Stand Your Ground, by Victoria Christopher Murray

Stand Your GroundAs soon as I saw this book in the catalog, I knew I was going to read it, because a) I need diverse books and b) I live in Florida, where standing your ground is basically the state sport.

This fictional ground-standing takes place in Pennsylvania, but it is reminiscent of the Trayvon Martin shooting that happened here in Florida a couple years ago. A black high-school boy, Marquis, is sitting in a car with his white girlfriend outside of a white dude’s house. White dude comes out to the car all, this guy troubling you, little lady?, stuff happens, and then Marquis is shot dead by white dude, who claims he was threatened and just standing his ground.

But we don’t get all of that right away. What we get first is the story of Marquis’s mother, Janice, who is getting back into the swing of family life after a huge bump in her marriage. Things look like they’re going well until the police show up, wondering if her son might possibly be in a gang and perhaps carry a baseball bat around, oh, also, btw, he’s dead. Janice wants to curl up in a ball and die, basically, but her husband and her “Brown Guardians”-member brother-in-law are ready to get some old-school revenge. Janice’s half of the story is all about finding closure after something awful has happened, and how to find closure when it seems like every person in the world has an opinion about not just that something awful but about you and your son and your family.

Then in the second half of the novel, we flip to the story of white dude’s wife, Meredith, who is having a slightly different experience. Meredith lives in comfortable wealth as the wife of a local fast-food millionaire, a millionaire who has done great philanthropic work in the black community but is still almost giddy about how easily his lawyer is going to get him acquitted of the murder of this particular black kid. Worse, Meredith has a secret that she wants to share, but doing so would ruin her marriage, which isn’t great, exactly, but is better than the alternative, and she’s not sure she can muster up the courage to destroy her own family after her husband has destroyed another.

I wasn’t sure about this book at first, as the first chapter has a sort of chick-lit feel that I tend to dislike, but as soon as the story started moving I really couldn’t put it down. It was fascinating to see how the two very similar narrators — wife, mother, background player, worrier — handled both sides of an awful situation and to have them only guessing at the reasons behind it. Even with the narrative focused on these two ladies, you still get to see the opinions and emotions of the other characters, which differ wildly just as they should. The murderer himself seemed a bit of a caricature when he first appeared, but even he turned out to have complex emotions by the end of the book.

I’m so glad I gave this book the chance it deserved, and I think it’s a great read for anyone who wants to understand a new viewpoint or two (or more!) in our current cultural climate.

Recommendation: For you.

Rating: 8/10

The Philosopher Kings, by Jo Walton

The Philosopher KingsAfter reading The Just City, I was super excited to see what would happen next to my favorite Plato-embracing humans. If you haven’t read The Just City, let me spoil the very end for you: Plato’s thought experiment, not surprisingly, does not translate well to the real (well, “real”) world, and the city falls apart.

This book starts many years and many cities later, as the former residents of the Just City form their own, presumably better versions of the City elsewhere on the island, or, in the case of Kebes, abscond with a ship and run off to who knows where. The cities left on the island are not playing nice with each other, though, and an early art raid leaves my favorite character from the first novel, Simmea, super duper dead. Of our narrators this time, Apollo is distraught, Maia is pragmatic, and Apollo and Simmea’s daughter, Arete, is nearly an adult and eager to make sense of everything that’s going on.

Apollo is pretty sure that Kebes is the culprit in Simmea’s death and also just generally wants to kill the dude, so he and a bunch of other Remnant City (the… remnants of the original City) residents take the other ship and go out on a “diplomatic” mission to explore the area and maybe perhaps find and kill Kebes. What they find, generally, is the world as it actually was at the time without Athene’s intervention, which depresses them all rather a lot. When they do find Kebes’s contingent, things seem at first pretty darn good for them and for the people they are helping, but life in their cities is certainly not as Plato imagined.

Where the first book focused on the benefits of and problems with the Just City in terms of an actual functioning Just City, this book takes a look at how slight tweaks to the formula create completely different cities in composition and demeanor. And where the first book’s Apollo was trying to figure out the equality of women especially with regards to rape, this second volume has Apollo sort of floundering for a reason to keep existing as a mortal after the death of his favorite mortal companion. It’s not a terribly different novel, but it covers enough new ground to make things interesting.

