Tuesday, February 28, 2017

February Site Update

February's four reviews have been archived and cross-linked on the main site.


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Wild Seed (Octavia E. Butler)

Wild Seed
(The Patternist series, Book 1)
Octavia E. Butler
Open Road Media
Fiction, Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: For thousands of years, the predatory spirit Doro has crafted himself a god, scouring humanity for "special" people - those gifted in mind-reading, telekinesis, healing, and other talents - to add to his seed villages as breeding stock, creating ideal hosts as he jumps from body to body. After so many generations, he thought himself beyond surprise... until he met Anyanwu. Herself centuries old, though a child compared to Doro, she can recraft her own body at will, even taking animal form, though mostly she lives a modest life as she hides her gifts. With guile and threats, Doro takes Anyanwu from their native Africa to the New World, adding her to his American seed stock. But her spirit resists breaking. Doro may finally have found a will as strong as his own; will they become allies, or mortal enemies?

REVIEW: A sci-fi classic, Wild Seed presents some very interesting ideas. Doro's nature may be beyond his control, but time has turned him into something less than human, a cruel and predatory god who nevertheless compels obedience and even devoted loyalty from his mortal victims. Anyanwu is initially more sympathetic, using her gifts to heal and help, though she finds her own morals compromised by association with Doro and the demands of her seemingly-immortal lifespan. The story takes on the concept of humans as commodities quite directly, tied intimately to the slave industry, delving into deep, dark levels of abuse, manipulation, and worse. These are not pleasant people, in thoroughly unpleasant circumstances. It was often a chore to push myself into reading further, so repulsed was I by what was going on, and the helplessness of those trapped in Doro's inescapable web... but the main characters are not ordinary humans, and their extraordinary nature necessitates a different worldview, one that flirts with amorality at the best of times, when it doesn't outright obliterate the traditional lines between right and wrong. Doro and Anyanwu struggle with their own natures as much as with each other, building to a moment of revelation that didn't quite ring true, given what they'd been through before and what they intrinsically cannot change about their respective natures. Wild Seed is a pioneering work of speculative fiction, dealing not only with race issues but gender fluidity and identity (both Anyanwu and Doro can and do swap genders at will, and the former can even change species), though ultimately I found it an uncomfortable read, with characters I don't expect I'll want to revisit in future volumes.

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Sunday, February 12, 2017

Aliens in the Backyard (John Leland)

Aliens in the Backyard: Plant and Animal Imports into America
John Leland
The University of South Carolina Press
Nonfiction, Nature
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: What could be more American than the quintessential country image of a towheaded boy with a can of worms, using a bamboo pole to fish for trout in the local pond, while Ma's apple pie cools on the windowsill and starlings sing in the trees above the cow pasture? Actually, nothing in that image - the boy, the worm, the pond, the apples, the starlings, even the cattle or most of the grass in that pasture - technically qualifies as native. Humans have been mucking up North America since our species first set foot on the continent, each successive wave bring fresh invaders and alterations to the terrain, benefiting some species and harming or exterminating others. The author discusses many imports, some devastating and others benign, and how complicated matters of conservation and protection become when the line between native and import has been blurred almost to the point of meaninglessness.

REVIEW: Like most Americans, I knew that many familiar species, such as the starling and the rat, were invasive pests from the Old World, but I hadn't realized just how many plants and animals had "invaded," some deliberate (often well-intentioned) imports and others either hitchhikers or simply taking advantage of man-made conditions. That great symbol of the southwest, the nine-banded armadillo, didn't even cross the Rio Grande until ranching and farming created ideal habitats, and the much-maligned coyote has not only endured attempts at genocide but has actively expanded its range in recent decades to become a cosmopolitan carnivore from coast to coast. Along with these iconic animals, numerous lesser-known "invaders" have made their mark, for good or ill, on the landscape through the ages. The end result, after thousands of years, leaves America as much a culture clash as a melting pot, both naturally and politically, as various imports have been alternately lauded and reviled, encouraged and eliminated, with life managing to persist (and often thrive) despite massive opposition. It's easy to look at history and point the finger at European colonists as the greatest despoiler and distorter of the land. While there's no denying the extensive, often detrimental changes wrought since 1492, however, Leland points out that the idea of a pristine pre-European American wilderness is as much a myth as the patriotic origins of apple pie; for thousands of years, various cultures have been altering the landscape, sometimes quite extensively, to benefit themselves and their favored plants and animals, as our species has done around the world since prehistoric times. So, with such complex history, are all imports and escapees automatically evil? Many seem to be relatively benign as citizens, so interwoven in the landscape that eradication would likely cause far more problems than it resolved, but that doesn't stop the matter from being hotly debated and efforts at extermination (government sanctioned and otherwise) from moving forward.
It's an interesting overview, but at times it seemed Leland had bitten off much more than he could adequately chew; several entries feel underdeveloped, while others wandered. It also seemed there were some omissions in species covered. (Locally, for instance, trees like holly and mountain ash are imports, but both seem to have become important food sources to native animals. Then there was no mention of one of the great invasives I myself have seen taking over nearby woods, that insidious green tree-strangler known as English ivy - still, inexplicably, available as an ornamental groundcover in nurseries.) Leland also seemed unwilling to commit to the now-widely-accepted notion that the Bering land bridge migration wasn't the only way humans (and many of their accompanying species) reached the New World before Columbus. All in all, it's a decent introduction to the complicated topic of plant and animal migration, one with at least a great of an impact on the nation as human migration... and just as murky and thorny and politically (and ideologically) tainted.

