Friday, 28 March 2014

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

When I first read the description of this book I was skeptical. And perhaps suspicious. Definitely intrigued. This attempts to rectify the main problem of Victorian novels, namely, the lack of dragons. Your reaction is probably fairly similar to mine. Victorian novel...with dragons? Well, I have to say that I was entirely won over, and came out of the book wondering why no one had ever put those obviously needed dragons into a Victorian novel before. (I was reading this at the same time as Sense and Sensibility, and trust me, that made for a weird mix.)

Are you wondering whether or not I have lost my sanity? Well, I'm extremely low on sleep, and yesterday put one of my sisters on a plane for New Zealand, where she is going to live, so there is that. But I finished this book a few days ago, before the insomnia and emotional leavetakings, so I think I'll stand by it. Jo Walton makes this work, dammit. And I enjoyed it quite a bit more than Among Others, with which I had some issues.

It really is weird how well this works, and I think it does so because Walton has such a keen grasp of those issues at the core of many Victorian novels, and manages to translate them quite brilliantly into a society of dragons. Quarrels over inheritance involve both dragon hordes and whether or not the body of the deceased counts as part of the treasure. The cult of true womanhood and the importance of virginity is vividly portrayed by the tendency of these female dragons to turn pink when they are affianced. Or at least, turned on. And it can't be undone, creating a visible sign of honest affianced love, or disgraceful wantonness. (Or can it?) The exploitation of the poor comes to life when dragon lords literally eat the dragonets of the poor, for their own health.

All of these are deftly explored. The underlying metaphors are so solid that this book sucked me in entirely. It's not done with an anvil, but they are slowly elucidated, and knowing Victorian novels, things fall into entertaining place without needing overly complicated explanations. Just like Buffy uses monsters as metaphors to explore teenage issues, Walton uses dragons to tease out certain aspects of Victorian society and explore about them without needing to talk down to her readers.

The grand old dragon, Bon Agornin, has died. His will states that his three youngest children share his treasure, with his older children and the aristocratic mate of his oldest daughter, taking only a token piece of gold for their part. The aristocratic bully does not consider this to apply to the body of his father-in-law and proceeds to devour most of it, depriving the three youngest of their rightful share, and thereby, their future growth. (Dragons depend on eating other dragons to grow bigger.)

The son so deprived launches a lawsuit against his brother-in-law, sundering the family. The other brother, a cleric, does not want to be called to give evidence in the trial, due to some ecclesiastical irregularities about his father's last few minutes. One of the two unmarried daughters is accosted by another cleric, causing a blush, and forcing her brothers to look to quickly marry her off before she is disgraced. With the help of one of her maid's, she manages to dispel the blush with the help of certain herbs, but will they have further effects upon her?

And when the two sisters are torn apart, will either find love? Will the one who goes to live with her sister, now in her dangerous second clutch of eggs, manage to survive in the household of her avaricious brother-in-law, whose culling of weak dragon stock may have more to do with his appetites than his duties?

This is a strange book, but such a thoroughly delightful one. And when I turned from it to Sense and Sensibility, I was wistfully wondering where the dragons were.

The Magus by John Fowles

I'm not exactly sure how to rate this book. But I have a sneaking suspicion that I might read it again at some point, which is generally my personal line for four stars.

I picked this up as one of the books on the BBC's Big Read list, which I am slowly making my way through. I am not sure what to make of it.

The Magus is the story of a young English teacher in Greece, who is ensnared in the machinations of a local millionaire with an unfathomable plan.

For the first half of the book, I was struggling with a lack of identification with the main character, not because he's a bit of a prick, which he is supposed to be, but because every time Conchis messed with him and Nick kept coming back for more, it drove me crazy. I kept feeling that if someone kept doing inexplicable and possibly malicious things to me, and refused to tell me anything or even any of the rules of the game, I'd be out. Walk away, don't come back, live with the curiosity. Because in that kind of game, you're set up to jump through hoops without choice or understanding, and forget that nonsense.

So there was that.

But I kept reading, which is saying something, anyway. I guess I did stay in the game, by reading the book. I certainly never had any more idea what was going on than Nick did. And in the end, I'm not sure I'm entirely convinced by Nick's journey of discovery, because frequently I wasn't sure why the lessons he was taught were the lessons they were, or why he would change in that particular way.

This book is opaque, and frequently frustrating, but interesting enough. And I may try it again some day and see if I get more out of it. But not in the near future.

Read as part of the BBC Big Read

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

How To Tell If Your Cat Is Plotting To Kill You by Matthew Inman

I have cats, so this seemed like an obvious one for me. And the first few cartoons I did find hilarious. But I put it down for a while, and when I picked it back up, it just wasn't tickling my funnybone in the same way. Either I wasn't in the right mood for it, or they led off with the best comics, and it just got progressively less funny from there.

Which isn't to say that it's bad - there's still stuff on the level of a mild chuckle here - but very little that made me grin a silly grin or laugh out loud. And the part about the office cats went on waaaaaaay too long. It's a funny joke, but the joke is made in the first few pages. 10 more pages of the same joke? Less funny with every page.

I'm probably being a bit harsh here. The first few comics in this collection made me laugh really loud and show the book to my husband. I think I'm just disappointed because by the time I came back to it, I was expecting more of that, and didn't get it.

So if you have cats, there are some very funny cartoons in this book. And there are a bunch that rise to the level of a mild chuckle, and perhaps a few more that achieve a wry grin.

And being a cat person definitely helps. I think. On the other hand, if you're a cat person, you've seen your cats do these things a hundred times, and perhaps made some of these jokes yourself. My husband and I have a long-running joke about our older cat always being afraid of assassins and having to keep herself in a state of constant anger to be prepared for their inevitable attack.

Cats are a great topic of comedy, and some of the comics in this book are hilarious. Others, not so much.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Anne of Windy Poplars by L.M. Montgomery

Next up on my series of reviews of books I am rereading is Anne of Windy Poplars, right smack in the middle of the series. It's a weird one to start review the series with, but I've read them all so many times that I know how they fit together.

I've said before that Emily is my favourite Montgomery heroine, and that holds. But that doesn't mean I don't have a huge soft spot for Anne and her life. She is much more domestic in orientation, at least in every book after this one, and that has its appeal. Ordinary life is painted in such vivid and interesting colours that it leaps off the page, putting the lie to the idea that such things are beneath our proper notice.

In this one, Anne is engaged, but her fiance has years to put in on his medical degree before they can be married. So, in her mid-twenties (right? I was trying to do the math, and it's got to be around then), Anne accepts a three-year job as principal and teacher at a high school in Sunnyside. Moving there, she boards at Windy Poplars, living with the two "aunts" and their housekeeper, Rebecca Dew, a tomato-coloured entity in her own right.

When she first arrives, the town is up in arms, because she got the job for which a favoured relative of the local "royal family" had applied. She has to struggle through a first semester while under siege. But does she win them over? Is this Anne Shirley we're talking about?

Anne of Windy Poplars is really a set of connected short stories, linked together by time and place. We watch as Anne befriends her small next-door neighbour, suffering under the none-too-gentle eye of her grandmother and grandmother's servant. We see Anne intervene in several local love stories, with good and bad and sometimes ridiculous results.

She helps her students, tries to befriend a prickly fellow teacher, and generally, becomes beloved by everyone. Which is much less saccharine as it sounds, as Montgomery always has a deft touch and knows just when to stop. People feel real, in all their absurdities, small cruelties and kindnesses.

I have always enjoyed this particular volume quite a lot. It's Anne's last hurrah by herself, before she becomes a wife and mother, and it's interesting watching her negotiate a position of relative power in a way that is all her own.

But I keep coming back to what Montgomery does best. She imbues everyday occurrences with such vivacity that they come to life before our eyes. I can't think of another author who does what she does so well. That these are women's stories that still feel real, decades and decades on, is a real accomplishment.

Fairest, Vol. 1: Wide Awake by Bill Willingham

I had fallen out of touch with Fables. I read through the set of graphic novels covering the fight with the Adversary, and then wasn't paying attention as my husband got the other ones out of the library.

Apparently I wasn't missing much there for a while, as Willingham, my husband says, wasn't telling stories quite as good as he had been. But I'm also told the series is returning to form.

So when my husband brought this downstairs the other night and said "Read this," I did. And quite enjoyed it. I'd missed Willingham's take on fairy tales.

Ali Baba, Prince of Thieves, is just out looking for a little something else to steal. First, he thinks he finds a genie, but it turns out that the little blue guy isn't nearly that powerful, but he does know where something good is to steal....

A box containing two beautiful women - Briar Rose and the Snow Queen, both fast asleep. Ali Baba kisses both, but which does he love? Is the Snow Queen truly evil? And what the hell was up with that curse put on Briar Rose in the first place?

Her story is unfolded, in fairly traditional Sleeping Beauty form, and at the end, Briar Rose has a chance to say a few choice words to the fairy who cursed her.

