Tag Archives: good reads

Hugo 2017: The Highlights and Reviews

I threatened a few days ago to post reviews of the Hugo pieces that I found worthy, and here I am to deliver the goods.

NOVELS
Honestly, every novel in the Hugo nominee list this year is worth your time. I didn’t love each of them the same, but at least none of them wasted my time like a few have in the past (*coughs* Seveneves, I’m looking at you). I’m not here to write full reviews; you can find great ones everywhere.

  • Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee is a striking novel with a strong female lead, a far-future world with interesting social structures, mathematics-as-magic, and a galactic space war on a grand scale. This book really grabbed my attention. It doesn’t easily slip into any identifiable story category, though I’d say the two-person (protagonist/antagonist) relationship that drives the main character’s plot is critical to the book’s success. I’ve already ordered the sequel.
  • Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer kept me turning pages, and I nearly listed it first on my Hugo ballot. (The honor went to Ninefox.) Palmer is a University of Chicago historian, and this book reads like an 18th century Alexander Pope was transported forward a few hundred years. She imagines a future world that isn’t shot to hell, and I found that refreshing considering the shitstorm that is 2017 after the hellfest of 2016. Her world offers us a view of what rapid transportation could do in helping humanity develop new “nations” not organized around geographical location. Imagine aligning yourself with people who pursue your same vocational goals — and even better, imagine reorganizing the central family unit into an extended collection of “relatives,” both blood-related and not, who come together to live in collectives centered around common interests. Sign me up, I’m ready to join a ‘bash!
  • The Obelisk Gate by NK Jemisin continues her fantastic series that earned her a Hugo Award for the first book, The Fifth Season, last year.  (One of my favorite reads of 2016.) The sophomore entry expanded the story yet stands tall in its own right, building more of the world and giving us even more characters who face difficult ethical choices. The overarching tale offers commentary on issues of race and climate without (to me) being preachy. The series continues to defy genre categorization – is it sci-fi? fantasy? does it matter? Speculative fiction it is, and a great example. Start with The Fifth Season if you’re jumping in.
  • All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders, tells the story of a computer engineer and a witch in San Francisco. Another genre-bender, this novel goes down easy with snappy dialogue writing and a good examination of the conflict between science and the metaphysical. I can’t say this novel asks Big Questions, but it does offer a good view of the microcosm of conflict among people with different goals and values. Plus, she clearly lives in SanFran and peppers the book with lots of local details.
  • A Closed and Common Orbit is Becky Chambers’s second novel after her strong debut The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Not wanting to jump in on book two, I read both this spring. This series is like Firefly and Star Trek having a baby in John Scalzi’s trunk: There’s all the ensemble camaraderie of Firefly (down to the female engineer), the thrill of space and battle and Big Questions of AI vs human intelligence, and the snappy dialogue writing of Scalzi. At times it was almost annoying – like Chambers is trying so hard to emulate her hero Scalzi that we’re losing her voice at times. She’s a young writer, and you can feel that in the writing. But she shows much potential, and I look forward to reading more entries in this series. Chambers will come into her own rapidly and probably have a very successful career, drawing in many people who would walk straight by the piles of hard sci-fi in bookstores. My main criticism of both books is that she tends to be preachy. Hopefully she’ll relax about that.
  • Death’s End by Cixin Liu wrapped up my ballot. I had such high hopes for this book, having enjoyed The Three Body Problem in 2015 and swept off my feet by last year’s The Dark Forest. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I loved or even liked Death’s End. I can appreciate some elements of the storytelling – the three fables in the center of this giant novel were a wonderful plot device – but I hated most of everything else. Liu is an ideas man; he doesn’t really write characters. That emerged as a major weakness as he tried to wrap up his idea-fest-turned-novel-series. I hated the ending too. When I get to the end of a 600 page book and feel like I wasted my time, it makes me angry.  All that aside, I’m glad Liu’s books were translated for an American audience, even if this one is at the bottom of the list for me.

SHORT STORIES
Finally the drama of the Puppies controversies is over, but the short story category was still a bit weak.  On the upside, I can link to a few of these since many are published digitally nowadays and publishers sometimes make them generally available since they were nominated. I’m listing my top picks here (in the order I voted for them).

