Friday, 18 May 2018

Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton

*Spoilers Below*

This was my book club book last month, but I am very far behind on writing reviews, so it took me a while to get to it. It didn't help that I had a profoundly ambivalent reaction to the book - there were things about it I liked a lot, but there were also things that got on my nerves. So I don't know how to rate it - it's an interesting first novel, but boy, did some of it feel clunky.

I think a large part of my issues with the book came with expectations. When you have two very isolated people and you keep talking about the damn radios, then it is not unreasonable to expect that a good portion of the book will be said two isolated people talking to each other, finding connection through radio waves.

That is not what happened. Although Augustine, above the Arctic circle and all alone at a deserted polar base, keeps tabs on the ham radio air waves, and although Sully, with five others on their way back from a mission to Jupiter, keeps scanning the airwaves to find any sign of life on earth, it is not until around page 230 out of a 260-odd page book that the two actually connect. The author keeps teasing connection between drastically isolated people, but it doesn't come until the end, and when it does, the conversations are about mundane things. At least one of the two or three conversations they have is just summarized in a paragraph. That seemed like a lot of build-up for not a lot of payoff.

And then there was the part where one of my book habits made me more cross with this book than perhaps it deserved. I do often skip forward and skim the last couple of pages, and I did so in this case. In so doing, I found something that seemed like it was supposed to be a big "aha!" reveal, and it was not a good one, and it made me very angry. I carried that anger through most of the rest of the book, even though I realized that it was not so much of a sprung surprise as I had expected. What it revealed is made clear before that, although the last couple of pages try to put a topper on it that I still don't like, and the overall slow burn reveal is still not one I'm particularly fond of.  Out of seven billion people in the world, seven can talk on the radio, and two of them are related? Really? There's straining credulity, then there's deus ex machina.

Of the two stories, I vastly preferred the astronauts, who lose contact with Earth as they return from a survey mission to Jupiter. (I'll get into the wider canvas in a minute.) Cut off from everyone, we have an interesting study of isolation in a small group, as they pull apart and pull together. We are mostly with Sully through this, a woman who became an astronaut by being detached from her family, in particular her daughter. We learn about her past that helped create her, although some of it is definitely choice as well.

And now we come to the part where this tries to be a post-apocalyptic book without ever committing one, or as my husband dubbed it, "Chekhov's Apocalypse."  I don't need great detail, but I do need to feel like the author knows what's going on, has through this through thoroughly, and I was unconvinced.  We know that there is no radio chatter coming from earth, not even anything automated. Except for where Augustine is. We know that it happened so fast NASA had no time to tell its astronauts anything, yet long enough that they came to evacuate everyone but Augustine from the polar base in airplanes. Maybe it was war. Maybe it was an electromagnetic pulse. Probably not a virus - there is nothing that would spread that fast that the astronauts weren't notified. And with the pulse, there was nothing shielded, anywhere on earth? No one who found a radio or constructed one that they could still use?

It comes down to this - to make Earth fall ENTIRELY silent, suddenly but not suddenly - if you set that up as your backdrop, you can't then ignore it as part of the story. There are lots of ways to tell stories of isolation that don't depend on the high concept, but if you have the high concept, you can't then spend the rest of the book retreating from it as fast as possible.

I get that this author wanted to write something literary (even if some of it is done ham-handedly). But Station Eleven is likewise literary post-apocalyptic fiction, and at every moment, I knew Emily St. John Mantel knew her apocalypse, had thought it through, and the implications. I don't get the same form Lily Brooks-Dalton.

And everyone knows, if you put an apocalypse on the mantel in the first act, it had better go off in the third. And it didn't.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

*Spoilers Below*

I have, in general, really quite enjoyed Haruki Murakami's novels. I prefer the weirder ones - he's got a knack for surreality, a world that feels just a jump or two over from normal, in fascinating ways. I like the discombobulation and estrangement from the world I get from those novels.

