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Laura Allen

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The Dark Forest
Joel Martinsen, Cixin Liu

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street - Natasha Pulley What an unexpected pleasure! I actually listened to Thomas Judd's audiobook performance of this one instead of reading it; I'd recommend it highly.

The Goblin Emperor

The Goblin Emperor - Katherine Addison I probably could give this book three stars; I wavered a bit. The book was reasonably enjoyable overall, I suppose, but it was also wooden, stiff, and entirely expected. I honestly don't even remember if I finished the last chapter or not, if that says anything. The morals that are jam-packed into the otherwise simplistic plot are completely admirable, but the execution feels contrived and hackneyed; for the most part, they induce eye-rolling annoyance ("Oh god, here's the part where he champions the common people...") rather than empathy.

Readable, but only if you find it in your hand in an otherwise choiceless situation. Ethically admirable but poorly executed. I think I'll stick with two stars.
SPOILER ALERT!

Aurora

Aurora - Kim Stanley Robinson This book...let's just say I have a lengthy review to write at some point, but for now, I'll condense my mixed feelings as best I can.

In some ways, this book was five stars all the way: it has a refreshingly strong engineering focus; in the first half, at least, it details the challenges of terra- and ecoforming in satisfying depth (in this respect, it makes up for all that the Mars trilogy lacks;) and it features an interesting use of a developing AI as narrator. It also raises many of the more important philosophical questions underlying space travel, colonization, and technological progress in general.

But in other ways, it earns two stars at best: the characters become progressively more wooden and dislikable as the novel lengthens; and the scientific implications and conclusions drawn by the protagonists (and presumably the book itself) are unwarranted, specious, and emotionally inflammatory on an almost sophomoric level. Instead of just leaving those great philosophical questions explored and up to the reader to answer, Robinson seems to pick a stance almost at random (there certainly isn't enough evidence in the novel to support it) and spends the last third of the book making a tedious argumentative appeal to emotion through his characters.

The end result is...very mixed. I'll give it three stars for now.

Coalescent

Coalescent - Stephen Baxter I'd actually like to give this one 3.5 stars, at least until I read the sequel. It was a decent enough book, a compelling read, but it did have a few problems; it felt like a good novella that had been padded to make a fat novel and subsequently suffered for it.

Certain of the more SF aspects of the plot never really made sense; they felt very much tacked on, almost workshop-style ("I don't think this'll sell as scifi, Bob...why dontcha add some aliens or something?") The core story is quite a good one, though, and I will pick up the sequel to find out if Baxter manages to coax a convincing extra rabbit out of this one.

The Android's Dream

The Android's Dream - John Scalzi I listened to Will Wheaton's audiobook performance of this one, rather than reading it, and I'd recommend it mainly as pleasant background noise; it's entertaining, but a bit on the formulaic side.

The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2015 Edition

The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2015 Edition - Rich Horton This was't my favorite edition; last year's was much better. The overall aesthetic is somewhat odd...maybe "petty" and "callow" might be descriptors? There are a couple of standout stories, but as a whole, this one wasn't quite not a disappointment.

The Martian

The Martian - Andy Weir The Martian is a good book. period. It's a quick read, and it's hard to put down; the epistolary format works well for moving along a plot that could easily get bogged down in details. The main character is likable and funny, and he reminds me quite a bit of a few "characters" I know IRL.

I'm probably not going to see the movie, since one of the aspects of the novel that I found most appealing was its lack of excessive sensationalism, sentimentalism, or politicizing. Sure, there were exciting bits, scary bits, and humans being humans, but Andy Weir let those things remain in the background. He let a good story be a good story and just that; in the past years I've come to doubt that moviemakers are capable of that sort of restraint, and so I'll stay away.

So, maybe it's not a five-star all-time favorite, but it's definitely a good and admirable read.

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature - Steven Pinker I actually didn't finish this one- I wish there were an option for "set aside for now"- because it reminded me too much of the controversy I lived through in my college days in the late 90s. While I agree with Pinker's position (and loved his Better Angels of Our Nature ) I had no wish to relive those very stressful days of being a staunch moderate in an extremely radical English department. In this book, Pinker makes cogent all those arguments that some of us amateurishly tried to use against the more powerful radical establishment of the day, and while I wish I'd known of this book then, I have no real desire to rehash it all now.

Thank god for being a grownup.

The Dishonesty of Dreams

The Dishonesty of Dreams - A.J. Odasso This is a beautiful collection, strange and powerful. Odasso's poetry uses the language of myth and story to address themes of transition, identity, and loss; fairy tales, ghost stories, and various mythologies are woven together with the mundane to create something new, something intensely personal.

"This is a dream of becoming, as all dreams are." From the opening poem, this line describes one of the main themes of the book. But not all dreams are happy dreams, and 'becoming' is not without its agonies; Odasso spends the rest of the collection exploring the ambivalent territory between what is real and what is hoped-for, between what was and what is coming to be. These poems are haunted by a sense of absent wholeness, sought but remaining always just out of reach.

A few of the standout poems include the haunting "Still Point of the Turning World," the harsh and lovely "Five Secret Selves," and the quietly beautiful "Touch." All in all, a very good book.

The Mad God's Amulet (The History of the Runestaff, Vol 2)

The Mad God's Amulet (The History of the Runestaff, Vol 2) - Michael Moorcock The more I read of Moorcock, the more I realize how silly those theories about talent and innate genius really are. Some of Moorcock's works are sublime, subtle, and quite literary; others are real stinkers. This one, coming as early in his career and in the "Eternal Champion" cycle as it did, contains very little of his mature qualities; it's trite, shallow, and ridiculously full of two-page blow-by-blow accounts of sword fights.

