December 30, 2003

The Radiation Sonnets, Jane Yolen

Subtitle: For my love, in sickness and health.

Formality makes it easier to talk about some things. That is, I think, the strength of this book. The sonnets were written in the course of her husband's radiotherapy, mostly speaking to him.

A little distance, and it occurs to me that I can think of great sonnet sequences of courtship (successful and unsuccessful) and some on ending a relationship, but no others from inside a happy marriage.

ISBN: 1-56512-402-2

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The Yellow Arrow, Victor Pelevin

It's like all the non-B-movie elements of an Iain M. Banks novel. The technology is vast, destructive, implausible; the humans petty and melancholy; the end not happy, but less painful than I had expected. Pelevin's version is very short.

If I were not so low in my tastes, I would probably be thinking of other Russian novels, all of them about passive accomodation to hurtling doom. The Yellow Arrow is a train that never stops, so large the the protagonist has never seen either end, and it's heading for a ruined bridge. Most of the riders are unconscious of this; they scuffle for better berths, steal bits of the train itself, throw the uncoffined dead ceremoniously out the window.

Translated by Andrew Bromfield.

ISBN: 0-8112-1324-2

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December 26, 2003

Dinosaur Summer, Greg Bear

This might have started the same way Darwinia did, as an affectionate sequel to Arthur Conan Doyle's Lost World. Bear took exactly the opposite tack in fitting that world to ours; he rearranges geography a bit to make the survival of dinosaurs just plausible, keeps to the 1940s to make the mentalite of the heroic narration just plausible - but the novel is entirely about getting particular dinosaurs to a particular place, and then maybe getting home again.

Bear fully indulges dinosaur geekery, and there are wonderful descriptions of reconstructed or extrapolated dinosaurs. Charming illustrations, too.

ISBN: 0-446-60666-9

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Tooth and Claw, Jo Walton

I admire the sinuous mind that can enjoy Anthony Trollope's novels but decide that they aren't really about humans - women, especially, being misrepresented - but about dragons. Tooth and Claw is a cross-section of major Trollopian themes, in a society of dragons with explicit biological reflections of Victorian landed morals. For instance: inheritances include the right to feast on the dead, and lordship the right to feast on the weak; a maiden is covered with an unmistakable blush when a suitor gets too close to her, and a blushing maiden is either engaged or ruined. Parsons aren't supposed to fly, much less hunt, and have crises of faith when confronted with the Old beliefs.

I recognize the Victorian novel in all this, and some sentences are outright Trollopian. I enjoyed it greatly. It was a romp. The oddity, though, is that the accusation is particularly unfair to Trollope. I really don't think he believed that women were innately what Victorian mores expected them to be; in Can You Forgive Her?, for instance, it seems to me that by expectation you can't, but by Trollope's leading you can. I also remember him being startlingly more accepting of "Boston marriages" than, for instance, Henry James' The Bostonians, although to my embarassment I can't remember which Trollope novel I'm thinking of... Trollope certainly thought people would be happier if they could conform themselves to society, but he didn't think everyone could, he sympathizes with some characters who can't, and he's always conscious of the enormous pressures brought to bear on everyone in society to keep them all mutually sociable. This is one reason his novels are so gloriously long.¹

However, Walton's argument is a fair attack on Charlotte M. Yonge². Yonge was pinned into a narrow ecclesiastical taste; her good women accordingly must renounce their own gifts; villainesses are interesting but far too rare.

¹All of which can be argued over at nearly equal length, and regularly is.

²Pushing a little harder, it's effective mockery of such evo-socio-biologists as reliably find that our nature and development fit us just exactly to a society in which those who are now rich and powerful will continue to be so. I doubt it's what Walton meant, I don't remember anything that seemed a commentary on modern life or even from a modern perspective. But writing about dragons who have to act so cruel, or starve, points up the free will we, or the Victorians, had in most of those acts of cruelty. ...And now that I think about it, even her dragons might not need to be so cruel, they just find it hard to resist the comparative advantage from being so. There is an emancipation movement, little detailed.

ISBN: 0-765-30264-0

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The Grey Mist Murders, Constance & Gwenyth Little

A screwball 1930s murder mystery; the narrating heroine cracks wise, all right, and the hero is square-jawed but no pushover. They're neither of them any too bright, but the plot and the nattering kept me too busy to mind.

This is the first mystery by these '30s authors. The modern introduction suggests that it's also the weakest one with the least competent heroine. The sisters wrote another score of mysteries together, and my library has nearly all the Rue Morgue Press reprints; perfect for 'flu days.

