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Monthly Archives: October 2014

Nothing More to Lose by Najwan Darwish (trans Kareem James Abu-Zeid)

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Nothing More To Lose is the first collection of poems by Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish to appear in English. Hailed across the Arab world and beyond, Darwish’s poetry walks the razor’s edge between despair and resistance, between dark humour and harsh political realities. With incisive imagery and passionate lyricism, Darwish confronts themes of equality and justice while offering a radical, more inclusive, rewriting of what it means to be both Arab and Palestinian living in Jerusalem, his birthplace.
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Between Amal El-Mohtar and Liz Bourke, I suppose it was inevitable I was going to read Darwish’s collection. So, I did…

Nothing More To Lose is simultaneously nothing to do with speculative fiction, and also completely dystopian. But then, the world Darwish is writing about is dystopian; and that is brought across tremendously, painfully well by his poetry. It’s not soft-edged, it’s not polite, it’s blunt and brutal, it calls out Zionists, it names genocide as genocide, it rages against injustice and discrimination. This isn’t a collection for people looking for a polite Palestinian talking about idyllic themes; it’s a collection for those wanting to look at the rage, the disenfranchisement, the horror that is the Palestinian condition in the modern world.

Something that really stands out is the historical engagement and literacy of Darwish’s poems. In an early poem in Nothing More To Lose, ‘Identity Card’ (p8-9), Darwish references Byzantium, the Armenian genocide (a recurring topic), the Kurds, the Algerians, the expulsion of the Jews from Andalucia – and explicitly states a connection and an empathy with all of them. That sense of global parallels, of connections across different communities and cultures, of a shared humanity across persecuted people, really gives depth and something unique to Darwish’s poetry, and that it is on display in so much of Nothing More To Lose is really fascinating.

This isn’t a simple collection though; Darwish has all kinds of different poems in here, all undoubtedly influenced by the dystopic situation of Palestinians, but focusing on different aspects of that. Nothing More To Lose has elegies, laments, love poetry, a certain amount of humour (albeit largely dark), anger, despair, and a certain sort of peace at times; it’s a dense, varied, fluid collection of poetry in that regard, and a really beautiful slim volume that encapsulates so much of the human condition – but specifically the Palestinian condition.

Darwish has really given us poetry that reveals one person’s experience of the Palestinian condition; Nothing More To Lose is a beautiful, painful collection that should be given to everyone who wants to talk about the Middle East before they say another word.

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin (trans Ken Liu)

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Three-Body Problem is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience this multiple award winning phenomenon from China’s most beloved science fiction author, Liu Cixin.

Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.
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Liu Cixin is a phenomenon in China, but somehow, hasn’t reached the Anglosphere in translation… until now. The Three-Body Problem is Tor’s attempt to change this, with the aid of the award-winning short story writer Ken Liu in the role of translator. When a multiawardwinning author’s work is transmitted through the efforts of another, what kind of novel results?

Well, the first thing to comment on, perhaps, is the translation. Inevitably, The Three-Body Problem loses a little in translation, as all works taken from their original language do; but in this case it feels almost intentional, in a very interesting way – like Ken Liu is leaving Liu Cixin’s work as much as it was in Chinese as possible, rather than replacing idioms with English ones, reworking puns to work in English, or changing cultural references. Indeed, Ken Liu provides 42 footnotes across the course of the novel to explain translation choices and cultural references rather than simplifying or eliding them, which really keeps clear that this is a translation, rather than the smoothness of some works which attempt to wholly convert their original text into English, culturally and idiomatically.

Liu Cixin’s novel is a fascinating one, culturally, though. While being centred on Chinese culture, Chinese characters, and Chinese history, there is also a very Western sensibility to it in one particular respect; The Three-Body Problem feels like something incredibly steeped in the science fiction of the so-called Golden Age. In terms of style, of characters, of plot, Golden Age SF sensibilities pervade the novel; indeed, one of the protagonists,Ye Wenjie, feels like Asimov’s Susan Calvin in her emotionless disconnection from the human race and her base rationality. Liu Cixin also shares the problem-centric narrative of an Asimovian story; Three-Body Problem is focused very heavily on the solution to a mathematical problem and on the proper response to extraterrestrial communication.

