Broken Harbour (Dublin Murder Squad, #4)Broken Harbour by Tana French

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Proving that, along with everything else, French can bring the creepy. Investigation of a triple familial homicide reveals a house with holes knocked in the walls and cameras pointing into them, which is just the start.

This was, hm. I can't say I wasn't riveted, because I was. And I can't say it isn't a good book, because it is. It's more complicated than this sounds, but it's about the order that we keep to shut out the wild, and about where violence comes from. Our protagonist genuinely believes in victim-blaming – it's not that he won't pursue justice, he's just so very sure that anyone who gets dead did something to open up a crack in their life and let the violence in. And it doesn't take much, just the smallest slip will do it. The book is – I won't say sympathetic to him, but it is even-handed. We know why he thinks that – he has to think that – and French is very, very good at complicating the viewpoints of people with those kinds of self-serving blinders on.

But for all that, and I've said this before. I really wish she'd write a different book. Like around the 20% mark of this one, two characters began deliberately building a strong, healthy, functional emotional connection, and I knew instantly that it would be destroyed, and had a pretty good guess as to how. French writes that kind of destruction beautifully, but come on. We've seen this before. Maybe I've just read all of her books too close together, but there's a sameness to them which is frustrating given her obvious and ridiculous talent.

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EmbassytownEmbassytown by China Miéville

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of those books whose wild inventiveness leaves it very difficult to describe. Let's go with scifi about an alien language spoken simultaneously through two mouths by one consciousness and thus inaccessible to humans and computers; a species incapable of lying or sustaining metaphors because it cannot lexically account for anything that isn't true; a human woman who is made part of that language by enacting a simile so that it is true and can be used; a society-wide catastrophe; a war; a bloody birthing into a new kind of consciousness through the transformation of language.

My problem with Mieville books is that I'm always left wondering what they're for, after they're done being absurdly clever and beautifully written. This one has a lot more going for it – it has that Mievillian chilliness when it comes to character, but there's a far greater emotional range. Maybe it's just that the territory he's exploring is so rich and interesting; the book had to grow a soul, the way bacteria has to grow under the right conditions. Who cares why if it was horrifying and sad and tense by turns in ways his previous books haven't been for me.

That said, and this genuinely is my favorite Mieville so far. That said. There is something . . . off about this book. It's the story of a tiny human foothold on an alien planet, a human-introduced catastrophe, the transformation of an entire species through the act of learning, from humans, to lie. Is it a love letter to language and the order it regulates over thought? Is it a frightening but ultimately satisfying cultural coming of age story for a technologically-advanced species? Is it, ironically, a metaphor – for human intellectual evolution, for the artistic journey, for flipping capitalism? Or is it, when all's said and done, just another celebration of the colonial destruction of a native species? It's all of that, rather messily and undecidedly. And uncomfortably, I have to say.

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The Crown of Dalemark (The Dalemark Quartet, #4)The Crown of Dalemark by Diana Wynne Jones

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Huh. I said of a previous book in this series that I didn't really understand what DWJ was doing; having finished it, I'm not sure DWJ understood what DWJ was doing.

This was supposed to pull everything together. And it tried to, I think – structurally this series is supposed to be woven (like a story coat) with characters moving through time, taking each other's places, etc. etc. And it just . . . didn't. The threads swapped out too many times and I was never sure who I was supposed to be caring about at any moment.

And, well, file this under 'thinking about it too much,' but this is epic fantasy of the sort where "revolution" is actually an incredibly conservative act that shores up the system of power rather than reordering it. You know, the evil king is bad, so we fix it by replacing him with the good king. All the problems of hierarchical hereditary political dictatorships being contained in the caliber of the dictator, you know. Here its evil barons replaced with the good king, but same damn thing. I'm not asking for the great democratization of fantasy land – that has its own perils, and they are many – it's just that let's not pretend here. Books like this play with the emotional rush of political uprising while never, for a second, meaningfully threatening the social order they spend so long calling corrupt. It's not like people aren't still writing this sort of political fantasy that parades around in the trappings of radicalism while actually being intensely conservative. I just happen not to read it that much anymore.

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London FallingLondon Falling by Paul Cornell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Man, the subgenre of urban fantasies about London cops dealing with the supernatural is hitting it out of the park lately, isn't it?

I was hearing about this book before it was published, and to be honest, for the first thirty pages, I couldn't tell why. I was reading a well-executed but not-my-thing book about an undercover operation staffed by a bunch of really unpleasant people. And then it all dislocated bloodily hard to the left. And then did it again, more viscerally and frighteningly. And where we ended up was a magical London whose rules remain largely unknown, and those four cops I didn't really like were much more complicated in its weird light. The obvious comparison is to the Peter Grant books; that's fair, superficially, but the esthetics here lean way more towards horror and less towards detective. I like them both quite a lot, though with different parts of my brain.

