David Sun, along with many of his peers—wealthy, constantly internet-connected, often drunk high school students—calmly watched, via webcam, as one of their fellows committed suicide. This worries his parents and the school shrink. His parents are too busy to actually, y’know, parent, so when the school shrink suggests that they invest in the latest gadget designed to help “disassociated” teenage boys learn to form health relationships, they go right ahead and buy their son a hot female robot. Er, “companion.” She comes with a built in Intimacy Clock; he only gets to snog the hot female robot after a designated amount of healthy social non-sexual bonding. If he tries to jump the gun, he gets an electric shock. Basically, they’re trying to use the promise of robot-nookie to train teenage boys to behave better. It’s a completely half-baked, insulting-to-women idea… and, therefore, frightening plausible.

Anyway, when David can’t get what he wants from his personal hot female robot—Rose—she ends up turning to Charlie, a lonely, depressed social misfit with abandonment issues. She helps him get some confidence and sense of companionship; he helps her gain some independence and a sense of personhood. (She’s a very advanced robot. (Incidentally, she’s significantly more advanced, emotionally and mentally, than the other companions we come across in the novel. This is noted but never explained.))

The novel is largely a meditation on the suckiness of breakups, and at that it succeeds pretty marvelously. The characters’ pain is palpable, but the plot moves along at a good clip and protects it from descending into melodrama. Rose tends to be over the top, but in a believable way; she’s learning how to be human, how to have feelings, how to think—there’s some trial and error, and it feels natural for her to overdo it.

It’s also an uncomfortable book. The male culture David inhabits is, without recognizing it, extremely sexist. Women, even those who aren’t robotic, are reduced to bodies, and even their bodies are reduced to, well, their girl parts. In groups, if girls are present, they’re mostly there to be witnesses to the supposed coolness of the guys—and the girls know it. And, of course, the book raises all sorts of sex issuess: are the companions just objects and no more need to consent than does a vibrator, or are they feeling beings? If they’re feeling beings, are they capable of giving informed consent, or are they like children and animals? For that matter, are the boys able to give informed consent? Are the parents participating in their sons’ sex lives by purchasing their bots? If a bot experiences the desire to kiss her assigned boy but the Intimacy Clock prevents it, is she being denied her sexual agency by her makers or by her body?

The actual writing about sex is mixed; the scenes of female masturbation and of awkward, not-very-good sex are very well done, but the scene of supposedly mind-blowing sex is painfully corny and overwritten.

Overall, though, it’s an interesting idea-driven book with a strong emotional core.

August 2010.

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Girl Parts ~ John M. Cusick

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Foundling Monster Blood Tattoo Book 1 D M CornishMonster Blood Tattoo, Book 1

Rossamünd was abandoned as an infant and grew up in a foundlingery, never an easy place but worse for a rather small boy saddled with a name more commonly associated with girls. Nonetheless, he’s been looked after carefully by a dormitory master and a parlor maid, and he’s made it through twelve years or so at the foundlingery with his sweetness and innocence intact, ready to be hired away—preferably by the navy—and live his life in the wide, monster-infested world. Maybe, if he’s brave enough, he’ll even earn a monster-blood tattoo, inked with the blood of a monster he’s slain. Instead, he’s hired to be a Lamplighter.

Rossamünd is a bit of an idiot—among other things, he thinks being a Lamplighter sounds unexciting, despite the fact that his almanac shows the relevant road to cut through sparsely-inhabited, and therefore likely monstrous, territory—so he finds his first and second adventures on his journey to the Lamplighters’ headquarters, and those adventures make up this volume. It also hints on several occasions after something strange about Rossamünd, but though the details remain unclear, it’s entirely too easy to guess the outline but never properly revealed in this book.

Despite these frustrations, it’s an enjoyable book. The world is incredibly detailed—the area in which the entire book takes place is only a very tiny portion of the full map included in the frontmatter, and there are about a hundred pages of glossary in the back—and generally interesting, complete with magic/technology riddled with limitations and side effects, a wide variety of monsters—in temperament and intelligence as well as in physicality. Rossamünd is sweet and has a decided capacity to learn, so by the end of the book he’s much less naive and daft than he started. It’s slow-paced, but aside from the ending—which comes forty pages or so too late—that’s not problematic; their world is slow-paced in such a way that the pace and the language really fits.