I can't say I enjoyed this quite as much as the very early Fables books, but I enjoyed it quite a lot, and if there is more, I'm looking forward to reading it. Also the ones where Cinderella is a James Bond-style spy.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

There are a lot of catch-22s in the working world. There are even more for women. If you don't ask for a raise, you're less likely to get one. If you ask for a raise, and you're female, it has a real impact on how people perceive you. Be ambitious, but not too ambitious. Be nice, but not too nice. Work your ass off to get ahead, but still find the time to parent. Sheryl Sandberg has done a very good job of bringing together tons of evidence about how women experience the professional world, and some suggestions on how to deal with issues that may arise.

They are practical suggestions. They are good suggestions. And at times, the book still irritated me. For two reasons that I can extract from my hunched shoulders.

1) While talking about the difficulties women face in the working world, she accepts as a given the general corporate workplace culture of constant employee availability that I truly believe is not really good for anyone, male or female. (And as an introvert, parts of the corporate culture outlined in this book gave me quite a bit of anxiety.)

2) While she cites great studies about the double-bind women are often in in the workplace, she supplements this with personal anecdotes that are virtually all about how the men she worked for were incredibly responsive to her concerns when she raised them, and mentored and taught her. The personal experience comes through as universally positive. Which, great. I am so glad that she had those experiences. But when the anecdotes are all positive, they tend to overshadow the studies. And they aren't, to use her language, my truth. It would nice to have some balancing anecdotes about the workplace issues for women we know exist. So sit down for a second, relax, and let me tell you a couple of my stories. Because we can only grow stronger when we share our stories, the bad as well as the good. Unceasing positivity is not all that helpful, particularly when it feels isolating to those who have had bad experiences.

I am not going to slam this book as not really being for the vast majority of women. It's true, and Sandberg fully admits it. It's for women who are attempting to dive in at the deep end of the professional spectrum, particularly, but not exclusively, in the corporate world. That audience compared to the number of women who are just trying to make the ends meet is very small. But there is room for a book aimed at the professional class. I just wish there was a tiny bit more acknowledgement that for many women those career paths are inaccessible not for lack of ambition, but due to lack of resources and class privilege.

(You know, speaking as someone working two part-time jobs while I write on my dissertation, and is going to graduate with a massive student debt that may have a very real impact on how I have to approach my job search post-degree.)

Let's return to the first point. I'm all for ambition. I'm trying to make my way in a profession (or will be, as soon as this bloody dissertation is done) that I truly love, and that I will devote a great deal of my time and attention to. But still, I bristle at the idea that in order to be successful, people have to strive for a work-life balance that includes constant work, even when it's at home. Sandberg talks about carving out family time, but it's in the context of still needing to be available on vacations, in the evenings. I'm sorry, taking a family dinner hour as the only time you aren't available to your workplace fills me with dread. Working only 9-5:30 and then leaving loses some of its gloss when you then work all evening, just in another location. That isn't really limiting your working hours to have some life outside work. That's working in two locations, and I think that needs to be recognized. And fought.

Her life makes me feel panicked to just read about. Which is fine. I was never going to be a high-flying corporate executive anyway.  But more to the point, I'm not sure that that should be what the workplace environment should require of people. Of anyone, male or female. I read about the corporate workplace, and what it screams to me is not that this is what it takes to succeed. It screams "these people need to unionize, because this is just fucking unacceptable." It screams a need for collective action, as opposed to individual endeavour.

 (Of course, we're mostly talking about the managerial class, and a Silicon Valley ideology of individual endeavour and success, so trust me that I realize unionization is not on the horizon. But this is a corporate culture that can grind people into the ground because they are atomized, because they see their successes and failures as purely on their own terms, as opposed to symptoms of a sick system. It cries out for a realization of community and the ability to collectively change things, rather than just say "this is the way it is, it isn't going to change." Yes, I'm left-wing. Why do you ask?)

Also, can I quibble that an open-concept office floor, with no offices or cubicles, means a non-hierarchical workplace? Bullshit. When you have no space of your own to which you can retreat, that pretty much makes it apparent that time to think and reflect is in no way a corporate value. When you have to worry about whether or not you're looking productive enough every time anyone walks by, that reinforces power structures. It doesn't dispose of them. No walls does not make power disappear. And the energy spent on that could be much more usefully be spent in things other than stress because someone walked behind your desk. I say this as someone who has worked in both open-concept offices and had her own office, and was generally a very hard worker.

And as an introvert, it gives me the heebie-jeebies. I may not have loved everything about Susan Cain's book, but please, please, please, Sheryl Sandberg, read her chapter on open concept offices, and why they are bad for everyone, but will particularly handicap your introvert employees, who have some really awesome things to offer your organization!

Now, after a long digression, off to point number two! As I said, I am very glad Sandberg has had such great examples of men in her corporate lives who have been more oblivious than anything else. Her examples are almost all of men who are willing to change when things are brought to their attention. And we need to keep bringing things to their attention. But, unfortunately, I think that many women don't have that experience, particularly at lower levels of the working world. I wish all bosses, male and female, reacted the way most of Sandberg's colleagues have. But I also think we need to discuss, in detail, the bad examples, so we know we are not alone.

When I taught a course on Women and the Workplace, I was amazed and slightly depressed by how many of my students came to me to tell me of their own experiences in the working world in which they had already experienced discrimination. All these wonderful young women in their early 20s that I hoped would have no idea what I was talking about, they already knew. I was glad I was there to listen. I was particularly thankful that the course was there, through which they could see their own experiences in a larger historical context, and take away some knowledge of how these working conditions developed, and the ways in which they have been fought.

So here are my stories, shared in a hope that by acknowledging them publicly, other women will feel less alone. These do no one any good when they fester, and festering in my mind they have been, particularly one.

When I came back to work at a retail store after a bout of mono, one of the floor managers stopped to ask me how I was feeling. That got her reamed out in front of customers by our big boss for having stopped for a chat.

I have been told that my job was "a good one for a second income" by my boss, who knew full well that mine was my family's only income. Wonder if that had anything with the raise they kept promising me every time I applied for another job, but which never materialized?

I have been told that I had "too much initiative" in a formal performance review, because I would go looking for other work to do when I was done my own work. That did not do wonders for my attachment to that job.

And the big one:

I was working at a university office between my graduate degrees when an Assistant Dean decided that an acceptable way to discipline an entire office-worth of women for not having locked the door (the lock was actually broken) was to stage a burglary, hiding all of our computers in the basement.

When one of the women left the office, extremely upset, and met said Assistant Dean on the street, he told her he was "teaching those girls a lesson."

The next day, when he pulled us all together to ream us out for the door, I stood up and said "Yesterday, I felt threatened. I felt vulnerable. Do you think that is acceptable?"

He said yes.

He said he would have done it to anyone.

The only two of us in the office who were willing to speak up and call him out, or to pursue taking this to the ombudsperson's office were, unsurprisingly, the only two of us who didn't desperately need to keep our jobs. I already had my acceptance to a Ph.D. program in my hot little hand, and she was re-entering the working world after some time away. While she wanted a job, her husband's income meant she didn't need to keep this particular job.

This is not a coincidence. This is how power works to silence people. When you are scared for your job, you don't speak up. I don't fault the women who didn't. I do fault the fucker who put us in that position in the first place and then refused to admit he'd done anything wrong.

By the time the school took this seriously and brought in someone to look into it, the other woman and I had moved on. My friends who were still there told me that they felt pressure in the interview to minimize what had happened, and to downplay the impact it had had on their emotional and workplace wellbeing.

When the report came out, it was summarized to me by one of my former co-workers as "those women need to learn how to take a joke."

And no one was left to make a fuss.

This happened almost ten years ago, and yet it still makes me shake to remember it. I remember being terrified when we thought we'd been robbed and didn't know if a burglar was still in the building. I remember shaking when we found out what had happened. I remember shaking when I stood up to ask my question, and being aghast when I got my answer. I remember days of not sleeping, and such anger. It's not a subject about which I am particularly polite, but this incident has come, in my mind, to symbolize what a sick workplace culture can look like.

And that's my truth.

I hope women find help in Sandberg's book. I found some very helpful specific advice. But it is also part of a corporate culture that fills me with dread. But I do think we need to share our stories, as women, as workers, as part of this world. It's the first step to changing it. I'm glad Sandberg shared hers. And here are some of mine.

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

My husband gave up on this one when he got a hundred pages in, and felt nothing was happening. So I wasn't too sure what I would make of it, but in the end, I liked it a lot more than he did. I certainly never felt like nothing was happening, and the core mother-son dynamic of the book I found particularly engaging.

Briar Blue (or Wilkes, her maiden name, which she goes by now) was married to a dashing and arrogant inventor, accused of creating a machine that he used to rob several banks in Seattle, destroy a good deal of the downtown, and unleash a gas that is inimical to human life. Seattle itself was eventually walled off, and people live on the outskirts in abject poverty. Briar tries to make a life for herself and her son, but has to deal with the hatred people still bear her husband. And her son has become convinced that maybe his father was falsely accused, and goes into the walled-up city to prove it.

