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text 2018-01-08 18:58
2017 in Review
How To Be A Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Everyday Life - Ruth Goodman
New York 2140 - Kim Stanley Robinson
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World - Andrea Wulf
Murder Must Advertise - Dorothy L. Sayers
The Summer Before the War: A Novel - Helen Simonson
Racing the Devil - Charles Todd
Calamity in Kent - John Rowland
Ashes of London - Andrew Taylor
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd - Agatha Christie
Agnes and the Hitman - Bob Mayer,Jennifer Crusie

2017 was an excellent reading year around here.  I had four five-star reads, not counting re-reads, which is a very high total for me, out of some 90+ books read.  One was a novel - 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson, and three non-fiction: The Invention of Nature, by Andrea Wulf, and two by Ruth Goodman, How to be a Tudor, and How to be a Victorian.  Wonderful re-reads included Dorothy L. Sayers' Murder Must Advertise, several Mary Russell novels by Laurie R. King, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (which I think I read in about 1978, but remembered nothing).


The best historical novel I read in 2017 was The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson, and the best new mystery Racing the Devil, by Charles Todd.  I read a decent amount of non-fiction, all of it good, from The Glass Universe (about the ladies of the Harvard Observatory) to Michelangelo's Ceiling (Damn it, your holiness, I'm a sculptor, not a painter), The Sun and the Moon (the Man-bats, or America's first great "fake news" story), and A is for Arsenic (Agatha Christie knew her poisons).


I had some reads that were just pure fun, like Jennifer Crusie's Agnes and the Hitman, Deborah Harkness' trilogy on witches, or Anne Bishop's novels about The Others.


It did have down moments.  Calamity in Kent's plot boiled down to "Scotland Yard inspector decides his tabloid journalist friend, Jimmy, is the best choice to solve a locked room mystery, and tells Jimmy to go for it."  Um.  OK?


The one which angered me, however, was my sole 1-star read of the year, The Ashes of London, which was billed as a thriller set during the Great Fire of London.  It is set *after* the fire, did not have very good historical detailing (it could have been pretty much anywhere and anywhen in the past that had suffered a large fire), and had two narrators, neither interesting.  And then it offended me with a touch of "let's start the characterization of the woman by having her evil cousin rape her" and I was out.


But most of my reading year was wonderful.  I hope yours was, too.

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review 2017-08-19 14:17
Justice from the Bardo
The Years of Rice and Salt - Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt is distinctly Robinsonian, mostly in good (nay, excellent) ways. Much like his Mars trilogy, this novel traces the development of a civilization over the course of centuries. So, there is an epic sweep to it, but the focus is not the traditional kings & wars narrative of epic fantasies. As in the Mars trilogy, the focus is an inter-generational development of social systems, especially with regards to figuring out and socially constructing man's relationship with fellow man and man's relationship with nature.


This time, the milieu is that of an Earth in which the Black Death killed off even more people, so much so that Western civilization utterly collapsed. In the wake of this catastrophe, the world evolves into one dominated by three major civilizations: Dar al-Islam (the various polities derived from the Islamic conquests of the Middle Ages), India, and China. The historian in me thrilled not only at the possibilities that such an event could have, but also at Robinson's handling of the consequences all the way from the 14th century up to the 21st century. The scope is breathtaking, and the sum of all the minutiae spinning out of this super-Black Death makes one appreciate the sheer fundamentality of Western systems of thought in the modern world. Almost every time I went to bed after having read a few chapters of this novel, my head was swimming.


Now, you might be wondering whether such a novel can have any traditional kinds of character development, given its centuries-long scope. Well, no -- not traditional, anyway. Both Buddhism and Sufism (a sect of Islam) have well-defined ideas about reincarnation. The Years of Rice and Salt follows the path of a soul trying to find enlightenment across the centuries. He starts out as a Mongol "warrior" encountering an empty Europe in the late 14th century, and he (sometimes she) inhabits different bodies in different places and times. There is much about reincarnation that I am not familiar with (having come from a decidedly Protestant Christian tradition myself), but the theology of it underpins the narrative of the novel and heavily influences the historical traditions that it situates itself in. There are even scenes in the bardo (a kind of limbo where souls are judged and assigned their next incarnation), and I feel that these are crucial for an understanding of the novel, although I don't feel competent to explain them. They are spaces in which the soul reflects on its progress toward enlightenment (and sometimes its failure to progress).