This book is less surreal, more, I think, realistic. I kept expecting weirdness to break out - it feels like it should. But it never quite does, and so I think I was always waiting for the shoe to drop and was a bit disappointed that it never did. I know that's judging a book for what you think it should be, rather than what it was, and Murakami can certainly write whatever he wants. But because of all of the above, this particular book felt a bit flat.

It's not terrible, by any means. It captures melancholy very well, the feeling of someone drifting. Less a pilgrimage, as the title suggests, but more the passage of years while feeling fundamentally unmoored. Depression and isolation, both are strongly present.

I sit here, trying to write this on the day after the first anniversary of my Mom's death. I grapple with how I'm feeling all the time, knowing that I'm doing as well as I am because of the people around me, because I'm not isolated, because I have many wonderful friends and family who check in and get it when I need to pull back for a while to just be sad. In a lot of ways, I'm in an opposite space than Tsukuru. Feelings are strong, and I feel more connected, not less. (I'm also fortunate in that my personal biochemistry seems to have no ability to linger in depression. A day, at most, then I tend to find my footing again.)

Then again, Tsukuru's depression stems from the fact that he was severed unexpectedly from the group of friends he made in high school that were so absorbed in each other there was no room for anyone else, or room for a self apart from the group.  As an adult, he is still marked by the way they severed ties while he was away in university.

His new girlfriend sends him on a mission to meet each of his old friends who cut him off to find out why. When we, the audience, find out why, I was disappointed. Given where we are right now, in this particular moment, having the book hinge on a false accusation of rape made me want to pull myself back from engaging. It's unfortunate this coincided so closely with the #MeToo moment - at a moment when we still don't trust any women when they say they've been raped, reading a book where a main character is railroaded without a chance to defend himself from a frivolous rape charge, but whom everyone assumes or knows was false, was difficult.

And then going into the violent and sexual nature of the death of the character who made the rape charge, from the depths, it seems, of mental illness, without ever having her present as a character, just a memory and a body, it's just...it made me deeply uncomfortable.

Then, at the end, Tsukuru still pins his happiness, his very life, on having others who put him first, who commit to him utterly. It doesn't feel like he's changed. We are left in that melancholy space. I might have forgiven a lot more if this incorporated some magical realism, but what we have is just realism, and it was disappointing.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

To The North by Elizabeth Bowen

I've been diving pretty deep into science fiction and fantasy the last little while, and so reading To the North was a little like exercising unused muscles - not genre, not recent mainstream fiction, something a little older and differently paced, with nothing of the fantastic about it. It's a welcome break and a needed reminder of what books outside my favourite genres are (which is why I always try to keep a couple of classics/essential book lists on my radar.)

To the North feels like it concerns a strange liminal place in time - a place where a spinster was not the worst thing in the world to be, and a woman could pursue her own career - in this case, running a travel agency - but where the looming constellation of meanings around pre-marital sex and interactions between men and women who were not married were quite different from what they are now. Not only do I need to turn off my science fiction brain, I need to turn off the part of me from the present that just tells me that Emmeline needs to kick Markie to the curb and be done with him.

But individuals are who they are, and so things are not shaken off so lightly. And different times have different structures that feel natural and are incredibly powerful, even if they've shifted so entirely, just a few decades later. Still, this book teeters on the cusp of a time where, were Emmeline just a little bit different, or were it a little later, this would be the story of a jackass ex-lover, but not a tragedy.

So, what is this book about? Cecilia is a young widow, who, when she is in London, lives with her deceased husband's sister, Emmeline. Cecilia is decidedly modern, not sure how she feels about marrying again, and is comfortable enough financially that she can flit about doing whatever catches her fancy. Emmeline is slightly quieter and more serious, runs her own business with a friend, but it doesn't seem she has ever had a significant romantic relationship.

Two men are part of this story as well - Markie, self-obsessed and a bit cruel, but charming, and Julian, who doesn't know if he wants to give up his bachelor ways. I mean that literally, not as code for "never intends to marry." Both have interactions with both women that make it ambivalent which one they are attracted to. Unfortunately for Emmeline, she ends up having a dalliance with Markie, who Cecilia might have been able to handle, but who pushes her away and pulls her back in ways that get her more and more connected, and therefore, more and more hurt.

