Takedown Twenty (Stephanie Plum, #20)Takedown Twenty by Janet Evanovich

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read these on a week's vacation I took with very little notice back in the first trimester,* in that stage of pregnancy which felt, for me, like walking through quicksand. I was struggling to stay awake, to sleep, to eat, to think clearly, to process the fact that I was about to sever my relationship with my parents. All while compiling the central nervous system of baby-probably-a-girl.

And reading these books. I have found pregnancy to be an intensely dislocative experience. It's one thing to say, yes, I need to let go, I need to let it happen and it's another thing to do it. Or at least to do it gracefully while wondering every morning what fresh wonders and horrors your body will throw at you today.

So I read these books, and promptly forgot their content within 24 hours. They were just like the previous 18 books, except less funny than the first half dozen. They didn't change. They won't ever change. I've accepted that, after years of saying but if she'd just--- and they would be so much better if--. If only she would just, and they would be so much better if. This was something I could let go of, and right about the time I was realizing there was not a single food stuff in the western hemisphere I could imagine putting in my mouth, they were golden.

Don't worry, my critical faculties returned with a flipping vengeance around week 11.

*Yes, it worked. Yes, they are absolutely over the moon. Yes.

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Maskerade (Discworld, #18)Maskerade by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was great, until I metaphorically threw it across the room. I love the witches books; they are wry and a little grim around the edges and about women's power and agency. And this one – about the Discworld opera – is calibrated to my taste and humor.

But if anyone can come up with a reading of the ending of this book which avoids either concluding that (1) mental disability is, in fact, all in the mind and if only he really wanted to he could be normal, or (2) mental disability should be erased by a magical cure . . . I'd love to here it. 'Cause I've looked at this from five different directions now, and nope, not a one of them comes out the least bit okay.

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Mystic and Rider (Twelve Houses, #1)Mystic and Rider by Sharon Shinn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The story of a glorified road trip through a fantasy kingdom during which our heroes talk endlessly about the looming evil and yet have an incredibly hard time grasping it's obvious plans, at least until they finally meet up with looming evil, who proceeds to narrate the evil plan but never actually do a single thing, and then the book ends.

I liked this, but *points up* I'm not really sure why. The strength of this book is in the romance, which is pretty rare for these fantasy/romance hybrids, in my experience. But this one – there was something about this older, weary pair, their wariness and mistrust, and how that changed with time and work.

Still, there is a fundamental clumsiness to Shinn's writing, not to mention her worldbuilding, and while I'm curious about the next book, I have a feeling she's going to be one of those hit-or-miss-but-mostly-miss authors.

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The Player of Games (Culture, #2)The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dudebro member of a post scarcity, post human space society travels to a distant, less advanced culture to participate in a tournament of games that determines sociopolitical hierarchy.

This was certainly better than the first Culture book I read (Matter) but I'm still not really sold. This book is playing with cultural relativism/absolutism, and what happens when a citizen of a supposed technological utopia encounters a violent, hierarchical, inherently unjust society. But the thing is, writing about utopias is really freaking difficult, particularly the social sort Banks attempts here. He makes a point, for example, of having dudebro express great confusion over the concept of a gender hierarchy, which he has never encountered before. This sort of thing gets tricky to create because hierarchy – and accompanying isms -- are so embedded in our context that it's impossible for an author to imagination it away even when that's the specific project he sets out to do, if you know what I mean.

So I read this through two lenses simultaneously: one was all, ah, Banks is using the blatantly unjust society to reflect upon the flaws in the Culture's utopia, and to comment upon the violence inherent in its system that its citizens don't see, that's interesting. The other was like, so this dudebro is a sexist homophobic dick – I wonder if Banks was really in control of all of this as a tool for creating the message. Probably not. And I honestly couldn't tell, until the last 15% or so of the book, which was the correct reading.

It's mostly the first one, for the record. This book is about the violence inherent in the system, including the Culture's utopia. But also for the record? The second reading is valid too, because I really don't think Banks had a handle on all the implicit and explicit homophobia he was putting down here, even as he mouthed some background color about the normative nature of queerness in the Culture.

So basically, this was interesting, but also one of those books that fails specifically on one of the axes it's trying to comment on. Soooo….awkward.

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The Spellcoats (The Dalemark Quartet, #3)The Spellcoats by Diana Wynne Jones

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Six hundred years earlier in pre-historic Dalemark, a group of children are outcast because they look like the invaders, and they set off down the river at the call of an evil wizard.

I'm starting to suspect that I don't get this series. It doesn't help that I didn't pay quite enough attention to follow along with who all the gods are in relation to whom, though to be fair, they each seem to have five names minimum and they are all each other's grandfather. I thought vaguely that this book is doing some peripherally interesting stuff with historical narratives in translation, but mostly I kept thinking, wait, she is weaving this entire story into the fabric of a coat? …how does that make sense? because I have no romance in my soul.

