Friday, 28 February 2014

Within a Budding Grove by Marcel Proust

Two volumes in. One third of the way through this extremely long work, or series, or whatever it is. And it's hard to pinpoint what exactly it is that's keeping me interested. I am, but it's hard to say why. It's not the plot - there is barely any. It's in translation, so I'm sure I'm missing some of the nuance of the original. It's not so much the characters - other than the main one, the others are mostly sketches, and the main character is self-absorbed to the point of being irritating.

And yet.

There is something here, a richness of prose, a capturing of small moments, a lingering on the everyday that is exquisite. He describes moments I recognize but have never seen in prose. He describes moments far outside my experience. And deftly, weaves them all into the tapestry of a life. Even if it isn't an exciting life, or so far, a particularly productive one. There is the feeling here that all lives are worthy of notice, no experience too evanescent or frivolous or fleeting to evade his pen.

So far, however, the narrator is a very self-absorbed young man. Within a Budding Grove chronicles his love for Gilberte, the daughter of Swann and Swann's wife, Odette, a former kept woman turned wife, whose past keeps her from the best society. And then, after that relationship has soured, it turns to his stay on the seashore, and his subsequent attraction to Albertine.

But it's mostly about the narrator. It's interesting, his insistence on being sensitive, and yet how far away that is from my own experience of being sensitive. For him, it takes the form of an almost total self-absorption, a fixation on his own body and his own emotions. While I can't plead innocence from thinking about myself, my experience has been more weighted towards an oversensitivity to the emotions of those around me, which is not what the narrator here experiences. In fact, he often assumes things about the people he's talking about based on his own expectations which the narration undercuts.

It's a strange mixture of callow and oversensitive. And he blunders around, not being a very good friend, being too obvious as a suitor, missing many of the social nuances around him, which he, as a narrator, shakes his head over ruefully, obviously looking back from a distance and wincing at the overeagerness of his youth.  If the character verges on irritating, the narrator, who is and is not the same person, puts it all into context that makes it more bearable.

There are also a lot of interesting bits in here about class consciousness, nobility and merchant class, and the ways in which each mistakes the perceptions of the other, expecting them to be the same as their own. So the middle-class dismisses the conscious simplicity of dress of the aristocracy as a sign of poverty, while the aristocrats assume the middle-class knows exactly who they are and are paying them all due homage.

I feel like I've done an inadequate job of capturing this book, and the greater work as a whole. But it's hard to get a grasp on. And I'm enjoying my leisurely trek through its pages.

Headhunter by Timothy Findley

Headhunter is not a book to read if you want the word "settled" to enter your vocabulary any time in the near future. It is perhaps as unsettling a book as I am willing to read, and yet, I've read it three or four times now. It keeps drawing me back, for all its horror.

Kurtz has escaped from Heart of Darkness and is loose on the streets of Toronto. Well, not only loose, but the head of a psychiatric institution, and there, he is delving even further into the darkest depths of the human psyche than perhaps he has ever done before.

Lilah Kemp, schizophrenic and spiritualist, was the one who accidentally let him out of the book where he should have stayed. She attempts to negotiate madnesses real and perceived in order to get him back in.

And of course, every Kurtz has his Marlowe, a new psychiatrist taking up a job at the same institution, and walking into a world of more darkness and horror than he expected.

Where are these damaged children coming from? Why is one of his fellow psychiatrists becoming erratic and desperate? What secrets are the walls holding - and who do those secrets belong to?

Headhunter is a story of madnesses, of who wants to control the mad, and who wants to help them learn to live with their madness. Of what happens when the rich of Toronto, old money and nouveau riche alike find themselves in a maelstrom of hidden desires, unleashed on the city with the encouragement of some of those who are supposed to be helping them.

Money underlines this book, money and what those who have a lot of power, might also desire to do, and to what depths they might willingly sink.

Madness exists in this book on a societal level, on an individual level, on a family level. And it is accompanied by a desire for control, as Kurtz tries to see how much power letting others travel down the darkest depths of their own desires might give him.

As well as Kurtz and Marlowe, Jay Gatsby and Emma Bovary make guest starring appearances in this book, and it makes me wonder if there are other allusions I missed....

Findley went very, very dark with Headhunter and yet I keep coming back to it.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

I was reading Wolf Hall and another historical fiction at roughly the same time, and while doing so, I was trying to put my finger on what makes Mantel's go at historical fiction so different. And then, which I like better. And whether or not I was unconsciously affording Wolf Hall more respect because it's about a guy, which would upset me, if it was something I was doing. On the other hand, I think it is demonstrably a better book than, say, Philippa Gregory's incursions into Tudor territory, but I do think people sometimes unconsciously dismiss books with female protagonists as automatically less serious. And it's troubling

That's a lot of thoughts. Let's see if I can put them in any kind of reasonable order.

So yes, there's the male protagonist problem. Or rather, the unconscious dismissal of female protagonist problem. Which I don't think I do generally, but if I'm not sure whether or not it's different when it's historical fiction. Something to pay attention to, anyway.

But Wolf Hall is also just a more challenging book, in a good way. Most historical fiction I read, of any stripe, is very descriptive. No, that's the wrong word, because Wolf Hall is wonderfully descriptive. More...this is driving me crazy. More...overt?

A lot of historical fiction comes from inside the head the main character, who narrates constantly what they are thinking and why they are doing what they're doing. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, depending on how it's done, and how much infodumping is happening, but Wolf Hall is a refreshing change. With third person narration, Cromwell is sometimes interestingly opaque. And added to this is Mantel's practice of layering in some issues only subtly, so you catch on slowly, over time, but without being overtly told, say, that Cromwell is participating in the spread of Protestant thought in England. The spread of Protestantism in England is a main theme, but Cromwell's participation is alluded to, rather than described outright. So you have to be on the ball, or you could miss it. I find that fascinating. And there are many ways in which it could fail miserably, be put in too obliquely or too overtly. But Mantel has just the right touch to make it difficult, but not impossible.

Also difficult, but not impossible is one grammatical trick Mantel uses, but I'm less enthused about this. I don't hate it, but it does make reading at times, weirdly difficult. She uses "he" to refer to Cromwell all the time. I get not wanting to have "Cromwell" every second line, but in paragraphs about two men, who the "he" is can switch suddenly and become Cromwell without any indication. You have to realize the sentences have started to become nonsensical, go back, figure out when the "he" switched to Cromwell, and read forward from there. It's an odd affection, and while I got used to it, I never stopped having to pause, figure out when she had switched the subject of her sentence and press on.

But the plot is really interesting, intricate, and relies more on showing and letting the reader fill in the spaces than it is in holding the readers hand and making sure they only get out of it what the author wants them to get out of it. It is the first volume in the life of Thomas Cromwell, fixer first for the Archbishop of Canterbury, and later, Henry VIII, through the marriage crisis, the ascent of Anne Boleyn, and ends just as her star is on the wane. The eponymous Wolf Hall, interestingly, is the seat of the Seymours, as in Jane Seymour, which, as soon as I realized that, adds an interesting tone to the whole book - you know who is waiting in the wings, and if you know your Tudor history, what happens. That little nudge of the title keeps historical awareness floating over everything that is done, and knowing some of the outcomes gives a strange poignancy.

Thomas himself is a fascinating creature - practical, devious, yet capable of surprising warmth to those he brings into his extended household. He claims to eschew religion while playing a surprising role in the spread of a new version of Christianity. He will bend the law to the king's will, while always remaining his own man. It's a curious tightrope walk, and Mantel makes it convincing.

I am very much looking forward to the further adventures of Thomas Cromwell, and of reading more Hilary Mantel. This was well worth the read.

Soulless by Gail Carriger

What strikes me most about this book is how much, despite the vampires and werewolves and vague steampunkery, this feels like a very straightforward romance novel. Not a bad specimen of a romance novel, but so exactly falling into those tropes. If you took one of the few romances I've ever read, one where the main female character was a spunky female detective who ran afoul of the handsome, rough-around-the-edges-but-still-well-off male character and they gradually discovered they feel strongly about each other, and he rescues her from her spinster state even though she's spunky and self-sufficient and could survive without a husband...and replaced the conspiracy they're looking into with werewolves and vampires, you'd have almost exactly the same book.

So, this is a romance. With historical urban fantasy flourishes. And for that, it's not bad, although I do wonder why almost all of these ruggedly handsome rogues who never intended to settle down are Scottish. That's my husband's ancestry, so I'm not arguing, per se, but it seems that "Scottish" has become code for a certain type of romance male, an alpha male who is really dying to have a woman stand up to him. To this, we're just adding "werewolf."

The object of his eventual affections in this is Alexia, who is (gasp!) half-Italian! Doesn't have porcelain skin! Likes to read! Oh, wait, and she also doesn't have a soul. Which seems to limit her not a bit - if I read further in the series, I hope the actual implications of that are made clear. It certainly doesn't mean she doesn't have feelings, or morals, or ethics. But in this world vampires and werewolves suffer from an excess of soul, and she is their opposite. And temporary antidote.

Her feather-brained mother and sisters, naturally, don't understand Alexia's distaste for late Victorian society, and have consigned her to spinsterhood. She wants to work for BUR, and I don't remember what that stands for, and I don't care enough to go check. It's the BPRD, all right? She keeps running across Lord Maccon, the alpha werewolf in town, and they bicker in a way that totally in no way disguises sexual attraction.