  • My top short story pick ended up being NK Jemisin’s “The City Born Great,” posted at Tor.com (full story here). Jemisin lives in NYC and she infuses her love for the pulsing City into this story, but with her typical genre-bending twists. Is it sci-fi? Is it urban fantasy? I don’t know and I don’t care.
  • “Seasons of Glass and Iron” by Amal El-Mohtar is available in full on the Uncanny Magazine right now. This is a fairy tale polished to a gleaming brightness, turning cliched plot points into a thoughtful look into a friendship between two women, each imprisoned in their own ways. I’d happy read this story in a lit class for the sake of the ensuing discussion.
  • Carrie Vaughn’s story “That Game We Played During the War” drew me in and held me from start to finish. Full text here. It’s not a complex story, and it’s not a stunner, but I really enjoyed the interpersonal nature of the tale. Also #chess.

The other three nominees in this category were very weak. “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” seems to be trying too hard (IMO) to establish itself as a TIME MANIPULATION STORY.  *shrugs*  But it’s not a bad read.   Second, though I loved Brooke Bolander’s entry in last year’s Hugo (one of my favorite stories ever), this year’s “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” was a huge disappointment.  It just…. *sighs*…. too preachy; too little plot; too little of anything I want to read. A revenge story, barely.

Finally, I don’t even want to waste words on John C. Wright’s “An Unimaginable Light.”  Wright is the darling of the right-wing Rabid Puppies, and after shoving him down our throats for the past few years, a change in the Hugo nominations process served as a barrier to having to read much of him this year. Thank God. The man apparently can’t devise a plot worth more than two shits (this is my assessment after three years’ of nominations of his drivel).  Honestly. If you’re going to put someone forward as the poster boy for conservative man-centric science fiction, for the love of pete, could you at least pick someone who can write?  John C Wright is an embarrassment to writers everywhere.

NOVELETTES
Again, a few of these are worth pointing out, if you can find them to read them. Novelettes are just long short-stories; you can read them in a single sitting, though you might realize your butt is tired by the time you’re done. (Contrast this with Novellas, which kill your butt if you try to read them straight through without at least getting up to get more coffee.)

  • “The Tomato Thief” by Ursula Vernon shows what a master storyteller in folk tales and Native American culture can do in a science fiction/fantasy setting. It doesn’t matter if this tale is alt-reality or near-future; it’s a great example of the power of simple tales.  Read the novelette at Apex Magazine.
  • I really wanted to vote Carolyn Ives Gilman’s story “Touring with the Alien” #1. Man, it was so close. Maybe I should have. This could have been a pedestrian walk through a boring, tired sci-fi concept. Except it wasn’t. It was fantastic. Thoughtful. Provocative. One of the better “intelligence” and “alien” stories I’ve read in a long time. Clarkesworld Magazine has the full novelette available online.
  • “The Jewel and her Lapidary” by Fran Wilde is an example of fantasy writing that I can get behind. I really enjoyed this tale, mostly because Wilde built a world where some gems have power, and the way the people adapted to handle the risks and rewards of that power was genuinely fascinating.  If she has more stories in this world, I will read them.  Read the introduction at Tor.
  • Also in the category of “fantastical folk tales” is “You’ll Drown Here if you Stay,” by Alyssa Wong. Cool story.  I put it 4th, because I felt the others were stronger, but still a great read for those who enjoy the way traditional folk tales (and their structure) blend well with science fiction and fantasy. Read it at Uncanny magazine. 

The other two stories really aren’t on my recommended list. “The Art of Space Travel” is a people story; it has almost zero connection to speculative fiction; I’m not sure why it was nominated.  Memo to people: Just because your story includes an astronaut doesn’t make it science fiction. 

NOVELLAS
Still reading this category – I didn’t enter Hugo votes because I didn’t get a chance to finish these. Will return once I’m done and offer a couple thoughts, if I find something worthy.

GRAPHIC NOVELS
Man, some great writing here! I recommend reading each of the Hugo nominees. They were all good.  Monstress Vol 1 was my top pick, but it was genuinely hard to pick a favorite when Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote the story for the Black Panther tale, and so many others were interesting and beautifully drawn.

RELATED WORKS
This is the category for everything that isn’t fiction…. like Ursula LeGuin’s essays, Neil Gaiman’s essays, a personal memoir from Carrie Fisher, and more.  Dive in and read, especially Le Guin and Gaiman, if you get a chance.

I voted in other categories like Dramatic Presentation, Short Form and Long Form, and some of the editor categories, but I won’t bore you with those here.

Bottom line – this year’s Hugo nominees are worth your time!  Even the weaker categories (short stories) offer fiction worth reading. So if you’re out of beach books and want something good for August, hit your library or bookstore and help an author eat next month. 😉

It’s Hugo Award season!

