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Hugo Award Reads: New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson (Review)

It’s Hugo Award Season! I love when June rolls around and I get to read books for 2 months with the excuse “I’m reading for the Hugo ballot voting!”  Not that I need an excuse to read books; our house is practically composed of stacks of books. But still…. it’s nice.

I’ve already read three of the nominees for Best Novel earlier in the year, so I’m picking up the other two.

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Robinson is a big name in sci fi but this is the first of his books to land on my reading pile. My husband, who is a voracious reader of sci with increasingly discriminating tastes, doesn’t love Robinson, so he’s not been as much on my radar.  Based on this novel, I will likely give his Mars series a shot.

New York 2140 is a big wandering novel told from multiple points of view (one per chapter, kind of in Game of Thrones Style). The novel introduces multiple themes of interest:  the realistic effects of global warming and climate change, the real effects of putting a coastal city under water, the lopsided wealth distribution, a sense of near-future tech applied to near-future climate problems, an exploration of the battle between political fortitude and the lure of lobbyist money.

It’s also a book about characters, more so than tends to be typical for an “ideas book.”  And this is what sold it for me.

I have head that Robinson is accused of creating “paint by number” characters, as have so many of the “idea guys” in science fiction. What they’re good at is building worlds and asking questions; the people in those stories exist only to carry on the plot and showcase the ideas.  I think Cixin Liu’s series (Three Body Problem, etc) are a good example of an idea guy who can’t really create believable human characters. (Though I have to give Liu a bit of a pass, since I could be missing the Chinese cultural nuances that a native speaker reading his novels in Chinese would see, and we might be losing more in translation than we realize. But the poor characterization ruined Death’s End for me.)

New York 2140 isn’t going to win a Pulitzer for characterization, but the New Yorkers here struck me as legit: with all the can-do and fuck-off attitude that NYC has delivered anytime I’ve been within its borders.  Of all cities on earth to find itself spit in half by a rising ocean, dealing with housing millions of people in a broad intertidal zone that bisects its critical districts, New York would survive.  New York would find a way to thrive. And New York would find a way to make money off that fight for survival.

I don’t want to tell you much about the plot – you can find summaries everywhere, but who wants to ruin a story like that?  Some have complained that the novel took too long to get started. *shrugs* If you enjoy sitting on a bench in Union Square and watching people for two hours, you won’t be bored by the novel’s opening. This book always drew me back for more, and honestly, it was usually to discover whether these people were going to be ok. That’s a good sign for a science fiction novel.

If you’re interested in how New York in particular would stare down a 50-foot rise in the oceans, this is the novel for you.

If you’ve never really thought about how rising sea levels will bring an apocalypse, but then a New Normal, this novel may interest you.

If you sense that our government  isn’t really much of a democracy any more, but we’re run by a rich-old-boys oligarchy, this novel might get you thinking about the natural consequences of that.

If you’d ever wanted to go treasure hunting in New York harbor, this book might intrigue you.

But really, if you enjoy visiting The City and soaking in everything New York has to offer, from brilliant minds to piss-soaked streets, read New York 2140. Just as New Yorkers got about their business after 9/11, they will find a way to get about the business of living once the oceans reclaim the coastline.

*****

Hugo Ballot thoughts:

I’m working to finish Ann Leckie’s Provenance and then I still need to read Six Wakes. What I’ve read of Provenance thus far doesn’t suggest it’s going to be a top contender, so at the moment I’ve got Jemisin’s Stone Sky and Lee’s Raven Stratagem on my short list for Hugo Best Novel.  Scalzi’s Collapsing Empire was a fun read and I’ll pick up the others in that series, but it doesn’t rise above the others IMHO in my balloting.

I don’t think Robinson’s novel rises above either of my top picks at this point. His ideas are solid and it’s a good novel.   But for the Hugo, I look for striking originality or truly novel ideas.  I think Robinson will do a lot to help the general public understand the real effects of climate change, though I hold little hope that anyone is willing to pay the price to reign in our overconsumption and reliance on fossil fuels in order to make life better for people who won’t be born for another 100 years. Robinson’s voice is added to the pile of those saying, “Hey! This is bad, y’all!”

