The casual vacancy / J.K. Rowling
I have to be honest: I’ve been putting this review off for quite a while. I’m not really sure why. I’ve known pretty much all along what I wanted to say about this one, so hereit is.
The casual vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s big post-Harry Potter novel. It’s almost completely unolike Harry Potter – it’s firmly grounded in the Muggle world, and it’s definitely written with an adult audience in mind. Still, it retains the strong social conscience of the Harry Potter books.
Brief plot summary
Pagford, a stereotypically lovely English town. A member of the local parish council suddenly drops dead. The attempt to elect a replacement for Barry Fairbrother will reveal the many deep-seated divisions hidden behind the seemingly idyllic surface of Pagford.
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Goblin quest / Jim C. Hines
Goblin quest is a Pratchett-esque fantasy satire by Jim C. Hines. I discovered Hines when I randomly grabbed Libriomancer off the shelf one day, only to discover that there wasn’t much else by him that was available through ILL. Goblin quest was pretty much the only other book held by the consortium.
Brief plot summary
Jig is a nearsighted goblin at the bottom of the local hierarchy. Struggling to avoid the constant bullying he receives, Jig is captured by a party of adventurers looking for the legendary treasure hidden beneath the caves where Jig’s people live. Forced to act as their guide, Jig encounters just about every classic fantasy monster, trap, and archetype.
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This book is going to represent a drastic shift from the types of books I normally review.
The adventures of Menahem-Mendl / Sholom Aleichem*
I figured it would be a good idea to celebrate the Christmas season with a classic of Jewish literature. Sholem Aleichem, “the Jewish Mark Twain”**, is notable as one of the first Jewish authors to write primarily in Yiddish rather than Hebrew. He’s notable outside of Yiddish circles for writing the stories that formed the basis for Fiddler on the roof.
Like Mark Twain, Aleichem’s writing is characterized by combining humor with social criticism. Aleichem’s works, while facially comedic, are almost tragic in their depiciction of the lives and struggles of Eastern European Jews. Also like Mark Twain, his work is deeply rooted in the author’s cultural context to the point where a reader lacking that cultural context is likely going to miss out on most of what is going on.
*The author’s sobriquet is now generally romanized “Sholem” instead of “Sholom”, but most editions of this book that I’ve seen use the older “Sholom” spelling.
**Perhaps apocryphally, upon hearing this Mark Twain is said to have countered that he was the “American Sholem Aleichem”
Told in the epistolary format, The adventures of Menahem-Mendl follows the titular “hero’s” attempts to make a fortune through a series of ill-advised business schemes. His letters to his wife (who remains in their tiny hometown while Menahem-Mendl travels through the major cities of Russia) are alternated with her caustic, frustrated replies.
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Redshirts / John Scalzi. Originally published 2012
Redshirts is a humorous sf novel by former SFWA head John Scalzi. It’s also the first Hugo award winner I managed to read before it actually won the award, so that made me feel special.
The premise of the book is fairly evident from the title, but I’ll throw together an extra-brief plot summary.
Extra-brief plot summary
On a ship suspiciously reminiscent of something out of the original Star Trek TV show, a group of ensigns realize that whenever one of them goes on an away team with a member of the bridge crew they won’t be coming back.
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It seems like discussions of science fiction among non-fans always end up examining the predictive successes and failures of the genre. This approach strikes me as counterproductive. To be tautological about it, fiction is inherently fictitious. Fiction necessarily abstracts certain aspects of the real world, correctly or not. If fiction was perfectly accurate, it would be real life (à la Simulacra and simulation). Why, then is it so popular to take fiction, especially fiction that is at one additional remove from the “real world” and critique it for what it got “right” or “wrong”? If science fiction was intended to be predictive, it wouldn’t be science fiction. It’d be prophecy.
I realize that this issue has been discussed many times, by better writers than I, but it’s an issue that still continues to come up. I’ve encountered it with patrons, but I’ve also encountered it on Tor of all places.*
*One particular Tor blogger, who happens to be a multi-award winning author, is an especially egregious offender.
Continue reading Science fiction, prediction, and satire-ction