And that is the interesting thing - it isn't that a relationship with Markie would be this destructive to everyone, but it is to Emmeline, who finds her need for freedom and travel and independence increasingly dependent on him. But this isn't done with the heady lushness that a similar story might get today, with a different writer. There is a certain remove, a way that things are suggested rather than said, small moments that the reader is left to think through and feel at leisure, instead of having everything spelled out.

The dalliance does not end well, and you think, in another time, another woman, another author, we would not have ended up here. But it was engrossing to see how we did.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

First of the Hugo-nominated novels I've read this year! It feels very odd to have read a book in the year after its release. It's not my usual M.O., and that takes some getting used to. I'm very accustomed to being late to the party, but now I'm, not early, but here at a reasonable time. I do have to pick up the pace, though - there are a lot more Hugo-nominated books and novellas to read!

Since it's the first, I don't know where it ranks among the others yet, but I do have to say that it was a thoroughly enjoyable read. I  generally like Scalzi's work, so that's not particularly surprising, but as the first book in a series, this does a really good job of setting up the universe and the pressing problem all the characters have, and leaves off at a good tipping point, where things just got more difficult.

That's a completely uninformative general impression, so let's see if I can do better. The human empire that spans star systems is made possible by the Flow, more or less highways that allow ships to break the speed limit of light. They've been in place for thousands of years, and so has the dynasty that has ruled humanity in a rough mercantilist/religious/political consolidation of power. People mostly live on stations orbiting planets. Earth is long ago lost, and there are few other planets whose surfaces are amicable to living outside, rather than in orbit or far underground.

Most of the Flow leads through the Hub, where the emperox has their throne. But despite the seeming stability, a scientist on End, a world at the butt-end of nowhere, has been studying it and is sure that the Flow is about to collapse, severing all the worlds from each other, destroying power structures, and, over the long run, dooming the vast majority of the habitats to death.

We follow a number of characters through this - Cardenia, a daughter of the previous emperox who was born out of the line of succession, but suddenly becomes the most powerful person in human space when her half-brother and the presumed heir dies suddenly, shortly before her elderly father does. Marce, the son of the scientist on End, sent to make it to the emperox to report before the Flow from End closes forever. (Notable, not the Flow to End, not yet.) Kiva, the daughter of a powerful shipping family, delightfully profane in her language, and out to screw her family's rivals - the ruthless and unscrupulous Nohamapetans, the eldest son of whom the new emperox is being heavily pressured to marry. And also screw whichever people cross paths with her and are willing to tumble into bed.

So here we have a situation that could doom everyone, but some people don't want to see it. Others are perfectly fine with seeing it, so long as they profit. There is a competing theory about what is happening to the Flow going around, with intricate consequences. Finding a balance between altruism and practicality is difficult, particularly when you have a lot of people who don't mind seeing everyone else die, so long as they get theirs. (Which shows a particular but realistic lack of imagination.)

Scalzi juggles all these plotlines deftly, and of course, because it's him, reading it is relatively quick and quite delightful. The story bounces along, and he refrains from giving a slam dunk smack-down to the baddies at the end (I do enjoy those, but it's good to take a bit of a break from them.)  It's far more ambiguous an ending than many of his books, and I am looking forward to reading more in this universe. Since it's the first book I read out of the Hugo-nominated novels this year, I don't know where it'll place in my ballot, but I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Being at least marginally aware of books, I'd heard of this series long before I got anywhere near reading it. I knew that the identity of the author was unknown. (It's since been revealed, but I find it hard to care one way or the other.)  I'd heard that her writing about girls and women was powerful and realistic. I knew that the list of holds at the library was truly daunting. It was fully years before that hold list subsided to the level that I could finally get this book out without being worried that it would almost immediately be recalled from me.