For me, the question is, should Robinson’s novel stay above the “No Award” line?  I believe the answer is a firm Yes.  This is a good read and hopefully an influential one.

Finding Flannery among the Three Billboards

Another way that you love your enemy is this: When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it. There will come a time, in many instances, when the person who hates you most, the person who has misused you most, the person who has gossiped about you most, the person who has spread false rumors about you most, there will come a time when you will have an opportunity to defeat that person. It might be in terms of a recommendation for a job; it might be in terms of helping that person to make some move in life. That’s the time you must do it. That is the meaning of love. In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.

Martin Luther King, Jr.: Sermon on loving your enemies  (link)


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a top contender for an Oscar this season,  in a field with several other great films like Get Out (perhaps the best horror movie I’ve ever seen) and Dunkirk (chilling sound design + interesting manipulation of the timeline in the storytelling), this festival darling has gotten a lot of attention since the turn of the year.

Three Billboards has sparked controversy too regarding whether it exhibits blind spots about race and police brutality. I figured I’d have to wait for rental since the film is completely off-market here in the South for the types of movies that open at our theaters, so I was pleasantly surprised it finally opened here.

Three Billboards is a raw film, a brutal and unflinching observation of human nature at war with injustice.  ]

Briefly (spoilers): the plot centers on Mildred, a working-class single mother whose teen daughter was raped, murdered, and burned seven months ago in a little fictional town in Missouri. Mildred gets the idea to put up three huge billboards calling out the town’s police chief for not cracking the case, leaving her daughter’s killer at large and herself with a gaping hole and a lot of anger.  The film is told through the perspectives of several characters, mostly Mildred and the police chief Willoughby and his deputy Dixon.

In an early shot, a supporting character reads from Flannery O’Conoor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The homage to Flannery’s work in this film is unmistakable.  Martin McDonaugh, the writer and director, is Irish, but he’s clearly a fan of Southern Gothic themes.  And I’d say her stamp on this film is critical to understanding the story rightly, lest the viewer misunderstand the layers of irony at work. Were Flannery alive today and writing film scripts, I’d easily say this one were hers.

Why is the film controversial? Well, language for one. Mildred in particular is quite unhindered in her vulgarities, caring little whether her language or behavior offends her audience. For her, the injustice of an unsolved brutal crime makes social “rules” irrelevant.  In one scene, she screams at high schoolers who mock her son and wear their parents’ judgmental stance as their own. Her words escalate to physical violence. It’s a “balls to the wall” moment, but not without cost. When grief and anger drive one’s actions, a lot of people get hurt who don’t actually deserve it.  That’s a central point of this film, one that the writer put on a billboard so you couldn’t forget it.

Some have criticized the film for offering only a white woman’s POV of crime and injustice, when the narrative repeatedly refers to Deputy Dixon’s racism and brutality as a cop without providing details. Several times he is accused of or admits to “torturing” a black suspect in custody but this part of his story is left unexamined. Some have suggested this is a flaw: Is not the systemic injustice of police racism worse than an individual mother’s loss? Black bodies are threatened with violence almost constantly, yet we are asked to watch this particular white mother rage at her daughter’s murder.

I think that criticism is missing the point here. In Flannery’s Southern Gothic storytelling, the reader is usually presented with a whole set of character flaws to consider, operating as a backdrop to egregious evil that’s not always showing up holding a sign to announce its presence. In Three Billboards, the problem driving the story is Mildred’s relentless drive for justice. But that’s not the only problem in Ebbing that needs to be addressed.  I don’t think it’s a flaw in the writing that McDonaugh expects his viewers to recognize evil when they see it (like a racist deputy) and draw their own conclusions – all while wrestling with whether individuals suffer more because of individual crimes or systemic ones.

Those same critics suggest that Dixon is offered a cheap redemption arc in the second half of the film and this makes his racism all the more inexcusable for the writer to gloss over. Dixon isn’t a good man – indeed, any good man (or woman) is hard to find in this town.  He’s also a product of a racist and uncaring upbringing (highlighted via the scenes with his mother, who seems more hateful and racist and cruel as Dixon). But every human possess the power of choice, and Dixon uses his in the second half of the film to express a bit of sympathy, perhaps a desire for real justice for Mildred’s daughter.

