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Beth Zuckerman
Attended University at Albany, The State University of New York
Lives in Berkeley, CA
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Beth Zuckerman

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As usual in a Peter Watts novel, Echopraxia has some fascinating ideas. But you can skip the novel and read about them in the endnotes. The characters here are vaguely interesting (zombies, vampires, aliens, etc.), but the story held so little of my attention that I can't even describe it to you. It takes place in space--yay! But even that isn't enough to save it. 

Echopraxia is Watts' exploration of religion, trying to understand it. Atheists might find some small interest in Watts' theories about what a god might be like, but religious people will probably walk away feeling insulted by such terminology as "adaptive delusional systems." Watts' theories are certainly reductivist. In Echopraxia's favor, I'll say that it is blessedly free of the child sex abuse plot elements of Watts' last several books, and that it has some other cool creepy stuff that isn't quite so disturbing. The ship is fairly well imagined and even illustrated. But as that is just about all I can say in its defense, so skip the novel, just read the endnotes if you are curious.

This is the fifteenth of my reviews of 2014 novels. With the Hugo nomination deadline looming tonight, I'm going to stop reading 2014 works and move on to 2015, with the exception of Scalzi's Unlocked. I haven't been able to get my hot little hands on it yet, but I will make an effort. The first volume was so well loved (and well done!), I fully expect the second to be nominated for a Hugo. As Watts plunges further into his existential rabbit hole, Scalzi matures as a writer.
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Beth Zuckerman

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Symbiont is the sequel to Mira Grant's medical thriller Parasite. And it is indeed thrilling. This book has more chilling action than Parasite. And more zombies. It's wonderfully scary.

Grant's madcap characters, of all species, are extremely compelling. Her villains are exceptionally hateful, and some of her good guys are cleverly morally ambiguous. I particularly loved Fishy, Dr. Cale's derisive assistant, whose grip on reality is at best extremely tenuous. I missed the Irwins in Parasite, but they have returned in at least some form in Fishy.

While I'm enjoying this series, and Grant's irreverent humor, a great deal, It's impossible not to compare this series to Newsflesh. This series builds on many of the elements that made Newsflesh so awesome: ironic detachment, unbelievably dangerous adventures, brilliant characters, a story told partially in journal entries and news articles, and, of course, zombies. But this series is not as political. Yes, the government agents are indeed either laughably ineffective or under the influence of the bad guys, but these books still lack the biting political satire that made Newsflesh so special. I loved this latest work, I was enchanted by the characters and enraptured by the storytelling, but I'm not giving it a Hugo nomination.
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Beth Zuckerman

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The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman

I found myself disappointed by the latest installment in Lev Grossman's magic series, The Magician's Land. While I did not positively despise it, it did not live up to the promise of the previous two volumes.

This series is kind of a fanfic of both the Harry Potter and Narnia series. The characters attend a magic school called Brakebills and visit a magical land called Fillory. While most of the action in the The Magicians and The Magician King takes place either at Brakebills or in Fillory, most of the action in The Magician's Land takes place in the relatively mundane greater New York City area. While there is indeed magic in New York, the setting lacks the charm of Brakebills and Fillory. Honestly, the opening scenes take place in <I>New Jersey</I>. Even the scenes that do take place in Brakebills and Fillory lack the sweetness of the previous novels, as the Brakebills scenes are told from the relatively uninteresting perspective of a teacher, and Fillory is dying. The book is about the characters' last-ditch attempts to save Fillory from extinction.

What most disappointed me about The Magician's Land, however, was a notable lack of the ironic detachment that made the previous volumes so wonderful. While the book still does contain a fair amount of Ironic detachment, it is much more serious than the previous two. Even Eliot is serious. I found it unexpected and frustrating.

While the previous two books strongly followed the usual Campbellian coming-of-age mythology patten, as Quentin has now reached 30, the plot seemed relatively lost. Quentin is still trying to find himself, and still trying to be a hero, but he's less interesting as a grown-up hero finding himself. While I enjoyed the very last few pages, some earlier parts of the ending seemed just miserably cilcheed. I almost asked myself out loud, "Really, Lev? I know you're writing fanfic and this development fits the pattern of your source, but you're not going to there, are you?" In the interest of not giving away any spoilers, I will refrain from saying any more than that, but the story pained me.