But there are evil forces abroad, kidnapping the recently integrated vampires and werewolves and performing experiments on them. And boy, they would just love to get their hands on soulless Alexia. And along the way, she starts to experience feelings. You know, down there. And there are almost sexy times, repeatedly.

So yeah, romance. Fun, very slight, romance. With werewolves. And vampires.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The Sword-Edged Blonde by Alex Bledsoe

I have been reading a lot of fantasy recently, and so much of it has just blended together in my mind. There's a fair amount out there that is good, but much of a sameness with everything else. There are relatively few distinctive voices.

So, when this fantasy-crossed-with-noir popped up, I was more than ready to read it. As soon as I started it, I could see the noir edges the author was trying to put on a fantasy tale, with a hard-boiled detective/enforcer/former noble, and the cases he tries to solve, including one little sordid tale of adultery and running away. Bledsoe has a good feel for the sleaziness and corruption that mark the best noir novels.

As it went on, Eddie LaCrosse delved into the main mystery, finding out for his old best friend, now king, whether or not the queen really did murder her child in cold blood on a moonlit night. She looks damned familiar to LaCrosse, though, and he has to find out whether she's a consummate con artist, or if something stranger is going on.

The book got a little further away from noir in the later parts, and more into a fantasy, but the voice stayed distinctive enough that I continued to enjoy it. This is a grimy world, where most people are just trying to stay alive, and small cities are rife with corrupt cops, sleazy businessmen, and stacked blondes.

There are some good female characters too, despite that. They aren't the focus of the story, but they aren't entirely one-dimensional either.

Since it is a fantasy, sometimes the strangest answers can end up being the true ones. The ending isn't quite as convoluted as I thought it might be, but it ties everything up nicely, and it was such a relief to read something that felt different. That may be artificially inflating my impression of the book, but it was a fun read, and very welcome.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

This is the second time I've done a group read, and as with the first, I find myself sitting here, staring at the screen, entirely unsure what I want to write. I liked Skippy Dies, but I didn't love it. Having no idea what it was about before starting it, this book frequently took veers in directions I'd never expected.

It's several months in the life of a boys' public school in Ireland. It is nothing like Harry Potter. It is chockablock with early teen angst and cruelty, and the particular vagaries of that age of life, which are so easily forgotten when the headiness of later adolescence closes in. And everyone's story is the most important story to them, and yet, we discover how different those stories are, and how stories are covered up and papered over, and different narratives installed in their place to make things seem neat and tidy and explainable to a board of investors and a bunch of angry parents.

We see how the adults in this world make moral compromises that have a direct impact on their charges, all in the name of not shaking the boat. We see how the adults have already made those compromises in their own lives, and how they live (or don't) with the questionable decisions they've made. We see how the boys are sex-obsessed, juvenile, serious, hilarious, earnest, cynical, and how they negotiate the nearness of the girls' school next door, the somewhat unlikeable scientist in their midst, and how utterly unprepared they are for having to deal with the realities of sex and drugs - and how they shouldn't have to be.

But what shouldn't be isn't necessarily what is. These kids are often mean to each other. In subtle ways, in overt ways. They walk through a land of cruelty, but are protected, to some degree, by the friends around them. As they should be by the adults around them.

Skippy is the roommate of the boy scientist, Ruprecht, who is obsessed with the multiverse string theory. Skippy dies. That's in the title. It's also in the first chapter. And then Paul Murray weaves backwards to show the roots, and forward to show the impact. We see how the school deals with the death, on an administrative level. (Badly, and with more thought for the net value of the school than for the students).

This is making this all sound more dour than it actually is. Skippy Dies is frequently very funny, even if most of the jokes are of the 13-year-old bodily fluid type. But what held my attention most was the parallel that was drawn between what happens at the school, and the sacrifice of young men in war, often fruitlessly, and how their stories are manipulated for public consumption at the particular time or place. It's what happens here.

And Paul Murray avoids an easy solution. The adults fail the children, here. There is no simple escape hatch that makes it okay.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Bellwether by Connie Willis

As you may know, I have an up-and-down relationship with Connie Willis books. I think some of them are astoundingly good. I think some of them are very weak. So I always start a new one wondering which it's going to be. And then there's Bellwether, which is barely even science fiction, and it's fun, but a bit forgettable. This one didn't disappoint me, but it wasn't anything more than fine.

So, why do I say it was barely science fiction? Well, there are almost no science fiction elements in it. Tech is present day, ideas being explored are more or less present day, and if they come to a discovery at the end, it's interesting, but not really one that opens up new vistas. It's more of a domestic comedy centered around a high tech research division at a company.

Sandra Foster is a sociologist working on fads for HiTek Corporation, which is as bad at managing scientists as you might expect, with increasingly arcane funding forms and hugging-it-out weekly morale workshops. She can't, for the life of her, figure out what got bobs going as a haircut fad in the 1920s. None of her factors seem to work out, and there's this weird bump in Ohio that makes no sense at all.

On the other side of the complex, chaos theorist Bennet O'Reilly is waiting for his monkeys to arrive so he can get to work. Of course, given the funding forms, he may grow old and die before the macaques are approved.

Brought together by fate (in the form of the incompetence of the administrative assistant, who refuses to deliver mail to the intended recipient if it's too far a walk,) Sandra and Bennet bounce off each other for a while, but it's not until Sandra thinks of a way of combining their research that they get hold of a flock of sheep and really start cooking.

In the meantime, they have to survive Flip, the aforementioned administrative assistant, ultra-prone to fads and thoroughly incompetent, as well as management, and a fellow scientist who is spending more of her time trying to handicap the odds of getting a fabled Niebnitz Grant than doing any work.

The start of every chapter is a brief description of a fad, which was mostly entertaining, until it rubbed up against the stuff I actually know well, and dated prohibition as a fad from 1895-19something. This isn't really a huge issue, but temperance advocates were working for prohibition as early as the 1850s, when the first Maine Law was introduced in the eponymous state. If it was a fad, it was one that lasted well over 70 years. (Of course, she also only talked about prohibition in terms of women, but I'm used to that by now.)

The book is amusing in talking about the fads that are sweeping through as Sandra as doing her research, and I enjoyed those parts quite a lot, although the general disdain for the younger generation was a bit much at times. In the end, this is just kind of a slight book. Entertaining, but not much more.

Saga, Vol. I by Brian K. Vaughan

I was never really grabbed by Y: The Last Man. I read several of the collected editions, and it was really a resounding "meh." Didn't hate it, didn't love it. Thought the writing was not that great, the dialogue not that sparkling. (My husband and I refer to this as needing some value of X more "milliwhedons.")

I like Saga quite a lot more. The dialogue has come a long way, and the world is freaking nuts, but in a good way. A Romeo and Juliet story set in a war, two soldiers from opposing factions (one has wings, the other horns) fall in love, marry, and have a baby. Their superiors are outraged. The horned guys seem to be the indentured race of a nobility composed of guys with televisions as heads.

They are chased by both sides through a strange planet, a little out-of-the-way place of little obvious strategic value to either side. (I'm not sure anyone really knows why they're fighting anymore anyway.) They pick up half a ghost along the way, who offers to help them find their way to the rocketship cemetery if they get her the hell of this planet. She's the ghost of a civilian casualty.

They are pursued by bounty hunters. One of them has a truthcat, who I love beyond all reason. The other is a fairly freaky-looking spider lady. The bounty hunter with the cat seems to have a sense of honour. We'll see if that lasts.

Hazel, the baby, narrates.

It's a weird comic, but it works. I am looking forward to reading the next collected volume, which fortunately we have waiting for me downstairs. The art is very good, but it is the dialogue that has really caught my attention this time.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

"Creatures of the Light" by Sophie Wenzel Ellis

Hey guys! Did you realize that the Gutenberg Project has old science fiction? It does! (I don't know why this surprised me, but it did.) So, hey, why not read some of them and review them? Not to poke fun at the old science fiction, although there might be a little of that. No, I'm more interested in looking at what this old science fiction tells us about the worlds that were being imagined at the time. What did they think about science? Gender? Race? The eventual fate of the world?

Oh jeez, guys. This story...I mean, this story! Right? Oh wait, you have no idea what I'm talking about. I have to try to collect my thoughts about a story that is so bad it nearly broke my brain into tiny places and tell you something coherent about it. Good luck to me!

Let's give you an example. One of the most hilarious bad lines in the story is: 

"Because you can help me in my plan to populate the earth with a new race of godlike people. But don't question me too closely now."

Well, I'm not listening. This story could use some good questioning.

It's the first story I've seen written by a woman. I can't find anything about the author, though. For all that, the gender roles are ridiculous. And the characters in the story are surprisingly blase about suggested rape. Along the lines of "well, he took away your true love threatening to rape her, maybe we should just let him have her?" That's not an actual quote, but I can't stand going back through it to find it. It's pretty close to the meaning.

Okay, let's start with the plot, such as it is, then move to hilarious quotes, then my rundown of themes I like to consider. That gives us a structure, which is really more than I can say for the subject matter.

So, there's a scientist. He has a humpback. This is important, for this story is all about physical perfection, and shining examples of amazing maleness and femaleness. (And how evil those perfections can be! Eep!) He has apparently been experimenting with a "Light Ray" (or was it Life Ray? Seriously, don't make me go check.) And breeding his own race of physically and intellectually perfect specimens, from beautiful young men and women. And his own Antarctic paradise. (It's very Savage Lands.)

