Friday, 26 May 2017

Every Heart A Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Every Heart A Doorway is short, but there is really quite a lot packed into the shorter form novella here. It's a murder mystery, in addition to being a meditation on what happens to those children who go through doors to magical lands, and an examination of the hierarchies of outsiderdom. That this book doesn't feel like it's giving short shrift to any of those is really quite remarkable, and I'd strongly recommend this to anyone - it's not going to take you long to read, and there is some treasure here.

For the plot, Nancy has recently returned to the “real” world from her particular world of mystery and magic - in her case, an underworld that placed great value on stillness and silence. Her parents worry about her, and she is packed off to a boarding school to recover, a place where they’re assured she’ll find herself after whatever trauma she had experienced.

It’s actually a boarding school run by Eleanor, an older woman whose door is still open, but which she can’t go through, for a number of reasons. It’s there to both reacclimatize children and young people like Nancy to the world while not asking them to deny or abjure their experiences.

Once there, we get into a catechism of other worlds, along axes of Good and Evil and Nonsense and Logic. There are more minor variations, but these categorizations are supposed to help the returned work through their experiences.

Notable, however, this mostly comes into play as we discover that even though everyone at the school has been through a similar experience (and most are desperately looking for or waiting for their door to reopen so they can go home), that does not mean that they all support each other. There is every bit of teenage hierarchy that you’d expect, as those from candy cloud Nonsense lands find those from dark and dangerous Logic Lands to be suspect. And vice versa.

The suspicion grows when Nancy’s first roommate at the school turns up dead, missing her hands. Despite common experience, most people at the school are looking for differences, for ways to prove that they alone are the ones who are worthy of a return to their lands, while the others are obviously defective. There are some subtle things worked in here about division and contempt between those who should find common ground.

There are also varieties of gender identity and sexual orientation that I haven’t seen a lot of in fantasy, and better yet, while important to the characters, these are not the only or even necessarily defining features of their personalities. Nancy is asexual, and Kade, the boy who becomes her closest friend at the school, is transgender. I’d be hesitant to say it’s well done, as I’m not part of either group represented, but from my limited perspective, it feels well done, integral without being the only thing you know about that character.

As corpses mount, we end up with only a couple of possible suspects, but at least my first guess was wrong, and the answer, when it comes, is satisfying. This is a melancholy yet joyful book, and while I may have trouble explaining exactly why I’d say that, it’s true nonetheless.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

The Bread We Eat in Dreams by Catherynne Valente

When I started to read this book, just a few weeks ago, I had a mother. By the time I finished it, I didn’t have a mother anymore. I’d been orphaned at age 39 just as surely as any of the children in any of the fairy tales that Valente is riffing on, often brilliantly, in this book.

And yet this book will remain forever entangled with the last few weeks in my memory. I started reading it on the train to be there for my Mother’s surgery, surgery that didn’t have precisely the outcome we wanted, but which still was an answer that gave us a lot of hope and years.

I read about Coyote in a small-town America high school, about a detective who finds which story you belong in, and many other stories as I sat in the hospital room in between fetching warm blankets to keep my mother warm and take care of her, while my sister tucked her in and washed her face. I read about a demon expelled from Hell to New England and the struggle for the Bride of the World as we started to think about chemo and radiation, how we would be there for her and her new partner through difficult times.

And although this review is going to be largely about what I’ve gone through, let me say that these stories were the perfect damned accompaniment, entertaining and thought-provoking.

I returned home to my husband reading a brilliant Handmaid’s Talesque take on a Nuclear America with McCarthy as president, and a world above the clouds where words were not the words they meant. Another place where wolves stalked the streets of Brooklyn

Then I didn’t read it for about a week, sinking back into my life and getting used to the idea that things had changed and there were new things we had to deal with. And those themes resonated with these stories.

Then, a week and a half ago, my sister called with the news that my mother had just had a major stroke, and for a couple of reasons, the stroke unit could do none of the near-miraculous things they can do for strokes these days. To get there as soon as we could. I got there just as she was sliding into unconsciousness - I think she saw me, but I’ll never know for sure. We were told that in 48 hours, her brain would “declare itself” and we’d find out if she was going to ever regain any function, or if we were going down the path of palliative care. We were gently reminded the latter was more likely.

