Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

2019-02-18: INN 2.6.3

INN 2.6.3 has been released. This is a bug fix and minor feature release over INN 2.6.2, and the upgrade should be painless. The main ISC downloads page will be updated shortly; in the meantime, you can download the new release from ftp.isc.org or my personal INN pages. The latter also has links to the full changelog and the other INN documentation.

The big change in this release is support for Python 3. Embedded Python filtering and authentication hooks for innd and nnrpd can now use version 3.3.0 or later of the Python interpreter. Python 2.x is still supported (2.3.0 or later).

Also fixed in this release are several issues with TLS: fixed selection of elliptic curve selection, a new configuration parameter to fine-tune the cipher suites with TLS 1.3, and better logging of failed TLS session negotiation. This release also returns the error message from Python and Perl filter hook rejects to CHECK and TAKETHIS commands and fixes various other, more minor bugs.

As always, thanks to Julien ÉLIE for preparing this release and doing most of the maintenance work on INN!

2019-02-02: Another new year haul

The last haul I named that was technically not a new year haul since it was posted in December, so I'll use the same title again. This is a relatively small collection of random stuff, mostly picking up recommendations and award nominees that I plan on reading soon.

Kate Elliott — Cold Fire (sff)
Kate Elliott — Cold Steel (sff)
Mik Everett — Self-Published Kindling (non-fiction)
Michael D. Gordin — The Pseudoscience Wars (non-fiction)
Yoon Ha Lee — Dragon Pearl (sff)
Ruth Ozeki — A Tale for the Time Being (sff)
Marge Piercy — Woman on the Edge of Time (sff)
Kim Stanley Robinson — New York 2140 (sff)

I've already reviewed New York 2140. I have several more pre-orders that will be delivered this month, so still safely acquiring books faster than I'm reading them. It's all to support authors!

2019-01-20: Review: New York 2140

Review: New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Publisher Orbit
Copyright March 2017
Printing March 2018
ISBN 0-316-26233-1
Format Kindle
Pages 624

About forty years in our future, world-wide sea levels suddenly rose ten feet over the course of a decade due to collapse of polar ice, creating one of the largest disasters in history. It was enough to get people to finally take greenhouse effects and the risks of fossil fuels seriously, but too late to prevent the Second Pulse: a collapse of Antarctic ice shelves that raised global ocean levels another forty feet. Now, about fifty years after the Second Pulse, New York is still standing but half-drowned. The northern half of Manhattan Island is covered with newly-constructed superscrapers. The skyscrapers in the southern half, anchored in bedrock, survive in a precarious new world of canals, underwater floors, commuter boats, high-tech sealants, and murky legal structures.

The Met Life Tower is one of those surviving buildings and is home to the cast of this novel: two quants (programmers and mathematicians who work on financial algorithms) living in temporary housing on the farm floor, the morose building super, the social worker who has headed the building co-op board for decades, a chief inspector for the NYPD, a derivatives trader who runs a housing index for the half-drowned intertidal areas, a streaming video star who takes on wildlife preservation projects in her dirigible Assisted Migration, and a couple of orphan street kids (in this world, water rats) endlessly looking for their next adventure. The characters start the book engrossed in their day-to-day lives, which have settled into a workable equilibrium. But they're each about to play a role in another great disruption in economic life.

This is my sixth try for Kim Stanley Robinson novels, and I've yet to find a book I really liked. It may be time to give up.

I really want to like Robinson's writing. He's writing novels about an intersection of ecology and politics that I find inherently interesting, particularly since he emphasizes people's ability to adapt without understating the magnitude of future challenges. I think he's getting better at characterization (more on that in a moment). But this sort of book, particularly the way Robinson writes it, elevates the shape of the future world to the role of protagonist, which means it has to hold up to close scrutiny. And for me this didn't.

As is typical in Robinson novels, New York 2140 opens with an extended meander through the everyday lives of multiple protagonists. This is laying the groundwork for pieces of later plot, but only slowly. It's primarily a showcase for the Robinson's future extrapolation, here made more obvious by a viewpoint "character" whose chapters are straight infodumps about future history. And that extrapolated world is odd and unconvincing in ways that kept throwing me out of the story. The details of environmental catastrophe and adaptation aren't the problem; I suspect those are the best-researched parts of the book, and they seemed at least plausible to me. It's politics and economics that get Robinson into trouble.

For example, racism is apparently not a thing that exists in 2140 New York on any systematic scale. We're at most fifty years past what would be the greatest refugee crisis in the history of humanity, one that would have caused vast internal dislocation in the United States let alone in the rest of the world. Migrant and refugee crises in Syria and Central America in the current day that are orders of magnitude less severe set off paroxysms of racist xenophobia. And yet, this plays no role whatsoever in the politics of this book.

It's not that the main characters wouldn't have noticed. One is a social worker who works specifically with refugees on housing, and whose other job is running a housing co-op. In our world, racism is very near the center of US housing policy. Another, the police inspector, is a tall black woman from a poor background, but the only interaction she has with racism in the whole book is a brief and odd mention of how she might appear to a private security mercenary that she faces down. It seriously tries my suspension of disbelief that racism would not be a constant irritant, or worse, through her entire career.

Racism doesn't need to be a central topic of every book, and sometimes there's a place for science fiction novels that intentionally write racism out as an optimistic statement or as momentary relief. But the rest of this book seems focused on a realistic forward projection, not on that sort of deep social divergence. Robinson does not provide even a hint of the sort of social change that would be required for racism to disappear in a country founded on a racial caste system, particularly given 100 years of disruptive emigration crises of the type that have, in every past era of US history, substantially increased systematic racism.

In a similar omission, the political organization of this world is decidedly strange. For most of the book, politics are hyperlocal, tightly focused on organizations and communities in a tiny portion of New York City. The federal government is passive, distant, ignored, and nearly powerless. This is something that could happen in some future worlds, but this sort of government passivity is an uneven fit with the kind of catastrophe that Robinson is projecting. Similar catastrophes in human history, particularly in the middle of a crisis of mass migration, are far more likely to strengthen aggressive nationalists who will give voice to fear and xenophobia and provide a rallying point.

Every future science fiction novel is, of course, really about the present or the past in some way. It becomes clear during New York 2140 that, despite the ecological frame, this book is primarily concerned with the 2008 financial crisis. That makes some sense of the federal government in this book: Robinson is importing the domestic economic policy of Bush and Obama to make a point about the crisis they bungled. Based on publication date, he probably also wrote this book before Trump's election. But given the past two years, not to mention world history, these apathetic libertarian politics seem weirdly mismatched with the future history Robinson postulates.