Of course, his prime specimen turns out not only to be physically perfect, but EVIL! And when the humpbacked scientist recruits a new physically perfect scientist to be one of his gene sources, Adam (the EVIL guy - the name is not original. And he has a counterpart named Eve. Now, given that they're something like generation 25 of this guy's plans, why did he hold on to those names until then?) wants the physically perfect shopgirl who doesn't seem so bright (Ugh!) for himself! So he kidnaps her! And develops a Death Ray to counteract the Life Ray! Because he's EVIL!

In a battle to the death, seductress Eve wants the new scientist for herself, and they turn the Death Ray against Adam. But the only survivors are the humpbacked scientist, the new scientist and his shopgirl instalove! And the humpbacked scientist learns the danger of trying to do science. When will those scientists ever learn?

It's not the storyline, which is really no more hackneyed than most I've read so far. It is the prose. This is prose that is so purple, it's nearly ultraviolet. You want some examples? Let's see....

When describing the scientist being recruited as gene fodder, he is illustrated as "not merely a good-looking young fellow of twenty-five, he was scenery, magnificent and compelling." And the physical descriptions only get more florid from there.

Oh, oh! And in one of my favourite silly bits, the humpbacked scientist drops his wallet on purpose to see what the handsome scientist will do. When he returns it, he is informed "[i]t just was my way of testing what your Professor Michael told about you—that you are extraordinarily intelligent, virile, and imaginative."

Honesty, maybe. But virility? Did he have sex with the wallet before it was returned? Huh?

The science is silly, all about how "the electrical impulses in the brain set up radioactive waves."

But better yet are the scientifically magical lips of Eve. "Again the subtle change wrought by Eve's magic lips had taken place." The handsome scientist is referring to the time travel she's brought him into, by kissing him! Because lips!

And there's insta-love, more bad science and bad prose.

Okay, poking fun at the writing aside, the gender politics. Oof, the gender politics. And this was allegedly written by a woman! I've mentioned the surprisingly acceptance of threatened rape. Plus the shopgirl who falls instantly in love with the handsome scientist, and how Eve is powerful and seductive, and really, almost as evil as Adam.  This duality, paired with the prose, almost makes me think this is the same author as the fantasy-masquerading-as-SF I reviewed from the first issue of this magazine.

Race is an issue, since this is pretty much about eugenics, and creating the perfect human specimens. It, sadly, goes without saying that all these prime physical specimens are white. (Or, at least, their ethnicity is in no way commented on and the descriptive passages heavily imply whiteness.) Of course, at the end, it's shown to be a bad plan, but more because of scientists playing God than because eugenics is bad. And it was certainly trendy at the time - mere years later, people will start to become aware how bad the repercussions could be.

And yes, science is the big bad here, again. The humpbacked scientist might have good intentions, but you can't trust those super-intelligent, handsome, sexual supermen he creates! Why, one of them goes crazy! So there's that tension, between eugenics and the fear that that'll mean the general extermination of humanity.

Oh man. This one was almost painful, but hilarious in the pain.

The Silver Skull by Mark Chadbourn

This is not the fault of the author, but my enjoyment of this book was marred by one thing - I kept wondering what it would have been like if written by another author.

This book is a fantasy set in Elizabethan England. It is about the Fae and their interactions with humans. Kit Marlowe is a minor character.

Elizabeth Bear, who I love, has written a book I have not yet read (although I've read another in the series) set in Elizabethan England. It is about the Fae and their interactions with humans. Kit Marlowe is the main character.

And so, although The Silver Skull isn't bad, I kept wondering what Elizabeth Bear's take on these common elements would be, fairly confident that it would be better. Because this is okay, but not great.

Will Swyfte, England's famed greatest spy ever, works for Walsingham, and he, and the others in Walsingham's employ, know the secret - the greatest foe facing Elizabethan England is not the Spanish, but the horrific ravages of the Unseelie Court, who have been preying on humans for millennia. Except that John Dee was able to recently erect some defenses in England that stopped them from...wait, what did it stop them from?

No, seriously. Dee theoretically erected defenses against the Fae that they are mightily pissed off about, but we don't actually see their activities hampered. They still wreak horrible magical trickery on people. They kidnap someone out of a royal residence.

So what was that defense anyway? How does it work? I hadn't realized it until I was writing right now, but that's kind of a major plot hole.

At any rate. England is now "defended" and the Unseelie want to crush it under their heel, so they're manipulating Philip of Spain to attack with a mighty weapon they liberate from the Tower of London.

The Fae are so devastatingly evil that the awareness of their existence and few words in the ear of anyone who didn't know about them are enough to drive humans to suicide. This is interesting, that humans are shown as so frail, but I didn't entirely buy it. At very least, we need to hear what evil things they say once, so that I'm convinced it was enough for a single sentence to cause utter despair. 'Cause, you know, we're kind of hardy stock when we need to be. You have to convince me that finding out there's a powerful malevolent force out there would be enough to kill people. I wasn't.

So, Swyfte goes to Spain, tries to free the sister of the woman he loved, tries to keep people from finding out about the fae.

And it just doesn't add up to as much as I would like. The plotting isn't that tight, I was never heavily invested in the characters, it didn't go into the depths I hoped it might. It was a fine fun read, but nothing to write home about. It wasn't the book I hoped it might be.

Which reminds me, I really should read that Elizabeth Bear book.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Mrs. Dalloway by Virgina Woolf

So much of Mrs. Dalloway felt inevitable to me. Not predictable. Inevitable. Something would happen, someone would express an opinion, there would be a turn of phrase, and something in me responded to it with recognition, with the feeling that yes, that was what had to happen there.

Other than that, I think my reactions are most impressionistic. Let's see:

My supervisor and I were talking a year or so ago about the ways in which women have historically facilitated politics and diplomacy, by being very close to who Clarissa Dalloway is, a hostess. The ways in which this established communities, could lead to backdoor avenues for getting things done, and the ways in which these avenues have been derided as frivolous or useless, because they centre around parties and socializing.

As, indeed, Peter derides the woman he supposedly loved, and did from the beginning, because she is not who he wants her to be, because he sees her as unworthy, and wants her to be more. I don't know, I'm on Richard's side here. It might not be eternal tempestuous passion, but there is warmth and affection and love there, and being constantly ground down as unworthy, or reminded that you're unable to measure up to an ideal by a more passionate lover would get pretty damn wearing, pretty damn quickly.

Woolf captures so elegantly the ways in which mood can shift during the day, how one thing going wrong can throw things out of whack, and emotions out of order, while another going right can restore equilibrium. And how at times, something grating can be carried off with elegance, while at others, can roil in your gut.

Having never been around a victim of shell-shock, or battle fatigue, or PTSD, as we're calling it these days, I don't know how accurate her depiction of Septimus is. But the portrayal was so clear and sympathetic while simultaneously being unsettling and upsetting.

This is a book I'm not entirely sure I've digested, yet. I'll have to come back to it eventually, read it again, see what pops out at me on a second read.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

Reading books is so inherently subjective. Books I have loved fall flat for my friends; ones they enjoy strike sometimes strike no chord in me. Sometimes it has everything to do with what is going on my life when I'm reading, or even what type of mood I'm in. When I write reviews, I try to keep that subjectivity first and foremost in my mind, explaining what about the book struck me in such a particular way as best I can.

This is heightened when writing about books that are, in many ways formative. And so, with that in mind, sit down a while and let me tell you about The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and me. This isn't a book that I can possibly separate from how much I loved it when I was young, and that, while I have grown, continues to be a very favourite.

In Grade 6, Mrs. Davidson read this to us. To say I fell in love with it would be an understatement. I'm pretty sure I went right home from school to my parents and told them how much I wanted a copy. And to read the rest of the series. We struck a deal - every week I kept my room clean, I would get another Narnia book. Those may have been the only seven consecutive weeks my room was clean in my entire life.

(Since we're here in the past anyway, I should add that for many years, before I moved in with the man who would become my husband, I shared my double bed with books. That is to say, I occupied a thin strip at the far left of the bed. The rest was taken up with books that were put down as I fell asleep or finished, until they finally got pushed aside by other books off the right hand side of the bed and on to the floor.)

I love this book beyond all reason. For years, I was always on the alert for secret doorways to Narnia. As an adult, that love has not dimmed. It has changed - I'm aware of the Christian allegory in a way that totally passed me by as a child. But, you know, I turned out to be a pagan, so it's not like that allegory stuck. That's probably why I don't take seriously worries that this book will bootleg Christianity into children's lives without them becoming aware of it. For goodness sake, every book we read bootlegs something into our lives! Lewis' message is just a bit more overt. And I took that less to heart than I did the idea of bravery, and family, and friendship, and doing the right thing even when it seemed hopeless and pointless.

And this book made it seem that there might be magic around any corner, and for that, I can forgive it almost anything. I may wince at the portrayal of non-white people in The Horse and His Boy and The Last Battle. I might now take issue with the line "for war is ugly when women fight" and wish he'd ended it after the word ugly. There are certain aspects of Lewis' time, place, culture, and beliefs that certainly come through. But I've never agreed that means we should ignore or throw out or pretend to our children these beliefs didn't happen. I'm a historian - that would make me shudder.

But beyond any of this, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe will always, always hold a special place in my heart, and if I ever have children, will find its way into their hands as soon as they possibly can.

Read many, many times, but once as part of the BBC Big Read

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Feed by Mira Grant

There are several question I have to ask myself:

Why did I read this series out of order?
And what the fuck possessed me to read about zombies?

