Posted in Book review, Books, Reading

Book review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

The Collapsing Empire (The Interdependency, #1)The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Good science fiction is a joy forever. John Scalzi writes good SF.

In this first installment of a new series, humanity has spread across the cosmos, and each world is united with all others under a single umbrella called The Interdependency. Interstellar travel and the spread of humanity was made possible by the discovery of a force known as The Flow, accessible at designated points in space-time. The Flow changes and shifts, opening up new areas of the universe and, occasionally, cutting off others.

The Flow is currently in a period of flux, and this fluctuation seems to be more volatile than other previous shifts. In fact, it seems that The Flow may disappear entirely within a very short time, thus leading to the collapse of the empire of the title.

The house of the Emperox, the leader of the Interdepency, is also in flux.  The Emperox died suddenly and his daughter, the new Emperox, was not quite prepared to be thrust into leadership so soon.  That, and the expected Flow catastrophe, makes for an uneasy start to her rule.  As you may have anticipated, all the uncertainty leads to much political maneuvering — read that as plotting and backstabbing — among the rest of the ruling houses of The Interdependency.

So, politics, impending doom, human foibles, space travel, and lots of foul language. Vintage Scalzi. I can hardly wait for the next volume.

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Book review: A Colony in a Nation by Chris Hayes

A Colony in a NationA Colony in a Nation by Chris Hayes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Clear-eyed analysis of the current state of racial tension in the United States. Chris Hayes is aware of his privilege as an educated, relatively affluent, white male, and uses that privilege to elucidate his premise that, for all its lip service to equality and justice for all, the US is a divided society — the Nation, generally composed of white people excessively concerned with public safety and “law and order;” and the Colony, constituted in the main by people of color who are increasingly the targets and victims of the “law and order” mindset of the Nation.

Hayes’ premise is easily confirmed by recent events in which people of color just going about their own business have had the cops called on them for what amounts to breathing while black. Not that the Philadelphia Starbucks incident or the Oakland barbecue incident are anything out of the ordinary for black folks in this country: we just hear about them now because of the ubiquity of smart phones and use of social media.

While Hayes doesn’t offer any solutions, that’s not the point of his book. The whole point here is to raise awareness. Look around. Take notice of the many ways the Nation oppresses the Colony. And, if you’re white, do your best to recognize your part in the oppression — because we all do it, despite our best intentions. Recognition leads to self-awareness leads to a change in behavior.

Because black lives matter.

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Posted in Book review, Books, Reading

Book review: A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

A Column of Fire (Kingsbridge)A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This third installment of Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge series covers the Elizabethan era of England’s history, with its attendant political intrigues, religious persecutions, and assassination plots. While our chief protagonist, Ned Willard, and his family are fictional, famous historical personages inhabit the plot: William Cecil; Mary, Queen of Scots; Francis Walsingham; Francis Drake; and of course Elizabeth Tudor.

Ned Willard goes to court as a young man, after having been disappointed in love, and is promptly taken under the wing of William Cecil, Elizabeth Tudor’s chief advisor. Together they oversee a network of informants and spies, rooting out planned rebellions and foiling attempts on the Queen’s life. The majority of the political story concerns the tension between staunch Catholics and Protestants, each believing they follow the One True Faith; and the accompanying efforts to sway England, France, and Spain toward one religious tradition or the other.

I liked this book. It’s well-written and steeped in historical detail. But I didn’t enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the first of the line (The Pillars of the Earth, set in the 12th century), or even the second (World Without End, set in the 14th century). That may be because I am utterly fascinated by the Middle Ages — far more than with any other period in history — and thus novels set in other historical eras don’t engage me as much. Still, Elizabethan England is a dramatic setting, and the dramatic plotline delivers one punch of excitement after another.

Given that the three books in this series each take place approximately 200 years apart, I venture to guess that the next installment, should there be one, will cover the American Revolution, and will take place in both England and the New World. We’ll see.

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Book review: Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White HouseFire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So I had to read this book. Had. To. Because I had to know what the view looked like from inside the mess being reported in the mainstream media.