There are other problems, such as Robinson's narrative voice convincing me that he doesn't understand how sovereign debt works, and as a result I kept arguing with the book instead of being drawn into the plot. That's a shame, since this is some of the best character work Robinson has done. It's still painfully slow; about halfway through the book, I wasn't sure I liked anyone except Vlade, the building super, and I was quite certain I hated Franklin, the derivative trader obsessed with seducing a woman. But Robinson pulls off a fairly impressive pivot by the end of the book. Charlotte, the social worker and co-op president who determinedly likes all of the characters, turns out to be a better judge of character than I was. I never exactly liked Franklin, but Robinson made me believe in his change, which takes some doing.

Amelia, the streaming video star, deserves a special mention due to some subtle but perceptive bits of characterization. She starts out as a stereotype whose popularity has a lot to do with her tendency to lose her clothes, and I wish Robinson hadn't reinforced that idea. (I suspect he was thinking of the (in)famous PETA commercials, but this stereotype is a serious problem for real-world female streamers.) But throughout the story Amelia is so determinedly herself that she transcends that unfortunate start. The moment I started really liking her was her advertisement for Charlotte, which is both perfectly in character and more sophisticated than it looks. And her character interactions and personal revelations at the very end of the book made me want to read more about her.

There were moments when I really liked this book. The plot finally kicks in about 70% of the way through, much too late but still with considerable effectiveness. This is about the time when I started to warm to more of the characters, and I thought I'd finally found a Robinson book I could recommend. But then Robinson undermined his own ending: he seemed so focused on telling the reader that life goes on and that any segment of history is partial and incomplete that he didn't give me the catharsis I wanted after a harrowing event and the clear villainy of some of the players. For a book that's largely about confronting the downsides of capitalism, it's weirdly non-confrontational. What triumph the characters do gain is mostly told, narrated away in yet another infodump, rather than shown. It left me feeling profoundly unsatisfied.

There's always enough meat to a Kim Stanley Robinson novel that I understand why people keep nominating them for awards, but I come away vaguely dissatisfied with the experience. I think some people will enjoy this, particularly if you don't get as snarled as I was in the gaps left in Robinson's political tale. He is clearly getting better on characterization, despite the exceptionally slow start. But the story still doesn't have enough power, or enough catharsis, or enough thoughtful accuracy for me to recommend it.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2019-01-15: Review: Aerial Magic Season 1

Review: Aerial Magic Season 1, by walkingnorth

Series Aerial Magic #1
Publisher LINE WEBTOON
Copyright 2018
Format Online graphic novel
Pages 156

Aerial Magic is a graphic novel published on the LINE WEBTOON platform by the same author as the wonderful Always Human, originally in weekly episodes. It is readable for free, starting with the prologue. I was going to wait until all seasons were complete and then review the entire work, like I did with Always Human, but apparently there are going to be five seasons and I don't want to wait that long. This is a review of the first season, which is now complete in 25 episodes plus a prologue.

As with Always Human, the pages metadata in the sidebar is a bit of a lie: a very rough guess on how many pages this would be if it were published as a traditional graphic novel (six times the number of episodes, since each episode seems a bit longer than in Always Human). A lot of the artwork is large panels, so it may be an underestimate. Consider it only a rough guide to how long it might take to read.

Wisteria Kemp is an apprentice witch. This is an unusual thing to be — not the witch part, which is very common in a society that appears to use magic in much the way that we use technology, but the apprentice part. Most people training for a career in magic go to university, but school doesn't agree with Wisteria. There are several reasons for that, but one is that she's textblind and relies on a familiar (a crow-like bird named Puppy) to read for her. Her dream is to be accredited to do aerial magic, but her high-school work was... not good, and she's very afraid she'll be sent home after her ten-day trial period.

Magister Cecily Moon owns a magical item repair shop in the large city of Vectum and agreed to take Wisteria on as an apprentice, something that most magisters no longer do. She's an outgoing woman with a rather suspicious seven-year-old, two other employees, and a warm heart. She doesn't seem to have the same pessimism Wisteria has about her future; she instead is more concerned with whether Wisteria will want to stay after her trial period. This doesn't reassure Wisteria, nor do her initial test exercises, all of which go poorly.

I found the beginning of this story a bit more painful than Always Human. Wisteria has such a deep crisis of self-confidence, and I found Cecily's lack of awareness of it quite frustrating. This is not unrealistic — Cecily is clearly as new to having an apprentice as Wisteria is to being one, and is struggling to calibrate her style — but it's somewhat hard reading since at least some of Wisteria's unhappiness is avoidable. I wish Cecily had shown a bit more awareness of how much harder she made things for Wisteria by not explaining more of what she was seeing. But it does set up a highly effective pivot in tone, and the last few episodes were truly lovely. Now I'm nearly as excited for more Aerial Magic as I would be for more Always Human.

walkingnorth's art style is much the same as that in Always Human, but with more large background panels showing the city of Vectum and the sky above it. Her faces are still exceptional: expressive, unique, and so very good at showing character emotion. She occasionally uses an exaggerated chibi style for some emotions, but I feel like she's leaning more on subtlety of expression in this series and doing a wonderful job with it. Wisteria's happy expressions are a delight to look at. The backgrounds are not generally that detailed, but I think they're better than Always Human. They feature a lot of beautiful sky, clouds, and sunrise and sunset moments, which are perfect for walkingnorth's pastel palette.

The magical system underlying this story doesn't appear in much detail, at least yet, but what is shown has an interesting animist feel and seems focused on the emotions and memories of objects. Spells appear to be standardized symbolism that is known to be effective, which makes magic something like cooking: most people use recipes that are known to work, but a recipe is not strictly required. I like the feel of it and the way that magic is woven into everyday life (personal broom transport is common), and am looking forward to learning more in future seasons.

As with Always Human, this is a world full of fundamentally good people. The conflict comes primarily from typical interpersonal conflicts and inner struggles rather than any true villain. Also as with Always Human, the world features a wide variety of unremarked family arrangements, although since it's not a romance the relationships aren't quite as central. It makes for relaxing and welcoming reading.

Also as in Always Human, each episode features its own soundtrack, composed by the author. I am again not reviewing those because I'm a poor music reviewer and because I tend to read online comics in places and at times where I don't want the audio, but if you like that sort of thing, the tracks I listened to were enjoyable, fit the emotions of the scene, and were unobtrusive to listen to while reading.

This is an online comic on a for-profit publishing platform, so you'll have to deal with some amount of JavaScript and modern web gunk. I at least (using up-to-date Chrome on Linux with UMatrix) had fewer technical problems with delayed and partly-loaded panels than I had with Always Human.

