Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Book Review: Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen

Nettie Lonesome lives in a land of hard people and hard ground dusted with sand. She's a half-breed who dresses like a boy, raised by folks who don't call her a slave but use her like one. She knows of nothing else. That is, until the day a stranger attacks her. When nothing, not even a sickle to the eye can stop him, Nettie stabs him through the heart with a chunk of wood and he turns to black sand.
And just like that, Nettie can see.
But her newfound sight is a blessing and a curse. Even if she doesn't understand what's under her own skin, she can sense what everyone else is hiding - at least physically. The world is full of evil, and now she knows the source of all the sand in the desert. Haunted by the spirits, Nettie has no choice but to set out on a quest that might lead her to find her true kin . . . if the monsters along the way don't kill her first.

I first came across Wake of Vultures when the author (Delilah Dawson, writing under the pseudonym Lila Bowen) tweeted the following:

I immediately went out and pre-ordered it because hell, I didn't need to know anything else. That sounds AWESOME. Took me a while to get round to actually reading it though (not because of anything to do with this book, but because I spent most of the first half of the year mired in fanfiction and not reading much of anything else). When I did start reading it I ripped through the bugger in about two days.

Nettie Lonesome is an awesome character. Half-back, half-Native American growing up in a predominantly white community that isn't all that friendly to her. All she really wants is to grow up to be a horse wrangler and for people to see her as a boy. (The book uses predominantly she/her pronouns for Nettie even though she presents as male and tells a lot of the other characters she's male. Her relationship with gender is complex and watching her figure herself out is a big part of the book.)

Her life goes from being terrible to being awesome for two weeks and then it gets terrible again as she struggles under the weight of Destiny. A creature called the Cannibal Owl is hunting people and she may be the only one who can kill it. For the longest time she wants nothing to do with her destiny and everything she does to try to get away from it only brings her closer to it. In the end she just has to go "fuck it" and do what she has to do. It's a bit Babylon 5 in that respect.

This was another book that gave me a real sense of "you can't end it like that!" (Although come to think of it, three of the four books I'v read lately that made me do that were book one of a trilogy, so a++ effort in making me want more I guess.) There are so many questions asked that don't get answered, and some Nettie decides don't need an answer. Along the way she gets to grow into herself, the colour of her skin, her sexuality, her gender. She realises the world isn't black and white, it's infinite shades of grey and actually that's okay, because she's a lot of shades of grey herself.

Needless to say I'll be getting the next book, Conspiracy of Ravens, as soon as it's  out. I need to know what happens to Nettie and her friends.

One of my biggest issues with this book is the way Nettie binds her chest. She uses something like bandages and binds basically 24/7, which is realisitic for the rough era its set in (and for someone figuring out this sort of stuff on her own with no guidance) but it does make me worry. This is the sort of book that could potentially help young trans/nonbinary/genderqueer folk come into themselves the way Nettie does, and I do worry about the example it sets with the binding.

The only other real issue I have is that there's a sexual assault about three quarters of the way through. Nettie walks into the situation willingly, knowing what's likely to happen, and it has a satisfying resolution, but it's still there. People should be aware of it going in so they can avoid those chapters (which are fairly well flagged) if need be.

All in all this was a rip roaring read. I don't normally like things in the general Western genre (possibly a lot of Western movies have ruined me by being so damn slow) but this was a great book. The pacing is great and there's a real sense of a threat as we barrel towards the final battle. As I said earlier, some questions are answered but some are left over for the next installment. I definitely recommend hanging out with Nettie Lonesome.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Book Review: Plastic Smile by SL Huang

Cover art copyright Najla Qamber Designs. Used for illustration purposes only.

Cas Russell, antisocial mercenary, has decided to Fight Crime. With capital letters, like in one of her friend’s comic books.

After all, she has a real-life superpower: with her instantaneous mathematical ability, she can neuter bombs or out-shoot an army. And it’s Cas’s own fault violence has been spiking in the world’s cities lately — she’s the one who crushed the organization of telepaths that had been keeping the world’s worst offenders under control. Now every drive-by or gang shooting reminds Cas how she’s failed, and taking out these scumbags one at a time is never going to be enough.

She needs to find a way to stop all the violence. At once.

But Cas’s own power has a history, one she can’t remember — or control. A history that’s creeping into the cracks in her mind and fracturing her sanity . . . just when she’s gotten herself on the hit list of every crime lord on the West Coast.

Cas isn’t going to be able to save the world. She might not even be able to save herself.

Plastic Smile is the fourth book in the Russell's Attic series by SL Huang, and for my money it's probably the best yet. Which is something because I seriously love this series.

Cas Russell is... well Cas Russell is an asshole, but four books in I've got this feeling of "well she's my asshole." Her morals are sketchy at best and her skills are sold to the highest bidder but she's trying to be a better person. Not always succeeding, but trying. And she's trying to negotiate this thing called "friendship." The results are mixed.

I'm not a mathematician (really I'm not) but the maths in this series is never intrusive. It's just there, a different way of describing the world and hoe Cas interacts with it. I find it endlessly fascinating. Because if you think about it for a second, the ability to do pretty much any kind of maths near instantaneously is a seriously cool super power. Cas can avoid bullets, break any lock and her aim is basically perfect. It is such a useful power and I love the way it's used in this series.

In this book the plot intersperses the usual amount of "Cas, Cas no" with a few tantalising glimpses of her backstory. Which has been kept mysterious because for some reason she can't remember any further back than about five years or so. This story starts to put together some of what happened before then. And it also puts in jeopardy something she didn't know she cared about until now; her friendships.

