Archive for the ‘Review’ Category

Hild by Nicola Griffith

Friday, April 4th, 2014

Sometimes you take a bite of a treat expecting one flavor, and find yourself savoring something entirely different but nonetheless delicious. This was my experience with Hild by Nicola Griffith. I picked up the book thinking it was a fantasy novel, relying solely on a friend’s recommendation and a Nebula nomination to guide my choice. But instead of fantasy, I found a rich bildungsroman firmly rooted in history, where magic mixes with religion in a way that is real to the characters, if not to a cynical modern reader.

I was put off at first by the youth of the character; for a three-year-old, Hild seemed perhaps too shrewd and observant, if not entirely at ease in a setting that is simultaneously bucolic and politically dangerous. But having started where it did, the novel compels the reader to track the growth of the character in what sometimes feels like real-time, each seminal event in her life carefully buttressed by what came before. It’s like watching a medieval cathedral being assembled stone by stone, painstakingly, with beautiful results.

Almost more than the plot of the story, the characters and their relationships are what propel the reader forward. I wanted to know how each of the players would grow and change, come together or move apart. I worried about what would happen to them, in no small part because I had seen them as children, and who wants to see a child come to harm? And when they do, as we all must, it’s heartbreaking.

At the center of this, Hild herself is a compelling heroine. At times her agency is buried under the social conventions of the time, but her own role in the kingdom she inhabits is one that nonetheless gives her nearly unparalleled power. How she uses her keen mind to observe the world and manipulate others is amazing, yet because the reader is inside her head, it rarely feels unbelievable or unrealistic. The cathedral’s foundations are very carefully laid, indeed.

The language of the book is also beautiful, elegant without being purple. Hild’s interactions with the natural world are central to her character and the plot; vivid descriptions of her surroundings suffuse the novel without becoming overwhelming, or putting a drag on the pacing. However, it’s worth noting that this is definitely not a quick read, if my comparisons to construction didn’t make that clear. The story moves at a stately pace that may be frustrating to readers more interested in what happens next than why and how.

If you like historical fiction, lovely prose and carefully manicured political intrigue, you should give this book a try. If that isn’t your usual slice of cake, take a bite anyway; you may be pleasantly surprised to find a new favorite treat.

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

This review contains what I hope are only very mild spoilers.

These days, I’m likely to read I Want My Hat Back or the Dr. Seuss obsession du jour thirty times before I crack open a novel for my own pleasure. But this is a new year, and I’ve resolved to change that, even if it means staring at the dim light of my phone until midnight to get my fiction fix.

I’d seen Zoo City mentioned on Twitter a number of times by random people whose opinions I value, and it won a bunch of legit awards (as opposed to “Best Book This Year According to My Aunt Marlene”), so I decided to give it a shot. The quick summary:

Zinzi has a Sloth on her back, a dirty online 419 scam habit – and a talent for finding lost things. But when her latest client, a little old lady, turns up dead and the cops confiscate her lastpaycheck, she’s forced to take on her least favourite kind of job: missing persons.

The story takes place in a fictional Johannesburg, South Africa that may be all too similar to the real one: bubbles of wealth and glamour float on a murky pond layered with sex, violence and the harsh realities of poverty. Zinzi and her immediate circle of friends inhabit condemned buildings, scraping a living together by whatever means necessary. As noted, for her this manifests as sending out variations on the Nigerian Prince email we all know and love, and using a loosely-explained psychic power to find lost things for paying customers.

Part of the draw of this story is exploring not only the physical locations, which to me are exotic even as they are echoed in the city where I live, but also learning about the strange animals that hang around the necks of the characters like living albatrosses. A person becomes “animalled” when they commit murder, finding themselves inextricably linked to anything from a sparrow to an anteater–a sloth, in Zinzi’s case. How this affects these people and society at large is woven throughout the tangled narrative, adding an element of tension, especially for folks like me who have trouble confronting animal abuse in any form.

Zinzi is the kind of protagonist who is hard to like in many ways; she’s a con artist, a former drug addict, doing what she must to pay off her drug debts and stay alive. It’s intensely selfish but also practical, reasonable, given her bleak situation. She’s cynical and spunky, but also vulnerable and depressingly realistic. I rooted for her every time she seemed to be taking a step towards a better life, but there was always that sense that no matter what she did, the best she could hope for was to get by rather than get ahead. She could keep from being dragged down by the current, but she’d still be treading water in that murky pond.

If I had a complaint, it would be the pacing. It may be because I was reading it so slowly–a chapter or two a night–but sometimes each chapter felt like a tiny individual snowball being rolled down a hill, with not enough of a connection to the events surrounding them. Some of this was informational, explaining the animals and exploring their mark on the world; some of it was side plots that didn’t feel related to the whole. But in part 2, strangely named because it seemed to begin about 3/4 of the way through, everything slammed together into a giant snowball of fury that proceeded to destroy everything in its path before flying off a cliff and exploding. Yes, this snowball can explode, deal with it. I finished part 2 in one open-mouthed reading session and couldn’t sleep afterwards.