I didn't like this first season quite as well as Always Human, but that's a high bar, and it took some time for Always Human to build up to its emotional impact as well. What there is so far is a charming, gentle, and empathetic story, full of likable characters (even the ones who don't seem that likable at first) and a fascinating world background. This is an excellent start, and I will certainly be reading (and reviewing) later seasons as they're published.

walkingnorth has a Patreon, which, in addition to letting you support the artist directly, has various supporting material such as larger artwork and downloadable versions of the music.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2019-01-13: Review: The Wonder Engine

Review: The Wonder Engine, by T. Kingfisher

Series The Clocktaur War #2
Publisher Red Wombat Tea Company
Copyright 2018
ASIN B079KX1XFD
Format Kindle
Pages 318

The Wonder Engine is the second half of The Clocktaur War duology, following Clockwork Boys. Although there is a substantial transition between the books, I think it's best to think of this as one novel published in two parts. T. Kingfisher is a pen name for Ursula Vernon when she's writing books for adults.

The prologue has an honest-to-God recap of the previous book, and I cannot express how happy that makes me. This time, I read both books within a month of each other and didn't need it, but I've needed that sort of recap so many times in the past and am mystified by the usual resistance to including one.

Slate and company have arrived in Anuket City and obtained temporary housing in an inn. No one is trying to kill them at the moment; indeed, the city seems oblivious to the fact that it's in the middle of a war. On the plus side, this means that they can do some unharried investigation into the source of the Clocktaurs, the war machines that are coming ever closer to smashing their city. On the minus side, it's quite disconcerting, and ominous, that the Clocktaurs involve so little apparent expenditure of effort.

The next steps are fairly obvious: pull on the thread of research of the missing member of Learned Edmund's order, follow the Clocktaurs and scout the part of the city they're coming from, and make contact with the underworld and try to buy some information. The last part poses some serious problems for Slate, though. She knows the underworld of Anuket City well because she used to be part of it, before making a rather spectacular exit. If anyone figures out who she is, death by slow torture is the best she can hope for. But the underworld may be their best hope for the information they need.

If this sounds a lot like a D&D campaign, I'm giving the right impression. The thief, ranger, paladin, and priest added a gnole to their company in the previous book, but otherwise closely match a typical D&D party in a game that's de-emphasizing combat. It's a very good D&D campaign, though, with some excellent banter, the intermittent amusement of Vernon's dry sense of humor, and some fascinating tidbits of gnole politics and gnole views on humanity, which were my favorite part of the book.

Somewhat unfortunately for me, it's also a romance. Slate and Caliban, the paladin, had a few exchanges in passing in the first book, but much of The Wonder Engine involves them dancing around each other, getting exasperated with each other, and trying to decide if they're both mutually interested and if a relationship could possibly work. I don't object to the relationship, which is quite fun in places and only rarely drifts into infuriating "why won't you people talk to each other" territory. I do object to Caliban, who Slate sees as charmingly pig-headed, a bit simple, and physically gorgeous, and who I saw as a morose, self-righteous jerk.

As mentioned in my review of the previous book, this series is in part Vernon's paladin rant, and much more of that comes into play here as the story centers more around Caliban and digs into his relationship with his god and with gods in general. Based on Vernon's comments elsewhere, one of the points is to show a paladin in a different (and more religiously realistic) light than the cliche of being one crisis of faith away from some sort of fall. Caliban makes it clear that when you've had a god in your head, a crisis of faith is not the sort of thing that actually happens, since not much faith is required to believe in something you've directly experienced. (Also, as is rather directly hinted, religions tend not to recruit as paladins the people who are prone to thinking about such things deeply enough to tie themselves up in metaphysical knots.) Guilt, on the other hand... religions are very good at guilt.

Caliban is therefore interesting on that level. What sort of person is recruited as a paladin? How does that person react when they fall victim to what they fight in other people? What's the relationship between a paladin and a god, and what is the mental framework they use to make sense of that relationship? The answers here are good ones that fit a long-lasting structure of organized religious warfare in a fantasy world of directly-perceivable gods, rather than fragile, crusading, faith-driven paladins who seem obsessed with the real world's uncertainty and lack of evidence.

None of those combine into characteristics that made me like Caliban, though. While I can admire him as a bit of world-building, Slate wants to have a relationship with him. My primary reaction to that was to want to take Slate aside and explain how she deserves quite a bit better than this rather dim piece of siege equipment, no matter how good he might look without his clothes on. I really liked Slate in the first book; I liked her even better in the second (particularly given how the rescue scene in this book plays out). Personally, I think she should have dropped Caliban down a convenient well and explored the possibilities of a platonic partnership with Grimehug, the gnole, who was easily my second-favorite character in this book.

I will give Caliban credit for sincerely trying, at least in between the times when he decided to act like an insufferable martyr. And the rest of the story, while rather straightforward, enjoyably delivered on the setup in the first book and did so with a lot of good banter. Learned Edmund was a lot more fun as a character by the end of this book than he was when introduced in the first book, and that journey was fun to see. And the ultimate source of the Clocktaurs, and particularly how they fit into the politics of Anuket City, was more interesting than I had been expecting.

This book is a bit darker than Clockwork Boys, including some rather gruesome scenes, a bit of on-screen gore, and quite a lot of anticipation of torture (although thankfully no actual torture scenes). It was more tense and a bit more uncomfortable to read; the ending is not a light romp, so you'll want to be in the right mood for that.

Overall, I do recommend this duology, despite the romance. I suspect some (maybe a lot) of my reservations are peculiar to me, and the romance will work better for other people. If you like Vernon's banter (and if you don't, we have very different taste) and want to see it applied at long novel length in a D&D-style fantasy world with some truly excellent protagonists, give this series a try.

The Clocktaur War is complete with this book, but the later Swordheart is set in the same universe.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2019-01-12: DocKnot 2.00

This is a new major release of the utility I use to generate package documentation. It's the start of a restructure that will eventually let me merge more of my package maintenance tools into this package (and possibly eventually my web site building tools).

The functions previously provided by the docknot command-line tool have been moved to docknot generate, and the arguments have been changed around a bit. There's also a new docknot generate-all, and more default values so that one doesn't have to pass in as many arguments. The Perl module has been similarly restructured, with documentation generation moved into a new App::DocKnot::Generate module.

On the documentation template front, this release also adds a separate TESTING section for Perl modules and changes some of the templating for standard documentation of how to run the test suite.

You can get the latest release from the DocKnot distribution page or from CPAN.

2019-01-09: Review: Bright Earth

Review: Bright Earth, by Philip Ball

Publisher University of Chicago
Copyright 2001
Printing 2003
ISBN 0-226-03628-6
Format Trade paperback
Pages 337

The subtitle Art and the Invention of Color does a good job advertising the topic of Bright Earth: a history of the creation of color pigments for art (specifically European painting; more on that in a moment). It starts with a brief linguistic and scientific introduction to color, sketches what's known about use and creation of color pigments in antiquity, and then settles down for serious historical study starting in the Middle Ages. Ball catalogs pigment choices, discusses manufacturing methods, and briefly surveys the opinions of various schools of art on color from before the Renaissance through to the modern art of today. He also takes two fascinating (albeit too brief) side trips to discuss aging of pigments and the problem of reproducing color art.

