Friday, 27 February 2015

Caliban's War by James S.A. Corey

I'd like to take a brief digression to look at the blurb for Leviathan Wakes on the cover above and say what the hell? Okay, Wall Street Journal. If you want your future to be crazed corporations committing genocide, then...well, I guess maybe you do? It kind of creeps me out, is all I'm saying.

Luckily, the two authors who make up James S.A. Corey do not agree. I mean, there's the crazed corporation, but they are clearly the bad guys. This time, someone seems to be harnessing some of the sludge from the last book, and trying to tame it. With terrible results, including a massacre of marines, and experimenting on children. This is an interesting future, but not one I'd like to think is ever "supposed to be."

We have more point-of-view characters in this book, adding in a couple of women and at least one new man. I'm curious as to the mechanics of the authors - do they each write certain viewpoints, or is it a closer process? I could probably investigate, but it's more something that I have as a question than something that really needs to get answered.

The women characters we've added are a tough-as-nails Martian Marine named Bobbi, who's suffering from some pretty severe PTSD after she saw her entire platoon slaughtered around her by a monster that they blew up in her face. The other is a deputy to the head of the U.N. - I forget her exact position, but she's one of the real power brokers, as opposed to the figurehead. She's also a foulmouthed Indian grandmother. It's hard not to love her quite a lot.

Holden is still around, and suffering some pretty severe aftereffects from the last book. He's taken refuge from fear in ruthlessness, and that's threatening the one piece of happiness he has found. The other new viewpoint character (am I missing one, or is that it?) is a scientist from Ganymede, where the monster attacks. Just before the attack, someone stole his daughter from her daycare. She suffers from an immune system deficiency, and he is half crazed trying to find her.

A lot of this book is about tactics - Holden, as always, wants to go straight to the core of the situation and broadcast all the knowledge to all the people. Bobbi would really like something she could shoot. Prax will not think through any motion that could get him to his daughter. Avasarala will play all the angles, but doesn't think anyone would actually try to physically harm her.

In the meantime, Venus, which was contaminated with the spore last time, has been doing some scary things. Humanity may be the verge of extinction without even realizing it, and yet people are focusing on in-system squabbles and trying to weaponize things that should never be weaponized. In many ways, this is a book about human short-sightedness, and how that might be a reaction to fear that would overwhelm if looked at too closely.

I liked Leviathan's War, but I think this one is even better. It's tense, the characters are great, and I truly never knew what the hell the final outcome was going to be. I'm looking forward to the conclusion of this part of the series.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

"Blessed Are The Meek" by G.C. Edmondson

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

From Astounding, September 1955

Interesting. Looking up this author on Wikipedia, it appears that that the author was born in Mexico and, if his full name is anything to go by, was Hispanic. That's particularly interesting, because this story is all about race, and posits that Asians are not only a different "race," but literally a different race. As in, from another planet. I guess they can interbreed, but that's not really explained.

So, what's this one about? Well, an exploration team lands on a planet that shows ruins that they've been finding all over the galaxy. However, it also has a small population of what appear to be Asian humans. They even speak Chinese. These Asians tell the approaching team (which is actually fairly multiracial, with both Asian and Hispanic members. The Hispanic member passes by with barely a mention) that all Asians everywhere are from their original planet, whose location is lost.

Every thousand years or so, a new set of white barbarians comes along, with their "curly hair, white skin and round eyes," and invades. This race of "dark, straight-haired" people survives by joining with them, going along until the new empire collapses and settling whatever world they end up on. They survive through being "meek," from the title.

It's hard not to be troubled by this, by the idea of Asians as literally a race from another planet who keep getting conquered over and over, and survive by staying in the shadows. The story seems to say they have the greater longevity as a species, but it also makes them passive, and incapable and uninterested in forming their own civilization, or creating, or inventing, or anything. They live, they farm rice, they survive. It's bothersome.

On the other hand, I couldn't help but be a little tickled when the author refers to the Asian crewmember as smiling an "inscrutable East Los Angeles smile."

(It might be an ethnically diverse crew, but there are no women in this story.)

There really isn't a story here. The crew comes, explores, meets with the natives, discovers they speak Chinese, and are told about how these people manage to outlive everyone by being so passive it hurts. That's really it. So dramatically, it's not that satisfying. From a point of view of assumptions about racial personality characteristics, it's troubling.

The scientists aren't evil in this one, unlike many of the first stories I read. Interestingly, those were from the 1930s, and most of the stories I've been reading more recently, from the 1950s, have scientists as the heroes. What a difference twenty years and two atomic bombs makes? Ugh, that's a troubling statement.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Imago by Octavia Butler

This series does not get less complex with its conclusion. I have had such trouble writing the reviews for these three books! Each has included at least one false start, where I sat down to write and decided I needed more time to think about it. I am still not sure I am ready to write this, but here goes....

Part of the issue is how complex and disturbing these books are. So much of my reaction is a vague uneasiness, and trying to sit down and pull that out and see why is not the easiest thing in the world to do. Of the three in the trilogy, I think Adulthood Rites was my favourite - but is that because it's the most familiar, the most, shall we say, human?

The first book came from the perspective of a human female, the second, from an Oankali construct male. The third, then, should be no surprise that it comes from a construct ooloi, and yet it was. I'm so used to thinking in gender binaries, even thought I know better, that remembering that there are three sexes in these books still surprised me. It shouldn't have, but it did.

Further to that, if Akin in Adulthood Rites came to sympathize with the resister humans and their cause, bringing out, as I argued in the review, the issues with the Oankali idea of consent, taking this book inside an ooloi and seeing why they have the version of consent they have is, again, deeply troubling.

They feel it like a hunger, that they need these humans, that they could die without them, and so they withhold information from the humans until it is too late. They conceal how joining with an ooloi will mean a physical addiction, of a sort, that they will never be able to break. The ooloi  want it, and so they justify it as an ethical thing. They can read what humans want in their bodies, but more than that, it is the desire of the ooloi themselves that seems to be the self-justification for their actions. Jodahs, the main ooloi in this book speaks passionately about his love for his human mates, and his need for them, but always, always, niggling in the background is the cold worm of how troubling that is, how it would feel if it were me.

I stand by my assertion that I think these books are supposed to be troubling. It is interesting that while Akin was fully interested in the humans, Butler turns back with this book to the emerging human/Oankali hybrid community. In that, however, she does some audacious things. She doesn't make it okay. She doesn't demonize it. It feels like in the hands of a lesser author, there would either by some denouement that made all this coercion okay or acceptable. Or conversely, that this would be a story that shows how humans end up in slavery, a very negative and dark ending. She gives us neither. She leaves us with unease, but not hatred. With interest, but not joy. It's a fine line to tread, and she does it beautifully.

Of course, beautifully means that I still get a upset feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I think about it in depth, which is perhaps why this review took so long to write. Yet I keep coming back to it, challenging myself to engage with these ideas. It's troubling, and fascinating, and I am impressed with how much she squeezed into relatively few pages. This is not science fiction for those who want heroes, neat stories, or a tidy resolution.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

A Week In Stories - February 24

Let's see if I can be a little less long-winded about the roleplaying games, shall we? I make no guarantees. However, let's start with TV, with all three of the shows I watch regularly right now:


The Flash - "Fallout"

Hey, we finally got to see Victor Garber in the present! Nifty!

And yet again, this show did what I like it for - it didn't hold its secrets too dearly. Joe told Barry what he'd discovered, leading to mental repercussions of future failure. Again, far more interesting than withholding it and waiting for the shoe to drop. No Linda this episode, though. Too bad.

And Grodd at the end! Eep!

