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review 2018-08-05 22:13
The Doors of Perception/Heaven and Hell
The Doors of Perception/Heaven and Hell - Aldous Huxley

I don't even know why I thought this might be a good read for me. 

 

Sure, this is the book the inspired The Doors but it is infinitely more enjoyable to listen to Jim Morrison's musical expressions of his experiments with drugs than it is to read Huxley's accounts of his, and even then this is only because the songs are so much shorter.

 

Not for me.

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review 2018-08-05 20:28
The Black Tides of Heaven by J.Y. Yang
The Black Tides of Heaven - JY Yang

This fantasy novella is entertaining enough for its brief length, and shows some originality, but it fails to explore its most interesting ideas, and the character development and worldbuilding – while serviceable – are not particularly deep.

 

In a quasi-Asian world, a Protector rules over not-China with an iron fist. The first half of the book follows the Protector’s youngest children, twins Akeha and Mokoya, through their childhood, discovery of their magical powers and coming-of-age, while in the second half they appear as adults (the book covers 35 years) building their own lives and becoming involved in a rebellion against their mother’s rule.

 

As far as the plot goes, I found the second half more interesting than the first, and the book is a very quick read. With small pages and generous font and spacing, it goes by even quicker than the page count would have you believe, and the author does keep things moving – we get little more than a snapshot of the action at each phase of the twins’ lives. The thing that makes this book notable is its treatment of gender: this is a world where people don’t have one until they choose it, be that at age 3 or age 17. Which is a bombshell of an idea that is incredibly underexplored, treated as background and only barely mentioned in the lives of anyone other than the twins.

 

It’s a fascinating idea: what would gender mean in a world where everyone got to choose their own? Would gender be considered meaningless, merely a matter of plumbing? Would gender roles carry less weight because anyone could choose either, or more, because if you chose your gender you forfeited the right to complain? Perhaps there would be even less tolerance for crossing boundaries, because if you wanted to be a construction worker you should have chosen male? Would society be more equal, because people wouldn’t choose a gender they viewed as oppressed? Would governments try to incentivize people to choose one or the other based on their current needs? Would families pressure their kids to choose a gender that suited their needs better? Would horny teens choose the gender they figured would get them more sex, regardless of other factors?

 

And how would you choose, if you could freely choose either and hadn’t been handled a default? There’s so much to consider: what role you want to hold in society and your family; how you want your actions, strengths and flaws to be viewed; how you want your worth to be judged; which physical risks you are more willing to accept; what expectations for showing emotion fit your personality; what expectations for personal grooming suit you best; whether you want to be pregnant and give birth; what type of body you want; what role you want to play in sex; and so much more.

 

And guess what, none of this is actually considered in this book. The book doesn’t delve into how people choose their genders at all, beyond the idea of choosing what “feels right.” Akeha looks into a mirror, tries out one gender’s pronouns, feels they don’t fit, tries out the other’s, likes them better, and chooses that. This kid is 17, old enough to choose a college and potentially a career path in our world, yet puts about as much thought into this decision as the average person picking a restaurant for dinner.

 

Nor are gender roles in this society explored at all, though there are indications that they exist: Akeha – raised in a monastery – reflects on not really having known any men because monks aren’t “real men” in the eyes of society, and has a stereotype of women that involves simpering and makeup. Gender roles don’t seem to be particularly strict, or at least don’t follow our stereotypical defaults – most of the military officers we see are female, which is a bit confusing because if you could choose your gender and wanted to join the military, wouldn’t you go for the extra upper body strength? (Though the military seems to be more about magic than physical strength in this world, so perhaps not.) Or considered another way, how likely are the types of people who choose female to then decide to join the military in large numbers? Presumably testosterone is still a thing in this world.

 

The mechanics of all this aren’t explored either. The book indicates that due to magic, puberty doesn’t happen until people choose: but what plumbing do they have beforehand? What happens if someone never chooses? What if they later change their mind? If people have a “correct” gender – as is implied by having characters just choose what “feels right” – then one can choose wrong, for instance by choosing the same gender as one’s older siblings to fit in, or succumbing to family pressure, or choosing to please a love interest (homosexuality and people having love interests before choosing their gender both occur in this book).