This is one of those non-fiction books whose primary joy for me was to introduce me to problems and constraints that were obvious in retrospect but that I'd never thought about. If someone had asked me whether painters were limited in their subject matter and methods by the colors available to them, I probably would have said "huh" and agreed, but I never thought to ask the question. Like a lot of people of my age in the US, I grew up watching Bob Ross's The Joy of Painting and its familiar list of oil paints: phthalo green, alizarin crimson, and so forth. But of course that rich palette is a product of modern chemistry. Early Renaissance painters had to make do with fewer options, many of them requiring painstaking preparation that painters or their assistants did themselves before the popularity of art and the rise of professional color makers. They knew, and were shaped by, their materials in a way that one cannot be when one buys tubes of paint from an art store.

Similarly, I was familiar with additive color mixing from physics and from computer graphics projects, and had assumed that a few reasonable primaries would provide access to the entire palette. I had never considered the now-obvious problem of subtractive mixing with impure primaries: since the pigments are removing colors from white light, mixing together multiple pigments quickly gets you a muddy brown, not a brilliant secondary color. The resulting deep distrust of mixing pigments that dates back to antiquity further limits the options available to painters.

Ball's primary topic is the complicated interplay between painting and science. Many of the new colors of the Renaissance were byproducts or accidents of alchemy, and were deeply entangled in the obsession with the transmutation of metals into gold. Most of the rest were repurposed dyes from the much more lucrative textile business. Enlightenment chemistry gave rise to a whole new palette, but the chemistry of colors is complex and fickle. Going into this book, I had a superficial impression that particular elements or compounds had particular colors, and finding pigments would be a matter of finding substances that happened to have that color. Ball debunks that idea quickly: small variations in chemical structure, and thus small variations in preparation, can produce wildly different colors. Better chemistry led to more and better colors, but mostly by accident or trial and error until surprisingly recently. The process to make a color almost always came first; understanding of why it worked might be delayed centuries.

In school, I was an indifferent art student at best, so a lot of my enjoyment of Bright Earth came from its whirlwind tour of art history through the specific lens of color. I hadn't understood why medieval European paintings seem so artificial and flat before reading this book, or why, to my modern eye, Renaissance work suddenly became more beautiful and interesting. I had also never thought about the crisis that photography caused for painting, or how much that explains of the modern move away from representational art. And I had seriously underestimated the degree to which colors are historically symbolic rather than representational. This material may be old news for those who paid attention in art history courses (or, *cough*, took them in the first place), but I enjoyed the introduction. (I often find topics more approachable when presented through an idiosyncratic lens like this.)

Ball is clear, straightforward, and keeps the overall picture coherent throughout, which probably means that he's simplifying dramatically given that the scope of this book is nothing less than the entire history of European and American painting. But I'm a nearly complete newcomer to this topic, and he kept me afloat despite the flood of references to paintings that I've never seen or thought about, always providing enough detail for me to follow his points about color. You definitely do not have to already know art history to get a lot out of this book.

I do have one caveat and one grumble. The caveat is that, despite the subtitle, this book is not about art in general. It's specifically about painting, and more specifically focused on the subset of painting that qualifies as "fine art." Ball writes just enough about textiles to hint that the vast world of dyes may be even more interesting, and were certainly more important to more people, but textiles are largely omitted from this story. More notably, one would not be able to tell from this book that eastern Asia or Africa or pre-colonial America exist, let alone have their own artistic conventions and history. Ball's topic is relentlessly limited to Europe, and then the United States, except for a few quick trips to India or Afghanistan for raw materials. There's nothing inherently wrong with this — Ball already has more history than he can fully cover in only Europe and the United States — but it would have been nice to read a more explicit acknowledgment and at least a few passing mentions of how other cultures approached this problem.

The grumble is just a minor mismatch of interests between Ball and myself, namely that the one brief chapter on art reproduction was nowhere near enough for me, and I would have loved to read three or four chapters (or a whole book) on that topic. I suspect my lack of appreciation of paintings has a lot to do with the challenges of reproducing works of art in books or on a computer screen, and would have loved more technical detail on what succeeds and what fails and how one can tell whether a reproduction is "correct" or not. I would have traded off a few alchemical recipes for more on that modern problem. Maybe I'll have to find another book.

As mentioned above, I'm not a good person to recommend books about art to anyone who knows something about art. But with that disclaimer, and the warning that the whirlwind tour of art history mixed with the maddening ambiguity of color words can be a bit overwhelming in spots, I enjoyed reading this more than I expected and will gladly recommend it.

Bright Earth does not appear to be available as an ebook, and I think that may be a wise choice. The 66 included color plates help a great deal, and I wouldn't want to read this book without them. Unless any future ebook comes with very good digital reproductions, you may want to read this book in dead tree form.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2019-01-06: James Nicoll's 100 SF/F Books

On December 27th, Tor.com published an article by James Nicoll entitled 100 SF/F Books You Should Consider Reading in the New Year. Since then, various people I know have been posting the list annotated with the books they've read and liked. That seemed fun, so I thought I'd join in.

I've read 28 out of the 99 books (and shorter fiction) listed. (One entry was for a musical work; I appreciate James's inclusiveness, but I appreciate my orderly classification system more, and it's not a book.) I'm a bit surprised that's not higher, since James is one of my primary sources of book reviews. Lots of ones I've not read are in various to-read piles, though.

Among those that I have read, average rating is 7.43, which shows why I pay attention to James's reviews. Interestingly, though, that's slightly below the average rating for the BookRiot SF/F by Female Authors list, at 7.48. I thought perhaps the BookRiot list had more "obvious" good books and James was trying to be more obscure, but looking it over, that doesn't seem to be the case. The BookRiot list just has marginally more books I liked, at least of the ones I've read so far (sometimes via choosing a different book by the same author).

Anyway, here's my version of the list for anyone who's interested. I recommend reading the original article for James's short descriptions, covers, and purchase links.

2019-01-01: 2018 Book Reading in Review

Despite the best of intentions to spread my reading out more evenly across the year, much of 2018's reading happened in concentrated bursts during vacation (particularly my fall vacation, during which I read eleven books in a little over two weeks). Politics and other online reading continued to be an irritating distraction, although I made some forward progress at picking up a book instead of Twitter.