Yay! One of my favorite seasons.

hugo_award_logoFor a couple years now, we’ve been reading the Hugo nominees and voting on the awards. I don’t have any illusions that my vote “matters” much more than my political vote matters here in South Carolina, but it’s fun to be part of the process (and Hugo nominees don’t flood my airwaves with horrific ads).

Overall – and I’ll start posting specific reviews of individual works shortly – this has been an excellent Hugo season. Granted, the past couple years were pretty rough when the various “Puppies” groups (Sad/Rabid) hijacked the nominations with their “slates” of primarily white/male/power fantasy/old school science fiction.  It’s not that their nominees disagreed with my worldview; it’s that their nominees were terrible.  Like, the writing quality was just appalling. If you want your fiction to resemble an alt-right paradise, knock yourself out. But don’t expect me to give you the time of day if you can’t construct sentences and plots above the level of a high schooler. (With apologies to high schoolers – some of mine wrote waaaay better than those guys.)

Happily, after the “E Pluribus Hugo” adjustment to how things get nominated and voted on for the Hugo Awards, this year’s slate of nominees has been really good. I loved 5 of the 6 novels, and all 6 were worthy of nomination. The short stories were solid; the “Related Works” category includes essays by Neil Gaiman and Ursula LeGuin for a refreshing change after a couple years of terrible crap from the Pepe-loving crowd. Next up, I’m reading novels, novelettes, and graphic novels. Might not get to the ancillary content, but that’s ok…. the bottom line is, if you want some good summer reading, check out the Hugo 2017 nominees!

*****

I’ll just treat this like a grab-bag of content, since it’s been a while since my last post.  Honestly, there’s a ton of great stuff to read, watch, and play right now, and it’s been hugely tempting for me to consume content rather than create it.

I wrapped up my play through of Mass Effect: Andromeda (my review stayed essentially the same) and need to play the last chapter of The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine DLC, which as a game add-on is better than most of the games I’ve played in the past couple years. (My review of Witcher 3 is here.) Thanks, CD Projekt Red, for ruining pretty much any game I’m going to play in the next decade with your ridiculously high-quality writing.

I’ve also returned to the siren song of the Steam Summer Sale to grab Stellaris (like Civilization, but in space, and different, sorta) and Firewatch (haven’t played it yet so no spoilers) and Undertale (which everybody says is amazing but I can’t figure out what the hell is happening in the first level and I just feel stupid).

141f21cc5a2b69d81f9835ce4bc33238ba5e070aNetflix released a little series called GLOW and it was a laugh and a half for sure. Yes, it really is based on a little-known 80s era women’s WWF show called “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling,” and yes it packs in all the 80s nostalgia you can handle. Because GenX is now in the driver’s seat when it comes to nostalgia-driven media and ad campaigns, and I can feel a whole lot of 80s/90s throwbacks in our near future. *tips hat*

Oh yeah, movies! Summer has been a bit dry, but I really enjoyed Baby Driver (as did everybody else, if the Tomatometer is to be believed) and looooved Wonder Woman. Check out this cool piece on Wonder Woman’s WWI setting by the folks at War Is Boring. I’m looking forward to the Valerian film and Dunkirk, for very different reasons.

Even music has been on point lately. I should probably write a separate post about seeing U2 in Chicago a couple weeks ago, playing Joshua Tree for its 30th anniversary.  Absolutely worth the trip. Led me to look up 80s era U2 videos and gape at their baby faces. Apple Music led me to a couple neat albums in the past few weeks. Looks like their service is finally coming into its own with a good recommendation engine. *fingers crossed*

#u2thejoshuatree2017 #livemusic

A post shared by RameyLady (@lorojoro) on Jun 4, 2017 at 8:04pm PDT

2016 Goodreads challenge

Happy to report that I beat my 2016 goal for reading books. I read a lot more short pieces than book-length works – if you added together the thousands of words I consume daily via articles, it’d probably equal a book a month.

But I’ve noticed my attention is sporadic and fragmented these days, so I’m committed to reading longer works so I don’t lose my ability to concentrate. screen-shot-2017-01-01-at-2-06-33-am

Click through to see my full Goodreads list for 2016

If I were to flag any for particular recommendation it would be these:

Walter Isaacson, The Innovators – the story of the pioneers who invented the digital machines that gave us the computer age. Absolutely fascinating deep dive into the conditions that allow creativity and innovation to prosper – and cautionary tales of those whose ideas languished because they weren’t working in a supportive environment.

NK Jemisin, The Fifth Season – this novel won the Hugo this year, and it was one of the most interesting books I’ve read in a long time. A gritty fantasy novel that allegorizes the nastiness of racism, written by a Black woman. I couldn’t put it down.  I also highly recommend the novel I listed as #2 on my Hugo ballot, Uprooted by Naomi Novik.

Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others – a striking short story collection well worth your time. The title story formed the basis for one of 2016’s best films, Arrival.

****
There are times when I’m kind of embarrassed that I don’t post huge reading lists year after year. For someone who loves books (have you seen my house?!), I don’t read as many as I feel I should. My work is mental rather than physical, I read articles and essays extensively, and I soak up stories through video games and films.

One of my 2017 resolutions is to feel less guilty about things that aren’t wrong and that I probably won’t change. I’m aiming to read 20 books in 2017 and stop beating myself up for not reading more. I just ordered the next two novels in the Witcher series – I’m excited about those! -and I’m already halfway through Cixin Liu’s final novel in his trilogy. In nonfiction, I want to return to the excellent book on education, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and the Rest of Us Too. Dava Sobol has a new book out about some women in science in the 20th century; can’t wait to get my hands on that. I might even pick up the Stephen Ambrose condensed biography of Eisenhower that Coart can’t stop talking about. Oh, and John Scalzi has a new novel coming out this spring, plus the 3rd book in Jemisin’s series. It’s going to be a good year!

What’s on your reading list for 2017?

Review: Uprooted, by Nina Novik

UprootedUprooted by Naomi Novik

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m not usually a big fantasy reader, but this book is commendable and ought to be on your list if you’re at all interested in the genre. Many people seem to bail out after only a few chapters; don’t do that. Give Novik the opportunity to spin her tale for you – it takes about 50-60 pages to really get rolling. From there, it builds to a strong ending.

In fact, I’d say even if you don’t like fantasy very much, this novel merits at least an attempt.

This isn’t a fantasy story built from worn-out tropes. While many familiar elements make their way into the narrative, Novik reworks them to give them value. I felt the familiar worn edges of strong themes from centuries of good stories; I saw plenty of familiar fantasy elements. But I also enjoyed the rich and thick development of new meanings for what could have been tired and boring – the girl who learns to control her magic, the aloof wizard, the budding romance, the courtly drama, the forbidding enchanted wood.

Novik turns these tropes sideways so they work to her advantage. She turns the story too, not in a “cheap shot” yank-you-around kind of way, but artfully, shaping the reader’s journey through what seems like a familiar landscape to find what’s actually something new and rewarding.

So yeah. It’s a solid book. It’s up for a Hugo Award. That’s not a fluke. I’ve found myself thinking about this story even after I read the final pages, and I think it’s because Novik understands that good stories aren’t created by the trappings of the setting or by cheap plot devices; they’re built from the backbone of realistic characters grappling with credible problems, clothed in fluid prose. I don’t think this will be my top Hugo pick, but it’ll fall above the “no award” line for sure.

View all my reviews

A good read re: work/life balance

After reading this lengthy introduction (with some summary) of David Whyte’s recent book about finding a new way to handle the elusive unicorn of “work/life balance,” I’m sold on the idea that I need to get my hands on this book – and most of the others referenced in this article.

A tasty bit:

The current understanding of work-life balance is too simplistic. People find it hard to balance work with family, family with self, because it might not be a question of balance. Some other dynamic is in play, something to do with a very human attempt at happiness that does not quantify different parts of life and then set them against one another. We are collectively exhausted because of our inability to hold competing parts of ourselves together in a more integrated way.

The full discussion at BrainPickings

Good reads

A few articles that deserve your attention

Finally, the response to military sexual harassment that I’ve been waiting to hear.

If you’re going to start a startup, don’t get snagged by all the hype and myth and glamor. It’s just a start up…. and startups grow up to be corporate America.

An article I think I disagree with about creative people having the right to say no to anybody anytime about anything. OK, that’s not really what it says, and the author IS making a valid point about guarding your creative time. But I think the “cult of the creative muse” needs to get taken down a notch ….and I’m saying that as someone who really truly values creative energy by purchasing art, supporting local artists & filmmakers & musicians, and making art myself.

A ridiculously creepy piece about the leftover possessions of mental patients in a frightening asylum.  Sad.

Ron Paul & I agree for once! His take on the NSA spying scandal nails it.  Bugs me how post 9/11 Americans think the government exists to keep us safe. Hogwash. 

And two to make you feel happier about the world:

A teenager developed a better cancer diagnostic tool because (among other things) some wonderful educators taught her a course in 7th grade on futuristic thinking, which kicked off her AI/coding career. Awesome.

And this fellow in China is building amazing prosthetic limbs….because he had to.