Well, most of the novel is not terribly different, except for the ending, which is deus ex to the extreme in a story that had previously kept a slow, constant pace of developing and solving problems. I get that what happens probably eventually had to happen, and that it would, probably, happen just that quickly, but it’s jarring nonetheless and also it doesn’t make a lot of sense. But hey, gods and their whims, right?

I was sure that this must be a two-book series with the way this one ended, but apparently there is another book coming, and I am totally in for reading it if only to figure out what happened at the end of this one! At the very least, the new setting will be absolutely fascinating…

Recommendation: Read The Just City first, of course, and if you like that you’ll definitely want to continue on to this one.

Rating: 8/10

Weekend Shorts: Comics in Space and also Ghosts

We’ve got a space spoof, a space western spoof, and an incredibly sarcastic horror spoof in the lineup today. Clearly I am taking this weekend very seriously. How about you?

Galaxy Quest: The Journey Continues, #3-4, by Erik Burnham and Nacho Arranz
Galaxy Quest #3Galaxy Quest #4So, yeah, after last time I was not exactly in a rush to finish off this series, even though it’s been sitting in my house staring at me for a while now. I just thought, you know, if I don’t read it, it might be good! But I needn’t have worried, as apparently this mini-series should have just been three issues instead of four, kicking out that terrible second one.

In the third issue, we get right down to it, showing up at the alien planet, making some wisecracks about science fiction conventions (not… not like cons, but like, tropes and stuff), and fighting a giant alien monster. Woo fighting alien monsters! It’s all very exciting and also a little super gross. In the fourth issue, our heroes finally make it to the thing they’re supposed to destroy and, spoilers, destroy the heck out of it. But with style! Lots of style, and wisecracks. Style, wisecracks, and potentially terrible mistakes. And then there’s a not-quite-cliffhanger at the end to pave the way for future issues.

I have to say, except for that terrible second issue, this was really super delightful. I love Galaxy Quest and many of the things it spoofs, and if you do, too, there’s no way to go wrong with this. But I’m thinking if another mini-run shows up at the comic store, I might hold off until the trade shows up. Those filler issues are rough!

Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars, #2: “The Sad, Sad Song of Widow Johnson, Part Two”, by Ben Acker, Ben Blacker, and J. Bone
Sparks Nevada #2Let’s be real, I love Sparks Nevada (and Sparks Nevada) and this issue could have been just him saying “I’m…. from earth” in every panel and I would be stupidly amused. But this was even better than that!

We pick up with Sparks’s party turned to glass and the bad guys chasing after him and Croach while also striving to be respectful of Mars’s culture and natural features. So considerate! There’s bad guy infighting, careful onus calculation, a trip through the never-before-mentioned (or possibly I wasn’t paying attention) Martian underground cities, trampolines, and some weird Martian planet thing that is, according to Sparks, sogross. Poor, poor Sparks.

Beyond Belief, #1: “The Donna Party”, by Ben Acker, Ben Blacker, and Phil Hester
Beyond Belief #1Woo! It’s finally time to send the little ones to dreamland and see what those lovely Doyles actually look like! Unsurprisingly, Sadie looks rather like Paget Brewster, but it only now occurs to me how completely incongruous it is that she and Frank, perpetually dressed to the nines and carrying martini glasses, would be fighting ghosts. You’d think Sadie’d at least change into a comfy pair of pants or something.

But, regardless, they take their natty selves where they are needed, and in this issue they are needed at the home of Sadie’s friend Donna, who has moved into a house that is absolutely delightful except for the part where it’s haunted. Frank and Sadie arrive to discover a host of creepy-pants dolls ready to have a never-ending tea party with them, but of course they figure out the root of the problem and send one poor, beleaguered spirit and his slightly crazy spirit wife back to where they belong. Then there’s a little lead in to what might be the next issue, which will be weird if it’s true because the podcast story is mostly self-contained. We shall see…

And, as in the first Sparks Nevada issue, there is an extra issue #0 tacked on to tell the story of how Frank and Sadie met, which I must admit was a little strange and underwhelming. I much prefer their vomit-inducingly adorable current relationship to any other way they might ever have acted, so I’m gonna stick with it.