Of course, the answer to the first is that it was one of the first books I read on my friend's Kindle, and I had no wireless access to find out which was the first in the series, and couldn't figure out where the hell the publication dates were, so picked one and went with it.

So that meant that I read the second book first, and some of you may remember that I wasn't enthralled with it. If I remember at this remove, I thought it was okay, but nothing special. While fully recognizing that that might be because I plunked myself in in the middle of the story.

Now I really wonder what it would be like if I went back and read the second one with the first under my belt, and how much that would change. Maybe it isn't as good as the first. But maybe I didn't have the emotional investment I would have now.

On to the second question. I am a huge wuss when it comes to horror. More so when it's TV or film as opposed to books, but still, I avoid it as a general rule. I have a slightly higher tolerance for horror in the written word, as my lack of thinking visually means that the words don't convert themselves into terrible pictures in my head. But the second book, when I read it, didn't get under my skin that much, so I thought I was safe going back to the first.

I was wrong. This book has haunted me all the time I've been reading it. It seriously freaked me the fuck out. And yet, I didn't put it down. Because I couldn't. Because, guys, despite all the reasons (such as that I like to sleep) that I shouldn't have been reading this book, it's really damned good. And I couldn't stop. Despite the dreams. And the waking up in the middle of the night all stressed about it. And the wonders it probably wasn't doing for my blood pressure.

If I wasn't enthralled with the second book, I couldn't put the first down. It hit all the right notes, even when I was getting a little too freaked out to continue, and yet had to know what happened next. And keep in mind that this is given that I'd already read the second book, and so more or less knew the ending of the first. Didn't matter. I had to get there myself.

So, Grant starts the book (yes, I know all about the pseudonym, etc.) in a world 20 years after zombies first attacked. She's gone to great lengths to trace the epidemiology of the disease, how it's transmitted, all the repercussions of a viral zombie plague. It's pretty terrifying.

Into this world, with its hyper-security awareness, constant fear, and constant monitoring, we're introduced to two adoptive siblings, adopted, that is, by parents who were courting the reality blogosphere limelight both before and after their son fell prey to a zombie dog. (The zombie animals - particularly the notion that anything over 40 kg. would become a zombie upon death - were also nervewracking.)

As much as they don't like their parents, they have both grown up as bloggers as well - Georgia (George) as a Newsie, dedicated to factual news, and Shaun, hellbent on putting himself in danger as much as possible as an Irwin. They, along with their friend Buffy (who named herself after the obvious), are tapped to be the first bloggers to accompany a political campaign, that of a senator making a run for the Republican nomination.

Despite holding fast to their journalistic ambitions, the Masons like the senator. But things on the campaign trail suddenly start to go nasty - and I don't mean negative campaign ads. One early campaign stop ends in a zombie outbreak, and that's all I'll say about that. But what happens at the Republican National Convention is devastating. And from a book about zombies that was freaking me out, this added on the layers of stress connected with political conspiracies, and those who are willing to do more than break the law to mold the results.  But because the zombie virus has been so well explained it lingers in the background, and you just know that at any moment, everything could go to shit. And it's stressful!

So this is mostly a pulse-pounding political zombie thriller. But it's also got some thoughtful stuff about a surveillance society (although I think the second book delves into that territory even more deeply) and living in fear, and the real stress of trying to be an honest journalist when no one wants you to be.

And the ending devastated me. Even knowing it was coming, knowing what was going to happen, didn't lessen the impact. I actually cried at one point. Devastating.

So I come out of reading a book I would normally  never read, one that freaked me the fuck out, and all I have to say is this: it's really good. I mean, really good. Far better than I was expecting. This hit all the notes that I'd been missing from the second one in the series, and now I'm going to have to find out if that was simply missing the emotional attachments the first book created, or whether it really is not as good.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente

I just purely loved this, from start to finish. Valente plays with and creates her own Fairyland that is magical, delightful, a little ominous, whimsical and so much fun to be in, even if only for the length of the book. (Does that make me a Stumbler?)

Valente has such a sure hand in creating the world, and exploring it, and the writing style is absolutely perfect for the story she's trying to tell. It is one of those books where every sentence is beautifully crafted and fits into place so securely that it seems impossible that there were ever other words blustering their way in, to be surgically removed by an editor.

Young September is kidnapped away into Fairyland by the Green Wind, who is not allowed to enter, himself. Once she passes Customs, she meets a Wyverary (the offspring of a Wyvern and a Library, naturally) named A Through L, a Soap Golem waiting for the return of her mistress, a blue Marid who can grant wishes only to those who defeat him in single combat, a Marquess who has chained all the wings in Fairyland after deposing the Good Queen Mallow, a roving pack of velocipedes, the Alchemists of Autumn, a Wrench of Power, and yes, needs to circumnavigate Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. And all the way along, she is followed by a faithful Key.

The adventure toddles merrily and sometimes ominously from place to place, and each one is interesting, internally logical and entrancing to visit. Young September gives up more than she realizes during the story, and finds wonders she never expected.

This is a Fairyland I would love to revisit. But I guess it rarely happens that way, does it?

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The Affinity Bridge by George Mann

The epilogue to this book almost caused me to bump this up to a four-star review. Almost. But given that the vast majority of it had me quite comfortably rating it as a 3, I'm going to stay with that. But the ending is just interesting enough to convince to to pick up another.

This is perfectly competent Victorian London steampunk, if not anything that set my personal world on fire. It is also a mystery, with male and female detectives, and if there is the hint of future romance, at least that wasn't the focus of the whole novel.

Men are turning up strangled in Whitechapel, killed, so go the reports, by a man glowing blue. Newbury, curator at the British Museum and Special Investigator for the Empire is called to investigate, along with his plucky young assistant, Veronica Hobbes.

But they are diverted by a blimp crash, in which the passengers appear to have been tied to their seats, and the pilot missing. This leads them to a prominent industrialist who has recently diversified into automatons, which they claim couldn't possibly be acting erratically.

Oh, and there is a zombie (Mann uses "revenant") plague in the poorer areas of London, so you don't want to be out after dark.

If you like steampunk, this seems like a perfectly good journeyman entry into the genre. It was fun, and entertaining, and the mystery sufficiently diverting. And the epilogue adds a new layer to one of the main characters that made them much more interesting to me.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Inferno by Dan Brown

There are going to be so many spoilers. If you're worried about that, stop reading now.

I'm done. This is the last Dan Brown I'll read. This isn't necessarily the worst condemnation - there are just certain writers that I feel like I've seen all their tricks, know what to expect, and it's not enough to keep me reading. There are so many books out there I haven't read! Except in this case, it's sort of a condemnation. It took me longer to get to than some authors, but I'm done.

This is what, the fourth of his books I've read? And I've enjoyed the others in an entirely superficial, entirely forgettable, boy-this-guy-picks-a-plot-and-sticks-to-it way. Entertaining. But this one? Oh my god, the stupidity! More so than I remember in any of his previous books, which are all glorified scavenger hunts. People do the stupidest things for the stupidest reasons, and I can't stand stupidity. I don't expect realism, but I do expect internal consistency.

And it doesn't help that he also misused the one statistic I've seen so often misused, the one that drives me crazy. It's the one about how most people use the most medical care in the last six months of their lives. Note that it doesn't say anything more than that. That statistic pretty much says that medical care is a side effect of dying. Unless you die very suddenly, you're going to be sick before you die, and that will bring you into contact with the medical system. That is ALL it says.

It does not say anything about staying healthy - you'll probably still use the most medical care the six months before you die, because staying healthy does not equal immortality. It does not say anything about longevity - the same statistic would hold true for children dying as it would for bedridden centenarians, as it would for someone dying in middle age. So if people would stop using that statistic to score unrelated rhetorical points, I'd really appreciate it. Lying, damn lying, and statistics. We're still there.

Oh, and Brown's tendency to have the villains have devoted henchmen who are peculiar in appearance in some way? Happens twice. They're not as devoted as in previous books, but twice. Way to make a weird false equivalency, dude. Particularly in a book where you appear to be ragging on transhumanism for most of the time. A few lines at the end that amount to "maybe they aren't all bad" don't really help.

And again, I don't expect realism from these books, as much as they strive to portray the possibility of telling truths through fiction. (Skeptical!) But more than I remember in the other books, there are just these stupid-ass leaps of logic that drove me crazy.

Let's see. You're trying, in a dark place, to prove to someone, that you mean them no harm. Instead of saying anything to that effect, or trying to explain your previous actions, when you were shooting at Robert Langdon, you raise your gun at fairly close range and go to shoot him again - to prove that you were always shooting blanks? Do we see why this is the dumbest plan ever? Even if that worked better than talking (Doubtful!), in a dark place, Langdon would probably just assumed you missed, rather than that you were shooting blanks. Oh, and blanks can still be dangerous. Just so you know.

But that pales in comparison to the end, when the villain's lover agrees to work with the WHO, but only if they admit they were wrong to have just dismissed him the way they did before. But, but, but.... This was the guy who wrote papers about how it would be good to just exterminate half the human race! When he approached the head of the WHO, he broached his subject in terms of the Black Death and how awesome it was! If he really wanted to be taken seriously, he needed to start just one discussion, one paper, one SOMETHING with the words "I'm not trying to kill everyone, but I have another idea for population control..." instead of being all Black Death Yay!

