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Thursday
May082014

Review: My Father’s Country By Saima Wahab

With the movement recently for more diverse books I decided I should pick up something complexly different from what I typically read and review. As cultural experiences go I don’t think I could get a lot more different from Siama Wahab the author of In My Father’s Country.  She is an Afghan woman who fled to the USA during the Soviets attack on Afghanistan.

The beginning of In My Father’s Country is the best part. I really was drawn into the culture that she grew up in and as an American more than a little frustrated by it. But much of the story is about her trying to understand what it was about the culture that her father was willing to die for. And while I am never going to like aspects of their culture it is worth trying to see it from their point of view and this book does a reasonably good job of that.

As you near the middle of the book you get into the American war in Afghanistan. Siama worked as an interpreter and eventually as someone assigned to understand the cultural landscape of Afghanistan. And this, along with her heritage really does give her a unique perspective to see things from both sides. She can understand why the Americans act the way they do and why that can upset people who don’t understand it and explain what has happened in Afghanistan better than I would have expected.

But the closer you get to the end of this book the more the biggest problem in it appears. That problem is that it’s a book that is about a story that isn’t finished. There is some meandering in the middle, discussing relationships that really don’t go anywhere and minor personal conflicts that don’t really matter. But those tend to have at least have informative effects on the rest of the story. The problem is that the war isn’t over, and Siama isn’t done. I’m not even convinced she really answered the most basic question of the book yet, what did her father die for?

I read this book because I like diversity. I want to understand the world from points of view other than mine and for that purpose it largely succeeded. Where it fails is that, as a biography it can fall apart a bit towards the end of the book because, as many modern biographies it was written too early. The story isn’t done or even close to done yet. So, if you want to understand Afghanistan and what it’s like to be a woman there and how the military could do a better job with the hearts and mind part of the solution then this is great, but as a biography I would wait because Siama Wahab has a lot of work left to do before her story is finished. That said, she has convinced me that there is work worth doing.

 

http://www.afghanwomensfund.org/

Thursday
May012014

Arc Review: Skin Game by Jim Butcher (A Dresden Files Book)

After reading the first fourteen books in the Dresden Files series there seemed little doubt that I was going to love Skin Game by Jim Butcher. The only real question was whether I was going to like it more or less than other books in the series.

For those who don’t know the Dresden Files is a series of books that follows Harry Dresden, the only wizard in the Chicago phone book. It is generally described as a noir story with Harry as the detective, a job that fits a wizard well since the job of a wizard, beyond the magical energies he carries around is wisdom and information.

Over the course of the series that has changed in some ways. The first books are clearly noir detective stories in which Harry solves murders and mysteries, but as the story has advanced it has become more than that and while Harry’s personality hasn’t really changed his situations has. He has far more responsibilities than simply cases now and with every book it becomes clearer that there is more going on than we know.

One of the things I love about Skin Game is that while it is in large part a return to form as Harry is once again alive and in Chicago and we’re one again in a genre that at least borders noir because at its core this is a fantasy heist movie. Without giving away more than that Harry is part of the crew that has to break into an extremely secure vault. And like in any good heist movie you have to gather the crew, figure out who you can trust and eventually pull off the crime along with all the twists and turns that comes with that.

There are only a couple of very minor complaints in this book. The biggest, which is really very small in the scheme of things is that Harry spends just a little more time than I might like not trusting himself. He has good reason to question himself, but he is at points in the story reassured by Murphy, Michael, an archangel and a god, yet at the end he is still struggling with it.  I know this type of struggle never goes away and internal conflict is important to good character, but it could be toned down just a hair. The other issue is with Dresden himself. Hells bells man, stop walking around without any of your tools. I know you’re going to a fancy party and can’t bring everything but put something in your pocket so you don’t exhaust yourself in your first fight every time. It was fun the first fourteen times, but at some point you want the character to learn from his mistakes.

That leaves to the recommendation which seems largely unnecessary for a series that is this long and this good. If you have read the first fourteen books in the Dresden Files you should order Skin Game now. It won’t be out for most of a month but you’ll want to make certain it arrives on your doorstep on May 27th and if you can take the day off so you can start reading immediately. This is my current favorite of The Dresden File books. It had truly funny moments, moments that made me cry and one or two at the end that did both at the same time. This may not have expanded the lore of the series quite as much as some other books in the series but it showed the character of its characters and had a lot of fun doing it.

 

P.S.  and if you haven’t read the Dresden Files you’re in luck. There are fourteen excellent books to read already out. No need to wait for any of them and by the time you’re done Skin Game will be out and you can read it too, but I don't necessarily recommend jumping in here. You'll probably enjoy it, but no where near as much as you'll enjoy all fifteen books. 