This should make the book feel dated but somehow, through more interesting characterisation than Asimov especially ever managed, Liu Cixin keeps Three-Body Problem feeling like modern-day Golden Age SF; Wang Miao especially is a rounded character, driven by the rational problem and the desire for a solution to it but also with human feelings – panic, amusement, fear, shock, and so on. He grounds the novel in a way Ye Wenjie never could; that is, he grounds the novel with a character with whom the reader can easily empathise, rather one who seems almost totally closed off from human connection. It’s an interesting contrast to see, especially as Liu Cixin then subverts that at the close of the novel by revealing another side of Ye Wenjie, a more sentimental side, that The Three-Body Problem has largely concealed. That isn’t to say charicature doesn’t enter into The Three-Body Problem; the rogue, disrespectful police officer appears to be a cultural universal, given the character of Da Shi, who would fit right in with the protagonists of Dirty Harry, Luther and Life On Mars.

As far as plot goes, this is perhaps the strongest and also the weakest area of The Three-Body Problem. In some ways, Wang Miao’s simultaneous investigation of the Frontiers of Science, implicated in a series of suicides by scientists, and his playing of the game Three Body, are rather obviously linked and formulaic, with elements of surprise managing to shift things up but being comparatively minor, and things that seem to be intended to be reveals or twists failing to surprise. The nonlinearity of the plot fails to actually keep surprises back, although it does avoid giving too much away, but still, it seems a rather straightforward novel. On the other hand, Liu Cixin’s playing with narrative, with chronology, with stories within stories and the importance of stories all make the plot more interesting, and his approach to linking the different subplots and elements in The Three-Body Problem works really very well.

The Three-Body Problem, then, feels like a combination of the best bits of the Golden Age combined with modern sensibilities; it’s a tremendous work on the part of Liu Cixin, and an amazing achievement of Ken Liu’s translation to have captured so well the *feel* of the novel (or at least, to have seemed to have done so!)

DoI: Review based on an ARC requested from the publisher, Tor Books. The Three-Body Problem is released in North America on November 11th.

Trafalgar by Angelica Gorodischer (trans Amalia Gladheart)

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When you run into Trafalgar Medrano at the Burgundy or the Jockey Club and he  tells you about his latest intergalactic sales trip, don’t try to rush. Trafalgar likes to stretch things out over six or seven coffees. No one knows whether he actually travels to the stars, but he’s the best storyteller around, so why not sit back, let Marcos bring you something refreshing and enjoy the story?
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Gorodischer’s set of linked stories is one of the best known translated works of science fiction from Latin America; although Trafalgar may not even be speculative fiction…

Trafalgar, as the blurb says, is a series of anecdotes recounted by Trafalgar Medrano; but for the most part, they’re not transmitted to the reader directly by him – the exception, ‘The Gonzalez Family’s Fight For A Better World’, has asides to his imagined audience, largely about coffee. These anecdotes are retold, along with the framing narrative of our first-person narrator bumping into Trafalgar, in a stylish, amusing style; hence we can go from Trafalgar talking, in long first-person paragraphs, to the mundanity of Marcos delivering coffee to the table, or Trafalgar asking his interlocutor for a refill. It’s an interesting narrative approach, especially given the outrageousness of his stories; with the exception of ‘Trafalgar and Josefina’, told by an aunt to our narrator, the truth and accuracy of Trafalgar’s recountings are essentially unquestioned. Hence, after much of the book has passed, we’re suddenly strongly introduced to the possibility that the irrepressible raconteur is an unreliable narrator of his own adventures. Gorodischer shines an interesting light backwards onto the preceding stories, to interesting authorial effect.

