Thursday, 14 December 2017

The Week in Stories - Masque of the Red Death

In personal stories, the last little bit has been rough. It's now been 7 months since my mother died, and this week is the 7 year anniversary of my father's death. I am getting through, but I've been erratic in keeping up on book reviews and the Dust Cover Dust-Up, and finally decided to scrap the latter. I went through all the books by myself in the same way, and will post a Top Ten Books of the Year list soon, but I don't have the mental energy to detail my struggles to pick between dearly loved books this year. I quit trying to make myself do it, and I feel a lot better for that decision.

Another part of having a tough go is that it had been a while between gaming sessions, and I find that when I go without gaming for a while, my grump quotient shoots through the roof. Nothing like slipping into someone else's problems to help me blow off steam. So I was extraordinarily glad when we sat down for the second session of Masque of the Red Death, our Victorian monster hunter game. Yes, it's supposed to be a lighter game, but my character has some juicy bits.

Previously on Masque of the Red Death....

After writing up last session, I thought a lot about my character. I liked how he came out in the first episode, but it was definitely Roydon at his best, and his best wasn't what I was interested in exploring. I figured out that if I wanted his traumatic past to come up, I needed to do some serious thinking about what, specifically, would touch on his past experiences and what reactions might be provoked.

I did this in concert with another player, since she's playing Roydon's lover, and was going to take the brunt of whatever reaction he had. I wanted to make sure I wasn't doing anything that would deprotagonize her character or make the game less fun! We both bought in to the idea of Roydon dealing with trauma, but we definitely needed to collaborate on what that would look like, with full veto power in her court.

Once the two of us were happy about the results, and excited to see them in practice, I forwarded the list on to the GM (also my husband), and he kindly included them on my updated character sheet for easy reference. This was good, since I came up with them about three weeks before we ended up playing and wasn't entirely sure I remembered them all!

I'll talk about them and how they ended up working so far, after a bit of a recap:

Episode Two: The Hampstead Horror

The episode began with our intrepid heroes being inducted into the Daedalus Lodge, the secret monster-hunting society behind the rather more pedestrian Icarus Club.

Lady Felicity decided it would be only kind if she picked up her brother and his paramour and gave them a lift to the club, although she started to rethink that as her carriage went into rather sketchy territory. Roydon was already in a bad mood, which had started when Abigail offered to fasten his cufflinks. He would treat her rather shabbily for the rest of the day, to her confusion and dismay.

Rather than talking for half an hour to give us exposition, Bill wrote a six-page scripted scene that we read each other, getting the lore we needed behind the organization we had just joined. (I think I love it more when the scripts are character flashbacks, but this was certainly an effective way to get that much info out in a way that engaged us all.) We also met the demon that had killed Hewitt's father, which he now carried in an "impenetrable" glass vial around his neck.

At the end of the vignette we read, there was a reference to a former monster hunter, Henry, who, despite being "the best of us all," still fell prey to corrupting forces. (I was delighted with myself that I figured out the reference from that alone.) After some in-character discussion with the members who welcomed us, we were taken on a field trip to see Henry's body - huge, distorted, who would have thought that Dr. Henry Jekyll would end up like that?

After our induction, we moved into a research phase, using Blades In The Dark-style clocks. We each got to come up with our own research project (or collaborate), and starting bringing in elements we wanted to see in the future stories. (I also got a clock for "Roydon Goes On A Bender," and that started filling up fairly quickly.)

Roydon started researching shapeshifters, looking for whatever had attacked him and killed(?) his fiancee. I made some minor progress, but nothing specific yet.

Then we want on to the third phase of the way Bill sees it going - personal scenes. We could either call for something or ask Bill for a suggestion. I did the latter, and he suggested we see Roydon and Abigail's stage magic show. That was a lot of fun, and went well at first. Roydon used his psychometry (I think this is my second character with that ability - apparently I find it particularly interesting!) to read the history of objects and stun his audience, although he was more cynical in an aside to Abigail than to the owner.

