Monday, October 20, 2014

Book Review: Red Seas Under Red Skies

The first I ever heard of Scott Lynch was him vehemently defending one of the characters in this book. The character in question is one Zamira Drakasha. She's a pirate captain. She's middle-aged. She's black. And she's a mom, who brings her toddlers on the high seas with her. Some fans were upset, claiming that this was unrealistic wish fulfillment. To which Lynch replied that he's writing speculative fiction, not history. Wish fulfillment is the name of the game.

Seriously though, you should go read his whole response. It's pretty amazing.

I filed that bit away until one friend and then another began gushing about Lynch's books, and I had no choice but to pick them up. Zamira wasn't in the first book, though it was still a very good novel. If a bit uneven. But I knew she featured in the second one, and I was excited to meet her.

Imagine my disappointment when it took her over half of the 760 page book to show up. Actually it wasn't that bad, because Zamira is far from the only interesting character created by Lynch. The book opens with Locke and Jean approaching the end of a two-year plan to rob a high-end casino. Flashbacks to the months following the end of the previous book help fill in the gaps, and it seems like everything is going well.

Until things start to get complicated. Locke and Jean find themselves unwilling servants of a man who knows too much about them. They try to balance his demands with their job until he forces them out to sea, effectively abandoning the initial plot thread of the book. It would be annoying if the pirates weren't so perfect. Everything eventually comes together in the thrilling conclusion, and I found myself having a hard time putting the book down. There are a few things I wish had happened differently, but for the most part it was excellent. Far better balanced than the first book

One of my favorite things about Lynch is the effort he makes to present both men and women equally. It's not that this is a perfect egalitarian society, that there aren't stereotypes and the like. But women are present in the background in a way that isn't always true. Even faceless groups of guards always have a handful of women in the mix. And the minor characters - the nobility and artisans and assassins - all have an equal chance of being a man or a woman. I'd have loved for there to have been some estrogen in the Gentlemen Bastards in the first book, but barring that it's nice to have so many female faces populating the rest of the world

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Weekend in New England

Kevin and I traveled up to New England last weekend with his mom to spend some time visiting family and friends. We were there for almost three whole days, and we managed to cram in a whole bunch of people. Some were out of town, but it's probably for the best. We might not have gotten any sleep if we'd really attempted to see everyone we know who lives in that area.

We landed in Providence mid-morning on Friday. We actually had some time to kill before we could visit Kevin's great aunt, so we spent some time exploring Roger Williams Park and downtown Providence. The city is adorable, much smaller than cities I'm used to. We got some great burgers for lunch, then found a brewery and had a few beers.

In the late afternoon, we headed over to the rehab center where we spent some time visiting with Kevin's great aunt, who will soon turn 100. Everyone caught up on the family gossip and we shared our wedding pictures. Then it was out to dinner with some cousins at a delicious Asian restaurant. After dinner we drove up to Massachusetts to spend the night with Kevin's aunt.

Saturday was mostly devoted to visiting with Kevin's grandmother. We took her out to lunch then showed her our wedding and honeymoon pictures. In the evening we drove in to Boston and got dinner with an old friend of mine who just started graduate school there. Then we met up with other friends for beers and went back to their place to play board games. Of course, I only made it halfway through the first game before I fell asleep. All that traveling takes it out of me.

The next morning we got up and went to brunch at a cute little restaurant with live jazz music. Then it was more board games and the beginning of the Patriots football game. We finished watching that game back at Kevin's aunts before heading back to Providence to fly home. Everything worked out perfectly timing-wise, and we made it home shortly after 10:00.

While we were gone, the cat tore into a brand new loaf of bread and ate some of it. This is the third time a loaf of bread has been eaten by one of the animals, and I've always blamed the dogs before (either Kina or Lily). But this time it was definitely the cat. They must all be in on it together, with the cat initiating and the dogs finishing off the loaf.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Book Review: Bad Feminist

If you frequent certain corners of the internet, it seemed like Roxane Gay was everywhere this summer. She released her novel An Untamed State to huge critical acclaim. I saw two different online book clubs devote their time to reading it as soon as it came out. Shortly thereafter, she released a collection of essays called Bad Feminist. Both of these books made it on to the New York Times Bestseller list.

I first heard about her because I began reading The Rumpus, where she was a contributing editor, right around the time An Untamed State came out. I hadn't heard about her before, but it wasn't long before I was seeing links to her writing all over the place. Then one of my favorite sites, The Toast, announced that she would be running their first vertical starting in mid-October. I knew that I had to seek out more.

I picked up Bad Feminist because it seemed easier than An Untamed State. The latter is about a women who is kidnapped, assaulted, and raped. It sounds heavy and depressing and I've encountered several people who couldn't finish it. I'll have to work up to it. The former, however, is a collection of essays about feminism and how it intersects with race and sexuality as seen through the lens of popular culture and politics. Heavy to be sure, but the kind of weight I'm used to lifting.

Gay spends a lot of time on cultural critique. She analyzes a variety of books through a feminist lens, from Sweet Valley High to Gone Girl. She uses popular movies, from The Help to Django Unchained to Fruitvale Station to talk about current racial relations. She talks about current popular figures like Daniel Tosh and recent cultural events like the Boston Marathon bombing. A lot of what she discusses is rooted in personal anecdotes, making it feel personal and easy to read.