Agent Carter - "Snafu"

The moment I liked best in this one was how quickly Sousa and Thompson believed Carter when she finally started to come clean. I had a theory that both of them wanted to hear that she was innocent, and how, and would jump at the chance. They both arrived there through very different means (and Peggy nails them on how they have refused to really see her as a person), but it was a nice moment of development for both. The end of the episode too, we had a consequence that I quite liked. I was upset with the death at the end of Agents of SHIELD midseason - because I wasn't sure who it mattered to, among the other characters. I mean, really mattered to. Who was that character important to? If I'm drawing a blank, you have an issue.

In this case, the character wasn't personally important, but will leave a major gap, and so it worked. Also, while we were given some good emotion, it didn't feel forced. I like my shows to have consequence. I just don't like it when those consequences are, in fact, inconsequential. (Also, on Agents of SHIELD, they had been squandering that character all season. Boo. I still love you, Agents of SHIELD. Just make the next death matter to someone, if you're going to go down that path.)

Arrow - "The Return"

Yet again, they aren't holding back secrets, even though this one could tear Thea apart. I am applauding, yet again, how they go right for the meat, and then the fallout. Thea knows the worst about Malcolm Merlyn, and she is pissed. Rightfully so, and I'm glad they're backing off from trying to make him a misunderstood villain that maybe we should like. I love John Barrowman, but he's doing a great job playing a bad guy here. Don't wreck it.

It was also unexpectedly emotional to see Tommy in flashback. I'd forgotten how much I liked that character!

Roleplaying Games

Shakespeare, VA

We finished character creation for the new game I'm running, using a Drama System setting, but playing using PrimeTime Adventures. It's set in a small town in Virginia with a world-class Shakespearean festival. I am leaning away from the meth use and more towards theatre politics and weird things that live out in the woods.

We played about half a session, and I didn't really get a chance as the GM to push anyone very hard yet, but it was really good for setting the scene. (This is mostly because I wasn't really sure what people's character issues were going to be until just before the game began.)

It started off with a readthrough of the play they're doing in the game, which is Macbeth, because if you want weird and creepy, and a story of ambition and dramatic falls, it's got to be Macbeth.   I had little one page scenes from the play for people to read interspersed with the characters setting up their relationships, and I was happy with that. It's already been requested that I dig out a longer one for next episode. I am happy to do so. (One character didn't get to read, as she got screwed out of a part, and hired on as a stagehand. So she mouthed the lines while I read Lady McB's part. I think that worked well.)

As a cast, we have a Black actor in his 30s trying to recover from a disastrous play he did with a certain director, for which he took a lot of flack. He got the break of playing McB, but then discovered they'd brought that certain director on when the last one disappeared. We have a young actor who has returned home to this small town to play Banquo, but is also reeling from his sister's recent death. We have a local man who always wanted to try acting but was afraid, and unexpectedly got cast as MacDuff. We have a local young woman who never left home for her big break, telling herself it was for the best.

I think I did a good job of making the director universally hated within minutes, which was the goal. Bill's character needs him as a nemesis, so no point in trying to make him beloved. A couple creepy things started to happen right away, with the actor playing McB running into the local eccentric in the woods, and the actor playing Banquo coming across what appears to be the ghost of his dead sister in an alley, with her mouth sewn shut.

I have no idea where we're going from here, but I am looking forward to it!

Paper Dolls

Last night, we played another session of this game, in which we each play three versions of one character, and it is mostly notable because a couple of characters, who had certainly had villainous tendencies, crossed the line into doing truly terrible things. To wit, stealing a four-month-old from her mother. To be precise, one of my characters was insanely jealous that another of my characters (a version of her from another world) had a baby, and, with the help of someone else, devised a plan to steal the baby. The mother is a wreck, as you might imagine.

Which was difficult to play, to find the line between committing to that emotion, while not screaming and wailing so loudly that Melissa and Stew's neighbours might get worried. Heartbreaking. That poor character (her name is Bee) is so fragile emotionally anyway, and this might really destroy her. Or change her. We'll see.

It's been fun finding those lines between playing the same person, but having them be notably different. We're all trying to be Tatiana Maslany here, and it works surprisingly well. There were some major shocks, and the plot line moved forward in a way it hasn't for an episode or two, so I am happy.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold

*Some Spoilers Below*

Huh. Just looking for an image of the cover of the edition I had, I see comments on the oversexualization on the cover. I don't disagree. Couldn't we at least have seen a bit more of Ivan? It's an issue, and it continues to be an issue. It's not one cover - I'd like to see a point where science fiction can a) contain sex without people freaking out, which this one does, and b) where oversexualization of women on covers is not such a common issue that we could have the occasional cover that acknowledges sex without it being this.

At any rate, let me tell you a tale of how I picked this one up. I thought I was done my intense Vorkosigan rampage, as I'd finished all the books my lovely friend Nele sent in the best care package ever. (Well, second best. The box of small wrapped gifts my mother sent me a month before my comp exams, with one to be unwrapped every three days was probably the absolute best, as it got me through a very tough month.)

I intended to get to the two more recent books eventually, but no hurry. I'd by then read all but the first two and the most recent two.

However, I forgot to pack a book one day when I was going over to campus, intending to grab lunch between time working in the library, and my archives shift in the afternoon. Panic! I ran over to the campus bookstore, trying to find a cheap mass market to buy to read over lunch. This was in trade paperback, but I kept coming back to it, because it was the only thing I saw that I was really dying to read. I gave in. I am weak.

Also, the very idea of a book focused on Ivan was appealing - he's always tried so hard to stay out of the pulse-pounding situations, and I was sure it would be amusing to see what would happen in that case. I was not disappointed. It's not quite the wonderfulness of Miles, but it was very entertaining to see Ivan thrown in at the deep end, and really make quite the impression, which, he fears, might lead to a promotion and more responsibility.

He is asked by Byerly Vorrutyer to look into two young women on Komarr. Byerly can't blow his cover to protect them himself, but he knows of threats to them, if not why. Ivan is promptly knocked out and tied up by the two women, when he comes skulking around. Eventually, though, they end up holed up in his apartment, all three of them, surrounded by security forces and potential assassins. How to extend his protect to Tej and Rish? Why, by marrying Tej, of course! Ivan assumes a divorce will be easy to obtain.

So yes, this is vaguely spoilery, but it all happens in the first hundred pages. As I have noted before when it comes to Lois McMaster Bujold, she is an expert in having the story just begin where most stories would end. She does it again here, and it is, as always fascinating, and much more complex than that expected ending would have been.

Tej, it turns out, is the heiress to a recently attacked and dismantled House in Jackson's Whole. This becomes particularly relevant as we have two people try to get used to each other, one of whom is from a society that is pretty much run by gangsters and capitalists, the other of whom is from a distinctly feudal society. Their economics alone clash in interesting but not simplistic ways, and we see how those economics affect all their dealings with each other and the world.

Also, by the end of the book, Simon Illyan is laughing his head off. I mean, really, he is. I never thought I see Simon laugh like that. It's very entertaining.

As for the rest, I won't give it away. Suffice it to say, Ivan has to decide whether or not he wants to remain married, and whether or not Tej would agree. Not to mention the wheeling and dealing involved in joining two families, and the ever-present threat of more responsibility.


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

Friday, 20 February 2015

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler

I can't find an image of the cover from the edition I read, so we'll go with this one. It's interesting enough, although the edges of the map (and Duddy's shirt) are a little indistinct. On purpose? It's possible to read far too much into covers, but I do like all the ads in the background.

This was a reread, slowly, over the last month or so. I am not sure what to say about it. I can't say it's my absolutely favourite Mordecai Richler - Solomon Gursky Was Here is probably that. However, it's certainly up there as an accomplishment, if not exactly a pleasure. Duddy is one of Richler's great anti-heroes, and because he is so thoroughly that, it makes him difficult to write about.

