Monthly Archives: June 2012

Wings of Fire, by Charles Todd

Is it bad that this is the second in a series and I haven’t read the first one yet? My mom says no, and I certainly didn’t have any problems understanding the character or the plot. Also, slight disclaimer, my aunt has met Charles Todd, a mother-son writing team who live near her. (I haven’t, though.)

The detective in the series is one Ian Rutledge, a veteran of the recent Great War who suffers from shell-shock and a seemingly permanent mental companion – the voice of an executed Scottish soldier who provides constant commentary on Rutledge’s thoughts and actions.

Wings of Fire starts with a prologue that establishes the potential crime(s) and most of the relevant individuals. When the story proper begins, Rutledge is sent down to Cornwall to investigate the probably-not-suspicious deaths of three siblings. One of the siblings was a renowned poet, and it’s her poetry that eventually triggers Rutledge’s ideas of what’s happened.

Apart from a few dialogue tics (“Get on with it, man!”) and some understandable yet frustrating character motivations (next paragraph), it’s a compelling book. I opened it on my Kindle-for-PC app and just sat there, reading, for a few hours until I’d finished. I am, apparently, fascinated by cold case/family secret stories, and that is what this is from the very beginning.

The one thing that did make me want to slap a character upside the head was Rachel’s attitude to the Scotland Yard investigation. It’s explained, and it’s understandable, but seriously: you ASKED Scotland Yard to come. Did you really think that they’d come and NOT ask questions? Argh.

Apart from that, Rachel was sweet and I could see why Rutledge started falling for her. Susannah was a bit of a cipher, but Rachel was mostly lovely. Olivia was very well-done, too – for someone who died before the book even started, she was a very well-realised character with enough ambiguity to make suspicions reasonable.

And that’s another thing that Charles Todd did well: Olivia’s poetry. It’s described as amazing, powerful, life-changing, every superlative you can find, and the excerpts we’re given actually live up to that – something very difficult to do. It made me feel like the poems actually did exist outside the book, and made me want to read them. Good for Charles Todd.

I will definitely go back and read the first book in the Rutledge series, and, while I probably won’t push to read all new books on publication day, I certainly won’t pass them up when they come my way.

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Filed under Crime/Mysteries

The Wonder Box, by Roman Krznaric

This book was a birthday present from my lovely friend  Rachel. It purports to be an exploration of various themes of life (death, belief, empathy, etc.) and how various cultures have treated them through the years. There are some fascinating concepts included – some familiar to me, like the various definitions of love in ancient Greece and some not, like the funeral customs of various Asian/African/Oceanic cultures that he mentions.

I suppose there’s not really a lot to say about it, though. Most of the arguments come down to communication and empathy. Our modern culture, according to Krznaric, doesn’t communicate as well as other cultures used to, in part because we don’t put ourselves in the place of others the way that our ancestors did. If we could do that – re-establish our sense of empathy and start talking about now-taboo subjects like death – our culture would be better in some way. More open, at least, and we as individuals would probably be happier. He’s not exactly clear about how it would be better for society as a whole.

Some of the concepts he brings up are very interesting. I already knew about the five kinds of love as defined by the ancient Greeks – I grew up Christian and the concept of “agape” was a common topic of sermons and studies, especially when discussing 1 Corinthians 13, and I have also studied ancient Greek as a language. But one that I didn’t know was the ten senses idea. There’s the five “physical” senses, but some neurologists are coming back to incorporating senses like balance, direction, and rhythm. The odd thing is that, in English at least, we talk about them as senses (with the word “sense”) but don’t include them in our lists of the senses.

It’s a fine book, but a bit imbalanced. After the chapter on empathy, the point of each chapter became a little bit obvious and repetitive: communicate and think of other people more. Once that was established, I was really hoping for more discussion and comparison of each of the different cultural aspects, not just mentions that could almost have come from National Geographic articles – good mentions but not the depth or connections that I wanted.

I did like it; it just wasn’t as culturally informative as I was hoping. As a sort of lifestyle/self-improvement guide, though, it’s great, and I’ll be keeping it around to dip in and out of for quite a while.

