28 December 2013

Books glorious books

I haven't posted about books in over 6 months. I knew it had been a while, but that's still surprising to me. Must do better.

I slowed down posting about books before I stopped working at the library back in April. Since changing job I have been reading less, books don't surround me as they once did, but I certainly haven't stopped reading. I got to a point where I had so much to catch up on that it was just easier to stop, plus around June there was a heatwave (by UK standards) and I find it harder to think when I'm too hot. Still it's high time I got back into writing about books.

These aren't all the books I've read in the last 6 months, but a selection of my favourites. The end of the year seems like an appropriate time to list things.

Earth Girl - Janet Edwards
This YA SF book is about a girl with an autoimmune condition that dramatically impacts her life and a love of history (I may have experienced some fellow feeling). Jarra is smart and stubborn, determined to show the off-worlders she has always resented that those stuck on Earth aren't inferior. There's romance and drama and unexpected twists as well as an interesting vision of the future. The setting doesn't rely on dystopia for drama, if anything a triumph of the book is that its worldbuilding shows how ordinary life operates in a distant future with advanced tech and different cultures.

The Corpse-Rat King - Lee Battersby
A weird fantasy starring a cynical conman who somehow gets confused with the kind of the dead. Marius's talks his way back to the world of the living by promising to bring the dead a new king, then tries to avoid fulfilling his vow. We get a lot of Marius's backstory, showing both his life and the history of his country. The twists and diversions are strange, unexpected and often comical, meaning that this doesn't feel like a typical fantasy.

Blood in the Water - Juliet E. McKenna
The 2nd book in the Lescari Revolution trilogy, my review of the 1st is here. This book deals with warfare as the rebels who are trying to rid their land of warring dukes put their plans into action. This story shows not only battles and magic but the repercussions that conflict has on those who don't fight. The characters and story are complex, with different viewpoints clashing just as strongly as armies and mercenaries.

Trickster Makes this World - Lewis Hyde
This non-fiction book explores the role of tricksters in various mythologies and posits what these figures say about humans and society. It was an interesting mix of mythology, anthropology, natural history and psychology. As well as looking at ancient and tribal cultures there was also discussion of how boundaries and creativity work in modern society with focus on variety of figures including artists and abolitionists. The book wasn't quite what I expected, it was a very broad view of how tricksters fall outside of defined categories and how the spirit of tricksters is important in the creation of human culture.

For my birthday (at the end of April) I got a Kindle, so I've started reading ebooks. I still prefer paper books, but I haven't read that many ebooks yet, so I'm still getting used to the interface. I expect I'll read more ebooks in future.

The Killing Moon (Kindle edition) - N. K. Jemisin
This fantasy is set in a world where the goddess of dreams is worshipped and peace must be upheld. The peace is upheld by Gatherers who harvest dream magic. When something dangerous and corrupt is created in secret a senior Gatherer and his apprentice must disrupt go against their vows and training in order to restore order. This is another excellent secondary-world fantasy from the author, whose debut trilogy I really enjoyed. The world is well constructed and has flavours of ancient Egypt but is much more than a copy of an existing culture, the characters are engaging and their viewpoints make sense despite how unusual their culture is.
Hookers and Blowe (Kindle edition) - Mhairi Simpson
This novella deals with a tough, successful police detective who suddenly find himself confronted by the supernatural. Fighting his bad memories and trying to find a way to do his job in circumstances he doesn't understand DC Robert Blowe has to try and combat killers he can't arrest. This fantasy crime is an inventive story with a hard bitten character who has unexpected depths.

Owl Stretching (Kindle edition) - Kate Laity
Ro is kind of a shaman, living in an uneasy world post-invasion where lazy aliens will eat anyone who comes to close. Her best friend, Simon, recently woke up from a ten year coma, and convinces Ro to go on a road trip to bury his dead cat. Ro also undertakes a spiritual journey that mirrors the ancient myth of a goddess descending to the underworld. Ro is a very engaging character, her telling of the story is full of tangents and quotes and asides. Her messy thinking, changing emotions and flaws make her very easy to like and fun to read about, and the story takes various unexpected twists.

Osama (Kindle edition) - Lavie Tidhar
Set in a world where Osama Bin Laden is a character in a cheap, pulpy paperback series. Private detective Joe is asked to track down the reclusive author of the series. Joe travels to cities around the world on the trail. I've enjoyed Lavie Tidhar's short stories and his distinctive style is clear in this novel too. Joe's investigation is interspersed with descriptions of terrorist attacks, fiction in the novel, yet all too real to the reader. Joe travels through a world that is familiar and yet different to our own, encountering people who seem to be somewhere else entirely where fiction is real. The locations are described in an immersive way that really gives the reader a sense of place. This feeling may have been enhanced because I read the book while I was on my first trip outside of the UK in about 4 years, so it was fitting to read a book with so much travel.

