, however, that the book didn’t really do much for my 51 year-old self. The story immediately irked me with the premise that the constitutional amendments revoking the 19th amendment and turning women into minors under the law would have happened by 1991. I mean, okay, Reagan and his ilk scared me, too, but 1991? That seems awfully premature.

That’s always a risk writers take, putting events in the super-near future. I’m still miffed that 2001 came and it was nothing like the movie. There was a 33-year gap there. To predict something this cataclysmic happening less than 10 years from when you’re publishing? Might have wanted to think that through a little more.

So, I had to try to push that aside as I read further. Fortunately the rest of the book takes place centuries in the future, the 22nd to be exact. There we discover that not only do women still not have any rights, but society has been divided up into two antagonistic groups: the Linguists and everyone else. The Linguists are the only people capable of communicating with all the alien societies humans have met, so they’re necessary as translators to make all the treaties and do all the negotiating. Regular people hate them, so the Linguist families (the Lines) live in large communal houses buried in the earth away from prying eyes and violent reaction.

One of the reasons that regular folk hate the Linguists is that Linguist women are allowed to work outside the home as translators because, apparently, there’s so much translating that needs to be done, they have to. Then we have all the stuff happening with babies blowing up because they can’t fathom non-humanoid alien languages (no, really). I haven’t even gotten to the Linguist women’s work on creating a language that allows women to express their thoughts better than standard English, French, German, whatever. This, one might argue, is really the point of the book, but it gets lost, to me, amidst all the other stuff.

Oh, and there’s a serial killer. (Who’s actually my favorite part of the novel; her first murder? That chapter would make a great Tales from the Crypt of something.)

I hate to say this, because Elgin’s short story “Old Rocking Chair’s Got Me” remains one of my favorite short stories (Top 10, no question. It’s awesome. And hard to find. I have it in Dick Allen’s Science Fiction: The Future (1983 edition).), but I found Native Tongue to be too bloated and ponderous, too preachy and heavyhanded. While not all the women are saints, by any means (see: serial killer), most of them are and there isn’t one kind man in the whole thing. They’re all stupid, misogynistic assholes, every one of them, which is just bullshit. Even in 1984, I had allies. Still do.

None of the characters are really developed at all; they’re all just game pieces for Elgin’s philosophical/linguistic chess board. And there are so many plot holes. What do the aliens in the Interface do all day when they’re not communicating with (and occasionally destroying) the babies? And what happened to all the kids who’d been fed hallucinogens in an attempt to keep them from blowing up after they were taken to the orphanage? The list goes on.

Things I liked? The serial killer character, as I said. She’s really the only person whose character evolved (however slightly) over the course of the novel. I also enjoyed Elgin’s discussions of language and the linguistic “tricks” that one male linguist in particular would use to win arguments. Those were interesting. And I liked the notion that an academic field such as linguistics would become so powerful. But the negative outweighs the positive for me.

Biggest disappointment? The cover of the edition I read. Nothing like that image happens in the book. I wanted my motherly alien! (2.625/5)

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Up the Walls of the World by James Tiptree, Jr. – A Review

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Up the Walls of the WorldI came to Up the Walls of the World knowing very little of James Tiptree, Jr. I knew that the author’s real name was Alice Bradley Sheldon and that her publisher kept her identity secret until 1977 (the year before Up the Walls of the World was released). The science fiction community argued over who Tiptree was (some sort of government spy perhaps) and what gender (both Robert Silverberg and Harlan Ellison assumed male).

But that’s all I knew. I’d never read her stuff, even though several of her books have been on our bookshelves for ages. So, it was with a lot of curiosity and excitement that I started reading what was Tiptree’s first novel for my next WOGF challenge book. It held up to that approach, I’m happy to say.

Up the Walls of the World is a complicated tale, starting in the brain of the Destroyer, an entity larger than a solar system moving through space in existential pain. It considers itself evil and a betrayer of its kind.

Tiptree introduces us next to an entity that can pick up on that evil. She is a Tyrenni, part of a race of creatures resembling manta rays who ride the winds of a large gas planet’s atmosphere and communicate telepathically and through the changing colors of their bodies. Something is destroying the Tyrenni’s planet.