Which leaves Briar with nothing to do but go after him.

I enjoyed the grunge of this book, the feeling of desperation, and again, how Briar and her son related. Maybe I'm just in a good position to read this right now - we just finished a roleplaying game in which my character was desperately searching for her daughter throughout the entire campaign, so I was in the right place to appreciate that as a sense of urgency. I also enjoyed the part where, when the chips were down, they really did love and trust each other.

On the not-so-great part of the spectrum, I'm not convinced zombies were necessary. I think the gas and its effects are interesting enough, and I'm not sure what zombies add to the mix, except to create a lot of chase-and-battle sequences, which are by far the least interesting part of the book. I enjoyed the setting, the tension between the past that happened and the past people want to have happened, and the characters much more. (This is not to say that the characters are incredibly deep, but I still found them interesting and fun.)

So the tendency of the book to stop for a zombie chase/fight for quite a bit of the second half made it a bit draggy. There were too many, and it didn't seem like it really added something. I think there are enough dangers in the city, with the different factions, the mad scientist, the gangs, and the earthquakes that somehow, zombies seem superfluous. But maybe that's just me. I rarely find zombies that interesting, and they need to really add something to a story, instead of just be there as all-purpose obstacle.

But I still enjoyed Boneshaker. The vision of a collapsed city next to a new one where people are trying to rebuild something was interesting. Ideas about who would still try to live in a place that was trying to kill them were neat. And I liked Briar.


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

Friday, 21 March 2014

The Computer Connection by Alfred Bester

This is a strange little book, and far from Bester's best. But it was nominated for a Hugo, and so I read it, and it's weird. With some redeeming moments. And a lot of vaguely uncomfortable but yet vaguely progressive gender and racial politics. I don't quite know how to wrap my head around it. I guess that's what this review is here to do.

There is a lot going on here, and for the first half of the book, it's fairly confusing. Let's see if I can break it down. I don't think I'm spoiling anything if I tell you this book is about a bunch of theoretical immortals. That's in the first chapter. There's a "scientific" reason for this, something to do with cleansing out all the bodily toxins when you are in pain and about to die and have accepted the inevitability of death. You also maybe have to be epileptic.

Those who have passed through that crucible are immune to aging, drowning, most diseases, although their condition carries its own looming death sentence if they're not careful. Each member of the Group names themselves after a major historical figure they identify with, except Jacy, who actually is a major historical figure.

One, who calls himself the Grand Guignol, is trying to make more of their kind - tracking down potential candidates, and trying to kill them in just the right way that they might achieve eternal life. He's not that successful, so far, and an interesting choice for a main character. But he has unexpected success with a Native American (this book was written in the 1970s, so yes, it's "Indian" all the way through) scientist, Sequoya. But for reasons that aren't entirely convincing, a seizure when an experiment goes weirdly awry, means that Extro, a huge computer network, infiltrates Sequoya's brain.

So we have a group of immortals, one of whom is possessed by a malevolent computer. And there may be other things behind the scenes. This is then a cat-and-mouse story, as the Group tries to track down the scientist and the computer, without tipping their hands to either. Along the way, Guignol gets married to the scientist's sister, and there are strangely problematic statements on squaws. But on the other hand, Native Americans are easily half the cast in this one, and range from scientists to politicians. It's a weird mix that perhaps only the 1970s could produce.

So it's a race around the planet, trying to stay off the grid in an increasingly computerized world (sound familiar?). The Computer Connection is such a weird mishmash of things that didn't quite achieve the status of a satisfying book, but parts of it are great, and other parts intriguing, and if I'm left with the feeling that the parts are greater than their sum, well, not every book is a classic. Bester will have to be satisfied with the two genuinely deserving classics he wrote.


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

The Nothing That Is by Robert Kaplan

Kaplan never met a literary allusion he didn't like.

At times this works, as it adds depth and surprising insight into some of the mathematical concepts he's talking about. At other times, it feels remarkably scattershot, and adds little to the material. Not every reference in every classic to nothing or nothingness needs to be included - pick the ones that actually add something to the discussion, please.

Most of the time, this is a remarkable work of the history of mathematics, specifically the concept of zero, and its murky beginnings. Kaplan does a good job of looking at all the possible antecedents, the possibilities for when it changed meaning to become the zero we know and love, or know and hate, or look at and are frankly baffled by its implications for math. The ways in which zero loves to screw with our sense of math, both making it work on a fundamental level and creating problems that can only be solved by philosophically skirting the edge of a void and trying not to think about it too much.

He goes through its history, through the Classical World, to India, to the Middle East, and back to Europe, and its sketchy and suspect history through the middle ages, where certain kinds of ciphering were regarded with as much suspicion as could be mustered.

From there, it's off to the mathematicians, and how they used and defined this useful concept, both adjective and noun, and how it is used today.

It's an enjoyable read, even though he does try to come off as too erudite.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Dark Currents by Lindsay Buroker

Dark Currents is better than the first book in the series, which struck me as okay, but weak. But it isn't a lot better. The Emperor's Edge was interesting enough to make me this self-published author a second chance, but while this does represent a step forward, it's not enough of one to make me enthused about the series. And so, I think we're going to part ways here. There isn't anything I'm hanging fire on finding out, so while I find them moderately amusing, I think I'm good. There are a lot of books out there. I feel I've given these a fair shake.

These are the continued adventures of the Starship Enterpr, er, Amaranthe, former city enforcer, and her motley crew of mercenaries/compatriots/vigilantes/do-gooders. Yeah, that's a little messy. And so is this, honestly. We're still in the fantasy/steampunk world, with a huge emphasis on the businessworld of this kingdom of...oh damn. I don't remember the name of the Empire. Whoops.

Both books have focused around businesspeople and their negotiating of imperial economic legislation, including tariffs and restrictions on foreign-owned businesses. It isn't that the roots of those ideas aren't interesting, but they're largely kept at the theoretical level, instead being connected viscerally to the characters.

Yes, there is a foreign businessperson being forced out of business, but it's more background dressing than anything else. So, why the subplot about the emperor's economic policy? The book is actually about a threat to the main city's water supply, by local businesspeople and foreign shamans, intent on poisoning the water (literally) so that the city will be forced to turn to another source that, coincidentally, they own.

Amaranthe and her crew are intent on stopping it, as part of their ongoing efforts to do good in the city and come to the attention of the Emperor, who will then fold them into his fond embrace. That's the plan, anyway. She has a master assassin, a bookish teacher, a male model sword-wielder, a street rat/magician and a former slave. And the supporting cast are okay, but again, it lacks the exxtra level that would really grab me.

And that's what the problem is here. It's not that anything is particularly wrong, there's just not enough right. The writing is okay. The plot is okay. The characters are okay. But okay isn't good enough. One of the three needs to rise to a different level, and although Dark Currents is a bit better, it's still not enough for me.

If you're looking for a fun fantasy that doesn't really add anything new, this is not the worst way you could spend your dollars. Maybe they get a ton better, and I do see improvement between the first and second books. Hopefully she continues to develop her chops. But I think I'm done.

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson

Minor Spoilers Below

By some celestial alignment and confluence of book lists, I read two Kate Atkinson books in a row - Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which I've already reviewed and very much enjoyed, and this one. I don't like this one nearly as much.

While there are still the turns of phrase I liked, and her characters continue to be interesting, the sense of using gimmick when it isn't needed has only grown. I would like to think that as she becomes more comfortable as a writer, she would rely less on gimmicks like amnesia and overwrought coincidences (I'm all for a good synchronicity, but there are limits.) (Also that the main character's new wife, who I've never met - she may have appeared in a previous book - suddenly turns out to be a conwoman. I'm really not sure what that added to the book.)

Which is a shame, because there are bits of When Will There Be Good News? that I liked a lot. But they never quite knit together and became something more. As a result, the book is fine but messy, and not in a good way.

This one seems to have the theme of surviving trauma. There's Reggie, the 16-year-old who looks 12, who lost her mother. (She also actually sounds twelve, so I'm not sure why Atkinson didn't just make her twelve.) There's Dr. Hunter, who survived unimaginable terror as a girl, and disappears for most of the novel. There's the hard-bitten cop, Louise, who has seen too many bad cases, and is trapped in a marriage with a man who seems really quite nice. (This is not a bad plotline, being married to the wrong person, even though they're lovely. But you have to do something with it.)

And there's the detective, Jackson Brodie, whose sister was murdered, whose brother committed suicide, who is badly injured at the start of the book, and doggedly tailed by Reggie, who wants him to look into Dr. Hunter's disappearance. (Brodie is or was, I guess, a private detective.)

There's lots about trust between husbands and wives, and husbands who abuse their wives' trust. There's a lot about loss. There's a lot about being the public face of loss. And these things are all interesting, the elements are all good, they just don't knit together into much.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Left Neglected by Lisa Genova

This is only one step elevated from being what I call an "issue" book, as the characters seem to be slightly more than profiles taken from the textbooks devoted to the issue, given names and bodies, and little else. On the other hand, in order to emphasize most thoroughly the impact of the medical condition she's chosen to explore, Genova has given us a main character is who is almost unbearably annoying.