Then the whole performance went sideways. Roydon, looking up into the balcony, saw the pale face of his dead(?) fiancee there. He went white and walked down the stairs and into the crowd. Abigail tried to pass it off as part of the performance and bring him back, but he was somewhere else. The crowd came to their feet and surrounded him, and when he looked back, she was gone. After some stunned stillness, he stormed off, and Abigail managed to bring the show to a successful conclusion, but only with great difficulty.

Meanwhile, Hewitt went back out to Graydon House with his pet demon-in-a-jar and a magic detector. There, he was able to confirm that there was indeed a shit-ton of magic, but not a lot more. He tried to close the gap with magnets, but the sound of approaching heavy footsteps convinced him to beat a retreat.

Lady Felicity lunched at the Icarus Club, eating with a friend of her father, a rather pompous older man with an excess of harrumphing. From him, she learned more of the history of the past and present masters of Graydon House, as well as some tidbits from the less monster-hunty side of the world.

Kimball was walking down the street when he realized he was being followed. On eluding his first pursuer, he became aware of two more. Eventually, he decided to allow them to catch up, and found himself being ushered into a carriage occupied by Lord Somerset, head of the Foreign Office. Somerset had some questions about when Kimball had left the service and why. In particular, he wanted to know whether or not the experience Kim had had included seeing "the castle." Kim, confused, said no, and Somerset did not elaborate further.

We ran out of time for Abigail to have a scene, and she had been part of Roydon's, so we ended the game there. We're maybe hoping that Abigail can track Roydon down post-show and have it out at the start of next session.

Character Thoughts:

I felt like the triggers all worked fairly well, although at least one player took my shorthand list literally in a way that made me cock an eyebrow. One of them was written down as "cufflinks," and surprise, surprise, it doesn't mean that you show my character cufflinks, and he freaks out. It means that when a woman he cares about adjust his dress in a way that feels caring, that prompts memories of what he's lost and makes him push said woman (i.e. Abigail) away because he can't deal with the loss he suffered previously. It does not, oh hell no, excuse his behaviour, but it does offer some insight into why. (Amanda and I were all about playing out a relationship that might not be the best for the people involved.)

However, that shortform meant that one other player tried to show me his shirt sleeves at one point, going "ooh, cufflinks." Uh...yeah. That's...not going to do it.

If last session was Roydon at his best, this was definitely getting closer to the worst. He kept pushing Abigail away, often without even realizing that he'd done it, so wrapped up in his own pain was he. And we got to push on a couple of the sore spots, both ones that make him edgy, abrupt, and leaning towards drinking a lot. The only one we didn't get to really explore was the one that will provoke a different reaction....

That one was a tricky one to work out. I wanted something that made him very overprotective of Abigail, but it can't be happening all the time - she's the most physically capable person in the party, and it's no fun for her player if I'm constantly acting like she can't do anything. (Historical accuracy be fucking damned - I hate using historical settings as an excuse to make sure women know they would be treated badly at the time. REALLY? NO FUCKING KIDDING.) It's happened to me while playing female characters, and now, with my first male character, I didn't want to turn around and do the same to someone else, unless that was the specific adversity they wanted.

I feel like we found a good way to work the overprotectiveness in, given that entirely voluntary restraint. We found a specific, limited, and evocative set of circumstances that would make Roydon act uncharacteristically - notably, his default is to believe that Abigail is entirely capable and doesn't need protecting, so this should stand out as strange. It will be triggered when he sees something supernatural looming over Abigail when she's in a vulnerable position. It's specific because it will remind him of what he saw when Carrie was killed(?), it won't happen all the time, and it will be distinctly different from the norm.

I really can't wait. Oh, this relationship is going to get messy, and that's going to be interesting.