This is about accessing power through trial and error and pain. Uniquely in the genre, there's no mentor here. No one explains shit to these people, which means shit just don't get explained. It's a book, a little bit around the edges, about how already being the other – black, queer, traumatized – can make it easier to slip into the cracks of a world beneath ours.

And if nothing else, this book managed that oh-so-rare trick of signaling the awful truth to me over and over again, but only letting me figure it out a page before the characters did, so I spent that whole page going "no no oh no oh no." That stuff never works on me – I always figure it out too early or not at all.

Basically: aces.

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Ball & Chain (Cut & Run, #8)Ball & Chain by Abigail Roux

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another M/M FBI caper, this time stranded on a tiny Scottish island for a wedding, at least until the bodies start dropping.

Hm. This made me think about series structure and the necessity of releasing tension in order to build it again. Because, I think for the first time in my life, I was hoping for a mystery-of-the-week, and I didn't get it. All the markers were there – last book was over-the-top intense! This book started with hints of whacky hijinks! – and I thought oh good, we can all decompress a bit. And then no. It's like Roux couldn't stop herself from injecting a whole new set of interpersonal dramas, with yet more awkwardly back-filled history.

And, I mean, I don't read M/M just for the porn, okay? For one reason, that would be really fucking sad, considering the abysmal quality of most published LGBT erotica (this series being a pleasant surprise there). I also read it for the personal drama, to wallow in it and – yeah – to mock it a lot. But I'm genuinely in this for people having complicated, difficult feelings at each other.

But seriously. Once in a while? Have a freaking caper. Remember the thing a couple books ago with the tiger and the terrible, terrible puns, and how hard I laughed on a flight home from London? Can't we do that again?

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Gregor the Overlander (Underland Chronicles, #1)Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Eleven-year-old Gregor falls with his baby sister from their NYC apartment to the Underland, where they have a series of adventures with talking animals (the creepy kind).

Cute, young. You can sort of see traces of the person who would write The Hunger Games -- children assuming responsibility for a sibling in the absence of a parent, political power arriving too young – but it's all dialed down to, like, a four. Also, the prophetic poetry is truly, hilariously awful. I dunno, I think I'm finally admitting that I just shouldn't read middle-grade fiction. I just don't have the brain for it; I'm always unsatisfied and a bit restless through the whole thing.

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If at Faust You Don't Succeed (Millennial Contest, #2)If at Faust You Don't Succeed by Roger Zelazny

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

A thief takes the place of the selected representative of humanity in a history-hopping contest between heaven and hell for the destiny of humankind.

Picked up because I wanted something light and fun. Finished because sometimes my hatred for a book is so strong I have to see it to the bitter, misogynist end to fully grasp its awfulness.

Truly terrible. Flabby and unfunny – unpunny? – and, um. Look, I expect a certain amount of misogyny from Zelazny. I mean, don't get me wrong, I dig a lot of his books, but with a few exceptions the dude was not good at conceiving of women as something other than vaginas with legs. But there's that and then there's whatever the hell this is, and what this is is the fuck not okay. At one point a woman character notices all the shit going down and is like, "you realize you're a raging asshole who treats women like objects to be stolen from other men, fucked and then traded for favors with other men, and discarded, right?" And then the book is like, "oh, huh, yeah, I guess. Let's get back to that, though!"

Ick. I need to scrub my brain out.

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The Summer PrinceThe Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This sounds overbaked, and it kinda is, but you've gotta go with it. Brazil, centuries after the apocalypse, a young man is elected summer king. He will reign for a year, rockstar and figurehead, and then he will select the new queen as he dies. Our teenage girl heroine achieves various pitches of quivering emotion about all of this.

Okay, the thing is, this is actually a really good book. Our heroine fancies herself an artist – excuse me, Artist – and the book is about her struggle with her political protest art, and what it means and what it doesn't, and how real she's willing to make it. And the book is wry but kind about her youth and her, um. Well. Put it this way: if this girl had access to Tumblr, she'd max out the posting limit every day reblogging pictures of graffiti with hundreds of tags explaining her FEELS. She has a lot of growing up to do, and the book rides that well.

It also has this crisp way of de-centering itself, either by replacing the cardboard star-crossed teenage romance I was expecting with a functional bit of queer polyamory (no really). Or by letting the heroine talk our ear off about her city's class structure for a hundred pages before hugely complicating the entire thing by explicating the racial politics she doesn't understand. The whole book is just that little bit slippery, that extra turn of complexity ready to unfold.

And yet. As much as I liked this in theory . . . as much as it plays with traditional growing up narratives in a story about one kid who will never get the chance to grow up . . . It's still very, very young. This book takes Art so seriously, it ensured in several instances that I couldn't take it seriously at all. These characters use their bodies as canvas, their talents, and, in at least two cases, their deaths. And even as the book is pushing at that, it's also so fucking invested in *gestures* the myth of the protest artist in this particularly . . . Tumblr way. Like it can't really commit to complicating the narratives when it's just so overcome by the romance of it all, OMG. So . . . young.