So I'm a bit ambivalent about this one, when it comes right down to it. Chalk this up as another in the long list of "it was okay."

The "issue" at hand is Left Neglected Syndrome, a condition that sometimes happens, says the author, (and I'm not spending the time fact-checking her,) after strokes or brain injuries, where the brain forgets that the left side exists. It's still there, and can be moved, with rehabilitation, but the brain forgets there ever was a left.

Sarah is a high-powered executive juggling three children, a marriage, and a job that eats all her time and then some. Naturally, she multitasks even when driving, and unsurprisingly, that means she gets into a car accident. She wakes up in a hospital, and has developed the above syndrome.

In a plot that seems entirely predictable, this former workaholic has to learn how to appreciate the little things, slow down, and accept that her life has changed. Because, presumably, we need conflict, she is the brattiest possible person about doing so. Throw in an estranged mother who Sarah rejects when she comes to help, and we have a paint by numbers book of the aftermath of a brain injury.

It feels like I'm being overly harsh on a book that, was, truly, not that bad. It's just not surprising or challenging, either. If you want to pretty much know what you're going to get by reading the flyleaf, this'll be fine. But there isn't anything deeper or more challenging than that. I'm glad that Sarah stopped being whiny and learned to celebrate the slower pace of a more difficult life. But is that it? Really?

Now I feel like I've just kicked a puppy, because after all, this is exactly what some people are looking for - unchallenging escapist fiction. And if that's your thing, this is a good crack at it. I'm not saying there isn't a place for that. But this isn't the escapist fiction I would choose, and while I didn't hate reading it, that main character was obnoxious enough to make it difficult to pick up sometimes.

If you love this author, please take this all with a grain of salt. The book is fine. It's just not my cup of tea.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

I arrived at my mother's earlier in the week to visit with her, my Grandmother, and my sisters (in various permutations, as people came and went.) Almost as soon as I got here, Grandma got sick, and we've been taking care of her since then. (Nothing really awful, but everything is hard when you're in your 90s.)

One sister thrust this book at me and demanded that I read it before I left. I got a few chapters in, and looked up at her, and asked why she would make me read this.

Just don't read it in public, she replied. She wasn't referring to the quality. She was referring to the tears.

The first part of Wild was very hard to read, having lost our father almost two years ago. [Note: Three years ago, now] I remember some of these pains, these fears, these days and nights of vigil. I don't recognize other aspects, and I'm glad they are things I escaped. But we were loved by our father just the way Cheryl was by her mother - unconditionally. My mother continues to love us fiercely. I'm lucky to have that. I know that every day.

Cheryl Strayed loses her mother at 22, is divorced by 26, and lost. She decides, with little prep and more will than planning, to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. And she does.

I admired this book for refusing to make neat little narrative bows out of her life and experience. They felt messy and tangled and real, and sometimes things were learned, and sometimes they weren't, and the hard-won truths were not platitudes. Many times, they weren't even laid out in great detail. But after vicariously climbing the trail with Cheryl Strayed, I often felt I knew what they were.

If this was an easy story of how everything was fixed by a summer of walking, and how the open vistas opened her soul, or any other feel-good/mean-nothing crap, I wouldn't have enjoyed this book. But because it is about the experience, rather than fable of how she learned to be whole again, I did.

Life is this messy, and we do rotten things and the universe throws curveballs, and takes more than we can bear to give, and yet, we are. We persist.

(The one thing I didn't like were the back cover blurbs, which try to make this out as that easy-answer-through-physical struggle book I would have hated. Particularly the one about a "bad girl" trying to fix her life. This book embraces complexity far more than that, is brutally honest, and no one in it is simplistic enough to be summed up in two words.)

Monday, 17 March 2014

Redshirts by John Scalzi

Wow, this is the wrong morning to try to review a light-hearted book. I'm sleep deprived, stressed about family issues, and about to cry if someone so much as looks at me sideways. I contemplated putting this review to the side and writing it later. Fuck it. Let's see how it goes.

It's almost too bad I read this before the present moment, because this is exactly the type of book I like to settle down with when I'm stressed. It's entertaining, it isn't too taxing, and it might make me smile. The characters are likeable, the plot interesting, and if it didn't make me tense, well, there are times when that's just what I need. Like today, for instance.

I didn't find it that funny, though. Given the cover blurbs promising hilarity, I feel like I ran smack into my issues with finding American comic fiction not that funny. Amusing, yes. Absolutely. But I don't think I even giggled during this one, although there were the occasional smiles. It might be me. But there it is.

This is, of course, a riff on the joke about being absolutely screwed if you're wearing a red shirt and are on a Star Trek set. But this is real life! Or is it? I enjoyed the meta-ness of this novel, the idea of narrative influencing actions across divides otherwise impenetrable.

The main characters are five new redshirts on a spaceship with an alarmingly high death rate. Much higher than any other ship in the fleet. And arguments that they're the flagship, and do more adventurous stuff, hence the death rate? Don't wash. (But one of the main characters is a scientist. Shouldn't he be a yellowshirt, technically?)  They come into a ship where people avoid the commanding officers like the plague, because being picked to be on the away team is the same as a death sentence.

In fact, this is so extensive that warning systems have been put into place, as the new crewmates discover when they are suddenly deserted by a room full of compatriots who are mysteriously gone for coffee (or hiding in a storage closet) when the commanding officers stroll by. And when on away missions, the doomed redshirts seem to find themselves under a compulsion to act in just exactly the way that is going to end up in a dramatic death. And don't even mention the poor lead Lieutenant who pays for his handsomeness by almost but not quite dying multiple times a month.

There is a nice wink to the metaness of the metaness near the end, after the redshirts have launched a desperate attempt to convince The Powers That Be to change the narrative. (I can't be any more specific without giving so many spoilers I don't think I could post this.)

While I enjoyed the novel, though, two out of the three codas felt superfluous. I liked the first, and the questions it posed, although I think those questions were implicit in the story as a whole, and I'm not entirely convinced I needed my hand held through them. But still, it was entertaining. The second and third, though, are even more hand-holding, and it starts to grate. It feels like Scalzi doesn't entirely trust the reader here, and has to make sure they're taking the message exactly the way he saw it. It's not that they're bad messages, they're just a bit anvilicious. I would have a preferred a bit more trust in the readers to finish it off.

But all in all, it's an entertaining read. It would have been just the thing today. Too bad nothing on my current docket fits the bill quite as well as this would have.


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

Sometimes A Great Notion by Ken Kesey

This book took me quite a while to get into, but once I did, I liked it a lot.

You know how George R.R. Martin changes narrative voices between chapters? Well, this book does that, but within paragraphs. In the first hundred pages, there were a few paragraphs that had, internally, four different perspectives. And I thought, what have I gotten myself into? Is this pretentious? Is it precious?

And more to the point, can I put up with this for 700 pages?

But I stuck it out, and once I got into the rhythm of the book, it really worked for me. (It also helped that paragraphs rarely had four narrators. Two, however, was very common. But sometimes it switched between narrators and first- and third-person.)

This is a book for the patient.

But my patience was rewarded, once I got used to the style, and once I slowed down enough to read this book at its own pace, which it definitely demands. And it frequently reads like it was written while on drugs of one sort or another.

So much for the style, what about the story?

Now that, that was good. (And a lot better than One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which I was not that fond of.) It's an almost operatic tragedy, set amongst the hardest-living, toughest sumbitches out there. It's about rugged individualism, but not in a simple way. It's about community, but not in an easy way. The rugged individuals are often rugged because they've been given no choice, from upbringing and exclusion. Those in the community often prey on others. The rugged individuals have a pretty tight-knit and roughly affectionate community of their own going.

And it's a story of revenge. Younger son Leland comes home to an Oregon logging community locked in a bitter strike. He comes back to topple his big brother off the pedestal he himself put Hank on. And does it using the powers of weakness he's been honing all his life. Big brother Hank never particularly wanted to be this strong, but feels like he's been forced into it.

Leland gave me the most trouble of all the characters in the book. He's an asshole. He constantly assumes malicious intent on the part of his big brother when none exists. He creates his own little drama going on within in the family which no one else can perceive. And because of the evil den of hate and malice he sees going on around him, he sets out to make it true.

With tragic results.

I can't recommend this book to everyone. You have to have a high tolerance for ambiguity, for a non-linear writing style, for a story that flows like the river it takes place beside.

But if this is you, then I think you might enjoy this book too.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Burn Me Deadly by Alex Bledsoe

Warning: Spoilers Below

There was a much larger gap between reading the first and second books in the Eddie LaCrosse series than appears on my blog. I only recently moved over the review from the first from Goodreads, although I wrote it months ago. And the second book came around on my friend's Kindle (yes, I still have it - let me know if you want it back!). So in reality, there was a large gap, although to the Internet it doesn't look like it.

