Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott

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 to read 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 Bev.

This book took a long time to get going. And it was not a quick read by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it was taking long enough that I had to adjust how much I was trying to read in a day, so I didn't keep getting frustrated by never getting near my goal. Despite that, I kept reading, and it was never that I wasn't enjoying it. Just that it was slow, and incredibly looping, moving around and around the crux of the novel without ever quite getting close to it until the end.

Having read the whole thing, I appreciate that as a technique. It makes perfect sense for this particular story, to get the whole thing from so many different angles before we actually find out what happened. However, as I was reading, there were definite moments of just wanting Scott to get on with it.

This is definitely a book for the patient. If you are, there are rewards, it will just take a while to get there.

This is, as the book tells us, the story of a rape. But more specifically, it's about the fault lines that that rape exposes in British and Indian culture in India just before Independence and Partition. The rape itself is omnipresent in the book, without ever being luridly dwelled upon. Instead, it's people's reactions that come to the fore, the assumptions about the white woman who had been attacked, assumptions about her attackers, reactions from Indians and British alike, particularly as the case starts to not go in the way that the British will expect.

The story is about Daphne Manners, a young British orphan come to India to live with her aunts (one biological, one affectionate), and Hari Kumar, an Indian orphan brought up in Britain who is now discovering what the colour of his skin does to his Britishness. Daphne is raped. Many assume Hari was one of the perpetrators. Daphne refuses to testify as to the identity of any of them, and we do not know why until near the very end of the book, although there are certainly suppositions.

It's a complex book, and certainly not only from the colonial point of view. Scott does a really excellent job of layering viewpoints, British and Indian alike, and embodying each of them as a person expressing their true and clear vision of how the world actually is, and then undercutting that with someone else's remembrances of those days shortly thereafter.

I was incredibly intrigued by trying to figure out who the narrator is, but if it was ever revealed, I didn't catch it. It's someone trying to reconstruct the story, long after it happened, going to colonial officials, Indian newspaper editors, family members of both young people. The book is heartbreaking in showing how even those who want to look past the colour barrier in India find it unofficially as well as officially enforced. (Neither is the book simplistic in looking at that - the section of Daphne reflected on Hari and both what she thought his Indianness meant to her at the time, and what she later realized about her implicit assumptions about him and herself is quietly difficult.)

This is not an easy book, and it's particularly not a quick-moving book. But I enjoyed the multiple viewpoints and the refusal to find simple answers.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The Week in Stories - September 24

I haven't written one of these in a while - too many things to write, and most of them are my dissertation. But I find myself with a bit of time this morning, and I've been missing writing small things about the games I'm in, so we'll see if I can get this series kickstarted. (With no promise that I'll be regular about it.)

I could go back and talk about the games we've finished (Superhero U) or the game I was running but had to abandon until this dissertation is done (Shakespeare VA.) But then this project seems larger than I can do. So I'll settle for talking about the most recent sitting, which was only two days ago, of:

Apocalypse World

So much has happened in this game! The episode before last, my husband's character, Fox, rolled a complete fail on his Fixer roll at the beginning, meaning everything in his life went to shit. Since my character, Gremlin, had slept with him the night before and failed her Sex Move, that was a perfect opportunity to mesh two catastrophes.

So not only did Fox have some unsavoury business negotiations that ended with part of his ear bitten off, Gremlin had a burning desire to prove that it wasn't like Fox owned her or anything.

(And I was happy with what I decided was the trigger - it wasn't the sex. It was that Fox had taken her out for a nice dinner the night before. And when she woke up, heart racing in the middle of the night, it was that that reminded her too much of Marsh, the man who had last tried to own her, change her name, give her nice things, and possess her utterly.)

So while Fox's business life was falling apart, Gremlin was in his apartment when his other girlfriend, Rosalita, walked in. Gremlin did not help the brewing storm that was one girlfriend finding out about another by airily declaring that Rosalita could have Fox. She was done with him anyway. Rosalita got angry, Gremlin kept making things worse, then walked out and Rosalita trashed the place.

Oops. Sorry, Fox! (Now Gremlin's feeling that she's totally proved she's her own person, she'd be up for renewing the relationship. She is one screwed-up woman. With good reason.)

Then Mother Darling offered her the one thing guaranteed to make Gremlin do irrational things - the promise of more Road. So Gremlin enlisted Spider and Pity (there is more to this story, but it's what happened from Gremlin's point of view) to help her find the strange children called the Thrush, who seem to be replacing the speaking sickness with birdsong. Then she double-crossed them, intending to take the Thrush to Mother Darling instead of Mother Jones.

(The Mothers are increasingly in disarray - the session on Sunday started out with the news that Mother May I had been unexpectedly killed.)