These bardo scenes also serve as spiritual responses to the material "progress" of human civilization. Just as in our world, this novel's human civilization advances in technology and engages in all the wonders and horrors that human beings are capable of, just not in exactly the same order or at exactly the same time. As is Robinson's wont, our point-of-view characters are thoughtful, and many of them philosophize at length on historical processes and intellectual trends in history. There was a lot of this in the Mars trilogy, and it's here too in just about the same proportion (which is to say, there are historical/religious/philosophical expositions/speculations that go on for pages at a time, interspersed at about one per 50 pages or so, on average). This will not be to everyone's taste, and moreover, Robinson is unashamedly political -- he always comes down on the side of social justice, egalitarian government, and environmental accommodation. So, I suspect that right-wing readers (with the possible exception of libertarians) will want to avoid KSR's work as a whole if they don't want to read outside their ideology; and even right-of-center readers may have bones to pick. That said, I think that any reader interested in history, anthropology, and/or science will find this novel fascinating just for the alt-historical possibilities. And if you're even a bit left-of-center, you're going to find a few things to cheer for.


Next up: selections from Piers Plowman, from the Norton Anthology of English Literature.

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review 2017-06-07 16:50
Octaviasdottir: “New York 2140” by Kim Stanley Robinson
New York 2140 - Kim Stanley Robinson

“Did you ever read Waiting for Godot?


“Did you ever read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead?”


“Did you ever read Kiss of the Spider Woman?”


“Did you ever read---“

“Jeff, stop it. I’ve never read anything.”

“Some coders read.”

“Yeah that’s right. I’ve read The R Cookbook. Also, Everything you Always Wanted to Know about R. Also, R for Dummies.”

“I don’t like R.”



In “New York 2140” by Kim Stanley Robinson



After having read the latest Stanley Robinson, a scene in Kurosawa's 'One Wonderful Sunday' from 1947 popped up in my mind, where at the very beginning two young lovers plead with the cinema audience to support young lovers everywhere and clap and cheer as they imagine themselves performing Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony.


If you're into SF. read on.

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text 2017-06-02 07:04
Reading progress update: I've read 12%.
New York 2140 - Kim Stanley Robinson

This seems like familiar KSR territory, ecological disasters and co-ops. I was a bit worried at the apparently juvenile writing style in the first couple of chapters but it's gone away. It might even have been intentional?

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review 2017-05-29 18:38
New York 2140
New York 2140 - Kim Stanley Robinson

New York in the early 2140s, some 125 years in the future, is in some ways the same as it always has been - the crowds and the crime and Central Park and the street urchins and the folks trying to make a fast buck (legally or illegally), the immensely rich few bumping up against great masses of much poorer people, and the illegal immigrants and the squatters and the undocumented and the refugees, but much is changed, too. 


For one thing, the sea level is now 50 feet higher.  The ultra-rich have fled to the highest points of the island, where the world's most expensive real estate has been built, while everything below 30th St. is permanently at least partially under water.  The people, however, have refused to leave, and have turned lower Manhattan into "Super Venice."  They have turned skyscrapers into co-ops, with sky tunnels linking them, and all the former streets are now canals full of vaporettos, gondolas, water taxis, and private boats ranging in size from the tiniest zodiac or kayak to deluxe speedboats and salvage tugs.


This novel is the story told by selected inhabitants of one of those co-ops - the one in the old Met Life building - from the super to the hackers living in tents on the farm level to the hot-shot young financier.  From the police detective to the undocumented teenagers living in a zodiac in the boathouse, and the immigration lawyer and the animal rights activist/video star/pilot of the airship Assisted Migration, as well.


It's told in about as many narrative styles as there are narrators, from the theatrical to the police procedural.  (In many ways the narration reminded me of that of his Mars series, of which I am a fan.)  Normally I take a deep breath at a novel with as many narrators as this one attempts, but Robinson's a good writer (he's won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Award), and in my opinion he pulls it off. 


It's not a flawless novel, but I couldn't stop reading it. 


P.S.  I wanted to put my emoticon at "giddy," but alas, that was not an option.

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