ISBN: 0-915230-26-7

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Darwinia, Robert Charles Wilson

I might say that Wilson starts with an Arthur Conan Doyle plot, connects it to Edgar Rice Burroughs, notices that neither makes sense in light of current science, distracts us with a classic gaslight-era Destruction of London, explains the destruction with science-fiction reminiscent of Greg Egan's Permutation City, explains that with an enormous nod to Cordwainer Smith, makes the whole feel like the snakes-and-spiders Change War of Fritz Leiber; and haunts all of it with a World War I that never happened, so the Wilfrid Owen horror is phrased in Civil War melancholy. And I'd enjoy saying it. I enjoyed the novel, too.

ISBN: 0-812-56662-9

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December 23, 2003

Low Port, Sharon Lee & Steve Miller, eds.

The theme of the anthology is poor, background & support characters - on the lower decks of the space ship or in the castle kitchen. The perfume of High Melodrama which one expects from the editors shows up in the plots: most of the characters are the most successful of the low, they survive and usually win their battles against the law. If the stories were turned into novels, I'd expect these protagonists to turn into powerful people not confined to Low Port.

This is more pleasant to read than a realism in which all the heroes die or wish they had. I just think it makes the premise usual.

Of the stories, I particularly liked Bidding the Walrus (Lawrence M. Schoen), a funny take on a famous fairytale; Find a Pin (Ru Emerson), not science fiction or fantasy, which has a character most morally heroic and least conventionally heroic - and most hurt by success. I want to read the unionizing-in-space novel that should grow out of The Gate Between Hope and Glory (Holly Phillips). Angel's Kitchen (Chris Szego) would make a good song, in a Loreena McKinnit filkable way.

I continually expected Grimjack to show up.

ISBN: 159222012-6

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December 19, 2003

Unhinged, Sarah Graves

Possibly a new category of cozy - the running joke is DIY repair of a large old house in Maine. No real advice given, but it's good for continual falling-off-ladder into explosive solvent laughs.

The main character is not at all a sweet curious Everywoman with an unusual nose for murder; she has a past not just checkered but shady, possibly blotted, so it makes a lot of sense that she sees trouble coming, knows what to do about it, and doesn't consult the police. She's reasonably likeable anyway. There's an expected cast of eccentric-but-lovable secondary characters. Not deep, but not bad.

ISBN: 0-553-380229-1

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December 18, 2003

The Shadow King, Jane Stevenson

The previous novel, The Winter Queen, had an unlikely romance between Elizabeth of Bohemia and a theologian (and exiled African prince). They were secretly married and as secretly had a son, the protagonist of this novel.

It's entirely a grown-up historical novel - the situations could be setups for swashbuckling and intrigue and Man-in-the-Iron-Mask secrets. Instead the sober and cautious characters act within reasonable limitations, and it's gripping anyway. Seventeenth-century daily life was bloodsoaked enough, especially as the son is a doctor, and lives for a while in Barbados. He also has a completely unromantic, but very affectionate and moving, arranged marriage, to a woman who probably isn't going to turn out to be a princess in disguise.

Aphra Behn occurs as a character, and the one who most nearly buckles a swash, because she has so little common sense or self-control. (Or money.) Oh, she's a wonderful half-villainess.

ISBN: 0-618-14913-9

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December 17, 2003

The Secrets of Real Lace, Elizabeth M. Kurella

This particular book is about how to identify how a piece of lace was made, so it has many comparative closeups of machine laces and the handmade 'real' laces they imitated. The oddity is that the worst fault of the machine laces - the one visible from more than three inches away - is their poor large-scale design. It seems as though it would have been technically possible for them to be designed as well as the handmade ones, or even better, or most likely exactly the same. Maybe the machines were awfully hard to program. (To look up: Lace Machines and Machine Laces, Pat Earnshaw, 1986. Lace was so valuable and the market for it so large that lacemaking machinery must have been at the edge of possibility - patterned knits by machine in the late seventeenth c., jacquard apparatus lace (?) by 1825.)

The main difference between the machine and hand lace, especially the (unbelievably labor-intensive) bobbin laces, is that the machine lace is done with more or fewer repetitions of only one or two stitches in one direction. Once the author points it out, it is easy to see the effect of that, something like a picture from a dot-matrix printer - even far away there's a direction and grain to the fabric that overrides the decorative pattern in it. Hand lace can completely change the direction and roughness and shape as well as the density of the stitch, so that the elements - petals, swags, feathers - are shaded and grained like the things they represent. The result is like good engraving of the same picture.