 

On the positive side, the book did make me reflect on how large a role gender plays in how I view a character (and by extension, presumably real people too). Reading about Akeha and Mokoya in the first half of the book, before they choose, I felt distanced from the characters, largely I think because this key aspect of their identities was missing. Unfortunately, the language is also unavoidably clunky at times: “Akeha was used to being patient and staying very still, but irritated prickles flushed up their spine and raced across the skin of their neck. They pressed their teeth together.”

 

At any rate, this is a really quick read and a reasonably satisfying one on a plot level, so go for it if you want. But I would have appreciated it more if it had truly engaged with the ideas it introduces.

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text 2018-07-28 23:29
2018 Hugo Ballot: Best Novella
All Systems Red - Martha Wells
Binti: Home - Nnedi Okorafor
The Black Tides of Heaven - JY Yang
Down Among the Sticks and Bones - Seanan McGuire
River of Teeth - Sarah Gailey

This is part of a series of posts reviewing categories in this year's Hugo ballot. I'll be discussing the entries, the voter packet, and my ballot. I've nominated and voted most years since 2011, when I figured out that all I had to do was join Worldcon to get to do so.

 

Novella is a length I tend to struggle with as a reader. Often I find them either rushed, or stuffed with filler. This year has several I enjoyed, though.

 

  • All Systems Red, by Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing) - 4 Stars. Top of ballot, one of my favorite novellas ever. The narrator is excellent.

 

  • And Then There Were (N-One),” by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny, March/April 2017) - 4 Stars. A murder mystery at a convention where everyone is the same person. Another excellent example of the right amount of plot for the length. This works really well. I didn't even mind being ahead of the narrator in solving the crime.

 

  • Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com Publishing) - 3.5 Stars. Well written, but has some of my usual issues with serialized ficiton.

 

  • The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang (Tor.com Publishing) - 3.5 Stars. Great worldbuilding, but not as solid across all elements.

 

  • Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing) - 4 Stars. I am surprised by how much I liked this given how underwhelming I found the previous novella in this series.

 

  • River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey (Tor.com Publishing) - 3.5 stars. Great characters, but this felt incomplete. Like the first 30% of a great book, but not quite enough content to be satisfying.

 

So, obviously All Systems Red will be at the top. Followed by And Then . . and Sticks and Bones. Black Tides next, then Home, and River of Teeth. This is a very solid selection of novellas.  

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review 2018-07-23 05:27
The Fires of Heaven, The Wheel of Time #5
The Fires of Heaven: Book Five of 'The Wheel of Time' - Robert Jordan

Jordan's epic continues to thrive, but there are signs of it faltering under its weight. 'Fires of Heaven' finds our victorious Nynaeve, Elayne, Thom, and Julien making their way out of Tarabon assured that they had left it better than they found it. Alas....but that's another plot-line. Nynaeve is hardly a fan favorite, but I've always liked her and a tonal shift in her narration is Nynaeve at her most enjoyable. She also scores a major personal victory.

Anyway, Rand, Jasin, Mat, Aviendha, Moiraine, and Lan are headed out of the Waste after the villainous Shaido, who have quickly become a menace to the 'treekiller' nation of Carhien and everything and everyone else they run into. The changes to Mat and Moiraine's characters are particularly noteworthy.

Perrin, Loial, Faile and Three Aiel....nothing. They don't appear, so readers must presume that domestic bliss and the flowering of the Two Rivers just wasn't interesting enough. Considering how toxic Faile and Perrin's relationship can be...I probably agree with Jordan on that.

Min, Siuan, Leane and Logain are still traveling incognito to find where rebel Aes Sedai may be gathering, but run afoul of someone who could help their plans or simply drag them back to a farm in chains.

Meanwhile, in Caemlyn, some really icky stuff is going on, and one of the most depressing character arcs in the series is swanning on down into the mud.

That last may be why this book has some tarnish. I've been loving the reread much more than I anticipated, but there's no getting around some unpleasant and barely plot-necessary happenings. Then again, the series still has some great moments (I for one loved the circus), more information from the Forsaken, big sea-change moments as Rand achieves more victories and yet also suffers great losses, and another spectacular finish. Though the plot-lines no longer converge, Jordan had a knack for pulling together enough of his plots to make gripping reading.

