Authors Behaving badly: Baycon edition

For those of you who don’t know what BayCon is, it’s a sci-fi fantasy convention held in the San Francisco Bay Area that is mainly focused on writing and writers. There’s also gaming and other fun things, but the panels tend to center on more literary topics. Every year, they have a writer Guest of Honor, and this year it was David Brin.

Full disclosure: I was not at BayCon this year, and in fact haven’t been for the past couple of years. The con had a change of venue, and I really didn’t like where they ended up. So, I can’t speak from first-hand experience about what happened this weekend, but an account is going around from people who were there.

Apparently, David Brin is well-known in sci-fi and fantasy circles for being a racist, misogynistic asshole, and these qualities were on full display in a panel which he was moderating. You can read about it in more detail in this Facebook post from one of the attendees.

I find it baffling in the extreme that authors who work in a genre that features stories of inclusion and explores social issues can be the exact opposite as a person. And yet, we see it time and again at cons: a big-name author is invited to speak and makes a significant portion of the attendees feel uncomfortable or unsafe. I think we all need to take the responsibility to call out this behavior when we see it, and we should all stand up for those who feel unsafe in the environment created by these types of people.

We’re supposed to be better than this. Let’s work to do so.

Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Jack Holloway works alone, for reasons he doesn’t care to talk about. Hundreds of miles from ZaraCorp’s headquarters on planet, 178 light-years from the corporation’s headquarters on Earth, Jack is content as an independent contractor, prospecting and surveying at his own pace. As for his past, that’s not up for discussion.

Then, in the wake of an accidental cliff collapse, Jack discovers a seam of unimaginably valuable jewels, to which he manages to lay legal claim just as ZaraCorp is cancelling their contract with him for his part in causing the collapse. Briefly in the catbird seat, legally speaking, Jack pressures ZaraCorp into recognizing his claim, and cuts them in as partners to help extract the wealth.

But there’s another wrinkle to ZaraCorp’s relationship with the planet Zarathustra. Their entire legal right to exploit the verdant Earth-like planet, the basis of the wealth they derive from extracting its resources, is based on being able to certify to the authorities on Earth that Zarathustra is home to no sentient species.

Then a small furry biped—trusting, appealing, and ridiculously cute—shows up at Jack’s outback home. Followed by its family. As it dawns on Jack that despite their stature, these are people, he begins to suspect that ZaraCorp’s claim to a planet’s worth of wealth is very flimsy indeed…and that ZaraCorp may stop at nothing to eliminate the “fuzzys” before their existence becomes more widely known.

Being a fan of the original novels, I approached this retelling with a little trepidation.  I know that Scalzi is an excellent writer, but would his vision of the fuzzies and their world work for me, either by itself or as compared to the original?  I’m happy to say that it does both, and wonderfully.

While the bones of the original novel remain in this new novel, there are some significant changes.  Jack Holloway was conceived by Piper as an older man, well past his prime.  Scalzi paints Jack as a man in his mid-thirties, and he gives him the background to allow him to actively participate in the fight to prove the fuzzies’s sentience.  This brings a lot more tension to the final scenes in the courtroom, as it allows the main character to be right in the middle of the action.  I enjoyed watching him whip out legal arguments and wield them like weapons.

There’s also a change in the history of the fuzzies themselves.  Without giving anything away, Piper’s novels glossed over something that could be seen as a plot loophole invalidating much of what happens in the first book.  Later authors picked up on this and ran with it.  Scalzi’s change neatly deals with that little problem.  I will admit, however, that after decades of having one story in the back of my head, the change was jarring upon first encountering it.  I soon accepted it, though, and as most readers won’t have read the original novels, I doubt it will be an issue to the majority of readers.

The author weaves in a lot of worldbuilding and little significant details, and he does so with such care that you probably won’t notice what he’s doing.  Several things that seem like “throwaway” details become quite important later on, and it’s a testament to the author’s writing skill that readers likely won’t see what’s coming until it happens.  There’s not an ounce of fat on this story—everything is relevant, and you’ll be amazed at how well it all comes together.

I particularly liked the courtroom scenes where the fuzzies’s sentience is being decided.  This isn’t a dry procedure with hours of bland bits of evidence being presented.  Events in this novel happen quickly, and thus the trial involves bombshell after bombshell without feeling like it’s forced.  This is just damn good plotting at work, and I devoured this sequence with the kind of glee that you get when seeing someone getting a just comeuppance.