 

*Note* I was given an advanced review copy of Skin Game by Jim Butcher. This did not bias my review in any way. 

Saturday
Apr262014

Hugo Nomination Review: Selkie Stories are for Losers by Sofie Samatar

I clearly don't get it. That is all I can really say about "Selkie Stories are for Losers". Perhaps if I read or knew anything about Selkie stories I would be a bit more connected to this, and I know I'm not the target audiance but even with that I usually feel a bit more connected to stories, especially stories that are nominated for major awards.

The basic idea of this story is taht of a woman who's mother has left. She is, evidentally, a selkie, or a seal who sheds their skin to come on land. The skin is stolen and she can't return to the sea until she finds it. She then returns without remorse. I suspect that in this story it is a metaphor for abandonment and perhaps it always is. The story is told through a series of very short sections that tell some minor event as the main character becomes friends with another girl who has a suicidal mother. 

I can certanly see the quality of this story and I suspect if you were abandoned, or had a rough relationship with your parents this would hit a lot harder. I suspect even been femail and most certainly a teenage girl this would stlike harder as well and I understand the need to write to a specific audiance and I'm certainly not always that audiance, but, the best fiction, to me is the type that can write to an audiance but also give insite into a world that you're not typically part of. This is close to that, but perhaps for me the distance was just too great. 

Perhaps the biggest problem i had with this story was that for much of it I was trying to understand what a Selkie story was. I certainly got hints but I actually ended up looking it up. That isn't to say that it isn't explained at least in part in the story, but until I looked it up I wasn't really certain I understood. But this is very easily solved by the reader if you don't already know. 

I can't give a real recomendation for Selkie Stories are for Losers. I can only say that it wasn't written for me and I clearly don't get it. I understand the basic idea, the tone and even the characters, but I feel very little more connection to them than i did at the beginning. But it came close and obviously other people do get it and  if you're even a bit closer to the target audiance I suspect you will as well.

Wednesday
Apr232014

Hugo Nominee Review: The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu

ugo awards have been announced and since I’ve been wanting to read some above average science fiction I decided to read the short story nominations. The first of these is “The Water That Falls On You from Nowhere.” By John Chu, which can be read on  Tor.Com

Because this isn’t going to be an entirely positive review I’m going to start with the positive. This was, in general, an excellently written story with only a couple of style elements I didn’t care for. The characters were also well developed for a short story and it certainly felt as if the writer was close to this story.  I can certainly understand why it was nominated for a Hugo, though I have one small issue with that I will discuss later as well.

The plot is based around two men who have decided to get married, but one of them has not yet come out to his family.  To make this a bit more difficult there is a phenomena which causes water to fall on you whenever you lie. This is never explained, and it doesn’t actually force the character to tell the truth but it’s an interesting idea.

This leads to my small problem with it being nominated for a Hugo. The Hugo awards were created to be awards for science fiction and while they have clearly expanded that out to things that are not science fiction I don’t think they should have and still don’t like it. And while this is an interesting story it really isn’t science fiction because there is no real hint in the story that the water is scientifically based and it’s easier to assume it’s magical in some way. This is of course a very minor point. The larger point is that it really isn’t all that related to the plot. This story could have easily been told without that element at all and very little if anything would have been lost. In fact I think the main character would have felt stronger if he simply came out because it was the right thing to do, and I’m glad that he wasn’t inadvertently ousted by that element of the story as that would have made things worse. I’ll set that aside though because this story does have a fantasy element and so fits the category well enough.

The other issue that I didn’t really like here was the style that the writer used. This is purely opinion and I’m sure some people liked it, but he used Chinese characters in a number of places. Sometimes they were translated and you could generally understand from context what they meant, but it was distracting in a way that it wouldn’t have been if it had been written with the English alphabet because while the different languages add something to the story using characters I don’t understand at all makes me stop reading and breaks me out of the story.

This is the first of the Hugo nominated short stories that I read, and it was certainly above average, but this isn’t the type of story that I would go back and reread which is what I think of when I consider if something is worthy of a Hugo, but I’m not the core audience.

Sunday
Apr062014

Captain America: Winter Soldier Questions

There are roughly a million reviews of Captain America: Winter Soldier already on the internet and so it seems pointless to write a straight review. The movie was good, the action was a bit hard to see at points, but unless you hated the first Captain America you’re going to like this one.  That said it did leave open a few questions that I think are interesting.

The most interesting question to me is where this leaves the Marvel’s Agent’s of Shield show. (spoilers ahead)I knew even before seeing the movie that there would be ramifications for the show, but it wasn’t clear how big they would be. But with what appears to be the complete disassembling of SHIELD you have more issues than just the name of the TV show.  That said, I think that almost any answer, short of largely ignoring the changes, could be very positive for Agents of SHIELD. Imagine a similar show, but they’re on their own with almost no resources and forced to deal with far less reputable groups in order to keep flying.