That, I think is the genius here, to make you like Duddy while despising him. Giving him moments where he goes above and beyond for his family, only to undercut it by doing something despicable moments later. There is no rise and fall. There are little jagged moments in either direction, as Duddy navigates a world that never works in quite the way he wants it to.

If you'll forgive me a weird digression, there are ways in which this has resonances with Lev Grossman's The Magicians. As in, if there were magic in Richler's worlds, Duddy would be just the right kind of dissatisfied with the world to go after it, even if he didn't have the dedication to sit down to the books.

That's because Duddy is all about the shortcuts, without even really perceiving they are the shortcuts. He sees no reason he can't go from who he is to the proprietor of a resort town within an incredibly short period of time. He's willing to hustle, but not to work his way up. That combination of industry with utter inability to buckle down to any one thing and learn it well is one of his most charming and infuriating features.

Of course, there are also the underlying themes of class and anti-Semitism at work here. Duddy keeps crossing the line, asking for things too brashly, not playing by the rules in ways that make those who make their money by the rules uncomfortable. But it's not what he's doing that's really the problem. It's how he's doing it.

His money-lust is too naked, too obvious. He doesn't know how to hide it, how to pass it off as a mere trifle, something that he'd like but doesn't really need, to really cosy up too close to wealthy industrialists like Calder. Of course, being Jewish, he'd probably be handicapped among the Anglo Montreal elite anyway, but still, he doesn't have the social graces that wrap greed in a mantle of indifference. Which is obviously not the same as not being greedy at all. If he'd been born wealthy, been trained, known how to bring Calder's attention to the scrapdealer without looking like he was invested in it, this would be a very different story.

It isn't that Duddy is different from many of those around him, Calder, the Boy Wonder, even his Uncle, for all his uncle's later efforts to be a moral wealthy man. It's that he hides it less well. And that's why he's an anti-hero. We sympathize while we wince, but we are more ready to forgive those who do the same things with a smile and a suit. Duddy will make his money, but he will always be just a little too eager.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

"Martians Never Die" by Lucius Daniel

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

From Galaxy Science Fiction, April 1952

I actually like this little story quite a lot. Sure, the gender politics are troubling, but as a story, it holds up better than some I have been reading. I think that's largely because Daniel, whoever he was, (Google is not forthcoming), has focused more on telling a creepy little story than on the nitty-gritty details of the science. So many authors I've read for this series are all about the details, and it tends to be frustrating.

Okay, the plot. A scientist has sent himself out on wavelengths, and there is one day a year when he could return from Mars. It's been four years, and his wife isn't expecting him to come home anymore, and she's taken up with his investment advisor.

This is strongly reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan, actually, in which a man turns himself into waves in space, and they intersect with Earth once a year. Vonnegut is out to do more with this idea, and perhaps does it better, but the core is very similar.

It will probably not surprise you at all to hear that he does come back, having spent some time with the intelligent beings on Mars, and, apparently, picking up an equivalent of a Martian dog, although it looks more like a frog (that's him up there in the picture), named Schaughtowl. The wife, Beryl, immediately becomes solicitous, leaving Stern, the investment advisor without either the wife or the money he'd planned on having.

Stern becomes immediately homicidal, deciding to kill off the scientist by overloading his heart - it'll be passed off as due to the difference in gravities. But to do so, he has to get through Schaughtowl. He smashes in the head of the creature and pushes it over a cliff, but not before it stings him. As the story closes, Stern more or less becomes Schaughtowl - not physically, I don't think, but somehow Schaughtowl took over Stern's body with that sting. This is obviously how "Martians Never Die."

As a story, it hangs together well - it's creepy, and Stern is unlikeable enough that is fate is both enjoyable and unsettling. Stern's pretty cynical about women, and that may be just the character, but it's hard to know. When Beryl starts taking care of her recently-returned husband, Stern thinks to himself that it's "the way a woman is when she has a man to impress." Later, he thinks to himself that the changeability of women is "enough to make a man lose faith in the sex."

Certainly, Beryl is there as a plot device to cause Stern's downfall. She's only there to go back to her husband and thus drive Stern to homicide. For all that, she seems fairly capable, both in knowing her husband's science, and in her ability to get things done.

Other than that? As almost always, no race, no class issues come into the story.

What about the scientists? The only one is Dr. Curtis, who went to Mars, and he's mostly abstracted. Not evil, which is refreshing, but far away. Is it just me, or is there a sense that he might be under the control of the Martians?

At any rate, this was not a story that caused me great hilarity. In fact, it was one that made me nod my head and decide that it wasn't bad.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Worldwired by Elizabeth Bear

*Some Spoilers Ahead*

So we come full circle, back around the book in this series I read first, which closes it off again. A neat little loop. I am glad to have gone through them all in order now, although I remember enjoying this very much the first time I read it, even without the context.

The first time, I was thrown right into a world reeling from a human-caused ecological catastrophe. This time, I got to see it coming, and watch the impact. It made me cry. This book is all about the aftermath - of ecological catastrophe, of death, of politics after the world has been irrevocably changed. It's about whether or not your grief and anger mire you smack in the middle of your own skull, or whether or not you continue to reach outside.

I'm trying to avoid spoilers, but it's very difficult. Be forewarned from this part in that there may be some.

So, the disaster was the deliberate impact of a meteorite into Toronto, devastating the area, killing millions. The Chinese sent it, although they're claiming it was "rogue factions." The Canadian Prime Minister is bound and determined to see them pay in a court of law, through the United Nations. China is trying just as hard to block that, and to accuse Canada of crimes in return for the infection of the biosphere with nanotechnology, under the control of the AI Richard Feynman. (The only way to mitigate the atmospheric impact of the meteorite, and purchased at great and painful cost.)

Jenny, and the little family she has amassed around herself over the last two books, watch from space. She and Elspeth try to nurse Gabe through the worst of his grief. (We're never explicitly told whether or not Jenny and Elspeth's relationship is sexual as well, but I'm not sure it matters one way or the other. They're close, they're family, they all love each other.) Genie, Gabe's daughter, hovers around the edges of the station, missing the person who created the void she now has to live with.

It's that emphasis on the simultaneous strength and fragility of family that holds me the most, although the story is very good. The sections at the UN, when Jenny and her fellow pilots testify against the Chinese government, are absolutely riveting. But I like the moments where Elspeth nudges Jenny and Jenny hugs her back gently even more. So much is done with so little.

It's also a story of first contact, and writing all this makes me realize how many stories are packed in here. There's no time wasted, and it's all well-knit together, but at times it makes your head spin, being an observer to not one matter of world-wide importance, but several. At least the whiplash it gave me at times was pleasant?

At any rate, I'm not sure I have a lot new to say. I enjoyed all three books in this series, and I'm very glad I finally read them in order. Elizabeth Bear is an author I enjoy very much, and I'm glad to have read some of her earliest efforts. They aren't perhaps perfect books, but they are so strong and interesting. Most of all, Jenny Casey is an indelible character.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

A Week In Stories: February 17

The Dust Cover Dust-Up is done, my favourite books have been revealed for a week now, and I'm left with a bit of a hole in my blog schedule. Thursdays, I've decided, will be taken up by a more regular edition of my old science fiction story reviews. What to do with Tuesdays?  I'm reading up a storm right now, but not really enough to regularly finish four books a week.

Then, prompted by a book, I started to think about stories, and how much I'm a story addict. It doesn't matter what form they come in. Books are my favourite medium, but I also take in TV, movies, roleplaying games, anything that will bootleg a little more story into my life.

So I'm going to try an experiment in writing brief paragraphs about the other stories I've interacted with each week, and any thoughts they might have sparked. It should perhaps go without saying that there may be spoilers, although I'll try not to go overboard.


