Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Long Way Home by Louise Penny

*Minor Spoilers for Previous Books*

Huh. Clever. I noticed that the cover image was upside down before I started reading it, but it never occurred to me while I was reading the book. It's only now that I'm grabbing an image to use for this  review that I realize why it's upside down. Very appropriate.

So, Gamache has retired! He lives in Three Pines now, with Reine-Marie, and Henri the dog, and heals from a gunshot wound and from everything that led him to the end of the last book. The big question is not, will Gamache take up a case again. It's whether or not the book after Louise Penny tied together all of the loose strings of the overarching mystery in virtuous and heartbreaking form could possibly live up to the masterpiece that was How the Light Gets In.

The answer appears to be, yes and no. Yes, this is a wonderful book, as always. It's a wonderful mystery. It's a wonderful character study. She understands pain as few authors do, period, let alone manage to bring that effortlessly into a mystery novel. On the other hand, it's possible nothing could have topped a book like the last one, and I'm not sure Penny is trying. That's probably wise. Still, I missed that slow burn of the long plot.

Penny has wisely focused this down to a more domestic story. Several books ago, Peter left. The arrangement was that he'd come back in a year, and then he and Clara would see if there was anything left of their marriage. The day came, and went, and not only was there no Peter, there was no word. At all. Clara becomes worried about it, although sure he's out there somewhere. Gamache fears that perhaps Peter became despondent out there, away from the cocoon of Three Pines. He and Beauvoir help Clara and Myrna try to track Peter's journey once he left.

It goes strange places, and seems to show a man in search of a different artistic soul than the one he had honed into technically amazing but safe paintings, to be outstripped by a wife who dared more and eventually reaped greater success.

More than that I will not say, about the main plot, except that it was a physical challenge not to flip to the end and find out if Peter was all right. I managed to hold out until about the 2/3rd mark, which may be some kind of record for me. (I'm not recommending this, mind, I'm just saying.)

What struck me the most, in addition to the things that always strike me about Louise Penny books, was one particular theme. When Clara comes to Gamache for help, he is reminded that he could say no. He's retired. He'd been shot. Emotionally, he is still fragile as well. And he says something that hit me with a ton of bricks. Paraphrasing greatly, and possibly changed by my days of thinking about it, he says that if it's a recovery that depends on becoming entirely focused on himself, on rejecting all sense of community and obligation to each other, then it's not much of recovery at all.

That was very powerful for me. I know that recovering from difficult times often needs a time of self-absorption, but sometimes it feels like people get stuck there, that they decide that now they're taking care of themselves, they only need to take care of themselves, and stay in that place. Gamache is wise and strong enough to recognize that, even fragile, we are part of the world we inhabit. And while saying no to some things is a part of healing, so is saying yes, I will help you.

So, while this wasn't the tearfest that How the Light Gets In reduced me to, particularly Beauvoir and Rosa the duck in his car, I am not disappointed. I miss the overarching story, but this was a smaller story, delicately told, and I come out of it again feeling like she has been able to put words to fragile human experiences that I haven't seen depicted on the page again.

Friday, 26 June 2015

The Immorality Engine by George Mann

I think this series is growing on me. The first book I was solidly meh about, although the ending made me more intrigued and willing to go into the second book. The second book I still didn't love, but was more to my taste. Now, by the third book, I think Mann is getting better as he goes. This is now a solid series that I am more than willing to go further in. (Presuming there are more, I guess.)

Whereas the first book felt too forced, the characters are now more familiar, more relatable, and the story just...just better structured, I guess. Not that the first book was terrible, it just felt like it was too much "Look How Steampunk I Am," and not enough else.

In this third book, we start the first chapter with the funeral of Veronica's sister, and then flip back in time. Newbury is an opium eater by this point, but Veronica and one of the chief inspectors of Scotland Yard roist him out to investigate a murder/robbery. To be precise, the murder of a man, and then the commission of a burglary by the same exact modus operandi of the dead man. And then a second body, same as the first.

Newbury is intrigued, and this pulls him into an occult club that hates that Queen Victoria has prolonged her life by artificial means, and are willing to do fairly horrific things to reorder Victorian society in a manner more to their pleasing. In the meantime, Victoria is getting more ruthless and less human, and even the doctor keeping her alive isn't sure she should be.

Of course, he's also the doctor taking care of Amelia, Veronica's sister, so we can assume that there's some nefarious plot afoot. And of course there is. They all come to a boil at roughly the same time, and if there's very few of the twists and turns I didn't see coming, they at least felt well executed when they arrived.

It's mostly down to the characters now. I'm more invested in Veronica and Newbury than I was in the first book, knowing more about who they are, what they do, what they care about. The suggested romance that has been flowering very, very slowly over the last couple of books hits some nasty snags, but it was mostly background to the action.

And yet again, the end of the book has a veer that ups the stakes, makes things more ominous, and yes, yet again, makes me want to pick up the next one.