Monday, 4 December 2017

The Facts of Life by Paula Knight

I am not a fan of trying to write reviews of graphic novels. That doesn't mean I don't like graphic novels, but the difficulty is similar to the one I have writing reviews of books of short stories. In both cases, the works I'm trying to comment on flash by too quickly. I do best when I stretch a book over several days - something I do quite purposefully, reading multiple books at once to prevent starting and finishing a book on the same day. I need the time and the space for my mind to stretch into the book, to think quietly about what I'm reading, to mull over what's going on. Only then do I feel like I can write a review.

With short-form fiction or graphic novels, it's so quick, and ephemeral. It feels like they go by in the blink of an eye and I'm on to the next one, and I don't retain enough to write good reviews.  In fact, just a few days ago, I gave myself permission to stop trying to write reviews of books of short stories. (This doesn't mean that I won't try to still write reviews of old science fiction stories - those are different, in that I'm reading them with purpose, and take my time to fit them into what I know and what I don't know yet, about the field.)  But for anthologies? I can read them and let them be quick and transitory. That's okay.

I feel a great sense of relief. I may eventually make the same decision about graphic novels - I never feel like I have much to write about them. I mean, look at the two and a half paragraphs I've used so far to avoid talking about this specific book!

It's partly because this was loaned to me by a friend, and it was evidently a book she responded to strongly, and I just haven't had the same reaction. It's not a bad book, per se, it's just so bloody straightforward - it feels like a pamphlet on infertility was extended to graphic novel length. There isn't anything here that makes it more than a straightforward recounting, I don't see anything that makes it feel like art, like it becomes more than just a set of "this is what happened" events.  I mean, except for the drawings, which are fine, but didn't strike me in any strong way.

It's so hard when my reaction is so much at variance with that of a friend who loaned it to me expecting, I think, a certain response.

Part of that is different life experiences. Neither of us have ever had children. I don't think she ever wanted to, and from what she's said, it sounds like she's gotten grief from plenty of people over the years who make her feel less a person because she isn't a mother.

My experience is very different, and I feel like I must know politer, less judgey people than she does. I don't have children, but it's not entirely volitional. There were infertility issues that made it difficult, and medical issues that led me to the decision not to pursue intervention in trying to conceive, and a lack of money and general contentedness with our life as it is that led my husband and I to decide not to pursue adoption. There were choices all the way along, and we made them.

They weren't easy, of course, but I'm at peace with all of them. That took quite a while, and many conversations, and a few years of it causing me some pain. But it's my own story, and honestly, I never feel like I've been judged for it. I don't think I've ever been talked down to by people because I chose not to have kids. People have asked, but generally once I've known them, and with delicacy and entire lack of judgement. So the whole "the world is full of pro-natalist pressure" just...doesn't ring true for me. I think that means I've been exceptionally lucky.

I've also never been bothered by other people having children around me. I love kids. I would have been a good mother, I think, but I'm also a pretty awesome me. And I'm happy being the cool aunt instead.

Which is to say that while I wanted kids, my self-worth was never ever tied up with being a mother in the way that the author of this book feels was foisted upon her by heteronormative family-obsessed family, friends, and culture. So...I don't respond to it. Sounds like I don't because I lucked the hell out.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Certainty by Madeleine Thien

I have not always been thrilled by the list put out by the CBC of the Top 100 Canadian Books. I mean, I'll read the whole thing if it kills me, but the list itself was far to heavily weighted towards books that had come out in the five years before it was compiled. And so, many of the books on it have left me a little baffled as to why they're there, other than that they're recent, and it probably pleased the publishers.

Luckily, although Certainty is still fairly recent, this was not a book that left me rolling my eyes in disbelief and wondering who the heck picked it. I can't say I loved it with the deep-down love I reserve for a few books every year, but it's definitely one that I might recommend to someone if I thought this was up their particular alley. Phew! It's nice to be able to say nice things about these books. I want to support Canadian literature. Just not, you know, if it's terrible.