They had every reason to distrust the crazy guy with the genetic expertise and a seeming hard-on for mass extermination, and not a single one to help them change their mind. That's not on them, that's on him. If he's so smart and misunderstood, it never crossed his mind just once to not talk in terms of killing people? He just assumed people knew that was rhetorical? Sorry, honey. I know you think your lover was hard done by, but he really did do it to himself. And wait, Brown, you want us to agree? Seemingly? Huh?

So, I'm done. The plot is the same, but the story is getting weaker. I've seen what he can do, but it's getting more ludicrous. Time to spend my reading time somewhere else. So long, Dan Brown.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a solid crime novel, in which suspicion is normal, and nothing is glamourous. It takes place mostly, but not entirely, in dialogue, which is amazingly well written.

As one might expect from a novel about the criminal underworld, no one can be trusted, not the people you don't trust, and certainly not the people you do. Everyone is out for themselves, and Eddie Coyle is smack in the middle of it.

Eddie Coyle has been convicted of a liquor heist, but not sentenced, so to reduce his sentence, he'd like to turn informer on something, but not on other things - like who set up the liquor heist. While keeping his Mob associates happy and safe, he doesn't mind telling the cop he's in contact with about the other doings of a gunrunner he knows.

The cop, however, both wants more out of him than he's willing to give, and has another informant, whom nobody suspects. (This informant is likewise very careful about what info he passes on and what he keeps to himself.) And in the end, someone unrelated to either ends up blowing a series of jobs. But guess who gets the blame? Go on, guess!

This book centers on people who may have personal ethical codes, but are flexible in the way that they apply them. The dangers of getting involved in any way are very clear - and yet people do. And although they think they may know who ratted them out, they probably don't.

Higgins has created a fascinating little world that is sordid, swift, and occasionally brutal. And oddly witty, at times.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Remake by Connie Willis

Most of the time, I love Connie Willis' books. Sometimes, though, they just never take flight. This was, unfortunately, one of the latter. It's not bad, there just wasn't enough meat there to sink my teeth into, and lacked that sense of either madcap frenzy or unbearable tension that some of her other works have had.

In this future world, the trend of creating new things with dead celebrities has taken over Hollywood. Now all they're making are remakes of old films, with new/old actors. Computers are doing all the acting, and licensing of the likenesses of Fred Astaire, among others, are the subject of copyright litigation.

Films are also only accessible through a feed, which means they can be altered, permanently, and that is the only way people will ever be able to see them. Tom is in film school, and has been hired by a corporation to go through movies and take out all "addictive substances" - smoking has already been done, but how do you do a Casablanca without drinking?

Well, he mostly deals with this through his own haze of addictive substances. But that's not the main thrust of the movies. This sort of censorship and prudery, paired with a Hollywood rife with abandon is the backdrop. The foreground is his relationship with Alys, a young woman who wants to dance in the movies, really dance. Well, she can have her face matted onto a pre-existing piece so she can see herself dancing in the movies, but really dancing? Nobody's making any movies with warm bodies these days, let alone musicals.

Her impossible dream starts to invade his unbearable job, and Tom tries to find this woman he fell for, before she disappeared.

It's trying to be a meditation on artificiality and the effects of stripping creativity away, but it's just too slight a book for me. I know Connie Willis can do better, and so I expect it of her.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Friday, 14 February 2014

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

There were times when I was so frustrated with the main character. She was driving me crazy. She was walking through an entirely different world and assuming everything was the same. I realized why this was bothering me - I was wanting and expecting her to react more like a science fiction reader. (And many science fiction characters.)

Heck, I spend a great deal of time exploring new societies as posited by SF writers, for fun. I like to question the whys and wherefores of everything around me, and to see what authors have made for me to play in. It's a habit you pick up.

Connie, however, was not a science fiction reader. Nor a traditional protagonist - she was ground down, poor, Latina, traumatized, a recovering addict, a woman who had been committed to a mental institution in the past, and on her way to being so again. (If you can trust her as a narrator, not because she deserved to, but because, once in the system, it's easy to be remanded to it again and again.) She'd been hurt in every way she could be hurt, and so being invited to see what the future could be like, she was deeply suspicious of everything she was shown, expecting it to come from the same core of exploitation, hierarchy, and hurt that she knew.

Woman on the Edge of Time is part of an era of feminist science fiction, projecting a future utopia without a gender hierarchy. It also shows a dystopia of what could happen if we don't shape up and start paying attention to this stuff.

But what I want to discuss is not the specifics of her utopia, whether it would or could ever happen that way. I enjoyed reading about that society, and being part of it while I was immersed in the book, and maybe it wouldn't happen that way, but it was a beautiful dream.

What I want to talk about is the place that dystopias have in our pop culture these days, and how few people are even daring to dream utopias. Dystopian literature and TV shows are everywhere - what we do after the apocalypse, what society will be like, whether the end comes from zombies, or alien attack, or the electricity turning off, or any of the muddy pasts of the genre of dystopian Young Adult literature. Dystopiana is not, in itself, a bad thing. It can be an examination of what authors think make us human, what is threatened and must be preserved. But there's so much of it. We all seem to be on the edge of our seats with pessimism, betting on what the end will be.

And utopias are seldom dreamed. It's not fashionable, it's not seen as realistic. To write a utopia, look around. What kind of idiot must you be? Well, the kind of idiot I try to persist in being. I'm not after perfection. I'm not after trying to change everything in one fell swoop. But I am after wanting to make things better, in whatever ways I can, despite pain and obstacles and people telling me I must be crazy.

When I need to, I return, time and again to Spider Robinson's essay "Pandora's Last Gift" (included in User Friendly) to hearten me.

Which is why, even if Marge Piercy's 1970 utopia might never happen the way she wrote it, even if attempts to change our living patterns might fail, they hearten me. Why do we scoff if something isn't an utter success? Why are we happier with doomsday predictions?

I enjoyed this book, even though I found the ending deeply unsettling. But it's good for a book to challenge me in that way, to examine when and why. And Piercy allows the reader to decide whether Connie is or is not mad, whether she is or is not experiencing what she thinks she's experiencing.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Clementine by Cherie Priest

Clementine is a slim book, a fun romp, but in some ways unsatisfying, and in others, a little...troublesome. Which is perhaps too much thought to put into a book that seems to be intended as brain candy and little more. But still, doubts remain. Can you really keep slavery as an aspect of life in the Southern states during the Civil War, and yet then try to make the pre-eminent Confederate spy's motives all about states rights, and give her absolutely no prejudices against an escaped black slave?

There is a rather large difference between saying slavery was not the only factor in the Civil War (even your fictional steampunk Civil War), and ignoring it as a factor. But still, to have one of your protagonists be a fugitive slave having to go back into dangerous territory, and then, not ever really having it be an issue, other than that he doesn't get served at one bar? You can't have your cake and eat it too, and that's never been a metaphor that's made much sense, but I guess what I'm trying to say is that you can't have it both ways. And you can't ignore it. You introduce slavery, you can't just then handwave away having that mean anything.

This is too weighty a thought for a book this slight. But that's part of the problem. I get not wanting to delve entirely into slavery as the main topic of your steampunk fantasy - but you can't bring it up, and then ignore it.

But if I put that aside, what's left? Mostly fun, but not a whole lot more.  Captain Croggan Hainey, former slave, former captain of the ship (I can't remember if it was formerly Confederate or Union) The Free Crow, had it stolen out from underneath him, and is now pursuing it across the Rockies into dangerous territory in Kentucky and environs. All he wants is his ship back.

Meanwhile, "Belle" Boyd, former famous Confederate spy, now put out to pasture, is working for the Pinkerton detective agency. As her very first mission, she's sent after the Free Crow, now named Clementine, to make sure it does get where it's going to go. But she discovers that what it's carrying might have some very real fallout for the side she spent her life serving, and her new loyalties are torn. (Might it have been more interesting if she'd been with the Pinkertons for a while, and it was a struggle between two loyalties?)

With nary an eye batted between them, Hainey and Boyd team up to fight crime find the Clementine and stop her from carrying out her mission. They get along very well, and the attraction between them is interestingly both present and downplayed, but honestly, the former slave and former Confederate spy able to put aside all personal prejudices and see through to the other person as an ally happened a little too easily. But I liked them together.

And really, I did enjoy this book. There was just this niggling "shouldn't the historical context that Priest is drawing on have some actual impact?" thought that kept running through my brain. If it hadn't been there, I would have been thoroughly amused by this romp. As it was, it was still quite fun. But not a lot more. Which is part of the problem. To truly be that light, you can't draw on something that heavy and then ignore it.

Hounded by Kevin Hearne

I am sort of a sucker for good snark. And I've been bemoaning the similarities of much of the fantasy I've been reading recently. So this book came around at exactly the right time, and quite enchanted me. It's not the deepest book in the world, but it was thoroughly fun and diverting, and I look forward to reading more in the series.

Atticus O'Sullivan is a Druid. Not just a druid, but one who has survived for more than 2000 years, mostly by hiding out from the Tuatha de Danaan, who are still very much alive and kicking, and still as likely to kill you as look at you. Particularly if you piss them off. At all. Minor offenses are not a concept that really enter into the equation.

So, he lives in Arizona, far away from the Fae, and the gods of Celtic mythology. One of them has been hunting for him for millennia. A couple of the goddesses might be on his side, but they are definitely working their own agendas. O'Sullivan runs a magic shop, has a werewolf and a vampire as his lawyers, and keeps himself and his bodily fluids far, far away from witches. As you can tell, this book is populated with any number of mythological or supernatural beings. Most of them nasty, all of them deadly.