But that's only for people who are worrisomely interested in my reading habits. What about the book? I'm happy to report that the second entry into this fantasy noir series is just as much fun as the first. I can't say that it's mind-boggling, but I was always eager to pick it up and read a few pages more. It's entertaining and light and the world Bledsoe has created is a new take on an old genre.

Eddie LaCrosse is still up to his old tricks as a sword swinger for hire. But as he travels home one night, a bruised and bloodied young woman stumbles out of the woods right in front of his horse. When he tries to get her back to town, they are both captured, and he wakes up at the bottom of a cliff, dropped there by people who presumed it would kill him.

Well, when someone kills someone you'd taken under your protection, no good sword jockey could let it go. Soon he is plunged into a world of underworld bosses, dragon worshippers, absentee heirs to the throne, and the fact that his lover appears to be lying to him. What's an honest guy supposed to do? Particularly when he keeps getting the shit beaten out of him?

Imperial investigators are also sniffing around suspiciously, and the stables of a friend burn down mysteriously. With the friend inside. The body count rises. And there are stories of dragons flying overhead. Eddie scoffs.

These books are fun and enjoyable, and Eddie an appealing hero. The only quibble I have is that this is the second book in a row when the resolution has been that the supernatural Eddie has scoffed at turns out to be true after all. It's not a bad resolution, but twice is enough. If Eddie's going to keep being incredulous, at some point, he needs to turn out to be right. Or he just needs to accept that strange stuff is real. We're getting into a Scully problem, here.

But that's a small matter compared to how much enjoyment I have gotten out of the first two books in the series. I look forward to the second, although there will be another pause before I get there. I don't know that I'd want to chug these books. But sipping them every once in a while seems just about right.

His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik

I am a little surprised by how much I liked this. The idea of the Napoleonic Wars with dragons seemed like something that could be either very good or very bad, and I've read enough overwrought fantasy the last little while (as well as some very good fantasy) that I was a little wary.

But I was pleasantly surprised. I can't say that this is one I loved, it's not one I feel evangelical about, but it's a very solid book and I enjoyed reading it.

Part of what I enjoyed was how restrained it was. This was not hyperbolic fantasy, this was fairly down-to-earth, and seemed to borrow a little in tone from the (very few) novels I've read by people like Patrick O'Brien, who write about naval life.

That impression may come from the lead character, Laurence, a navy man, ship's captain, and proud of his profession. Right up until he takes a French ship captive and finds a dragon's egg on board, about to hatch long before they can get to land. Dragons are in short supply, and possibly the key to holding England against Napoleon's invasion, and so he and his crew must see if they can get the baby dragon to bond with one of them.

Is anyone surprised if I say it ends up being Laurence?

He names his dragon Temeraire, after a ship of the fleet, and Temeraire is one of the places where the book really sold me. Dragons are, for the most part, easily as intelligent as humans. Some may be much more intelligent. Temeraire's voice is where this book really departs from the books it's most likely to be compared to, Anne McCaffrey's various dragon books. For one, he can talk out loud. In several languages. And he's a character in his own right, and that complexity adds a lot.

We see Laurence and Temeraire go through their training and early battles, and the book adapts nicely several concerns of early 19th century life, including taxonomy, ship/dragon crewing and chain of command, while creating a society that sits askew with mainstream life, particularly in terms of gender - for women are dragon captains as well.

But this is all done subtly, and the book emphasizes how much this group of people and dragons withdraws, rather than challenges. Laurence is relatively quick to adapt, but even he is taken by surprise.

This is all to say that this is a solid fantasy, if not one that set my world on fire. It feels very down-to-earth, and when you're talking about dragons, that's quite a feat.


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

Friday, 14 March 2014

"Mad Music" by Anthony Pelcher

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?

Magazine: Astounding Stories of Super-Science, February 1930

It shouldn't surprise me that my favourite story so far from this issue comes from the pen of the author of my favourite story from last issue. To wit, Anthony Pelcher. This guy is definitely the best contributor so far. His story this time has some genuinely excellent turns of phrase. I love this description of newspapers after a building collapsed in New York:

"The newspapers devoted solid pages in attempting to describe what had happened. Nervously, efficient reporters had written and written, using all their best adjectives and inventing new ones in attempts to picture the crash and the hysterics which followed."

In this story, a building that is a marvel of engineering expertise collapses in the middle of the night. Just trembles, and collapses. The engineers of the project are on the hook, and liable to go to jail for negligence, even though they can find no way in which they skimped in the construction.  The youngest engineer on the project ends up at the theater one night to see "The Mad Musician," who can create emotional states with his music, and falls in insta-love. Okay, so the insta-love is a little cheesy, but at least the female character is fun. Not, you know, autonomous. But fun.

But this starts the engineer thinking, and that thinking leads him to the Mad Musician's next target - another huge building, wherein he has set up a diabolical music vibration machine that is slowly weakening the building. Finally, something vibrations might actually do! You know, in theory. More plausible than vibrating you to another dimension, anyway. This leads to a showdown with the Mad Musician on the roof of the building while it sways beneath them.

Like the story in the last issue, this is really more of a mystery with science fiction murderous implements. I'm making no claim for it as great literature, but it's by far one of the best stories, best written, and most entertaining.

There is one female character in this story, but she's there to be an insta-love interest for the young engineer, brought together by the public performance of the Mad Musician's powers. Of course, she ends up being the daughter of the older engineer with whom the younger engineer doesn't get along that well. She's fun, but pretty much an appendage. But at this point, an appendage is about as good as it's getting.

No non-white characters.

This is another story where we have the heroic industrialists (well, owner of an engineering firm) who is humane and would never do anything wrong, and the evil outsider/artist/circus performer who is the bad guy. Actually, it's that way in both of Pelcher's stories. So, the class politics circle around the heroic wealthy and unstable outsiders.

 But because of that, the scientists get a break from being the villain. They are fine, upstanding young men, who run a company that would never skimp on the construction of a building, but are unfairly held accountable. It's a strange tradeoff.

As far as sheer writing goes, though, it's one of the best.

The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany

I had never read any Samuel R. Delany before, so I wasn't sure what to expect. And I don't think I was expecting this lyrical, mythical, entrancing science fiction. Delany weaves together new and old myths into a science fiction story about a race living in the ruins humans left behind, trying on their lives and living out their stories until they work through them and can finally move on to their own.

This is not hard science fiction. There is no explanation of exactly how all this happened - and that would puncture the wonderful web that Delany creates.

Young Lo Lobey leaves his home village on an Orpheus-like trek, out to find his love, Friza, who had been killed from a distance by Kid Death. Kid Death has been killing all others who are "different" in the same way he is, and calls Lobey to him, taunting and torturing him along the way.

On his trip, Lobey runs into Green-Eyes, a Jesus figure who is betrayed by his Judas in turn, who then turns around again and betrays...I don't want to give too much away.

This book is definitely not for everyone. But if you love mythology and enjoy science fiction, you might enjoy this one.


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

Thursday, 13 March 2014

First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde

I have to say, I still enjoy these. I don't know that they are as shiny and new as when Jasper Fforde was a discovery, but I do enjoy them. I felt like the one before this was a bit muddy, if I remember correctly (it was a while ago), but First Among Sequels is a thoroughly fun addition to the Thursday Next series. I really never get tired of Fforde's voice. That's what it comes down to, in the end.

In this one, we jump forward more than 10 years, to a point where Thursday is still working for Jurisfiction, but her position in the real world is, ostensibly, carpet fitter. At least, that's what her husband thinks she does. And the cover office does seem to be doing a roaring business. You know, in between killing vampires and solving literary crimes. Of which there are fewer and fewer, as books go unread, under the spectre of reality TV. And then the horrific prospect of book-based reality TV that will change literary classics forever! Ghastly!

Meanwhile, her son Friday is steadfastly refusing to grow up into a responsible young man who will head the ChronoGuard, and is instead sleeping in till the afternoon, refusing to cut his hair, and playing rock music. Since the end of time is fast approaching, the ChronoGuard is understandably concerned about this.

And Goliath Corporation is being strangely helpful. That can't be good.

In the middle of all this, Thursday Next is training two new Jurisfiction candidates - Thursday Next and Thursday Next. Thursday Next 1-4 comes from the previous four books, and those books, this time, are rife with attitude and guns. Thursday5 is from the completely unread fifth book, an attempt to course correct that ended up with a New Age attitude and an obsession with being nice. Our Thursday isn't too happy about any of them.

And the little tweaks to classic literature, changing thing to the way I know them, such as the piano in Emma still crop up every once in a while, and they're delightful. There is also a visit to the sea of Moral Dilemmas and another Minotaur attack.

Underlying the whole book are the twin worries of people not reading anymore, and the emphasis on the near future. Both the worries of the literary world and the ChronoGuard turn out to be intertwined, and Thursday must help try to find a way to get back a Longer Now than her world currently embraces.