Again, I think the viewers who charge that Dixon is given a redemptive arc he didn’t earn  are missing what McDonaugh is trying to do – and why he made sure we saw Flannery O’Connor’s name and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” on the screen at the very outset of the story.  In the end, Dixon and Mildred drive off to execute vigilante justice – should they even get that far.  Is that actually justice?  Another great question, one that we aren’t allowed to ignore.  As a viewer, I do feel better about Dixon, a bit, by the end, but by no means do I like him or sympathize with his unemployment and broken  life. Nor do I feel comfortable with Mildred, who so thoughtlessly injures the people around her as she lashes out. Her suffering does not give her permission to inflict pain on others.

Mildred’s actions don’t solve the murder. They just bring more pain. At first, we stand with her against the townspeople who hate her for making them remember this crime. They hate her for implying it’s the police chief’s fault. Woody Harrelson makes Sheriff Willoughby  pretty likable without letting us forget that he’s not without blame here too. Like Mildred, his own story is both tragic and sympathetic. His suicide complicates matters for Mildred, after her public shaming of him and disregard for his terminal cancer diagnosis. In his final words to her, he seems to forgive her for it. Should his daughters be so gracious toward her? Or would that be cheap mercy?

O’Connor’s unflinching and brutal stories of Southern self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and Grace are not for the faint of heart. While I would say her themes are some of the most Christian that we can find in early 20th century American literature, many of my Christian friends cannot stand to read her. They find the violence and grotesque characters in her story too off-putting to be “proper.”  They miss – as do some of the viewers of Three Billboards – the truth that Grace is sharp. It has teeth and claws and a backbone. Real Grace, the kind that can undergird Cross-death and self-sacrifice, changes the receiver as well as the giver. It’s nothing like the cheap religiosity which permeates Southern culture, where God and guns and college football and family pride are worshiped at individual shrines. Cultural Christianity – the fake kind – has little beyond platitudes to offer Mildred in her aching grief and searing anger.

In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a dysfunctional family goes on vacation, gets lost thanks to the self-centered and foolish grandmother, and falls prey to a murderer on some backwater Georgia country road. The killer and the grandmother engage in one of the most memorable fictional discourses about existential good vs evil and human choices. She all but begs for the killer to find the good in his nature to spare them. He’s far more prepared than she to identify her Pharisaism and denies her mercy. The story title warns us there won’t be any good people in this tale, and there aren’t.

In Three Billboards, Mildred seeks justice for her daughter because it’s been denied thus far and she’s desperate. Does she also see her own flaws and own them honestly? We see flashbacks that any parent could relate to- and feel guilty about. She’s not really a great parent, before or after her daughter died.  But she also didn’t ask for her daughter to be raped, murdered, and burned. Nobody deserves that.

We see Mildred at the outset of the film as heroic. We’re expecting a to like this “nasty woman” on her quest, hard as nails and relentless. McDonaugh turns our expectations sideways, making us squirm as we realize we can’t feel entirely sympathetic for anybody on the celluloid before us. The dividing line between good and evil runs through us, not around. Southern Gothic writing – even when written by an Irishman – is always at its best when holding a mirror before our faces, forcing us to see humanity as it really is.

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Three thoughts on Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Billions of words will be marshaled in support or condemnation of Star Wars Episode VIII. So of course, I want to add a few of my own. 😉

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

(This was me trying to avoid spoilers last week)

The Last Jedi is a divisive entry – to me, exactly the gut-punch this cultural juggernaut needed to stay relevant, but not all fans agree. At least, not on their first viewing.