12 December 2013

Scandal - series 2

My thoughts on series 1 from the beginning of the year.

Scandal definitely got more interesting in series 2 and it some of the things that had previously annoyed me were gone (namely British lawyer) or reduced (the filming-through glass).

The Problem of the Week plots were mostly abandoned to focus on a larger and more involved arc, which allowed the show to live up to its name and provided many twists and turns. There was also a lot more development and back story for the existing characters and new ones. The level of political intrigue was ramped up massively with more attention put on the the President, First Lady and Chief of Staff, as well as new characters who are players int he political game. The first half of the series focused on a conspiracy which started during President Grant's election campaign and saw an unlikely alliance between many main characters, including Olivia. The second part of the series jumped ahead in time, the President dealt badly with revelations, Cyrus and Mellie scheme and squabble to keep influence over Grant, and Olivia & Co get involved in a dangerous web involving the intelligence agencies and a mole hunt.

Olivia Pope continues to be the focus of the show, although she increasingly shares screen time with other characters, mostly characters connected to the White House. Olivia's strength of will and fierce intelligence are still on display, but she is clearly haunted by her part in a conspiracy. She is often shown to be vulnerable emotionally, especially when it comes to her complex love life and relationship with President Grant.

Quinn did get much more interesting, her Secret Past turned out to be mysterious even to her. She used to be Lindsay, was framed for a bombing in which her boyfriend was killed and was spirited to Washington where she work up with a new identity. Her odd situation turns out to be part of a greater conspiracy and Olivia & Co must save her from prison and execution at the start of the series. After surviving the ordeal of her trial and discovering the truth, Quinn becomes interested in the covert world of intelligence and is Huck's unofficial apprentice. Her enthusiasm makes her more interesting although her newly learned skills take her to a dark place.

Huck's back story is revealed, he's not only ex-military but also a former Government assassin. His dangerous world encroaches on the story and his former colleagues, mentor and employers often appear. At one point Huck is captured and tortured and though he tries to shake off his old life his skills are often needed and he is never far away from breaking.

President Fitzgerald Grant and his First Lady Mellie are a much bigger part of this series and their troubled relationship had me uncertain who I felt sorry for. Mellie is a ruthless political animal who will do just about anything to get where she wants to be and I'm fairly certain Fitz didn't run for President so much as he was pushed. For all her scheming Fitz is little better, I honestly don't think he deserves to be President and he seems kinda weak-willed. The main times he shows any backbone is when making poor decisions. This is not a TV president I admire, and yet (like so many people in this show) my lack of respect or affection doesn't stop me from being interested.

Cyrus Bean -the gay, Republican, Chief of Staff- is part of various conspiracies and shows himself to be at least as ruthless as Mellie, and there are times when the two horrors are scheming against each other for Fitz's trust. Cyrus's husband James features more and in his role as a journalist he almost exposes what Cyrus did. I feel that Cyrus doesn't deserve James as a husband, especially as he seems positively irritated by anything resembling family life and has no problem manipulating him anyway he can.

Abbie ends up having a relationship with former DA David, whose life and career are ruined by Olivia & Co after he unsuccessfully prosecutes Quinn and tries to expose a conspiracy. For a while he and Abbie seem happy, but David blames Olivia for ruining his life. When he's in danger he turns to Olivia and her firm for help and seems to become part of the team, but there has been a lot of bad blood between them.

Harrison comes into his own more (I remembered his name this series) although he has little development or back story. He acts as Olivia's deputy and is probably the most brainwashed of the group (by Olivia - though Huck was actually brainwashed by his former bosses at one point). Harrison is incredibly invested in the idea of Olivia & Co being the good guys, the 'white hats' and gladiators. There is a constant misunderstanding of the meaning of the word gladiator.

Watching Scandal can be an odd experience because I don't feel affection for most of the characters, by and large they're horrible people who often make bad decisions. David, James and Huck are the only characters I feel sorry for without reservations, and Huck has done enough terrible things that it's hard to justify calling him a good person. And yet it is fascinating, the engrossing plot arc and increased pace have really paid off. There have been episode that felt twice as long because so much happened in them and the complexities of the characters work really well.
I read an article recently that described Scandal as a dark, perverted mirror of the West Wing, which I can understand. I enjoy Scandal but in a totally different way because tonally its an entirely different show. I don't generally think of West Wing when watching, which is probably to Scandal's benefit. President Grant's series finale announcement about whether he's running for a second term or not is a major plot point, but I simply cannot care about it as much as when President Bartlett did it. Plus the dramatic impact and soundtrack are nowhere near as cool. Having said that, the last minute reveal at the end of series 2 means I'm definitely looking forward to series 3.