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Foundling ~ Monster Blood Tattoo

Leviathan Scott WesterfeldIn a Steampunk Austria-Hungary, Prince Aleksander sets off across Europe in a mechanical walker with his tutor, murderous countrymen on his heals. Meanwhile, in a Darwinpunk England, Deryn disguises herself as a boy to join the Royal Air Service and fly in a living airship—whale meets zeppelin. World War One ensues.

The world is well-developed and creative, especially the Darwinist living technology and the ways the two technology streams have clearly influenced one another. Seriously: it’s half Darwinpunk. That’s just awesome.

The main characters are unsurprising but believable and sympathetic, even if Alek is a bit daft sometimes. The minor characters are entertaining, particularly a lady scientist who is exactly the kind of character we’re programmed to like. And we do, mostly—but it’s no surprise that other characters find her incredibly annoying. The plot moves along briskly, without major twists but with plenty of small surprises and clever details to keep it interesting.

It’s the first in a series and doesn’t try to properly conclude, but it comes to a sensible stopping point; it’s generally a satisfying book, and Westerfeld has seeded plenty of fertile ground to explore in the next one.

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Leviathan ~ Scott Westerfeld

When You Reach Me Rebecca SteadThe 1978-1979 school year is perfectly normal for Miranda. Except that her best friend stopped speaking to her, there’s an apparently crazy man who sleeps with his head under the mailbox on her corner, a naked man is seen running by her school on several occasions, and weird things keep happening. Like her spare house key goes missing and three days later she finds a note asking her to write a letter in which she mentions the location of her spare house key.

When You Reach Me is very good. The writing is excellent and the eye for detail is amazing. The mystery aspects, mysterious and mundane—what’s the deal with the strange notes Mira gets? Why did Marcus punch Sal? What’s up with Annemarie and Julia?—are dealt with well, with excellent pacing and delicacy. It doesn’t just balance the ordinary life and the time travel elements; it melds them. I found the discourse on time-travel a bit tedious, especially as Mira was stubbornly not getting it, though it did serve to establish how time travel works in this narrative.

This was almost a one-sitting book for me. It wasn’t, partly because airplane turbulence plus fasting (it was Yom Kippur) does not equal happy reading time, and partly because I was enjoying it so much I didn’t want to be done with it. That said, had there not been jostling to disrupt my reading, I probably wouldn’t have been able to pull myself out of the book and pace myself.

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When You Reach Me ~ Rebecca Stead ~ Rebecca Stead’s Blog

Vampirates Book 4 Black HeartI picked up a copy of Vampirates: Black Heart and only realized when I was about to start reading that it’s not the first volume in a series, as I had thought, but the fourth. Oh well! I read it anyway. I’m really not sure I was missing much, though my synopsis might be a bit vague.

Twins Grace and Connor have found themselves in some strange circumstances since their father died, their mother having died – more or less – when they were infants. I gather there was a shipwreck, and they were rescued by pirates – Connor – and Vampirates – Grace. Each was immediately attracted to the lives of their rescuers, Connor joining a pirate crew and Grace befriending the Vampirates. At the beginning of this volume, they’ve been briefly reunited and are in position to learn about their mother and her history. Also to get embroiled in internal Vampirate politics and a possible clash building between the mortal Pirates and the Vampirates and deal with first romance, them being fourteen and this being a vampire book.

I was not expecting either great writing or a great plot. I was rather hoping for a trashily fun book, with swashbuckling.

I am sad to report that there is decidedly little swashbuckling.

There are, however, rather a lot of exclamation points, often at rather inappropriate times. For instance, a character who is supposed to “come across as an old curmudgeon”¹ should not use exclamation points. Ever, really, much less often. On a similar vein is, “‘No!’ Cheng Li said very calmly.”² On cannot, by definition, exclaim calmly.

The pirates are overly civilized, the good Vampirates are boring, and the evil Vampirates are unconvincing in their evil. The strange lapses of sense³ could be somewhat forgiven by fun and swashbuckling, but alas, both are lacking.