The Leveller, by Julia Durango

The LevellerFor all that I enjoyed this book, I have to admit one thing: I have no idea why it’s called The Leveller. I mean, yes, it’s called that because the main character is a “leveller”, but the connotations I have for that word are “someone who destroys” and “someone who levels up in video games” and neither of those describes what the main character actually does, which is get people to leave a video game world. This really super bothers me.

But if we’ll just take as a given that the title makes no sense, the rest of the book is pretty okay. It takes place in a world where Second Life (or OASIS, if you’re a Ready Player One fan) is neurologically based and people, like, have a little nap and go play in the video game world for four hours at a time, unless they have illicit cheat codes that let them stay longer. Our protagonist, Nixy, is a teenage girl who makes her money by going into the MEEP (because that’s totally what I would call my virtual reality) to drag other teenagers back to the real world and their really ticked off parents.

Then she is recruited by the inventor of the MEEP to go get his son back from a virtual reality world littered with traps that have terrified grown adults, and things only get worse from there. Nixy has to battle her phobias, enemy agents, and a creepy MEEP artifact called The Black — oh, and try to figure out the butterfly feelings she gets around the guy she’s trying to bring home.

There’s lots of action and adventure, is what I’m saying, and if this book is not already in production as a future summer movie I will be kind of shocked. There’s also a decent amount of worldbuilding, both literally in the MEEP and about the outside world where the MEEP has its own, possibly unintended consequences, but the story doesn’t really delve too far into any of that. Probably the sequel will, though, and yes, the ending pretty much requires a sequel to really finish up this story, which is a bit frustrating.

I thought I would hate the love story, which was prominently featured in the blurb I read about the book, but it was actually pretty okay, with a nice straight line instead of a triangle and only the requisite awkwardness of teenagers. What got me more was the part where a teenager was being asked to do this rescue mission that adults couldn’t — the reason for a rescue being needed is sufficiently explained but why they would ever send in a person without a fully formed frontal lobe is not.

But, regardless of the weirdness and plot holes, I enjoyed the heck out of the book. I read it in almost exactly two hours and was eager to get back to it any time I had to leave, because action and adventure was happening and I didn’t want to miss it! If that sequel happens I will definitely be getting my hands on it and hoping that it doesn’t go too off the rails.

Recommendation: For fans of dystopian worlds who want something with a little less death involved, I think.

Rating: 8/10

Weekend Shorts: The Life of the Mind and Bitch Planet

Two slightly different offerings this week: the start of the latest adventure in the awesome Old Man’s War universe, which is aliens and military and explosions and stuff, and also the start of a comic universe called Bitch Planet, which is humans and pseudo-military and fighting and stuff. What do I think? Read on!

The End of All Things, Part 1: “The Life of the Mind”
The Life of the MindScalzi. The Old Man’s War series. Two of my favorite things! I put the four… short stories? Novellas? I don’t know the cutoff here, but anyway I put the four stories that make up this book on immediate Amazon preorder when I heard they existed so that I could have them on my Kindle before I even knew they were out. And so it happened! I got this nice email last Tuesday telling me my book was here, and as soon as I finished China Rich Girlfriend (there is seriously no interrupting China Rich Girlfriend) I read the heck out of it.

It was a bit different than I thought it would be, but it was just as amazing as I wanted it to be, so that’s just fine by me. See, this first story is narrated by a dude who’s a brain in a box. Not the guy who was a brain in the box in whatever other story that was where they found a brain in a box, but a new brain in a box who was asked to tell the story of how he managed to become a brain in a box. Brain in a box, people.

So, because said brain is specifically the brain of a pilot and programmer, the story is written to be not terribly well written, so that was kind of weird. And of course it’s written entirely from this very very limited perspective, with some convenient information thrown the brain’s way so we’re not completely lost, but I’m still looking forward to getting more information from a different perspective in the next story. It had better be a different perspective.

But anyway, the story itself is great and full of all the action, intrigue, and subterfuge that you have come to expect from John Scalzi. The fate of the Colonial Union after the events of The Human Division is revealed, as well as a myriad of other crazy conspiracies that break my brain (haaa) more than a little. It will be very interesting to follow along with this story over the next couple weeks, or if you’re the instant-gratification type you can wait until it’s all published in August.