It has all the love for and irreverence towards literature that I've always loved about these books. It's not quite as fresh as when I first read it, but this is a fun entry into the series.

Recommended by Friends

I just thought of a new series of reviews to write! I tell other people what books to read all the time. So, now it's your turn! People can recommend books for me to read (one per person, but I've read a lot of books, so you might want to give me a short list). I reserve the right to turn down reading, say, Ayn Rand. And requests from authors - this is an opportunity to see what I think of a book you've read and loved.

So, go! What should I read?

(This will take me a while - it's going to be mixed in with my regular reading, not replacing it.)

Books I've Been Recommended So Far: (in various venues)

Fall of Giants by Ken Follett (by Steph)
Sabriel by Garth Nix (by Dylan)
The Malice of Fortune by Michael Ennis (by Cinz)
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (by Téa)
Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon (by Amie)
Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey (by Jackalope)
The Lorax by Dr. Seuss (Chris)
The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott (Bev)
He, She, and It by Marge Piercy (Heather)
Wise Children by Angela Carter (Sarah)
The Heretic's Daughter by Katherine Kent (Melissa)
The Rook by Daniel O'Malley (LibraryHungry)
Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem (Rob)
Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone (Matt)
Baudolino by Umberto Eco (Ben)
The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Kelsey)
Dracula by Bram Stoker (Bill)
Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (infinitelove)
Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco (Amy)
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (Eva)
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (Heather)
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (Lisa)
Dies the Fire by S.M. Stirling (Marni)
Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Liz)
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayll (Chris)
The Broken Crown by Michelle West (Shawn)
The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson (Lynne)
The Thief by Megan Whelan Turner (Jonathan)
The Innocent Mage by Karen Miller (Shawn)
The Neverending Story by Michael Ende (Anji)
The Bitch Doctrine by Laurie Penny (Matt)
Galore by Michael Crummey (Myriam)
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (Barry)
 Artemis by Andy Weir (Kevin)
Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor (Jenn)

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks

This is the second Culture book I've read. The first was Excession, which was decidedly not the book to start with. I couldn't make heads nor tails of it. Of course, the second one I ended up picking up wasn't the first book in the series either, but at least it was the second. And much more accessible. Whew!

I'm still not loving them, though. I enjoyed what I read, and won't avoid future Culture novels, but I'm not at the point where I'd seek them out, either. I found this book to be clinically distant from its material for a good portion of the text. It did pick up and become quite emotional by the end, and I think maybe that's the point. But it was a long way to go for a book that was only engaging me intellectually until the last 50 pages. I got angry when the main character did, and so it feels like that's the point.

Gurgeh is the best game player in Culture. Doesn't matter what game - there are local specialists who might be able to beat him in individual games, but no one can stand up against him across the broad spectrum of available contests. So when he hears that Contact has found an Empire where the entire fate of the imperial structure is decided by incredibly complex games, he is intrigued. And heads to Asad, where he takes place in the Grand Tournament, becoming enmeshed in imperial politics and strategy (and Contact strategy) in ways he never anticipated.

Banks does a fairly good job of keeping attention on the game, but since it isn't (and probably can't be, even if it were a real thing) explained in the book, it is difficult to know what he means at times. A good portion of the book are descriptions (not in great detail, more in impressions) of the gameplay.

But when the book opens up, and Gurgeh becomes aware of the implications of game and the society that that game has created, everything kicks into high relief, and the end moves, in real life and in the game, are engrossing.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde

I love the sheer inventiveness of Jasper Fforde's books, and in this series, the madcap way that he messes with literature, with both love and a childlike glee, and it makes me happy to have spent some time rereading this book.

In the second in the series, Thursday no sooner discovers she and her new husband, Landen, will be having a baby, when Landen disappears. No, not just disappears - is eradicated. And a pregnant Thursday has to negotiate trying to uneradicate him, dodge a PR person at work, decide whether or not to help Goliath with their maniacal plans, join Jurisfiction and learn to bookjump, dodge assassination attempts, survive umbrella-wielding ladies at booksales, and stop the world from ending. In a pile of pink sweet goo.


This is not a book to go to if you want a straightforward narrative. It twists and bends, in and out of plots and delightful minor characters, and in and out of books, and, perhaps most importantly of all, introduces Miss Havisham. THE Miss Havisham. Except, between the pages, this one wears trainers and likes to drive cars at high speeds.

I adore Miss Havisham. And I thoroughly enjoyed Thursday being recruited into the group that polices inside books, and the flights of fancy about what that might entail. And the way everyone fictional wanted Thursday to bring back her-world treats for them to enjoy between chapters.

On the other hand, the emotional punch of her missing her husband often disappeared for long patches of the book, as she dealt with all the other catastrophes in her life, and this wasn't really a problem, but did make the book a bit scattered at times.

Scattered, but still thoroughly enjoyable.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

When a memoir starts with a title like that, it's apparent it's not going to be all sweetness and light. Particularly when it's fairly quickly on the table that it is Jeanette Winterson's adoptive mother who said the titular line. With that established, this is obviously not a slight read, slim though the book may be. But more importantly, I felt like it was interesting but not anything more than a fairly straightforward memoir until about halfway through - and then the book was elevated to another level, became something rawer and truer and tougher and more emotional than I had seen so far. It was like the first half was the backstory we needed to understand the second half, but the second half was the book.

And that tells you pretty much nothing at all. So, in a fairly straightforward linear fashion that will capture nothing of the flavour, the book is about Jeanette Winterson's experiences growing up in a household where she had been adopted by a Pentecostal couple. Her adoptive mother was deeply troubled, prone to depression and anxiety, and who definitely never understood her adopted child. Winterson found solace in books, and we'll come back to that in a minute. She finally moves away/is thrown out of the house over her relationships with other girls her age, and, in an extreme long shot, is accepted at Oxford.

The book then jumps forward decades to a point where a relationship has ended, and she sinks into a psychiatric crisis, detailing her experiences through it in terms amazingly stark and poetic at the same time. This goes hand in hand with her journey with her new partner to discover her birth mother, the agonizing process to do so, and the complexity of those meetings when they eventually occur.

And this second half is where the book takes flight. While the early years are interesting, something happens to her prose when she is talking about her bouts of madness, her efforts to put herself back together, to heal a self that was fractured shortly after birth. I really can't explain it, but it's something you should experience.

There are two themes I want to explore more fully. The first is the lifeline that she found literature to be. Winterson is eloquent in combatting the notion that literature is elitist, that it is somehow only for the rich, and not the poor, and that it doesn't matter if the poor have access to good books, that good books are irrelevant to their existence. She makes a strong case that she would not have survived without her access to a library and her juvenile attempt to read all of "literature," A-Z. Coming from a very working-class home, Winterson is, and I am, infuriated by the notion that reading is the sole preserve of the rich.

The other theme is the need for more complex narratives of adoption and reunion than the joyful, tearful, uncomplicated one that seems to permeate our culture. Winterson makes that call directly, and I think it is an important one. When the narrative is that finding a birth mother or father is the end of struggle, of pain, and the start of an uncomplicated relationship, that does a disservice to everyone who does not find it to be so. They are left out of the literature, left out of the representation, and will find no reflection for themselves. And for people already searching for a sense of heritage, simplistic narratives do no one any good. Winterson's efforts to find her birth mother were difficult, and the new relationship hard to navigate.

I had never read any Jeanette Winterson books before this, although I did and do intend to get to them. This memoir is an interesting way of being introduced to her work, and the second half of it convinced me I need to search out her work sooner rather than later.

Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man by Siegfried Sassoon

The last portion of this book throws the first into stark relief. While I enjoyed the first section, it didn't grab me - it was a calm meandering from hunting meet to hunting meet, from a quiet life to brief flurries of activity on a horse. Nothing really happened, nothing changed.

And then, of course, everything did. Life remained prone to brief flurries of activity, but now they were flurries of activity that could kill you in a second. There were downtimes, but they were downtimes of trench foot and anxiety, not leisurely rides and hoping you make a good showing at cricket.

Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man is the first in a series of three fictional autobiographies by Siegried Sassoon, loosely detailing his experiences as a young man, and then later, his enlistment and deployment to the trenches of the First World War. It was written years after the war, and has that sense of looking back on his younger self (here called George Stetson) with both compassion, love, and a bit of irritation.

George/Siegfried knows now that he was more careless of those around him than he should have been, from his aunt (mother), to the housekeeper who attended to his every need, to the groom who was as much as a father as he ever had, to the farmers over whose fields he rode with no care for destruction left behind. He remembers seeing those less fortunate as irritating impediments to the life he wanted.

It is the latter sections that make this first bit so poignant. Sassoon captures in such detail both the joys and casual cruelties of the life he lived before the war, his lack of direction, his selfish indulgence. But not with regret. These were the halcyon days, even though he later seems to realize that they were not without cost for those around him. In the world he chose to spend his energy, he made good friends and knew who he was and where he belonged.