And now that I know, I feel even more ill that this completely self-absorbed, functionally illiterate, childish excuse for a human being is seated in the Oval Office, and that he’s surrounded by similarly incompetent toadies and sycophants who believe it’s their job to tell him what he wants to hear instead of the truth.

Because he can’t deal with the truth. Truth and facts are dull. And they’re not about him. So, hey, don’t bother briefing me on this boring national security matter; let’s talk about my golf game instead!

OMFG. Unless Trump is removed from office as soon as possible, the American experiment just might be over.

Prior to reading this, I had no guilt about flipping this man’s official photograph the bird every day when I walk into the building where I work. And after reading it, I take a certain amount of pride in the gesture.

(Three stars because it’s choppy and uneven, and some of the transitions lack continuity. But yay for gossipy juicy insider tidbits.)

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Book review: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Windup GirlThe Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The heat is nearly unbearable.

The ice caps melted; the sea-level rose; the fossil-fuel economy collapsed; worldwide famine ensued; and Asia took the lead in science- and technology-driven solutions. Unfortunately, the genetically-engineered crops produced by the agricultural research companies also produced horrific diseases for crops and for people, further decimating global population and food supply. Riots, black markets, corporate espionage, ethnic cleansing…the world of 100 years or so from now is not a pleasant place, unless one is very wealthy.

And in Paolo Bacigalupi’s future vision, one is either very wealthy, or one is not. The only denizens of a nearly non-existent middle class are the calorie-men, like Anderson Lake, the manager of the factory where much of the action of this novel centers.

Anderson Lake prowls the street markets of Bangkok, hoping to find pure, unaltered food — a real canteloupe, an actual vine-grown tomato — that he can purchase and take back to his employer for gene analysis and modification. What he finds, eventually, is Enniko.

Enniko — the Windup Girl of the title — is a “New Person”, the genetically-engineered, vat-grown human-like plaything of a Japanese businessman, who left her behind in Bangkok when he grew tired of her. Her unaccompanied presence in the city is problematic, and she places herself under the protection of unsavory individuals for her personal safety.

Around both of them, Bangkok is aswirl with civil unrest, thievery, police corruption, political assassination attempts, and the outbreak of a new and mysterious disease. There’s so much going on in this story that it’s nearly impossible to synopsize.

It’s not an easy read: lots of characters and subplots to follow; lots of Bacigalupi-created neologisms; lots of untranslated Asian-language words (presumably Thai, but I could be wrong). The word meanings can be gathered from context, but it makes for slow going initially.

Have I mentioned that I loved it? I did. It’s fabulous. Gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, horrifying, and spectacular. Once I finally got into the story, I could hardly bear to put it down.

2017SFFReadingChallengeThis is not a story for everyone. But it was the story for me.

(If you like China Miéville, you will love this. Trust me.)

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This book was read as part of the 2017 Award-Winning Science Fiction/Fantasy Reading Challenge.  Click that badge on the right to see what other participants have read.

Posted in Life in general, Miscellaneous

Don’t tell me to calm down

Don’t even think about it, because I will smack you upside the head so hard you’ll wish you never learned to speak.

Do you know what happened Wednesday?  After the nation learned that the Orange Narcissist will become our next President?  I’ll tell you what happened.

One of my friends posted this on Facebook:

Good lord, this is nerve-wracking.  List of reasons to be concerned:  I’m a woman, a bisexual, married to a trans person, and I have mental health issues.  Many of the people who mean the most to me in the world are POC, LGBT, or have mental illness or developmental or physical disabilities.  All of us struggle, but many of them struggle with poverty-level income and serious unmet healthcare needs.  Many more have healthcare thanks to one provision of ACA or another, which they could lose.  So very much is at stake.

She later hid the post from view and told me she’s pretty scared of everything right now.

Another friend told me his mother had been verbally accosted while shopping in a Tennessee Wal-Mart:  “We won!  Now all you fucking niggers have to go back to Africa!”

Still another friend, with a longstanding health issue, has been unemployed long-term and relies on her health plan through the Affordable Care Act to pay for lifesaving medication and the frequent doctor visits she requires. She’s so terrified the ACA will be repealed that she’s suicidal.