I finished this book in a day and when I got to the end I howled. Which, congratulations to the author, that puts you in good company with NK Jemisin and Yoon Ha Lee this year. There was very much a feeling of YOU CAN'T END IT THERE and I am going to be waiting with bated breath for the next installment, Golden Mean, which isn't due out until next year.

I have a visceral need for the next book.

Huang has an excellent grasp of pacing, each chapter in her books short but sweet and always, always upping the stakes. To the point where halfway through the book it's difficult to imagine how things could possibly get any worse. And yet they always do.

This book kept me on the edge of my seat, had me yelling and groaning and frustrated. Mostly I just want to give Cas a big hug (even if she wouldn't appreciate it).

Also super nice: these books have nerdy references all over the place. It makes me happy down in my insides.

I've made it my mission in life to make everyone I know read this series. If I haven't badgered you about it that just means I haven't gotten around to you yet. Put this series in your face so I can flail without about how much I love it.

Read it. Read it now.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Captain Raz to Doctor Tonks: A Reflection

Way back in the mists of time (okay, like four years ago) when I switched this blog from being specifically about my PhD to being a more general blog, I spoke about the reasoning behind my tagline. Captain Raz to Doctor Tonks.

Captain Raz is one of my oldest nicknames; I think I’ve been using it fairly regularly since I was bout thirteen, fourteen. It’s my most often used internet handle (there you go, now it’s a bunch easier to find me online) and ended up being the domain name I bought for my blog. Tonks is the name I’ve been using for about nine years now. Most of my friends know me as Tonks, their parents know me as Tonks, my husband mostly calls me Tonks… its my name. The doctor part came from the fact I was pursuing a PhD.

Was. It’s done. It’s finished.

It’s a little odd to look at that tagline and know that I am Doctor Tonks now. I graduated last month. I got to wear the silly robes and the floppy hat and I have a shiny certificate from my university. It’s official. No one can take it away from me now.

Honestly, I never thought I’d get here. Whenever I imagined being on the other side of my PhD it was always in the context of failure; having dropped out because I couldn’t deal or my research was going nowhere or my supervisor thought I was stupid. I never really imagined I’d be sat on the other side having succeeded. That was a dream always slightly out of reach, something that was nice to imagine but wouldn’t ever be reality.

I’m not gonna lie; doing a PhD is hard. It was a long slog and there are honestly times when I thought it would kill me. When it nearly did kill me. It wrecked my mental health, but a strain on most of the rest of my life and had me in tears more time than I could count. I never felt good enough, never felt like I belonged in academia. I was convinced that the only way it would end was in failure.

And yet… here I am. I did my research, I wrote my thesis and submitted it. I sat my viva and somehow (unfathomably) didn’t make a tit of myself. My corrections went in and were accepted.

I graduated.

And now comes the great slump, the question of what happens next. People have been asking me that for months and the simple answer is: I have no idea.

I don’t want a career in academia, I’ve known that for a while. A PhD means I’m overqualified for a lot of things and don’t have the right experience for the rest. Do I regret doing it? No. I said when I was a kid I wanted to be a doctor one day and I managed it, even if not quite in the way I meant.

Ultimately I want to write, but that’s not something that happens over night. That’s a long term goal, and requires a hell of a lot of slog. Which is fine, I’m used to working hard for years in order to accomplish something I want.

In the meantime I’m investigating freelancing, and there may be part time employment in my future, I don’t know. I’m mostly just enjoying not doing a PhD while I can. And working on my writing.

Never fear, that’s happening.

It is reassuring to know that, no matter my goal, I am capable of achieving it. I will achieve it, eventually, I’ve proved that to myself.

Everything else is just life. I’ll take it as it comes.

#whimword - catch

If I fall, will you catch me?

I stand on the edge, wind whipping at my hair, making it stream out behind me in tendrils. I close my eyes, enjoying the breeze against my skin. Up here the wind is strong, powerful, and it makes me feel the same.

It is a very long way down from here.

Looking up I see the countryside stretch out for miles, languid against the horizon. There is nothing here but pure, untouched nature; rocks and trees and stream unsullied by human hands. I hear the cawing of birds and the roar of what might be a bear.

There's no traffic, no pollution, no constant press of humanity and machinery that there is in the city. Out here there is freedom, and my heart soars.

Out here I can think. I can breathe.

The air tastes sweet on my tongue, cool and fresh like I've never really known. I can smell the pine forest, the tang of resin and needle. It is so much better than the synthetic stuff they put in car air fresheners or cleaning products.

This is where I belong, not among a forest of steel and glass, where the air chokes and burns.

I spread my arms out wide, trying to catch as much of the wind as possible. It buffets and blows, trying to knock me off my feet but never quite succeeding. I feel supported rather than precarious.

If I fall would you catch me?

It would be so easy to let go, give myself to this land and forget about my life back in the city. All it would take would be a slight shift in weight, all I'd need to do is lean forward just a bit and then I would be free. The urge itches in the back of my mind.

I want it more than anything.

The sun begins to set, crawling inexorably down the sky to where blue meets green, setting the forest on fire with reds and golds. The temperature dropped along with the sun, and by the time the sun has dipped below the horizon and the world is lit beautifully from below it is quite chilly. The wind is still strong, still cool.

Still calling me.

Would it be so bad to stop fighting? To give in to the itch in my brain, the part of me that wants to fly?

There's no guarantee I'll be caught if I let myself fall. No guarantee at all. It's a risk, but what is life without a little risk?

I have to trust, have to have faith; in the wind, in the rightness of this, in myself. Above all I have to have faith in myself.

I take a deep breath, straightening my spine as the twilight air fills my lungs. I shift my weight, fling my arms out wide and let
myself go.

I grin; this is meant to be.

Air rushes past me as I fall and then...

I fly.