Bitch Planet, #1, by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine de Landro
Bitch Planet #1I picked this issue up the day it came out back in December, and I have no idea why it took me so long to read it. The art is amazing, with strong color palettes for each setting, tons of characters that manage to look different from each other, and, impressively, a bunch of naked women who look like actual naked women and not like porn naked women.

Why are there a bunch of naked women, you say? Well, that gets to the story part, which is pretty cool itself. It seems that there’s this planet, see, which is nicknamed “Bitch Planet” but is really the “Auxiliary Compliance Outpost”, which is really just jail for ladies who’ve done something wrong. The naked transportees are labelled “radicals” and “killers”, but we quickly learn that at least one of them is there because she made some threats after her husband cheated on her, so perhaps it’s a little easier than it should be to end up on this planet. There’s also a nice little twist at the end that makes me think that this series is not going to pull any punches. As it were.

I am super intrigued to see where this series goes, so it’s a good thing the first volume comes out next month!

China Rich Girlfriend, by Kevin Kwan

China Rich GirlfriendI read Crazy Rich Asians last year with my book club and it was a complete surprise “holy crap this is great” book. I had no idea I would love a book like that so much, but I did. Then the television show Jane the Virgin happened and I was like, no, no, I won’t like a show like that but of course I did because it’s the same level of crazy (and crazy rich) soap opera drama that permeates Kwan’s work. When Jane ended a few weeks ago I didn’t know what I’d do with myself — until China Rich Girlfriend showed up. Crazy adventures and misunderstandings for everyone!

Seriously, it’s so great, guys. China Rich Girlfriend picks up a while after Crazy Rich Asians left off, so there has been plenty of time for insanity of that book to percolate into even insaner insanity. Nick and Rachel, the engaged and then estranged couple from the first book, are back together and better than ever now that Nick’s not talking to his mom at all. Because that’s healthy. And going to go well. Let’s just say that Eleanor literally crashes her son’s wedding, but for a good reason — she’s found Rachel’s dad and she totally approves of him. But Rachel’s new family may not feel quite the same way about her.

Meanwhile Nick’s cousin Astrid, who had some serious marriage troubles due to her extreme wealth and her husband’s lack of it, is now dealing with a husband wealthy in his own right who suddenly doesn’t have time for anything that doesn’t make him look and feel richer than God. And former porn star Kitty Pong, who played a small role in the first book, shows up to flaunt her own ridiculous riches and make several enemies in the process, but with the help of a sort of personal life coach she’s hoping to turn her image around so that she can continue her flaunting in even better company.

So, yeah. AMAZING. Many of the characters from the first book make appearances of varying importance in this second book, but it doesn’t really matter who’s there because the main stories are all completely engrossing in their own right. Like, seriously, I was making excuses to invent time to read this book. It’s kind of absurd how Kwan can take a plot like “Will Rachel’s newfound family accept her?” or “Can Astrid make peace with her husband’s new life goals?” or, most ridiculously, “What the heck is up with Kitty’s husband?” (spoiler: omg the greatest thing ever) and make the answers something I must know immediately right now but okay, sure, you can go ahead and talk about drag racing and fashion, I can totally wait. I probably don’t even know what half the words in this book mean, between the fashion, interior design, and various Asian exclamations (okay, I know what those mean because there are footnotes [!!]), but I do not care.

If you haven’t read Crazy Rich Asians but you like or think you might like wacky rich-person soap operas, you should go read it, then read a bunch of other books, and then when you’re in need of absurdism come back to this one. You could maybe read China Rich Girlfriend first, but the beginning won’t make a lot of sense and also you would be missing out on all the wonder of the original novel. Regardless, whenever you get around to reading this novel, let me warn you that the ending will leave you dying for a third installment in this series, so have plenty of other books on hand to distract you from the fact that there isn’t one (yet???).

Recommendation: Why are you even still reading this blog, go obtain these books immediately!

Rating: 10/10

When Women Were Birds, by Terry Tempest Williams

When Women Were BirdsI picked this book for my book club to read because the internets had told me great things about it, and the conceit as explained to me was fascinating: Williams’s mother died and left Williams all her journals, of which there were many and of which all turned out to be completely blank. That’s crazy, right? Who keeps a bunch of blank journals? I needed to know more.