Next we meet a group of plain old humans. Well, not exactly. They’re a group of supposedly telepathic folk conducting experiments at a US Navy laboratory.

The book moves amongst all three of these. I was most interested in the Tyrenni because I had never read anything like them before. Tiptree did a great job of creating a wholly other sentient species that is utterly unhuman, and she still found space to play with gender and society. In Tyrenni culture, males are the childbearers and hold a higher place in society because of it. The females are the explorers and have all the fun.

The humans took time to grow on me. I initially found the group’s medical doctor (and our introduction to this aspect of the book) to be annoying in his attitudes and near fetishization of the team’s only Black member and IT chief, Margaret Omali. But there’s an aspect to Daniel Dann’s character that reveals itself slowly through the book and helped diffuse some of that.

The Destroyer itself is simply brilliant and the reveal of its true mission made me smile, as did the way Tiptree wove all three elements of the book together into a satisfying conclusion.

Up the Walls of the World is one of the most original books of any genre I’ve read in a long time and a fun read. I ended up loving most of her characters, especially Tivonel, the first Tyrenni we meet. And the book kept me guessing most of the way. Highly recommended. 4.6/5

I also wonder if this is where Whedon got Faith’s catchphrase, because there it is on page 133.

“Five by five!” Costakis calls out again, and then Winona exclaims in a strained voice, “Doctor Catledge, this is wild. I know we’re getting them.”

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The State of Things

So, it’s been a while since I’ve posted something that doesn’t have a video or a list of links attached to it. It’s been a busy summer, like I’ve said. Care for an update?

Over the last few months, I wrote and submitted two new short stories to a couple of themed anthologies. Still waiting to hear. There’s also been a lot of reading. I’ll be done with the next WOGF Challenge book soon and will have a review. I went old school this time; so far, it’s another good one.

The Travelers continues to limp toward its conclusion. I’ve mainly been typing up (dictating, really–my wrists have been sore lately) pages I’d already hand-written. That’s been interesting: 1) I wrote some of these scenes months ago (maybe longer), so I’m revisiting them with various levels of “cringe” and “oh, that’s not too bad”; and 2) Windows speech recognition doesn’t always hear quite what I said–latest fave mistake: “put a sock fuzz” for “bodhisattvas.”

Alpha Reader and I had a really good brainstorming session last month figuring out where The Travelers should end up. Lots of good questions and conversation. Let’s see if that translates into a good story!

In the realm of already-published business, Winter Well received a starred review from Publishers Weekly! There were good things said about my story “To The Edges,” which made my day, and continues to, even though the review came out last week.

I also ran into the dark side of attempting to get published yesterday, when I discovered that the latest issue of a magazine I’d submitted another story to was just terrible. (TW for rape; it’s on the right) It felt like a backlash against the really cool hashtag #DiversityinSFF that was happening on Twitter last week. Obviously, this place is not the home for my badass space detective. I immediately submitted somewhere else that feels a lot more welcoming to anyone who, you know, doesn’t find assault titillating. Here’s hoping they think my story’s a good fit, too.

In the what’s-happening-next category, I’m going to be posting an interview with Justin Robinson, author of the soon-to-be-published City of Devils. That’s going to happen on the day his book’s coming out, Sept. 24. I hope you’ll tune in for that. Should be fun. There might even be a giveaway!

That’s it for now, I think. How’ve you all been?

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I love this photo: the composition, the colors, someone reading! Man sits on bench reading (Photo credit: Ian Livesey)

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The Between by Tananarive Due – A Review

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“Sometimes the dead go unburied.”


We’ve now sliding down the downslope of this year’s women of genre fiction reading challenge. No, no! I don’t mean that I’ll be giving The Between a bad review. Far from it. What I mean is that this is book #7 out of twelve. More than half way done!

The Between is Tananarive Due’s first novel, published in 1995. Its protagonist is Hilton James who, as a young boy, almost drowns, but is rescued by his grandmother. The undertow takes her instead. James is adopted by an aunt and uncle and, once grown, marries a woman named Dede and has two children, Jamil and Kaya. The book opens (after the prologue where we learn about James’ near-death experience) with Dede being elected the first African American judge of Dade County, Florida. Hilton is a successful drug counselor. All’s well that ends well, right?