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¹p. 412
²p. 491
³Why is a character who’s supposed to be kept out of combat being trained for a deadly combat mission? What is up with the “pregnancy spell”? How is the idiot character better at negotiation than the intelligent captain?

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Vampirates: Black Heart

Nation Terry Pratchett Book CoverIn the 1870s, a tidal wave sweeps through the South Pacific. Mau is the only person left alive of his island Nation, and Daphne is the only person left alive on a British ship, conveniently wrecked on the same island. The two must stay alive, deal with their traumas, figure out what the Rules — of life, or society — are when no one else is alive to obey them, and, eventually, hold together the group of survivors that coalesces as, one by one, those who survived the wave find the ocean.

I haven’t read much Pratchett, but Nation adds fodder to my suspicion that I like his books when they’re silly and am frustrated by them when they’re dealing with serious issues. Nation is dealing with serious issues: grief, trauma, adulthood/life transitions/coming of age, independence, the existence of evil and the crisis of faith that can come after a disaster. This last is probably the main focus of the book, and probably my largest frustration. I felt like I was being hit over the head with Mau’s lost faith. To be fair, Mau probably felt like he was being hit over the head by his sudden disbelief in the gods, or at least their goodness, but it still made me want to skim instead of read. Worse, Mau has supernatural experiences and makes no attempt to reconcile them with his belief or disbelief in the gods. There is no questioning of these experiences, no looking at them in relationship to the existence or nonexistence of gods (or vice versa). Mau’s personality and his ability to doubt the gods is explained by a childhood inquisitiveness, a habit of asking difficult questions, and yet he inexplicably stops asking those questions.

“But wait! You mentioned another main character,” I hear you say. “What about this Daphne?” What about her? She seems to exist to prompt events more than to be a character. Actually, most of the women fit that description; they’re there, they occasionally do important stuff, but really, it’s about men trying to define and control their world. Plot-wise, I can partly excuse this as a reflection of both nineteenth-century British society and the Nation’s society; both are largely homosocial and patriarchal. Characterization-wise, it’s hard to excuse.

And the epilogue has one of the worst cases of Profundity Syndrome I’ve ever seen.

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Nation (Google Books) ~

impossible nancy werlinHave you ever really listened to the lyrics of Scarborough Fair? Even in the Simon and Garfunkel version, they’re a little bit creepy – asking a woman to do a series of impossible tasks to become a man’s true love. The version Werlin uses (one she crafted for the novel, though there are some recorded versions that are much closer to hers than to S&G) is much creepier – the woman has rejected the man (elfin knight) and must perform these three impossible tasks to avoid becoming his, and her daughters after her. And it’s a curse and a lesson for the Scarborough women, passed from mother to daughter as each gets pregnant at seventeen and goes insane just after her daughter is born. And so it has gone for hundreds of years, dozens of women, and now Lucy finds herself pregnant after being raped at the prom.

I spent most of the book wanting to hug her family – her foster parents and her childhood best friend. They did everything right. They hugged her when she needed hugs, they presented her options – including abortion – and offered their advice, but accepted it when Lucy disagreed. They took an unreal situation and developed a very real plan to solve it, simply because that’s what Lucy needed them to do. The Elfin Knight himself is seriously overdone, but he actually gets fairly little page-time, and otherwise the medieval curse and its resolution are woven seamlessly into Lucy’s twenty-first century issues as she struggles to deal with the rape, her pregnancy, school, etc, etc. The solutions she and her family find are creative but make sense. In the places it really matters, it’s really good.

So the Elfin Prince is over the top. So there are a few passages of ridiculous sap and profundity syndrome. [minor spoiler] So I wanted there to be a Scarborough woman born free of the curse, and am not satisfied to see the name die with the curse [/minor spoiler]. So I can’t not nitpick a little. But it dealt with rape and teen pregnancy well, with a remarkable family. Perhaps most importantly, it presented Lucy’s story as Lucy: it doesn’t moralize and say that the decisions she makes would be right for anyone else, just that they’re the right decisions for her.

It’s a book that makes it worth having Scarborough Fair stuck in your head for three days. And trust me, you will.

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Impossible ~ Nancy Werlin
My review of Nancy Werlin’s Extraordinary