I will grant that Grossman has, as always, tied his plot together very well. Everything is pulled together in the end, and the book also contains some interesting history about the Chatwin family that better explains events in the previous books. The Magician's Land is not terrible; it's just that it is disappointing in comparison to its predecessors.
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The Rhesus Chart is yet another installment in Charles Stross' Laundry series. I've been saying for a considerable amount of time that I want Charlie to write more in the Halting State series. His Wikipedia page says that he was planning another Halting State novel, but that it was "cancelled" a year ago. Harumph. But Charlie continues reliably to produce Laundry novels, with (according to Wikipedia) two more planned soon.

The Laundry series is good, fun, creative and humorous. These are satiric novels in fine form, cleverly ridiculing both Cthulhu and bureaucracy while belittling extremely dangerous situations.  Like the other Laundry books, The Rhesus Chart is good, fun, creative and humorous. It's just that I'm tired of the Laundry. I'm quite frankly sick of it. I may just stop reading Charlie until he writes something else. <yawn>

I will say this for The Rhesus Chart: it takes some very surprising twists at the end. The twists are almost exciting enough to make me think about reading more Laundry novels. Almost. But I think not. Wake me up when there's more Halting State.
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Beth Zuckerman

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Crystal Huff suggested I read Emmi Itaranta's debut novel The Memory of Water. The book was published in Finland in 2012, but has only been published here this year (the author did the translation herself). Thus, I am not sure about the book's current Hugo eligibility, but I liked it enough that I thought I should tell you about it in any case.

This is a coming of age story about a Scandinavian girl. The narrator, Noria, is an only child. She is being raised in a rural village to follow in her father's footsteps as a teamaster, making a living by serving ceremonial tea.

The title of The Memory of Water tells a lot: the story is set in a future where Scandinavia is warm (the characters wear insect nets) and water is extremely scarce, with all access rationed and controlled by the military. Early in the book, Noria's father shows Noria his secret source of fresh water, a spring hidden in rocks. Noria calls it a place that does not exist. If the secret spring were discovered, her father would probably be executed for hiding it. Despite the danger, Noria resists the pull of a more urban and modern life, and eventually takes over her father's role as teamaster.

Noria's best friend, Sanja, is something of an engineer. The girls scavenge plastic goods from a landfill, and Sanja figures out how to make them work. Sanja figures out how to make CD's play in a CD player, and the girls listen to some recordings about an expedition further north, outside of the control of the military, where the expeditioners discover many sources of fresh water. The girls' curiosity is aroused.

The book is written in short sentences, in fairly plain, simple language. There is much poetic language about water and its importance to our lives. I liked the story quite a bit despite the fact that it is slow and dramatic and lacks fast action. This is a very good book for Californians to read right now; despite the recent rains, our water supplies are still critically low, and we must work to make sure that water does not become just a memory. But this is a very enjoyable book for everyone, thoughtful and well done
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Beth Zuckerman

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Paolo Bacigalupi's The Doubt Factory truly delivers on the things that make us want to read novels: compelling characters, and an action-driven plot that leaves you biting your nails, barely able to put the book down, desperately worried about what is going to happen to the compelling characters. I just loved this book.

This is a political novel like the Bacigalupi's other works, and it is a coming-of-age, YA novel like some of his others. Other than that, it is quite different from the author's usual fare. It's much more positive. It's not post-apocalyptic, every page does not drip with doom, it is not shrouded in bleakness. Many parts of the book are fun and happy, about having a good time as a high school student.

The protagonist is Alix Banks, child of very wealthy parents, attending prep school in Connecticut. Alix is, for the most part, a fairly happy young woman, until a group of activists makes her aware of some things of which she might rather have remained blissfully ignorant. And you, the reader, will learn something as well.