On the way to taking the Thrush to Mother Darling, Pity and Spider jumped out of Gremlin's van to try to save his followers, who were being massacred by Mother Jones' people. (Gremlin wasn't going to stop - she's not really a very nice person.)  Gremlin drove on, running into another former lover, Salvador, his mind lost to the maelstrom, and, given his appearance, apparently the person who had laid waste to Mother May I and her forces.

She freed him from the bonds he was carrying, and when she still couldn't get him to recognize her (being far more tender than she would have been had he been tracking), brought out the Thrush to see if they could replace some of the howling in his head with their song. (She's been infected by the greensong, and is now way less wary than she should be of that particular danger.)

Of course, now she's taking everyone to see Mother Darling, and Fox ended his next horrible killing her after she told him about her plan to infect everyone with the greensong and go to Neverland. He threw her out the window telling her "second star to the right, and straight on till morning."

So...shit. Gremlin is not going to be happy.

To be more specific, she wants that Road. I'm trying to figure out how to play her reaction when she finds out about Mother Darling's death, without deciding too many things in advance. Part of why I'm thinking about it is that the reaction likely to be very emotional, and that's hard to jump into cold, particularly if it's at the start of a session. So it might manifest differently.

She's also going to freak the hell out when she learns more about the approach of Marsh's army from the North. She got her first hint of it, seeing large Ms on people's faces as they chased her down the road, remembering Marsh trying to teach her how to read.

So there are lots of emotions in the offing, and I am looking forward to it! I still roll dice so rarely, though. I honestly don't think of it that often. So my advances are coming slowly, but I'm happy with what I've taken so far.

It's a problem - my style vs. most games. I like getting into scenes so deeply I would never think to prompt for a die roll, and don't necessarily want my scene partner to break out to do so either. But because of that, no experience. Ah well. If the tradeoff for not getting advances is getting meaty scenes, I'd take the latter any day.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keating Snyder

*Some Spoilers Below*

The Egypt Game is a perfectly fine book for older kids or young adults. It's fun, it moves along nicely, it has an amazingly multicultural cast that isn't belabored, and there are a few real scares in the book. On the other hand, reading it as an adult, it isn't a lot more. It's a very straightforward story, and most of the ending could have been predicted within the first thirty pages, as long as you also looked at the cover. That is not the end of the world. It merely means it's a good, fun book for kids instead of a classic that I can see adults returning to again and again. (Or is it just me who does that?)

The first character we are introduced to is April, who has been packed up by her glamourous mother and sent off to live with a grandmother she barely knows. So of course, most of her story is her learning that maybe home and love is more important than Hollywood and glamour. In her grandmother's apartment building, she is introduced to Melanie and Marshall. Melanie and April become fast friends, while younger brother Marshall gets pulled along to all their adventures. (And is also super-smart.)

Another new girl, a year or two younger, Elizabeth, also joins them, and they invent a game where they research ancient Egypt and make up rituals to emulate what their reading, while also playing out a plot of rulers and rebellion. Two more boys also end up joining in, the cool kids, one of whom is enthusiastic about joining ancient Egypt in California, the other of whom tolerates it.

So if you find out at the beginning that "Egypt" is in the back yard of an antiques store run by an old man that no one in the neighbourhood likes, you might also look at the cover and see that he watches the children while they're playing (although in the book, the window is caked with dirt and you wouldn't be able to see him.) Can you guess who the mysterious force who starts participating in their rituals might be? (One review compared this whole plot to To Kill A Mockingbird without the racism plotline.)

This is mixed with some genuine unease, as someone is killing children in the neighbourhood, and everyone suspects the old man. As the reader, that seems less likely. Who it is would be hard to guess, as it pretty much comes out of nowhere, but then we see who is really good and bad, and friendships are affirmed, and Egypt is reclaimed as a playspace for the children who had been banned from going there when the neighbourhood seemed dangerous.

It's not a complex storyline, and there are few extra layers. However, I think if I'd read this as a kid, I would have bombed right through it and enjoyed it. As an adult, it was a nice light break from heavier and denser books I'd been reading. I didn't love it, but it was unobjectionable. (God, that's a terrible word to use in reference to a book, but it fits.)

Monday, 21 September 2015

The Scar by China Mieville

I really wish I'd been in a place to sit down and gulp this book over a couple of days. It feels like it would have benefited from having all my attention as opposed to the scattershot consideration it got. I still enjoyed it a lot, but it meant that I couldn't get swept away by the richness of Mieville's prose as I usually do. But there was too much stress and a book club coming up, and that means The Scar got bounced around for a couple of weeks, instead of being my laser-like focus for four or five days.