My current favorite analysis is this article which details the many ways in which Rian Johnson upended fans’ expectations and franchise icons to deliver a better story. In it, the author details many important turns in Johnson’s script and their importance to breaking viewers’ expectations.  Spoiler warning, of course!  The Last Jedi Doesn’t Care What You Think About Star Wars (Slashfilm)

The following three points have stuck with me since seeing the film, along with a general awe for the gorgeous visuals and lovely John Williams score. (Do you think he hears another million $$ hit the bank every time a Star Wars film releases? haha)

Women leading like women would lead

Carrie Fisher is gone, but the film in its final form doesn’t trim her significance to this story. However, it’s not just Princess/General Leia who occupies an important role in SW:TLJ. I uttered an audible gasp at Vice Admiral Holdo’s critical moment in the film. (The on-sreen visuals alone elicited a “whoa.”) Holdo’s leadership style was not at all what Po Dameron wanted from his commander, and in that onscreen relationship, I saw the archetype of so many long-suffering women in positions of power with boys chafing underneath them because they don’t engage in the same brash, risky behavior that drives male leadership.  A good read by Vanity Fair on how The Last Jedi stomps all over “mansplaining”

All over this film we see women collaborating, arguing, debating, nurturing, leading. I relished seeing Rose confront cowardice and greed and betrayal with both her heart and her head. Of course, Rey is a central figure in the entire trilogy, a young women who represents formidable integrity and hope in the face of dark times.

The Resistance army needs brave hot shots like Poe Dameron to score the big hits, but it needs good leaders who make careful decisions more than it needs bravado. But this isn’t an anti-male story — I genuinely believe Po is being set up for a strong finish in the next film, based on the cues we get from his character presentation in the final moments of The Last Jedi.

Good leaders come from both genders. It’s just that most of my female Gen-X peers never got to see women exercise that leadership without having to “play a man” to get it or keep it.  And I’m relishing every strong, capable women I’ve seen on screen in 2017.

last-jedi-tout-2

POV and narrator complexity

Rian Johnson offers us a complex web of stories which unite into a unified second entry for this trilogy.  One singular element of the story is the conflicting versions of why Kylo Ren/Ben Solo destroyed Luke Skywalker’s Jedi training school. Like with so much of our messy human existence, “it’s complicated.”  We’re hard-wired to assume Luke is in the right here, because he’s the hero we know and love. But Johnson’s story forces us to question why the son of Han and Leia would grow up to manifest the worst traits of his grandfather Darth Vader.  We never get the whole picture, but we do begin to see more of Kylo Ren’s internal struggle, portrayed so well by Adam Driver. And this presentation of “what happened” reminds us that history is written by the teller. The facts are malleable, depending how you interpret them, how they’ve been warped by both Luke and Ben’s memories, and by the strong emotional overtones both men bring to their versions of the story.

There’s a parallel technique happening with Finn’s experience of his part in this story. We are all invested in Finn and his growth from being “a bad guy with a conscience and a choice” in The Force Awakens toward someone we assume will be important in the new world of Star Wars. Finn discovers throughout The Last Jedi that he snaps to judgments prematurely and needs to slow down and consider that he might not be seeing everything in play. This instructs us viewers as well not to make hasty assumptions about the folks who inhabit this universe. Will this new trilogy simply give us heroes descended from now-famous families? Or will we again see the rise of “nobodys” to positions of greatness?

It’s smart script writing and I’m pretty sure I’ll notice even more masterful moments when I see the film a second time.

Failure, not success, grows us into better people

Much of the fan hate arises from critique of Luke Skywalker’s part in this tale. Those of us raised on Star Wars would love to take a time machine back to the early 80s when Harrison Ford wasn’t so wrinkly and so damn grouchy, and when Luke/Leia were the hottest characters across the pop culture spectrum (whether toys or graphic novels or Halloween costumes).

Do I want to be reminded that my celluloid heroes are now old or dead? Well, no.  Momento mori isn’t what I expect from a space fantasy. Yet here we are.

And The Last Jedi is so much better because Johnson wrote like a man who has lived in our world, not just in a fantasy land where people can wield light sabers and little fighters and score impossible victories in the face of an overwhelming superior yet evil Empire.

I’ve spent my life in education. Seeing Luke recoil from his own failure as a teacher resonates so much with me. Teaching is the most fulfilling, terrifying job I can conceive of. It’s not the work of it that makes teaching hard. It’s holding in your feeble hands the minds and hearts of people who might grow up to change the world if you can avoid screwing them up or cheating them out of the challenges that will force them to grow.