The other primary characters are Alix's family, including her charming "poor-impulse-control" little brother and workaholic father, and the aforementioned group of activists. Each of these characters is very well drawn, making the story much more fascinating than it otherwise would have been. I loved the characterizations, and they helped draw me into the intensely powerful plot.

All in all, I think this is just a great book. I hung on every word. I will leave you with just one caveat:  The plot is entirely unrealistic. This would never happen in real life. I would say that I found it highly implausible that a character like Alix Banks would do the things that she does, but it has happened historically. I won't mention the historic person because of spoiler issues, but when you read the book, you'll know whom I mean. I also find it difficult to believe that private security goons could be quite as evil as they are in this novel, but I could be wrong on that point. As for the real villains in the book, I'm sure this portrayal of their evil is extremely accurate. Don't miss this one!
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Beth Zuckerman

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I have one more book review to write for you before the nomination deadline (which is tomorrow at 11:50 PDT), but time has not permitted me to write it yet, and it's not for a good book, anyway. So, quickly, I will list the books that I think are worthy of a Best Novel nomination:

My Real Children by Jo Walton
Ancillary Sword by Anne Leckie
The Memory of Water by Emmi Itaranta
The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigalupi
Lock In by John Scalzi

I think The Martian by Andy Weir is not eligible because it's a rewrite, but if it is eligible, please let me know, because I think it is also worthy of a nomination.

My excellent writer friend Cliff Winnig is in his second year of Campbell eligibility. I am not sure whether Emmi Itaranta is also eligible for this award, and if so, which year of eligibility she's in. I'd appreciate any information anyone has on that.

Everyone please vote!
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Beth Zuckerman

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Ancillary Sword entirely lives up to the promise of its predecessor, Ancillary Justice. Importantly, the reader absolutely must read Ancillary Justice first; Ancillary Sword contains major spoilers for Ancillary Justice. Of necessity, this review will also contain spoilers for Ancillary Justice, so do not read any further unless the initial volume is already under your belt. I will not, of course, give any major spoilers for Ancillary Sword.

The sequel begins where the first novel left off, with Breq having been given command of a ship by one of the fragmented bits of the Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai. The fragment sends the ship to Athoek Station, where Breq hopes to visit Awn's sister Basnaaid and make amends for Awn's unfortunate death in Ancillary Justice. Breq exhibits a brilliant level of human and political manipulation as she uncovers, bit by bit, the secrets of the Station and the ways in which the power brokers maintain their status. The Station's tea pickers, descendants of the original colonists of the area before it was annexed by the Radch, are heavily exploited. I was unfortunately listening to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in audiobook form at the same time as reading Ancillary Sword, and I found myself thinking, "Justice for house elves!" whenever I read about the tea pickers.

This book is fundamentally concerned with fairness and justice, and the author gives us a significant message about those concerns. This is a fascinating read, and a strong contender for the Hugo. Personally, I continue to favor My Real Children, but if anything can beat it, it's Ancillary Sword.
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I can't wait for the third book.
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Beth Zuckerman

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John Varley's earlier books were greatly superior to his current ones. While I enjoyed Red Lighting, this series has outlasted its entertainment value and continues to decline with each succeeding book. Red Lightning involved compelling characters in an exciting postapocalyptic  scenario. The latest installment, Dark Lightning is essentially a war story, and I reiterate that such stories bore me nearly to tears.

The setting is an interstellar colony ship. The plot takes off when emotionally disturbed supergenius inventor Jubal (named, I'm sure, after the grandstanding Heinlein character) emerges from microstorage and declares that the ship is in grave danger and must make an emergency turnaround. As usual (and conveniently for the author), Jubal is unable to articulate the exact nature of the danger (a cloud of some mysterious dark energy). Naturally, some colonists find this rather dubious and are disturbed by the idea of delaying their arrival by several more decades over such a vague and poorly defined concern. They stage a mutiny. The war is about very rich and heavily armed Travis' attempts to regain control of the ship and avoid the imminent danger.  