Oh well. That's life. If I wasn't engrossed in this entry into Mieville's oeuvre, I still enjoyed it very much. The world he's created and is further exploring, extends far outside New Crobuzon this time, and it's mind-boggling. It says something about Mieville that I want to write "mind-boggling as usual."

Bellis Coldwine is fleeing New Crobuzon as the inquiry into the events of Perdido Street Station by the authorities continue, and she thinks she will be next to be pulled in for "questioning." She signs up to go to a far colony as a translator, but before she can get there, is on a ship that is taken by pirates. And not just any pirates. Pirates who belong to a floating pirate city, Armada, which press-gangs all those taken from the ships into citizenship.

Armada is rich and dirty and different from New Crobuzon, but interesting in the same ways New Crobuzon is interesting - due to the richness of his descriptions. Bellis hates it there, and wants to return to Armada, while also knowing that for many who were taken off the ship, particularly the Remade prisoners (people convicted for crime for whom the sentence was not only imprisonment but grotesque physical alterations), life is much better.

Two men she knew on her first voyage remain important - a scientist who has been brought into a top secret project of two of the leaders of Armada, known only as The Lovers, and a secret New Crobuzon agent who enlists her help in sending a message to New Crobuzon.

Along the way, they visit the island of mosquito people, which is horrifying, try to raise a monstrosity from the sea, and then, set sail for the unlikeliest place in the world. Quite literally. The Scar, the spot where reality starts to crumble and possibilities multiply. And when I say visit, I mean the entire floating city, towed slowly by hundreds of smaller boats.

Beyond the amazing description and inventive details, this is a book of plotting and loyalty and betrayal. Who are you loyal to? Why? What could break that loyalty? How could that loyalty be turned against you? What do you do when the people you owe allegiance to start doing things that are actively dangerous to everyone, in the name of their own megalomania?

It's about working behind the scenes, in front of the scenes, and at a 90 degree angle to the scenes. Bellis finds herself having to decide, not whether or not to be used, but who to be used by.

It's another dense, fascinating book, and very, very enjoyable if you like Mieville's writing. I just wish I'd had the time to sink down under the waters of this book and explore the depths in larger chunks of time.


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

Friday, 18 September 2015

The Trouble With Poetry by Billy Collins

This was the second book, along with Guy Gavriel Kay's River of Stars, that I bought myself with a birthday gift certificate from my lovely friend Nele. I have only read one other collection of Billy Collins poetry, but it struck me so much that I needed to own it. I mean, needed to own it, with a deep and abiding desire to have it always around so I could flip through the pages and find favourite poems whenever I wanted.

So now I own a second volume, by a poet who just knocked my socks off the first time I read him, and I know it's never going to be that same joy of discovery. Still, this second book cements him as a poet I really love. There were only a few poems that knocked me on my ass the way several did in Sailing Alone Around The Room, but that's enough, and there were plenty that I found just plain enjoyable.

His poems are not pretentious, do not force the reader to stare blankly at the page, wondering what the hell that was about, and maybe deciding it was brilliant because it was indecipherable. These poems are about life, a good deal of them are about the act of writing poetry, and it's in capturing mundanity, the small moments of everyday life that they shine. This is worthy of having poetry written about it, every one asserts, and in the assertion, it is true.

For me, that's because not only does it connect me to the here and now, to the present, to the many material things around me, his poems often then take a turn that press me to look into the presence of things and to catch a glimpse of something transcendent beyond that.

I'm trying to pick out poems that were particularly striking, but the problem is that my husband and I spent an hour or so reading poetry to each other last week (he Raymond Carver, me Billy Collins), and I was picking through both books I own, and have lost track of which ones go with which book.

There is one though, I know, that is about being buried in pajamas as though sleeping that made me stop for minutes at a time, and brought tears to my eyes. The titular "Trouble With Poetry" is a great deal of fun. "You, Reader," the first poem, also hit hard in its connection of my world with his, of the connections underlying the mundane.

And there are more, I know there are more. Overall, if this didn't hit me quite as hard as Sailing Alone Around the Room, it was no less enjoyable for now knowing what to expect, more or less, from his style. It is still welcoming, conversational, and makes me stop and think, and frequently stop and smile, and very occasionally, stop and cry.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

"Code Three" by Rick Raphael

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: Analog, February 1963

When picking a picture from this story for the review, it was pretty much this, or an extremely phallic looking emergency vehicle. Or another of the same thing that looked remarkably like a sperm. At any rate, I'm kind of impressed that the woman in this story rated a picture, and so it is perhaps not surprising that I picked her.

This is a story where the consumer desire for faster and faster automobiles far outpaced any sort of reasonable regulation on speed, leading to jet-fueled cards on superhighways with roving police/ambulance vehicles that roam the road looking for accidents and infractions. Because nothing can slow the people down!