Magic in this book is serious shit, and quick and potentially mortal. But the main character has a delightful irreverence towards mortal and immortal alike, and the turns of phrase ticked my funnybone.

There isn't a deeper meaning to this book, no deeper themes to explore or expound upon. It was just fun, and felt different, and again, the snark.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Roger Ebert famously said that "A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it." In other words, the subject matter itself isn't the core, it is how that subject material is treated. In the same vein, you can have a bunch of books that all share certain similarities, and could accuse them of being lazy (and sometimes that's the case), but I prefer to look at the genre and see how the person has used the conventions of that genre. Well? Poorly? Paint-by-numbers?

(This is putting aside the immense pleasures of the truly original - but for something to stand out as truly original, there has to be a lot which is not.)

So thinking about this review led me into a digression on this field of YA dystopian fiction. It's a mini-genre that has been around for a long time, but there's been an explosion of material recently, perhaps spurred by the immense success of the Hunger Games. And YA dystopias are distinctly different from other dystopian worlds.

I make no claim to be an expert in YA dystopias, but I have read a few, and here are some tropes which stick out to me:

1) There is a public ritual in which people are picked/chosen/opt into something, and this marks the passage, more or less, to an adult life.

Suzanne Collins altered this in interesting ways with the Reaping, which has nothing to do with talent, or aptitude, or anything except cruelty. In the Pretties universe, what happens, happens to everyone, unless you buck the system and opt out.

But in far more YA dystopias, this is the moment when you pick, right then, when you're 15 or 16, pick irrevocably, your future life. This seems to be the most distinct thing about a lot of YA dystopiana - a reflection of worrying about what you're going to do with your life, and the feeling that if you make the wrong decision, you're screwed. Forever.

2) Society is divided into different groups, each of which fulfills a different function.

The Districts in The Hunger Games, (these one are going back a ways, as I probably know better the dystopiana from the time I was a teen than I do the present-day stuff), the class structure of Monica Hughes' The Devil on My Back, the aptitude structure of the companion book, Dream Catcher, the genetic streaming of Carol Matas' The DNA Dimension.

3) A group exists outside of this structure - those who have run away, escaped, been relegated to slavery. Their existence helps the protagonist (in most of the books I'm familiar with, teenage girls) realize that something is deeply wrong with the way society is constructed, that life is controlled by forces that want to suppress individuality and rebellion.

4) The main character doesn't quite fit in, whether or not they realize it. Or maybe they're forced to a painful awakening.

Not all the books that come to mind fit this mold exactly, but these are common themes.

Which leads me to Divergent, which I really did enjoy. It isn't earth shattering, but it's a good entry into this genre.

The ritual of choosing a "Faction" is preceded by an aptitude test that tells you what group you should belong to, but you do get to choose from between the five Factions, each one devoted to a specific virtue.

Each faction performs a different function, from the selfless service in government of the Abnegation, to the ruthless honesty and criticism of Candor, the pursuit of knowledge by Erudite, the love and togetherness of Amity, and the courage and defense of the city by the Dauntless. (Yes, it does annoy me that the names of the factions don't harmonize grammatically.)

There are the factionless, the group of workers who didn't succeed in the faction they chose, and now live lives of drudgery, hunger and poverty. And there are also the Divergent, who don't fit neatly into these five categories, and must hide that about themselves.

The main character, Beatrice, who renames herself Tris after leaving her old faction to join the Dauntless, is one such person. This makes her journeys amongst the Dauntless more perilous, as she attempts to survive the initiation without letting any sign of her Divergence show. (Also, of course, while falling in love, but it wasn't insta-love, so it gets a pass. Teenage girls are allowed to fall desperately in love, it just bothers me when it's Eternal and Forever before a word is even spoken.)

I liked the character of Tris as well - she's not always likeable, she makes decisions that differ from many you see young female protagonists make. These attributes actually endeared her to me.

Her Divergence helps her become aware of how deeply wrong things are in this city, and small dropped details help flesh out a world that is even more ominous than Tris actively realizes, including the minor revelation the locks on the city walls are on the outside, to keep people in.

By the end of the first book, Tris has taken part in some pretty damned big happenings, and the faction system at least partly lies in ruins. I look forward to seeing what happens next, and hope it's as interesting as this was.

This book didn't reinvent the wheel, but it is a solid entry, the writing served the story, and it explored the tropes of YA dystopiana in interesting ways.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Hyperion won the contest for my favourite book of last year. How could anything possibly live up to that? The Fall of Hyperion is even more a straightforward science fiction book, without the literary experimentation of the Canterbury-Tales-style first book. It's got to be a lesser book, right? Right?

Wrong. This is one of those very rare few sequels that almost equals the first book. And when the first book is the kind of masterpiece that I would argue Hyperion is, it's mind-boggling.

It took me a while to come to that conclusion, though. At that start, when it appeared to be following a more traditional science fiction format, I was enjoying it, but telling myself that in some way, this made it a lesser book than Hyperion.  But I kept reading. And kept reading. And kept reading. And bit by bit, the brilliance of this book crept up on me. Yes, it doesn't have the experimentation in style. But the story is so good. I mean, so good.

It reached right inside me and ripped my guts out. I couldn't stop reading. I was so invested in all the pilgrims I'd met in the first book, and equally engrossed by the wider canvas of the universe they'd trekked right out of, the worlds on the brink of war, the nebulous threat of the TechnoCore and of the Ousters. Of the fate of John Keats. Yes, that John Keats. Or, almost.

And if those stories in the first book had been each a separate little masterpiece, this book weaves them together beautifully. Things that I thought didn't need to be explained were, and the explanations were never disappointing. In fact, for the most part I never saw them coming, and they were flabbergasting in their implications.

While the pilgrims we met on Hyperion continue their quest to find the Shrike, the unstoppable killing machine that haunts the Time Tombs, the wider galaxy of planets, connected by farcasters (read: long-range teleporters) trembles on the brink of war with the Ousters, humans who long ago diverged, physically and psychologically, from the mainstream. To wage this war, humans must trust the TechnoCore, the world of AIs that is everywhere and nowhere. But some say that the TechnoCore does not have the best interest of its human progenitors at heart.

And what is the future that the Shrike was sent back from, anyway? What does it look like? Is it written? Is it mutable? What is the cost if it is not? And what do poetry and religion have to do with it all, anyway.

I have a personal weakness for science fiction that takes religion seriously, as opposed to a shorthand for ignorance. And The Fall of Hyperion does. The Catholic Church is a major player in what goes down, but not in a simplistic manner. The Church of the Shrike is a particular kind of apocalyptic sect that leads to some horrific excesses. The animism of the Templars and their shiptrees circle the story, and are horribly betrayed. The coming of the One Who Teaches is presaged, and I will not give away any more than that.

This story is so complex, with layers and layers of history and symbolism and poetry. But it is not inaccessible - I'm pretty sure it can be enjoyed just at the level of a ripping story as well. But I loved feeling like I was swimming in a deep pool, and often submerged under unexpected waves.

Have I mentioned characters? Because this isn't just a novel of ideas. The characters are wonderful, from the reborn John Keats to the stoic belief of Hegemony leader Meina Gladstone, to the devotion of Saul to his daughter who is aging backwards, to Martin Silenus, the drunken poet whose verses might be tied to the fate of the human race, to Brawne Lamia, the pregnant private detective and former lover of the first Keats cybrid.

This is a novel that embraces complexity, and those who know me know that I love little more than that. I love it when novels do not rely on simple answers to problems they pretend are binary. I love novels like this. I like this nearly as much as I loved Hyperion, and that is saying a hell of a lot.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

A Good Man by Guy Vanderhaeghe

This is the first Guy Vanderhaeghe book I've read, and I'm not sure why. One of his books was very popular back in those days, long ago, when I worked in a bookstore. One of the bright lights of Canadian literature, and I'd entirely missed him.

And now I can say I'm sorry it has taken me so long to get here. Because this is a very good book indeed.

Wesley Case was part of a terribly disorganized and unprepared militia during Fenian attacks on Canada, and carries the guilt for his actions every day. He joined the military in Western Canada, but his father buys out his time in order for him to come home and undertake a political career. Case decides to be a rancher in the United States instead.

Once in the U.S., he becomes the go-between for the military men in charge of the closest forts on either side of the border, who are worried about a potential Sioux attack and need the kind of intelligence that doesn't get written down in official reports.

Case also starts running into Ada Tarr, the wife of a local lawyer and businessman, who is both abrasive and intelligent. They rub each other the wrong way, frequently, misinterpreting the intentions of the other in the most negative way possible.

Ada is being guarded by a man named Michael Dunne, who is creepy as hell. Her husband is under threat from someone he helped cheat, and he has hired Dunne. Dunne is neck deep in the Fenian cause as well, although not, perhaps, for the reasons you might think. He becomes obsessed with Ada.

These are the pieces on the board. The real pleasure is what Vanderhaeghe does with them. It becomes a book about expectations and realities, the interpretations that people put on the words and actions of others, and how they might (or might not) differ from reality. Ada and Case misjudge each other constantly. Dunne has lofty expectations of an eventual life with Ada. The Canadian commander becomes friends with Sitting Bull and thinks he can predict Sitting Bull's next moves. Case is just as sure he can't.

In a wilderness where society is being created anew, often at the cost of previous inhabitants, cues are even more difficult to read. And the past is always with you, even if you were running away from it as fast as you can.