And who he was opened doors when he enlisted, getting him positions and officer training those who didn't have the sporting connections found more difficult. He is very clear that many of the officers who were not gentry were better officers, but that doors were opened to him because he knew what to wear and how to ride.

The war is not presented in melodramatic terms. It is straightforward, bare, and all the more powerful for that. George loses friends, loses men, but no pity is asked for. He speaks in barest sketches of how he came to question the justness of the war in which so many were being sacrificed.

This book tells the tale of a how a man came to be, and how that was changed by the war. George wasn't a bad person, just thoughtless and carefree. By the end of the book, he is not.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

The Beetle Horde, Part Two by Victor Rousseau

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?

Magazine: Astounding Stories of Super-Science, February 1930

The first part of this story was the first I read as part of this old SF review series. It was not the most auspicious start. But hilarious, as two intrepid explorers fell through the world into the clutches of a mad scientist, out to destroy the world with beetles because they did believe him that there were monotremes before the Pleistocene. That seems a rather petty reason to me, but I guess I haven't been invited to the best scientist knife-fights.

In this second installment, the two heroes and the beautiful subterranean woman they discovered in "Submundia" emerge in Australia, mere minutes before Bram and the Beetles! (Oh, please, someone make that a band name.) The beetles lay waste to Australia, killing millions. But in the end, they have to molt their shells, and in that time, the humans strike back! And the evil scientist is killed.

I seem to be creating a sideline in hilarious prose, so here are a few of the best:

"If we are attacked, you must sacrifice your life for me, Tommy, so that I can carry back the news."

My reaction, if I were Tommy? Fuck you, Dodd. And the horse you rode in on. Why should you be the one to survive? I can warn of a beetle attack as well as you can!

And this one, which is about the main argument that is causing the end of the world:

"No monotremes before the pleistocene! D'you get that? That's my slogan now and for ever more!" 

This makes me want to sarcastically answer back "Are you running for office on that platform?"

And the last line of the whole thing about the evil mad scientist. What I love most is how totally unjustified it is, based on the rest of the story:

"He was a madman and a devil, but he had the potentialities of a god, Tommy,"

Based on what, exactly?

The science is sketchy, including the thirst-quenchingness of saline water - enough to really help, anyway! And when Dodd the scientist is trying to explain stars to his subterranean love, he tells her "Those are stars. They are worlds—places where people live."

A) No. Stars are not planets. And b) what? When was there precedent for this?

And this dicey pseudo-science/gender role essentialization. Apparently, when Dodd finds a minister, his to-be wife knows instinctively what marriage is, even though she has lived beneath the world for her entire life. He doesn't bother to ask her, she "understood, by some instinct that belongs exclusively to women, for her cheeks were flushed as she turned and smiled into Dodd's eyes." 

Now, understand, this is the lady who two pages earlier didn't understand questions, and no amount of explaining would make her understand what questions were, but she gets what marriage means through some kind of female genetic magic?

That is not the end of the gender problems. When Dodd is earlier explaining what wife means to him to his friend, what he really means is "slave." He gushes: "Did you ever see such a girl as that?" demanded Dodd ecstatically. "First she saves our lives, and then she thinks of everything. Good lord, she'll remember my meals, and to wind my watch for me, and—and—"

I feel like it's becoming a trope that were I Dodd's intended, my response would be, yet again, "Fuck You, Dodd!" Dodd's kind of asshole. Do all my work for me. Wind my watch. Die for me, Tommy, because reasons.

Fuck you, Dodd.

Oh, and race here too. Because they came out in Australia, they immediately run into aborigines, and wow, is that painful. They're all horribly killed minutes after they're horrible stereotypes, so that's better? No, not really. Just, ugh.

And as we've already seen, the scientists come in two varieties: Crazy Madman Out To Destroy The Earth Because They Won't Accept That There Were Monotremes Before The Pleistocene, and Assholes. And I don't think I can overestimate how many people die in this story! That's the second where huge swatches of people are killed in an invasion. So, this was a worry, apparently. Science was not only sketchy and dangerous, it could be genocidal.

Well, I guess it could be, only a few short years down the line.

The Wild Things by Dave Eggers

Skeptical, I was extremely skeptical. We already have a Where The Wild Things Are and I'm not sure it could possibly be improved upon. I did enjoy Spike Jonze's movie adaptation quite a lot, but this exists in book form. Why would you do a novelization when the picture book is so perfect?

Little by little, though, this won me over. Not to the deep level of love that Maurice Sendak's original will ever inspire, not even close. But still. As a novelization of the movie, Eggers' crack at writing a novel based on the movie story is pretty good.

It is a quick read, still, and nicely illustrates many of the movie moments that had been added, to generally good effect. Max is still Max, in his wolf suit and raging temper, but now he has more of a backstory.

There was one episode that was disappointing, though - the snowball fight scene. In the movie, I thought that captured so perfectly something I remember vividly about being a child - how thin the line between fun and too much is. How quickly things can go from exhilarating to overwhelming and scary. That same scene, in the novelization, doesn't capture that same feel, and that's a pity, because that was one of my favourite parts of the movie.

Max goes to the island of the Wild Things, and leads the wild revels, and is almost eaten many times, by creatures with just as many insecurities as he has. The story is familiar, and this book won me over into at least not begrudging its existence. But would I read it again? Nope. I'd go back to the original.

Friday, 7 March 2014

The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

Warning: Some Spoilers Below

This is the other historical fiction I was reading while I was reading Wolf Hall, and musing about my reactions to both. I would still say that Wolf Hall is a step above most historical fiction I've ever read, but this wasn't bad. It wasn't earth-shattering, either. But not bad.

The Winter Palace is about a young woman employed by the Empress Elizabeth of Russia as a spy on the rest of the court, (officially, a lady-in-waiting, of a sort). But she becomes friends with the future Catherine the Great, and turns coat to report to Catherine as well, particularly when Catherine seems to be isolated and alone.

Wow, I seem to have run out of things to say fairly early in this review. Why is that?

I think it's because, while The Winter Palace is a fun read, there's little that sticks with me. Normally, I'm bursting with themes, or characters, or ideas, or moments to explore, either good or bad. In this case, very little sticks out. Varvara, the main character, never really won my affection, but she never alienated it either. I guess, in the end, I don't really care about her that much.

Oof. That's a problem. I hadn't really been fully cognizant of how little the book struck me. It was a pleasant read, but there is so little more. The court politics in the book are fine, but not that acute. In fact, many of the emotions seem muted, even the ones surrounding children being taken away. There is one good crying jag, and then a lot of bitterness - but the bitterness itself seems washed out and distant instead of burning. The book talks about grand passions, but I felt little of them. Possibly because they were supposed to be of the characters Varvara was watching, but mostly from a distance.

And the crux of the betrayal at the end seems slight. Varvara is devastated to learn she wasn't the only spy Catherine had? After a lifetime of living at court and being told be absolutely everyone that everyone has multiple spies everywhere? "I thought I was special but now I find out I'm not" just seems rather toothless in this particular circumstance.

I couldn't tell you why that is, though. Stachniak certainly shows us the repercussions for one other discovered spy, but there's no real sense of danger around Varvara. She seems to skillful at what she does, and the suspense is not effectively communicated. There's just something lacking here, a real sense of urgency and the ability to make emotions keenly felt.

I think this is an issue of the writing, which is otherwise quite competent. It just needs that extra edge to make this story compelling. As it is, it's an enjoyable read, but very little of it really distinguishes itself for me.

The Breast by Philip Roth

I just...did not get this. I didn't dislike it, I wasn't offended by it, I was just...baffled. I don't get what he's trying to do or say or what the deeper hidden meaning might be. If there was one, it flew right over my head.

So, in reference to The Metamorphosis, (it and The Nose are mentioned prominently, so it's not like it's oblique), a man wakes up one morning and finds that he has become a giant breast!

Yeah, that's what it's about. And his life afterwards as a breast, his continued sexual desire, the reaction of others to him being a breast, his eventual conviction that he's hallucinating being a breast, then finally...acceptance? I guess?

Being a breast, you'd think this book would have some things to say about gender, whether or not I agreed with them. It really doesn't. Strangely, his gender identity (and sexual identity) remains almost totally unchanged, now that he's a giant women's breast. And there's really no discussion of gender. I mean, one guy can't take him seriously now that he's a breast, but I'm not sure that's a commentary on breasts in general. Also, everyone else does a remarkably good job of treating him in an unchanged manner.

Surveillance society? He becomes convinced (he can't see, because he's a breast, but for some reason he can talk through his nipple) that he's on TV constantly. But this never reaches above his conviction that that might be the case - and the ramifications aren't really explored.

I just don't get it. If there are deep philosophical musings, they went right over my head. It didn't make me think. Didn't make me laugh, either. What a strange little book.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Palimpsest by Catherynne Valente

It's odd that, in trying to figure out how to explain this book, I first have to figure out exactly what is the sexually transmitted disease. It's not citizenship in the strange city of Palimpsest - that has to be earned. It's not passage to the city, as that has to be achieved, every time someone goes. It's the passport, I guess. The black markings of the city streets on the skin that never leave, that mark a person as someone who could go to Palimpsest, if they choose. Tattoo as sexually transmitted disease (okay, fine: infection. I know it's supposed to be infection these days. I just grew up with STD as the acronym and am having trouble switching to STI.)