Safety Not Guaranteed

We actually watched two movies this week. How weird is that? (We were both sick at different points in the week, so there was more sitting around and watching things than normal.) I liked Safety Not Guaranteed. The dialogue was good, the themes about trying to get back the past were interesting. This movie would probably not have worked without Audrey Plaza, but because it had her, it really did. It's surprisingly sweet.

How To Train Your Dragon 

I have just one question. Among these Vikings, why are all the parents Scottish and all the kids American?

Also, Bill and I kept talking for Toothless like he was one of our cats. ("I noms you? Okay, I noms you.")

Overall, this was fine, but not spectacular. I got distracted during the last 15 minutes by some health issues I've been having (sore shoulder), but Bill assures me the good guys won.


The Flash - "The Nuclear Man"

When my husband and I sit down and talk about this show and Arrow, the one thing we often remark on as a strength of both is that they don't drag out secrets. They push the story forward, often in interesting ways, and don't sit on something for a whole season and have a revelation at the end. So in this episode, we not only find out what happened to Ronnie, we find out a whole lot more about the night Barry's mother was killed.

Also, when Joe told Cisco that he thought Dr. Wells was possibly a murderer, Bill and I cheered and high-fived, since we've been saying for a couple of episodes that Joe is too good a detective to not at least explore that. I love Joe. The relationship between Barry and Joe is the best part of the show.

Agent Carter - "A Sin To Err"

Agent Carter has been so much fun to watch. We keep remarking that Peggy doesn't just win fights, she destroys her opposition. There were a couple of moments that stood out for me - the scene in the alley with Sousa (that might also be my crush on Enver Gjokaj talking), and of course Lindsay Fonseca finally getting something to do. I've really enjoyed Peggy's arc, and in general, they've done a masterful job of making the sexism Peggy has to deal with the main focus of the series without making the whole experience less than fun. Bill keeps calling it the anti-Mad Men.

Arrow - "Canaries" 

Laurel is not my favourite character, but it's better than last season. This was mostly her episode, coming to terms with becoming the Black Canary. The writers continue to give Emily Bett Rickards the best lines, even when she's mostly in the background, and she just kills them. I would do a lot to have the ability she has at delivering lines perfectly. Also, this was a great object lesson in how to take a reveal everyone has seen coming and turn it on its head. Thea's reaction to finally finding out Oliver is the Arrow was far more interesting than what we were expecting. They also took that creepy DJ and revealed his secret to everyone else only episodes after they let the audience in on it! This show teaches me so much about how the aftermath of a secret is more interesting than the suspense.


Paper Dolls 

This is a hard game to explain. For one, we're playing without a GM or system. If we came up against a point in the story where we were arguing over what was going to happen next, we would probably pull a tarot card and let that guide where it would go. It hasn't happened yet. The biggest innovation in this one, though, is that, with three players, we're each playing three characters, giving us nine player characters. Each of us is playing three variations on the same person - think Fringe, where there are similarities between dimensions, but also important differences.

This was episode 5, and we're continuing to come up with interesting places to take the story, and unexpected outcomes. In particular for me this episode, one of my characters (named Trix) was bound and determined she was going to break up with her cheating girlfriend, but Melissa played the hell out of the girlfriend, and they are still together in a really unhealthy relationship.

Overall, I am having a blast. I miss having a GM sometimes - having to keep that part of my brain awake sometimes gets in the way of immersion into my characters, which is the most fun part of roleplaying as far as I'm concerned. Sometimes it feels like we're reaching for the heavy emotion in every single scene, and perhaps we need to find a way of leavening that with other types of scenes, for flavour and texture.
Seven Stars of Atlantis

My husband's pulp roleplaying game is drawing to a close, and three out of four characters have possession of a titular Star of Atlantis (huge gems with amazing powers). The fourth is the servant of the gems. He's a little worried about the implications of that, particularly since his girlfriend has possession of one of the stones and could make him do whatever she wants. (I play her. She hasn't yet.) Two big bad guys have two of the stones apiece, now bringing all seven on the table. Plus, we met Edgar Cayce this past session!

But what I want to talk about in this space is how I've just figured out what my character's looking for, now that she's not dying anymore. (Her name is Margot.) For the first two-thirds of the game, she was dying from what she thought was an Egyptian curse, but turned out to be a slow-acting poison. One of the other player characters was recently able to obtain the antidote for her, at the cost of seemingly betraying the group. That's going to lead to an interesting conversation in a couple of weeks, I hope.

When Margot thought it was a curse, she drove away the love of her life (Teddy) quite cruelly, because she feared it would spread to him. She decided that knowing he was hurting but alive was better than if he were there to give her comfort and ended up dying alongside her. Also that if he knew, he'd take the risk and stay by her side, something he has since agreed would have been the case.

It was an arrogant decision, as it took it entirely out of Teddy's hands. They're back together now, but in the meantime, he spent a year trying to hate her, and she spent a year afraid, alone, and in pain.

That's all background. This most recent session, Margot and Rex, the dashing adventure hero and her sometime bodyguard, had their biggest fight yet. (There have been a few. From Margot's perspective, she keeps trying to start to make peace, and then gets furious at him. I'm sure it looks different from the other side.) Margot and Su Li, the friend who got the cure for her, also had a big fight not long before the betrayal.

In both cases, people have remarked that Margot really seems to care what the others think of her. She broods on these fights after they're done more than you might think. After the last session, Bill asked if what was going on was that Margot really was afraid of being a spoiled rich girl, even though that's a title she owns to some degree. I think he's right, but I think it's more. I think the last year, in all its isolation and pain, has given her a real issue where she's afraid she's unlovable.

Part of this is that she's focusing on what people say to her instead of what they do, and so she's missing or misinterpreting whether or not they care about her. When Su Li called Margot a spoiled rich girl in the middle of a party and said she cared about nothing but herself, she's been carrying that hurt around far more than she has noticed that Su Li sacrificed her own freedom to get the antidote. (Mostly she hasn't noticed it because it looked a lot like betraying them and using Teddy's life as leverage to get a Star out of Margot.)

When Rex came thundering up the stairs to find out urgently whether or not his helping Su Li betray Margot and Teddy had gotten Margot the antidote she needed, Margot sees the part where he helped betray them, and then yet again forced her health to be a public issue when she was trying to keep it quiet. (She was going to wait until she knew whether or not the antidote worked before she got Teddy's hopes up. Rex forced it out in the open right away.) She doesn't see the part where he was terribly worried for her life.

And she dwells on the arguments, where Rex tells her she is cruel, selfish, spoiled, frivolous, and disappointing, and doesn't listen when she tells him to stop trying to be her "bodyguard, her father or her owner." He does feel paternal towards her, but she sees it as trying to control her life, and she hates it, and feels powerless because he refuses to listen to anything she says.

It feels like everyone is telling her she's horrible. (Since I play her, I'm a little protective. She is spoiled and arrogant. She's also open-handed, generous, loyal, resourceful, and indomitable. Nobody seems to mention those latter qualities.) This is even more of an issue because she's carrying some lingering hurt because Teddy didn't act the way she thought he would when he found out why she'd driven him away.

This one is completely unrealistic, but I think that in the year she spent alone and in pain, she concocted a fantasy about what would happen if Teddy found out she were dying - that he'd rush to her side, swear undying love, and it would all be terribly romantic. She held on to that to keep her going. Unsurprisingly, it didn't happen quite like that. He knew for a couple of weeks before he told her. He didn't sweep her into his arms and swear undying love. He tried to respect what she wanted and keep his distance, which is not what she actually wanted. She wanted him to be so crazy in love with her that he couldn't stay away. They're back together, but it hasn't been that passionate. Worst of all, she discovered an engagement ring in the bottom of his pack, and now that they're back together, it hasn't made a reappearance.