The second question is what to do with the major new characters introduced in this movie. The Winter Soldier is clearly going to be in more movies (I heard rumors he was signed for something like 9 movies) but I actually found The Falcon a more interesting character in this movie. Of course he had considerably more to do in the movie, but beyond that I just like the character and really loved the way that Cap and him interacted because it really reminded you that above almost anything Captain America is a soldier and he relates to soldiers. That said, I sort of wish that Captain America would have spoken to the people at the VFW even if it was just to say that he understands because it really is an important point that having difficulty returning to civilian life isn’t about whether you are strong or not. Often the strongest people have the most trouble because good people should be affected by the things that happen in war.

The final question is one that Marvel is beginning to work through which is magic. For those of you don’t know Stephen Strange is the sorcerer supreme (or will be) and while the Scarlet Witch isn’t actually a witch in most stories her powers are nebulous enough that they could be and I’m ready for marvel to branch out because if Captain America the Winter Soldier convinced me of anything it is that Marvel studios don’t have to do traditional superhero stories to be interesting. 

Wednesday
Mar262014

Review: Bow Shock by Gregory Benford

Writers have a lot of ways of reminding themselves to remove excess words. Some of my favorite are kill your darlings, brevity is the soul of whit, start as close to the stories end as possible and try to leave out the parts that people skip. The reason there are so many ways to say this is that it’s one of the most difficult things there is to do, but often it is also the best thing we can do.

In the case of Bow Shock by Gregory Benford the story was good, and it might have been great if someone had taken a pair of hedge clippers to it. This is one of the most authentic feeling science fiction stories I have ever read. If I had to bet I would say that Gregory has worked in astronomy and it shows. The problem is that large parts of the story seem to have little if anything to do with the main point of the story. There are two plots going on. The first has the main character studying what he believes to be a fast moving neutron star while trying to prove what it is to improve his chances of tenure. The second part is the same astronomer interacting with his girlfriend and eventually dealing with the possibility that she might be pregnant.

I would have no problem with the second part of this story if it tied more into the first. If it even impacted his ability to do his research in a more direct way, but it really didn’t seem to even do that. In a novel this might have been fine but in a short story it made it feel far too long. I read short stories in part because I can sit down and read them in a single sitting but at 45 pages that wasn’t really possible with this story, though it could have been. It also would have allowed it to get to the surprise at the ending a bit faster.

And that leads to the other small, but largely inevitable problem with this story. It is virtually impossible to not expect there to be a revelation at the end of this story since no one really expects to read a story about a scientist who proves that a fast moving neutron star is a fast moving neutron star and then gets tenure.  But this is minor both because it is true of any science fiction story of this type and because the science and how he gets to that point really is interesting. It makes you feel like you’re watching something that might actually happen and that feeling is even more impressed upon you by the pictures that appear throughout the story of the astronomical events that he is looking at.

I really did enjoy Bow Shock by Gregory Benford and while there are flaws in it that I believe that tightening the story would improve it considerably I am open to the idea that it was important to the character and added something to the story by making you care more about the character and if this were a novel then those personal aspects would certainly add more.

 

You can read this story here.

Friday
Mar212014

Review: The Girl with the Killer Eyes by B. B. Kristopher 

I like stories about superheros. Of course like most people I generally read them in comic form, but while comics do lend themselves to the action of super heroes there is no reason they need to be in comic form and there are things you can do with a short story you can’t easily do with comics. The most notable of these is that you are closer to the main character in a prose story and in the case of The Girl with the Killer Eyes by B. B. Kristopher you really do get a feeling for the character pretty quickly.

The story begins with Jodie arriving for her first day of work. It is a government security organization that feels like the FBI except that Jodie, and the people she works with, are all superpowered, though the story tries to use other words for it. Jodie is able to shoot energy.

She ends up going out on a mission to stop some superpowered criminals who tunneled into a bank. This is the part of the story that feels the most like a comic book, with everyone using their powers together and villains that are interesting.

This isn’t a mind shattering story, but it is far more realistic than most superhero stories, including those that attempt to say they are realistic because it simply assumes that the government would take control of the situation if superhumans appeared. They might not be entirely successful but it seems inevitable that they would try.

There is a fair amount of humor, good characters and a reasonable story in The Girl with the Killer Eyes by B. B. Kristopher and while this isn’t likely to be anyone’s favorite short story it is well written and if there were more stories written about these characters I would certainly give it a chance because this is a solid, well written and fun short story.Illustrated by Ural Akyuz

 

You can read the story online here

Thursday
Mar202014

Review: Dog Soldier by Garth Nix

I don’t know if there is a generally accepted way to organize an anthology. Do you put the story that you think is best at the front or at the end, and if the first story isn’t your favorite do you pick one that is the best representation of your stories, the one with the broadest appeal or perhaps with the biggest name attached. Is it fair for me to even judge an anthology by the first story in it?  This is relevant because I just started The Best of Jim Baen’s Universe and the first story in it, Dog Soldier by Garth Nix was by no means outstanding, though it wasn’t bad either.