Still. This has lovely moments. And complexity to spare. And a lot of you will really like it.

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A Scanner DarklyA Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Police informant in a dystopic future America begins to fracture his consciousness as he takes increasing quantities of drugs to maintain his cover.

Hm. This is a confused, rather disarticulated book, so I have no problem talking about it in the same manner:

• Like a lot of dystopic futures, this one feels incredibly dated. Dystopias are projected anxieties, and this particular projection of America rapidly losing the drug war is so specific to Dick's personal trauma, and to a specific moment in American culture, that it's hard to understand now. If nothing else, it's bizarre to read a novel about illegal drug usage which is not also, fundamentally, about race, which is something this book is almost entirely oblivious to. But Dick wasn't having those conversations because their cultural moment had not yet arrived.
• Speaking of dated, it's also difficult to really appreciate a book which so thoroughly rejects the notion of addiction as illness. Dick specifically set out to write about what drugs did to his generation the way other scifi authors write about a meteor striking earth. Like an extinction event, some unstoppable natural force that just . . . happened to all of them. And yet they all chose it, or so he says in the afterword. And yet again, he's clearly conflicted; almost no one in the novel gets the drug origin story – the first hit, all that – except for a very few people. And with only one exception I can think of, they were all forced into addiction – raped and forcibly injected, etc. etc. It's all self-contradictory and conflicted and vaguely embarrassing in the way novels about personal trauma can be. Like, throw your dirty laundry out on the lawn, that's cool. That's good art, sometimes. But at least look at it as clear-eyed as you can first.
• This actually is a good book, from a craft perspective. For obvious reasons, Dick could really put his finger on the pathetic/hilarious/dreamy thing. Except he did it too well, because this book is roughly 60% conversations among stoned people, and you guys, for real. Stoned people are annoying. So fucking annoying. So he really got that part, and it made a lot of this a miserable slog.
• I don't know. When you come right down to it, I just didn't like this. I thought it was shallow and indecisive, with that particular helpless sort of nihilism that I neither respect nor enjoy. Revelations about the nature of identity? Sure, I guess, if you've never, you know, read about that before, ever. Also, it is really hard for me not to laugh at a book when the author informs me that "There is no moral in this novel: it is not bourgeois." I mean, lol.

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Saturn's ChildrenSaturn's Children by Charles Stross

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In a solar system populated entirely by the artificial intelligences built by humanity and left behind after its extinction, a now obsolete sex robot has various spy capers.

Sort of Heinlein transformative work, except without the depth of treatment I was hoping for. This is one of those books where the world building casts a long shadow. He kept pitching these notions – how android society became a rigid class system in the absence of humans – and I would go 'ah, I see,' spinning out the implications in a few free brain circuits on my commute. And then, a hundred pages later, the book would pause to carefully explain the implications to me, and there wouldn't be a wit more to it than what I came up with on the fly with my shoulders wedged between two sweaty government workers waiting for their stop. Sometimes less. Basically, one of those books that left me sighing and asking, 'yes, but what are you for?' which is not really a fair question to ask a piece of art, and yet, honestly . . . it made me.

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HildHild by Nicola Griffith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fictionalized account of the early life of the seventh-century Anglo-Saxon woman who would later become a pivot point in the conversion to Christianity, and a saint.

I read this directly after Kay's Under Heaven, which was accidentally brilliant. Both are fictionalized historical accounts of great cultural transition, and yeah they're set about half a world and a century apart and their respective projects are different, but sometimes contrasts are the most illuminating.

This was a subtle, very human endeavor set against all Under Heaven's contortions and greek choruses, and I liked this much more. Hild straddles multiple spheres: she is a member of the queen's inner circle, and thus embedded in all the political, gynecological, marital machinations thereof; she is the king's seer and the only woman to attend his councils; she is an owner of slaves; she is chattel to be dealt or withheld. The historical accuracy or inaccuracy here is of no interest to me, except that my definition of good historical fiction is the kind where the people feel simultaneously real and familiar, and also dislocatingly alien because their world is not ours in fundamental ways. Griffith got at that.

All that said, this book is the very definition of a thing that is good and that is also not my thing. What I said above about not caring about the historical accuracy? I seriously don't, and will glaze over at anyone who attempts to buttonhole me about it (not a guess, I have tested this out). (Though I will pause to say that I eyeroll at all the people complaining the LGBT content is inherently anachronistic. Yeeeeeah. Because, as we all know, the twenty-first century invented queerness and absolutely no one was queer and unbothered by it before then.) Anyway, I suspect you do have to care about the historical accuracy to really enjoy this book. You also probably need to be the sort of person who likes maps, family trees, the intersection of politics and religion, and keeping track of roughly two hundred people with similar names. (Though I did enjoy a rousing game of 'guess the Anglo-Saxon spelling' in which I would look up words from the audiobook and then goggle.) So basically, not for me, but I can see why a bunch of people really, really dig this.

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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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