Tag Archive | social issues

Book review: Ilium by Dan Simmons

Ilium (Ilium, #1)Ilium by Dan Simmons

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Allosaurs, Greek gods, and space-going Shakespeare enthusiasts? Dan Simmons must have read my Christmas wish list.

Troy is at war. The Greeks, led by Agamemnon and Achilles, and the Trojans, led by Priam and Paris, wage pitched and pitiless battles, aided by the gods and observed by humans. These humans — the scholics — were once experts on Greek poetry and ancient history. They were reconstructed by the gods from their DNA, and then brought back to make sure the path of the war follows the path of the Iliad as laid out by Homer. Thomas Hockenberry is one such scholic, tramping around the battlefield in the guise of various soldiers, making notes and reporting back to the Muse. One day, after nine years of such a life, he is summoned by Aphrodite and told he is to alter the course of things. He is to kill Pallas Athena.

On Earth, humans live in an idyllic setting, pursuing a sybaritic lifestyle. The world is a constant round of dinner parties, picnics, long walks through the woods, and casual sex. No work, no worries, no schooling, no commitments, their every need is seen to by the voynix, mechanical servants who cook, clean, and care for them in their Eden. Daeman, who, like most others of society, is spectacularly incurious about the whys and wherefores of his world, and who collects butterflies and bed partners with equal vigor, arrives at the estate of his cousin, Ada, for a birthday party. He is shocked to discover that the party is not in celebration of someone’s 20th — after which they will be whisked away to the Rings and then returned after rejuvenation — but of Harman’s 99th. In essence, it’s Harman’s going-away party, for he has only one more year of life. But a chance encounter with an allosaurus changes everything.

On Europa, the Five Moon Consortium, a conclave of biomechanical beings, gathers to discuss the 600-year lack of contact from the post-humans and the more recent (in the last 200 years) apparent terraforming of Mars. The consortium is especially concerned with unusually massive amounts of quantum-shift activity centered on Mons Olympus, and decides to send an expedition to investigate. Mahnmut, a Europan moravec, is excited to be included in this expedition with his friend Orphu, an Ionian moravec, and looks forward to continuing their discussions of Shakespeare and Proust and literature in general.  The expedition sets off well enough but soon suffers a severe setback, leaving Mahnmut and Orphu to make the best of what may be a fatal error.

Simmons adopted three different voices to tell these stories. The Trojan saga echoes Homeric prose, to the point of opening the novel with a paraphrase of the opening lines of the Iliad itself; and it is in this opening paragraph that we first begin to understand the sorrow and tragedy of the scholic Hockenberry and the rest of the cast of characters Simmons introduces. The story of Daeman, Ada, and Harman is told in simple descriptive language akin to the childlike outlook of the humans themselves; while the conversations of Mahnmut, Orphu, and the rest of the moravecs are full of technobabble and high literary analysis. This narrative trick is effective, if occasionally jarring when 2017SFFReadingChallengemoving from artless human idyll to high Homeric tragedy.

Three settings. Three stories. Three disparate and wandering paths that lead to the same destination? We’ll find out when I read the sequel.

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Read as part of the 2017 Award-Winning SF/Fantasy Challenge.  Click that badge over there to see more reviews. And once there, consider joining us!

Socks! And a shawl.

While I was off work in January recovering from surgery, I went on a bit of a sock binge.  Results below.

temperance-2 First up, the Temperance socks (Ravelry project page).

Pattern: Temperance by Liz Abinante

Yarn:  Footprints by Blue Ridge Yarn, colorway Secret Garden.  Per Webs, this yarn’s total weight for the full put-up is 108 grams. That means it’s 81 grams for the 300 yard skein and 27 grams for the 100 yard skein. When I was finished, I had 18 grams and 8 grams left, respectively.

Total yardage used: 304 yds.

temperance-1Needles:  US size 2 DPNS.  Pattern calls for using US size 1 1/2 needles. I need size 2 to achieve gauge.

New techniques? Yes!  First toe up socks, first short row heel, first time using different colors for different parts of the sock.  I discovered  I don’t like toe up socks.  The cast on and first couple of rows are really REALLY fiddly and annoying.  That was with DPNs.  I may try again using two circs.  Maybe.

Satisfaction with end product:  Pleased!  They fit pretty well, and I’ve worn them several times since completing them.  In fact, I’m wearing them as I type this blog entry. The yarn is soft and warm and comfy, especially after having been washed a couple of times.  The socks come through the washer and dryer just fine; I wash them inside a mesh bag so they’re protected from rubbing against other clothing, and I use the gentle/delicate cold water wash cycle and a low heat dry cycle.