In this case, it's completely unrealistic. Teddy has his own stuff going down. For a long time, she was in too much pain for romance. Still, there's a lingering disappointment, but more than that, an underlying fear that he doesn't really love her. That Su Li was right, he's sticking around out of a sense of duty. That now that she's not dying, he's stuck with her, but he really rather wishes he wasn't.

Add that to big fights where people keep telling her she's a horrible person - and we go into the last two sessions with Margot feeling like most people hate her, and maybe she's unlovable. I don't know what that'll do to the final showdown, but it might do something.

Also, maybe I overthink my characters.

So, if you made it through all that (and I'll be a little surprised if you did), what stories snuck into your life this week?

Monday, 16 February 2015

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

In my typical way of not always respecting the order in which things were written, I read the follow-up book to Haroun and the Sea of Stories last year, and it came in as my second-favourite book of the year. Luka and the Fire of Life was one of those books that found a spot in my brain and nestled in like it had always belonged there.

So when I was suggesting a book to read for our book club, reading the first book to see if I liked it as much as the second was an easy choice. The verdict? It didn't hit me on as emotional a level as Luka did, but it was still delightful.

The delight started on the very first page, with the description of the city of sadness, and the glumfish, and it never really stopped. This is a man who knows how to weave stories, and how to weave stories together, and to delight in language. It really is sheer pleasure reading something this heady and charming, to throw yourself into an ocean of language and swim through the story and be swept along by currents that will take you in unexpected directions.

I keep using the word delightful. It's really the only word that applies.

In this book, Luka hasn't even been born yet. Haroun lives with his parents, Soraya and Rashid, and Rashid is at the height of his powers as the Shah of Blah. Is, that is, until his wife runs off with the next door neighbour. The next door neighbour not only left with Soraya, but he left a knife in Rashid's ribs with the phrase "what's the use of stories that aren't even true?"

That phrase, so simple, so perfectly turned, took my breath away. Because I live in stories, for stories, with stories. They sometimes feel like air, both in their necessity and ubiquity. Yet there are people who don't want stories, who decry them, who dismiss them, who look at the things that give meaning, and don't get it. Just simply don't get it.

Rashid loses his nerve, and his stories, and his son goes to get them back, ending up on the Sea of Stories just as it itself is under attack by those of silence instead of noise. Haroun must join an adventure to save the princess and stop the poison from attacking the stories, with the help of truly delightful (there's that word again!) companions along the way.

There's so much here. There's the prose, which is fantastic, the story which is engrossing, the deeper meanings of the story, which cut like a knife. I enjoyed it for the sheer pleasure, but it rewards thought as well.

There's a story to tell, though, about the experience of reading it. This is a book about the magic of stories, the messiness of prose, the necessity of enchantment. I got the copy I read out of the campus library. In the margins, someone had written notes. And not just notes, the most reductive, obvious notes you could possibly imagine, taking this magical book and making it just a story that isn't even true. I don't think they intended to, but oh, it made me sad.

It made me think of a piece of poetry from Billy Collins, a poet I quite adore. I just bought a collection of his works and only days before I read Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I had re-read a poem about teaching poetry. There are two salient stanzas, which read:

I want them to waterski   
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope   
and torture a confession out of it.

Reading those notes reminded me of this poem so strongly. Yet this is a story that you should be swept away by, not one to torture. To do so feels like exactly what Rushdie is telling a story against. It made me sad. In the end, it made me appreciate the magic of the words, because even those reductive notes could not make this into a story that isn't even true. It may not be factual. It is true.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Dracula by Bram Stoker

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

This book was recommended to me by Bill.

*Spoilers Below*

So yes, the book my husband recommended got to jump to the top of my recommendations list. To be fair, that's not just nepotism. He did employ the short-cut I allude to in the introductory paragraph, about shoving a book into my hands getting it onto my upcoming reads list immediately, instead of it languishing for quite a while. It's how I read all the Vorkosigan books I read last year. And how Lev Grossman's The Magicians managed to get read so quickly.

In this case, we have actually owned the book for years, and when my husband recommended I read it, I kept telling him it would go on the list, but at the bottom. That's when he pointed out we had a physical copy on hand, and to stop being stubborn. (He says that last bit a lot.) As he was right, that this is exactly the sort of thing I make an exception for, I settled down to read Dracula.

Side Note: In certain pictures, Bram Stoker resembles my husband to an almost scary degree.

We all know the story of Dracula, at least the bare edges of it. Evil bloodsucking fiend from Transylvania preys on, well, mostly on young women, turning some of them into vampires like himself. Soulless, they continue the chain.

Fair enough. What I was struck by was two-fold. One was how many bits of vampire "lore" come directly from Stoker. And the flip side of that, how many bits didn't. Garlic, stake through the heart, cutting off the head, disappearing into dust, that's all there in the vampire stuff I know the best, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Otherwise, I'm not much of a horror gal.)

But planting wild roses on the grave to keep the vampire in there? That one has kind of fallen by the wayside. Not being able to cross moving water under their own power? (Well, I knew about that one from the Cold City game I played in.) And I was a little fuzzy on the daylight stuff. We see Dracula in daylight, but the deal seems to be that he can't change shape then. There may have been more to it, but quite frankly, I must have zoned out on the fine details.

I just find it interesting what has survived into our modern incarnations of slayers and vampire hunters and what has not.

The other part is the reason my husband was so intent on getting me to read this. Dracula is renowned as a gothic. My husband was more struck by how modern the book was, and wanted to talk about that with me. So now I've read it, and I have to say he's right. There are the superficial trappings of the gothic - the castles, the spookiness, the women wasting away to shadows. But there are also train schedules (a lot of train schedules, actually), the fine details of guns, and the nitty gritty of a chase of Dracula across Europe that focuses not on the supernatural but the mundane.

It works really well. The foreword likens it to Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, and I can see that influence here through the shifting narrators, recorded from letters, diaries, dictation, presented as a mass of notes by different people creating a story. What this does, and does well, is to ground this story in something like the real world. Dracula, oddly, is far more scary if the reason you can't get to him to kill him is because the train isn't running. The obstacles are far more everyday than they are mystical, but then the heroes still have the mystical to contend with.

This is the supernatural in full contact with the contemporary, and it was not what I was expecting, but it was enjoyable. And truly, I ended up mostly enjoying the female characters as well. It's hard to know if you're getting into something interesting or something that will be irritating. But while there's a lot here about saving women from Dracula's dread clutches, Mina, at least, is interesting enough that it doesn't grate. 

If Lucy wastes away to a shadow, Mina is fully on top of the train schedules. She's more organized, more determined, and at the end, they give her a gun like everyone else. (No, she doesn't get to use it, but I appreciate the gesture.)

Of course, I keep flashing back to Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, and Mina's line that goes something like "not quite the two discreet markings of legend, are they?" about her mangled neck. Having that Mina in my head probably influenced this one.

But here's the part I really did like, something I haven't seen in other vampire stories, a way of raising tensions that I think really works. It's a bit spoilery, so you can stop reading here if you like.

In this one, Mina has been attacked by Dracula enough that she will turn into a vampire when she dies. But she doesn't die. So it's not the tension of waiting three days for her arise, or whatever, it's about her knowing that if at any point from now until old age she does die, before Dracula is vanquished, then she'll turn into a vampire. It makes death, which may not be imminent, far more terrifying, having full knowledge of what will happen to you when it happens.

Why hasn't anyone used this? It strikes me as a great source of dramatic tension!

At any rate, I enjoyed Dracula quite a lot, and agree with Bill that it seems to be setting out to put a distinctly modern twist on a gothic setting. I like what that did, and now I'd like someone to exploit the fine dramatic tension that Mina undergoes.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

"The Last Evolution" by John W. Campbell

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?