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Filed under Non-Fiction (Other)

Dogs and Goddesses, by Jennifer Crusie, Anne Stuart, and Lani Diane Rich

I love these women. I’ve never met them, of course (although I do have a signed copy of Faking It that my writer-mom got for me at RWA one year) but I read Argh Ink and ReFabbing It on a daily or more often basis – pretty much as soon as they post anything, I read it. I enjoy – okay, enjoy is not QUITE the right word – their progress through their struggles, and I especially like reading their articles about craft and rewriting. I remember when they first collaborated on Dogs and Goddesses, when they were working through plots and characters and scenes.

I wish I liked it better. It’s not that I didn’t like it – it was fun enough – but it wasn’t as tight as I was expecting or hoping, and certainly not as good as their individual titles. My all-time standard for Jennifer Crusie and similar authors is Bet Me,  which has an excellent mix of friendship, lust, manic madcap slapstick, family tension, etc. This book had a lot of that, even all of that, but it doesn’t work as well.

I’ve been thinking about it since I finished the book, and I actually think that my problem is with the romances – they’re too quick. All three women fall in lust, sparked by the “temple tonic” and their latent powers, and by the end they’re in “love”. But none of the relationships are much more than sex. The closest thing is Shar and Sam, who actually do communicate as she tries to teach him what modern life is like. The other two couples don’t even have that.

Even the female friendships, the strongest part of the book, aren’t exactly organic. They’re friends because Kammani says, “You Will Be Friends” and then, magically, they are all inseparable friends. Even Gen and Bun get pulled into it. I suppose it’s part of the whole past lives/inevitable reliving aspect, but it didn’t work that well for me. I suppose in a book that makes such a big deal out of free will versus required service, having none of the relationships come apart through free will doesn’t sit that well.

It’s not bad though. Certainly better than some others that I’ve read (not by these three). It’s just not as good as their standalone books.

PS Lani Diane Rich is another author that’s a hero like Sara Gruen. She finished NaNo, found a publisher, and is now writing full-time (and teaching writing via StoryWonk and Writewell).

Crusie and Krissie are heroes of mine as well, but for other reasons.

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Filed under Romance, Uncategorized

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

I feel a little bit odd that I wrote the first draft of this post by hand, because the book is so technologically bound. (In my defense, I was using a sonic screwdriver pen.) It’s the type of book that might benefit greatly from being re-read on an iPad or Kindle Touch – something that can give you links to the references or have the songs playing in the background at the appropriate moment. It doesn’t need this, of course, but it might accent and enhance the experience. It’s also the type of book that cries out for annotations – again, not that it needs them, but to make the experience fuller. It invites study of the level that it describes. If I get bored or stuck in my unemployment, I might start collecting a database.

But it doesn’t need any of that to be a good book, which it is. It’s a near-future SF, set in about 2044. The world economy has essentially collapsed, thanks to climate change and the depletion of nearly every natural resources. There are two major technological factors in American life: IOI, a corporation that seems to control most of real life, and OASIS, an immersive virtual reality. The creator of OASIS has died by the time the book begins, and has left his immense fortune and control of OASIS to whomever can solve a series of riddles and Easter eggs. The evil corporation wants it, of course – and so do our heroes.

It’s a classic quest story – our hero [real name Wade, avatar’s name Parzifal] has no real family, picks up companions along the way, some of which leave him at various times and for various reasons, and they encounter many obstacles that not only advance the quest but help Wade grow as a person. The corporation tries to stop them (usually violently). And it’s filled to the brim with 80s references: films, music, anime, and video games mostly. (This is why I want annotations!)

As well as being a good plot-based story, it’s also pretty good on some of the deeper themes that come up whenever you talk about technology: addiction, privacy, feminism, identity, to name the major and more obvious ones. But it’s not all a doom-and-gloom, today’s-society-is-wrong message. Parallels with today are drawn, of course, but in both good and bad ways.