Next, Hummingbird Spring (Ravelry project page).

hummingbird-4Pattern:  Hummingbird by Sandi Rosner

Yarn: Stardust by Magic & Moonshine, colorway “Crocus”. I love this yarn. It’s soft on the hands, comfy on the feet, and has a hint of sparkle when the light catches it just right.

Total yardage used: Roughly 293 yards

Needles: US size 1 1/2 DPNs

hummingbird-1New techniques? Short heel sock #2.  Progress, not perfection.

Satisfaction with end product:  Good enough, even with the following hiccup.  According to the pattern blurb in the book (The Knitter’s Book of Socks), this pattern was written specifically for a “highly-variegated colorway”. They must not have meant THIS highly-variegated because the lace pattern is virtually invisible.  Still, it’s a nicely written pattern, and fun to make. I may try it again in yarn with less contrast in color values.  The completed socks are machine washable (on gentle, in a mesh bag, as explained above) for ease of care.

Finally, Dragonfly and Rosebud (Ravelry project page).

dragonfly-rosebuds-1

You may notice that this photo employs sock blockers.  Yes, I finally bought some.

Pattern:  Veil of Rosebuds by Anne Hanson

Size: Medium

Yarn:  Skinny Bugga! by Cephalopod Yarns, colorway “Dragonfly Tattoo”.  This yarn is amazing. It’s too bad Cephalopod Yarns closed up shop and took down its shingle.

Total yardage used:  274 yds.

Needles:  US Size 1 DPNs

Mods: Medium size called for casting on 56 stitches at the cuff. That’s too small for me, so I cast on 64, knit the ribbed cuff, and then decreased by 8 stitches in the first row of the lace.

New techniques? Still working on perfecting that short row heel.  This technique has entailed a bit of a learning curve but I’m getting better.

pussy-hat-1Satisfaction with end product:  I love how these turned out!  Excellent match of yarn and pattern.  The lace pattern is gorgeous and highly visible in this colorway.  The only issue has to do with the short row heel.  I need to remember to knit the foot a teensy bit longer than I do with a flap-and-gusset heel to make sure the heel turn fits on my actual heel instead of getting pulled under.

Somewhere in the middle of all the sock knitting, I made three PussyHats. Two were dropped off at a collection point for the January 21st march that took place in Atlanta and worldwide, and one I kept for myself for future marches.  You can visit my Ravelry project page here.  Bet you can guess my politics now!

I finished the Cadence Shawlette (Ravelry project page) a couple of weeks before surgery in December.

cadence-4Pattern:  Cadence Shawlette by Emily Straw; 5 full repeats and 1 partial repeat (up to row 21) before the garter stitch edging and the bind off.

Yarn:  Brisbane by Queensland Collection, colorway “Coral Trout”.  This colorway name tickles me:  I can’t see it without thinking of Pete Dexter’s novel, Paris Trout.

cadence-5Total yardage:  288 yds, plus a little extra (see notes below)

Needles: US 9 circs

Satisfaction with end product:  Love it.  It’s warm and cozy and colorful, just right to brighten up drab winter days.

Notes: I wanted to use every inch of the Brisbane, so I essentially played yarn chicken and kept knitting until I thought I had just enough for the bind off. As it turned out, I got 3/4 of the way through the bind off before I ran out of yarn. Luckily, I had remnants of another worsted wool (Lorna’s Laces Shepherd Worsted) in a colorway similar to the color section of Brisbane at the bound edge, so I was able to finish the bind off instead of tinking back 200+ stitches.

I’m knitting my library.  Well, mostly.  Maybe you can join us!

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Video review: The Day of the Triffids (BBC mini-series)


This 1981 BBC mini-series wasn’t what I intended to order from Netflix.  I had intended to order the 1962 B-movie starring Howard Keel, which I hadn’t seen since I was a teenager camped out in front of the television watching Bob Wilkins host Creature Features on Saturday afternoons.  So when the single-disc mini-series, comprised of six 26-minute episodes, arrived, I was somewhat puzzled until I looked at our Netflix account and realized “Oh, yeah, the 1962 film isn’t available, that’s why I got this one.” (IMDB indicates there’s yet another version, a two-part mini-series made in 2009, also British.)

No matter.  I watched it anyway, the day after I finished the book.  And the show is a faithful adaptation of its source material, with much of the dialogue coming straight out of the book.  It’s been updated so that it takes place in the early 1980s, so the chauvinism and sexism are somewhat lessened — omigosh, there’s an actual female who speaks from a position of authority — but the basics of the plot are fully intact.  I was fascinated by the depiction of the triffids in this version.  Keep in mind the only triffid I had ever seen on screen was that from the 1962 film — to the best of my recollection, they looked vaguely like walking asparagus with flailing “arms” and a kind of a dandelion-type “head”.  But the 1981 version looked a great deal like a titan arum, also known as a corpse flower.