My reading goal for last year was to make time and energy for deeper, more demanding, and more rewarding books. I think the verdict is mixed, but I didn't do too poorly. I finished Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy (more on that below), which certainly qualifies and which was one of the year's highlights, and dug deep into a few other rewarding books. For 2019, my goal is to maintain my current reading pace (hopefully including the gradual improvement year over year) and focus on catching up on award winners and nominees to broaden my reading beyond favorite authors.

Two books, both fiction, received 10 out of 10 ratings from me this year: My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry, by Fredrik Backman, and Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers. Backman's novel is a delightful character story — funny, open-hearted, and gracious — with a wonderful seven-year-old protagonist (and that's something you'll rarely hear me say). It was the best book I read this year. Record of a Spaceborn Few was the most emotionally affecting book I read in 2018 (by far): a deeply moving story about community and belonging and not belonging, and about culture and why it's important. The narrative structure is unusual and the writing is less evenly high quality than Backman's, but it was exactly the book I needed to read when I read it. I think it's Chambers's best work to date, and that's saying a lot.

The novels that received 9 out of 10 ratings from me in 2018 were The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky, the second and third books in N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy. Given Jemisin's three Hugo awards for this series and the wealth of online reviews, you probably don't need me to tell you how good they are. I found the series hard to read, since it's full of strong negative emotions and takes a very sharp look at pain, loss, and oppression, but I also thought it was worth the emotional effort. This trilogy is something very special in SFF and fully deserves the attention that it's gotten.

There was one more fiction 9 out of 10 rating this year, which also came as a complete surprise to me: walkingnorth's online graphic novel Always Human. This was one of the year's pure delights: gentle, kind, thoughtful, empathetic, and sweet. I am very grateful to James Nicoll for reviewing it; I never would have discovered it otherwise, and was able to share it with several other people.

The sole non-fiction 9 out of 10 this year was Zeynep Tufekci's excellent Twitter and Tear Gas, a thoughtful, critical, and deep look at the intersection of politics and online social networks that avoids facile moralizing and embraces the complex interactions we have with for-profit web sites that have far outgrown the understanding of the corporations that run them. I think (or at least hope) there's more awareness now, at the end of 2018, of the way that totalitarian regimes undermine political engagement not via suppression but via flooding networks with garbage news, fake personas, heated opinions, and made-up stories. Tufekci was studying this before it was widely talked about, and Twitter and Tear Gas is still a reliable guide to how political engagement works in online spaces.

The full analysis includes some additional personal reading statistics, probably only of interest to me.

2018-12-31: Review: The Dragon's Path

Review: The Dragon's Path, by Daniel Abraham

Series Dagger and the Coin #1
Publisher Orbit
Copyright June 2011
ISBN 0-316-13467-8
Format Kindle
Pages 579

I read this book as a free bonus included in a Kindle edition of Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (a pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). The ISBN information is for that book.

Cithrin bel Sarcour is a ward of the Medean Bank branch in Vanai and has been since she was four years old. She's a teenager, half-Firstblood and half-Cinnae and therefore not entirely welcome in either group, secretly in love with Besel, and being trained in economics by Magister Immaniel. War is coming to Vanai and with it demands from the prince of Vanai for the bank's money. When Besel is murdered, Cithrin is the only one left to secretly smuggle the bank's riches and account books out of the city.

Captain Marcus Wester is working as a caravan guard. Some would consider this a huge step down from his past as a military leader and a killer of kings, but after the death of his wife and daughter, he has no interest in war. He particularly has no interest in being drafted by the prince of Vanai into fighting for the city, even though he can't hire men to fill out his company. That's how he ends up guarding, with only his long-time lieutenant and a hired troop of actors, the same caravan that secretly includes Cithrin.

The war between the Severed Throne of Antea and Vanai is just part of larger political maneuvering between several adjacent kingdoms and the Free Cities (which seem modeled after Italian cities). The reader sees that part of the story through the eyes of Dawson, a member of the royal court, and the hapless Geder, a minor noble who is an officer in the Antean army but who would much rather be searching out and translating speculative essays. These separate strands do cross eventually, but they don't merge, at least in this book.

The reviews I saw of this book were somewhat mixed, but I decided to read it anyway because I was promised fantasy based on medieval banking. And, indeed, the portions with Cithrin are often satisfyingly different than normal fantasy fare and are the best part of the book. Unfortunately, the reviews were right in another respect: The Dragon's Path is very slow. There are pages and pages of setup, pages more of Cithrin being scared and uncertain, lots of Dawson's political maneuvering and Geder's ineptness, and not a tremendous amount of plot for the first half of the book. Things do eventually start happening, but Abraham is clearly not interested in hurrying the story along.

The Dragon's Path is what I'll call George R.R. Martin fantasy, since The Song of Ice and Fire is probably the most famous example of the style. There's a large, multi-threaded story with multiple viewpoint characters, each told in tight third person. Chapters cycle between viewpoint characters and are long enough to be a substantial chunk of story. And, with relatively little narrative signaling, several of the viewpoint characters turn out to be awful, horrible people. Unlike Martin, though, Abraham doesn't pull off sudden reversals of perspective where the reader starts to like characters they previously hated. Rather the contrary: the more I learned about Dawson and Geder, the more I disliked them, albeit for far different reasons.

I'm not sure what to make of this book. The finance parts, and the times when Cithrin was able to show how much she learned from spending her formative years in a bank, were fun and refreshingly different from typical epic fantasy. But then Abraham sharply undermined Cithrin's expertise in a way that is understandable and probably realistic, but which wasn't at all pleasant to read about. I enjoyed the world backstory, with its dragon wars and strangely permanent dragon jade, apparently magical draconic genetic engineering that created multiple variations of humanity, and sense of hinted-at history. I'd like to learn more about it, but the details are so slow in coming. The writing is solid, the details believable, and the world vivid and complex, but Abraham keeps pulling the rug out from under my plot expectations, and not in the good way. Characters showing unexpectedly successful expertise is an old trope but one that I enjoy; characters unexpectedly turning out to be self-centered asses isn't as fun. Abraham repeatedly promises catharsis and then undermines it.

Dawson and Geder are excellent examples of my mixed feelings. Abraham writes Dawson as a rather likable, principled person at first, a close friend and defender of the king. His later actions, and the details of his political positions shown over the course of this book, slowly paint a far different picture without changing the narrative tone. I'm fairly sure Abraham is doing this on purpose and the reader is intended to slowly change their mind about Dawson; indeed, I suspect it's subtle commentary on the sort of monarchy-supporting characters show up in traditional fantasy. But it's still disconcerting. I wanted to like Dawson, and particularly his wife, despite disagreeing with everything they stand for. That can be an enjoyable and challenging reading experience, but it wasn't for me in this book.