Yeah, not so much. Dede is receiving racist hate mail from someone she once prosecuted and Hilton is having nightmares, nightmares that steadily grow worse and cause James to question reality.

The Between is a creepy, haunting tale. I really loved coming along with Hilton on his descent into madness as his dreams become ever more intense and his obsession with protecting his family from their stalker grows worse. I felt so bad for him as well as Dede and their children, who could only watch as he slips further away from them.

While the book is predictable in places, Due’s prose is lovely, she has a marvelous attention to detail, and the tale sucked me in deeply. Due created such strong characters in the James family; I loved them all and was hoping all through my read that everything would work out for them. The secondary characters are strong, too. Hilton’s therapist Raul is a smart, interesting man as is his brother Andres, who delivers the reveal of what’s most likely happening with Hilton James, an explanation that works for me.

If you like psychological horror, I highly recommend The Between.

4.25/5

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The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente – A Review

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Fairyland

“She fed me fish,” he whispered. “And blackberry jam.”
“Not together, I hope.”

 

 

 

 

 


See that beautiful cover? That’s one of the reasons I was excited to read The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente, even though I can never wrap my head around the complete title of the thing and have taken to calling it the Fairyland book (#1). That lovely illustration, plus all the other delightful ones inside, were created by Ana Juan.

I mean no disrespect to the title or Ms. Valente, by the way. The title sets out the situation of the book nicely. September is the active participant in her own story of heroism, and the title is a fun callback to books of another era (as is the list of dramatis personae at the beginning).

I really enjoyed the Fairyland book. September is a girl living in Omaha who is whisked away one day by the Green Wind and his leopard friend to the magical place of Fairyland. There she has adventures, meets amazing creatures, and goes on quests. (As another once-upon-a-time young girl who lived in Omaha, I can’t count the number of times I wish I had been offered the same invitation. I don’t think I would have done as well in the same place, though.)

For the most part, I love Valente’s use of language (she likes adverbs way more than I do, and that’s the reason she lost a sliver of a star). She has a wonderful sense of humor and description, and I like how the narrator butts in occasionally with opinions of her own. The story has an old-style feel to it, reminding me a little of Roald Dahl and JRR Tolkien (The Hobbit). I also like what Valente does with the fairy tale trope by flipping things around and not being afraid to show the dark side that lurks under all of those stories (when it’s not right there, fangs glistening in your face).

Valente has also created some wonderful characters who I’m hoping to read more about in the rest of the series. Especially the wyvern who claims to be part library and calls himself a Wyverary. His name is A-Through-L, but September calls him Ell. But there are so many others: Saturday, the blue-skinned marid, Betsy with her gargoyle puppet, and Gleam, the one-hundred-and-twelve-year-old paper lantern, for just a few examples.

I took so many notes when I was reading the Fairland book. There are so many wonderful sentences, turns of phrase, and conversations. While the book is marketed as one meant for young adults, I think anyone who has a thing for old fairy tales and The Wizard of Oz (movie or book) and is looking for a story where the princess is fully capable of saving herself would enjoy The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

One of the many things I copied in my notes:

Stories have a way of changing faces. They are unruly things, undisciplined, given to delinquency and the throwing of erasers. –p. 35

4.875/5

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Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson – A Review

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The rich and privileged have fled the city, barricaded it behind roadblocks, and left it to crumble. The inner city has had to rediscover old ways-farming, barter, herb lore. But now the monied need a harvest of bodies, and so they prey upon the helpless of the streets. With nowhere to turn, a young woman must open herself to ancient truths, eternal powers, and the tragic mystery surrounding her mother and grandmother.

She must bargain with gods, and give birth to new legends.

     


I’m hoping that Frankenstein is going to be the worst in the pile of books I’ve challenged myself to read this year. It’s been so much fun to discover new-to-me authors like N.K. Jemisin and Hiromi Goto and rediscover someone like Ursula K. Le Guin. I want the fun to keep on coming.

