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I listened to an audiobook edition of Kindred by Octavia Butler. It is fucking brilliant, and really disturbing because it is about slavery and abusive relationships. It is also depressing because it's about unpleasant parts of US history. But that's not the whole story.
lots of spoilers, and if you haven't read it, you don't want to be spoiled about some of them )

There are also notes of hope. Several of the characters who have cross-racial interactions gradually move toward seeing at least some people of the other race as human—that is, similar enough to themselves to attempt communication. I imagine that Butler is saying there is a human urge to see other people as equal humans, and that if there’s enough interaction between people who start out as Other to each other, eventually Similar will start to infiltrate. But there are cultural and historical and personal reasons why, in a slave-owning society, no one on either side can fully replace Other with Similar.

I found Kindred a compelling read in a way that Parable of the Talents wasn't for me.

There's a certain emotional detachment in both books, at the same time that Butler describes some horrific behavior and screwed up relationships. I'm not sure if the detachment I sense is due to the way the audiobook narrators chose to approach the works, or if I would have felt the same way if I read the books on paper. Butler's characters for the most part are survivors, whose response to suffering is to get up and go back to the work of surviving and at the same time following their dreams. So it feels as if some of the emotional hard stuff is diluted or buried in hard work. On the other hand, what this also means is that Butler anchors her stories very strongly in the work the characters do and therefore in day to day living.
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I just gobbled up another Walter Mosley audiobook, The Tempest Tales. This book is a tightly woven collection of short stories (not quite a novel, but not really independent stories either).

general spoilers )
On the surface the conversations seem to be about religion, and you’ll probably get more out of the book if you are glancingly familiar with Christian religious tropes such as St Peter, Heaven, Hell, judgement, Lucifer, and so on. (However, for reasons that are unclear to me, although I'm quite sure it's deliberate, Mosley never mentions Jesus.) But I don’t think the book or the conversations are really about religion when you get right down to it. Religion, and the bureaucratic, rule-bound heaven that Mosley makes up, is standing in for the system that glorifies government and corporations at the expense of people, that oppresses poor people and people of color, and that tries to brainwash people into believing that they have to mindlessly follow rules that don’t make sense in the real world.

I’m afraid I’m making the book sound really dour and boring. There really are a lot of conversations about ethics and they get a little repetitive toward the end, but the book is playful and moving with lots of really funny moments.

The audiobook is produced by Griot Audio, a division of Recorded Books that specializes in books by African-American writers, narrated by African-American performers. This book is really well narrated by Ty Jones. As a white person, I don’t know much about African-American speech patterns, and I don’t get as much out of reading books that rely on those speech patterns as some people might, because I can’t reproduce them accurately in my head. So it helps my appreciation a lot to listen rather than read.
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The Investigation The Investigation by Stanisław Lem, translated by Adele Milch

rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Investigation is beautifully written, even in translation. Scenes are described with a clarity that I can almost touch. Lighting is especially described vividly.

I put this on my detective/mystery shelf, because those are the genre tropes Lem is playing in, but it's not really a genre book. Specifically, many people read detective/mystery because they like that the mystery is solved in a tidy package at the end, and that doesn't happen here. It's more of a commentary on the human condition, especially the conditions of emotional isolation, uncertainty, and inability to connect/communicate with other people.

It took me forever to read this book because I figured out early on that the resolution that makes me enjoy a genre book wasn't going to be there.

So I only gave the book 3 stars because I didn't enjoy it that much, but as a work of literature it probably deserves 4 stars at least.

It's been a long time since I read Stanisław Lem's other famous book, Solaris, but my impression is that Lem's themes worked better for me in that book, because I am used to those themes being played with in the science fiction genre.

View all my [] reviews.


9 Sep 2008 01:33 am
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Seeker by Jack McDevitt (audiobook)
OK, first off, know that I have a bias against science fiction stories that are set in the far future (in this case, 9,000 years from now) but the characters act and live just like late 20th-early 21st century middle-class Westerners. It's just not believable to me and I think it lacks imagination.

Setting that aside, it's a reasonably good yarn about a duo of antique dealers who make a living pillaging the ruins of civilizations on far-flung worlds, to the annoyance of archeologists, surveyors, and museum curators. They find something that sends them searching for a semi-mythological ancient civilization—kind of like Atlantis, only it's a lost planet.

The plot moves along OK, but don't read this book looking for character development.

Some interesting telepathic aliens.

Contender for the "Silliest MacGuffin" award (a 9,000 year old plastic coffee cup).


29 Aug 2008 12:31 pm
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Whipping Star by Frank Herbert rating: 4 of 5 stars
Superbly narrated by Scott Brick.

What I like best about Whipping Star are the conversations between McKie and the Caleban, and I like them for the same reasons that I like reading philosophy - they explore the difficulty of communicating about abstract concepts and the grounds of existence and experience.

These conversations are set in a storyline that bears a certain resemblance to a police procedural. It takes place in a universe where a variety of different "sentients" interact.