I can’t say enough good things about Fuzzy Nation.  Not just a wonderful reboot of a classic series, it stands on its own as a tightly-plotted and deeply engrossing first contact novel.  I recommend picking this one up in hardback, because it’s one you’re going to want to keep in your collection.  I hope that Mr. Scalzi intends to continue with this series, and if he does, I’ll be first in line to buy a copy.

This review was originally posted on May 5, 2011.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

“Every time Bill Bryson walks out the door, memorable travel literature threatens to break out. His previous excursion along the Appalachian Trail resulted in the sublime national bestseller A Walk in the Woods. In A Sunburned Country is his report on what he found in an entirely different place: Australia, the country that doubles as a continent, and a place with the friendliest inhabitants, the hottest, driest weather, and the most peculiar and lethal wildlife to be found on the planet. The result is a deliciously funny, fact-filled, and adventurous performance by a writer who combines humor, wonder, and unflagging curiousity.

Despite the fact that Australia harbors more things that can kill you in extremely nasty ways than anywhere else, including sharks, crocodiles, snakes, even riptides and deserts, Bill Bryson adores the place, and he takes his readers on a rollicking ride far beyond that beaten tourist path. Wherever he goes he finds Australians who are cheerful, extroverted, and unfailingly obliging, and these beaming products of land with clean, safe cities, cold beer, and constant sunshine fill the pages of this wonderful book. Australia is an immense and fortunate land, and it has found in Bill Bryson its perfect guide.”

This year I started re-reading some old favorite books, and I had to include Bryson’s works in that category. His narrative A Walk in the Woods was the book that truly got me interested in non-fiction and sent me down the rabbit hole of learning about subjects that I never would have imagined being interested in. In the case of this book, it’s not that I was never interested in Australia, but more that I never really saw anything about it. The most that I thought I knew was that it is home to tons of things that can kill you.

In a Sunburned Country doesn’t gloss over the murderous capacity of the continent and its resident critters, but it also conveys the stark beauty of the place. From Uluru, the massive rock formation sacred to the Aboriginal people, to the beach where a former Australian prime minister was swept out to sea and vanished, Bryson’s wanderings take him to both large cities and isolated hamlets, to sweeping vistas and small forgotten corners.

What it turned out that I appreciated the most was Bryson’s commitment to learning about Australia’s history, politics, people, and culture. During his narrative, he writes about the books that he reads along the way, the newspapers he picks up, and the people that he talks to. He doesn’t shy away from touching on the plight of the Aboriginal people or the uncomfortable reactions of white Australians when the subject is raised. He delves into scientific discoveries and foolhardy ventures. All in all, Australia is a much more interesting place than its lack of prominence in the nightly news would lead you to believe.

And of course, being Bryson, he infused his narrative with his own signature brand of humor, that dry combination of American sarcasm and British absurdity. I always laugh out loud when reading about his attempts to body board with friends, or hearing his observations on some of that lethal wildlife. Learning and laughter–that’s what Bryson excels at.

Curious about the land of kangaroos and koalas? I wholeheartedly recommend this book as an excellent starting point.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Literary Lines–October 18

“We are awfully lucky to be here–and by ‘we’ I mean every living thing.  To attain any kind of life in this universe of our appears to be quite an achievement.  As human we are doubly lucky, of course: We enjoy not only the privilege of existence but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it better.  It is a talent we have only barely begun to grasp.”

–from A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Everything Trump Touches Dies by Rick Wilson

“In Everything Trump Touches Dies, political campaign strategist and commentator Rick Wilson brings his darkly funny humor and biting analysis to the absurdity of American politics in the age of Trump. Wilson mercilessly exposes the damage Trump has done to the country, to the Republican Party he served for decades, and to the conservative movement that has abandoned its principles for the worst President in American history.

No left-winger, Wilson is a lifelong conservative who delivers his withering critique of Trump from the right. A leader of the Never Trump movement, he warns his own party of the political catastrophe that leaves everyone involved with Trump with reputations destroyed and lives in tatters.

Wilson unblinkingly dismantles Trump’s deceptions and the illusions to which his supporters cling, shedding light on the guilty parties who empower and enable Trump in Washington and the news media. He calls out the race-war dead-enders who hitched a ride with Trump, the alt-right basement dwellers who worship him, and the social conservatives who looked the other way.

Everything Trump Touches Dies deftly chronicles the tragicomic Trump story from the early campaign days through the shock of election night, to the inconceivable trainwreck of Trump’s first year. Rick Wilson provides not only an insightful analysis of the Trump administration, but also an optimistic path forward for the GOP, the conservative movement, and the country.