Today I get to talk about another new-to-me discovery: Nalo Hopkinson‘s Brown Girl in the Ring. This book is Hopkinson’s first, published in 1998. Hopkinson won the Locus Award for Best New Novel, the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, as well as the Warner Aspect first novel competition for her work. Plus the book has a blurb on the front cover from none other than Octavia Butler.

So, it wasn’t like I was going in with any expectations or anything.

Brown Girl in the Ring takes place in a future Toronto, a city that’s been turned into a “donut hole”–anyone who could escaped from the decaying city to the suburbs, leaving the town and the people behind to rot. One of these people is Ti-Jeanne, a young Caribbean Canadian who survives with her infant son and her grandmother, Gros-Jeanne, a healer and seer. Ti-Jeanne has started seeing visions herself–demons and skeletons in top hats, among other things. While she’s trying to deal with this, her ex- (her son’s father) comes to her looking for help. He has gotten messed up with a necromancer of sorts who wants Tony to harvest a human heart from the premier of Ontario. Mayhem ensues.

I really enjoyed this book. Hopkinson has done a fine job building this dystopian world; it’s one I would love to learn more about. She’s created the remains of an inner city that are wholly believable, rich, and three-dimensional. I’m also thankful for the chance to learn about a culture I admit I know little about.

The same richness can be found in Hopkinson’s characters. They’re all fairly well developed, enough so, anyway, to contribute something to the tale. Rudy may be a bit over the top, but he’s a fun guy to hate, and he gave me the shivers.

Hopkinson’s prose is sturdy. While it isn’t magic on the level of Le Guin, it gets the job done and contains some awesome metaphors such as a character shaking someone’s hand as if he were “palping rotten carrion” and comparing the smell of night air to “biting into an apple.” All in all an excellent read. 4.75/5

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Half World by Hiromi Goto – A Review

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Melanie Tamaki is human—but her parents aren’t. They are from Half World, a Limbo between our world and the afterlife, and her father is still there. When her mother disappears, Melanie must follow her to Half World—and neither of them may return alive.

                      


I’ve now finished book four in the Women of Genre Fiction challenge. Can I just say that, so far, this has been a blast? All four books have been fun to read and have something to recommend. Okay, Frankenstein caused me to roll my eyes a lot more than the other three, but it was still worth reading.

And so was Half World. This book, written by Hiromi Goto, is the first YA title on my list. As you might expect from the blurb above, it’s a dark tale. Melanie is a fourteen-year-old living with her mother in poverty. She’s chubby and doesn’t do well in school, so is labeled a special needs student and is a victim of bullies. Crows seem to like her, though. Coming home from school one day, she finds the hovel she lives in empty and the phone that’s been out of service for months starts ringing. On the other end of the line is our villain, Mr. Glueskin, who tells Melanie she must come to Half World if she ever wants to see her mother again.

And so she does. But not without help. She enters Half World with the aid of a jade rat given to her by a neighbor woman, Ms. Wei, a shopowner who reminds me very much of Mrs. Whatsit from A Wrinkle in Time.

I enjoyed Half World. Melanie felt like a real teenager to me: smarter and braver than she realizes, and yet, capable of complete meltdowns when things just get too much. Half World, too, is really cool. Goto does a good job conveying the vague limbo-ish feel of the place, and the characters who exist there are a hoot–straight out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting–and yet, many of them are not just scenery. Certain scenes in Half World also reminded me of similar scenes in Stephen King’s Song of Susannah (book six of The Dark Tower). Roast suckling pig!

My only serious complaint with the book is, well, the premise. Goto defines Half World as the place everyone goes when they die. This is where Melanie’s parents are when Melanie is conceived, so they are already, presumably, dead.

Dead people conceiving children.

I just don’t buy that. I didn’t buy it in Angel, and I buy it less here. How does that even work?

But I liked Melanie and Ms. Wei so much–and Mr. Glueskin, awesome villain that he is–it was easy for me to just not think about it. (I also try not to think about it in Angel. And season 4 never happened either.) I also loved the illustrations created by Jillian Tamaki. 3.5/5

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