Under a magnifying glass, the surprise in bobbin lace is that there's no difference between the material design and the background; the regular threads from the tightly-twisted net in the background unplait, hop a tiny distance into a motif, participate in some quite different kind of weaving, and can come out of the motif to plait up with threads they were nowhere near on their way in.

I don't know where to file books on lace - art, technology, or clothing? Possibly all three.

ISBN: 0-9642871-0-2

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Elegance, Kathleen Tessaro

This is loosely in the Bridget Jones genre - young upwardly-mobile woman makes a fool of herself, learns not to, gets love of adorable rich young man. The hook is a (real) book of advice, called Elegance, by Genevieve Antoine Dariaux, which book Tessaro liked and her heroine reconstructs herself by.

I quite liked the resolution to the heroine's psychologically painful upbringing; her parents have gotten better, and she loves them more easily now. The friends are also better than mirrors for the heroine's development. I'm afraid the love-interests aren't.

I am enchanted to discover that Dariaux's book is reviewed on, which is itself a brilliant website, a gorgeously dense database-driven site that clearly works very well even for any not-computer-enthusiast users. I have a longstanding peeve with the "more whitespace!" theory of helpfiles, textbooks and instructions, and PatternReview blows that theory out of the water. If you present a lot of data in a way that illustrates its underlying logic, the presentation itself starts to explain things to the newcomer; and the ability to scan and compare is invaluable to the expert. Go, admire, do likewise; or learn from the review of Dariaux a sensible, comfortable set of rules for where zippers should go in clothes.

The bits of Dariaux quoted in Tessaro are against comfort; it's nice to see the other half of the argument.

ISBN 0-06-052225-9

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The Ladies' Hand Book of Fancy and Ornamental Work, Florence Hartley, R. L. Shep, ed.

Boy howdy, are the domestic decorations in this book hideous, for instance the Hour Glass Candle Stand on p. 21. There are also more makeshifts in technique than I expected - glue and ink to edge and back things, for instance. Probably my expectations are off because it's the fully fashioned doo-dahs that lasted long enough for me to see them.

Some of the patterns given might be useful in the way the Dover Publications art books are, and most of the text specifies material and color for each item, which is mildly historically interesting. Some of the techniques are explained well enough to learn without other example, esp. the point-lace stitches; I don't know about the tatting, netting, and crochet instructions.

There were engravings designed for Potichomanie - goodness, it really was the sticker industry of its day.

My favorite oddity is the firescreen of wings:

Fire screens composed of the wings of pheasants, or other game, are both pretty and useful; and when hung at the fireside, below the bell pull, form a nice addition to the decorations of a drawing-room. The wings must be cut off when the bird is fresh killed, and as near the body as possible; being careful not to ruffle the feathers.

Unfortunately it goes on to stretch the wings out as straight as possible, and then iron them flat, which sounds much less attractive than a wing with a bit of the wing's original grace left in it.

Patchwork quilt patterns are given, simple regular ones like Nine-patch; the author doesn't like silk patchwork, unless the silk really is scraps.

There is, in this State, an institution for the reformation of girls who have been imprisoned for some crime; they are taught to sew neatly, and each one is allowed to exercise for her taste and ingenuity in the manufacture of a patch work quilt, which she is allowed to take away with her when she leaves. I have seen one hundred and fifty beds in this institution, each covered with a different pattern of patchwork quilt; some very tasteful and pretty, others not.

ISBN: 0-914046-13-6

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Spaceland, Rudy Rucker

This is of course a follow-on to Flatland, with a four-spatial-dimensional creature visiting a human. Rucker's version of Flatland itself is less socially parodic but much more biologically witty.

The fourth dimension is also, I think, a raunchy parody of The Divine Comedy. Very loose if so, but I ought to go check the geography of Heaven and Hell.... and Rucker's four-dimensional shining city is curiously Swedenborgian.

The rest of it is a parody of high-tech IPOs.

ISBN: 0-765-30367-1

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December 07, 2003

O' Artful Death, Sarah Stewart Taylor

The blurbs compare this to the Amanda Cross academic mysteries. I don't think so; this novel is too congratulatory of its heroine, too many people around her like her more than seems plausible. The mystery was OK, but the character development was unconvincing because the secondary characters were so uniformly compliant.

ISBN: 0-312-30764-0

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The Coffee Trader, David Liss

A café noir, a half-thriller or mystery woven through financial speculation on the early market for coffee in Europe.

It gets a lot of its film noir feel from the social conditions of the Portuguese Jews living in Amsterdam in 1659. They've fled the Inquisition. Many were brought up as Secret Jews and are having to relearn or learn how to live as Jews. They are proud of being, on the whole, well-off among the burghers of Amsterdam, so they are also dissociating themselves from the poor Eastern European Jews who are trying to immigrate.