Interestingly, when I was reading this, there were aspects that almost made me group it with those books with the theme of a world devoid of a moral centre. It's less overt, but these books are more and more about the rot at the centre of Empire, so in that way, it felt like it belonged with the more illustrious company that preceded it in my reading list.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis

I started this book with a certain amount of trepidation. I'd liked the first book in this series a lot, but while I had been enchanted with the descriptions of Venus/Perelandra, I was frustrated by the outcome of the second book as a whole. Which way was this going to go? Well, somewhere in the middle. In general, the book was entertaining to read, with occasional passages that made me stop and take a deep breath. It's one of those things where some of the things he says sound fantastic, and then he says something else frustrating, and I just have to wait for a minute for that to pass through me before I can press onward.

So, it's a complex book, that very clearly expresses Lewis' views, some of which I find inspiring, and some of which I find frustrating. That's certainly no reason not to read it. On the plus side, though, there's Mr. Bultitude, who you see up there on the cover. He's a bear. He's not quite a talking bear, as he would be in Narnia, but he gets pretty close, while still being entirely a bear. Mr. Bultitude just about makes everything better.

So let's see. This book revolves around a young couple, Mark and Jane, who are in an unfulfilling marriage in which neither is particularly caring towards each other. Although I'm sure that Lewis would think both need to learn obedience to God's will and let that overflow into love for each other, only Jane gets the lectures on it. Repeatedly. Mark does not. This was part of what bothered me.

(On the other hand, the commune-like place where the good guys live has the guys doing equal housework.)

Mark is employed at a college, where he's a sociologist of limited imagination and ideas. He's very secular (assume all the bad guys are secular), of that particular kind of secular that also dislikes all messiness, and really, everything human. While I love Lewis' championing of the human and the messy and stories, the association of that with only Christians or old-school (very old school) Pagans and the assertion that non-Christians could not feel compassion...also an issue.

Mark gets sucked up into a new institute that wants to entirely rationalize the world, starting with England. Bit by bit, with no moral compass (see how we're back to this?), he is pulled into increasingly problematic acts, from subverting the press, to making it possible for an entire town to be evacuated, its citizens detained and tortured, under the name of "rehabilitation." This section, if you can put aside the part where Lewis ascribes it to a religious/irreligious divide, is quite chilling. While I don't find those kind of views dependent on lack of belief, they're certainly the scarier edges of some of the ideology I see floating around from those who seem hell-bent to put in political policies that materially and specifically hurt people.

On the other side is Dr. Ransom, from the first two books, now called Mr. Fisher-King. Put those two references together, add in that he's the Christ-figure, and the names start to get a little anvilicious. He has gathered a small band of people around him to fight the encroaching spread of rationality at the cost of humanity.

Merlin shows up, because of course he does. This actually adds to a fairly anticlimactic end, where Merlin rides off to save the day, and everyone else stays at the commune and waits. That's...that's pretty much it. I mean, Merlin does some crazy shit, and it's entertaining, and I am intrigued by Lewis' attempt to blend Christianity and Arthurian legend. On the other hand, he kind of takes over the story, and the rest of our characters just...sit there.

There are other things I like, and other things that bother me. In the end, I'm glad I've read this trilogy. They'll certainly never been books that I treasure as greatly as I do the Narnia books. They're more adult, more problematic, cause me more thoughts. On the other hand, that's not a bad thing.

Monday, 22 June 2015

The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton

This is not the cover of the edition I read, but I couldn't find that one, and I find the guy deliberately touching his nose to the other guy while a celestial train comes towards them the most fun of the covers I could find. Because frankly, this is that kind of weird little book. Weirdly prescient, funny, with a twist at the end that could give you whiplash, but which I suppose I should have been expecting.

Written in 1908, G.K. Chesterton's very strange book details an anarchist underground, remarkably well organized. It is infiltrated by a poet who is also a police detective, having been recruited by an anti-anarchist force who appears to recruit from the literary classes, as apparently that is also where the anarchists breed.

There is much about this that is fascinating - Chesterton's characters' assertion that the true danger comes not from the working class, which was certainly under suspicion for revolutionary leanings at the time. No, the anarchists assert that the working class and the poor want in on the system, to not be screwed by it anymore. They don't want to tear the system apart. It's the well-educated you have to look out for, where you find men who have enough disposable income to dedicate themselves to intellectual ideals alone.

The writing about the poets is fairly hilarious. One of the guys in my book club checked in to make sure he was supposed to be finding it funny. It was. (Book Club is tonight, as I write this, and I am so curious to find out what people make of the book as a whole.) I didn't find the prose overly dense, considering the time period, and definitely snarky.

The poet and the anarchist swear oaths to never reveal what the other one tells them to the police or to the other anarchists, respectively, and the anarchist is surprisingly strongly bound by his word. This leads to the poet/detective being elected to the Supreme Council of Anarchists in Europe. Once there....

I really want to tell you what happens once he's there. But it's so delightful and delightfully silly, and while it may not be what Chesterton wanted you to get out of it, exactly, the whole idea that the police create their own enemies tickled me so much, while also making me startled at how early this idea was coming along.