But it turns out there isn’t anything more to know. Williams has no idea why the journals were blank, and doesn’t really postulate on it at all. Instead, she gives us 54 odd, practically stream-of-consciousness essays on “voice” or lack of it, drawn from her own life and only rarely touching on her mother’s. Which is fine. But it’s not what I thought I was getting into.

To be fair, I can see what Williams is doing with these essays. She’s describing situations where her own voice or general idea of power come into play, times when she was as silent as her mother’s journals and times where she used her voice and power to leave some metaphorical journal entries. Some of the vignettes are completely self-contained, but some require background information that we never get — blank pages in the journal that is this book. All we can really know about a person is what they tell us, and sometimes they tell us nothing.

I get it. But I didn’t like it. I needed more. It felt like reading The Year of Magical Thinking with another book club, where all the people who actually knew who Joan Didion was were like, this book is amazing, and the rest of us were like, so, that happened. I don’t know anything about Williams, but based on the little information I got she sounds like a pretty interesting person, and I bet that if I had known she was a quasi-famous author and environmentalist and especially if I had read her memoir I would have been better placed to read this book.

Sorry, book club. I’ll do better next time.

Recommendation: For people who know anything about Terry Tempest Williams or people who can enjoy the conceit of a book without thinking too hard about the content.

Rating: 4/10

The Tusk That Did the Damage, by Tania James

The Tusk That Did the DamageI was sold on this book as soon as I found out that some of the chapters were from an elephant’s point of view. An elephant! How delightful!

Oh, did I say delightful? Let’s try fairly depressing. But in the best of ways.

This book tells three different stories, just barely intertwined. There’s the story of the elephant, whose mother is killed by poachers and who ends up in some rich guy’s rental elephant collection. We find out pretty early on that he gains the nickname “the Gravedigger”, and why, but the how is a mystery until near the end. There’s also the story of a young Indian boy named Manu, whose cousin gets killed by the Gravedigger. We get his story both before and after this terrible event, along with the story of his poacher brother. Then there’s the story of Emma, part of a two-person American film crew doing a little documentary on a veterinarian who helps reunite lost elephant calves with their mothers, which is apparently very difficult, and who also helps the Forest Department track down poachers.

There’s a lot going on here, is what I’m saying. The narratives are interestingly paced, so that you’re never quite sure where each is placed in time relative to the others. You know that some things are going to happen, but not necessarily to whom or when or why. It’s a nice changeup from my usual beloved multi-narrator stories, I have to admit, because it allows me, at least, to be more invested in the individual stories rather than the connections between them.

But taken together, the stories become an even better book. I learned a lot about poaching that I didn’t know I didn’t know, like how completely and utterly awful it is (thanks, elephant’s point of view!) but also how lucrative it is and how it can make perfect sense to become a poacher. Really, at its core, this is a book about people (and elephants) doing what they feel is the best thing to do for themselves, although it doesn’t always work out for the people (and elephants) around them.

Even though there’s a lot going on story-wise, this is still one of those books that makes you want to sit back and let the words just wash over you. James does a great job of setting the scenes and creating an atmosphere that walks the line between reality and myth. Even when one part of my brain was like, look, we don’t have time for this parable you’re telling, there’s an elephant in trouble!, another part was like, shut up, we’ll get there eventually and also this is interesting. I will definitely be seeking out more of her work in the future.

Recommendation: For fans of elephants and multi-perspective stories.

Rating: 8/10

The Just City, by Jo Walton

The Just CitySo, let’s be real. I barely skimmed the description of this book before reading it because a) Jo Walton and b) Greek gods. Sold. I knew there was something about Plato going on, but other than that I was Jon Snow.

You may want to know a bit more before going in.

So, okay, if you’re like me and you’ve only read My Real Children, the first thing is that this book is almost nothing like that one except for the wonderfulness of Walton’s writing. But oh, how wonderful it is.