The story of Dog Soldier follows a military engineer who is garrisoned near an alien world with whom humans are at peace, but were recently at war. Near the beginning of the story the main character gets a package from a research and development company which is a robot that has the mind of a dog.

As you can likely surmise the soldier and the dog end up in battle and the dog proves itself worthwhile. And perhaps all of that would resonate more if I cared more about dogs. I don’t dislike them and have almost always had one in my house, but I don’t have the relationship that so many people seem to and I suspect that if I did this would be more interesting to me.

The other part of this story which is both good and bad is that it felt like part of a bigger story. There was a fair amount of detail that while interesting enough didn’t feel important for this story. The aliens themselves could have been anything as could the war history and the planets they were fighting over. What was a bit more interesting was that very few of the soldiers actually knew what a dog was which gave the main character room for growth which is often difficult in a short story, but didn’t add all that much beyond that.

So, is Dog Soldier by Garth Nix a good story? It is certainly well written and I might read other stories in this universe to learn more about subjects which seem interesting, but overall it felt like it was missing some small spark that distinguishes truly good stories and on top of that the ending made me groan. Still, if you love dogs you might enjoy this more than I did and even if you only liked it as much as I did it was still worth reading. 

Thursday
Dec192013

Nora's Song by Cecelia Holland (Dangerous Women Anthology)

Some people say that it is easier to write reviews of things you don’t care for. Perhaps that is true if it’s something that is clearly bad, but when I read a story that falls flat I tend to assume it was mostly my fault as a reader. I was distracted or missed some key point. Perhaps the symbolism went over my head. In the case of Nora’s Song by Cecelia Holland I am almost certain that I missed a lot of what was happening . Part of this I because I’m not all that versed on this part of European history. That said I didn’t really care for this story.

The biggest problem is that I shouldn’t need to know who these character are or what happened in order to enjoy this story.  This is a fault I have found in other historical fiction I have read, but it’s not entirely unreasonable to assume that people who are reading historical fiction are in general interested in history and looking up a few things about the character in the story was interesting and if you were in a history class or reading books about this time it could certainly give you a better feeling of what it might actually be like to be there rather than just dates and battles.

The other questionable point for me was the choice of viewpoint character.  I see the value in having it be a girl who cares for both her father and mother, but she doesn’t really seem central to the story that is going on. She is more interested in the friend she just made than any of the bigger context. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but in a short story I am generally interested in getting to the point which this story didn’t really seem to do.

I kept waiting for this story to get to the point and in the end it seemed to be implied what was happening rather than actually telling me because the character didn’t really know. More importantly it never really made me care what was happening to any of the characters. 

Tuesday
Dec172013

A Few Scene Notes on The Desolation of Smaug

I watched The Desolation of Smaug today and overall I really enjoyed it, but rather than a review I decided to give a few quite notes on how to improve a one of the scenes, just in case there is still room in the extended version.

For the first improvement I’ll try to pain a picture. Imagine the barrel scene, a massive CG carnival ride, and about halfway through it moves from a marginally absurd action scene to completely absurd.  At this point Bomber’s barrel bounces out of the water and begins to Ping-Pong between orcs like a pinball machine. So far we’re still in the way the movie actually went. At the end he sticks his arms and legs out of the barrel, and we cut away to the shire.

At this point you see elderly Bilbo telling the story to Frodo, who say’s something like, “There’s no way that happened. It makes no sense,” and Bilbo answers that he couldn’t see very well because he was in the water so he’s filling in the details from his imagination.

This may seem a bit jarring, but really no more so than having the movie turn into a cartoon in the middle for no real reason and this gives him a lot more room to have the comic relief and largely absurd moments. After all whether we’re to believe this really happened or not the book was meant to be written by Bilbo so we can assume he may exaggerate a bit to make things more interesting.

Other than that the only thing I might suggest if I were to be given the chance would be to trim a few minutes here and there. As someone who actually really enjoyed the beginning of An unexpected Journey and was never bored there were a few moments in this movie where things which should have been far more exciting simply went on too long. Most notably to me the scenes with Smaug. He looked great and most of the scenes were good, but there were a few too many scenes of feet hitting the ground and fire just barely missing them to the point where it started to lose its impact.

Mostly though it just needs to address the lack of physics in large parts of the movie so that I can stop asking how all the dwarfs didn’t die in situations that should have killed anyone except a cartoon character.