I settled in, to see if this book lived up the hype and the mystery. And truly, I was not disappointed. This was nothing like what I was expecting, but it felt like it captured something of a particular time and place (hopefully well, I have no lived experience of post-war Italy to compare it to), of relationships between girls growing up, about ambition and restraint, about the ways in which the body becomes the public face of a person, and how girls are affected in different ways by early sexualization of their time on the streets.

We follow two girls, Lila and Lena (Lila's name is actually shortened to Lina, except to the  narrator, Lena, who calls her Lila, if you follow me.)  They are girls in a working-class neighborhood of Naples, and the boundaries of the neighborhood are the boundaries of their world. They are friends from an early age, although Lila is prickly and challenging - just the kind of challenging Lena needs to actually try some things by thinking of what her friend would do.  Their neighborhood is bossed around by a man many hate and fear, a man who turns up dead early in the book, and although someone is arrested for the crime, Lila is unconvinced.

But this is not a mystery novel. That question exists in the background, as does whether or not a woman who lives upstairs from the girls' families had an affair with a prominent local, or is making it up. That one gets more resolved, but it's not about true or false. It's about the neighborhood, the way in which people know each other's lives and do not, about the stories that assume the weight of truth.

Much of the book is about expectations for women in the particular time and place in which the girls grow up. The boys might want them as girlfriends without knowing what that means, but young men approaching an age of independence have their eyes on them as well - Lila responds with a knife, which Lena respects without knowing why.

And where the title comes in - Lila is brilliant, soaking up information in school. Sparked by competition with her friend, Lena works harder to accomplish what comes to Lila as easily as breathing - but when their teacher goes to each family trying to get them to send the girls for further schooling, Lena's parents reluctantly agree, while Lila's do not.

At first, Lila keeps up through the library, but eventually her attention flags. Lena, with the minimal encouragement from her family and trying to stay ahead of her friend in early days, begins to excel more and more, eventually going to what seems to be the equivalent of high school as well. She is set apart from most of the girls in the neighborhood, whereas Lila has to deal with a couple of older suitors, at least one of them who continues to pursue her despite being threatened by the knife, with her parents browbeating her to accept his suit. We can see that potential trainwreck heading towards marriage. It is diverted onto slightly better tracks, but still ones that see Lila heading for wifedom and motherhood, while Lena struggles to juggle what she knows and what she's learning.

None of this unfolds at a breakneck pace. This isn't a plot heavy book - it's a book that is about the life of these girls in this neighborhood, as the world starts to become a larger place for both of them, although still bounded by the expectations of those around them. I really enjoyed this, and was glad it finally came in at the library!

Friday, 4 May 2018

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Image result for sorcerer to the crownI picked up Sorcerer to the Crown more or less at random - I'm sure it was on one of my lists, but I can't remember which one. As it was by a new author, I didn't know what to expect. I was very pleasantly surprised. This was thoroughly delightful. I don't necessarily feel knocked off my feet, but I do feel happily transported to a world that is both familiar and strange - and when we're talking about historical fantasy, that is no mean trick.

What we have here is a look at Victorian England, with its racialized and gendered ideology of natural social hierarchy intact, but with magic. White men have held the power in magic in England for a long time, just as they have in politics. Women's magic they dismissed as trivial (for household things) or dangerous (too difficult for their frail forms.) Magic done by people of other races? Simply impossible to think of - or at least it was until the Sorcerer to the Crown took on an apprentice, a young black man.  Even more shocking came the day when the Sorcerer died, and the young man, Zacharias, took on the staff and office of his mentor.

Undeniably magical, Zacharias is nonetheless regarded with suspicion. How dare he be Sorcerer Royal? Isn't there something unseemly about that? And how did his former master die, anyway? And why has magic in England been drying up? These things are all undoubtedly connected, or so the gossip mill runs. And they are, but not in the way the white men in the book quite think they are.

Into this mix comes Prunella, who attended a girls' school for magic - well, scratch that. A Girls School for Restraining Magick, would be more accurate. She's very good at it, but also not white, and without family, so now she is more of a servant than anything else. She thinks of herself as a trusted friend and confidante of the headmistress, and is brought up short when she more or less gets sent to the scullery when Zacharias pays a visit, and Prunella magically separates two girls who are fighting, thus embarrassing the school.