I really enjoyed this book and found it to be a pretty quick read. It probably helped that I found myself agreeing with Gay about a lot of things. We share a very similar basis for our feminism - that it's all about a woman's right to make her own choices and live her life the way she wants to - but realize how complicated that gets when put into practice. It can be so hard to be constantly vigilant when it comes to feminism, not to mention exhausting. And given that no one is perfect, there are times when you have to just let it go. It's okay to dance to that sexist song or enjoy a book written by a terrible person, or to eat chicken from a demonstrably evil company every now and then just because it tastes good. If we didn't, we'd never be able to enjoy anything at all.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Branching Out

I've gotten a good rhythm going when it comes to weight lifting. I know lots of exercises. I understand about focusing on arms or legs or core, and I know how to mix it up. I can do long workouts and short workouts. I can try out new things. Most importantly, I like it. I have fun lifting weights, watching myself get stronger, mastering new exercises.

But cardio has fallen by the wayside. Lifting all the time leaves me sore all the time, which I definitely don't like. Besides which, cardio is good for you and variety is the spice of life. So I'm trying to reincorporate some other things into my routine.

Last Friday, I decided to give running another go. I haven't attempted to run at all since I hurt my knee over a year ago. But the bike hurts my butt and the elliptical makes my toes go numb and jacking up the incline on the treadmill is only going to get me so far. So I put on an episode of Gilmore Girls and gave myself permission to just do intervals for as long as I could before resorting to walking for the rest of the episode.

All in all it wasn't so bad. I managed to travel about 2.7 miles in 43 minutes. Not spectacular, but better than if I'm just walking. On Monday I tried again, but it was way harder. I could only do 4 intervals (minute jogging, minute walking) before my calves started screaming at me. Whether that's because I haven't run in so long or because I did a bunch of calf raises on Saturday is difficult to say. I bumped up the incline and walked instead, to give my calves a bit of a break.

I also decided that while I was trying (or retrying) new (okay, technically old) things, I would give yoga another go. There was a class at my gym on Sunday morning that I could make it to, so I went.

It was awful. The class was way above my level (and all the beginning classes are at 6 in the morning which is why I didn't go to them). The first ten minutes or so was fine, because it was just breathing and stretching. Then we spent ten minutes on our hands and knees, and that's not something I can do, apparently. My knees were hurting so bad from the pressure that I was near tears. Then, because I wasn't paying proper attention, I did something that caused my old back injury to flare up. I left, walked stiffly to my car, drove painfully home, and spent the next two and a half hours laying very still on my couch.

So. No more yoga.

I think that's okay though. If I can make the running work (and I will get better. Slowly but surely.) and intersperse my lifting with that, well that will be fine.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Book Review: The Illustrated Man

I bought this book back in June, but I've been waiting until it was properly fall to read it. I was hoping for a good foggy, chilly day on which I could be spooked. The weather never cooperated with me, though. It mostly stayed warm and sunny. With my stack running low, I ended up settling for a dark and stormy night instead. In the end I suppose that's just as a good.

The Illustrated Man is a collection of short stories. Most of them are spooky and set in the future where space travel is possible and nearly common place. One or two fell a bit flat for me, but for the most part they were really good. I was even able to suspend my disbelief and accept that Venus is basically a jungle planet. Talk about an old theory.

Most of the stories were a lot of fun, though. It was a great book to get me in the mood for Halloween.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Book Review: Redshirts

John Scalzi's novel, Redshirts, has a very fun premise. It's told from the point of view of an ensign, stationed on board a ship where ensigns have an unusually high likelihood of being killed in strange ways on away missions. It doesn't take too long for Dahl and his friends, all new transfers to the ship, to figure this out and start searching for a way to stay alive, despite the heavily stacked odds.

This book is a really straightforward, quick read. It's almost bare bones, making it much more plot driven than character driven. But that plot is exciting and twisty, growing ever more meta until the fourth wall eventually shatters. It was, at times, a bit too clever for me. But fun nonetheless, and packed with Star Trek and Galaxy Quest references. A fun bit of escapism to wile away a few hours.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Book Review: Ghost Story

It took me a year and a half, but I finally made it through the last book assigned by my book club (I'm still sad it dissolved). Now that I've made it, 13 books in to The Dresden Files, I'm more stumped than ever that the dude thought this would be a good place for new readers to begin the series. There are so many things you would miss if you started here. And given that it operates as more of a direct sequel than any other book in the series, it's probably the absolute worst place to begin reading about Harry Dresden.

At the end of the previous book, Dresden died. He's sent back to solve his murder and ends up in the middle of a ghostly war along the way. Solving his murder is actually a pretty minor part of the story. It's mostly taken up by the effect his death had on the people he loved and the city he protected. And lots of strange ghost battles.

You need the history of the previous books for the emotions of this one to hit you. Murphy's overwhelming grief doesn't make as much sense if you haven't watched these two dance around each other for years. Harry's loss and subsequent reclamation of his stuff doesn't punch you as hard if you haven't seen how much he relies on it - to the point of taking it for granted. Molly's magical growth isn't nearly as impressive if you haven't watched Harry's struggles over the past few books.

And it's really Harry's growth that's the most impressive thing here. I've spent books getting annoyed at his paternalistic, protective ways. So it's great when he's actually forced to stand by helpless while Murphy and Molly fight their own battles. To see him finally acknowledge that they can take care of themselves. To watch him actually think through his problems instead of punching his way through them because he can no longer punch.

We get a much more introspective Harry in this book. And while it occasionally gets tedious, it was also refreshing to see him stop and think. There are also some fun flashbacks and references to things that make me think I ought to have read Side Jobs (the collection of short stories published right after Changes) before I read this one. Well it's next on my list now.

All in all, this book was fantastic. I doubt I would have liked it as much if it had been my introduction to the series, and I'm glad I decided to go back to the beginning. Even if it did take way longer than my initially predicted month and a half.