I definitely recommend this book as an alternative to the kind of urban fantasy that has become common these days: the wizard detective, the monster hunter, the vampire lover, and so on. This inhabits a realm that is more real, even as it is perhaps more strange to Western readers. It’s all the buzz words you’d expect: dark, gritty, a kind of neo-noir that fuses Chinatown with District 9 sans aliens. If the best books are meant to make you think, to drag you out of your comfort zone, to feel like someone yanked your soul out through your nose and stomped on it, then this is a very good book indeed.

Book review up at Medium Difficulty

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

Kaitlin Tremblay and I did a book club-style review of the story collection Ghosts in the Machine, edited by Lana Polansky. Check out our thoughts, and grab a copy of the book to see what the fuss is about.


Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

It has taken me some time to properly digest the strangely textured morsel that is the film Me and You and Everyone We Know. It is difficult to talk about in general terms because it is so layered, with interwoven narratives that are each worthy of attention. So first, I wanted to determine what the ontological center of the movie is, the point around which all other actions rotate, and after much contemplation I have decided that it is the extremely odd love story between the male and female leads. It was probably an obvious choice to anyone but me; I had seen one storyline separately prior to seeing the movie as a whole, so my judgment was tainted. And in a way, the movie is about all kinds of love stories, not just that one. But maybe I am getting ahead of myself.

The main character is an aspiring performance artist, or perhaps an audiovisual artist given that her work is recorded on camera rather than performed live. Her day job is to drive elderly people around, namely an adorable man who wants to visit his ailing girlfriend. Her love interest is a shoe salesman in a nameless department store who has recently separated from his wife and shares custody of his two sons, who themselves have their own narrative arcs. Supporting characters, if they can be called such, include two teenage girls engaging in an increasingly risque flirtation with a much older man (shoe salesman’s coworker and neighbor), the curator of the modern art museum to which the main character submits her work, and a young neighbor and schoolmate who is obsessed with collecting housewares for her hope chest.

As I said, I think at its core the movie is about love. But sometimes it is about sex, and self-discovery, and reaching out to connect with people because to shut oneself off is to lose something essential that makes us human. Sometimes it is about poop, and I suspect there is a metaphor in there somewhere, but I am still working on figuring that one out. Sometimes it is about the conflicting desires of young people to engage in adult sexual behavior, and adults to recapture a lost innocence and sense of wonder in their intimate relationships. In a way, all of these things can be considered different facets of love, and so I’m sticking with that as the central theme.

It is a great movie, but it is a weird one, so I’m not sure who I would recommend it to without some reservations or caveats. I guess if you can manage to find that place in you that remembers what it was like to be a hormonal teenager, and that other place that knows what rejection feels like and wants love and acceptance more than anything, then you will probably find a lot to enjoy in this movie.

In which war gets old

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

I’d heard good things about Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. Things that made me want to read it. Now, having read it, I am hard pressed to remember what those good things were and who said them, because I’d like to ask those people some questions.

The ideas are interesting, without a doubt. In the future, humans are at war with just about everyone else in the galaxy and they recruit old people to fight. The book explores the technology involved, in detail that is specific enough to be believable but vague enough to sidestep questions of realism and feasibility. Some worthwhile philosophical questions are asked and answered in a generally satisfactory way.

There are, however, two main problems with this book, and they are pretty significant: the characters and the plot.

We’ll start with the latter, which is possibly the less egregious. To put it briefly, not much happens in this book. Over three hundred pages and perhaps a third of them or less actually move the action forward in some substantive way. And honestly, the action doesn’t seem to go much of anywhere anyway. I could say more, but I don’t want to wander too close to spoiler territory. Suffice it to say that the first third of the book is spent easing the reader into the pool, and the rest feels like treading water with the occasional cannonball.

But sometimes a book can get away with slow or flimsy plot if the characters are sympathetic and engaging. Unfortunately, these aren’t really either, mostly because they have little to no distinct personality to differentiate them. They are all nice, intelligent, well-spoken people who sound alike and are only distinguished by their previous careers. The main character in particular is disappointingly bland and, even worse, has no detectable character flaw. He is awesome and everyone likes him and he does awesome things and boy he sure is great! He never does anything wrong, and when bad things happen they are never his fault and, really, they don’t tend to happen to him anyway so who cares? It’s not like the other characters were distinct enough to worry about, so when any of them die the impact is minimal.

Most of the book felt like the notes for a book, like the author wrote all these fabulous background bits about the universe and technology and so forth and thought it would be a great idea to have various characters relate this information in lengthy, pointless conversations. It was not a great idea. It was quite possibly the opposite of a great idea. Even the action bits weren’t as exciting as one might hope; it felt like more time was spent planning the actions than actually engaging in them, and they tended to go just as planned with one notable and enjoyable exception.

Would I recommend this book? Perhaps to the kind of person who liked to read D&D manuals for fun. Otherwise, the gimmick of having old people fight wars is not sufficient to carry this novel. If I want to read about space marines, I’ll go grab Starship Troopers. If I want morality, I’ll read some Clarke or Asimov or Vonnegut.