But the thing is, I suspect I have been reading this wrong from the beginning. I was reading for the narrative of character the first two books suggested: children growing uncomfortably into and out of power, that sort of thing. But this third book is so clearly concerned elsewhere, so preoccupied with Dalemark the country as a character. I mean, this whole '600 years ago' thing is like the flashback episode during sweeps that explains everyone's origin stories, except in this case 'everyone' is a country. I think Jones was really working at the divided land as the center of this series rather than any of the particular children she writes about. The land, and the politics and ethnic conflict its people and gods reflect back and forth. And I just wasn't paying that kind of attention.

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The Undead Pool (The Hollows, #12)The Undead Pool by Kim Harrison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was going to use this space to talk about how much I dislike Marguerite Gavin's reading of the commercial audio of this series, with a sidebar on human-voiced audio as transformative work and how I am still pissed about the whole thing where we're going to block an artificial text-to-speech capability on certain devices because having a computer read a book out loud to a print disabled person is copyright infringement – yep still pissed – because for real, guys, this series is pretty long and there's not much to say at this point, and also Marguerite Gavin delivers 75% of spoken dialogue as if the tag were "she sobbed."

But it turns out I have something else to say, which is OMG!!!11111!!!! <3!! Called it! Like a decade ago! And also those two or three days out of every year I spent shipping this hardcore have all paid off, aw yeah!*

Ahem. Carry on.

*Delivered, I must admit, while dead sober. But if you want to pretend I was drunk for this, I'd actually appreciate it.

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Faithful Place (Dublin Murder Squad, #3)Faithful Place by Tana French

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another in her series of Dublin murder detectives. Frank Mackey is called home to the slums of his childhood for the discovery of the body of his teenaged girlfriend.

This was excellent, and I sincerely hope to never think of it again after posting this. If you want to get technical about it, this was the weakest mystery qua mystery of the three books. If you're after a puzzle, this isn't the book for it, as the killer is apparent early on. The point is not figuring that out; the point is watching Frank struggle with it through his blinders.

Which is painful enough, but that's not what got me. What got me by the throat was the exact bruise this book placed its finger on: that thing where you see your parents again after getting out in some form or other, and you can actually feel your sanity peeling off you in strips as the old vortex sucks you down again. That feeling of becoming the awful person you are underneath, that they made you into, and that you thought couldn't possibly be like you remembered. That was so precise and vivid, and so precisely not a thing I can deal with right now. Cheers to French for getting at it so well, but yeah, no, I need to forget this ever happened.

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Three Parts Dead (Craft Sequence #1)Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A young magician is assigned with her mentor to resurrect what's left of an unexpectedly dead god.

I didn't love this like I was promised, but it's pretty cool. The worldbuilding is by far the highlight. I'm actually kind of bitter about that, because I've had this notion of melding magic with contract law in the back of my mind for a few years, and here it is. Done quite well, at least. This brief note by the author explaining his starting points gets at a lot of what I enjoyed about the worldbuilding – creative, complex, very organic feeling because it resembles one of our major systems of power more than most magic systems do.

But for all that, and the competent, smart heroine . . . eh. This never caught fire for me. I wasn't really pulling for anybody. And I should have been, since this book is full of women relating complexly to each other and striving at a difficult profession.

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CodexCodex by Lev Grossman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Young investment banker gets caught up in the search for a medieval manuscript that may or may not exist.

Ouch, this is not good. It's what appears to be Grossman's default protagonist: young white New Yorker dude who is deeply confused that his enormous privilege doesn't translate automatically to happiness. But his later fantasies have so much more muscle and richness to them. This thriller, by comparison, thumps blandly along to its dull conclusion.

That's actually one of the saddest things about this book. It flirts with the fantastical around the edges, but then withdraws to the banal with what looks like a failure of courage. The protagonist plays a computer game, whose scenes and convolutions begin to parallel the quest plot in eerie and inexplicable ways. Inexplicable until explained, anyway, and not to get too psychological about this because I don't like doing that. But man. There is a fantasy novel strangled to death inside this rigid thriller, and it's kind of terrible to watch it happen.

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Living Promises (Promises, #3)Living Promises by Amy Lane

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

M/M modern romance of her usual 'make lots of melodramatically bad things happen to these people and stick a wedding at the end' variety. I can't think of another M/M dealing with HIV off the top of my head, so there's that. And I did like this in a distracted, way-more-important-shit-going-on-give-me-a-book way. Even with all the emotional breakdowns and nonsense.