PerfumeHere’s the titan arum my husband and I visited when it flowered at UC Davis in 2007. It’s huge. And it stinks.  Imagine this plant on a six-foot stalk, with the ability to walk — well, shuffle — and sting and eat carrion flesh.

Absolutely terrifying.

I didn’t make the connection until seeing it on the screen, but that first episode, set in the hospital where Bill Masen awakens to a silent world, vividly reminded me of the first episode of The Walking Dead.  Same eerie quiet, same vacant streets, same desperate effort to find other living human beings and discover what happened.

So, set aside the cheesy early 80s fashion — sheesh, did we really wear our makeup like that? — and the horrendous videotape production quality so common in early 80s TV (on both sides of the Atlantic), and prepare yourself for about two and a half hours of post-apocalyptic fun and games, dodging deadly triffids and ruthless press gangs and militia groups intent on enforcing their version of law and order.

Reviewed for R.I.P XI “Peril on the Screen” Challenge.  Click the badge to find out more about this annual event.

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Book review: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The Bone ClocksThe Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When we first meet Holly Sykes, it’s the mid-80s and she is a sullen teenager who discovered her boyfriend, with whom she had planned to live after running away from home, cheated on her with her “best mate”. When we last meet her, it’s the 2040s, and she’s trying to figure out a way to save her granddaughter from a living hell. In between is a ramble through the world of late 20th, early 21st Century, peopled with narcissistic, entitled English schoolmates and other people of consequence, some of whom manage to grow up and become decent people, but most of whom don’t. And lurking behind the scenes, manipulating people and events, are creatures with special abilities who snatch people with special abilities out of the world and use them for…nourishment? Entertainment? All of the above. It sounds like a mess, but it’s glorious and frightening and altogether wonderful.

The Bone Clocks is my second David Mitchell novel. Cloud Atlas was the first. Often when I read a second novel by a new-to-me author, I’m disappointed because it doesn’t match up to the excellence of the first novel I read. Not so in this case. The Bone Clocks is every bit as magical as Cloud Atlas. I’ll definitely be getting more David Mitchell from the library.

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Book review: Saturday by Ian McEwan

SaturdaySaturday by Ian McEwan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ulysses for those who can’t be bothered to struggle with Joycean prose.

My goodness, how this novel dragged through the minutiae of Dr. Perowne’s Saturday: from his contemplation of a plane crash in the pre-dawn sky through his preparations to leave for a squash game to a fender-bender on a crowded street to his day at the hospital to the evening events stemming from a chance encounter earlier that day and, finally, to contemplating the pre-dawn sky once again. Full circle. Full stop.

It’s exhausting. Beautifully written, but must be read with a certain determination of purpose and gritting of teeth.

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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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Book review: The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

The ImperfectionistsThe Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The story of a newspaper, told alternately in flashback and in current happenings. Each present-day chapter focuses on an individual connected with the newspaper, in Rome, Paris, Cairo, all over Europe: as correspondent, editor, reader, publisher; and each flashback provides us with the chronology of the paper’s history. These are fascinatingly flawed people, each desperately trying to bring meaning to their life, to justify their existence, to get one more article published, to save the goddamn paper somehow. Because the internet threat looms and circulation is falling.

So how does an international English-language print newspaper stay afloat in the digital age? Perhaps not like this, but it’s an entertaining read regardless.

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Book review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the TrainThe Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rachel’s daily commute takes her past the neighborhood where she once lived, when she was married. The train frequently sits for several minutes at a railstop right behind the back yard of a young couple whom often Rachel spies sitting on their patio; she has built up an elaborate fantasy existence for these two, fueled by the unfulfilled wishes of her own failed marriage. One day Rachel sees the woman kissing someone other than her husband, shocking her out of her fantasy. Shortly after that, she hears that this woman has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Convinced the strange man being kissed has something to do with the disappearance, Rachel goes to the police, only to be dismissed because of her well-known drinking problem. Undeterred, Rachel continues to investigate the disappearance on her own, in the process raising the spectre of her dead marriage and the issues that led to its failure.

The story itself is well-written and, although I started to get an inkling of how things would shake out somewhere about 2/3 through the book, the final twist isn’t telegraphed and still managed to surprise me.