The internal ruling council of the Portuguese Jews therefore pretends to feel equal to the main society, but they're acting as enforcers against their own and are terrified - justly - of even a hint of scandal in the larger world. The cross-loyalties and dirty politics are far past the complication of, say, Raymond Chandler's Daly City. The several narrators, adventurers and speculators all, play the game more or less well.

The other driver of events is coffee itself, a perfect drug for the traders who decide to make a market for it.

There is no heroic shamus, no one to navigate between high society and low and bring out the truth. The weak lose everything; the ruthless get rich and still live in fear and regret.

ISBN: 0-375-50854-6

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December 04, 2003

The Support Economy, Shoshanna Zuboff, James Maxmin

Subtitle: Why Corporations are Failing Individuals and the Next Episode of Capitalism.

I couldn't finish the book. I couldn't even skim it properly, so this is not a fair review. Possibly someone will come along and tell me what I missed, but mostly this is a placeholder to tie this Of the Moment! book into some history in the queue.

Now. My extremely patchy summary of the book is that the best employment opportunity for anyone who would need to worry about such a thing is - as a servant. Maybe as a timeshare servant, a concierge of the call center. (Ancien regime French is an odd choice of euphemism for a class system.) The New Enterprise Logic, through (thought-experiment) a support federation, pays all their routine bills... also pays their credit cards... and maintains cumulative records... renews memberships, makes insurance payments, pays subscriptions, and stores personal information about passwords, pin numbers, etc. ... SweetSupport checks with the [clients] to confirm payment amounts.... The support federation has lots of cost-comparison and projection software, and friendly people answering the phones for their personal clients. Its backend services are distributed among similar support federations, magically (?) leading to efficiency and transparency instead of monopsony and technological lock-in.

I don't see why that's a reasonable business; most of those functions should come built into one's mass-market OS in three years, and I certainly see risks in storing all my data with someone else. There's a cyberpunk novel lurking about the hideous call-center jobs at SweetSupport, and how two lonely peons gaslight the worst clients. It has three endings: one of cruel discovery and revenge in all directions; one in which the peons discover where the cash is really coming from and reroute it to themselves; one in which the whole world changes for the better.

Some of the other principles of the book are clearly meant to explain why this won't turn into a dystopia; for instance, The distribution of value thus leads to a more extensive distribution of ownership than was the case under managerial capitalism. Apparently one is likely to be an equity holder of the federation one uses; and all value originates in the trust of the individual... I really, especially don't get that part. It seems to be derived from No cash is released into the federation and its enterprises until the individual pays. What, it falls off trees now? Also, how is this balanced against the remaining material economy, which doesn't get smaller as people get rich and networked?¹ Why doesn't this turn into a system in which the few with a claim on natural resources or important IP or political power get all the "support"?

But, as I say, I couldn't read the book, so don't trust me. Why couldn't I read it? Because the second paragraph of the first chapter begins:

In the second half of the twentieth century a new society of individuals emerged - a breed of people unlike any the world has ever seen. Educated, informed, traveled, they work with their brains, not their bodies. They do not assume that their lives can be patterned after their parents' or grandparents'. Throughout human history the problem of identity was settled in one way - I am my mother's daughter; I am my father's son. But in a discontinuous and irreversible break with the past, today's individuals seek the experiences and insights that enable them to find the elusive pattern in the stone, the singular pattern that is "me." Their sense of self is more intricate, acute, detailed, vast, and rich than at any other time in human history.

The arguments seem to be based on the obvious discontent most people have with the current system, for instance widespread distrust of institutions, poor chances at promotion for most women; and they claim to be proposing a system in which everyone is better off. The haze of self-congratulation and chronological exceptionalism quoted above put me off all my attempts to find out why this won't collapse into a servant system. Maybe in the middle they propose a robot-supported Basic Income.

¹ In, oh, 1998, 1999, a coworker at Microsoft announced that the long nightmare of history was going to end because the economy had become digital! There was enough to go around!

We were in a 'Soft parking lot at the time, or rather standing under an arcade between a low fountain and rather a nice piece of environmental sculpture looking at the parking lot, and a more massive announcement that people with software wanted to trade it for material by the glossy long ton would be hard to state. As I remember, I said that archaeologists of the future would find at least as much Stuff among the rich of the '90s as among the rich of previous strata; probably more. I don't remember a rebuttal; vanity precludes memory.

ISBN: 0-670-88736-6

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