This one is under John W. Campbell on the Gutenberg SF listing, but the note says it's from a 1932 issue of Amazing Stories.

This is not a good story. It's not the subject matter, or even any of Campbell's well-noted obstreperous politics. It's just not very well written. It's jumpy, which is weird, given his stature as an editor in the field. From paragraph to paragraph, I had trouble following what was going on. The subject kept changing without notice, and things would happen in sentences that in no way actually explained what was going on.

It's also weirdly nihilistic.

Humans have evolved. They have created robots. Then, one day, an intruder comes into the solar system and seems to want to take over the planets there, and the best way to do that, it seems, is by sterilizing them of life. Not getting rid of the dominant species, eradicating all life. That seems to me to be the hard way to do any kind of terraforming, but whatever.

They can't touch robots, though. In fact, they seem to have no concept of robots. So the robots try valiantly to save the humans that they quite readily admit are pretty much obsolete. They manage to save two. I think they're both male, but gender is never mentioned in the story, and the names are no help. (Trest and Roal.) Watching the complete destruction of not only the human race and all the individual humans they've ever known, plus all other life on earth, the two humans' reaction can best be summed up as "Well, it's probably for the best. Men were parasites anyway."

Which begs the question, what about everything else? Is everything a parasite? Everything has to draw energy in some way from some other source, so other than plants (and plants use water), are we all just horrible because we need to get that energy from somewhere? In this particular story, possibly to be a shit-disturber, Campbell answers yes.

It's far worse to be a parasite than something that eradicates all life? I'm a little fuzzy on the morality here. At any rate, the surviving humans are blase about this. (Also, don't robots need to draw power too? What makes them less a parasite?)

And then the robots go on inventing, and invent another robot that uses some magical Ultimate Energy and so is not a parasite? I guess? And he will maybe go hunt down the creatures that destroyed all life in the solar system? Maybe? (The writing here is extremely opaque.)

It's all machines yay, and humans and life, boo, and it's very weird. There are no women (I don't think), and no mention of race, which is probably a good thing, given some of what Campbell was known to have said during his lifetime. Scientists are okay, I guess, but they're humans, and humans are pretty much bad because of how biology works, and this is a weird story.

But mostly, it's badly written. Too bad. I like way out and crazy. I don't like not being able to tell what the fuck is going on.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Heart of Iron by Ekaterina Sedia

I don't know what it is about Sedia's books. I like them enough to keep reading them when they cross my plate, but not enough to seek them out. She's never irritated me enough to want to say that I'm done, but there just always seem to be a little bit missing. It's like they're *this* close to being great, but end up settling in merely satisfactory. (With the exception of at least one of the stories in Moscow But Dreaming, which was finally, finally, a perfect little gem.)

So here we are in Heart of Iron, set in a Russia where the Decembrists were successful. Russia is thoroughly Anglophile, although England might not share that particular emotion. (But no Crimean War means Florence Nightingale is somewhat at loose ends. Malevolent ends, one might say.) Constantine is in power, although his brother is in charge of much of the security of the Russian state.

The main character, a young woman named Sacha, is sent off to be part of the first class of women in university in Russia, where she is met with the nastiness and misogyny that you might expect. It's too bad that this is so much what you would expect. While it would be ridiculous to show them being welcomed with open arms, you might want to twist the trope just a tiny bit, do something new with it?

The Chinese students there to study likewise run into a brick wall of intolerance and secret police. Nevertheless, Sacha gets herself involved, believing that they cannot be too mistreated if a white Russian woman stands up for them. That goes badly, and she needs to be saved by an Englishman, who is, of course, Spring-Heeled Jack, there as another university student/spy.

This is where I think the book is weak - coincidence piled on coincidence, and so many tropes just used without a new twist. It's not bad, it's just not exciting. At any rate, Sacha ends up on a trip to China to broker a deal between Russia and China, with absolutely not imperial support or reason for success. She goes with Jack, of course, and disguises herself as a man. Her period is never brought up, and yet this trip goes probably over a month.

In the end, I just don't know. There's not objectionable. The writing isn't bad. But there's nothing that sets my heart on fire, there's not really anything that feels surprising or new, and maybe it's just me, but there's no real sense of danger to Sacha. Or real sense of repercussion if she fails. I'm not necessarily asking for her to be put into personal physical danger, but there needs to be something hanging overhead if she messes up. Yes, maybe the English will invade, but it's all very wishy-washy and doesn't seem at all urgent.

Tension. That's what's not here. There's not enough tension. There is an interesting story, and characters, but there's not enough reason that it matters. The one time there is tension, when her closest Chinese friend is whisked away by the secret police, that's almost immediately undercut by Sacha finding out he left Russia safely. There needs to be a bit more on the line, and then it will matter more. Until then, it's merely fine. Not great. Just fine.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2014: My Favourite Books of the Year

We're down to three books now, one contest, winner takes all.  Then I'll put together a list of my top 10 books, from the last couple of rounds.

Railsea vs. Red Seas Under Red Skies vs. Memory

Winner: Railsea

The first book I read last year was also the best. There were other books I loved, but nothing that quite ever lived up to the wonderfulness that is China Mieville at his best. I truly don't know if this is a book for everyone. I feel like maybe it isn't. But is definitely a book for me, and I love it beyond all reason.

So, in summary, my Top Ten Favourite Books of the Year:

1.  Railsea by China Mieville
A land-bound Moby Dick, with captains hunting their philosophies, giant moles, on a world that seems fantastic, but is rooted in subtly fascinating ways firmly in science fiction.

2. Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch
The second Locke Lamora book, taking place mostly on a pirate ship, with wonderful new characters, fantastic new scams, and an ending that ripped my heart out.

3. Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold

I loved all the Miles Vorkosigan books I read this year, and this was one of my very favourites. Miles has to deal with an entirely new disability, one that threatens all he's accomplished.

4. How The Light Gets In by Louise Penny

The storyline that has been boiling beneath the surface through all the Gamache books finally comes to the forefront, and it is intense and indelible. Oh, the duck! Even if you're not a mystery reader, you should be reading this series.

5. Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton
Victorian dragons. With class and gender and inheritances and the eating of the poor. Trust me. Try it.

 6. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
I have very much enjoyed every David Mitchell book I've read so far, and this is less strange than the others, but no less enjoyable. Turns out, when he's writing about boyhood in 1980s England, it's almost as interesting as his more experimental works.

7. A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold
Of course there's going to be more than one Miles book on this list. This was perhaps even more my favourite than Memory, although the tournament format worked against it. It's Miles at his most manic, up against an entirely new enemy - figuring out courtship.

8. The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
I have very much enjoyed both of Jemisin's books I've read so far, and this one, about power and its effects, about retribution, justice, and sometimes how mercy is impossible, really grabbed me.

9. The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler
Quiet gets me sometimes, and this book, with its examination of pain was so quiet, so complex, so compassionate, that it really captured my imagination. It's about a woman who immigrates to Canada in the wake of the Holocaust, and is not who her papers say she is.

10. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
I came to it late, but I thought Thomas Cromwell was as great a character as everyone else did. It's fascinating, and takes historical fiction up a level.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Magician: Master by Raymond Feist

My complaint about the first volume of this saga was that everything felt very mundane. Feist may have been one of the first to do these things, but there wasn't much more to the book. It was fine, but not exhilarating, and I've seen the "young man joins a band of heroic travellers; discovers destiny" paint by numbers a million times. I was taken to task by some people for not recognizing Feist as a pioneer in the field. My position remains: that's fine. Maybe if this was the first of the genre I'd ever read, I'd be flabbergasted. But being first is not all there is.

