Monday, February 27, 2012

Book Review - The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

X-posted at Cannonball Read IV

As the cover says, The Subtle Knife is the sequel to The Golden Compass, and the second book of the complete His Dark Materials trilogy. It is possible that there may be implied SPOILERS for The Golden Compass in this review. Any spoilers are unintended, but I am discussing a sequel. This book introduces us to Will Parry, who is from a different world than we were introduced to in TGC. We are meant to gather that Will’s world is our world; it lacks obvious supernatural phenomena, and the people in it do not have external daemons like the people from the world in TGC do.

After being harassed by two men who want to uncover information about his missing father, Will accidentally kills one of them when they come to his house to search for documents that may reveal his father’s last known whereabouts. In order to escape the law, Will stumbles upon a window to another world: the world of Cittàgazze. While there, he meets Lyra — who we met in The Golden Compass and who found herself in Cittàgazze at the conclusion of TGC — and the two find themselves allied by benefiting from each others’ knowledge. While in Cittàgazze, Will becomes involved in a struggle that results in his becoming the new bearer of the Subtle Knife. He learns that the knife has the power to cut through worlds, which explains the window between his world and Cittàgazze. Following Will’s possession of the knife, Lyra joins him in order to try to find his father, as she was instructed by her alethiometer (truth-telling device) that this is her most important task.

As in TGC, here are several other side-plots that are important (and intriguing), but for the sake of brevity, I’m not discussing them here. The side plots do eventually serve to assist the purpose of the children, so as long as you care about what the kids are doing, you’ll understand the necessity of what the other characters are doing and you’ll enjoy reading about them doing it.

The Subtle Knife is a bit underwhelming compared to The Golden Compass (and the final book, The Amber Spyglass, which I’ll review in a bit), but that’s kind of like saying that 12-year aged cheddar is underwhelming compared to 20-year aged cheddar. It’s still an excellent book that builds solidly upon the first, with necessary exposition to move the plot forward, and another compelling character in Will. It’s got a cliffhanger that pretty much guarantees you pick up the next book, but the ending does make TSK difficult to justify as a standalone. And maybe TSK standing alone was never Pullman’s intention, but it’s safe to say that no one picks up this book without the intention of reading the other two. In any case, though it’s not as epic as the other two books in the trilogy, it certainly holds its own. It energizes the reader to complete the series, rather than dissolving interest or forcing obligation.

Cannonball Read IV

To any of you who were wondering how my not-often updated smorgasboard of a blog has of late become a slightly-more-often updated haven for book reviews, it's because I've been participating in the Cannonball Read IV (also known as the link at the top of every book review.)

There is an "about" section at the CBR4 site, but I'll summarize here: an entertainment blog I follow regularly, Pajiba, sponsors an annual challenge in honor of a former commenter who lost her battle to cancer. In the year preceding her premature passing, she challenged herself to read 100 books; unfortunately she was not able to reach her goal.

Since then, the owner of Pajiba has sponsored readers and commenters to try to read 52 books in a year -- a more attainable goal for most of us -- and for everyone who can, a donation will be made in her honor.

I don't have a lot of money to donate myself to charity (though I would like to.) I try to make a few donations a year, but this year is tighter for me than in years past, so I've been thinking of ways I can volunteer my time instead. This is one unusual way of doing that: it's taking something I already love to do, but it is a bit of a challenge because in the last few years I'm lucky if I've allowed myself the time to read 10 books in a year. Reading 52 requires me to keep up the pace of reading about 2 in a week, and writing the book reviews as evidence that I've done it.

So I've finished two more books this week that I need to review, as well as review a book I read awhile ago that I've been slacking on because I hated the book. So I'm a little bit behind, but I'm going to keep doing my best.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Book review: The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

X-posted at Cannonball Read IV

Everyone knows this one already, right? It’s the first in Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and a YA fantasy classic. The story follows Lyra Belacqua and her daemon, Pantalaimon, as they travel to the North from a mystical version of Oxford, England. Her party’s goal is to rescue kidnapped children from the hands of the Oblation Board, which uses the children for horrifying metaphysical experiments. Lyra has a separate mission to rescue Lord Asriel, an imprisoned Scholar studying the properties of an elementary particle called Dust, and she is assisted by a clan of witches, a Texan aeronaut, and a giant fighting armored polar bear named Iorek Byrinson. Unbeknownst to Lyca, she has an all-important role to play in a great war allegedly involving heaven and any number of interwoven worlds on Earth.

This is one of my favorite books. The first time I read it, I was much younger, and I thought it was the most magical book. Reading it again now, my appreciation for some of the scientific logic is enhanced, and I benefit from a more mature understanding of the political machinations of the powers in the world.