I read more of these stories while sitting in vigil with my husband in her room, trading off every five or six hours with my sister and my mother’s significant other. The world took on a strange unreality that comes from being detached from the passage of time or usual sleeping or eating patterns as I read about the Bronte siblings’ inner life made manifest. I read while we were waiting, after we’d started to make plans, if palliative care was the way we were going, to take her home for her last days. I was numb.

I had just started reading “Silently and Very Fast,” a story I’d always wanted to read, something that is a little bit Pinocchio and a whole lot unique, about an emerging AI, when her breathing changed and I called for a nurse, and the nurse asked if my sister was on her way yet, and when I asked if I should call her, she said yes, and I did, and at the end, we never made it to palliative care. The vigil didn’t last until my other sister had made her way back from New Zealand. In the space of the story when I put it down, while one sister was in the air, and the other sister was driving herself and my mother’s partner to the hospital as fast as she could, my mother died.

I’ve been witness to both my parents dying, now, and other than the part of me that wants to scream at the sky for the unfairness of it all, I am struck, again, by how nebulous that moment is. It’s not like in the movies or literature, where the moment of death is obvious. It's not that there’s a switch turning off. Both times, it’s been a little unclear and indistinct. You can put your finger on the minute or couple of minutes, but not on the second. I’d like to see that truth, someday, in something I read.

I finished this book after my mother’s life was suddenly, and so unfairly, over, still sleep deprived and in pain, with that melancholy story of the boundaries between self and other, between machine and human, easing my own passage into the land of grief, where I’ll be for a while. The answers in "Silently and Very Fast" were unexpected and so right, just as I was going through something so wrong. Weirdly, that fit.

There are not many books that would have been good companions for this voyage that I never ever wanted to take. Most would have sat wrongly, or hurt. But not this one. Between her language, and her stories, Catherynne Valente’s voice was with me in stress and in pain and in quiet moments of waiting and hurting, and it was the right voice for that moment.

Monday, 22 May 2017

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

People recommend books to me a lot. It's hard to know when or how to fit them all in! And then there's the worry I won't like a book that is very dear to a dear friend's heart. For a long time, I just avoided reading books that had been recommended to me, unless someone pushed a physical copy into my hot little hands. (This is still the fastest way to get a book to the top of my list.) So I started a new list to read of books friends recommended. If you want to get in on this, you can recommend a book on this post.

This book was recommended to me by Lisa

I was reading this book in the kind of circumstances that, perhaps, did a disservice to the book itself. I was distracted and upset, and read in short bursts. I wish I'd had the time and the opportunity to sit down and let long sections of A God in Ruins seep through me. As it was, I did really enjoy it, but I also felt like I might have loved it had the circumstances been a bit different. I guess what I'm saying is that I'm looking forward to rereading it, and the first time was enough to definitely warrant a second read.

The second thing that comes to mind is to contrast this book to the ones we've been reading the last few months in my science fiction and fantasy bookclub, all of which have centered around books written by people with direct experience of war. It's been interesting to think about similarities and differences between these authors, and differences that exist between them and authors who write about war but haven't experienced it.

It's funny, though, because Kate Atkinson's book doesn't feel as far afield as do some of the other books we could think of that valorized war and gave a feeling of purpose or story to battle. Through the sections of the book where Teddy is flying his fighting missions in the air to Germany, whether he lives or dies seems very arbitrary. He is lucky, but little else.

So, what's the book about? I'm thinking about how much to say, because this is a book where the discovery is part of the journey. It's the story of Teddy's life, is a safe way to start. Both his life during the war, and his life after, when he settles down, marries, and eventually has a grown-up daughter who is remarkably selfish, and two grandchildren who love him. As we dance back and forth in time, we get to see why some of those things occur, but I have to say that even when we find out the root of Viola's issue with her father, she is still a character that I just want to throttle a good portion of the time. Although I think maybe that's the point.

It's a life lived quietly, after the war, with huge domestic disruptions, but largely unaffected by interactions with the politics of the greater world. There are ways in which it reminded me of Jo Walton's My Real Children, and I hope I'm not giving too much away by making that comparison. The characters all felt so real, even when they were (or particularly when they were) ones I wanted to strangle.

At the end of his life, is Teddy the god in ruins? You'll have to read and see, but the title itself led me down many paths while I was reading, comparing it to this idea and the other, but I really don't want to say much more. This book is much less overtly the sort of something else that the companion novel, Life After Life, was. And yet it's there, and when it became apparent I was moved, but not as moved as I was by the relationships Teddy had with others in his life.