The anecdotes themselves are extraordinary and absurd, absolutely the stories of a raconteur; they have a sort of swashbuckling sense to them, with Trafalgar playing the role of explorer, saviour of damsels in distress, political activist and never without resources. Trafalgar, across its ten stories, covers all sorts of different topics and areas, such as complex caste systems containing within them the seeds of their own destruction, temporally unmoored societies, orgasm machines and societies held back by their own dead… Each is complete in itself, although some link up with each other; and this adds a certain element of uncertainty, as the few cross-references between stories implies veracity (or well constructed lies), while the general lack of such implies the opposite. Gorodischer, again, holds and manipulates this balance excellently and beautifully to avoid stating absolutely the reliability of Trafalgar.

The characters are a more mixed bag. While Trafalgar himself, and our interlocutor, are both very well fleshed out, interesting and rounded characters with their own foibles and flaws, all too many of the characters in Trafalgar’s narratives blur together; Trafalgar, because it doesn’t dwell on its secondary characters, really just tells us about the eponymous Trafalgar, a sort of character study of the man through whose life flit various shades, passing across and affecting him but themselves not rounded or whole enough to be truly effected by him. It’s actually a strength of the work that this is the case, as the way the stories are told becomes itself part of the story; Trafalgar’s interest is in himself and his activities, and impressing his audience, primarily.

This, then, is a fascinating and wonderful collection whose self-fictionality is an open question; Gorodischer has written both a wonderful series of anecdotes and an interesting puzzle in Trafalgar.

The XY Conspiracy by Lori Selke

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Why Are There No Women in Black?

Jyn, an Asian-American lesbian, makes her living stripping in clubs in San Francisco. But stripping is only her day job. Her true vocation is UFO hunting. One night, working at her day job, she sights a Man in Black and realizes he is stalking her.

But why would they be after me? Sure, I’d posted a few things on various message boards, and, like everyone else these days, I had a blog and a mailing list that I was supposed to send monthly newsletters to, except it was more like quarterly. My correspondents didn’t know about the day job, though. How had they found me? Why did they care?

Unless I was onto something? Unless I was right? My theories aren’t entirely orthodox within the UFO community, after all. Maybe I had accidentally stumbled on something a little too hot, a little too close to closely-held secrets that I’m not supposed to question or suppose.

Jyn’s “not entirely orthodox theories” involve the origins and history of the XY chromosomes. The next day, Jyn packs up her car and sets off on an extended road trip—part “serious UFO tourism” and part flight from the MIB—that takes her though a variety of western states, stripping in clubs and bars as she goes, drawn, inexorably, to New Mexico…
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A feminist Men in Black story starring a mixed-race sex worker? Count me in, Ms Selke!

The XY Conspiracy is a mix of a novella; part sex-worker manifesto, part quintessential road trip novel, part MiB conspiracy theory, Selke has dropped a number of different threads into a pot and stirred them together. What’s more, she’s made them work; the road trip comes from fleeing the MiB, the sex worker manifesto comes from her protagonist’s profession, and the road trip draws in more discussion of sex work. It’s a strange melange, moving from a discussion of the ins and outs of the stripping business, the way different women have different preferences within it and men have a strange reaction to it, and the way marginalisation of sex workers is ridiculous and the damage whorephobia does, to Jyn fleeing the MiBs convinced that men – and specifically, the Y chromosome – is an alien experiment, with emails from a friend showing all sorts of interesting evidence about gender.

The XY Chromosome is an overtly political book, as the above might hint. It’s also an incredibly engaging book, though. Selke has a style that really draws the reader through her action; the first-person narrative, fast-paced writing brings the immediacy of the novella, of Jyn’s fear, to life and home to the reader. But there are slower sections, more relaxed ones; Selke lets those take their own time, draw out to their natural length, rather than hurrying past them to more action or dragging them out beyond reason. It makes for an interesting and varied pace that feels textured and real; Jyn isn’t always frantically running, but nor is she horrendously over-relaxed.