Varley tries to unmasculinize his war story by making the protagonists Jubal's twin teenage girls, Cassie and Polly. I grudgingly admit that Cassie and Polly are likeable characters and reasonably realistic for their age and gender. But this fails to save a book that ultimately focuses itself on big guns and firepower. I'm sure, however, that the teenage girls will ruin the whole testosterone-fueled enjoyment of more traditional science fiction fans.

I will admit that the story in Dark Lightning is well told and unfolds with proper dramatic pace. The narration is traded between Cassie and Polly, and they are reasonably well distinguished. Their exciting flycycle adventures could almost save this novel. But the science is conveniently vague, and the ultimate focus on tiresome gun-toting spoils it for me.
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Beth Zuckerman

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OK, I think I've found the 2014 Best Novel winner, and I think it's written by the same author as the 2012 Best Novel winner. Jo Walton's My Real Children is charming, heartwarming, and oh-so-very sweet.

My Real Children is about Patricia, or Pat, or Tricia, depending. When we meet her at the beginning of the book, she is old and in a home, suffering from memory problems and very confused. She seems to have led two lives. The next few chapters are about her youth, and then the story bifurcates. On one track, Patricia becomes Tricia, and marries a man named Mark. Her life is full of all of the frustrations of women in the 1950's. On the other track, Patricia becomes Pat, and lives a much more fulfilled lesbian life with a woman named Bee. Pat spends each summer in Florence writing travel books and loving the art. On each track, Patricia has children, very different children. Which are the real ones?

Tricia's and Pat's worlds are different as well. Tricia's world is more technically advanced even than ours, with settlements on the moon. But in Pat's world, nuclear bombs continue to be used after Nagasaki, and the problems associated with fallout are rampant.

I can't really call this book alternate history. Although it is kind of an alternate history, that isn't really its focus. The focus is on human relationships. This book is all about love, romance, marriage, parenthood, grandparenthood, etc. Many scenes will really choke you up. It's also about how to be fulfilled, particularly as a woman. The book is beautifully written, and you will come to care deeply about the characters in each story line. It's a feminist novel that is clearly geared more toward a female audience, so I'll be interested to hear what my male readers think of it. I just loved it, hung on every word. I think Jo Walton is a genius, and I'll be happy to see her win another Hugo.
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Aw, thanks!
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Beth Zuckerman

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I probably would have enjoyed Yesterday's Kin more had I not read it immediately after Ancillary Justice and The Doubt Factory, both of which were tough acts to follow. Still, Yesterday's Kin is a good book, but I don't think it's Hugo material.

Nancy Kress' latest novel is full of interesting ideas, fascinating stuff about genetics, viruses, what makes us human. It also has interesting characters and interpersonal relationships. One of the more interesting ideas is a drug called sugar cane, that makes you feel like you are someone else.

I call this novel not Hugo material, though, because the story is not as engaging as others from this year. It's enjoyable, yes, but it didn't keep me in an enormous amount of suspense. It's nice and short, so it's worth a read, but it won't keep you on the edge of your seat.
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Beth Zuckerman

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<I>Empress of the Sun</I> is the latest installment in Ian McDonald's series about coming-of-age Everett Singh traveling to parallel universes using the Infundibulum that his kidnapped father gave him. I think it is technically a YA novel.

I enjoyed this book in terms of character development. In particular, Everett M, Everett's alter from another universe, is well developed. But we also get see to more development in the other teenage characters, Sen, Noomi and Ryan. We are introduced to other life forms, Kax and the Empress of the Sun herself, and they are interesting as well.

In terms of plot, however, I didn't find <I>Empress of the Sun</I> as interesting as the earlier novels in the series. It very much has a feel of a weaker, middle-of-a-series book. There is action, for sure, but it did not hold my attention as much as I thought it should.

I do find the series as a whole exciting, and I will keep reading in order to find out what happens to Everett, and, hopefully at some point, his father. But I am looking forward to a thrilling, action-packed final book in the series.
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Science fiction fan, aerial dancer, cyclist, photographer, gamer, naturalist, geocacher, SCUBA diver, adventurer, never a dull moment.
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Berkeley, CA
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Schenectady, NY - Albany, NY
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  • University at Albany, The State University of New York
    1987
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