But – and I realize I sound like a broken record here – but. This genre does not understand homophobia. According to this genre, there are two kinds of people: there are homophobes who disown their queer children in dramatic fashion, and then there's everyone else who isn't homophobic. Riiiight. I mean, those homophobes do exist. But writing about that is writing the most cartoonishly villainous face of it, and entirely missing the grinding, subtle, every day corrosion. You know, the complicated parts. Like how a friend's mother gave the old family silver to the straight daughter and not the queer daughter because – and mom didn't articulate this or probably even know – because the straight daughter had the sort of family/table on which ancestral silver belongs, and the queer daughter and wife did not. When the M/M genre defines homophobia only by violence and blatant hate, it fails to get its hands around some fundamental truths of what it is to be queer. And also perpetuates homophobia, but it does that in a hundred other ways too, so.

I'll stop bitching about this eventually.

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Drowned Ammet (The Dalemark Quartet, #2)Drowned Ammet by Diana Wynne Jones

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another fantasy, this one about a boy raised to be a terrorist bomber who fails in his attempt to assassinate the tyrannical earl and ends up on the run with the earl's grandchildren.

The first 80% of this was really good for me. It was playing with the role of children in political drama. Our protagonists are all tools of adult agendas, either as a murder weapon or a bargaining chip in an arranged marriage. This is the second book in this series in which a protagonist's parents turn out to be separately awful in unique and chilly ways. Except this book was facing up to that more directly and chewing at it. The book treads some predictable but nicely done ground regarding the formation of an independent self. And I'm always a sucker for these 'people become prickly friends across a painful class divide' stories.

Then the last fifth turned into a lot of deus ex machina with actual gods, and the whole structure came tumbling down, with all that careful work she'd built going nowhere. Disappointing.

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Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch, #1)Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ambitious scifi told from the perspective of one fragment of an artificial intelligence that doesn't just run but is a spaceship serving a colonialist empire.

This book had the great misfortune of being talked way up to me in ridiculous terms, to the point where I finished it and thought, "yeah, it's good, but come on, it's not that good." And the thing is, it's not, on a technical level. Leckie has an unfortunate addiction to infodumps which largely ruins the pleasure of puzzling out this strange but familiar post human world and its rules. And the last quarter or so of the book stumbles repeatedly with pacing and tension, such that it felt more like a deflation than a climax.

But that said, I am so entirely down with the stuff this book is rolling around in: the ethics of empire; conflicts of the self when the self is not as we understand it – a spaceship or a government rather than a human being; a marvelous intelligence made by humans but entirely not human, and also really, really angry. It's complex stuff, thoughtfully done, with the sort of textural awareness of class issues, in particular, that you just don't see every day.

The different iterations of the conflicted self were particularly effective for me. It seemed to get at the compromised, contradictory, self-deceptive heart of social hierarchies in a penetrating and accessible way, and I dug it.

But all that said. It isn't that good, come on. Let's do this book the favor of not talking about a debut like it's the second fucking coming, because that's a pretty awful thing to do to an author, honestly.

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Cart and Cwidder (The Dalemark Quartet, #1)Cart and Cwidder by Diana Wynne Jones

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A deceptively simple fantasy about the children of an itinerant singer discovering, after his murder, that they are harboring a political fugitive.

I liked this. It's straightforward and old-fashioned, but with that DWJ way of passing lightly but complexly upon death and power and growing up and living in your own truth. This is one of those books where the magic isn't awoken by feel, it's awoken by thinking very hard and speaking truth to yourself.

And like a lot of DWJ books, it kept me engaged the entire time, even when what I was engaged in doing was vigorously arguing with this book's definition of honor. (For the record, my definition has a lot more self-respect in it, and specifically doesn't include a wife denying her happiness and desires in deference to her husband's political views, which she does not share). Or chewing uncomfortably over a passing reference to coercion that I found exponentially more creepy and awful than the book did. But I liked it for all that, which tells you something.

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The Black Cauldron (The Chronicles of Prydain, #2)The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Second verse, same as etc. More juvenile contemplations of maturity against the backdrop of magical questing. Apparently this book left an impression on me as a child. The cauldron into which dead soldiers are placed to turn them into undead warriors was creepy, but not creepy enough to justify my whole body shudder. The hindbrain did not forget, apparently.

Still very young books, still not a lot of there there. Which is surprising, since this book features competing examples of how to go to one's death when one knows it is coming. But still. Very young.

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The True Meaning of SmekdayThe True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the wreckage of America post alien invasion, an eleven-year-old girl sets off on an epic road trip with one of the invaders and a cat.

OMG. OMG OMG my feels, I can't. This is hilarious and sad and wonderful and quirky. I giggled, I sniffled, I gasped. I got my feels everywhere, which doesn't happen for just any old book.