Let’s start with the good: OASIS demonstrates, absolutely, the power that technology has to bring people together and to educate. The schools, for those who can get access through financial or meritocratic means, are fantastic if for no other reason than the program won’t let class be disrupted. You can’t leave your desk, you can’t access non-relevant information (like emails, for instance) during class, you can’t do anything non-school related. There are bad teachers, of course – or at least not-great ones (the Latin teacher comes to mind) – but because the teachers don’t have to spend so much energy on discipline, they can focus on actually teaching.

OASIS can also make experiences much more accessible. Money is still a factor, of course, but the lack of it isn’t quite as limiting as it is in the real world. Era is no barrier, physical location is no barrier. If you want to take a class trip to see the Roman Forum, you can – if you want to investigate the composition of the moons of Jupiter, you can. You can experience anything you want.

And because it’s a virtual reality world, interaction between people can be a lot more realistic. Because of the devices and the immersive nature of OASIS, you can actually feel physical interactions with other people.  You can see their avatars, not just words on a screen. There is actually less anonymity, in some ways, than in today’s online interactions – you can see people’s reactions to your words and actions instead of waiting for a typed response. I’ll get to this more in the identity conversation, but basically, you can choose to appear however you want to appear: the way you see yourself and the way other people see you can be much closer.

Of course, all of the arguments against technology are there too, especially addiction and isolation. For all the mental connections that Parzifal and the others make, they have very few physical connections. Parzifal spends several months withut ever leaving his apartment, and has to force himself to initiate a fitness program before he turns into Jabba the Hutt (surprisingly, not a reference made in the text). It is acknowledged that it would be far too easy to stay in OASIS and die in the real world. Nothing is programmed in  to avoid this, though – it’s entirely up to the user whether s/he wants to commit suicide via VR.

Privacy is also a very real issue. IOI manages to access, legally or illegally, the personal information of every gunter (our hero and his friends), including real identity and home address. The avatar and the human may only be linked in one place, a place that is supposed to be completely encrypted, but that one place is enough to open up everything else.  The first clue is blown open because someone else happens to know that both Parzifal and Aech go to school on the same “planet” – that one little detail, apparently unconnected to anything else, becomes the lever that reveals the secrets of everyone else. It’s terrifying, both in the context of the book and its real life implications.

The big thing, of course, is identity, and I touched on that a bit ago. In OASIS, you can be whatever you want to be, appear as anything you want to be. If you want to be treated – or not treated – in a certain way, you can change yourself enough to make that feasible. I don’t want to spoil things, but it is mentioned some in a non-spoilery way near the beginning: Parzifal has developed a crush on a blogger named Art3mis – and expresses repeated concern that she is a middle-aged man named Chuck living in his mom’s basement. Because she so easily could be. In another example, if you are a black female teenager and want to be taken seriously, you could change your avatar into an older white male. It’s sad and unfortunate that that would work (and even worse that when I read about it, I thought, “oh, that’s an effective way to do it”) – I can only hope that one day, people read this book and don’t understand why someone would feel like they need to change their race or gender in order to be taken seriously.

Since most of the book takes place within OASIS, people’s “real” physical identities are never really an issue – even when Parzifal expresses doubts about Art3mis, he follows them up with a sense of “but I don’t really care, because our connection through this is real.” And possibly the best line for this comes from Parzifal and Aech’s first IRL meeting, when they realise that they do already know each other – it’s only the “minor” things like gender and race they didn’t know.

By contrast, IOI takes away the identity of nearly everyone they employ. The IOI avatars have numbers, not names, and even they can be taken over by any of the various employees as needed. Indents (indentured servants) are essentially forbidden from any sort of personality expression, ranging from how they interact with IOI customers to what they watch in their “free time”. It’s an obvious but vivid contrast to the expressions of individuality that the OASIS can provide.

I could probably go on, and I’m sure other people will, and this doesn’t even get into the 80s nostalgia and pop culture references that permeate the book and provide both the rationale and the background for the plot. But I’m at nearly 1300 words – and really, I just want to read it again.

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Filed under Fantasy