A fourth friend, also with a pre-existing medical condition, and who recently lost her job, is in the same predicament.

A fifth friend, Hispanic, married to an African-American, with three mixed-race children, worries how she is going to explain to her daughter what happened, and is frightened for her teenage sons’ safety.

Each of these wonderful beautiful vibrant people lives in a different part of the country.  Each of them lives in a “red” state.  Each of them is now afraid to be who they are in their own country.

Those of you who voted for the man?  This is what you have wrought.

He is a racist.
He is a xenophobe.
He is a sexist.
He is an Islamophobe.
He is a homophobe.
He is a self-confessed sexual predator.

That’s what you voted for.  That was what you wanted in a leader.

But wait.  There’s more. 

His vice-president thinks electrocution will shock gay people into being straight.

May the gods help us all.

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Book review: Listen, Liberal by Thomas Franks

Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the PeopleListen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People by Thomas Frank

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

True confession. I dog-eared pages as I read through this book.

*dodges the stones and rotten tomatoes *

I know. I know! But I have an excuse. I had only two bookmarks with me as I read, one for my current place and one marking the endnotes; neither did I have any little Post-it notes or sticky flags, nor any other method to mark all the passages that stood out. So I turned down the page corners instead.

Thomas Frank’s premise is that the progressive movement, or what he terms “The Liberal Class”, has forgotten its roots in the labor movement; has set aside its concerns for the poor and the working class; and has become obsessed with meritocracy rather than equality. Frank wonders what it means “…when the dominant constituency of the left party in a two-party system is a high-status group rather than the traditional working class? …[It] means soaring inequality. When the left party in a system severs its bond to working people…issues of work and income inequality will inevitably fade from its list of concerns.”

Let’s define two terms. Meritocracy is the belief that power should be vested in individuals almost exclusively based on ability and talent. Followers of this belief system proclaim those who work hard and take advantage of all educational opportunities will, by virtue of their talent, rise to the top; ALL of society’s problems can be solved if only everyone had access to higher education.

The high-status group Frank mentions above are members of that meritocracy [as a class name, rather than a belief system]. They are those who have risen to the top and taken power, based on what they believe is their ability and talent. Even though “liberal elite” is often used as pejorative term, it’s a valid description of the mostly-Ivy League-educated individuals who front the progressive movement. They are what Frank calls “the well-graduated”, mostly Caucasian, mostly from privileged backgrounds, and mostly wealthy in their own right. Exceptions abound, of course: the Clintons were not wealthy as young people; and President Obama is neither Caucasian nor from a privileged background; but they are by definition meritocrats, having been smart enough and lucky enough to take advantage of the educational opportunities that launched them into heightened circles of prestige.

Speaking of Clinton, Frank rips apart the 8-year presidency of William J., and doesn’t express much hope for the better for the prospective term of Hillary R. (The only thing that saves her from outright excoriation is the spectre of a Trump Presidency, something even more disastrous than Clinton II.) In Frank’s view, the Clinton Administration, with its 1996 welfare reform legislation, completed the dismantling of the social safety net that had begun with the Reagan Administration. Having worked on the front lines of a social service agency since 1995, I can testify that Frank is right. Fewer people may be on public assistance, but more people are in poverty.

It seems like I always have my own rant about inequality and the abandonment of the poor to impart whenever I read one of Mr. Frank’s books. I’ll spare you the rest of it; and the rest of the passages I marked. What I will say is access to higher education has never been the answer to income inequality. A college degree does not guarantee success. (Case in point: My own spouse has a master’s in business administration; he’s the smartest man I know; and he manages a retail store because he can’t get hired in his chosen field. I never finished college myself, but I was in the right place at the right time to be hired by my employer, and now I make three times his salary.) What will help those at the bottom of the social ladder isn’t just education, it’s opportunity and infrastructure investment and plain old good hard cash.

Go read this, especially if you are of a liberal bent. You’ll be enraged and outraged; you’ll be enlightened; you’ll despair; and then you’ll get back on your feet, filled with determination to vote, to write your Congressional representatives and the editor of your local newspaper, to make noise, and to take care of the “least of these”, because ultimately, that’s our responsibility as human beings.