Fans didn’t ask for a Luke Skywalker who is aware of his insufficiency and his failures and fearful of the consequences of action now that he understands – as an old man – what those outcomes may be. And I, a 40-something woman who yearly gains a better grasp of my own shortcomings as my life flows through middle age toward old-ness, I grab hold of Luke’s story with all of my heart. It catches me even now. I want to drop everything to run out and watch the movie again so I can see Luke the Teacher, Luke the Failure, come to grips with his actions and their interplay with the free choices of Ben Solo that turned him into Kylo Ren.

The greatest teacher, failure is. ~Yoda

Luke is confronted in that significant scene on the island to remember that teachers labor to be surpassed by their pupils. That is the calling we were given, not to exercise control over our students’ choices and lives.

I’m a sentimental sot, but if you’re going to throw teacher wisdom at me in the middle of a blockbuster franchise film, I’m probably going to bawl. So I did.

*  *  *  *  *

I know fans will rage and argue, but I think The Last Jedi is some of the best and most meaningful Star Wars writing we’ve seen in years. I applaud Rian Johnson’s outstanding work on the script, and I am thrilled he’ll be at the helm of a new trilogy in the future, in some other corner of a galaxy far, far away.

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Review: Disjointed (2017)

Watch disjointed: Netflix

I rarely disagree so fully with prevailing opinion on Rotten Tomatoes or elsewhere, because we live in an age where crowd-sourced reviews en masse are usually pretty good.

But the mob is wrong when it comes to disjointed, a Netflix original sitcom starring Cathy Bates. This is a great show, and you should watch Season 1 to see if you agree.

I rarely like sitcoms because they’re rarely funny beyond surface gags. Of course, there are exceptions: How I Met Your Mother and Friends famously made their mark in the world with great writing and a strong story arc. Usually I stick with longer-form shows that incorporate comedy but don’t depend on it. (Pushing Daisies and Boston Legal, I still miss you!) I’ve tried some of the many others which win critical acclaim– Broad City, Insecure, Hey White People — and I end up walking away halfway through the first season. I guess I’m more into drama and action.

So I was pretty surprised when on a lark we started to watch disjointed and actually liked it. The premise of the show is simple: Cathy Bates runs a weed dispensary in California as “Ruth,” the maven of weed (and law). The show’s plots are basic sitcom fare: a zany cast of characters inhabit the store, from the hippie guy who tends the plants to owner’s son who’s trying to prove to his mom that his MBA is worth something in her alternative business. Potheads abound, and the show doesn’t mind mocking their giggles or stupor or childlike excitement for their favorite strain.

Dank and Debby are two stoners who inhabit the show’s plots. They make me laugh 100% of the time.

But a couple deeper elements deserve praise, and I can’t believe the critics missed these.

First, the show tackles issues around the War on Drugs with a deft hand. Yes, the show assumes the POV that pot is relatively harmless, often beneficial, and sort-of legal. I could see how some might be offended by a show that takes as its premise that arresting people for weed is borderline immoral. Some might also feel that disjointed glorifies smoking and getting high; it’s true that most of the stoners and customers at the dispensary get along just fine with their smokey lives. But the recent legalization efforts in several states suggest that the people who decide to make weed a lifestyle aren’t generally ruining their lives or anyone else’s, and I’m not going to fault a comedy for not dealing with edge cases where weed costs someone their job. The characters do confront people who are lighting up too much or using weed to escape real issues.  I just think stoned people are funny and the show plays off that for much of its humor.

But where things really shine occurs in the story line of Carter, the security guard who checks IDs at the door. He’s a military vet suffering from PTSD. His episodes are rendered by the show via incredible animated shorts that take over the screen and unpack memories that burst into his consciousness and affect his life. The art style is amazing; the plot line is refreshing. I didn’t expect to even stick with this show more than 3 episodes; the fact that it’s dealing with PTSD is part of the reason.

The storytelling itself is interesting. Maybe I inhabit the YouTube/social media world of Millennials so much that I don’t find it disjointed (haha) as some critics; I find the blend of live action comedy, animated scenes, and YouTube episodes from Dank and Dabby to be the perfect medium for a show about living in a drug haze.

Storytellers don’t have to hedge their tales with caution signs.  The show has a strong libertarian bent when it comes to weed. I like it without the slab of moralism on top.