Jyn is a brilliant character, too. The XY Chromosome is a little light on other characters of any depth or significance, but Jyn’s incredibly strong personality goes a long way to make up for that. As a narrator, she often discusses issues with her audience, such as her theories about alien experimentation and UFOs; about gender and the nature of gender; about sex work, and the stigma attached to it; and all sorts of other things. Selke has given us a fascinating character whose record of events really comes to life, in a way that a simpler, more straightforward retelling would not. The dynamics of Jyn’s life – her race, her sexuality, her own internalised whorephobia, and more – all come into play in the novella; The XY Chromosome talks about Japanese internment camps, about Roswell, about Erich von Daniken’s racism and more, all from the point of view of this Asian-American lesbian stripper.

The XY Chromosome, from all I’ve said above, might sound a bit preachy, but it isn’t, any more than a David Eddings novel is; it just has a different model of the normative from that which one might consider mainstream. Selke’s given us a great piece to start any number of conversations, and just a brilliant piece of fiction.

Borderland eds. Terri Windling & Mark Alan Arnold

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Music is magic – and magic runs wild!

Between the mysterious Elflands and the magicless world are a wild Borderland and the ancient city of Bordertown. Here Elfin magic and human technology work only sporadically. Here elves and humans mingle in an uneasy truce, vying for control of the city in the Council Chambers of Dragon’s Tooth Hill, in the marketplace called Trader’s Heaven – but most of all in the old, abandoned parts of the city where runaways gather, rock-and-roll clubs glitter, and kids and bands clash in musical, magical revelry.

Welcome to the Borderlands, but watch your step. Magic runs wild in the streets here. Beware.
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Borderland is where the cult classic shared-world, recently resurrected by Holly Black and Ellen Kushner in Welcome to Bordertown, began, with two editors, four writers and four stories…

The first, ‘Prodigy’, by Steven R. Boyett, is the longest in the collection, and the earliest chronologically, setting up all the later events. Set recently after the events that brought Elfland and the World (back?) into contact, it is focused on one man, Scooter, but across the course of the story explains the development of the meshed cultures of Borderland, Elfland and the World. ‘Prodigy’ could have ended up terribly solipsistic or white-man-centred, and does at times fall into the trap of being all about the manpain of Scooter, but it also does some very fascinating things with worldbuilding. The story centres on Scooter having to come to terms with his emotions and with responsibility, and in that sense it feels like a standard Literary bildungsroman; but the way it’s treated here is rather different, involving magic, rock-and-roll, and a certain amount of questing. This story is also notable for its approach to music; one of the effects of magic, in some places, is to allow some people who play music to actualise it in a manner rather similar to some forms of synaesthesia. Boyett’s passages around this are really effective and beautiful, and he utilises incredibly evocative but abstract description to show the reader his intent; these bits really are of the highest caliber.

Bellamy Bach’s ‘Gray’, on the other hand, is set many years later, in Bordertown itself, starring Gray, at the bottom of society, and Wicker, a rockstar at the top of the outcasts. Here we see a lot more colour; that is, whereas ‘Prodigy’ is almost rural in its landscapes, ‘Gray’ is set in the urbanscapes, in the slums, in the middle class district, in the punk and rock clubs of the town. This is also the first story to be set when Elfland and the World have mingled somewhat, so it’s the first to introduce us to some of the politics of that; the race-based gangs, the effect on the music and clubbing scene, and the exchange of cultural elements – not artefacts so much as ideas – between the two, along with the development of a whole new subculture. It’s a good story, although most of its twists are telegraphed; and the emotional core at the heart of it, and at the hearts of both Wicker and Gray, ring true and are very effectively done.

‘Stick’, though, is probably the strongest story in the collection. Charles de Lint, luminary of urban fantasy and fairytale, and widely feted, combined Morris Dancing and biker gangs to get this story, and it works much, much better than might be expected. A story about isolation, loneliness, companionship and chosen families, it’s a complex, beautiful story; ‘Stick’ manages to showcase a number of different things, including different kinds of strength (Stick himself has one, Bramble another, and Manda yet another still), different approaches to the world and different forms of fellowship. It also opens up questions about the history of Bordertown and the way it was established. de Lint also fascinatingly highlights the racial tensions between humans, elves and the “halflings”, hated by all and accepted by none except other outcasts; not, clearly, a direct parallel to race relations in 1980s America, but certainly commentary on it. And, of course, it includes a Morris-dancing biker gang!

