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[Book Reviews] Books that may or may not be in sets

Thu, 2015-04-02 17:25
"Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions" really did live up to its description -- despite being familiar with the majority of the studies it references, I hadn't thought to apply their lessons to sleight of hand the way that the authors did. That's got some creepy implications for society and our susceptibility to fraudsters looking to either be better pickpockets, better confidence men, or better fake supernatural phenomena pushers. I remember some of the cited phenomena from the press during my childhood, and I think it does a service to people who don't want to be taken in by offering the option to understand our own minds better and how some of these things work. The authors do an excellent job of tagging the spoiler content so that people who don't want to be told how the magic tricks work can avoid them being ruined, and while I don't know why anyone who felt that way would read a book essentially about the mechanisms there, still I think it's a kindness to their audience. Innovative application of extant studies to an unexamined area of applied neuroscience; five eye-catching hand gestures out of five.

I've enjoyed most of Brandon Sanderson's work, but I have to admit that "Steelheart" and its sequel "Firefight" just didn't do it for me. The world was interesting at first, and I'm a softie for the superhero genre, and I even kinda liked our goofy, bad-simile hero, as Marty Stu for teenage boys as he is. But the inner struggles of the Epics trying to be good just seemed contrived and creepy to me... I didn't like the conceit that power inevitably corrupts. And when the Big Reveal came, I was aggravated enough by what it was to not really be that vested in the world any more. It's a pity; I thought the story had potential and I just didn't like where he took it. Two and a half flying fireballs out of five.

I enjoyed Older's work on "Long Hidden", so when I saw that he'd written a novel, I had to give that a shot too. "Half-Resurrection Blues" boldly starts with a quotation from one of my all-time favorite books, "Borderlands/La Frontera". Ghosts aren't my favorite fantasy topic, but Older's alt-Brooklyn makes it worth reading a ghost story. He's got a very strong sense of place, so New Yorkers will probably find this a particular delight. His cast of characters is vivid, diverse, and occasionally hilarious, with a protagonist who reliably cracked me up with sympathy. I can't talk about the ending without being spoilery, but I am pleased that he didn't take the convenient reconciliation way out. (Also, more Dr. Tijou!) His prose is a hardboiled kind of lyrical; I will read further books in this series as they come out. Four spirits of place out of five.

Another Powell's acquisition, Malinda Lo's "Ash" is a new casting of Cinderella, now with more slightly-Celtic-flavored magic -- it's an easy read if you'd like some escapism. Lo is skilled at creating atmosphere by leaving a lot of negative space in some of her storylines... much of the way that the mood of a piece or a turn of the plot is created by her is due to the things you thought might happen but didn't. She deftly shapes your expectations and then subverts them, but never in a way that the reader feels betrayed. Just... surprised. (And many of the surprises are happy ones rather than "rocks fall, everyone dies", so if you're looking for a non-depressing read, this book is pretty safe in the end.) Her depiction of GLBT themes is similar, quietly cheerful in their unremarkableness. Most of the relationships or hoped-for relationships we see in the book are het, but when they're not, no one remarks on that or cares. I appreciate books where that's not even a big deal... the plot is being driven by family, greed, and otherworldly magic, and they all have other things to think about. Would totally give to my niece when she's old enough to read it. Three and a half storybook stories out of five.

Take this review currently with a grain of salt, because I have read "Washington Scrambles: Selected Nontechnical Ascents" but I haven't tried any of the scrambles yet, so I can't report on helpfulness/accuracy. [grin] I'll revise my opinion after this year's hiking season for that part (or sooner if something horrible happens and I just have to say "THOSE TRAIL INSTRUCTIONS ARE OLD AND WRONG AND LEAD INTO A CREVASSE" or something, heh). It's a second edition, though, and the Mountaineers, so I very much doubt that. I picked this book up because I went to Skye last summer, fell in love with it, and next time I go back I totally want to go scrambling on the Cuillens. I figure that should not be one's first outing, and I'd rather practice somewhere that I'm familiar with the terrain and weather. Hence, Washington Scrambles. The introduction contained one of the more helpful pointers... I've done a fair bit of hiking, and technically I've done some scrambling, but it was always basically clear where I should be going and there was never any danger that I would become lost. I've never done full on harness-and-rope-and-ice-axe technical ascent mountaineering. Scrambling seemed to bridge the gap between those two skills, and I had previously been unable to find anything that actually spelled out what skills were required in order to be able to go scrambling on harder routes than I'd done. While the introduction here was necessarily sparse (it's a guide book to routes, not a how-to book), at least it pointed me in a helpful direction. As for the routes themselves, I appreciated the split ratings between difficulty and skill level required... I'm up for long hard 20 mile hikes, but I'd like to ramp up slowly on terrain requiring lots of technical skills, and the way that the book breaks out the routes makes it possible to make choices that will do that. Hooray! The directions to starting points seem pretty clear, though once I've picked my first one I'm going to sit down with topo maps and GPS and double check everything. There's a good variety of length, skill level, and geographic regions. So, tentatively four routes out of five, and an after-action IOU.

An excellent account of the Expedition Denali mountaineers, "The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors" tackles the challenge of representation and role models for youths of color as much as it discusses the climb. The author just barely didn't make the mountaineering crew (due to finding out that he needed two hip replacements), but he was in good enough shape to tag along as chronologer and historian. I was cheering throughout for the team and for NOLS, who helped put it all together. I knew about the expedition before it was launched through NOLS Alumni fundraising, and had heard that they'd had to turn back due to weather just short of the summit, but before reading this book I hadn't realized it was so, well, electrifying, pun kinda intended. (That shows the effects of stepping up to lead when it's REALLY necessary. Wow.) Five lightning strikes out of five, and one of the two best of this batch.

"Partner" is the continuation of a romance series that I actually liked, since it doesn't seem to have the frustrating gender dynamics that normally make me hate romance. Werewolf Marines! (I am still vastly entertained by that conceit.) Echo and DJ are both characters that I liked as people and wanted to root for. I was impressed that the author continued to be able to surprise me, from where Charlie's arc went to my strategically forgetting about Cole for most of the end of the book. (That was particularly funny.) I was also taken by surprise to hear Guadalupe referred to as a werewolf Marine... I had internally expected that to be only the series heroes, but DJ's right, she totally is too. Hah! My bad. So it has plenty of action (both in and out of bed), enough to satisfy most people who like reading military fantasy or sci-fi, a pretty diverse cast, and a story that will appeal to paranormal romance fans. My only real complaint is the cover (which isn't really the author's fault)... Echo has a good shooting stance, which is in character, but DJ doesn't. Leaning back like that away from the gun isn't something I've ever seen a Marine do. This is the other best book of this batch. Five songs that actually exist out of five; music fans may enjoy looking up DJ's selections, as a kind of Easter egg.

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