It's practically a caricature of all that is distasteful about the fantasy genre. Written in 1968, it has the full complement: cardboard characters, flimsy plots, unnecessary blood and guts, sexism, total reliance on unexplained deus ex machina devices, etc.. The gap in quality between this book and, say, The War Hound and the World's Pain, written in 1981, is so huge as to disprove the old adage, "you either have it or you don't." Apparently, writerly skill can be learned, can improve tremendously with practice. In fact, it might be possible to align the development of Moorcock's career with the evolution of genre fiction itself: what began in naivety, shallowness, and sensationalism has deepened into a medium capable of subtlety and real literary merit.

I have recommended Moorcock to non-genre-fan friends before, but now I feel like I'll need to add a caveat: yes, read Moorcock, but please don't read the "Hawkmoon" books. Egads.

Black Zodiac

Black Zodiac - Charles Wright It's possible that I'll come back to this one with five stars later; I've had to speed-read it for a class, which does no book much justice and this one even less. I've loved it so far, loved its melancholy; its self-conscious meta-religious search for something to cling to in the face of aging and death; its sheer textural beauty. But it's also a bit plangent, a bit heavy on the allusion for my tastes. The collection certainly works as a whole, but in the spots where it doesn't, the failure's due to the self-indulgent excesses of artistical poetical poeticalness.

However. This is a haunting, achingly profound book whose flaws are hard-pressed to do anything more than act as counterpoint to its beauty. I look forward to returning to it at leisure.

Von Bek (The Tale of the Eternal Champion)

Von Bek (The Tale of the Eternal Champion) - Michael Moorcock The five stars is for the first book, The War Hound and the World's Pain. I was less impressed with The City in the Autumn Stars for some reason; but I'd still give it a solid four.

I'll actually review this sometime soon.

Versed

Versed - Rae Armantrout Now this book, I like.

It took four read-throughs for me to really find my way into Rae Armantrout's collection. At first I merely enjoyed the challenging beauty of the imagery, the language, the strange voice; I persisted, though, and after a couple of close reads and a couple of quick, cover-to-cover passes, I loved it for its sense. Armantrout has a philosopher's soul with a poet's mind, and this collection addresses (addresses? More like evokes-by-demonstrating) some pretty big issues.

What is the nature of consciousness? What exactly is it that might be lost when one dies? What's a person or thing's real identity, and what is "real" anyway?

Armantrout manages to wade through these issues as an almost pure observer without lapsing into simplistic solipsism. It seems that the poet ran all these questions through her mind and resisted every easy answer that arose; Versed is the record of that cognition. From "Heaven":

...

"Imaginary" meaning
"seen by humans"


...

I'd like to come back to this book in exegesis mode; it seems that it would be a very rewarding text for the critic. For now, though, I'm starting Armantrout's latest collection, Just Saying. I hope it's every bit as challenging, darkly witty, and pitted with unexpected depths as Versed.

Life on Mars

Life on Mars - Tracy K. Smith One of those books you desperately wish you'd written yourself...beautiful.

Stag's Leap: Poems

Stag's Leap: Poems - Sharon Olds (I've read this collection quickly as an assignment for a class, so I reserve the right to revise my assessment at some point.)

I've always been a fan of certain aspects of Sharon Olds' poetry, such as her richness of language and metaphor, and her ability to describe and evoke emotions directly from the body, where they actually originate, belong. This collection made me cry almost the entire way through, so I'd count it as a success in terms of its power; but did I like it?

In thinking of the book as a whole, I suddenly saw it as a very powerful piece of not only lyricism, but, unfortunately, of passive aggression. It feels as if this book is the only way she found to get revenge on the husband who scorned her, the only recourse she seems to feel she has. It was really the poem "Years Later" that brought it into focus. This poem is actually quite creepy, and at once I saw through the husband's eyes just how self-absorbed this narrator- and I would definitely want to separate the narrator from the poet, since books have their own sort of trajectory-- actually is. Once I saw that, I couldn't unsee it. While beautiful and tragic and dramatic, this book also reveals some deep, unaddressed flaws. It's incomplete. It doesn't mature through its suffering; if it had, it would be a very, very different book.

That said, it won a Pulitzer, so there's that. And it is indeed moving and beautiful; some of the descriptions of loss are so apt that one can't help sobbing with fellow-feeling. Every poet, and many non-poets, should certainly read it. But to pick it up again, for pleasure or edification or enlightenment? It probably won't be high on my list.

The Night Land, a Story Retold

The Night Land, a Story Retold - James Stoddard, William Hope Hodgson I loved this book.

After reading John C. Wright's homage, Awake in the Night Land, and truly enjoying it, I was curious about the origins of the Night Lands mythos. As much as I usually prefer original texts, I decided to go with the vast majority of existing opinion and read this modernization by Stoddard instead of the reputedly nigh-unreadable original written by William Hope Hodgson in 1912.

This is one of the most gripping love stories I've ever read, as well as a brutal masterpiece of dark fantasy (I almost want to give it five stars, and I may come back and amend my rating later.) It's better by far than Lovecraft- especially in light of mythos-extending tributes such as Wright's-and indeed Lovecraft himself described it as as "one of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written." I concur. A must-read for fans of the genre.