But none of these characters is likeable. Except one. Rachel, the ex-husband, the new wife, the husband of the missing woman, all of them were simply awful. The only person who seems to have any compassion and goodness of character is Rachel’s roommate, who is treated shabbily and still shows Rachel kindness. And while that may make these people more realistic and human, it also makes them difficult to side with: even Rachel, who is her own worst enemy and manages to sabotage herself at every turn. (Having struggled through and overcome a substance abuse problem myself, I am predisposed to empathy for her; even so, I wanted to take her by the shoulders and shout at her more than once. If nothing else, she made me realize how incredibly patient and loving my loved ones were with me when I was in the throes of addiction.)

So, to sum up, a good story, an engaging story, but one peopled by unlikeable characters being unkind to each other. Such is the drama of the London suburb.

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Book review: I Am No One by Patrick Flanery

I Am No OneI Am No One by Patrick Flanery

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This passage right here:

“…I wonder if, in the past, we didn’t trust each other more, knowing there would be stretches of every day when we would not be able to contact our spouses or children or parents, trusting they were simply getting on with their lives and being faithful to us and whatever they later reported having done was true, or at least plausible. For each of us, the freedom of not being reached, of wandering untracked through the city, browsing in bookstores and libraries, living life in a way the the mind did not feel hunted or followed or simply distracted by the silliness of unwanted messages and the ability to check stock prices every thirty seconds or receive alerts of breaking news, must have meant that as recently as a decade ago we were thinking more and reacting less. Is it any wonder we entered a more reactionary age? Our technology is teaching us to react rather than reflect, so that even the leftwing movements of the present seem no longer to be based in ideas as much as in the constantly shifting desire to respond to offense or inequality or injustice, and yet the discourse surrounding whatever the movement or outrage du jour might be seems too often founded on a wafer of historical and ideological ignorance.”

Yes. Yes. A thousand times yes. And I recognize the inherent irony of posting a book review on a social media site while longing in some ways for a return to a less public, less monitored and scrutinized way of life.

Jeremy O’Keefe returns to New York after more than a decade of teaching at Oxford. He had originally fled to England after his divorce and a failure to gain tenure at a particular American university; he left Oxford when offered a position with another equally well-respected institute of higher learning. He finds an apartment and settles back into the daily routine of a New York City dweller. At the same time he realizes he’s lost touch with his old friends and they have moved on; he doesn’t fit anymore. His relationship with his now-married daughter is awkward and strained; he has no contact with his ex-wife; he spends a great deal of time alone, ruminating on his life and his circumstances; he pretends he likes it that way.

One day a young man strikes up a conversation with him in a coffee shop. A few days later, he encounters the same young man at his daughter’s party. And then a third run-in… In a city the size of New York, Jeremy thinks these meetings can’t be mere coincidence. Is this young man, Peter, following him? Is Peter behind the mysterious boxes of computer printouts that begin arriving at his apartment? Or is it the US government? Or is Jeremy imagining all of it?

The novel jumps back and forth between the years in Oxford and the present-day happenings in New York, gradually revealing the circumstances which led to Jeremy’s acceptance of the New York job offer, and which may be cause for government surveillance and questioning Jeremy’s loyalty to the country of his birth.

This novel moves at an almost glacial pace, with a great deal of internal (and self-serving) monologue, but it’s so beautifully written, I can forgive the navel-gazing. Truthfully, though, don’t most of us have these internal conversations? Maybe my empathy for Jeremy and his endless introspection stems from being an introvert myself.

Thank you to LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewer program for the opportunity to read this book.

(Personal aside: I read this novel shortly after my husband and I returned from our first trip to New York. We stayed entirely in Manhattan and spent a great deal of time in the areas where the New York sections of this novel take place. It was great fun to place the streets and landmarks on the map of the city I now hold in my head; to recognize what it’s like to ride the subway and get out at Columbus Circle; to acknowledge how crowded the sidewalks are and how unlikely it is to see the same person in three different places on three different days. This extra bit of personal knowledge will enhance any book set in New York that I read in the future.)

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Book review: Messenger by Lois Lowry

Messenger (The Giver, #3)Messenger by Lois Lowry

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This third installment introduces us to another community within the world of The Giver Quartet, a community that once welcomed refugees from other communities with open arms, but recently has changed its mind and decided to close its borders. Matty, a young man who can travel the hostile forest with impunity, is sent out to warn other villages to stop sending new residents; he is also supposed to find and bring back the daughter of his village’s leader. Messenger takes characters from the first two novels and ties them together so the reader begins to see the whole of the picture Ms. Lowry is painting.

Definitely a YA book, but with just enough provocation of thought that the adult reader doesn’t feel too cheated by the two-dimensional characters and occasional plot hole. Worth reading once.

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