I do want to go back to the book when I'm bringing a better me to the experience. Some day.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

It feels like it has been a long time since I've sunk down so deep into a book that when I come back up, I am dazed and the real world feels a little less tangible than the fictional one I've just been in. Partly, it's because a lot of my reading has been interrupted quite a bit, but that full immersion has been a bit elusive.

But then I picked up Lagoon. And even though I read it on lunch hours, and once, on a relatively short bus ride to meet my husband for dinner, this was the first book in a while that pulled me in so hard it was a physical wrench to take my attention from the page back to the world around me. I realized it on that bus ride, when my husband asked if I was okay, because I was unusually quiet, and I realized it was because I wasn't entirely back in the world yet.

It's both disconcerting and wonderful, to find a book that sucks me in so deeply, and so I feel fairly confident in recommending this book to everyone who wants an interesting and challenging look at first contact, and the difficulties it would bring to a very human world, and very specifically to daily life and culture in Nigeria.

We start in the ocean, where the aliens have just landed, and start to extend certain overtures to the creatures they find there. Those creatures may or may not be hospitable to the humans who have polluted their waters. From there, we emerge onto land, to the three main characters: a marine biologist struggling with having a husband who has recently converted to a form of what feels like Pentecostal Christianity and newly started to try to subjugate her will to his; a soldier beaten up from trying to stop a rape by members of his unit; and a rapper just finished a large show in Lagos.

The three are swept into the sea and eventually returned to shore with a fourth, an alien that has taken on a women's appearance, named Ayodele by the marine biologist. She needs to talk to the president of Nigeria, but the city is in relative chaos from the weird sonic booms and tidal waves. The book is comprised of several treks across the city, along with confrontations surrounding the alien woman, with some trying to kidnap her for commercial gain, others to find visibility in a changing world, and for others to find out how Christian these aliens are.

Much of the book is about the different ways people would react to alien encounters, and the specific ways in which culture mediates that, particular in assumptions about gender. It feels like too often when we have alien contact in science fiction, it takes place in an Any Culture, which actually means American culture, just assumed to be near universal. Not only moving the locus of contact to Nigeria, but also strongly engaging with how reactions might be affected by both individual personalities and larger social trends, means this is very strong, and sometimes uncomfortable.

And then it takes an interesting turn, one that seems to be present in the other of Okorafor's books I've read so far, when what is science fiction also starts to incorporate some elements of fantasy. These two genres are not easily extricable in her work, and the resulting melange is really neat. Because while the aliens have been altering things under the waves, there are things under the surface of the land that are older and in at least one case, more hungry. I don't want to spoil more than that.

Readjusting to the world around me after pulling myself out with an almost physical wrench was a difficult thing to do every time. This book sucked me in deep, and I hope it does the same for you.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

The Week in Stories: Strange Attractors - April 28

In Search Of...The Amber Room

By jeanyfan - Own work, Public Domain,

All Strange Attractors Recaps 

 After opening with a scene that was about my character's backstory, we moved on to the main mission. (I'll discuss that scene in more depth at the end, because it works nicely into my character musings.)  The Admonitories, those behind TimeWatch from the far future, gave the group the mission of rescuing the Amber Room on the night it was likely consumed by fire during aerial bombing of the Nazis in Konigsberg.

We popped into the Amber Room itself just as the bombing started, which seemed safest, rather than trying to infiltrate the castle in more conventional ways. Of course, that sounded like a good idea until we got there and the reverberations inside the room drove our resident audio expert to his knees in a rush of sadness and despair. Two others of the group were similarly affected, while Millie and Peter hung on (Millie by repeated one of her affirmations to herself over and over - more about that later.)

They were able to set up the equipment they needed to steal the room and get the hell out of there with the Amber Room to 1976, but once there, TimeWatch was in upheaval, because the removed Amber Room was leaking temporal energy all over the place, polluting the timeline. The Admonitories recommended amputating this timeline to prevent contamination, but ranking officer of the present, Heinlein, said that the team would make one attempt first to go back and figure out what had corrupted the fabric of the Amber Room and caused the weird and destructive harmonics. 

Out of several options of when to go, the team opted for just before the first time the Amber Room was connected to violence, which means we ended up passing up a nifty opportunity for Walter to share trade secrets with Theremin. We also missed meeting Rasputin, in favour of visiting the court of Catherine the Great, around the time the Comte de St.-Germain was helping her perfect the Amber Room. If the Room was still resonating bad time energy then, we could probably recalibrate it to mute it in the future.