Geder is a more abrupt case. It's hard not to be sympathetic to him at the beginning of the book: he just wants to read and translate histories and speculation, and is bullied by other nobles and miserable on campaign. I thought Abraham was setting up a coming-of-age story or an opportunity for Geder to unexpectedly turn out to be more competent than he expected. I won't spoil what actually happens but it's... not that, not at all, and leaves Geder as another character who is deeply disturbing to read about.

The Dragon's Path is well-written, deep, realistic in feel, and caught my interest with its world-building. I'm invested in the story and do want to know what happens next. I'm also rooting for Cithrin (and for Wester's lieutenant, who's probably my favorite character). But it took me a long time to read this book, and I'm not sure it was worth the investment. I'm even less sure that the investment of reading another four books in this world will be worth the payoff. If I had more confidence that good people would rise to the occasion and there would be a satisfactory conclusion for all the horrible things that happen in this book, I'd be more tempted, but the tone of this first volume doesn't make me optimistic.

I still want to read a series about banking and finance set against an epic fantasy background. I want to learn more about the dragons and the jade and the wars Abraham hints at. But I suspect this will be one of those series that I occasionally think about but never get around to reading.

Followed by The King's Blood.

Rating: 5 out of 10

2018-12-30: New year haul

Accumulated one-off purchases over the past few months. Have to make sure I have plenty to read in the new year (spoiler: this will definitely not be a problem).

Lundy Bancroft — Why Does He Do That? (non-fiction)
Gavin de Becker — The Gift of Fear (non-fiction)
Cennydd Bowles — Future Ethics (non-fiction)
Julie E. Czerneda — Search Image (sff)
Ali Davis — True Porn Clerk Stories (non-fiction)
Abby Franquemont — Respect the Spindle (non-fiction)
N.K. Jemisin — How Long 'til Black Future Month? (sff collection)
Daniel Keys Moran — Tales of the Continuing Time and Other Stories (sff collection)
T. Kingfisher — Swordheart (sff)
Kate Manne — Down Girl (non-fiction)
Barry Marcus — Watches I Have Known (non-fiction)
Claire O'Dell — A Study in Honor (sff)
Michael Oher & Don Yaeger — I Beat the Odds (non-fiction)
Laurie Penny — Everything Belongs to the Future (sff)
Matt Potter — The Last Goodbye (non-fiction)
K Arsenault Rivera — The Phoenix Empress (sff)
John Scalzi — The Consuming Fire (sff)
Ryk E. Spoor — Spheres of Influence (sff)
Rebecca Traister — Good and Mad (non-fiction)
M. Mitchell Waldrop — The Dream Machine (non-fiction)
Martha Wells — Artificial Condition (sff)
Martha Wells — Rogue Protocol (sff)
Martha Wells — Exit Strategy (sff)

Some of these I've already read and reviewed. There's a lot of non-fiction in here that has shown up on my radar recently. I know I'm excessively optimistic about the number of books I pick up, but I do have some hope for 2019 being a strong reading year.

2018-12-30: Review: All Systems Red

Review: All Systems Red, by Martha Wells

Series Murderbot Diaries #1
Publisher Tor.com
Copyright May 2017
ISBN 0-7653-9752-8
Format Kindle
Pages 150

I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don't know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.

So begins the first of a series of novellas by Martha Wells (four to date) called The Murderbot Diaries. It's told in the first person by a murderbot (the name it gave itself; the officially bland and non-threateningly corporate term is SecUnit) with a defective governor module who is therefore not enslaved to the commands of the humans around it. The story opens with Murderbot half-heartedly doing its job of protecting a human exploration team while pretending to be just like any other SecUnit, deftly covering up the deficiencies in its governor module. Unfortunately for the humans it's guarding, the planet is rather more dangerous than they had expected, and not only due to local conditions. Thankfully for the humans, Murderbot is rather better at protecting people than it likes to claim.

I'm going to say the same thing that everyone else who reviewed this multiple-award-winning novella said: the first-person narrative voice is what makes this story. The plot is corporate interstellar skulduggery following mostly predictable lines, and by itself wouldn't be anything special. But Murderbot tells that story with a brilliant mix of cynicism, dark humor, clipped precision, and violent competence, overlaid on a slightly flat tone that reminded me of computerized record-keeping and automated analysis. It's wonderfully evocative. It also does serious character work in a short 150 pages, particularly once Murderbot starts interacting with the well-meaning, open-minded, and rather naive humans that it's trying to protect.

That leads into the second remarkable thing about this story, which is the quietly nuanced and fascinating way that it talks about oppression, justice, and well-meaning people who want to help.

This is, obviously, a story about a member of a sentient slave race. Murderbot is made of augmented biological components, including a rather human brain, and is clearly as capable of independent thoughts and desires as anyone else in this story. This is an old and well-worn setup with obvious resonance with the slave trade and a habit of turning into soaring, passionate fights for freedom.

Murderbot cares very deeply about no one discovering its defective governor module, but is not interested in the soaring and passionate fight for freedom. Murderbot wants everyone else to fuck off and leave it alone so that it can watch serial dramas. It is particularly horrified at the idea of being stared at by a bunch of humans, or having emotionally searching conversations about its free will and how it feels about slavery.

There's certainly nothing inherently wrong with courageous and moving fights for freedom, but I think Wells is doing something very interesting here instead. The humans are all well-meaning folks who (in various ways) are horrified at the concept of SecUnits and how they're treated, and also have a noticeable tendency to treat Murderbot like a child. One starts cringing a bit at the earnest gentleness with which they approach it, particularly with the running hints from Murderbot's acerbic commentary that they're missing the point entirely. Wells packs a rather deep idea into a short space: freedom isn't about being an amazing role model or following some expected, scripted path. It's about having the space to live your own life and do what you want, whether or not that fits anyone else's preconceptions. Someone in Murderbot's situation may be quite matter-of-fact and tactical about their own circumstances, which can include not wanting even the best of people to take over their decisions. And can include a very complicated reaction to sympathy.

I liked all of the people in this story (well, except for the villains, but they're mostly there to be villains and are barely sketched in). But Murderbot itself steals the show, and the ending was perfect. And a great setup for the sequels.

I've been meaning to read something by Martha Wells for years and kept not getting around to it. I'm glad I finally fixed that, and will definitely be reading the rest of this series. Recommended.

Followed by Artificial Condition.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2018-12-29: Review: Clockwork Boys

Review: Clockwork Boys, by T. Kingfisher

Series The Clocktaur War #1
Publisher Red Wombat Tea Company
Copyright 2017
ASIN B0783P29QP
Format Kindle
Pages 230

Clockwork Boys starts with Slate picking a man out of the Dowager's prisons to the overpowering smell of rosemary. It's an uncomfortable situation for everyone: the warden, the prisoners, and Slate herself, although on the positive side she'll probably be dead soon and then it won't matter. That said, she was not expecting to find the infamous Lord Caliban, who murdered eight nuns (okay, technically three nuns and five novices) while possessed. He's either exactly the person she was looking for or a total disaster she should stay as far away from as possible.