Unfortunately, the collection ends on its weakest story, Ellen Kushner’s ‘Charis’. Focused on the most privileged members of society, it deals in broken hearts and teenaged angst without really getting into anything interesting; as far as character goes, “whiny and annoying” rather sums the titular Charis up. Furthermore, none of the rest of the cast are any more interesting; while providing something of a contrast with the children with bad backgrounds, ‘Charis’ showcases privilege at its most rank, almost. The whole thing feels contrived and shallow in a way the rest of the collection doesn’t, and adds very little except a glimpse into the high society of Bordertown – but an immature, simple one at that.

Borderland is where the Bordertown shared world began, and there’s a reason it has become a cult classic in the following two decades; this is, for the most part, a really strong collection of stories, so congratulations to Terri Windling and Mark Alan Arnold on an astounding creation and excellent curation!

De Secretis Mulierum by L. Timmel Duchamp

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If countless numbers of people throughout history have wished for an early menopause, probably no one wished more devoutly for it than Thomas Aquinas. No doubt he literally prayed for it morning, noon, and night. A picture comes to mind of him kneeling in his cell, pleading with the Virgin for release from a burden even Job hadn’t been forced to bear.

According to the Pentagon-owned-and-operated Past-Scan Device, Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Aquinas were both women in drag. Jane Pendler’s advisor says that’s impossible, that the technology must be bogus, and pulls the plug on Jane’s dissertation research on Leonardo. What’s a feminist graduate student to do? What else, but do the research behind her advisor’s back, of course…
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De Secretis Mulierum is one of the Aqueduct Press Conversation Pieces, written by the woman who started the series. Duchamp’s entry is in a variety of conversations in and about history, as well as gender; but how does it stand up?

De Secretis Mulierum feels in some ways like one of those college romance novels a certain kind of lecturer writes, only inverted; here, we see the relationship from the point of view of the grad student who feels like she can’t leave for fear of retribution. We see an abusive relationship, never called that, but painted in all the colours of control, denigration, shame and apology; we see Pendler justifying Teddy’s actions to herself increasingly desperately and increasingly knowing that those justifications just aren’t true. It’s an impressive feat of writing, making Teddy an academic blowhard and an emotionally abusive partner while not rendering him a fool; and while also making us empathise with Pendler really strongly.

Mind you, that’s more subplot than plot. The romantic element of the story plays into the main theme, but only plays into it. De Secretis Mulierum is really about how far one would go to buck an establishment’s orthodoxies, knowing one was right, when those orthodoxies refuse to be bucked. Duchamp doesn’t make it, in her novella, questionable as to whether Aquinas and Da Vinci are female; indeed, the unquestionableness of that femaleness is part of the point. Da Vinci, of course, has for a long time been seen as gender noncomforming, hence the acceptability to Duchamp’s version of the establishment of “him” as a woman; Aquinas, with his misogyny and academic genius, however, proves more of a sticking point. De Secretis Mulierum is a discussion of why that might be – the gendered associations we have with genius, with logic, with art; our understanding of religion; or the threat to the male establishment Aquinas’ true gender being revealed would create.

Duchamp explores this fascinatingly, integrated into her story of Pendler’s persistent continuation of her project looking at the true gender of Da Vinci; she draws Teddy’s personal misogyny together with his academic resistance. De Secretis Mulierum explains and elucidates on the relationship between the personal, the professional, and the political; the relationship between Pendler and Teddy is just one of a number of tools for doing this, and it works incredibly well.

This is the first Conversation Piece I have read, and it is fantastic; I highly recommend De Secretis Mulierum, especially to anyone planning to advance a theory that will buck the academic establishment!