Lyra herself is a fascinating character.  She’s intelligent but not always thoughtful, though she learns from her mistakes and benefits from growing wisdom. She’s a little brash and impulsive, but endlessly loyal. Her daemon, the external representation of her soul, is also adventurous and sharp, but he also is a bit more ponderous and collected and sometimes saves Lyra from jumping too hastily into poorly-evaluated situations. The other cool thing about Lyra — as a youngish girl reading this novel for the first time — is that she’s a GIRL. She’s the young female protagonist I always wanted: imperfect, but ultimately a well-rounded individual with obvious personality and depth, who is worthy of the tasks presented to her and didn’t always need rescuing.

So, everyone should read this book. It’s classic fantasy, well-written both in plot and characterization.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

New recipes

Like many people, one of the things I've been using Pinterest for is to track recipes I find online. After collecting several, I felt it was high time to start actually trying to make the things I've been drooling over online. The tricky aspect at first was to choose a practical one. A lot of the recipes that are pinned are appetizers or desserts. I'm partial to the appetizers myself, but as someone cooking just for herself, I don't have the time or the money to cook tapas-style.

So for my first outing, I selected this one:

Braised Coconut Spinach & Chickpeas with Lemon (recipe here)
I didn't take a picture of my own version, but suffice it to say, it was successful (and actually pretty easy!) Outside of the prep work, all I had to do was just pour stuff in a pot and make sure I didn't burn it. This is a vegan dish, so to get a bit more mileage out of it leftovers-wise I cooked up some sausage on the side and had that with it. It was great. So, thanks Pinterest!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Book review: The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

 X-posted at Cannonball Read IV

Here we have the story of two worlds: Urras and Anarres. Urras is meant to be an analog of our Earth, and Anarres is described as its habitable moon, albeit harboring some pretty tough conditions. The main plotline is constructed in parallel around the protagonist Shevek, a theoretical physicist, mathematician, and Anarresti. He grows to feel the necessity of traveling to Urras in order to progress further in his field, an action that is welcomed by Urras and abhorred by his fellow Anarresti.

Anarres was founded as a refuge for a colony of what may best be described as uber-communists or collectivists, based on our language. The title “The Dispossessed” refers to their extreme disavowing of anything insinuating personal possession: a blanket that I usually sleep with is not “my blanket” but “the blanket,” and an offer to share the blanket is not “Would you like to share my blanket?” but “Would you like to use the blanket that I use?” They are anarchistic and accept no government or currency, and they volunteer to perform work where it is needed, sometimes based on special interest or talent, and sometimes not. Shevek describes Anarres (I am paraphrasing here) as a place where it is not easy to live, but it is rewarding.

And if Anarres is the most extreme form of communism, then on Urras we are treated to the most extreme form of capitalism. As a capitalistic society that tends to pontificate often about our bitter end, we have a better idea about what that may look like: class warfare, feuding nations, and some totalitarianism thrown in for good measure.

For obvious reasons, the two societies don’t understand each other, but the Urrasti are portrayed as having more of a curiosity about Anarres, while Anarresti find even the neutral mention of Urras to be distasteful and can’t fathom the appeal whatsoever of such a place.

The Dispossessed explores politics, economics, religion, and of course  — it is Le Guin! — gender issues. It’s beautifully constructed around all of the aforementioned social issues, but also around Time, the focus of Shevek’s study. Shevek spends the majority of the novel developing his “Simultaneity Principle,” which is essentially a new way of explaining Time that incorporates physics, philosophy, and mathematics, and does not subscribe to the linear model of time we are familiar with. As such, the novel doesn’t progress in a strictly linear fashion. The chapters alternate between taking place on Urras and Anarres, with what are undoubtedly different periods of time in Shevek’s life unfolding simultaneously. Le Guin is a master at these “fish out of water” stories that result from the meeting of people from such starkly different backgrounds. It’s a pretty dense read and something that will take several sittings to get through, but regardless I wholeheartedly recommend it. The Dispossessed, for me, is poignant, provocative, and above all engaging.

Book review: Neuromancer by William Gibson

X posted to Cannonball Read IV 

Oof. Okay, I picked this up recently to try to make amends for never having read it, despite it placing on so many “Best of SciFi” lists. Basic plot points first: the novel follows Case as he is hired for what is essentially a hacking-job in two worlds. His partner Molly operates in the physical realm, and Case’s talents lie in navigation of “cyberspace” — a virtual milieu that one must jack into. Throughout, Case struggles against the difficulty of the job, the anonymity and intrigue of his boss, and his own demons — namely, rampant drug use and the consequences of his outlaw status.

Cyberspace, a habitable, nearly tangible world is famously described in the novel as “A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts…A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.”

