Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Shetterly, Margot Lee (Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race)

As usual, the book is way better than the movie. Keep in mind that I took a strong dislike to the movie, and its overly dramatic tendencies, for the most part because I wanted the whole, true story. Not some Hollywood concoction that included black women telling off their white supervisors (unbelievable) and department heads knocking down bathroom signs (even more unbelievable).

So, yea, those things didn't happen, as I expected. However, the real story is even more compelling. Shetterly weaves a tale of the times with the day-to-day work these black women did at NACA/NASA. It is necessary for her to set up what it was like for black people to live in the late 50s and early 60s in Virginia. She provides all the reasons those Hollywood concoctions never happened, but also shows who and where people were fighting - on the national and state level, and also inside NACA/NASA (less so, and she provides reasons for that as well).

Even though I have a fairly decent understanding of the space race and the Civil Rights movement, this opened my eyes in other ways. I was surprised and intrigued by NACA/NASA efforts in hiring black "computers". The same goes for the paths these black women took to their jobs there - especially that they were almost all secondary school teachers, as that was, in fact, the only avenue for ultra-smart black women at the time. And, to be honest, I was surprised at Virginia. I'm not sure I understood how backwards its stance was as the years went on.

So, read this book, it's very, very worth it. Also, the book text itself is only 250 pages long, in case anyone is confused about this in their e-books. (Why oh why can't ebooks make the percentages and number of pages add up in the same way??)

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Greenwood, Kerry (Cocaine Blues)

I have to wonder how interesting of a read this would have been if I had never seen Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries. Especially since this first book sets up all (or most of) the characters you're familiar with from the TV show.

Now, the police detective is not as you might presume he would be from the get-go (or perhaps I'm forgetting the first episode myself). And her aunt is nowhere to be seen. But Phryne herself is even better in print - I mean, props to Essie Davis, and her ability to pull off both the fashion and the flair - but the book gives you more to sink your teeth into with regards to her character. It makes her unapologetically pleased she's rich, a little bit more unsure of how Australia will treat her, and far more sexy (although I suppose that could be argued as well).

These books are also quite short - more like long novellas than full-length mysteries - so, you can pack a few of 'em in at one sitting, if you'd like. Likely, they're the perfect beach read, although I'm not sure I want to wait 6 months to read the next one.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Sanderson, Brandon (Arcanum Unbounded)

This volume of short stories and longer novella-length stories was extremely hit-and-miss for me. Almost the entire first half of the volume was not my cup of tea - some combination of how juvenile I found the story and how uninterested I was in the characterizations.

I did enjoy the Mistborn story - the one set at the time of the original trilogy - but not because it revealed a whole ton of what was going on in the background of the trilogy. I liked it because we got to hang out with Kelsier again, which was always a great thing, being such a lovely conflicted character. The remainder of the stories in the first half are just too silly or uninteresting for me to care about. I'm not actually a fan of the Elysium world, and wasn't familiar with the rest of the worlds there.

The second half is better, but by far the best one is the final one with Lift from the Stormlight Archive. I had forgotten about Lift (she apparently made an appearance in the 2nd Stormlight novel), and she really is utterly delightful. Stuck in childhood, but important enough to be one of the Knights Radiant, she's a refreshing breath of fresh air in a very, very serious series.

I did almost stop reading after the Mistborn tale, but I am glad I soldiered on. It's pretty darn spotty, but overall worth your time (plus you will want to know the secrets, I'm sure).

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

McCarthy, Cormac (All the Pretty Horses)

I don't think this is a book about a lullaby! (Although that's "All the Pretty LITTLE Horses".) But in the end, it is all that John Grady Cole can rely upon, so it is relevant in that respect.

McCarthy's books are distinctive for how they make you feel as you read them. This one is no different from any other I've read by him. He sets the stage through his style of writing - compact, reflective, evocative of another time and place - and lets you recognize what works for you and ignore what doesn't. The most useful thing I can say about McCarthy's writing is that he creates utterly believable characters in so few strokes of the pen. John and Rawlins, sure, but also Blevins and the captain and Alejandra herself. And that amazing Mexican countryside, which is clearly a character in and of itself. (I'd go visit if those "men of the country" weren't even more terrifying nowadays.)

I know this is a trilogy. But I'm not ready for the next parts of what McCarthy wants to tell me because I'm not ready for John to to move on from the results of this tale. He knows, you know, and I know that he has to sit with these feelings for some time before moving onwards. (OK, that's weird when it's a fictional character, but that's how strongly this affected me.)

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Mitchell, David (Black Swan Green)

I was convinced this was Mitchell's first book while reading it, until I went and actually looked that fact up. A self-reflective novel about growing up as a smart stuttering boy in rural England and having more imagination than most others? It seems like an intelligent first book choice to me.

But no, it's actually Mitchell's 3rd book, and I would claim that of the books I have read of his (apparently not the first two), this one dials the fantasy factor way down. It seems to be exactly as I described above - which would make it nothing special if it were in anyone else's hands. But in Mitchell's, you can feel the ice on the pond under your feet, or understand the strange pull of a far distant set of hills, or be utterly confused about what to do when presented with a lost wallet stuffed with pound notes. It's the most evocative storytelling out there. (Heck, I still remember specific, detailed scenes from Cloud Atlas, which is saying a bunch for a book that is over 500 pages long.)