Then there's the ending. If I tell you there's a twist, I pretty much guarantee you won't see it coming. I didn't, and I knew who Chesterton was, and what he was all about. I probably should have. It's a very strange turn, and while I get the point of it, it's hard not to feel spun around.

This was a quick read for ye olde Book Club this month, and it's a strange but amusing artifact of a particular time and a particular author. I'm glad we read it. 

Friday, 19 June 2015

Cocaine Nights by J.G. Ballard

*Serious Spoilers Below*

This will be the first of three reviews that center around a world that has lost its moral and ethical compass. I didn't plan this as a reading theme, but it came up! Of the three, this is probably the most realistic (not hard when the other two are G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, and C.S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength,) and also the most pessimistic. This is likely because the other two authors are deeply Christian, and so have a solution for the world's woes. Ballard, writing far more recently, has no such comfort.

There are a number of things about this book that are unsettling and offputting, but I don't necessarily mean that in a negative way. I don't agree, either. I've read a couple of Ballard's books, and, perhaps with the exception of The Empire of the Sun, I remember walking away, shaking my head, frustrated. I remember very little about the collection of science fiction stories I read, except that it was predicated on the idea of space flight as an evolutionary crime, which annoyed the hell out of me.

It's a world view that is entirely other than my own, this nihilistic view of humanity. I find it interesting to visit, but difficult to not shake my head repeatedly.

Interestingly, the first thing that came to mind while reading this book was that it felt like it was a mystery without a detective. To be more precise, a mystery where the only person available is Watson, or Poirot's sidekick Hastings - you know, the guy who can be counted on to form sort-of adequate conclusions that are entirely wrong.

Charles Prentice finds out that his brother Frank is in jail in Spain. Frank had been running a club in Estrella de Mar. Charles assumes it's over nothing, despite the way everyone acts around him. He finds out it's for murder, the killing of five people by arson. It's been a huge mistake, he presumes. His brother has confessed. His brother can't possibly be guilty, he presumes.

The presumptions don't stop there. He also presumes that because he likes a guy, that can't have been him he saw raping a woman in the back of a car he knows is his. The guy he likes must have loaned his car to someone else. As far as the mystery goes, Charles is an idiot. He looks straight at everything and misses it, cherrypicking the weirdest facts to try to make them fit his entirely crazy theories.

Charles explores Estrella de Mar, which seems to be unlike the other somnolent rich English people communities in this area of Spain. Turns out, a crazy guy with theories of violence as regenerative has been applying them, bringing it back to life, keeping this plague of lazy people enveloping the world. Charles becomes a disciple.

And this is my issue. This is how it's phrased. This plague of lazy people who lie in the sun and nothing goes on in their communities, it'll take over the world. Soon the whole world will be like this. Except, you know...what about everyone who isn't rich? You think a community like that exists without people who do the work? There is one servant mentioned - a rich white girl being saved from drugs by being employed by another rich white family. But everyone there lives lives of inactivity - and to do that, someone's doing the work behind the scenes. Someone's cooking, cleaning, manufacturing consumer goods and transporting them.

So, bullshit. The world could never become entirely like that, Ballard, because it's predicated on immense amounts of labour of OTHER people who make that sort of life for rich people possible. And if what you're really saying is that what we're in danger of is all rich people becoming somnolent and inactive and sleepy, I'm not really sure I give a rat's ass one way or the other.

There's a curious elision of class here, in that anyone who isn't rich simply never appears. Just, never. Also weird is that when it comes to the arson, and the revelation about who was behind it, all the worst bits, the bits that took it beyond a prank, were all done by the one guy in the entire novel with a non-Anglo-Saxon name, Mahmoud. He doesn't really appear in the novel otherwise, except briefly, but it's weird that he pops up to take the blame for having done the dirtiest of the dirty work.

It's a weird book, one of those that seems to buy into, although perhaps you're supposed to be uncomfortable with it, the idea of violence being a necessary regenerative force, and also, that the reaction of victims to theft and rape and attempted murder is to shake themselves out of their lethargy, leave their homes, and start playing sports and putting on plays. Huh?

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Black Powder War by Naomi Novik

I have defended the previous books in this series. Without ever really loving one of them entirely, I have argued that they're entertaining, and for the last one, that it's an interesting variation on the naval novel, just with a dragon. But you know what? I've read this one, and although there's nothing that upset me about it, nothing particularly wrong with it, I think I'm done with the series.

There's never been anything particularly wrong here, but there just isn't enough right for me. Long travelogues, I could do through one book. Long descriptions of military tactics and battles, I could do through one book. Over several, and more, with more to come? Despite this one ending on a bit of a cliffhanger for the outcome of the Napoleonic War, I just...don't care.

I have no patience for military novels. I had the opinion that War and Peace would have been so much better if we could just have skipped all those war bits. (Oh, wait, we did? And it was called Anna Karenina? Nice!)  The travelogues are sort of interesting, but just not enough interesting that it holds my attention for the space of an entire book.

And as I've now been through three of these books, and always felt a little pleased, but as much bored, I think it's time to cut my losses. I'm sure these are exactly the books for some people, but they fit me not particularly well.