The Lord of the Rings remains a classic because, not only is it one of the first, there is more there than just being that. It has a richness these don't. This is fine epic fantasy, but it is not anything more. That being said, however, the second book in the saga feels less like I've seen it all before. Feist does take the two main characters in interesting directions.

Unfortunately, there were other things to irritate me. The treatment of the female characters, for instance. Carline, who has some really great moments in the first book, is reduced to being stoic and mourning in the background in this. The queen of the fucking elves loses all ability to think for herself as soon as she starts sleeping with Tomas.

But worst, worst of all was poor Pug's lover in the other world. I am not sure if I can express how angry this storyline made me at Pug, who we're supposed to like, and how pissed off that the measure of a woman's worth is that she didn't sleep with anyone else even when her old lover left her alone and knocked up and she didn't know if he were alive or dead for five years. Right, that's how you show your worth. Taking up with someone else would be a betrayal! Go fuck yourselves.

This is literally how they tell Pug that she is a "good woman" when he deigns to show up for her again after five years. She didn't sleep with anyone else! Let's just gloss over the part where he has been free and autonomous and fucking powerful for four of those years, but left the woman he says he loves in slavery, literal slavery, for all that time, because he doesn't know how to broach the subject with her. Oh, four more years of slavery while he's trying to figure out the right wording for "will you marry me?" That's romantic!  A little slavery is nothing while you're trying to get the setting just right, obviously.

Of course, she wasn't at risk of being sexually abused during slavery because that would probably have made her less of a good woman, and anyway, she belonged to good slave owners. It was just the custom! My eyes have rolled so far back into my head that I may never get them back out.

The rest of it? It's fine. But oh, the treatment of the women characters made me so angry. I rarely get this angry, even when they're mostly background characters or damsels in distress. But this was really appalling.

Other than that? Pug and Tomas become all powerful. The war comes to an end. I don't care.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

This was not the book I requested for Christmas. I'd asked for Thomas King's The Back of the Turtle, and was very much looking forward to delving into his fiction for the first time. Instead, one of my sisters intercepted the Christmas book list and substituted this. (In my family, in theory, we've supposedly stopped doing gifts in favour of stocking stuffers and a book each. In practice, this has looked pretty much like every former Christmas with piles of gifts, just more confusion about whether or not we're breaking the "rules," and who is the worst offender. It's my mother. If you're wondering.)

That makes me sound a little cranky about this. I'm not, really. I will get to the Thomas King book eventually, and in the meantime, Sarah knows my tastes pretty well, and reads as fast and as much as I do. (When she was unemployed for a bit right after she moved out of the country, she was reading far more, if you can believe it!) So I was more than willing to give it a crack, and as I might have predicted, she was right that this was something I'd enjoy.

This is a collection of essays by Roxane Gay, whom I mostly know of through twitter posts, and, I believe, the new The Toast spin-off site, The Butter? Let me check...yup! She also published a novel this year that is burning up the many Best of 2014 lists which I am totally not collating to come up with a master list of books I should read. Totally not.

No, you look shifty!

But to this book, the nonfiction of her two works to come out this last year, and which is almost as popular on those self-same Best of 2014 lists which I am not being obsessive about.

I enjoyed it. But I am having trouble coming up with something coherent to say about the book as a whole, hence the many paragraphs of dithering you just waded through to get to the point where we are right now.

So let's just scattershot it. The three essays that give birth to the title of the book are great, about the necessity of feminism, and the impossibility of living up to the expectations of our own feminism and the expectations of others all the time. Of enjoying things you know that probably, technically, theoretically, shouldn't. Of being fucking bad at this but doing it anyway because what other choice is there, really? Accepting imperfection, but not backing down from being a feminist. Making peace with contradictions.

Speaking of that, her piece on the Sweet Valley High books is great. I read them too, although I didn't attach nearly the importance to them that Gay did. I think I was more into the Babysitter's Club. And the Narnia books. And Anne McCaffrey. But it's a great look at them from the perspective of nostalgia and affection without being uncritical. This is where life is sloppy, when you like things you know you shouldn't, and yet, you do. You can't be ideologically pure all the time, but still, that also doesn't mean a reflexive defensive reaction is the right one either.

Let's see, other stand-outs? Her delve into the world of competitive Scrabble made me laugh out loud a few times. The essay on being a newly minted tenure track professor made me want weep and be insanely jealous at the same time, because I'm at that spot where I'm so close to being done my own Ph.D., and what she's describing sounds so incredibly difficult, and yet also so much what I want, and it hurts because I know that with the academic job market being what it is these days, and the student debt I carry around now so huge, whether or not I'll get a job in my field is a huge question mark.

The essay on trigger warnings is so good, and so complex, and embraces those shades of grey that so much of internet discourse seems to want to pretend don't exist. And for the rest, most of the essays are very good, some are not as great, but on the whole, this is an excellent paean to being imperfect but not uncritical. I look forward to trying her novel at some point.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Dust Cover Dust-Up: Round Five

So close! The penultimate round!

Railsea vs. Tooth and Claw

Winner: Railsea

It's funny. I was at the pub this last week, and we were talking about books. (That's not the funny part. I hope.)  And a friend and I were raving about Tooth and Claw, and I swear, as soon as we said Victorian literature with dragons, every ear perked up. Everyone wrote it down. It's a great book. You should read it if you haven't.

It's strange. I am not nearly so evangelical about Railsea. I think it'd be a harder sell. I think it's probably not for everyone. But although Tooth and Claw utterly delighted me, when I saw this contest, there was not a single moment of doubt. It's hard to explain why I love Railsea so much, how it enraptured me on every single level. Telling someone to read Moby Dick, but about trains and giant moles? Probably not the crowd-pleaser that Victorian dragons are. But it's certainly a me-pleaser.

Red Seas Under Red Skies vs. How The Light Gets In

Winner: Red Seas Under Red Skies

This is a tough one. Both of these books destroyed me emotionally. I remember where I was sitting and crying as I came to the end of each one.  I was in a cafeteria on campus with Scott Lynch's book, at home at the kitchen table with Louise Penny's. Do I put rousing fantasy with a heartbreaking finish over the culmination of a long-term mystery that has made me ache every step of the way and resolves so perfectly and painfully? It's hard. It really is. It's the new characters that Lynch introduces in the second Locke Lamora book that put this over the top. However, the old characters of Penny's carry my affection with them always.

Black Swan Green vs. Memory

Winner: Memory

Another hard one. Every book at this point is one I liked a lot. However, Memory carries the weight of whole Vorkosigan series with it, most of which I read last year. It was one of the pure delights of my year. Every time I picked one up, I knew I was in for a treat. It is rare to run into that kind of storyteller, who can tell thrilling adventure tales with surprising depth. Lois McMaster Bujold is that kind of storyteller. Actually, David Mitchell is too, and even standing on its own, Black Swan Green was a delight to read. However, Miles takes it. How could he not?

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

Another Dresden Files book under my belt. Another one I feel like I only enjoyed a bit. I keep getting told they get better, and so I persevere, but if the next one isn't a whole lot better, I may be done. It's not like it's a chore to read these books. They go down quickly, and leave little aftertaste, except that slight bitter remnant of chauvinism that Harry and Butcher both seem to enjoy telling people to go fly a kite about.

What bugs me about that in particular, let's just get it out of the way up front, is that it's something that is always presented as "just how Harry is." But behaviour isn't immutable. You know you're kind of being an asshole? You could, you know, work on that. Instead of just deciding that if it's women, it works in their favour. (Sure it does, Harry. Sure it does.) It's like an incurable disease, if we're to believe these books. You catch The Chauvinism, you're a carrier for life.

Thank goodness I actually expect more from men than that.