You'll understand far, far more about stuttering (and how it differs from stammering) but don't worry, there's nary a lesson to be found. It is a book told from the viewpoint of a 13-year-old boy - not many lessons are going to be gleaned from it. Unless it's that growing up as a boy utterly stinks. (Yes, I've clearly forgotten what it was like to grow up as a girl.)

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Turner, Megan Whalen (Thick as Thieves)

Oh, Ms. Turner, you have let me down. I understand that you want to move away from your original intent with this series, but we so, so loved the Thief of Eddis. His is the story we want to continue to be told, not someone else's.

I understand that you're developing further "hero's journeys" here. That you're twining together the myths of the world you've built with those who embody them (and also? really, really channeling The Left Hand of Darkness while you're at it). That you want to expand because it's boring, tedious and frustrating to come up with a new story about the same character. But you left us all these clues as to the King of Attolia's current life at the end of this one, with zero details! Argh!

Since it took you 7 years to come out with this book, I will not hold my breath. I will continue to think that you're one of the better YA fantasy writers around (although this is barely YA - fully functional for all readers). I will hope, but I will put that hope into a small, dark place and not nurture it. In the meantime, I will read James S.A. Corey who spits theirs out at an absolutely furious pace!

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Beatty, Paul (The Sellout)

The first chapter of this humorous take on race relations threw me for a loop. The author writes almost stream-of-consciousness about a situation that we are not privy to, brings in real-life personalities, and devotes huge sections of the chapter to toking up inside the Supreme Court chambers (again, with no rhyme or reason). My advice to you is to read this, laugh a little at the obvious references, and then forget it. The rest of the book is far more straightforward.

I honestly think the remainder of the book is brilliant. Beatty transcends the serious theme by making almost every scenario amusing in some way. I honestly can't tell if he believes the "separate but equal" theme in any way shape or form, but he is obviously describing this thesis to see if there is any merit to at least proposing the idea. How do you do that? By making it something you can laugh out loud at, because it's being described as a farce.

Saying much more about his creation is not productive, since it's a ride you have to take yourself. It may make you feel queasy - that's a definite possibility because you never forget the weighty concepts - but along the way you're bound to recognize and discover eye-opening situations and ideas. Well worth the ride for that reason alone.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Atkinson, Kate (Started Early, Took My Dog)

To continue the Kate Atkinson saga, right after getting back from vacation, the remaining Jackson Brodie book popped up on my ebook lending site as available, so I scarfed it up immediately.

What to say about this last book? First, is it really the last book? Because it sure as hell better not be. Reading what Atkinson said after the 3rd book, and how she felt she didn't like where she left the Louise-Jackson story, and wanted to return to make it better - well, it's one of the reasons I was so geeked about reading this final one! So, safe to say, you're going to be disappointed if you go into this book with the same expectations. Dial those expectations down to nil.

Which is not to say that I didn't enjoy the book. Atkinson brings us a new character again - which seems to be her M.O. - and because of the strength of the writing, we get sucked in almost immediately to this new story, and its somewhat tangential relationship to Mr. Brodie himself. Atkinson is really messing with any sense of a happy ending for that man - in this installment, making him a wanderer between haphazard places in Britain (which sounded a little like a "where I took my summer vacation the last few years", strangely). However, she continues to move the story forward, even as she provides such little resolution. I'm beginning to think any kind of resolution is anathema to her.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Corey, James S.A. (Caliban's War)

It's rather fun to have finished the book right before you finish watching the season that it connects to (well, mostly). But it means it'll be difficult for me to write this review without bringing in elements of the season!

I read the first book in the series last year, and don't really remember much about its style or focus. I do remember that the first season of the TV series followed it pretty darn closely, plot-wise. That is emphatically not the case for this second book in the series... It's difficult for me to remember that for those only reading the books, Avarasala is a brand-new character. Well, they're writing her as spicily as they're portraying her, thank goodness. Holden is still idealistic, but the flavor of that has changed (as well as for his crew). Miller is gone (well, I doubt that long-term), and the book provides a lot of nods to his brand of heroism (as in, it was a very good thing). There's also a new character, whom I sort of appreciated in writing - Prax, the botanist - in that he brought a specific human element to the story. But the plot twisted in favor of that human element, and I'm not sure it works wonders for the crew of the Rocinante (too much neat tying up of bows).

All together, these books are still slow. They take their time to get you from point A to point B, but I don't mind that. It's what sci-fi space opera is all about, right?

Friday, August 4, 2017

Backman, Frederik (A Man Called Ove)

I'd heard from various folks that this book was a laugh-out-loud kind of ride, and I was very definitely not feeling that from the get-go. It's really pretty darn sad! And gives us excellent insight into what happens to people when they lose a close loved one (the specific aspects of grief and longing).

Sure, how Ove treats other humans and animals can be seen as amusing on the surface. But the level of anger and frustration made it seem very real to me, and I didn't want to laugh at Ove's pain. He may be a fictional character, but it should be obvious to all who've read this that there are plenty of real, live humans going through this and not knowing how to act or survive at all. Instead of being an amusing tale, it felt like a lesson (although it didn't read like one, thankfully) in how we can recognize the stages of grief in others, and help them through that process.

I did love the ending, but I think it was because it was all so neatly tied up in a bow. That's something I don't usually appreciate, but for this novel, it was necessary.