In this one, Temeraire and Lawrence travel back from China, trying to get to England, although they don't make it in this book. They travel over deserts, through the Ottoman Empire, up through a Prussia under attack by Napoleon, his armies, and his new dragon ally, Lien, who hates Temeraire with all her might.

On the way, they are waylaid by bandits, eat camels in the desert, are locked up in the Ottoman Empire while the Empire's officials deny making a treaty with England for three dragon eggs. They escape, move on to Europe, end up in Prussia helping with the war effort there. The Prussians are too hidebound when it comes to military tactics, but Temeraire is revealed as a military genius no one will listen to.

The bits about dragon liberation, and Lawrence's reaction to his dragon partner's newly radical leanings are probably the best part of the books, but even these are not quite enough to keep me fully engaged.

Temeraire is just the best at everything, and while I get that dragons are awesome, does he need to be a linguist/strategist/political radical/budding natural scientist/anything else Novik cares to throw at him?

Partly what has finally stretched me past the point is how two-dimensional most of the characters are. Several die in this book, in what are apparently supposed to be moving deaths, and when my reaction is "which one was that again?", it's not a good sign. We've known these characters for books, and I couldn't possibly tell you one from the other, aside from Temeraire and Lawrence.

The newly hatched dragon is entertaining, though.

All in all, it's not that these books are bad. They're just a little dry, and not for me. If you like the hardcore military/travel books this is an interesting fantasy take on them, but it learns those lessons just a little too well.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The Week in Stories - June 16

There has not been a lot of gaming recently, and even when we did squeeze in a session of my Shakespeare, VA game, I had to leave for a conference a couple of days later and never ended up writing about it.

Miracle of miracles, though, I've actually gotten to game twice in the last four days. Both were first sittings of their respective games, both went pretty damn well. So, my thoughts....

Apocalypse World

In Apocalypse World, our post-apocalyptic setting is very Drowned Coast, and the psychic maelstrom not only howling and freaky, but also steals people's very ability to form language, most often in adolescence.  In that, I play a Driver named Gremlin. Gremlin's ride is a version of an old VW microbus mounted on huge monster truck wheels to get her through the watery flats of garbage that have fetched up alongside the Mother Road that runs from Mictlan out to the sea.

She's been burned before and has a hard time trusting, but also has a powerful desire to be close to people, which is difficult, to say the least. In the first session, after having ridden out a 10-day storm that came complete with the maelstrom shrieking in her (and everyone else's) head all by her lonesome, she got to Mother Jones' fiefdom desperately needing human contact, something physical to push all that psychic battering aside.

Of course, first she had to go tell Mother Jones to go fuck herself, on behalf of Mother May I, up the road. After she survived that, she went looking for company, and found herself at the makeshift home of Sandoval, a mechanic she'd hooked up with before. However, Sandoval had just lost his daughter to that same psychic storm, and was in the kind of emotional state that Gremlin both craves and is deeply leery of, the kind that wants more than just physical contact. She stayed the night, but the repercussions are as yet unknown. (Mechanically, for anyone who knows the system, Sandoval got a +1 on his Hx with her, while she took a -1 one on him.)

So, general thoughts about a new character? I'm liking her so far, and I'm really liking some of the ways the system is driving the story - the "hard choice" our GM gave one of the other players, to actually save one teenager's mind from the maelstom and lose the other, or to make it look like he'd saved both long enough to save his own skin, was really excellent.

I picked the Driver as my playbook because of that sex move, which is going to make it hard to get close to anyone. I wasn't sure how that was going to play out, but I'm liking it so far, particularly the insight that after all the shrieking the maelstrom does, she needs to touch someone.

The other thing is the toothpick. I was chewing on a pencil as the game started, and something about that felt right for the character, so I grabbed a toothpick and had that in my mouth the entire time I was playing scenes. I'm not sure how it looks, but what it does for me physically is cause me to keep my jaw a little clenched, to keep it in place, all the time, even when I'm talking. I'll have to think more about what that says about Gremlin, but for now, it's a promising place to start for a physical cue.

Superhero U

Then last night we had our first session of this GM-less, troupe-style game. There were a lot of really good scenes last night, although I think we're all still having some trouble differentiating each other's different characters, and were pushing to try to get everyone some screentime. With Paper Dolls, eventually we ended up focusing more (and somewhat randomly) on a smaller group of characters each night, whoever's story was most pressing.

That worked well, and I'm looking forward to that happening more with this game, as I was finding it impossible to juggle five different characters. One of them fell aside entirely, and we'll see if she gets picked back up.

I should also mention that I was trying my essential action idea last night, with a few ideas for most characters about what they wanted from the other characters they were most likely to interact with. This worked fairly well, although though now that things are more established, I think even more interesting wants will be available.

So, who am I playing? It's a mix of my PC and a bunch of NPCs, a couple of whom are fast becoming more like PCs. There's:

Ruth - twin to Ruby, the one who got all the powers, while her sister got all the burdens. Well, no, that's not true. Ruth also gets to randomly experience Ruby's senses, with no control. This makes many things awkward and hard. In the meantime, Ruby's a bit withdrawn, as she had to change all her plans to accommodate the fact that her sister keeps teleporting to her every time her concentration lapses.