We gained entry to the court when Peter used his conman skills to establish himself as the Comte de St.-Germain, and Walter set to work on the Room. The negative energy was there but much fainter, and he was able to trace the source of the energy, not to the war and the Nazis, but to 2024. It seems that the energy had been radiating backwards (maybe forwards too) through time, and might have contributed to some of the worst aspects of Russian history over the previous couple hundred of years.

Just then, the real Comte de St.-Germain arrived. Peter blustered off to expose him as a con, and discovered that the "real" Comte was another time traveller - and not only that, a man who had schooled him in the rudiments of being a conman in his own timeline. They fenced verbally for a while, then Peter signalled to Gerald to take the "Comte" away on his mark, making him disappear as if Peter's Comte had performed magic.

Once Gerald had the Comte on his way to TimeWatch jail, the "real" Comte warned Gerald against letting the TimeWatch have the Amber Room, telling him that he was there to defang it himself to make sure TimeWatch couldn't corrupt it. Gerald was already ready to believe the worst of TimeWatch, which is going to get interesting when that comes up against Millie's True Believerness.

Back in Catherine the Great's court, they fixed the room, discovering as they did that putting it out of tune conformed to the "real" Comte's plans - he'd been telling at least part of the truth after all, or so it seemed.

At the very end, we flashed forward to 2024, where Vladimir Putin was trying to activate the room (it hadn't been destroyed apparently, just hidden until it was unveiled as the "new" version.) The alterations having worked, the room did nothing. Putin was furious - and it seemed that our young compatriot Jack, there and many years older, was disappointed as well.

Character Thoughts

The episode opened up with a little glimpse of a pivotal moment in Millie's life, the moment where she acted to help end her timeline (using, as it turned out, a nifty bit of Nikola Tesla lore) after one of her siblings had committed a murder-suicide, a term that was so foreign to her timeline it didn't exist anymore. He'd worked for their version of TimeWatch, and the rest of their siblings were starting to worry that Millie was beginning to sound as erratic as him.

Millie, in her World of Tomorrow-type timeline, lived with her six creche/podmates - none of them were biologically related, but these were the people who were both her siblings and lovers, without any clear distinction between the two categories. We saw the bed she was leaving with her five other siblings all tangled up, with a soft computer voice waking them up by telling them each that they were loved and today was going to be a great day.

This was a fantastic moment of the GM building on something I'd written down during character creation, and then me being able to build on top of that in return. I'd mentioned something about how she started her days after having helped destroy her own timeline by saying affirmations to herself in the mirror before going out the door, fully convinced (or so she thinks) of the goodness of TimeWatch and the necessity of what she did. Rob built on that to root those affirmations back in the timeline she'd come from, and gave me specific words that she'd heard.

And then, although I don't know if this would have been apparent, when we were rolling to see if we'd crumple under the crushing sadness of the Amber Room, and I succeeded in fighting it off, I kept mouthing "today is going to be another great day" to myself to keep her fighting and relatively upbeat.

I think she does say these things to herself every morning. But I wonder if she can ever bear to add one of the other lines: "You are loved."

Monday, 1 May 2017

The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe

I finished this book over a week ago, before I was away and busy and stressed for a week. I left myself just one note in the draft file for the book review, and it reads: "oh my god, having characters that do not care about anything is not interesting!"
That...pretty much sums up how I feel about this book as I try to recapture my thoughts after a week away, through a haze of extreme exhaustion.   The world is not really interesting enough to capture attention when you have very little happening in the book, and a main character who doesn't seem deeply attached to anything - well, maybe to the one woman he helped kill (and dear lord, women are another problem in these books, which I'll get to in a moment), but other than that? Not very damn much.

In some ways, this feels like a template for the unfortunate pattern that George R.R. Martin has fallen into, of having people constantly travelling and not getting where they're going, with things coming up along the way that less advance the plot than they just slow the characters down. But at least I feel like Martin's characters fucking want something!

I'm going to digress to roleplaying. Years ago, we were starting a Firefly game. Since a previous Firefly game we'd played had had problems with everyone wanting to play a Jayne-like character - rough and tough and not really caring about a lot - Bill, from the start of the character creation, had one requirement.

We could create any character we wanted. But we had to have something we couldn't walk away from. Something we cared about. Something that he could use to engage us. (Of course, none of us played Jayne and perhaps gave Bill more caring-about-things hooks than he'd anticipated, but the question is excellent.)