The Wheel of Time

Next: 'Lord of Chaos'

Previous: 'The Shadow Rising'

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review 2018-07-10 18:35
Just Skip This
One Door Away from Heaven - Dean Koontz

This book is a freaking door stopper. I read this the first time on a very long flight and since my other books were packed in my luggage I plugged on through this. I think maybe I went hard shrug about it all and said well that's just three stars. Reading it now years later I have no idea how I muddled through this the first time. This book is peak sanctimony Koontz. There's a damn dog and then even more dogs. Koontz does that weird thing he did for a while where he had people with disabilities either physical or mental into super special people which felt wrong in a way. I don't know if you can call it pandering or what, it just felt off and not sincere. There are like four plots in this one (if you can call them that) and a question again about religion versus science, but with no real horror elements.

 

"One Door Away from Heaven" is about Michelina (Micky) Bellsong a woman with a mysterious past who does what she can to save a young girl she meets. Seriously though, why do most of Koontz's characters have a mysterious past? It takes a while to figure out what happened to Micky, but one can hazard a guess. There is not much there there with Micky. Sorry, not sorry. The other characters read as paper thin too. Micky meets a young girl named Leilani who tells her her life story and at least something comes across to Micky, that the young girl is going to be killed by her stepfather. Micky has a drinking problem, but is still beautiful (I think that is said repeatedly). When she realizes that Leilani is really in danger, she does what she can by following her to keep her safe.

 

Leilani is a 9 year old precocious child who talks like Einstein. She has a physical disability, but shines (according to another character). I can't even with that since it started to make me think of "The Shining" and Stephen King. I think I have said this before, Koontz cannot write children. He writes them as little Buddhas and it's old. I give King some grief when he writes something that is not 100 percent amazing (still feeling salty about 11/22/63) but the man can and always has been able to write kids.

 

We also have a PI named Noah who is out to help Micky with her tracking down Leilani.

 

There is a mysterious boy named Curtis who I hope you like reading him talking about a playful presence a lot. He sucks and I cannot with him. The reveal about Curtis wasn't much of a reveal since I was going for he is really an android for most of the book.

 

The bad guy seems like he should be going around screeching about cooties most of the time. Preston Maddoc is a scientist (EVIL) who is very popular in the scientific world pushing out his belief in bioethics. He believes in aliens (which don't even get me started) and that those who are not perfect should be murdered. Too bad he is Leilani's stepfather. I think Koontz could have gone at this more subtle. If Koontz wanted to have a real discussion about bioethics as it relates to the poor and people who are not white, have at it. But he turned this into all bioethics is evil/wrong.

 

There are other characters in this one that I cannot even get into right now. One was Micky's aunt Geneva that also made me roll my eyes. For most of the book everyone doesn't meet up and then Koontz throws them all together in a way that doesn't even make any sense.

 

The writing didn't work. I think because for some reason Koontz wrote some characters in past tense and others in present tense. It was hard work to even get through this because that drove me up the freaking wall. This one also reminded me a bit about "Intensity" which had another woman who put herself in harm's way to save a young girl.

 

The flow was awful and every time someone spoke it took like ten pages to make it end. Suffice it to say that the book is just about apparently people spreading the word and there are aliens. That's all I got.

 

And the book ends with people talking about a riddle and here is the answer which was too much even for me.

 

"If your heart is closed, then you will find behind that door nothing to light your way. But if your heart is open, you will find behind that door people who, like you, are searching, and you will find the right door together with them. None of us can ever save himself; we are the instruments of one another's salvation, and only by the hope that we give to others do we lift ourselves out of the darkness into light."

 

"For those who despair that their lives are without meaning and without purpose, for those who dwell in a loneliness so terrible that it has withered their hearts, for those who hate because they have no recognition of the destiny they share with all humanity, for those who would squander their lives in self-pity and in self-destruction because they have lost the saving wisdom with which they were born, for all these and many more, hope waits in the dreams of a dog, where the sacred nature of life may be clearly experienced without the all but blinding filter of human need, desire, greed, envy, and endless fear.

 

And here, in dream woods and fields, along the shores of dream seas, with a profound awareness of the playful Presence abiding in all things, Curtis is able to prove to Leilani what she has thus far only dared to hope is true: that although her mother never loved her, there is One who always has."

My eyes finally stopped rolling. That whole thing went on forever. I don't think that Koontz gets how preachy his books come across and how off-putting it is to read some of his works. I think this was Koontz's way of flipping off his critics cause he manages to tie dogs into being connected to God even more in this one that just made me shake my head.

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