Vicious by V. E. Schwab

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Victor and Eli started out as college roommates—brilliant, arrogant, lonely boys who recognized the same sharpness and ambition in one another. A shared research interest in adrenaline, near-death-experiences, and seemingly supernatural events reveals an intriguing possibility: that under the right conditions, someone could develop extraordinary abilities. But when their thesis moves from the academic to the experimental, things go horribly wrong. They become EOs, ExtraOrdinaries, leaving a body in their wake and turning on each other.

Ten years later Victor has escaped from prison and is determined to get his revenge on the man who put him there, aided by a young girl with the ability to raise the dead. Eli has spent the years hunting down and killing every EO he can find, convinced that they are a crime against God, all except his sidekick, a woman whose power is persuasion and whom he cannot defy. Armed with terrible power on both sides, driven by the memory of betrayal and loss, the arch-nemeses have set a course for revenge—but who will be left alive at the end?
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Vicious is Schwab’s first foray into the world of adult fiction; a superhero novel that doesn’t have a single hero in.

Schwab’s worked that perfectly; for the first half of the novel, we see things from Victor Vale’s viewpoint, one of the protagonists on the novel. He’s presented as an amoral, driven psychopath (literally), with some major issues; Vicious doesn’t pretend to have a hero, as Schwab builds up the image of Vale as a violent horror, a moral black hole – but one with a specific target; while Eli, who sees himself is a hero, is presented as deluded and wrong, with a similar monstrosity to him. Both characters are sadists, violent monsters; but Vale, for his determination and hatred, is a fantastically written one who we sympathise with because of his choice of targets. The rest of the cast are much more likeable, and that creates an interesting dynamic; we watch the impending clash of power not wanting to see the powers survive, but wanting to see their allies live past it. Sydney and Mitch are wonderful characters, Vicious slowly revealing their backgrounds and personalities, the wonderful, caring humans under otherwise exteriors; some really wonderful writing from Schwab makes these characters, who would be in the sidelines but are instead the emotional focus on the narrative.

That narrative is a fantastic one; Vicious combines aspects of a number of genres, in many ways – the revenge drama, the superhero novel, the thriller… and it takes elements of each of those to make a brilliant narrative. Strung between different chronological timelines, moving around among them with ease, Schwab takes on an interesting tour of the past of each of her characters, builds them up, explains why they are how they are – but without justifying that. It’s a delicate balance; the plot has to move forwards on its own, and at times, especially towards the end of the novel, it can feel like Schwab is jumping between characters a little too often for the plot to sustain, but on the whole the movement between characters and times creates an interesting feeling akin to a mosaic novel, where only by standing back can one take in the whole picture and see it as it is meant to be. Schwab does use some frustratingly cliched devices – not having characters explain plans to their allies, keeping readers in the dark to create suspense she knows isn’t really there – that take some of the power away from Vicious, and the pulling of her punches in regard to character death is also frustrating, but all the same, the pace of the plot and its emotional force, given added heft by the character arcs, does work.

Schwab’s worldbuilding is perhaps the most interesting and also least interesting elements of Vicious. In some ways, Merit is an interesting city, which seems to be both an American Midwestern everycity and also to some extent the world; there are other places that appear briefly, but in essense, Merit is the world. That works to some extent, insofar as Gotham works as the world for Batman, but the references to a wider world in Gotham work because it exists; in Merit, the world just doesn’t exist, it is only the subject of vague occasional reference. Similarly, the EOs – ExtraOrdinaries – seem to have had fundamentally no impact on the world; even the police training for dealing with them doesn’t appear to exist, and the EOs have such varied abilities that training to deal with them doesn’t make much sense itself. All this adds up to Schwab appearing lazy in her worldbuilding, a real flaw in an otherwise well-constructed novel.

Vicious isn’t a perfect book – for a start, it’s very straight, male and white; but what Schwab is doing, she does on the whole very well and in a novel with complexities that really make it worth the effort. I recommend it, albeit with some reservations.