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review 2017-06-03 00:25
Unicorn in Calabria

Note to librarians: Unfortunately, this book is not in the BL database, so I can't put it on my shelf. I'm using the cover from GR.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Unicorns come to Calabria. Not once upon a time in an imaginary land, but now, in the 21st century, a beautiful unicorn comes to a run-down farm on a hillside in Calabria, South Italy, and settles in. The farm owner, a lonely hopeless man, shuns the technology of his times. He ekes out his meager existence from the land and takes care of his few animals, when he witnesses the miracle of the unicorn. The strange, un-earthy creature gives a new meaning to his life, opens his eyes and his heart, and in return, he is willing to protect it from the unicorn hunters, the insatiable media, and the ruthless Mafiosi.

The story reads like poetry, lyrical and dreamy. It’s not a fast-paced fantasy adventure but a slow-flowing feast of words, and despite my preference for quick action of the usual sword-and-sorcery pageant, I couldn’t stop reading it from start to end. Fortunately for me, it is a short book, 174 pages, but it is one of the best books I’ve read recently. It left me oddly happy. Even though I have never seen a unicorn, I felt as if its magic brushed against my skin too, just as it did for the protagonist of this unusual tale.

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review 2017-05-25 06:50
AI and a former slave
A Closed and Common Orbit - Becky Chambers

I’m divided about this science-fiction novel. It consists of two distinct storylines with alternating chapters that don’t intersect until the very end. They even happen decades apart. I loved one of the stories. I was ambivalent about the other.

Let’s start with the one I liked less: the story of Sidra, an AI in a synthetic, human-looking body. She calls it her housing or her kit. Sidra didn’t chose to be housed in the kit. She is an AI intended for a spaceship. She longs to be in a spaceship. But due to tragic circumstances before this story started, someone put her into the kit, and she is trying to adjust to life as a quasi-human.

Her situation is complicated by the fact that such constructs are illegal. If the authorities find out that Sidra, who tries to live like a human, is actually a software, they will terminate her and punish those who made her that way: Sidra’s friends. To prevent such an eventuality, Sidra’s only solution is to pretend. Unfortunately, an AI couldn’t lie – there is a protocol in place. Yeah, tough.

Sidra’s story left me cold. I couldn’t sympathize with her imaginary plight. I was a computer programmer before I became a writer. I dealt with software every day. Not an AI though; I programmed accounting software, but there is not much difference. A soft is still a soft, a complicated system of code that is just a non-linear, nested sequence of multiple ‘if-then’ interspaced with bits of action. It can’t develop emotions. I don’t believe it. So when Sidra started behaving like a hormonal teenager, exhibiting rebellion and self-disgust, I wanted to puke.

The only thing I liked about Sidra’s subplot is world-building. Ms. Chambers started building this complex cosmopolitan world in the first novel of the series – The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – and I enjoyed it very much. She deepens her world-building here, gives us more details, more nuances, and more planets. 

The second story, the one I liked best, happens in an entirely different part of this galactic world, on a different planet. It is a much better story with a very likable heroine. It starts when a ten-year-old girl Jane escapes a factory.

She worked at the factory as one of a cadre of girls, all Janes, all numbered. Our Jane’s number is 24. She doesn’t know what is outside the factory walls. She only knows work – sorting scrap – and a little bit of free time for eating, sleeping, and personal hygiene. None of the Janes knows how to play or be children. Trapped inside the four factory walls since they were toddlers, they have never seen the sky or the sun. They have never made any choices – never been allowed. They are slaves without knowing it.

When Jane escapes – practically by accident – she finds herself alone in a hostile world, a humongous scrap yard with no humans. Everywhere around her are things new and frightening. By sheer luck, she finds a disabled space shuttle, discarded as scrap years ago. The shuttle’s AI is still functional, and Jane makes her home in it. Together, a ten-year-old girl and a broken machine form a family of sorts, while Jane learns about the real world around her and tries to keep herself from starving to death.

A Mowgli of science fiction, to a degree, with a computer for a foster mother, Jane’s story is a continual saga of self-discovery. It touched my heart on the deepest levels. I was so sorry for her and so awed by her courage and determination that I wanted to talk to her, to explain, to kiss and make better. This child made me ache for her. I was reading and simultaneously inventing better solutions for her problems. I wanted her life to be easier, but it wasn’t. It was hard and intense and imbued with Jane’s humanity. Her story alone makes this book worth reading.