So I'd like to pose the same question to Severian, the main character of this book: what can't you walk away from?

It's not the torturer's guild - he walks away from everything he's ever known
It's not the people he travels with - after being briefly captured, he seems little to care if he ever sees them again
It's not the woman he professes to love now - he had pretty much the same reaction when he was captured and did not try to find her again
It's not really the woman he professed to love then - he does run off and put himself into danger when he thinks she's alive, but given that she's really truly dead, it doesn't give him much to not walk away from now.

And most fucking notably, it's not the revolutionary that we are told that Severian is deeply, fundamentally attached to. We're told over and over that Severian believes in Vodalus' cause. (Even though we, as readers, are never let in on what that cause is, what goals they'd like to achieve, or what tactics they're using to get there.) But then Severian meets Vodalus in person, more or less by accident (because seeking him out would be too goddamn active, no doubt). And within the course of a day, decides, you guessed it, he doesn't really care about Vodalus after all.

This is not good storytelling. Or good drama.

Good drama comes from people wanting something badly. Good storytelling is bringing the reader into that want through a well-paced set of events. It can take a long time to come to fruition, or happen almost immediately. BUT IT SHOULD NOT BE ABSENT.

I don't care how "realistic" people think this may be. Real life does not necessarily make good drama! And most people I know in real goddamn life do, in fact, want something! It may not be galaxy-changing, but they want something.

I'm so frustrated, and I know the next book was also nominated for a Hugo, and so I will read it even though I may not want to. But come the fuck on.

Oh, and I said I'd mention the women - they're terrible. Cardboard at best, and all of them, whether they hate, love, or are indifferent to, Severian, sleep with him. (I'm serious - it happens at least once with each kind.)  Look, this is how bad the writing about the women is:

"Jolenta shrugged, making the simple movement seem an exquisite ceremony. “I ran away too.” She cupped her huge breasts with her hands. “But I don’t think I’m well suited to running, do you?"

I rest my fucking case.

What these books need is not such a terrible way of writing women, and a main character who fucking wants something. Is that really so hard?

Friday, 28 April 2017

I'm Not Stiller by Max Frisch

This is a strange book to explain. It starts off feeling a litttle bit like The Trial, but then what initially seems to be another story of someone prosecuted for goodness-knows-what by a system that cares little for explaining itself, then becomes something quite other.

Stiller, you see, is missing. The main character and narrator, while on a train in Switzerland, is recognized by someone as the missing Stiller, having disappeared seven years earlier. The man then taken into custody insists that he is not Stiller, but everyone around him seems to take it for granted that he is.

It doesn't matter how many times the narrator protests, and tells wild stories of his life in the United States, Mexico, and South America. It doesn’t matter that his dental records don’t quite seem to match those of the lost Stiller. His wife seems quite sure he is Stiller, his brother, with whom he was never close, seems convinced he is Stiller, the state and the state’s prosecutor seem convinced that he is Stiller.

Yet, he assures us, as he assures everyone else, that he isn’t Stiller. And it starts to become convincing, even though I’m pretty sure there’s an indicative sentence on the very first page that suggests how seriously we ought to take the narrator’s claims. He certainly doesn’t seem to be much of anyone else, with a name that passes through maybe once, but is not insisted upon.

We find out about the missing Stiller’s life from the distance of the narrator learning about it and relating it with a fair amount of contempt to the audience. And it does feel like maybe this is a case of mistaken identity.

(I’m sure this is all sounding terribly serious - this book was frequently quite funny. Very dry wit, but I laughed more than once.)

And then it starts to become more and more apparent, that the narrator is Stiller, except that he himself feels himself so changed that that name no longer applies. In that, he even seems to convince others, even as he is pressured into admitting his identity legally.

But how much do we change who we are? Particularly when it comes to our relationships with other human beings - do we really change in how we interact with our spouses? Or how we see ourselves in relation to them? Stiller/notStiller is derisive of how Stiller treated his wife, and adamant about how he would do better. But will he? Is it even possible? If you haven’t seen the person you are sharing your life with as a fully human being, can you suddenly start? And is it enough to say you’ve changed?

These are all the issues this book is grappling with, and although I haven’t been reading a lot of older mainstream fiction/classics recently, I was intrigued by this one. It’s a little sterile at times, but there’s something there that may not be comforting, but is intriguing.