Combining insider political analysis, blunt truths, and black humor, Everything Trump Touches Dies is perfect for those on either side of the aisle who need a dose of unvarnished reality, a good laugh, a strong cocktail, and a return to sanity in American politics.”

Full disclosure before we get into this: I’m a registered Democrat, and as you can probably guess from that nugget of info, not a fan of our current president.  One thing I try to do, though, is to seek out points of view that I may not agree with so that I have a more rounded view of things.  Now admittedly, I haven’t been able to bring myself to read books by the likes of Cory Lewandowski or Newt Gingrich, but I have been trying to read books by conservative commentators who take a more neutral view of things.  By doing so, I have learned a lot about the way our two major parties and their politics have evolved (or devolved in some cases) since the Nixon era and how we got to the point we’re at now.  I’ve encountered critiques of the Democrats that I think have merit as well.

All of this is by way of saying that no, I’m not perfect and I do have my own personal views, but I make a conscious effort to not get caught up in a liberal echo chamber.

I was initially drawn to Wilson’s book not because of the title (although I’d be lying if I said it didn’t give me a snicker), but because he is described as a longtime conservative and Republican strategist.  I thought that he might have interesting insights into the current state of the country that gave me a few laughs in the bargain.  Goodness knows we can all use one nowadays.

Sad to say, this book didn’t live up to expectations.  That has nothing to do with the content, honestly; rather, it’s more a matter of how the book is written.  The whole issue of “dark comedy” that the book jacket espouses never quite materializes.  It’s obviously something that can be done–late night comedians do it all the time.  Seth Meyers, in particular, has excelled at blending comedy with in-depth looks at current issues, often devoting up to twelve minutes to his “Closer Look” segment.  In Wilson’s book, I think he was just trying too hard to be edgy.  He does have some witty bits, but there were many times that I wanted him to just stop looking for superlatives and get on with the book already.

On the other hand, the author does offer up some interesting food for thought on various topics.  One that sticks out in my head is his statement that it seems that China’s retaliatory tariffs were aimed squarely at industries in the mid-America red states.  If that’s true, that’s a fascinating tidbit of info about current global politics.  I wish these little factoids had been presented a little more cleanly, simply because some of the internal structure of individual chapters sometimes gets slightly messy, but there are there to be discovered.

All in all, this isn’t the worst book that I’ve read about our current political situation.  There are some thought provoking ideas scattered throughout, and even though I have issues with the author’s writing style, I think the book will appeal to some readers.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Aftertime by Sophie Littlefield

“Awakening in a bleak landscape as scarred as her body, Cass Dollar vaguely recalls surviving something terrible. Having no idea how many weeks have passed, she slowly realizes the horrifying truth: Ruthie has vanished.

And with her, nearly all of civilization.

Where once-lush hills carried cars and commerce, the roads today see only cannibalistic Beaters — people turned hungry for human flesh by a government experiment gone wrong.

In a broken, barren California, Cass will undergo a harrowing quest to get Ruthie back. Few people trust an outsider, let alone a woman who became a zombie and somehow turned back, but she finds help from an enigmatic outlaw, Smoke. Smoke is her savior, and her safety.

For the Beaters are out there.

And the humans grip at survival with their trigger fingers. Especially when they learn that she and Ruthie have become the most feared, and desired, of weapons in a brave new world….”

There is so much that I liked about this novel that it’s tough to figure out where to start.  Littlefield has balanced all of the elements so well that they intermingle and play off of each other in a way that I don’t often see.  Characters, plot, backstory, and setting have all been written with a rare skill and talent.

The setting is designed to please someone like me.  The story takes place in Northern California, and in fact references places that I have visited.  With so few books set in our area, I tend to enjoy the ones that do make Northern California their home.  In this novel, it also adds to the brutality of what happens, because of that very familiarity.  Readers who are not from this area will still enjoy the novel, and they will still feel the horror of what happens, but I think it will have a special poignancy for us residents.

For those who are squeamish, be advised that the novel does contain some scenes that verge on the gruesome.  The zombies (here called Beaters) do not attack indiscriminately; rather, they have learned to drag a victim to their nests and consume them there, often while the poor person is still alive.  The sheer terror and pain involved in these attacks comes through the pages and can be hard to read.  Admittedly, I had to put the book down a few times and walk away because it was very disturbing to me.  I wasn’t grossed out—a book that does that isn’t one that I want to read—but I was upset by the idea of such things happening.  The author doesn’t delve too far into the grotesque, but she gives you just enough to bring across that sense of horror.