We have a bunch of interlocking stories here - the story of Gail, a radiojournalist obsessed with the stories of people's lives, and not knowing what is not told. (As made material by a diary written in a Vignere code.)  Then stories of her parents, particularly her father - growing up in a Malaysia at war, negotiating terrain of loyalty and collaboration that have deadly consequences, and then later, when her father meets her mother and they go to Australia as students. And the story of Gail's partner, Ansel, coping with grief after Gail dies unexpectedly in her 40s. As a doctor, he searches for a way he could have prevented a freak occurrence, while trying to help a tubercular patient with AIDS negotiate his last days.

It's a lot, and these stories do not interlock in neat ways, perhaps trying to avoid the certainty of the title in favour of different stories with different meanings. This does, however, make it a bit harder to pick out themes that are universal to all the stories in the novel. The back-of-the-book description makes this all seem neater than it is - like Gail goes to Amsterdam in search of the woman in her father's past, where in the actual novel, she goes following an unrelated story, and ends up contacting a man there who married her father's childhood sweetheart without really have any idea of the full sweep of the story. It's more than that she's curious than that she knows the precise outlines of the mystery.

In fact, the back of the book prose makes this all seem like the emotions in this book are more tempestuous and passionate than they are. This isn't the story of raging feelings. It's the story of adults dealing with deep feelings, mostly well. They don't really act out. They try to work through their emotions, even when they are emotions not easily handled. Ansel still goes to supper every week with Gail's parents, and they are together, even when grief sweeps through. When it does, there isn't any gnashing of teeth or rending of clothes, and this is closer to my own experience of grief - it colours everything, but doesn't necessitate destroying what still remains.

Does what Gail finds out give her any closure? Did it her father? Ansel? They all go on, as long as they can, until death ends one of the stories. And the discovery of secrets doesn't really end anything, it just alters the circumstances.

So, because these stories don't neatly interlock, don't unfold a secret at the centre, they're a quieter story. Much like what Gail finds when someone decodes the Vignere cipher for her - life is more mundane, more able to go on, more constant than you might expect. That sense is what I responded to most strongly in this book.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2017: Round One, Part Seven

More Round One

The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger vs. Sunshine by Robin McKinley

I didn't dislike The Mistress of Nothing, about gender politics and women in England and Egypt, but I liked Sunshine quite a lot more. It was a little cheesy, a slightly darker version of Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse books. The human and vampire didn't quite get it on in the first book, but it was a lot of present-day fantasy fun.

Winner: Sunshine

Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant vs. Yes Please by Amy Poehler

Here we have one of the few books I really disliked this year, for a whole lot of reasons that I go into in the review. You can click the link if you're really interested. So it's definitely getting knocked out. Amy Poehler's Yes Please wasn't the best thing ever, but it was a hell of a lot more fun than inconsistent characters and tweeness.
Winner: Yes Please

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson vs. Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross

A nice pairing of science fiction - the futility of generation ships up against spreading Nazis in a world where light-speed is possible but highly regulated. Aurora characters bothered the heck out of me, handing an easy win to Charles Stross here.

Winner: Iron Sunrise

Bye: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The First Lensman by E.E. "Doc" Smith vs. Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

Let's book that ignores the valid concerns of a cabal of men taking over all government because they have magic devices that say they're virtuous, against a book that is far from my favourite of the Vorkosigan saga, but gives interesting insight into early Cordelia and Aral. Again, easy.
Winner: Shards of Honor

How To Be Both by Ali Smith vs. Winter Rose by Patricia McKillip

This is a complex choice. In the one corner, we have a story that can be told in one of two orders, about a lost mother and a female Renaissance painter, in the other, we have a retelling of a number of story tales that was less Tam Lin that I was hoping. I liked Winter Rose more than the rest of my book club did, but of the two, I think this has to go to the experiment that is How To Be Both.

Winner: How To Be Both

Monday, 27 November 2017

Earth by David Brin

*Some Spoilers Below*

I was trying to describe this book to people at my book club last night, and as I went through all the things it tried to incorporate, one person asked if this was a humourous book? It is not, but I can see how the hodge-podge I was listing might make it sound like a book where piling all these themes and technologies were be used to highlight absurdity.