Basically, if you are a sucker for very brave, very angry little girls; if two people tentatively reaching out from opposite sides of a war and a language barrier and a lot of rage to find their best friend on the other side will leave you verklempt; if you will enjoy the use of alien ethnic jokes to make a joke about human ethnic jokes; if you love cats. Run, do not walk.

So, so good.

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The Shining GirlsThe Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A time traveling serial killer hunts women up and down the twentieth century. Until one girl survives, and starts hunting him back.

Oh fuuuuuuck that was good. And awful and calculatedly vicious. And marvelously twisty like only good time travel can be – it got me at least twice with a sudden lurch of dislocation, like time was spinning around my head.

But mostly? That was smart as hell. This book is about gendered violence, about the unthinking rage that comes down on women who are forced, by queerness or desire or circumstance, to renegotiate their assigned place in the world. And it's a knowing, pained love letter to a century, and to Chicago, and girls who shine.

Not everyone will dig this (and warning for animal harm, btw) but I really, really did. I will be thinking about this for a while. And also, I badly want to talk to someone who has read it about the structure and why the time travel loops are all so carefully and precisely closed -- volunteers, please.

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Dogs and GoddessesDogs and Goddesses by Jennifer Crusie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Picked entirely at random out of the selection of available Crusie audio because I needed some soothing book white noise. I was like, "I bet this is a nice modern romance," innocently oblivious of the jacket summary. And it turns out? Actually this is three modern romances, punctuated with a cheerfully batshit plot featuring talking dogs and a lot of unintentionally hilarious sex in which, e.g., a woman yells "I am a goddess!" while coming. To be fair, she was an actual goddess. Didn't make it less funny.

Got the job done though.

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Kindred HeartsKindred Hearts by Rowan Speedwell

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

M/M historical. Flighty nineteenth-century party boy becomes involved with his wife's twin brother (without any of the infidelity kink that implies). Fine, until it ruined itself with a subplot. I appreciate 'reconciling with an estranged family member' plots as much as the next girl, but there's that and then there's 'reconciling with an abuser' plots. This book thought it was doing the first and was really, really wrong. I have kind of a raw nerve in this general vicinity right now, but when this book started in with the pressure from everyone for forgiveness because he loves you really despite the years and years of emotional abuse (apparently it's not abuse if he didn't . . . mean it really?), with a side dish of 'of course you must forgive, he is family and you have to forgive family' – yeah, no, I'm out, and also fuck right off, book.

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Through the Evil DaysThrough the Evil Days by Julia Spencer-Fleming

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of those books I snagged on release day, after two years of looking out for it. Another small town police chief/episcopal priest mystery. As usual, the A-plot is the weakest element – I swear at one point, as her usual series of increasingly improbable events piled up, that the main characters just drove in big circles for twenty pages. I was like, "I feel you, dudes – if I was stuck in a plot this overbaked, I'd opt out, too."

But I'm in it for the characters, and ugh, I just love them so much. As always, there is so much respect here for the work of a relationship. Clare and Russ have always been incredibly different people. That doesn't change the amazing thing they found in each other, but it does mean they have to work at it. Especially when they have two very different and entirely appropriate reactions to an unwanted pregnancy.

And everyone else, being scared and cornered and clever and brave and weak by turns. They are all lovely and flawed, and I want to watch all of them work at happiness for many many more books.

Even if the A plots continue to be this dumb.

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The Likeness (Dublin Murder Squad, #2)The Likeness by Tana French

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Follows In the Woods. Cassie walks out of the wreckage and into a new case which sends her undercover to infiltrate the tight-knit household of a murdered girl. This is very much like In the Woods, and I'm not talking about the need to suspend one's disbelief on the premise. Both of these books are post facto first person memoirs of travail and inevitable destruction; they both examine the forging and breaking of human connections; they are both intricately written and occasionally overwritten, with a core of twisty psychological intensity.

This one didn't work on me as well as In the Woods. Partly because all the thematic underpinnings here on the creation of group identities and the struggle for happiness in the modern world just didn't interest me as much. And partly because I'm onto French now, and I was never all that impressed with her more gothic flourishings. I sighed tiredly when this book did an actual "When I dream of Whitethorne House…." Sequence.

But. All that said. There is so much to unpick from French's convolutions and turnings. And every few pages something would flash out at me, aimed just right. "I wanted to tell her that being loved is a talent too, that it takes as much guts and as much work as loving; that some people, for whatever reason, never learn the knack." Oh, Cassie, I know who you are thinking of.

At the bottom of it all, French is a tremendous craftsman, and my dissatisfaction with this book comes from my conviction that it retreads too much stylistic ground, that she has something more daring and different in her, and that I want it.

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