Monday, 10 February 2014

The Third Man & The Fallen Idol by Graham Greene

This is a slim little book, but the two stories in it pack quite a wallop. One, is, of course, the more famous, the basis for The Third Man movie. The other was also made into a movie, but is not as well known.

Interestingly, according to the foreword, The Third Man started life as a movie project, but Graham Greene found he had to write it out in story format in order to write the script. There are also differences between the story and the film, including the ending. I don't know what that means, in practice, as I haven't seen the movie yet. Hopefully that will be rectified soon.

In The Third Man, naive and somewhat blustering western writer, Rollo Martins (whose pen name is Buck Dexter) comes to Vienna after the Second World War, on the invitation of his friend Harry Lime, who promises him an opportunity to make some money. But he gets there only to attend Harry's funeral, and to be plunged into a morass Harry left behind.

The head of the American police force in divided Vienna accuses Lime of some pretty nasty dealings, but Martins is fairly sure that his old school friend could not possibly be guilty of anything so sordid. But as Martins is pulled deeper in to the mystery of Harry's life and death, all sorts of illusions will be shot and fall to the floor.

Having just come off a game of over a year of Cold City, set in Cold War Berlin, this setting both felt familiar and exciting. The divided city aspects reminded me of our game, and I enjoyed watching those international politics play out over very grubby issues.

In The Fallen Idol, a small boy is thrust into the middle of a war between adults, and has little comprehension of the ways he's being pulled and manipulated, and at the end, makes a gesture that determines the fate of his best friend in the world.

The Fallen Idol is not quite as intriguing a piece as The Third Man, but was still very enjoyable. This book did not take long to (re)read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. One of my friends tried to borrow it before I was done, so I've already passed it along.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Among Others by Jo Walton

I am of two minds about this book. There are things about it I liked a great deal. And then there were the ways in which I reached the end and went "huh." Let's see if I can sum up - I like the authorial voice and the way the world Walton creates is dripping with books. On the other hand, the pacing is strange, and rarely, if ever, does what comes seem to build on what's gone before. It isn't that they are forgotten, but the book doesn't tend to use what has come before to construct a satisfying narrative.

Mor is a fifteen-year-old Welsh girl, sent to live with the father she never knew after running away from her mother. Her aunts aren't crazy about having her around and so they send her off to boarding school. Once there, Mor deals with the mundane problems of being strange and bookish in a school where no one really likes her (boy, do I know that one) and the more supernatural problems that stem from being able to see fairies.

It is ambiguous for most of the book, and I think deliberately so, whether or not Mor is really seeing fairies and is able to do magic, or whether she clings to games from her younger days to cope with the loss of her sister.

That ambiguity worked for me - I kept trying to figure out which it was, and even when the book jumps one way or the other, it's done in a subtle way that I very much enjoyed.

And I did like how much books were the centre of Mor's world. I loved her discussions of science fiction, and how it became a lifeline for her in the midst of a world that couldn't care less about her. I had a happy family life, but at times, a much less happy school life, and like Mor, books, particularly science fiction, were my own lifeline. Some of her entries I felt like I could have written myself. Although I don't think I was quite as discerning a reader then as I am now - I needed more books under my belt before I could come to the kinds of opinions that Mor has.

It's nice to have a bookish heroine who actually, you know, reads books, and discusses them and lives in them.

But the pacing, oh, the pacing. Just felt so off. It did, indeed, feel like diary entries from real life might feel. Things happen, with no connection. Real life, absolutely. But that doesn't necessarily make great fiction. Things that were foreshadowed early in the book absolutely fizzled out. The conclusion came abruptly, with little preamble. It just needed a slightly stronger story arc to tie the diary entries to and I think I would have no complaints whatsoever.

Also, the external events seemed unconnected to the internal ones. Heavy spoilers here - don't read them if you haven't read the book and are antsy about such things. (view spoiler)

And while I liked the flavour of magic, Mor's obsession with her responsibilities was both interesting, and eventually, frustrating. Figuring out your responsibilities when playing with forces beyond your control, fantastic. Obsessing over whether or not you caused everyone around you to come into being because you did magic may accurately reflect the self-absorption of a fifteen-year-old, but when dwelt on overmuch, becomes irritating.

There just never felt like any sort of escalation in the way the book went. Things happened, didn't seem necessarily to connect, didn't build on each other to come to a satisfying climax. And yet, I like the main character a lot, and all the elements are there to create a crackling good yarn. They just aren't knitted together to my satisfaction.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Friday, 7 February 2014

"The Corpse On The Grating" by Hugh B. Cave

Hey guys! Did you realize that the Gutenberg Project has old science fiction? It does! (I don't know why this surprised me, but it did.) So, hey, why not read some of them and review them? Not to poke fun at the old science fiction, although there might be a little of that. No, I'm more interested in looking at what this old science fiction tells us about the worlds that were being imagined at the time. What did they think about science? Gender? Race? The eventual fate of the world?

From: Astounding Stories of Super-Science, February 1930

Checking out the irresistible source that is Wikipedia, I see that Hugh B. Cave was a prolific pulp writer, wrote two stories connected to the Cthulhu mythos, and many books. And died only ten years ago, in his 90s. This particular story would have come from very early in his career, when he was only 20.

Well, I hope he got better. This one afforded me quite the hilarity and a few lines I had to tweet, including:

"Professor, have you ever played with the dead body of a frog?"


"You are cynical, Dale...because you do not understand!"
"Understand? I am a doctor - not a ghost!"


And this is now the second story I've read in this magazine where the story centres around bringing the dead back to life/regeneration. But whereas in the previous stories, vibrations got hauled in again, this time, the scientific explanation afforded me great hilarity:

"I have tried, gentlemen, with acid combinations of my own origination, to bring that body back to life."

I am not sure you understand how acids work, sir.

But at its core, this is really more horror than science fiction. The whole set-up, with the hilarious quotes, is all to prepare us all for finding a body dead from horror, and instead of calling, I don't know, the police or the morgue, this doctor uses it as an opportunity to accept a bet from a more credulous friend to go into the deserted building himself and try to survive what scared the other guy to death.

And man, does the scientist take a beating for believing in science! Both the "Professor" and the scientist's friend mock him unmercifully for only believing in things if they're proved to him. And it turns out the Professor was right, and did manage to reanimate a body, but dumped it in the abandoned building too soon, and the friend knew it, and....

Wait, he knew? And instead of, I don't know, informing the professor that his weird acid experiments had worked, used it as a chance to teach his rational friend a lesson? To win money in a bet? What?

 Okay, so everyone in this story is an asshole.

Let's go into the checklist:

No women, no non-white characters, no mention of sexuality at all. The scientist is mostly there to be shown up and commit the unpardonable sin of demanding proof. This is a weird one, folks.

But man, those acids, huh? Or should it be the singular?

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

This is the second book I ever read on a Kindle. (The first was Deathless, but this digression seemed more at home here.) A friend very kindly lent me one of hers when I was on a trip last week, so I didn't have to deal with the extra weight that comes with packing a book for every day I'd be gone. And I am very grateful for the loan, not least for the great array of books she had on the Kindle, and which I've had great fun perusing.

But the actual experience of reading on a Kindle? Give me a book any day. (Except if I'm travelling. And, in this case, I'll read more off it, because there are books on there I want to read, and our local library is not great at SF/F. So, you know, I'm not dogmatic about it.)

But I missed the materiality of books so keenly while I was using the Kindle. It seems right that Ulysses has a different physical presence than does a slim little book like The Nothing That Is. My arm should be a little achy after I'm done a bout with it. It seems fitting. And the font, and the type size, and the smell - the Kindle flattens all that out. It makes what was once a varied experience into a consistent one. It's not hard to read a book on the Kindle, but I missed seeing the cover of the book, the weight of the book, the feel.

And it drove me crazy that it was difficult or impossible to find the page where the publication date was listed, which in one case led me to start a series in the middle because I could not figure out which book came first. It also makes it much more difficult to flip back a few pages to check on something you didn't quite catch the first time.

The experience isn't bad, but I came out of it both grateful for having had it for travelling, and glad to pick up a real book again when I got home.

So, what does this have to do with Angelmaker, other than that this was one of the first books I read on it? More than you might think. One of the threads running through this book is individual craftsmanship against mass production. The Ruskinite Order of Monks, dedicated at one point to creating machines of beauty that were literally unique, that were handcrafted, and made with love and care and attention, have been perverted, and are now monstrous echoes of what they once were.

This is a hard book to describe. It is rollicking, it is tense. It slips back and forth in time. Some of the book relates the adventures of the now almost-nonagenarian spy Edie, back in World War II, when she was part of an elite group, and was responsible for liberating a brilliant female scientist from the clutches of the Opium Khan, who had employed her to make a doomsday device. To protect the scientist, with whom she forms a very personal connection, she has to fight the Opium Khan all through Europe, time and time again.

In the present, Edie has set said doomsday device running, with the best of intentions, and has used Joe Spork, clockmaker, as her cat's-paw setting it in motion. Soon, little gold bees are flying around the globe, awakening other gold bees, and the governments of the world are fucking terrified. Joe is swept up in this, taken into custody by a branch of the government not beholden to any laws, which feels justified in taking any measures to do whatever they bloody well like.

But Joe is not just a mild-mannered clockmaker. Somewhere deep inside him sleeps the Joe who learned at the feet of his stylish gangster father, Mathew, who waged a spree with panache across Europe. Joe learned more than he knows, and with Polly, a supervillain in her own right by his side, and Edie, and Edie's absolutely wonderful blind dog Bastion by his side, he might just take the fight to them.