Slate is a forger. Caliban is the third member of an improbable crew, joining her and Brenner, an assassin. With the scholar-priest who joins them later, their goal is to cross battle lines, infiltrate an enemy city, and discover how their enemy is making nearly-indefeatable mechanical soldiers. It's a suicide mission, of course, which is why the Dowager is sending convicted criminals and adding the incentive of carnivorous tattoos.

If this sounds like a D&D party, that's not an accident. This is the first half of Ursula Vernon's paladin rant in story form (T. Kingfisher is the pseudonym she uses for books for adults), which she has mentioned and given partially on Twitter. However, Clockwork Boys is mostly setup, introductions, and a few road adventures to flesh out the dynamics of the group. You (and I) will have to wait until the second book for (presumably) the meat of the rant.

What we get in the meantime is a protagonist who can detect danger and significance through the supernatural scent of rosemary. Since this is an Ursula Vernon novel, that means Slate goes into danger sneezing uncontrollably, with her eyes watering so much she can't see. Magical premonitions have no sense of proportion. You can tell the paladin is a paladin because he always has a spare handkerchief.

I thought the best part of this book was that Slate and Brenner (who already knew each other) go into this adventure with a far more mature and competent attitude than Caliban or, later, the scholar Edmund. The latter two have great difficulty understanding Slate's attitude, her decisions, or her role in the party. However, and this is the very critical point, none of Brenner, Slate, or the narrator consider it particularly important to argue with them about their misconceptions. This book is full of Caliban making some stupid assumption about Slate and Slate then doing exactly what she was going to do in the first place without caring one whit about Caliban's assumption. It's absolutely glorious.

Clockwork Boys is somewhat driven by Caliban and his past and his emotional reactions to losing his connection with his god (not to mention being possessed and being kicked out of his order). It is part of the paladin rant, after all. But much of the focus is on Slate, which I approve of because Slate is the most interesting character in this book. She's cynical, sarcastic, and certain this expedition is doomed, but she's never done something incompetently in her life and isn't about to start now. Also, full points for a book about people who know how to talk to other people and how to stop conversations they don't want to have without having random angst explosions.

And the banter is wonderful.

This is only the first half of what's really a long novel, so it's worth withholding some judgment before seeing the second half. But it's a great Ursula Vernon take on D&D-inspired fantasy, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and am looking forward to the other half of the story.

Followed by The Wonder Engine.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2018-12-27: Review: The Consuming Fire

Review: The Consuming Fire, by John Scalzi

Series Interdependency #2
Publisher Tor
Copyright October 2018
ISBN 0-7653-8898-7
Format Kindle
Pages 320

The Consuming Fire is the second book of the Interdependency series and is part of a single story with The Collapsing Empire. This is not a good series to read out of order.

The Collapsing Empire was primarily setup: introductions to the players, the story of Cardenia Wu-Patrick becoming emperox and what she learns about the empire in the process, and of course revelations of the fragility of her empire that culminate in a cliff-hanger ending. The Consuming Fire is unambiguously the middle book of a trilogy, which includes kicking that cliff-hanger along to the next book. The events of the first book left Cardenia clear on both the threat and the necessary response, but the status quo has substantial momentum and the rest of her government doesn't want to believe things that might disrupt it. Everything slows down from the climax of the first book, political complications multiply, and some parts of the plot enter a waiting game.

This type of middle-book slowdown can be frustrating, but here I thought it worked. It also made this an interesting book to read in the current political moment, where US (and, for that matter, UK) politics seems to be going through that middle-book tension.

During the time period of The Consuming Fire, thoughtful people (and insiders) have figured out the broad outlines of what's going to happen, but it hasn't happened yet. This is the time when one can be fairly certain of the meaning behind previous events but there's still a bit of uncertainty left, so people who have substantial incentives to come up with alternative explanations still have maneuvering room. It's the tense and frustrating middle period where one is trying to head off a slow-motion train wreck, or at least minimize the damage, but still have to deal with the people claiming there is no wreck and no train.

This probably makes the book sound miserable: a bit too on the nose, and thus likely to bring up unwelcome echos of current political messes. It's not, though. Partly this is due to political wish fulfillment: Scalzi is telling a story of smart and engaged people finding ways to change the world, including some very satisfying victories over their cynical opponents, so the reader is spared the sense of futility real-world politics more often brings. Partly it's due to Scalzi's comfortable, fast-moving style. But much of its avoidance of middle-book tension is use of another middle-book technique: the side exploration mission that crops up between chapters of the main plot, and which opens up surprise revelations for the world-building. I won't spoil that; suffice it to say that Scalzi is doing some interesting things with history, how it is recorded, and how that recording process can change the emphasis.

I think this series is still more of a speedboat than a submarine. It's determinedly headed towards its plot destination, and while that path is well-supported by an underlying lake of world-building with some occasionally interesting scenery, Scalzi rarely stops the boat to dive below the surface and explore in detail. That said, I grumbled a bit in my review of the first book about interchangeable characters, but didn't feel that here. Either I was too grumpy when reading the previous book or the characters are carving out their own territory as the series continues. Marce is still a cipher to me, but Kiva was my favorite surviving character in the first book and didn't let me down in the second. (And Scalzi makes an excellent choice in showing a key scene from her perspective. It benefits tremendously from her acerbic commentary.)

Something else I've liked about both books of this series so far is that Scalzi portrays all sides with intelligence. Some of the villains are cynical, self-serving scum, but they still make coherent, reasonable plans and anticipate their opponents' strategies. Neither the heroes nor the villains fall for obvious ploys. Scalzi does hand-wave some of the details, and I'm sure one could nitpick the tactics, but the books never made me want to. So many stories like this involve inexperienced protagonists blundering into obvious danger and then saving themselves through desperate heroics. It's nice to read a story that gives its characters more credit for advance planning.

The Collapsing Empire ended on a cliff-hanger; The Consuming Fire ends on essentially the same cliff-hanger, except complicated by subsequent revelations. Readers who dislike waiting for a story's conclusion may want to hold off until the third book is published (currently scheduled for early 2020). I'm enjoying the series and will certainly keep reading.

Followed by an as-yet-unnamed third book.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2018-12-26: Review: I Beat the Odds

Review: I Beat the Odds, by Michael Oher & Don Yaeger

Publisher Gotham
Copyright 2011
Printing February 2012
ISBN 1-101-56003-7
Format Kindle
Pages 250

Michael Oher is the high school football star whose fascinating life story took over Michael Lewis's The Blind Side, prompting a movie based on the book. The book was published in 2006; the movie in 2009. The Tuohys, Oher's adoptive parents, wrote their book (with Sally Jenkins) in 2010. That's a lot of writing, acting, and story-telling about Oher. I Beat the Odds is the first time he told his story himself.