Are there moments where the humor is just slapstick? Yes. But critics have panned the series as “unfunny” – a charge I honestly can’t understand. Winks and nods abound throughout the writing. The chalkboard behind the counter is chock-full of witty references. You need to squint to see what books Ruth is reading in her office, but the titles are always a nod to something in the plot. The slogans on Tai Kwon Doug’s studio are the exact kind of bro-stupid that make his character funny.

Is this a genius show that will challenge America’s drug policy? Nah.  Will you see the seedy underbelly of the drug trade like in Weeds? Nope.

Is it worth 5 hours to binge all 10 episodes and laugh yourself through a bag of popcorn this weekend (because you’re gonna get sympathetic munchies)?  Yes. Yes, it is worth it.

disjointed on imdb

 

Review: Seveneves

SevenevesSeveneves by Neal Stephenson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If there’s a cardinal sin for a novelist, it’s to fail to recognize when he’s trying to combine too many stories into one. I understand that Stephenson is known for packing in lots of ideas rather than building great characters, and that’s fine. But I was deeply disappointed, after blazing happily through the first ¼ of the book, to find myself marooned in a bog of details one moment and then whiplashed forward to some other subplot in the next as he attempted to drag us all through an Epic Story About The Survival Of Humanity.

He really should have listened to his editor. And if the man doesn’t have an editor with the balls to stand up to him and say, “Dude. Either turn this into a series or cut out half this shit,” then he’s being poorly served by his publishing house.

I’d have to describe this novel primarily as “overwritten.” I am stupidly stubborn when it comes to finishing books so I slogged through 20 pages on a future humanoid setting up her glider. What. The. Hell. It didn’t further the story, it didn’t connect me to the character. It was Stephenson showing off that he’s done a lot of thinking about gliders. Great. Good for you.

The novel’s premise isn’t new, but Stephenson sets it up pretty well. But then the story diverges into too many directions at once. Is this a book about an apocalyptic ending of the earth? about survival? about the role of genetics in determining behavior? about how humans are pretty shitty most of the time? about future space tech? I’m not sure. I think it’s all of those. I call this “Chappie Disease” — potentially good stories are damaged by their authors when they bury them under the other 19375646328 ideas they forced into the narrative.

Mild spoilers ahead:

I have to comment on the odd decision to co-opt character development in some cases by inserting currently famous people into the novel, yet not as their actual selves, but as a weird form of archetype or stock character. Thus, Neil deGrasse Tyson becomes a sort of stereotype of “the popular astronomer” in the form of Doc Harris, a man in the book that I liked quite a bit, but only because I couldn’t escape seeing Tyson’s face, imposing my opinions of him as a real person, and hearing his warm voice. It was kind of creepy actually, as if someone I knew got possessed by a totally different soul. Harris was Tyson but not. Ditto the Elon Musk “tech guy who takes matters into his own hands,” the Hillary Clinton-esque asshole/paranoid woman president (kinda offensive really), and — perhaps the most potentially objectionable — Malala (“Camila”) the Famous International Woman who gets a ride away from death only to be duped by the Evil Female President into hatching her Ridiculous Plan which never shows up again. Gah. The “real” Malala survived the Taliban, and now she’s going to be turned into a foolish, quavering stooge to fit Stephenson’s narrative? >.<

This kind of writing strikes me as lazy. He didn’t have the space (due to the sprawling plot structure) to build his own characters, so he grabbed personalities we would recognize, and hung some new clothes and faces on them. It’s also going to date his novel terribly within a few years. And in 50, no one will get the comparisons.

While I’m on a rant …. Does anyone else find the constant references to genetic predispositions in the new seven races a bit…. racist? I mean, we have races now and through natural processes, differences between them (as we consider specific examples) can be pretty stark. But Stephenson’s races are so stereotypically predictable that I’m actually uncomfortable reading the last portion of the book. If his story-scientists had bred blacks and Asians instead of Mourns, Ivans, and Teklans, he would written about “insatiable, instinctive hunger for fried chicken” or “a strange affinity for math,” and acted like that was totally ok. (It’s not.)