The conceit of the book is that the goddess Athena has heard enough prayers across time wishing for a chance to live in the Just City of Plato’s Republic that she’s like, you know what, let’s do it. She collects those who prayed, recruits the willing, commandeers Atlantis, and starts building a city. She and the “masters” of the city then collect a bunch of ten-year-old (or “ten-year-old”, as these things go) slaves to educate in the style of the Just City. The story of the city is told from three points of view: that of Maia, a master of the city; of Simmea, one of the children of the city; and of Apollo/Pytheas, who has made himself mortal to experience the city as one of the slave children as well, for a reason I will talk about more in two paragraphs.

It is very interesting to see how these three narrators interact with the city; they all love the city for different reasons but recognize its faults, and because they’re all wildly overeducated they talk about it a lot. And then they talk about it even more when Socrates shows up. My god, that man asks a lot of questions. Really, once he shows up the whole book is just a giant Socratic dialogue about the role of the Just City and what Plato might have thought about this literal embodiment of it. It is fascinating to the point where I want to want to read The Republic but I know that’s never going to happen. At least I know this much about it!

I like that part of the story, the pretty much whole part of the story, but there’s another thread running through the book that you may want to be aware of, which is practically a discourse on rape. Right at the beginning, we learn that Apollo has no idea why Daphne would rather turn into a tree than have sex with him, and his lady god siblings are like, you are so stupid. He literally does not understand that women have, like, minds and bodies of their own, and so he takes on this life in the Just City to learn to comprehend this basic fact of existence. (The gods not knowing everything is another thread in this story.) Later in the book there is a rape scene between two regular humans with much the same thought process, and then even later there is more or less sanctioned rape as the children are paired off by the masters at procreation festivals. There is a lot of sex going on, and it is all quite problematic, and because this is a book with Socrates in it there is a lot of discussion of problematic sex, is what I’m saying.

So, to sum up: this is a super thinky book with lots of thinky things to think about. It was not at all what I was expecting, but I will be reading its sequel as soon as it comes out, and then like everything else Jo Walton has ever written because if she can make me like Socratic dialogue she can do anything.

Recommendation: For wildly overeducated people, lovers of Plato, and people who just like to think a lot.

Rating: 9/10

The Fold, by Peter Clines

The FoldHoly crap, guys. If you look in the dictionary next to “compulsively readable” you will see the cover of this book. Probably. If you have this special dictionary I had printed just now. Point is, my work breaks were stretched to their limits for two days and then I just couldn’t take it anymore and spent a few hours (including some meant for sleeping!) finishing the book up at home because WHAT THE HECK.

The first chapter is amazing. Let me spoil it for you: There’s a woman getting ready for her husband to come home, and then she thinks she hears him come home but she knows something’s wrong. The front door is open, but she doesn’t see her husband, but then she hears someone wandering around upstairs, stepping on squeaky floorboards her husband would know were there and loading the emergency intruder gun. She’s like, oh shit, but then her husband comes down the stairs and she is like, oh thank the sweet baby Jesus what the heck was all of that? And then her husband is like, who are you and what have you done with my wife?

Crazy, right? What happened to his wife? Or what happened to him? What happened, is the important part, but the book pulls way back and we go meet some high school teacher with an eidetic memory who is being recruited by a government friend to look into a weird situation. The situation, it turns out, is a group working on… not teleportation, exactly, but a way to move people from one place to another very very quickly. This crazy husband problem is sort of part of it, but the big problem is that the government guy thinks something very weird is happening and he can’t put his finger on it. So he’s bringing in the guy who literally can’t not notice everything. And said guy notices, quickly, that something very weird is happening.

I don’t want to brag, but I had the main problem figured out waaaaay before eidetic memory guy did, because I know how science fiction works. But there’s more to the story than just that problem, and things start going kind of insane toward the end with weird science and a surprise enemy. This book is pretty much all plot, and I am totally fine with that because the characters were kind of boring anyway, although there’s kind of a reason for that, and that is kind of interesting in and of itself. But seriously, there’s inter-dimensional travel and a Sherlock-Holmes-y protagonist, if you don’t want to read this book based on the beginning of this sentence I cannot help you. And if you do read it, help me figure out what’s up with that jelly doughnut.

Recommendation: A perfect read for the beach or vacation or whenever you just want to spend a few straight hours reading. For fans of pseudo-science; being a science fan not necessarily required.

Rating: 8/10