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Last of the Giants (Jeff Campbell) - My Review
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Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Heart of What Was Lost (Tad Williams)

The Heart of What Was Lost
(A novel of Osten Ard)
Tad Williams
Fiction, Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: With the fall of the undead Storm King in a cataclysmic battle, the power of the Norns was shattered - but even short-lived mortal men know better than to leave a deadly foe alive at their backs. As the survivors of the faerie Norn forces straggle back north to their ancestral stronghold in the mountain known as Stormspike, Duke Isgrimmnur leads a force of battle-hardened Rimmersmen, joined by soldiers from across Osten Ard, in pursuit. Thus begins a legendary siege, one that will set the stage for the future of the land, and the races of men and faerie alike.

REVIEW: When I heard Tad Williams was returning to Osten Ard for a new trilogy, I - along with countless fans of epic fantasy - rejoiced. His Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy is a genre benchmark, famously serving as partial inspiration for George R. R. Martin's sprawling A Song of Ice and Fire saga. Until the first novel of the new trilogy drops in June 2017, Williams offers a taste of things to come with The Heart of What Was Lost, a linking novel. At only 200 pages, it itself is not an epic, nor is it quite a standalone... and there, I believe, lies the crux of my own dissatisfaction. A few characters from the original trilogy return here, but they feel like pale shadows of the rich characters I remember, just as the world seems flatter and less immersive than the Osten Ard I knew. The new characters, particularly on the human side, felt more like plot devices than rounded people, whose presence was meant to drive home themes and emphasize the surreal atrocities of the war against the Norns. Speaking of the Norns, Williams makes what I consider a tactical mistake: he gives the Norns half the narrative. I can understand why he did it from a storytelling perspective, showing that the "enemy" isn't a monolithic bogeyman but full of its own motivations, rivalries, and contradictions, but part of the reason his faerie races worked so well in the original trilogy was their alien mindset. Their lives are inconceivably long, their culture riddled with odd customs and taboos and cultural touchstones, their powers beyond mortal ken, their thought processes inherently inscrutable even among the "good" race, the Sithi. They could be interacted with, but never fully understood. By turning over so much of the story to them, the Norns become too human, even as the story becomes burdened by alien names and terms (not to mention far too many apostrophes.) The overall story isn't terrible, but it feels weak, with some great moments separated by long slogs. The whole novel reads like filler material or background information, events Williams wrote for himself, for continuity reasons, but which the reading public didn't need to know about before embarking on the next Osten Ard adventure... save for the money, of course. I can't say I begrudge Williams (or his publisher) cashing in and building hype, but I must say I'm distinctly less enthused about the forthcoming Last King of Osten Ard books than I was before I read this. Maybe Williams has changed. Maybe I've changed. Or maybe that enthusiasm is the true heart of what was lost, here.

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Thursday, February 2, 2017

A is for Activist (Innosanto Nagar)

A is for Activist
Innosanto Nagara
Triangle Square
Nonfiction, YA Picture Book
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: An illustrated A to Z guide explores ways to stand up, speak out, and make one's voice heard on a variety of issues.

REVIEW: This is an encouragingly pro-active picture book, emphasizing activism, standing up and taking action for one's causes, and the gift and freedom of critical thinking and questioning authority when it needs to be questioned. The rhymes sometimes feel forced, though, and at times it seems heavy-handed for a picture book aimed at younger children, enough that only minor nudges would push it into parody territory. That's not to say the topic isn't important or timely, though. A grown-up reading this with children, or giving this book to a child to read on their own, should be prepared to explain and discuss the subjects presented here... and discuss them well enough to withstand questioning, as the book itself reminds kids that asking questions and thinking critically is an important part of any activism.

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