There was a lot of potential here, and Stephenson did build a story that kept me coming back to find out what happened in the sweeping arc of the narrative. I mourned the death of some people, and I was strangely gripped by some of their dilemmas (and bored to tears by others). I’ve learned about orbital mechanics and I understand much better why meteors probably destroyed the dinosaurs.

But that doesn’t make up for the fact that Stephenson’s novel is, structurally, a mess.

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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.

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Delightful Discoveries of 2014

My listicle-gift to you, O Reader, for the new year: Things we loved in 2014, in case you missed them.  (Photo credit, above: This shot of the Denver skyline taken by my friend Mark while we were out there visiting.)

  • Trader Joe’s Sipping Chocolate.  Oh yes.  Mix it into coffee, or stay on the straight and narrow with for hot chocolate
  • The life-altering bourbon mocha by Methodical Coffee, soon to be opening a shop in Downtown Greenville, prepared by the delightful Vagabond Barista. Seriously tho….
  • This recipe for carnitas and this recipe for carbonades flemandes, aka Belgian stew. I’ve been on a mission to recreate that incredible dish from The Trappe Door in Greenville, SC.  Meanwhile, the carnitas have become a monthly staple in our household. Just can’t beat them.
  • Cooperative board games.  Sure, sure, we all have a competitive side, but there’s something so satisfying about collaborating with a small group of friends to beat a game that keeps kicking your butts.  There’s all the strategy and emotion and tense moments without the anger and flipping over of tables…..oh, games don’t go like that in your house? lol — Ghost Stories pits 3 or 4 players against a wickedly difficult series of evil Chinese spirits. You and your ninja buddies battle back the demons for what seems like forever, and when you’re the most bloodied and beaten down, Wu Fang emerges from the deck to kick your ass unless you’re really holding it together. And getting some lucky rolls of the dice. Stunningly beautiful and captivating game. — Pandemic can play up to 5 people as bio-researchers and disease specialists who must stop worldwide outbreaks from 4 or 5 different diseases before time runs out or the diseases massacre humanity.  Each player brings a special ability to the game vital to the success of the group.
  • The joy of an asymmetrical game, where each player pursues a totally different objective.  I’m loving Android Netrunner and Archipelago as two very different examples of this kind of game.
  • Can’t ignore video games – our household plays a LOT of them. 🙂 Gems we discovered in 2014:
    • Risk of Rain:  Want to get smashed again and again, along with your friends, in a brutal co-op that’s somehow fascinating and adorable? this is the game for you.  It’s fantastic. You’ll yell phrases you would have never expected to come out of your mouth, like “I want to destroy that demon jellyfish and send it back to the hell from whence it came!”  (Steam)
    • Transistor:  Gorgeous art style, interesting story, amazing soundtrack (Steam, PSN)

The Hudson

A post shared by RameyLady (@lorojoro) on

A photo posted by RameyLady (@lorojoro) on Jul 7, 2014 at 8:40pm PDT

  • Shoutout to Flagstaff, Arizona, for being beautiful and to Poughkeepsie, NY  (photo above) for being a whole lot cooler than I expected.
  • Shoutout as well to AirBnB for consistently providing us with good places to stay, and to Southwest for hauling us around the country with minimal kerfuffle.
  • Happy discovery of 2014:  Belgian beer is great, actually.  I’ve struggled to find beer that I could honestly say I enjoyed. Then I met Belgian beers (Thanks, John!) and all that is behind me.
    Oh, and in the non-Belgian category, Allegash Cerieux is the best thing I drank all year, hands down.)
  • Authors I enjoyed:  Thomas Pynchon; Paolo Bacigalupi; Octavia Butler; David Drake; Anne Lecke
  • Musical discoveries: Snarky Puppy (so good!) …. Hiatus Kaiote ….. Thomas Giles …. The Bad Plus
  • And, this isn’t a “discovery” for 2014, but I enjoyed a great year of productive work alongside a very fine and fun team of people at my office. How fun are we, you ask?  Fun enough to turn our office and outer corridor into a Whovian paradise for student appreciation day! Here, I’ll prove it:
You can't handle this much coolness. Admit it.
You can’t handle this much coolness. Admit it. You wish you worked here too….

And with that, friends, I depart – leaving you warm wishes for a great 2015.