Also, Ruth has a huge crush on Myriam, a friend from high school. Ruth went into the evening wanting Ruby to tell her that the way their powers worked out was okay, and in doing so, abstained from drinking at a party so her sister could let loose. That meant she was very distracted by rogue sensations all evening, and in the end, meant she tried to kiss Myriam and it did not go well.

Emily - oh, poor Emily. Perky blonde cheerleader, head over heels in love with her boyfriend Ethan, who is a genuinely nice guy. Excited by the ideas she has super powers, even though she doesn't know what they are. Friends with Kim, who she keeps pushing to declare her feelings - thinking that Kim has feelings for their mutual friend Kevin, not realizing that Kim's feelings are for Emily herself.

I gave her lots of essential actions related to Kim that were dangerous ones. Legitimate ones, from Emily's perspective - get her to tell the person she likes how she really feels, or arrange a girl's night out - but ones that were likely to backfire.

The sad part came at the end of the evening, when Emily and Ethan snuck away from some romancing, and then Ethan's power promptly kicked in, and it SUCKED. He can drain energy - and almost killed Emily in the process. Now they're crazy in love and can't touch each other and he feels so guilty you couldn't believe it. She didn't die thanks to...

Joseph - Joseph is a supervillain, but he's not a bad guy. He's someone else who got the shitty end of the superpowers stick - he can heal people, but at the cost of taking on their pain for an unpleasantly long period of time. This has not made him kindly towards humanity at large, and he tends towards the villain's side, recruiting a bunch of undergrads last year to join him. Including, he thought, his girlfriend at the time, Bethany. He assumed she'd come to, but she stood up to the villains, no matter the cost.

In theory they're broken up, but they keep sleeping together. And when Emily was hurt, Bethany brought her right to Joseph, and held him while he did his healing thing, and stayed after everyone else left.  Both of them know they still have feelings, but can't reconcile that with their differing allegiances. This relationship is turning out sweeter and sadly hurting than we expected.

Flora - and if that wasn't complicated enough, I also play Bethany's best friend, Flora, a child of hippies who wants to be an engineer. She has really good pot, a steady but nonmonogamous girlfriend, and really dislikes both Joseph and Bethany's current boyfriend. Surprisingly, she also started hitting on Kim last night, which I had actually jotted down as a possibility, but didn't think it would happen.

And then there's Madeleine, who sort of fell by the wayside. She has an unrequited crush on Kevin, and may become a supervillain. We'll see if I come back to her more, but I had so much to juggle last night, and characters I was really super invested in that I didn't call a scene for her, and no one else called for a scene with her, so she may fade into the background.

All in all? Some fun scenes, although the scattering of attention means I'm switching gears often enough that I'm finding it a little hard to sink deeply into a single character, even though I like all my characters a lot. Still missing having a GM a bit, but we have some things we want to try to try to drive the plot threads forward. I guess we'll see!

Monday, 15 June 2015

His Monkey Wife by John Collier

Well, this certainly was a book! Not a fun book, one full of racism and sexism and irritatingness, but certainly a book!

I had to put in a special request to retrieve this from off-site storage, and I can really see why it isn't read so much these days. Unless, of course, someone was making a study about snide British colonialism and smug dismissals of the New Woman. Which I hope someone is doing. This could be a little known but prominent component.

The main character is a teacher in Africa, where he loves Black people, although this part of the book is full of stereotypes about them. While there, he acquires a chimpanzee, names her Emily, and Emily learns how to read, falls in love with him, and pines away. She also saves him from an evil and lascivious African woman who tries to seduce him, and failing that, to have him killed.

He takes Emily with him when he goes back to England as a present to his fiancee, Amy, which rocks Emily to her core. Everyone they meet mistakes Emily for a person, which...really? Okay. I have watched chimpanzees, and even were they literate and clothed, I'm pretty sure the hair would give them away.

Amy is a model of the New Woman as perceived by Collier, which means that all her pleas for independence and time to discover herself are sheer self-centeredness and pettiness. Amy is a piece of work, not wanting to get married, but of course stringing her unfortunate fiancee along, to Emily's dismay.

Emily sneaks out to the reading room of the British Museum, and although she reads all the classics, it doesn't alter her obedient nature to the main character. *sigh*

Finally, near the end, she snaps on Amy's wedding day, takes her place, the groom doesn't notice until the kiss. The archbishop says they'll marry anything to anything these days, which...what? The main character is repulsed, but Amy can't admit what happened, tries to take the credit for a joke, and they split up. Eventually, the main character (can you tell I can't remember what his name is?) is penniless and homeless and is taken in by Emily, who has become rich and famous as a dancer (again, as a human, although I'm quite sure showgirl outfits leave little to the imagination.)

Eventually, all comes out, he forgives her and loves Emily after all, and they return to Africa. On their return, Emily is so kind and gentle and obedient and silent that every man they meet wishes they had a monkey for a wife. Ugh.