Neuromancer is often credited for being ahead of its time. Words like “cyberspace” did in fact enter our lexicon after being coined by Gibson in Neuromancer. There are also some themes explored here that have become increasingly relevant to us: cyber-security, un/reality, invasive and involuntary medicine and medical procedures, and socioeconomic class are all interwoven over the course of the narrative. In that way, I credit Neuromancer for being a thinker, and for indeed being rather visionary at the time it was published in 1984.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Book review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

X-posted to Cannonball Read IV

Genly Ai is visiting the planet Gethen, also known as Winter, as an envoy for the interplanetary council known as the Ekumen of Known Worlds. His mission is to convince Gethen to join the Ekumen, an action which Gethen has refused in the past. A native of planet Terra (Earth,) Genly is struck by stark differences in the political and social customs of Gethenians from those employed elsewhere among communicating planets. He finds a guide and companion of sorts in Estraven, a native Gethenian with an emotional backstory.

Gethenians, as a matter of fact, are sexless, genderless individuals. Once a month, they enter “kemmer,” a time during which they develop sex characteristics unique to one traditional gender, and they mate in what appears to be a pansexual fashion with no steadfast hereto/homosexual preferences. The immediate consequence of this is that gender politics as they are known to us (and to Genly) do not play a role on Gethen, and thus their society is constructed entirely differently from others in the Ekumen. Confounding this misunderstanding is the fact that every envoy sent to Gethen is fundamentally different from Gethenians, both physically and in social understanding. Gethenians who do not cycle through kemmer normally and retain the physical attributes of one distinct sex are their society’s perverts; therefore, though Genly is not ostracized, he resembles Gethen’s perverts and is often referred to as such.

It is said that Le Guin developed this novel in order to explore the idea of what a society might be like if biological sex/gender was removed from the equation. To parallel this idea, the setting of Gethen is, environmentally, how we imagine our Arctic region: constant winter. Without variation in sex or in weather, the inhabitants of Gethen are stripped down to embody and employ only the most essential aspects of humanity.

I had a mixed reaction to this book. I was drawn to the socio-physiological ruminations penned here, as I’ve in the past found myself jaded by unfortunate and stereotypical portrayals of women in science fiction. I admire Le Guin’s efforts in this and other novels to explore gender relations in the context of new and different worlds. I do think there were some interesting points made on that front here, but overall I was not drawn to the main plotline of Genly’s trials and tribulations as envoy to Gethen. Tension between nations, danger in exile, and tested loyalty — hallmarks of epic drama — were all there, but for me overall the pacing was kind of slow and the exposition a bit more flowery than it needed to be. My assessment on the whole is that if you’re interested in the gender idea here or in feminist science fiction in general, this is worth reading, but it’s not in my personal list of favorites.

Moderat - Seamonkey

My favorite song of the last few weeks..

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Book review: Dune by Frank Herbert

X-posted at Cannonball Read IV

The standalone novel Dune (first of the series of Dune novels) is, in brief, about Paul Atreides and his mother, Lady Jessica, who survive the organized massacre of the House Atreides. Initially from a lush, resource-abundant planet, the House relocates to Arrakis to take control of the spice trade. Spice, or melange spice, is an all-important substance in Dunes Universe — in some individuals it unlocks supernatural mental abilities; for most other individuals it is a psychoactive drug that also extends life. Their tenure on Arrakis is short lived, and Paul’s father, the Duke and head of House Atreides, is killed, along with the majority of his men. Both Jessica and Paul have prescient abilities and powerful physical control through training, and can use their superior understanding of human nature to influence others. Their empathy and unorthodox abilities land them securely amongst a community of Fremen — desert natives of Arrakis with valuable skills of their own. Eventually, Paul emerges as a religious leader of the Fremen, with Jessica also holding an important spiritual post in the community.

I am a fan of science fiction, and by the end of this novel I certainly was able to appreciate why Dune is a venerable classic. The world Herbert creates is at once fantastical and tangible; it’s like nowhere you’ve ever been, but you imagine it as easily as if you’d lived there yourself. His characters are also compelling. One easily pictures the Lady Jessica: regal, quietly powerful, respected, but also made vulnerable by the equal parts fear and love that she feels for her son. The Fremen are aliens, masters of the desert, with odd and potentially grotesque rituals — like harvesting bodies for water, a scare commodity on Arrakis — and at the same time, unflinchingly loyal and driven to survive, like many humans we know.

I’d recommend Dune to anyone. Newcomers to sci-fi may feel like they are being thrown into the deep end, as Herbert wastes no time diving into the mystical and metaphysical aspects of his Universe. Some editions, including the one pictured, have a glossary of terms which people may find helpful (I did.) As with truly good science fiction though, despite the oddities of the universe this novel inhabits, this novel is truly about humans, their relationships to each other, their relationships to their environments, and their roles in time.