Herbert does a good job of creating actually alien aliens and exploring how they interact and manage to work together.

The sexual politics aren't so great. There is a powerful female character in the book, but she is a vain, sadistic villain. The only other character in the book who is identifed as female is the Caleban, but Brick gives her a male voice. Given how the Calebans communicate, this makes a certain amount of sense and it works for me, but it does leave only one female character, at least for the audio version.

View all my ( reviews.

Other stuff I've listened recently:

"Where Angels Fear to Tread," a Hugo-winning time-travel novella by Allen Steele. I enjoyed it. He expanded it into a novel called Chronospace, which I have heard is not very good.

"3:10 to Yuma," a short story by Elmore Leonard. I found it forgettable. I enjoyed the recent movie based on it. The movie expands the story considerably.


22 Aug 2008 01:33 am
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Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are by Frans de Waal

rating: 2 of 5 stars
Narrated by Alan Sklar. I didn't care for the narration; he added a sly nudge-nudge tone of voice to any discussion of sex (and in a book about chimpanzees and bonobos there is plenty of discussion about sex) and a scoffing or superior tone to any discussion of morality/ethics.

I enjoyed the descriptions of animal behavior and of interactions between the apes and their human observers.

I was less impressed with de Waal's attempts to draw conclusions about human behavior from these observations. He swung between generalizing wildly about how all humans (or all men or all women) were this or that, and admitting that human behavior is so influenced by culture and learning that we are capable of pretty much anything.

View all my ( reviews.

Other books I've read or listened to recently:

Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks. I have liked every Sacks book I've read. This one is a little more scattered than some, but I found it fascinating and inspiring.

Spin, Robert Charles Wilson. Overall I liked this quite a bit - there was some believable science and also some believable character interaction and development. I was annoyed that only one of the female characters had meaningful work, and there was a plot point very close to the end that I had major suspension of disbelief problems with, but that didn't really spoil the overall story.

A Passage to India, E.M. Forster. This is the first Forster I've read, and I was really impressed by his ability to get inside the heads of so many different people, who were at odds with each other in various ways, and describe them all with sympathy and compassion. He did a lot more than that, but that's what I especially noticed.


10 Aug 2008 10:25 am
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Children of the Night by Dan Simmons
Competently narrated. Entertaining. Possibly somewhat educational -- set in just-post-Ceausescu Romania; the historical details and sense of place seem plausible. The historical details about the career of Vlad the Impaler seem less plausible but an afterword insists they are meticulously researched and true. Hm.

Vampire theme of the "vampirism is due to virus/genetic condition" variety.

I wasn't crazy about the author's habit of deliberately pre-describing key plot details. ("Little did she know that a week from now she would have...")

View all my ( reviews.

There has been discussion elsenet lately about what "strong female character" means in a work of fiction. This book has a protagonist who qualifies somewhat as a strong female character. She is a top research scientist, divorced, not looking for a relationship. However, early in the book she lets herself be led around by men a lot. spoilers follow )


25 Jul 2008 11:41 am
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(Links are to the Goodreads site.)

Stay Stay by Nicola Griffith

Third in a series of books featuring Aud Torvingen, who started out seeming like a sort of lesbian James Bond, but is evolving more complexity by this book. This is a well-crafted novel with two intertwined plots -- a "stay up too late to finish it" sort of novel.

The Shadow of the Wind Bestseller's Choice Audio The Shadow of the Wind Bestseller's Choice Audio by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The story was engaging -- several stories within a story, in a sort of historical Gothic romance genre. Several of the male characters are well drawn.

I was disappointed by the treatment of female characters. The women in the novel are, with one partial exception, mythical beings rather than real people, who exist solely to elicit strong emotions in the male characters.

The narrator did a good job, although he fell into certain modern American speech patterns more often than I would have preferred, given that it is a historical novel set in Barcelona.

Piano music appears behind key scenes. The music itself is lovely (and apparently composed by the author). But I find it unpleasant to try to listen to music and words at the same time, so I really didn't like the musical additions and wished they'd been left out of the audiobook.

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This is a sequel to When Gravity Fails, which is a long-time favorite. The style is cyberpunk / noir / hard-boiled. The setting is a future Middle-East city (although actually it's based on the New Orleans French Quarter). The first-person protagonist is a street punk who's been picked out (for reasons unknown to him) by one of the local bosses for advancement.

I like the book because of the Middle-Eastern cultural setting; I haven't come across a lot of SF&F done in such a setting. The way the culture is handled has the ring of accuracy, but I'm not from that part of the world so don't take my word for it. I also like that the protagonist is Muslim and his relationship with his religion changes throughout the series. I don't see a lot of SF&F books or detective books with this sort of treatment of religion.

In this book, Effinger is more or less a subscriber of the Lois McMaster Bujold style of plot development, which could be summarized as "think of the worst thing that could happen to your character and then do that to him and see how he deals with it."

Good solid entertainment for fans of the genres in question.


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firecat (attention machine in need of calibration)

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