Despite his struggle with the shape of his material, Lewis's The Blind Side is a better-written book than this one at the level of literary technique. This is not surprising; Lewis is one of the great journalistic story-tellers of our era and provides a strong introduction to this story. Lewis frames it and provides the football context, gets the reader engaged and fascinated by Oher's life, and gives you all the tools to understand the shape of the story.

I Beat the Odds is the better book.

This is not because Oher and Yaeger are better story-tellers. It's because they have a better story to tell. This is the story Lewis never got to (for reasons that remain a bit murky to me, and which I'll touch on in a moment). It's the payoff that I spent all of The Blind Side hoping for, but which Lewis never quite delivered: the full context and background of Oher's life, how it felt, and how he reacted to it.

Where Lewis balances a story of football with the story of a person and dances around Oher's chronology using the framing of the Tuohys learning more about his life, Oher and Yaeger lay out the full story in simple chronological order. I Beat the Odds grapples directly with issues of poverty, foster care, family, love, child services, schools, and role models. And while it's always hard to judge as a reader triangulating between different versions of the story, this book rings as true and honest and forthright as a bell in places where I think Lewis was reaching for dramatic tension.

A brief sketch of Oher's life for those who have not yet seen any version of this story: he grew up in a huge family in one of the worst parts of Memphis with a mother who was an off-and-on drug addict. He and his siblings were put into foster care, and he bounced through several families until he ran away from the system and rotated between various places he could sleep for a few nights. He was always an incredibly gifted athlete who studied multiple sports deeply and intensely (this is one of the bits that Lewis got wrong, probably unknowingly), but no one really noticed until one of the families he occasionally stayed with insisted that he would only send his son to a private school that would also take Oher. That was Briarcrest Christian School, which led to Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, Oher's discovery by a high school scout, and (the main thread of The Blind Side) the push to get him eligible for NCAA football.

The Blind Side stops with Oher playing college ball. I Beat the Odds continues through his drafting by the Baltimore Ravens and his first seasons of professional play, providing somewhat more satisfying closure. But what it adds the most to Lewis's story is the details of Oher's early life, which Lewis keeps obscure for most of his book and then summarizes in a later chapter.

This omission is not exactly Lewis's fault. As Lewis admits, and Oher confirms, Lewis barely talked to Oher while writing The Blind Side and Oher was not particularly interested in talking to him. Lewis did have some conversations with him at the end of his research, but Oher at the time was unwilling to dig into and try to remember much of his past. For I Beat the Odds, Oher went back to where he grew up, met with his child welfare case worker, and reconstructed pieces of his life he'd forgotten or suppressed, none of which Lewis had access to. The story that results is so much better for being more complete.

There are other things, though, that I do blame Lewis for a little: places where I think he slipped into some standard narrative lines that just weren't true. One of them is that Lewis portrays Oher as a raw natural physical talent who barely knew how to play football and was far more interested in basketball. Oher quietly puts this idea to rest by describing how intensely he studied both sports. He still had to learn how to translate his knowledge into physical action, but his description rings far more true than Lewis's. The hours and hours of street basketball and other physical training are also a more satisfying explanation for Oher's unusual speed despite his size than Lewis's focus on freakish physical accident, as is Oher's far more sensible explanation for why he played outside positions in basketball. Lewis said it was due to an obsession with Michael Jordan; Oher explains that, due to his size, he was constantly being called for fouls he didn't commit.

I mentioned in my review of The Blind Side that Lewis had to walk a precarious tight-rope over the fault lines in US society around race and class to tell his story. Oher, since he's speaking for himself and not about someone else, avoids those pitfalls, but had the universal challenge of a success story: how much to attribute to his own innate drive and how much to attribute to external circumstance or luck. He and Yaeger deftly address that challenge by giving I Beat the Odds a purpose and explicitly named audience. This is a book written for and about kids in foster care. It's the story of one kid in foster care who made it out to a life of great success, and how that happened, and what he was thinking while it was happening, and what in retrospect was important to him in that process. And it's also a book that tells those kids they're not alone, that other people felt and feel what they're feeling, and that some kids just like them broke out of the cycle.

I think that focus makes this book so much better than a pure autobiography would have been. Oher is telling this story to an audience he knows well, and tells it comfortably and honestly and with as much advice included as he can. The rest of us are lucky enough to get to listen in. Oher says in the afterword of this edition that he thought people would be tired of this story and uninterested in another version, but that if he could get the book into the hands of a few thousand foster kids, it would be worth it. He was surprised by its popularity, but then starts talking about the letters from foster kids that he got after its initial publication (and reprints excerpts from some of them), and some of that had me in tears. I think it's safe to say that he achieved his goal.

This focus does mean that you won't find much analysis of the overall social conditions here, much focus on systemic problems, or many suggestions for reform or structural changes. Oher mentions, somewhat in passing, the dire state of Memphis child welfare when he was a kid, but has nothing but praise for the individual case workers even though he hated and feared them as a kid for breaking up his family. He is as positive and generous towards Briarcrest as Lewis was, saying that he always felt welcome and included despite being one of the few black kids at a former segregation academy. (I still find this hard to believe, but perhaps my cynicism really isn't warranted.) If you're looking for a sociological analysis of poverty, child welfare systems, and racial divides, this is not the book.

If you're looking for a truly amazing case study of a remarkable person, told with fair-minded empathy and thoughtful reflection, though, read this. And if you have read The Blind Side or seen the movie, I think you truly owe it to yourself to also read this book and get the rest of the story (and corrections to bits of the movie, and to a lesser extent the book, that Oher found frustrating or inaccurate). You need not fear being bored by reading the same story twice. There is so much more here, so many new details and time periods Lewis is entirely quiet about, that it never felt repetitive.

I don't know how well this book would read on its own. Lewis hooked me on this story while making me not quite trust his telling of it, and I thoroughly enjoyed grappling with both versions, deciding which pieces I believed, and studying the ways they diverged and why they might have done so. Reading only I Beat the Odds loses that complexity, although what remains is still a lucid and heartfelt story of a person in whom I found a lot to admire. Read together, this is a fascinating view of how stories are told and shaped and molded, and how different they can look from different perspectives. This was the intellectual highlight of my vacation reading.

I may have to read the Tuohys' book (In a Heartbeat) after all, just to get one more piece of the story, although I'm worried I'm going to be allergic to the way in which I fear they'll tell it.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Last spun 2019-02-18 from thread modified 2008-08-13