The story isn’t one of mere survival, although that’s the level that most inhabitants of the world have been reduced to.  Rather, this story has a goal: Cass needs to get her daughter Ruthie back from those who are holding her.  The fact that the novel has a purpose beyond just “survive the zombies and rebuild society” puts it several notches above other novels in the genre.

The author makes a daring choice with regards to her main character: Cass is a recovering alcoholic who was only weeks sober when society fell apart.  Because of this, readers get to see the world through the eyes of someone who is uniquely unable to deal with it and, at the same time, uniquely poised to cope.  Cass references AA and its philosophies a lot, and it gives a structure to how she functions within this terrible new world.  At times, it’s heartbreaking to watch her struggles, because she tries so hard and suffers so much.

Sophie Littlefield is right up there with Mira Grant as the best zombie novelists on the shelf, and this is not praise that I give out lightly.  Aftertime is a kick in the gut that is nonetheless one of the most fascinating and sobering reads you’ll ever find.  Forget about The Walking Dead—grab this book and prepare to have your world shaken.

This review was originally posted on January 3, 2012.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Monkey Mind by Daniel B. Smith

“Daniel Smith’s Monkey Mind is the stunning articulation of what it is like to live with anxiety. As he travels through anxiety’s demonic layers, Smith defangs the disorder with great humor and evocatively expresses its self-destructive absurdities and painful internal coherence. Aaron Beck, the most influential doctor in modern psychotherapy, says that “Monkey Mind does for anxiety what William Styron’s Darkness Visible did for depression.” Neurologist and bestselling writer Oliver Sacks says, “I read Monkey Mind with admiration for its bravery and clarity. . . . I broke out into explosive laughter again and again.” Here, finally, comes relief and recognition to all those who want someone to put what they feel, or what their loved ones feel, into words.”

I don’t normally review non-fiction, or indeed anything besides science fiction and fantasy.  I felt compelled by this book, though, not only to read it but to write about my experience reading it.  And it’s going to be a hard review to write.

Allow me to explain.

The full title of this book is Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety.  I was diagnosed with panic disorder back in 1990, so you can imagine my interest in reading a story about someone living with a condition that is so familiar to me.  I didn’t go into it looking for wisdom or advice—I’ve gotten plenty of that over the course of time, useful and otherwise—but I was hoping to see the experience of anxiety through the eyes of another.  Knowing, as I do, that the anxious can be sensitive to criticism, I’m going to have a hard time being honest about how much I disliked this book.

I have no quibble with Smith’s actual experience of his anxiety.  Every person’s struggle with it is different and unique, although there are many symptoms and traits that tend to be similar no matter what.  But for a book that purports to be a “hilarious” look at the tragedies and triumphs, it’s incredibly negative.  I didn’t like the tone that the author often took, which was a cross between a self-deprecating “woe is me, this is all my fault” attitude and looking for anyone and anything to blame for his condition.  He also seems to think that anxiety sufferers are, by their very natures, toxic to those around them.  This is hardly encouraging to any readers who might be having their own issues with anxiety.

Now, a lot of what I just wrote is personal preference, and I freely admit that.  A “memoir of anxiety” needn’t take a positive tone to be successful, by any means.  I do, however, think that Smith’s stated aims in writing the book and what actually came out in the writing were two entirely different things.

Taking a more technical look at the writing, there was a quote from Pride and Prejudice came to mind: “He studies too much for words of four syllables.”  Far too much of the book is taken up with lengthy quotes from Kierkegaard, Philip Roth and the like.  I know that the author has spent a lot of time researching and reading about mental illness—he says as much in this book—and it feels like he wants to work as much of that material into this book as possible.  The quotes often slow down the narrative flow, and after a while, it felt like the author was trying to show how educated and well-read he is.  The story could easily have been written without so much literary navel-gazing.

Structurally, the book is all over the place.  Part of that is due to the proliferation of quotes from other sources, but I think it’s also due to the author trying to link his past and present in a bid to explain his anxiety’s roots.  The story is arranged in roughly chronological order, but there is some jumping around time-wise, and there are many asides about aspects of anxiety that seem shoehorned in at moments where they don’t really fit.  For example, during the section about his time working for The Atlantic, he suddenly goes into a dissertation on sweating.  Maybe better organization would have made this work better, but I don’t know.