The intro tries to explain how this book isn't a dig at the New Woman, but given that, and given the ideal Emily is supposed to embody, with silence being the most notable feature, he can talk in circles all he likes, but that isn't going to make this a less irritating book.

It's not a hard read, the writing is fine, it's the ideas and story that are really offputting.

Friday, 12 June 2015

A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore

This is maybe the third or fourth (or fifth?) Christopher Moore that I've read, and I've had varying reactions to them. A few I've really enjoyed, a few others have seemed to be straining too hard for a chuckle, without enough meat to them to make them a pleasant meal if the jokes don't whet your appetite. This one, fortunately, weighs the scale down more on the funny and substantial side.

Still, I am not finding them gut-bustingly hilarious. There are some good jokes, there are some amusing sequences, and the oddly matched taxidermied animals amused me greatly, but from far and large, this was more gentle smile territory than laughing-out-loud-alarming-my-husband fare. Which is okay. I have that reaction to a lot of humour writing. I respond much better to verbal humour, not so intensely to written.

The reason I think this one works better for me is the emotional core of it. Sure, the main character is a bit of a bumbler (or as Moore likes to repeatedly call it, a Beta Male), but he has suffered major loss and is trying to go on living as best he can.

So, the plot. Soon after his baby daughter is born, Charlie runs back into his wife's hospital room, only to find a strange man there, and a dead wife. The first part of the book deals with the genuine emotional impact of this, Charlie stunned by the medical fluke of the death of his wife, while trying to figure out how to keep this new small pink thing alive.

Then he discovers that the reason that he could see the man in his wife's room was that he, Charlie himself, is about to become like him, not quite Death, but someone who finds objects into which people put their souls and claims them around the time of death. Then, through his second-hand shop, he makes sure those souls find new homes.

Which is intriguing, the idea that most people are walking around quite happily and functionally without souls, but that there is a steady movement of souls around. We're never given a good explanation between souled and soulless. (What is is with authors refusing to actually define this? I'm looking at you, Gail Carriger.) I wish that was gone into in detail, because it's obviously not as simple as souled=good, soulless=bad.

At any rate, when Charlie messes up, strange voices start to hiss at him from the sewers, threatening all sorts of bodily mayhem. He eventually learns that what he does helps keep the world in order, and it would be bad if he didn't. Charlie becomes convinced that he himself is the big kahuna Death,  who has been absent from the world for a long time.

(The actual answer to this is a twist that is so obvious from the first few pages that I really hope it wasn't supposed to be a surprise. Because there's some pleasure in watching Charlie totally, consistently, and in a manner that owes a lot to Good Omens, miss the point, but I really hope the author wasn't expected his readers to miss it too.)

So it's a book about grief, wrapped up in a book about small taxidermied animals in fancy-dress, creepy Celtic goddesses in the sewers, and hellhounds that eat soap. It doesn't feel like there's another leap there about death more generally, and that would have been even better, but if we're merely talking about Charlie and his journey through a world made strange by his wife's absence, that's certainly enough emotional punch to carry this one through, to give some satisfaction when the jokes don't quite make it.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Unpossible and Other Stories by Daryl Gregory

Daryl Gregory has been one of my favourite discoveries of the past couple of years. I've read two of his novels, Pandemonium and Raising Stony Mayhall and fallen quite in love with them. This time, I was settling down to read his short stories, and by far and large, I enjoyed them quite a lot. But there's also a way in which what I like most about this author is better displayed in longer formats.

See, what I've been most struck by is Gregory's ability to take an idea and keep pushing it past the bounds. There are moments where he's set out something fascinating, and it feels like that would be the story for most authors, but he invariably presses on into what the implications of this revelation would be, taking ideas about demonic possession and about zombies into strange metaphysical spaces I could never have imagined. I've loved every minute of that.

Short stories, by definition, are short. And so, while we have the same provocative ideas I've enjoyed, and some themes that are truly right up my alley, there isn't room for that kind of further extrapolation. Don't get me wrong. These are good short stories. It's just that I almost always want to know what Gregory would have done with this idea next, after the story ends.

It's not a bad problem to have. On the other hand, these are really good short stories. Many of them are about intersections between medicine and faith, and truly, when you get into those territories, I am right there with you. Others are meta-tales about superheroes and supervillains, and the shape of the world around them.

The stories about faith and medicine were probably my very favourite, and he takes medical ideas and interweaves them with people just beautifully. The story about prions and belief, "Damascus," took my breath away - it was both truly terrifying and incredibly intriguing. I felt for the main character even as her actions horrified me.

The first story in the book, "Second Person, Present Tense," about the illusion of consciousness, was similarly mind-bending. The couple about superheroes and villains were a lot of fun, and it's hard to not see small echoes of "The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm," the story in which the working class in the country of the supervillain still have to go to work the next day, even when the superheroes attack, in Segovia in the most recent Avengers movie.

These are stories about damaged people, about people trying to find something to believe in, even if it's just in themselves as beings. The ideas are great, but they're rooted in really strong characters as well - these are not the type of stories that use ideas as substitutes for people. These are ideas being played out through people, and who those people are is intrinsically crucial to how they develop.