This is...not that book. That book might have been more fun.

Which isn't to say this is a bad book, this is just a book that is trying to do so much and get through it as efficiently as possible that it's a perfectly serviceable, and, indeed, ambitious standard science fiction novel. But it's not heavily a novel of character (although the characters aren't terrible), or of prose styling. It's plot, and that's not uncommon, and it's a pretty good plot, but oh my, are we ever trying to mash a whole bunch of things in there:

Climate Change
Black holes in the centre of the Earth
Abolition of privacy by law
Gaian Theory
A floating nation-state
A conspiracy of the rich
Gazerbeams (gravity something something something)

It's a lot, even for a book that approaches 600 pages in mass market format. Does it all hang together? Kind of? Each of the stories is more or less hung on a different person, not to mention the young men who die along the way, and we go back and forth between them at what is sometimes whiplash speed. Chapters are often only 5-10 pages long, which at least is better than those books that have 2-3 page chapters. I hate 2-3 page chapters.

Let's see, can I make the plot make sense? The world has already suffered through drastic effects of climate change, leading to a lot of climate refugees, hence the floating state. Privacy has been abolished, and old people with cameras are everywhere, monitoring the young. One of the prime movers behind Gaian theory is an old woman, with radical ideas that are both lauded and decried by the political/religious movement she started inadvertently.

But none of that is the main story. The main story is about the Gaian scientist's grandson, who was a physicist, who accidentally created a small black hole that escaped and entered the centre of the Earth. When he goes looking for it to find out how screwed the planet is, he finds that it's benign and failing, but a much larger and malevolent (does cancerous work as an analogy here?) one was already there. How did it get there? Aliens, maybe? (This thread is not much followed up beyond the theory and then a later encounter with a character that another character thinks is probably a benevolent alien in disguise as a human.)

The grandson embarks on a conspiracy to slowly move the black hole out of the Earth into space, where it'll dissipate harmlessly. To do so, he invents gazers, a gravity-beam that could launch spacecraft without any worry about rockets or combustion. He needs to keep this secret because...reasons? Because people might try to stop him? To provide some tension for the plot?

See, it's just a lot. I mean, A LOT. While reading it, it all hangs together fairly well, although there were moments where if ONE MORE PERSON decided they needed to put their hand on the wheel I was going to scream. Not everyone needs to interfere. We don't need a list that approaches double-digits. It's okay to focus.

So, yeah. This is a perfectly serviceable science fiction story, but it's trying to do too much, and ends up feeling, not meandering, but more that it expects readers to follow along as yet another person decides to poke their nose in the same business. It's a well that is gone to several times too often. Readable but not stellar.

Friday, 24 November 2017

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad

This will be the 1000th post I've made on this blog. Happy blogiversary to me! There's a small part of me that is wistful that this doesn't line up with one of my favourite books of the year, that I don't get to gush over a book that you all totally need to read, guys. It's not a bad book, but I didn't love it, and for several days I've sat down to write this review and been absolutely stymied.

Time to break through that barrier, even if I have to drag myself through this review bodily.

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is my book club's selection for this month. I ran into another member of the club a few weeks ago, and he asked if I'd started the book yet, which I hadn't. He said it was a difficult book. Heavy. So when I sat down to read it, I was expecting this book to weigh on me, but I never really ended up feeling it in that way.

I mean, the character is buried under a large portion of self-loathing, but I didn't feel like I tapped into that myself, I didn't feel like there was that much fat phobia in the book that didn't come from the main character herself (and maybe her mother), I didn't feel like the issues with weight were transitive, if that makes sense. I'm far from a thin person myself, but I didn't take on any of the main character's issues as I read.  (However, one person in my book club who had struggled with disordered eating found that it was strongly resonant with her own experience.)

Writing the previous two paragraphs, I'm aware of how many of our words for difficult or traumatizing are connected to weight. Huh. I suppose that shouldn't shock me.