Outraged, she collects her late father's effects and leaves, discovering in the process that the seven stones he left her are actually familiar eggs - more precious than anything in magic-starved Britain.  Meanwhile, Zacharias suffers both from nightly attacks of weakness that are not immediately explained, and from assassination attempts from those who hate him having his position.

Of course, England cannot be merely insular. They are also intruding themselves into the internal affairs of another nation without properly examining the context, more than willing to believe the male leader that the women on his island are evil witches who should be controlled by their rightful patriarch. Zacharias is uncomfortable with this, but not as uncomfortable as everyone is when the leader of the "witches" shows up and wreaks havoc, for better reason, but with no more real understanding of the internal politics of England than the English have of her island.

I found this book particularly delightful, particularly Zacharias' friend with the unexpected familiar, and other shenanigans about a familiar Zacharias' rival as Sorcerer Royal might have brought back in an *ahem* untraditional manner. I can't say it was deep, but Cho's got an excellent knack for melding Victorian identity politics with the idea of magic and familiars and Fairyland, and I was quite satisfied by the whole lot. 

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Creation by Katherine Govier

So, John James Audubon...asshole or humongous asshole? I mean, are we at usual levels of assholishness, or does he really truly achieve a new high score?

If this particular fictional take on his life is to be believed, he was self-obsessed, narcissistic, using, callous, cheating, with little care for others other than himself, except when he feels like it. I don't know about you, but the idea of spending as much time as a three hundred page book with this jerk doesn't sound so interesting.

Yet...I'm not entirely sure that the author thinks he's as much of a colossal asshat as I did. And I only had her words to go on!  Add to that the fact that I found much of this book severely overwritten, with a narrator that was partially from our time, but not overtly, and I was frustrated by this entry on the 100 Novels to Make You Proud to Be Canadian list from the CBC. I wasn't really sure how it would make me proud to be Canadian either, because I'm not sure any of main the characters are Canadian, although it took place on the shores of Labrador. But the locals mostly came across as rapacious in their plunder of the natural world around them.

(I'm being unreasonably nitpicky - I just haven't been overly impressed with that list overall. It is far too heavily weighted towards books that came out less than five years before the list was published, and there are a bunch of them I either have been ambivalent towards or have outright hated, so far. I keep wondering if I should give this list up, but then I wouldn't have anything specifically Canadian I was drawing from when I picked books.)

Back to Audubon. He lies all the time. He frequently puts his son who is travelling with him in mortal peril because he needs the birds - he is then tortured about it, right up until he spots another bird he could try to kill his son in pursuit of. He feels vaguely bad about having asked his other son to give up his life to serve his father's obsession, but not bad enough to do anything about it. Similarly, he feels vaguely bad about having left his wife without financial resources most of her life, while also cheating on her non-stop, but again...not enough to do anything about it.  He gets unreasonably angry when the woman he wants as a mistress wants anything of her own, for instance, drawing things that aren't lessons he set for her. He doesn't feel bad about that. Just possessive, and for possessive read, wants complete ownership of a woman he is attracted to.

I mean, ugh. I almost put this book down and didn't finish it numerous times. I don't really care about the greatness of his mission. I'm sure he did good work, but it sounds like he was such a loathsome human being that I really don't give that much of a shit. (Or maybe he wasn't, or maybe the author didn't mean to make him so damn unlikeable, but wow, did I hate him.)

Yes, we have despoiled the natural world. Yes, it's good that we have drawings of birds before they disappeared. It's good he was concerned about species going extinct (I'm being charitable in assuming that is not ahistorical). But you know, like everything else...he feels vaguely bad about it, but isn't willing to do anything to address it that isn't really for his own greater glory.

I'm not a fan of this book. Of the character, of the writing, of the positioning of the author in the narrative in a way that doesn't commit enough if she really wants to insert herself. Go whole hog or not at all, please.