In other words, these are really good short stories. But they make me long for a full-length novel, and I hope to get to a few more of Gregory's novels soon. I haven't been disappointed yet in his work, and frequently mind-blown.

Friday, 5 June 2015

At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft

If you wanted a list of sentences I thought I would never say, "I have just read something by H.P. Lovecraft" would be way up there. Like, way up there. I don't read horror, and I've had bad experiences, not with Lovecraft himself, but with Lovecraft-inspired roleplaying games. I had to swear off playing Call of Cthulhu years ago, to my husband's lasting chagrin, as I found that they were too upsetting and depressing for me to play any longer. Bill and I hashed it out for a long time, trying to isolate what exactly it was that put me so on edge to play Call of Cthulhu, and while I was satisfied with our explanation of the utter lack of agency I feel when I'm playing that game, I'm not sure that gets at all of it.

There are other games where I've played characters out against overwhelming odds, with death on the line, and they haven't made me as upset. I don't know.

So because of that, I've steered far away from Lovecraft. I'm not good at horror at the best of times, and so this seemed safer if it were one of those places where my reading habits and this author never intersected.

Then I ran out of books on a weekend. Blew through all my library books. Had two days of the library being closed before I could get new ones. And my online SF book club on goodreads was reading At the Mountains of Madness. So I asked Bill if he thought I could handle it. He thought I could, and that I probably wouldn't find it scary at all. So I sat down and read this novella.

He was right. Not scary at all. Interesting, but with little sense of dread. I think I know why that is, but we'll get there in a bit.

In this book, explorers go to Antarctica and discover horrors, and the survivors are now trying to warn off another expedition. What they find there are the remnants of a lost civilization, inhuman, with still some monsters lurking in the deeps. And gigantic penguins.

This is most description, page upon page of description, and this is where I start to realize why I think it is that I'm not weirded out by this. Bill and I were talking as I was partway through, and he was saying that for him, the disturbing part is Lovecraft trying to describe the indescribable, and it's that leap where you can almost picture it but not quite that is so very unsettling.

The thing is, I am not a visual thinker. Most paragraphs of description, no matter how lush, result in no more than the shadowy edges of a picture, and more often stay as the pleasure of words. That leap where you can't quite picture it? That's me, pretty much all the time. So reading Lovecraft's descriptions is not that different from reading any author's descriptions. That sense of it remaining just outside your perception is entirely missing. Or far too present, I suppose, but I've made my peace with it.

So there was no sense of unease, just an adventure story with nasty monsters that never leaped to pictures in my brain because that just never happens. As such, I enjoyed it, and it didn't traumatize me, and I'm not feeling quite so wary of Lovecraft. Still, I won't be running out to play Call of Cthulhu again any time soon.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon

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 from which to pick, 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 Amie.

After I was lamenting, a month or so into reading this book, how long it was taking me to read it, Amie, who had recommended it to me in the first place, replied saying she hadn't managed to finish it. This made me cock an eyebrow. On the other hand, I am a damnably stubborn woman, and books that are difficult to read but not actively unpleasant stimulate my competitive impulses.

So I changed how I was reading it. Instead of trying to read it in 100-page chunks, as soon as I got up in the morning, while the oatmeal was simmering and the water for coffee and tea was boiling, I'd try to read two chapters. And that's it. That's all I would read in a day. So it took me months, wore out the entire number of renewals I had on the book at the library, and still got taken back a day late, but I finished!

I feel like I've conquered something.

So, on the other end of this bizarre meditation on trying to structure space and time in systematized manners, without regard for natural landscape or desire, what do I think? I think I'm still puzzled. It's hard to call this book enjoyable, exactly, but I don't resent having read it. (I do, however, feel an immense amount of freedom, like I've put down a heavy pack, that I don't have to start the day trying to read another 20 pages.)

There is so much strangeness in this book, and so much language that is obfuscatory and meta, that I frequently felt entirely lost, and that's not particularly usual for me.

On this other hand, this book has invisible mechanical ducks in love with French chefs, werebeavers, a descent into the Hollow Earth, Chinese Feng Shui experts fallen in with debauched Jesuits straight from an anti-Catholicism novel, and a whole host of other oddities. Every time one of these sections came up, with their exceedingly strange and yet somehow appropriate stories, I was enthralled.

I think the problem is maybe the stuff in between. Problem is perhaps too strong a word, but between these incidents of oddness, we get Mason & Dixon, travelling, surveying, astronomizing, quarrelling, and drinking. They maybe have feelings for each other, but it's buried under prose so deep it's hard to breathe in.

There are also layers of meta that I'm sure I'm just not getting. There's an incident at the start of the book including a sailor named Patrick O'Brien, who knows everything about boats, that felt like it was clearly a reference to the author of the same name, which warned me to be on the lookout for similarly meta references, but if there were any, they went right over my head.

It's the kind of book I'd like to come back to in, oh, say 10 years, and see what it says to me now. There's an underlying theme about how we divide, catalogue, and structure reality that I'm still grappling with. I'll let it sit for a while, and see where it goes. Also, other people should read this now, so I can discuss it with them.