As the title suggests, this book is made up of thirteen short stories. Over half of them are from the point of view of the main character (I honestly can't remember her name, but I'm bad with character names), the others scattered ones from men she has slept with.

So, is it good? Does this book do what it's trying to do? What is it trying to do?

It's examining how this one woman moves through life, as an overweight teenager, and then as a woman who pushes her body into thinness through self-deprivation and excessive exercise. Who never believes that anyone could be attracted to her just as she is, even as her husband is wistful for a wife who knew how to let go and enjoy herself instead of being brittle all the time. For more than half the book, she is, it sounds like, quite skinny, but always sees herself as the fat girl from her childhood. Which, apparently, was so awful that she'd do anything to escape it.

It's heavily insinuated she inherited this from her mother, who was overweight, died too young, and measured everything by what size clothes her daughter could fit into. But although the young woman's early relationships are complicated, she doesn't seem to have nay trouble finding men who are attracted to her.

It's also about the female friendships she doesn't have, in addition to the relationship with the husband she pushes away, because anything soft smacks of weight? I guess? Awad doesn't really let us that far into the character, even though the stories are largely written in the first person. Maybe the character doesn't let herself see that far into what she does either. But all the women around her are competitors, either those who are effortlessly thin to spite her, working as hard as she is and thus rivals, or failures who haven't conquered their bodies.

There is little didactic in this book, for which I am grateful. It doesn't hit you over the head, but once you've seen how she reacts to all the other women around her, like everything in life is a zero-sum game centered around weight, it's not hard to pick up the theme. She hates herself, she hates all other women, she's not too fond of men. She is, quite frankly, miserable. But there's no self-awareness there. There's no glimmer of hope. Even at the end, when she starts eating more again (right at the very end), it's not out of an epiphany that all that misery isn't worth it. It's, yet again, as a failure.

So yeah, this is a bleak world. This character has issues on top of issues on top of issues, all dressed up in a fat suit. No progress is made towards addressing them, and the main character never seems to really see them as issues. It's not really fun to read, but I didn't find it particularly traumatizing either.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2017: Round One, Part Six

We're halfway through Round One! Future rounds will be faster.

The January Dancer by Michael Flynn vs. More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon

I never thought I'd say this, but I'm actually looking forward to the next round, when the choices aren't quite so clearcut. I think this is a better way to arrive at a top ten, but the vast majority of the choices are foregone in the first set. Like in this case, where I was not really fond of The January Dancer, (and in a couple of books, Michael Flynn has gotten wrong things I am familiar with), and I really quite enjoyed the experiment Sturgeon was trying in More Than Human.

Winner: More Than Human 

Bye #Something or Other: The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates

Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco vs. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

This is actually a harder decision than most in this round. I didn't love The Golem and the Jinni, but so far it has stayed with me (keep in mind I only finished it a month or so ago). Still, if it's up against Foucault's Pendulum and Eco's meditations on history, conspiracy, and belief, I do know which wins. 
Winner: Foucault's Pendulum

Danger Planet by Brett Sterling vs. NW by Zadie Smith

Kangaroo puns. Kanga Roo puns. That alone would be enough to disqualify one of these books, even if otherwise it was perfectly serviceable swashbuckling space adventure. I can't quite forgive the central wordplay, and Zadie Smith's N-W was really great.
Winner: N-W

Farmer in the Sky by Robert Heinlein vs. Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson

Easy peasy choices continue. Heinlein is always at least readable, but Farmer in the Sky is pretty slight, and it's up against some very funny Jenny Lawson and her further adventures with being herself.
Winner: Furiously Happy

Transcendental by James Gunn vs. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Although I read the second quite a bit before my mother died (she's the one who gave it to me to read, at a time when neither of us knew how close death hovered), it, combined with the experiences of the last year, have given me a curious freedom from propitiatory anxiety. There isn't going to be any being ready for the moments that change everything, no matter how much you try to live it in advance. You come away with something like that, a science fiction book that sees transcendence as physical optimization and nothing else is not going to be the winner.
Winner: When Breath Becomes Air