I do have to wonder if all of the positive reviews for this book were from people who don’t suffer from anxiety.  After I wrote the bulk of this review, I went onto Amazon to see what others thought, and it does seem that the vast majority of the negative reviews are from people like me—those who live with anxiety.  I found that my reaction wasn’t atypical at all.  Monkey Mind may be a fairly accurate representation of one person’s experience with anxiety brought on by certain specific events, but it does not give a good picture of anxiety to those who don’t already know what it’s like.

This review was originally posted on November 4, 2013.

This book was borrowed from the Yolo County Public Library, Davis branch.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

VIII by H. M. Castor

“VIII is the story of Hal: a young, handsome, gifted warrior, who believes he has been chosen to lead his people. But he is plagued by the ghosts of his family’s violent past and once he rises to power, he turns to murder and rapacious cruelty. He is Henry VIII.”

I have an odd fascination with British history, and especially with the Tudor era.  So much was changing in the world at that time that much of the historical record reads like the most fantastical novel you could ever hope to pick up.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of gaps in our knowledge where documentation is slim or nonexistent.  One of those periods is the childhood of King Henry VIII.  Never meant for the throne, he was forced into the role of ruler due to the death of his older brother Arthur.

I’ve read many novels about this time period, most notably ones by Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir.  Most of what I’ve read has also focused on the women, so outside of the non-fiction that I’ve also read, I didn’t ever get a feel for what we do know about Henry’s early years.  Castor attempts to imagine some of those details, extrapolating from what we do know, and also tries to account for how a shining paragon of English royalty turned into the tyrant that we all know and love to hate.

The author’s success at this endeavor is mixed, to say the least.  Castor set herself a hard task: show Henry as a bright, intelligent child and get us to care about him despite what we know he will do, and then show his descent without losing the characterization that she already set up.  In this, she succeeds.  Henry as a boy is shaped by those around him and by the circumstances in which he finds himself.  Castor takes an interesting tack in painting Henry VII as a cruel and domineering father, and although there’s no evidence of this historically, it does play pretty well into Henry’s character makeup.

The author also excels at giving readers a sense of the world as it existed in the late 1400s to mid-1500s.  The author has obviously done a ton of research, and even state in an author’s note that just about everything she described in the novel was found in the inventory of Henry’s possessions at his time of death.  Knowing that lends a strong air of historical reality to the narrative.

What I didn’t think worked all that well was the pacing.  Henry’s life before his father’s death takes up just a few pages shy of half the book.  Another 120 pages cover from his coronation to his divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.  His tempestuous marriage to Anne Boleyn lasts for around 50 pages.  The final 52 pages cover his last four wives and his death.  By the end, the author is omitting major chunks of time, and wives three through six are hardly mentioned.

The greater missed opportunity here lies in what the author said was her goal: to not only explore Henry’s younger years, but to show his progression from favored youth to cruel dictator.  And if you know anything about history, you know that it’s not just his treatment of his wives in which he shows his colors.  Castor missed some golden opportunities to delve into his general callousness.  The executions of Bishop Fisher and Thomas More only get a brief mention, and yet they shook the world when they happened.  The Pilgrimage of Grace, the Northern rebellion in which Henry promised to pardon the participants and then executed the leaders, isn’t even mentioned specifically—just a few words about the north being filled with rebellion that needs to be constantly put down.  Henry’s cruelty cut across all aspects of life, and confining it to his treatment of his wives is, in my opinion, too narrow.

I could have done without the supernatural element, because it wasn’t handled very well.  From a young age, Henry sees visions of a boy with straw-colored hair who is often crying with pain and obviously suffering.  Henry continues to see this specter throughout his life, usually right before some of his most traumatic losses.  Its first appearance is in the Tower of London, where young Henry has just found out about the “Princes in the Tower”, the young princes who were imprisoned there and vanished, presumably murdered.  The story sort of leads you to believe that the apparition is one of the princes, but that doesn’t turn out to be the case.  Since the author said that she wanted to show how Henry was haunted by the demons of his family’s past, the way things play out didn’t make sense to me.

There was a lot to like in this novel, especially the attention to historical detail.  I did, however, feel that the author could have tightened her pacing and really explored Henry’s character.  He’s a deliciously cruel, terribly controlling man, and his actions form a tale that could give a sensitive reader nightmares.  I went through this book in a single day, but I kept having the nagging feeling that it could have reached even higher.  VIII might be a good introduction to Henry’s character, but the meat of his reign is ignored.

This review was originally posted on September 3, 2013.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

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