Also, is Harry really saying that if the person who showed up on his doorstep begging desperately for help were, say, a decrepit old guy instead of a hot young chick, he would turf them to the curb? Now we're not just into chauvinism, we're smack into "is just generally a terrible human being." Luckily, we never have to find out, because, surprise! The Damsel in Distress is always a damsel. In distress. But still hot. Ooh, ooh! And often crazy! Crazy chicks are the hottest, amirite? Mental illness just makes you hotter!


On the other hand, I started to get some of what my husband tells me these books are actually good at, which is to have real consequences. That happens here, when a longer-term character gets changed, and it appears, maybe permanently. So that's something.

Other than that? We are introduced to the Champion of God, Michael, and I actually did like him quite a lot. He's a family man, he doesn't like it when Harry swears, and quite frankly, he's damn interesting. I'd like to hear more about how he lives in the world and interacts with it, because the little we see is intriguing.

Ghosts are rising all over Chicago, being driven mad by forces unknown. Vampires are making a move too. Are these things connected? Is Harry a wizard?

Harry gets beaten up a lot, and that would be a nice way of showing his vulnerabilities if I kind of didn't want him to get beat up. Man, Paul Blackthorne did a better job of making Harry likeable than the page does. He's very whiny at the moment.

Seriously, one more book. If this doesn't pick up, I don't know if I care how much better it gets. It can just pass me by.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2014: Round Four

Down to single-post rounds! And it's going to be awkward numbers from here on out, with a bunch of those dreaded three-book contests at the end of each bit. I did not read a number of books this year that lends itself easily to this type of tournament.

Railsea vs. In The Night Garden

Winner: Railsea

This is painful. With this pairing, I think I knock out the last book by one of my favourite authors in this tournament. There were three I read, this year, and now they're all gone. (Multiple books might actually make it harder, as I'm sometimes inclined to let one go, knowing the other ones are still around.) However, if you asked me to choose between my inner China Mieville and Catherynne Valente fangirls, in this case, it has to go to Railsea. I am a sucker for books that show me that I secretly wanted something I never even imagined, and a land-bound Moby Dick science fiction on trains is apparently something I craved without ever having an inkling. It's an amazing ride, full of Mieville ingenuity and prose. It hurts to let Valente's storytelling, and stories within stories go, but I will, in search of my own Philosophy. (That only makes sense if you read Railsea. Go ahead, I'll wait.)

Wolf Hall vs. Tooth and Claw

Winner: Tooth and Claw

Tudor England vs. Victorian England! Dragons vs. Thomas Cromwell! Machinations of power vs. eating the children of the poor!  I feel strange picking the dragons, but this was yet another book that filled a deep-seated desire I didn't know I had. I wasn't crazy about Among Others, but with Tooth and Claw, Jo Walton has cemented herself as someone whose works I must devour. Like a dragon. A very Victorian dragon. Mantel's Wolf Hall is arguably a great book, but this is a competition for my favourite books of the year, and Tooth and Claw wins there.

Red Seas Under Red Skies vs. A Civil Campaign

Winner: Red Seas Under Red Skies

When I realized that these two books were coming up against each other, my reaction was both audible and pained. Oh, gods. How can I choose? What was probably my favourite Miles Vorkosigan book up against Locke Lamora. Seriously. Miles vs. Locke. Other than the fan fiction that that immediately spurs, it also causes me deep pain to knock Miles out of the competition. Right when he's in the middle of courting, no less. I loved A Civil Campaign. But I loved Red Seas Under Red Skies too, and that one has the added bonus of emotional evisceration at the end. Okay, Locke. You can steal this one.

How The Light Gets In vs. Republic of Thieves

Winner: How The Light Gets In

Ha! Easy! Locke Lamora took the last battle, so he doesn't get this one! Plus, while Red Seas Under Red Skies wrecked me emotionally, Republic of Thieves didn't quite have the same finishing blow. The culmination of books of build-up for mystery writer Louise Penny, on the other hand, reduced me to a weepy mess. Rosa! Rosa the duck forever! And everything else that finally pays off in the most beautiful and heart-wrenching of ways.

The Imposter Bride vs. Black Swan Green

Winner: Black Swan Green

This is an oddly difficult contest. These are both mainstream fiction, a little melancholy, although about vastly different subjects. We have the aftermath of a family being ripped apart that was never really whole, vs....Wait. Actually, that could describe both books. Huh. Okay, well, one is about the aftermath of the Holocaust, and the inability to stay, while the other is about boyhood in England. I liked them both a lot, and found their quiet restraint a lot more effective than something more emotional might have been. It comes down to this. Which would I sit down to read again right now? It's actually close, but that gives it to Black Swan Green.

Memory vs. Komarr vs. The Broken Kingdoms

Winner: Memory

Are you kidding me? We come up to the last battle of the round, and have two Lois McMaster Bujold and one N.K. Jemisin? I liked all of these books so much! So, so much! But the Vorkosigan books were one of the highlights of my reading year, and so that entirely unfairly knocks Jemisin out of the competition. Of the two Miles books, the self-inflicted pain of Memory, and its meditations on disability, success, and expectations have stayed with me the more. Although the mere introduction of Ekaterina almost tips the scales in Komarr's favour.

Monday, 2 February 2015

The Sea by John Banville

At my book club meeting the night before I wrote this, I was bemoaning the fact that although I enjoyed reading The Princess Bride, it felt like there wasn't much room for me as the reader to bring myself to the book. The book persisted in explaining, and then explaining its explanations, when it came to the metanarrative. It was fine, but I more enjoy books that allow me space to expand within the book, that leave room for the reader to interact and interpret, to bring their own issues and see echoes of them.  The universe must known that was going to happen, because on the next tide, it delivered The Sea by John Banville.

This is very much on the opposite side of the spectrum, without slipping over into being opaque and inaccessible. It's very much an impressionistic account of grief and memory, and there are lots of spaces for me to fill with my own experiences of grief.

The main character is unlikeable. He's self-centered, a bit of a bully, secretive, and callous. Morden, as he's known as a child, or Max, his name as an adult. His wife has recently died. He has come back to the place where he spent his summer vacations as a child, and got to know a family. There are hints that that time ended with a tragedy, a bookending death.

Huh. I just went looking for the book cover, and found out it's been made for TV or movie (probably the BBC) with Ciaran Hinds, and the woman who is the prosecutor in the new season of Broadchurch. Good choices. But in this case, unlike The Princess Bride, I have no urge to see it.

It is in the meditations on grief that I find myself thinking. It's over four years now since my father died, but I still walk around feeling like I have a special purchase on grief, which I suppose I do compared to most people of my generation. There are, thankfully, not that many of us who have lost parents at this age. It's a really terrible club to be in.

What this book captured for me is the self-absorption of grief. Not selfishness, not even necessarily self-centeredness, but the way it takes over so much of your brain and your heart for such a long time, and makes it difficult to look outside yourself. You come back to yourself, if you're lucky, a kinder person, but in the meantime, it takes over everything, and sometimes doesn't even leave room to recognize the grief of others.

That's not a criticism. It would be like telling someone who had lost a limb to stop noticing it, or telling a burn victim just to ignore the pain. It's there, and it can become omnipresent. When we are hurting that badly, there is little left over for others.

The main character takes that to extremes, at one point even belittling his daughter when she says that she's hurting too. His grief allows for no recognition of others who are in pain, and although it made me angry at him, there was understanding there too.

If that was where my mind dwelt while reading this book, I should also say that the prose is wonderful and evocative, full of expressive details that give just enough without feeling the need to paint in every corner.

At the end, there's a bit of a surprise, and I didn't mind it, but I didn't really think it added much either. For me, anyway, this book was about the journey, and the experience, and because it was what it was, I didn't need it tied up in a neat little bow. But it was, and that was interesting. Not that all questions are answered, because those we would ask them are gone.