Irma Voth by Miriam Toews

I have read a lot of Canadian fiction the last little while. It's one of those odd bumps that turns up, when suddenly a whole bunch of books from a whole bunch of lists harmonize in front of me. I've gone from Margaret Atwood to Tomson Highway to Miriam Toews in short order. I think that may be it at the moment, but we shall see.

That's really apropos of nothing, I'm just trying to figure how to get into this review. Because, you see, I liked Irma Voth quite a lot, but I'm not quite sure how to start this off. So I'm easing myself in by analyzing what I've been reading. Enough temporizing.

This is the third Toews book I've read, and of the two I've read previously, I really loved A Complicated Kindness and liked A Boy of Good Breeding okay. So I had high hopes for Irma Voth, and I am more than happy with what I found. Like A Complicated Kindness, this one takes place within a Mennonite family. In this case, a Mennonite family that has relocated to Mexico from Canada.

Irma is the oldest daughter in the family (an older sister having died.) She falls in love with a Mexican man and marries him against her father's wishes. Her father manages to manipulate them into taking the house next door, where he can keep his thumb on them. Her husband runs off, possibly because he's involved in drugs, and so she is left alone, cut off from her family next door, with no source of support.

Into the third house in this little patch of land moves a film crew, working on a movie about the Mennonites. Knowing that Miriam Toews was involved in the movie Silent Light, makes it feel like that experience informed the writing on this, although it's hard to know exactly.

Irma gets involved with the shoot as a translator for the German actress brought over to play the lead, who has no languages in common with the director. Her younger sister is increasingly chafing against the rules at home, but Irma feels powerless to intervene.

Two things that really struck me about this book: one, how beautifully Toews' prose captures someone who has things to express that she has no idiom for. The writing as Irma is restrained, but restrained in a way that is bursting at the seams with efforts to express what has, to this point in her life, been inexpressible. That feeling of suppressed emotion really drives this book.

The second is subtle, and comes through mostly in the bits where Irma is translating (wrongly and on purpose) the director's desired lines to the actress, but it extends beyond. There is this theme of the emotions that all the men around them presume the women there have, with the knowledge that what they really want is a blank canvas for their own thoughts. Struggling under the weight of projected emotions, Irma, her mother, and her sister all are much more complex and difficult characters than the father, the director, any of the other men, wish to see.

I also enjoyed that when Irma leaves the farm, this isn't a simplistic tale of the corruption of the big city. There are good people Irma finds, even when small unkindnesses occurs, and she's able to get along instead of being ground down by the relentless wheels of the uncaring city. It feels more true that people are kind and cruel everywhere, it is not just rural or urban that makes them so.

All in all, I really enjoyed this entry into Toews' work, and I am excited in particular to get to All My Puny Sorrows at some point.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway

Different books bring different pleasures. Sometimes it's the plot, tense and urgent and carrying me along. Sometimes it's characters, people I come to love and want to see what happens to, and who make it hurt when bad things come. Most rarely of all, I think, it's the writing itself, the kind of writing that wraps you up and carries you along, that, rather than being at best unobtrusive, leaves me searching for just the right turn of phrase to capture how the prose makes me feel.

I remember describing Lionel Shriver's We Need To Talk About Kevin as being liked being sucked down into molasses. I've described Guy Gavriel Kay's writing as creating moments of pure crystal. Catherynne Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making had such surgical precision in the placement of each word.

It's a good sign when I start looking for these metaphors. Kiss of the Fur Queen is another such. The best I can come up with at the moment is that the prose is graceful and gliding, with occasional moments of blunt force impact. There are echoes of oral storytelling that I really enjoyed, repetitions of phrase that recur, adding a pleasing note to an already exciting style.

Kiss of the Fur Queen is not an easy book. But it's not an overly dark one either. There are moments of lightness, of hope, in a story that is ultimately rich and complex, avoiding easy answers to difficult questions.

It is about two brothers, Cree children from Northern Manitoba who are the first generation to be sent away to residential schools, where horrific abuses occur. These are not lingered on, but they are not obscured either. Both children carry those scars with them into later life. One, Champion, renamed Jeremiah, trying to become a concert pianist and striving to assimilate, while the other, Gabriel, becomes a dancer, and exorcises his demons by throwing himself into his body, in ways beautiful and dangerous.

The book also touches on missing Native women in Winnipeg, outreach done in urban Native communities, racism, and those who are trying to reclaim their Native heritage as worthy and beautiful in its own right. Jeremiah's inability to accept it for most of the book, shown through his reaction to Native music, so unlike what he has been training himself to perform, is poignant.

As I said, one of the things I like most here is that there are no easy answers, no easy outs, no simple reclaiming that can make someone whole. It's a struggle, and a daily one, to find meaning in a world that does not admire complexity, that wishes to see in binaries.

The prose is remarkable, the story compelling, the characters intriguing, and the wrongs done horrific and far too real. This was the choice for our book club last month, and it was widely enjoyed.