December 7th, 2014

Another Idiosyncratic Best-of-the-Year Review, This Time with Some Actual Books from 2014


Player of Games, Iain M. Banks -- Ann Leckie’s books (see below) got me curious about other recent space operas, and since I’d liked Banks’s non-sf books he was the first person I thought of to try.  (And of course, sadly, someone’s death brings all their work to the fore.)  So far I really like the post-scarcity universe he’s set up, the Culture, where everything is pretty much free, machines do all of the hard work, and AIs called Minds can take you anywhere in the galaxy.  Banks’s answer to “What would you do if you were limited only by your imagination?” seems to be “Have as much fun as possible.”  There are a lot of parties.

A lot of reviewers thought Player of Games was the best, and I’d have to agree so far, though I haven’t read all of them yet.  It’s about a game expert, Jernau Morat Gurgeh, who travels to play the most subtle and complex game he’s ever encountered, where the winner becomes emperor.  Of course a part of the Culture -- the Contact -- is using him for their own reasons, and so are various factions in the Empire of Azad, the world where the game takes place and which is not part of the Culture and very suspicious of it.

On the other hand Consider Phlebas, the Banks’s first space opera, is about huge things crashing into other huge things, mostly forms of transportation -- spaceships, sea-going ships, trains.  I don’t have a fondness for seeing things blown up, but if you do you really can’t go wrong with this book.  Or as Banks says in an interview at the back of Matter, “Actually I blame Gerry Anderson: Thunderbirds gave me a love of big explosions I’ve yet to shake off.  It’s kind of ingrained by now.  Almost the first thing I think of when I’ve come up with an idea for a Really Big Artifact is how to blast the living bejesus out of it.”


Hyperbole and a Half, Allie Brosh -- A very funny mix of words and drawings, about Brosh’s life and her wonderfully peculiar take on things.  A lot of this had me laughing out loud, something I don’t tend to do -- like the scene where she responds to a letter written by her ten-year-old self:

“The letter continues with a section titled ‘About me’:

“‘My name is Allie and I am ten years old.  I have blound hair and blue eyes...’

“This is troubling for a number of reasons, the first of which is that I apparently thought my future self wouldn’t be aware of my name or eye color.”

She’s also great writing about her two dogs, and after reading about all the problems she has with them I’ve decided that Bonnie doesn’t really misbehave that much after all.  When one of her dogs throws up during a moving trip she has the dog thinking, “Made food!  I am magical??!”

And she writes about depression, trying to explain what it’s like to people who have never experienced it.  These parts are amazingly courageous, partly because of how personal they are but also because, even depressed, she’s able to find humor in something so horrible.


Cry Murder! In a Small Voice, Greer Gilman -- Gilman makes Ben Jonson a detective, spurred on by the death of his son to discover who is killing boys in London.  As I said in my review (Jan. 7): “Gilman perfectly conjures up the London atmosphere of the time, the actors and playwrights, gossips and noblemen.  Rafe [Calder] is a terrific character, and her portrait of Jonson is first-rate.  And I liked the slow unfolding of the story, as the full range of [the Earl of] Oxford's villainy becomes apparent.

“Most of all, though, I love Gilman's style.  Yes, it's complex, but in the way that a Celtic knot or a lute rose is complex, beautiful and intricate.  For people who get drunk on prose, Gilman's writing is the finest wine available...

“Above all, this is a story of transitions, of the place between life and death, masks and faces, child and adult, male and female.  It repays several readings, and each reading brings something new.  I don't think I understood all of it, even now.”

herbiesgame Herbie’s Game, Timothy Hallinan -- Another in Hallinan’s series of mysteries about Junior Bender, a professional thief with a sort of conscience.  I liked this one because it goes a little deeper than the earlier books, with Bender rethinking his relationship with his mentor Herbie Mott.  Despite this, though, Hallinan manages to sustain the humor that lifts this series above the average.  One character “was draped in a loose, flowing white gown that looked like something Lawrence of Arabia might have worn to his prom.”  And “In front of me was a thick envelope made of a heavy, creamy paper so swell that trees probably competed to be pulped for it."


Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie -- I’ve already written about how blown away I was by the first book in Leckie’s series.  The main character is a giant warship with hundreds of soldiers tied into its consciousness.  When it is destroyed only one human remains alive, with all the ship’s thoughts and memories, and she (all the pronouns are female, by default) vows revenge on the person who destroyed it.  A lot of reviewers compared this to Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness because of the treatment of gender, but it reminded me more of Le Guin’s story “Nine Lives,” where only one member of a group of clones survives an accident.  Both deal with personhood, and also with loneliness -- how difficult it is to go from being part of a community (a community of people who are really one person) to being alone.

The second book, Ancillary Sword, takes place on a single planet and is therefore less mind-blowing, though still very good.  And I have the feeling the author is setting things up for a really spectacular final act.


Texts from Jane Eyre, And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters, Mallory Ortberg --

Henry David Thoreau:
do you know whos my family ralph


these squirrels
these squirrels and this chipmunk and that crow over there

the crow on the chimney?

not that one
god i hate that one
hes not my family
hes a fucking asshole

Rudyard Kipling:
I’m bored
let’s go shoot something


I don’t care
a tiger
or a Boer

what was that last one?

I mean a bear


haha must have been a weird typo
it’s illegal to hunt men
but exhilarating


i said it was illegal
and also
execrable was the second word i said


A Stranger in Olondria, Sofia Samatar -- My review (April 1) said: “A Stranger in Olondria is filled with almost limitless invention.  [Samatar] is not only capable of writing sentences like these -- ‘On the night of the stranger's arrival she burned a bowl of dried herbs in her room: I recognized, by their acrid smoke, the leaves that ward off leopard ghosts.  They were followed by pungent fumes against bats, leprosy, and falling sickness, as well as those which are said to rid human dwellings of long-toed spirits.’ -- she will continue with prose equally imaginative, on and on, until she has built up a world that seems as real, as strange and familiar, as any place we know.”

Having had months to think about this book, I’ll add that the writer she reminds me of the most is Jorge Luis Borges.


Bellweather Rhapsody, Kate Racculia -- Fifteen years ago, when Minnie Graves was a bridesmaid at her sister’s wedding, she came upon a murder-suicide.  In the present day, music students and their teachers from all over the state are gathering at the same hotel, the Bellweather (misspelling is intentional): Alice Hatmaker, a voice student working on becoming a diva; her twin brother Rabbit, more shy and worried about coming out as gay; a conductor weighed down by his past as a child prodigy; a truly horrible stage mother; and her daughter, who is so desperate to be free of her mother that she hangs herself -- or does she?  It’s a mystery novel, yes, but Racculia is mostly concerned with her characters in all their wonderful, mixed-up, brilliant, struggling glory, and she’ll make you like all of them -- well, except the terrible mother.  She’s also able to write intelligently about music, which is a rarer skill than you might think.

So.  Books from two science fiction writers, two fantasies, one mystery, one mystery/lit-fic, and two books of humor.  One writer of color, the Somali-American Sofia Samatar.

It’s interesting (I think, anyway) that I liked two books of humor from women who became popular on the Internet.  When I was a kid I used to look for women who wrote comedy, and when I couldn’t find them I wondered if maybe women weren’t as funny as men.  (There was Dorothy Parker of course, who was brilliant, but whose humor was just a tad bit repetitious, about men who were horrible to her.)  Now I have to wonder if women just weren’t published as much as men, if editors automatically rejected anything with a woman’s byline.  Because here are women who became wildly popular without going through editorial gatekeepers, and who deal with a lot more than men and relationships.  (Dogs and literature, for example, both very important topics.)

And six books by women to two books by men.  Could it be that men are just not as good writers as women?

(As always, suggestions in the comments are welcome.)