I am be a sucker for fictional dogs and cats, when they're written well. I adore Bastion.

This book is strange and funny and spooky and rollicking and serious. It uses the modern security state as the tool of Joe's enemies, and the ways in which government is perverted to serve the desires of whoever is pulling the strings is truly frightening.

And I have a weak spot for calls to arms, so when Joe calls on all the old criminals of London to come together for one huge assault, one with some derring-do, a few tears came to my eyes.

This book is crazy. It is all over the place. And yet it hangs together, better than I thought Harkaway's previous book The Gone Away World did. I enjoyed The Gone Away World even though I didn't think the story, in the end, quite jelled. This one did, and I loved it.

Even though I read it on the Kindle. And felt vaguely guilty, because this book, of all books, deserves the physical presence that print could give it.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Spawn of the Stars by Charles Willard Diffin

Hey guys! Did you realize that the Gutenberg Project has old science fiction? It does! (I don't know why this surprised me, but it did.) So, hey, why not read some of them and review them? Not to poke fun at the old science fiction, although there might be a little of that. No, I'm more interested in looking at what this old science fiction tells us about the worlds that were being imagined at the time. What did they think about science? Gender? Race? The eventual fate of the world?

From: Astounding Stories of Super-Science, February 1930

Oh, and this one is an entertaining one, complete with the attack of the Giant Brains in Lightbulb-Shaped Ships! It's only one Zoidberg away from actually being an episode of Futurama. Except I don't remember the Giant Brains on Futurama killing and eating cows in gruesome detail.

 At any rate, the hero is a young millionaire who owns a plane. He and his buddy are flying in their plane when they are attacked by, you guessed it, giant brains. Not just any giant brains, though. Giant brains that can grow, extrude, and then pull back into their bodies and dissolve, human-like hands. And maybe eyes, if I'm remembering the start of the story. The young heroes catch them in mid-cattle mutilation, and think no one will believe them. Until they get back to a city and find out the giant brains have bombed the fuck out of a major city.

The millionaire seems to be awfully chummy with the military generals right away, and is brought right into their plans, as more and more cities are decimated. With the earth on the edge of collapse, a scientist comes up with a last-ditch theory, one which will kill the person who delivers the fatal blow, and might not work at that. As humanity cowers, about to perish, the millionaire's friend (notably more working-class and military) dies heroically, saving the planet.

Unless, of course, there are more of those things out there than the four we see in the story. But that's not discussed.

I feel at this point, like I should just have a checklist, for the things that are notably absent from these stories.

Women? Check
Race? Check
Queer sexuality? Check

Class? Well, there's not much, but I think there's enough to write about. It is notable that the millionaire volunteers for the suicide mission, but defers to the former military pilot, now quite working-class, who claims more flying experience, and a deeper emotional connection to the other pilots who are regularly dying under the death rays of the Brains.

What about science? The scientist himself sacrifices himself in a test to see what they can do to stop the Brains. But he doesn't really believe it will give them victory. Still, it's a more heroic science than we have seen in most of the stories so far.

And aliens. I've been thinking about the aliens I've encountered in these stories so far. Most have been animals from beneath the earth, with as much mind as, well, an animal. These are the first from outer space, unless I'm blanking on something. And they look like giant brains, and yet they are thoroughly evil, bent on exterminating us without ever attempting contact in the first place. The enemy is inhuman and cannot find any common ground. I'll see if this theme holds true in other stories.

"Spawn of the Stars" is entertaining, but is mostly an adventure tale. On the other hand, it's an adventure tale that threatens imminent human extinction, and a last minute save.

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

I was never entirely sure who belonged to what family in this book, but it never really bothered me. I mean, after we switched back to a different group of characters, I was able to reconstruct who they were related to fairly easily, but I never could hold the genealogies in my mind.

Which is a way of saying that this is another large sprawling family book, and that's a genre I tend to love, if they're done well. And this one was.

And more than just a sprawling family tale set in India, it's about India at a particular time, (the 1950s), and the politics (national, local, academic, familial) that permeated the landscape. While the narrative loops lazily around family issues and affairs, reminding me of nothing so much as certain aspects of Jane Austen, the scene is intermittently broken by scenes of startling violence and power, emphasizing that even the most secure at this time were not safe when sectarian violence or political turmoil or simple accident came calling.

The comparison to Jane Austen came to mind often, and was probably helped along by the books the characters themselves were reading. They talked about Indian and Bengali literature often, but whenever a character went on a trip, it was Austen they were reading on the train. Or Trollope. Or another British classic. And indeed the comparative or deliberate Britishness of the characters was frequently a theme, particularly among the more status-seeking business class.

I enjoyed this book so much (and would have to, to stick with it through almost 1400 pages), and the characters and the descriptions, and the India which teemed with problems both familiar and foreign.

Read as part of The BBC Big Read

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

The Recognitions by William Gaddis

This book was not for me. I was frustrated by it, but stuck with it in hopes that it would come together in some amazing way and justify its inclusion in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. It didn't, relying on literary tricks and vagueness instead of characters or plot. I don't mind if an author focuses on characters but not plot, or plot but not so much characters (if the books are well-written.) But neither? You'd have to have something damned impressive to make me like a book that meanders aimlessly and rarely bothers to introduce me to the characters.

Particularly when it takes 900 pages and at the end, I still don't get it. Maybe it's me. But oh, I found this book frustrating.

Primary reason I found it frustrating? Gaddis' steadfast refusal to let me know which bloody character he's talking about. For the vast majority of the book, he eschews character names, referring to them as only he or she, or using a description such as "the tall woman" to signify who he's talking about. In a novel with a cast of dozens, this drove me crazy. I spent more time trying to figure out who the hell he was talking about than I did to the story he was telling. This is not a good sign. Names are sort of there for a purpose, you know?

Maybe that's a clever play on the title - the reader is forced to "recognize" the characters without the help of names. But that doesn't really work as a thing - in real life, if I didn't know someone's name, I'd still have their face to go by. And the problem is that the characters are introduced en masse, with tons of description, and if you fail to remember that one detail by which he's going to refer to the character for the rest of the novel, well, god help you.

As for what this novel is about, well, I can tell you some impressionistic themes, but also should state that I felt that most of them drifted by, and few were capitalized upon. Religion is a huge one, with one (main?) character's father being a Protestant minister who seems to convert to Mithraism, an Agnes Deigh, a couple of characters who self-flagellate over their perceived lapses in Catholicism. But while religion permeates the book, damned if I know what Gaddis is trying to say about it. Most of the references would be challenging even for a historian of religion, which I am some of the time, and although I got most of them, I had no idea what he was trying to say. Gaddis, obliqueness doesn't not necessarily equal depth. Sometimes it's just being obtuse.

And then there's art, and counterfeiting, and plagiarism. There's a nod to the title in the insight that great art makes people recognize it as though they had created it themselves. (If that's the case, I would have to say that I recognized absolutely nothing about this book.) It's about the New York art scene after World War II, and its superficiality and rampant artistic bankruptcy. Some people can make great art, but are sucked into painting fakes. Some can't make art worth a damn, but plagiarize the words of others. Some get away with plagiarizing. One guy actually counterfeits money, and later, the corpse of a saint. (Yeah, I don't know either. I don't think the plan comes off, but it's expressed in such vague terms I'm not really sure.)

And that's the major problem. The prose is so dense, so impressionistic, so steadfast in its refusal to give me anything to latch on to or follow in any way that I was frequently lost. And I spent over a month reading this book, hoping to find solid ground. I never did.

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Jazz under the Nazis, both in Germany and in occupied Paris. Friendship and betrayal in the worst of circumstances, when betrayal can literally lead to death. And then, years later, revisiting those haunts, those people, those betrayals. This is a really amazing book.

It was all the buzz when this book and The Sisters Brothers were shortlisted for the Booker prize. They then split the two big Canadian prizes - one took the Giller, the other the Governor-General. Readers may recall that I wasn't overly enthralled with The Sisters Brothers, so by unfortunate association, I was a little worried about this one as well.

I needn't have been. Esi Edugyan has written something pitch perfect. The language, the story, the characters, they all flow so beautifully, and their melodic lines intertwine so effortlessly through past and present, through characters you love, and characters you ache for, through making music at the very worst of times, and having it all fall apart. It's gorgeously done.

Initially a group in Berlin, most of the members flee to Paris, although that flight comes too late for some. Many members of the group are half-blood, in one form or another. One can pass for white, and sometimes done. Another cannot. They are marked by blackness, by outsider status, by being musicians, in a world where being different is punishable by death.

It's also a book about talent, and the pain of having it, and the pain of being merely good enough, while observing genius. About wanting to make a mark, leave one thing behind worth saving, and the lengths you might go to to make that happen.

The interspersing with this tale in Berlin and then Paris with the 1992 stories of two of the old jazz musicians going back to Berlin to a festival for their young bandmate, Hieronymus Falk, now heralded as a lost genius, who died in the camps. Sid, the bass player, his frustration and anger and guilt, all this provides the context for how those years continue to affect his life and everything he does. It's also about how history is remembered and retold and warped and forgotten.

And also, possibly, it is about making amends. But I want to return to her language, both the spoken dialogue of the characters, and her descriptive passages. Both are exquisite. For that alone, you should read this book. That they clothe a powerful story as well make it a book that will last.