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Rainbow Dishcloths
Photo Credit: Cathy Weeks, posted to her Flickr account

People who have known me for any length of time know that I unequivocally and wholeheartedly support marriage equality and equal rights (and have done for many years). And so I rejoiced and huzzah’d and cheered and had the biggest grin ever plastered on my face last Friday due to the Supreme Court decision making marriage equality the law of the land.

But along with the general rejoicing all over the social media and news sites I frequent, a peculiar and disturbing “my civil liberties have been infringed by SCOTUS” theme has emerged from some not wholly unexpected quarters.  Republican Presidential candidates, religious zealots, and conservative media dittoheads, as well as certain family members and a few friends — some long-term, some more recent — are spouting the fundamentalist party line that this decision means the next thing will be lawsuits to force ministers to gay-marry people, therefore Christianity itself is at risk, and we better gather up the womenfolk and chilluns because they’ll be coming for your guns and Bibles shortly.

What complete and utter bullshit.

News flash, folks.  The Obergefell v. Hodges decision affects your civil liberties not a whit.  Ministers are still perfectly free to not marry anyone who doesn’t meet their particular denomination’s dogmatic standards.  You are still perfectly free to believe whatever you like, worship however you like, and hold whatever opinions you wish. You are perfectly free to bemoan the “moral decay” you think you’re witnessing. You are perfectly free to rant and rave and quote obsolete and irrelevant Old Testament verses that support your views. And you are perfectly free to call for a Constitutional amendment to override a decision that you find abhorrent.

(Personally, I’d like to see a Constitutional amendment that overturns the Citizens United decision, but that’s a different rant. I wish us both good luck with that, by the way. This republic’s Constitution has been amended only 27 times in the 226 years since it was ratified, and the first ten of those amendments were done only two years after initial ratification, so essentially only 17 amendments have passed muster in over 200 years.)

However, what you are no longer free to do is discriminate against your LGBTQ brothers and sisters with respect to the legal protection of marriage. You don’t have to like it. That’s part of your freedom, as well.  But you have to understand that marriage has very little to do with religion, anyway.

*pause to insert earplugs to block the screams of outrage*

Yes, you heard me.  Marriage itself has nothing to do with religion.

Now I know a lot of people choose to get married in a religious ceremony, with prayer and talk of God and holy matrimony and so forth.  I did so myself;  it was lovely and moving and very special indeed.  But the religious service that constituted the saying of our vows has nothing to do with the facts of our marriage.  We could have just as easily walked down the hall to the office of the Justice of the Peace on the day we picked up our marriage license, had that fine worthy perform the ceremony, and been just as married.  Because what constitutes the fact of my marriage is this:  My husband and I went to the county courthouse, purchased a license, had a ceremony performed by an individual who certified on that license that he was authorized to perform marriage ceremonies. He then submitted that certified document back to the county for the marriage to be entered into county records as proof of the legally binding contract my husband and I entered into on that beautiful spring day many years ago.

Marriage in the United States is a legal contract, and thus it’s a civil matter, licensed, recorded, and sanctioned by the government.  The fact that many people celebrate their marriage vows with a religious ceremony is irrelevant. That means it’s also irrelevant if your religion says homosexuality is a sin, and therefore gay people shouldn’t be allowed to get married.  Marriage is a civil matter, and what your religion says has no bearing on the right of consenting adults to marry.

But here’s another thing you have to understand.  Marriage equality is no threat to your church. Hordes of gay folk clad in rainbow-colored wedding garments aren’t going to storm your sanctuary, demand to be married at your altar, and file lawsuits if refused.  Your church’s clergy are protected under the First Amendment and can refuse to perform a marriage ceremony for anyone who is perceived as not meeting dogmatic or doctrinal standards.  For example, a Catholic priest may refuse to marry a divorced person because Catholic doctrine says divorce is a sin. An Orthodox rabbi may refuse to marry a Jewish person to a non-Jewish person because Judaism generally frowns upon interfaith marriages.  Heck, my own pastor very nearly refused to marry my husband and me because my husband is an atheist.