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review 2017-05-24 07:41
Werewolves are black
The Black Wolves of Boston - Wen Spencer

I like everything written by Spencer, but this book is not my favorite. In fact, I liked it least of all her novels.

This one starts with Joshua, a regular eighteen-year-old high school senior, suddenly becoming a werewolf. Afraid to hurt his family and bewildered by what's happening to him, Joshua runs away from home and ends up in Boston. While Joshua tries to get his act together and adjust to being a werewolf, he meets a variety of characters: Decker, the vampire, Winnie, the medium, Elise, the angelic warrior who fights evil, and finally, other werewolves, the ones responsible for his transformation.

One of the werewolves, probably the most important to this story, is Seth, a sixteen-year-old werewolf and a Prince of Boston. To keep all of Boston from contamination by evil is his reason for existing, and he’ll do anything to keep Joshua safe. Unfortunately, Seth has troubles of his own, one of them being a minor – he is only sixteen.

All of the above are the good guys. Mostly. There are bad guys too, the Wickers, the villainous cabal of witches and warlocks, and Joshua is central to their plan for world-domination. Joshua himself doesn’t realize it, and nobody but the Wickers know what they plan to do with him, except that it would surely be something horrendous. Most of the story is a mad scramble by the other characters to keep Joshua safe, discover the Wickers’ heinous ploy, and stop it before Boston is plunged into darkness. 

 

Bad stuff

  • Too many POVs. There are 4 POV characters – Joshua, Seth, Decker, and Elise - and the chapters for them alternate, which makes for a jumpy ride for the reader. Joshua and Seth are paramount to this story. Their POVs are needed. The other two just dilute the reader’s attention and distract from the protagonists’ struggles. Even worse: less page space for each of the two heroes result in sketchy characterization for everyone. We don’t have time to bond with any of the characters; they are all too distant. I wasn’t emotionally involved with any of them, and that’s a huge flaw in fiction.  
  • Proofreading. Or rather the lack of it. There are too many extra words or missed words or words out of place. I read a hardcover, but it felt like a bad Kindle file.

 

Good stuff

  • Beautiful, full-page B&W illustrations. Almost every chapter has one, and they enhance the reading experience tremendously. In the past, artists routinely illustrated adult literature, but the practice has fallen off the wagon in the past couple hundred years. Modern publishing mostly relegated illustrations to picture books for children, but I hope the tradition will make a comeback soon, and we’ll see the artistic interpretations of our favorite characters on the pages again, not just in the movies.
  • Humor. Oh, yeah! There are many places in the book where I laughed, and chuckled, and giggled, and shook my head at the absurdity of the familiar, as seen through the sharp eyes of the author.
  • World building. It’s a strong aspect of Spencer’s writing in general. Every stand-alone book and every series of hers introduces a world that is unique and interesting. In this one, there are werewolves and vampires, like in many other paranormal fantasy books, but the writer sees them in a different way. Her werewolves are magical creatures who guard the Earth from evil monsters and prevent breaches in reality that spawn the aforementioned monsters. Her vampire is an original. He doesn’t drink blood. To sustain himself, he drinks life-essence through a kiss. Besides, he is depressed and lonely, and his depression manifests as hoarding.
  • Story. Yes, the story is fascinating, and the tension builds the way it should. Despite my general disappointment with the characters, I still want to know what will happen to them next. If there is a second book in the series, I’ll definitely read it.
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review 2017-05-19 08:19
Who is Mencken?
Inside Job - Connie Willis

Too cold, too distant. The writing was OK, but at no point did I care about any of the characters. The story is about charlatans and gurus, mediums of all sorts who perform cheap theatrical tricks, make gullible people believe, and extract good money from their victims for the privilege to be conned. The protagonist makes his living debunking such conmen, and most of the story is a preaching by the author about the harm the unethical quacks inflict on everyone and the need to take them down. There is also tons of info about Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956), the influential American journalist and satirist who routinely made fun of the fraudsters of his time. I didn’t know the name of Mencken before I read this book. I never wanted to know. I still don’t, but the author shoved his quotes and opinions down my throat.

I didn’t like this novella at all.

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review 2017-05-15 03:54
Ghouls - always bad news

An OK urban fantasy novel, this latest installment of the author’s SPI Files series (where SPI stands for Supernatural Protection & Investigation agency) relates a new story about the series’ protagonist, Makenna Fraser, and her friends. A bunch of dimension-hopping ghouls have committed a few daring bank robberies lately. Humans have been killed. Makenna and friends have no choice but to investigate.

Fast moving but utterly forgettable. 

 

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