And if that preceding paragraph isn't enough to tell you that this is a little bit unlike anything you've probably read before, I don't know what would. This is a strange and delightful little fantasy, about one of those cities that exist somehow alongside our own reality, accessible through mysterious means. Think Neverwhere, or Un Lun Dun. But passage to Palimpsest used to be easier, and being able to stay something achievable. A civil war was fought over immigration, and the repercussions are still being felt. (This is a slowly developing line through the book, unfolded as the main characters discover it.)

The mechanics are strange, but I think the important part is how much depends on someone else. You can't get there alone. You acquire your map to Palimpsest through sexual contact, and for each person, it turns up on a different part of your body, and on each map, a different intersection is highlighted. To get back, you have sex with someone else with a map, and each of you goes through to the spot on the other person's map. (I'm a little fuzzy about exactly when. Doesn't seem to be at the moment of orgasm. When you sleep afterwards? What if you don't sleep? One character had time enough after sex to take measures that meant she wouldn't remember her visit.)

But it's the interconnectedness. Your journeys are dependent on another person, and having that be sexual adds another layer of complexity to the story. And that's one of the things I like best about Palimpsest. Sex isn't a punchline. It's integral to the story, but it isn't there for laughs. And such a variety of sexual experience! Not just orientations, but multiple partners, sex as a sacrament, sex as a duty, sex as a rote exercise, sex for fun, sex for pain, sex to heal. So many ways people could use sex, taken seriously. How rare is that?

The story centres around four potential immigrants to Palimpsest, each marked after an initial sexual encounter. Amaya Sei, a young Japanese woman with blue hair, obsessed with trains, and carrying deep scars from her life with her mother. Oleg, a Russian expat living in Brooklyn, haunted by the drowned ghost of his sister. November, a solitary beekeeper from northern California, maker of lists. Ludo, Italian bookbinder whose wife has drawn away from him to her own group of four from Palimpsest. Their stories intertwine, slowly, leading to a quest to find each other. The citizens of Palimpsest remain divided on the treaty on immigration that ended the war. All four pay a price, and not all prices are acknowledged.

I love, as always, Valente's prose. It's beautiful, and in this case, weaves around you like the city itself. It's such a joy to read someone so skillful with painting pictures with words, sumptuous, incisive, and apt. I don't know if I want to immigrate to Palimpsest, let alone get my mark. But I enjoyed the visit.


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

Monday, 3 March 2014

Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery

With this review, we're revisiting another one of my old favourite, my comfort reads, the books I can still pick up and read with a great deal of pleasure, almost as much as when I was curled up in my bed as a girl, discovering this world for the first time. Which is all to say that this review is naturally heavily coloured by all of who I was and who I am now, and how this book has fit into my personal mythology for many, many years.

I always loved the Emily books far more than the Anne books, and that's saying a lot, because I also have a huge soft spot for Montgomery's best known creation. But Emily gave me more scope for imagination, as Anne herself might say. Her adventures were a little less domestic (although still quite domestic), and the slight touch of the supernatural that insinuates itself at least once in each Emily book is intriguing.

Emily has more ambition than Anne. Reading about Anne as she throws herself entirely into her role of wife and mother is interesting, but Emily's disdain of that path, her ambition to really become a writer, to put her own desires above those of her aunts, they were all very appealing to me when I was young, and even now as I'm in my late 30s.

Emily is, as most Montgomery heroines are, an orphan. But she is not cast to the winds, she is taken in by her mother's family, and although Aunt Elizabeth may be stern, Emily is thoroughly loved by Aunt Laura and Cousin Jimmy. When she moves to New Moon, she finds a home, makes one, populates it with the friends she finds, and thoroughly enjoys life there, while still missing her recently-deceased father.

In the first book, we are mostly covering Emily's adventures as a young girl, which are full of thrills and adventure that may lack in genuine danger (well, most of them), but can spur genuine fear. Emily is a sensitive little creature, and her voyages through her own world are delightful. Montgomery had a knack for making everyday life sparkle, of capturing small details and investing them with significance and beauty.

The social historian in me loves how she pays such attention to everyday life, to the small victories and defeats that nonetheless loom large in the eyes of those who participate in them. There is such richness here, and it is rarely equalled by other authors. And Emily herself is one of my favourite literary friends.

To Sail Beyond The Sunset by Robert Heinlein

I find reading Heinlein to be such a strange experience. His books are always fun, even this strange "world as fiction" stuff he gets further and further into later in his career. They're enjoyable. I reread them ad nauseam.

But there I'll be, reading along, enjoying myself, and a main character will say something I entirely disagree with, and maybe it's just the main character, or maybe it's the author's opinion, and often it seems unrelated to what's actually going on, so it seems like editorializing.

This is never enough to make me stop enjoying myself - it's not the persistent one-track misogyny that spoiled Cryptonomicon for me. But it makes me skip a beat, just for a second, before picking up the thread again.

But there's so much to like here. Unless you don't like sex in your science fiction. Or if you have a strong reaction to incest between happy, healthy, consenting adults. I'm not saying I'm for this, but I don't have a strong gut reaction to it in this particular context.

Because Maureen likes sex. A lot. Not in an angsty "why won't he love me?" way.

Maureen is the mother of the fabled Lazarus Long, and also, much later, his wife. (See?) Late in her life, she is rescued by the society of the far future, and become an agent of...oh, the name has escaped me...the time police, whatever. But the book is mostly about her life before this, set as a series of flashbacks to her birth before the turn of the 20th century, and how she negotiated life as a woman in the 20th century, had babies, had lots of sex, and, well, I think that's pretty much it.

But, of course, it isn't. There are tons of interesting digressions, as well as the few that I disagreed with. (But with Heinlein, I don't feel like I have to agree with him to like his stuff.)

There are, sure, issues that arise with his female characters at times. I've been working on an argument about what exactly those are, but I think it properly belongs in a review of Friday, so maybe I'll save it for that.

The shorthand is, yes, his female characters tend to all be hypercompetent, hyperintelligent, hypercapable, and hypersexual. And dude, compared to what we get in a lot of other science fiction at the time, I'll take that over "gurgling" housewives any day. (Seriously. Gurgling? The next person who uses that to describe an adult female reaction to pretty much anything will get punched in the bnork.)

So, To Sail Beyond The Sunset is probably not everyone's cup of tea. And I know it's rather unfashionable to like Heinlein these days (or at least, that's the impression I get). But I like him a lot, while not always agreeing, and I like this a lot, but see how other people might not feel the same way.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Into Space by Sterner St. Paul

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?

Huh. This is, according to wikipedia, a pseudonym of an author, one of whose stories I've already reviewed. And if I'm not mistaken, has another story, under his own name, in this very issue. Prolific, ain't he? He's otherwise known as S.P. Meek, who wrote "The Cave of Horror", which I pointed out had some very problematic things to say about scientists and their sense of responsibility to the societies in which they live.

That actually comes up here, again, but in a much smaller way. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

In this one, a journalist, who is also an electrical engineer (more about that later too), is summoned to the ranch of his former professor, who has made an extraordinary discovery, and will talk to no other reporter about it. After talking his way past the surly Indians (sigh) guarding the property, he makes his way to the professor's side, and is given an incredible insight!

Are you ready?


'Cause it's a big one!

Gravity is really just magnetism.


Is your mind blown yet?

So yes, despite the fact it doesn't feel like my feet are sticking to the ground, and that I'm pretty sure the amount of metal in my body in no way is enough, gravity is just magnetism. And if you stand on your head, you aren't repelled because...electromagnetism? There's an explanation, but I don't know enough to know if it's crazypants or not. I'm guessing crazypants.

So, because gravity is just magnetism, flight is easy. And interstellar flight? Well, the professor thinks he's got that one licked. And the reporter is here to see it in action.

Of course, when he gets halfway between the earth and the moon, the magnetism of both is equal, and so he perishes up there, another victim of bad science.

There are, naturally, no women in this story. There are Indians, though. And they are stereotypically surly, single-minded, and terse. They're just there to be a momentary impediment in getting to the professor's ranch.

It is the in the science, however, that there is another major ethical lapse by the professor. His former student took his classes because he gave everyone As, and then he never attended, and audited a journalism course instead. And yet, he graduated as an electrical engineer. Now, engineers are not people on whom nothing depends. The shit they design has to, you know, not electrocute people. And I don't want an electrical engineer who got through because the professor passed everyone!

Of course, the professor then died in space because his own calculations were wrong, so...karma's a bitch?

But this is the second story by this guy (supposedly himself a scientist!) where scientists are acting in thoroughly unethical manners. In other stories, that's the point, about the scariness of power out of control. In Meek's stuff, it seems more like the way things are done. And that's even scarier.