As mentioned above, though, you’re perfectly free to believe homosexuality is a sin, although I would ask you to take a look at a little research on the so-called “clobber verses” that people with those beliefs generally quote to back their position.

And, because I don’t want to stop loving my friends and family who buy into this “my religious freedoms are being attacked” nonsense, I had to “unfollow” a few people on social media in the last couple of days. They aren’t de-friended or blocked, just not followed for a while, until their hateful, spiteful, inaccurate, or ugly status updates die down.

Fallout

Posted in Life in general, Miscellaneous

Love wins. Sing glory hallelujah!

Two friends got a marriage license yesterday.

They have been together for decades.  They’ve owned houses together, ran a business together, participated in their community and held responsible and highly visible civic positions; they contribute to charity and take part in fundraisers for local organizations; they have been upstanding citizens of their small Southern city and the very definition of the committed, devoted couple for all to see.

Photo copyright: The Hot Springs Sentinel-Record, 2015
Photo copyright: The Hot Springs Sentinel-Record, 2015
But they couldn’t get married.

Then, yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States decided they could.  And they hotfooted it down to the courthouse and managed to be the first same sex couple issued a marriage license in Garland County, Arkansas.  Take a look at those faces in that photograph.  That’s pure joy.

Congratulations, Alan and Joe!  It’s been a long time coming.  I expect your upcoming nuptials will be nothing short of fabulous!

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Book review: The Innocence Device by William Kowalski

The Innocence DeviceThe Innocence Device by William Kowalski
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In the near future, the United States is divided into prisons, and the majority of the men in the country — especially men of color — are prisoners. The majority of the women serve as guards. People are sentenced to prison for the most minor of infractions committed as children, and then sentence after sentence is piled on top of the already-incarcerated individual for things like insubordination (i.e., talking back to a guard), theft (i.e., taking an extra food allotment), or any number of other potential crimes. Here’s the rub, though: virtually everything is a crime. This is “zero tolerance” run wild.

Within the prison, a hierarchy has evolved that determines where one lives and what sort of privileges one may receive. Our hero, 24-year-old Chago, is a poor laborer whose only goal involves seeing his son (by one of the prison guards) as often as he can. When the warden of the prison announces the invention of new technology that can determine one’s innocence or guilt, Chago is eager to step through the Innocence Device. He knows he didn’t do anything really wrong — in fact, he’s not entirely sure why he’s in prison; he only knows he was about six or seven when he was first sentenced — and he’s certain the Innocence Device will set him free. Alas, all is not as it seems, and when a prison riot begins, Chago’s entire world is thrown into chaos.

Great premise, right? It’s why I signed up for this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Sadly, the writing itself failed to live up to that premise. This short novella — hardly more than a short story, really — can’t seem to make up its mind whether it was written for an adult or a YA audience. The language is simple, perhaps written at about a fifth- or sixth-grade level, but the protagonist is an adult in his early 20s. The copy is printed in large type with widely spaced lines, which is why I say it’s hardly more than a short story. Had it been printed in normal-sized book type with normally spaced lines, its length would have most likely been around 50 or so pages: a lengthy short story, yes, but still a short story. Plot development is minimal, character development is somewhat better (for Chago, at any rate), both of which generally can be forgiven in fiction of this length. However, there’s a gaping plot hole in the last few pages that, combined with the simplistic grade-school language, left this reader deeply dissatisfied. This plot hole almost feels like the author wrote something else in between the last chapter and the epilogue that he later took out, but he didn’t go back and smooth out the edges of the excision.

The premise of The Innocence Device is one I would enjoy seeing rewritten in adult-oriented language, and greatly expanded with more plot development, more character detail, more of the whys and the hows, the politics and the social disorder that must have led to such circumstances as exist within this novel. As I read through it (which took about 40 minutes — really, it’s just that short), I could almost see the full-length novel lurking in the shadows of each paragraph, waiting for someone like Hugh Howey, maybe, or Ben H. Winters, or (be still, my heart) China Miéville to flesh it out and bring it to life.

Too bad one of them didn’t think of it. Hey, Mr. Kowalski! Will you sell this idea to China Miéville and make me a happy woman? No? Two stars for you, then.

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