The story follows the three-person team who operate one of the emergency vehicles on one of its two-week tours of duty, coast to coast. I say person deliberately, because miracle of miracles, there's a woman on board! She's the doctor, and she takes a lot of teasing from the younger of the two men, who obviously has a crush on her. She's also part Native American, which also gets teased, but at least in this case its in an affectionate way, rather than an entirely wince-worthy one.  (Doesn't, you know, make it great, but in comparison with some of the stories I've read? It's a definite step up.)

They start out after their month-long vacation, helping out in an accident, stopping joy-riding kids from splattering themselves from here and gone (and delivering lectures on why going easy on the kids will only get them killed). Then there's the man speeding because his wife's in labour, and the cross-country crime spree that leads to a hell of a chase.

The roads are shown as deadly and held together only by the skill of these officers. The effectiveness of cross-country tours makes me wonder how they could possibly always be in the right place at the right time in order to keep the entire road from devolving into chaos. Even if they set out daily - that's still a day apart.

It's a day-in-the-life type story, as they travel the roads. (Which have something in common with Heinlein's slidewalks, with similar ideas of strips for different speeds, except that instead of them being really really fast conveyor belts, there are still individual cars and drivers.) They banter. They save lives. The younger two are obviously attracted to each other. (There are apparently other stories in the series, so I can guess where that goes?) The woman says she's probably not going to get married, as she'd have to leave her job, which is a nice nod to that social convention, and I'm glad to see that the female character ain't just in it till marriage - she actually really likes her job. I sort of expect the long term to end up with her getting married, but I guess we'll see!

As for non-white characters, well, the woman is half Native-American, half Irish, so again, better representation than I've seen in a lot of stories. There are a lot of Hiawatha jokes, but without that particularly nasty tinge.'s on the good side of what I'd expect for this time period, without being great. And hey, there's a Canadian character! (I'm always so excited when we show up in stories.)

The story isn't bad. It's not mind-blowing, but it's a solid life in the future for average joes type of science fiction story, and that's interesting. As is the ongoing belief that the need for speed will never be curtailed.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks

*Spoilers Below*

I find the Culture novels rather hit or miss. I know they are adored by many, but I've never quite gotten above a faint admiration. They feel a bit distant, I guess, but the ways they examine ideas are not exciting. Which is making them sound worse than they are. I don't mind reading them. I just feel very little emotional attachment.

Starting Use of Weapons was a particular problem. I found the prologue opaque, the writing style uninviting, and had no freaking clue what was going on. Luckily, once we got into the meat of the story, it became much less difficult to follow. However, while I think Use of Weapons is an okay book, I think it relies far too much on shocking you with a reveal that I had at least suspected for over half the book.

Without an effective twist for an ending, for me, I'm left with a vague admiration instead of a deep connection.

Banks is doing some interesting things with form, to be sure. There are two stories, one proceeding more or less linearly forward, and the other proceeding what initially appears to be linearly backwards, but there are a lot of flashbacks thrown into that, so it's much more of a mishmash, in the end.

The story appears to be know, it's funny. There's lots of stories where I feel confident in talking about what they're about, or at least what they're about to me. I'll go on and on about the ideas they sparked in me, how they dovetailed with my own experiences, where paths started in the book led me. For this book, I was always just trying to figure out what Banks wanted, and didn't have the attention to spare to play with the ideas on my own, and that is a pity.

I guess I just prefer more generous authors.

So yes, as I said, the twist at the end is both grotesque, on one level, and something I utterly expected from nearly the first time we met the children, on the other. I can't tell you what it was that tipped me off, but as soon as we met the two boys, I started wondering which of them the character in the future was. I didn't find a lot of support for that particular theory, but then when it turned out to be the case, I was very much less than surprised.

Although it does make trying to find Livueta less about asking forgiveness, and more another monstrous act of cruelty, where the main character's pain is worth making her relive the worst horror again and again, when it cannot be forgiven. Now that's megalomania, deciding that your desire for forgiveness is more important that letting someone else get on with their life.

Wow, I have not talked at all about the story. It's the story of Cheradenine Zakalwe, who works for the Culture sometimes as a military leader, in trying to edge new societies to places where they would be more amenable to Culture overtures. Or at least, less likely to nuke themselves in the process of growing up. He's a cipher, probably deliberately, haunted by something to do with chairs. Alternate chapters move backwards in his life, while the main story takes place between them.

So it's a bit of a spy novel, and a bit of a military novel, and a study of guilt, although we are not given enough to explore guilt with the main character. He keeps it all inside, the author keeps it all away from us, and so it becomes a gotcha instead of a study of that emotion, of what it can do to a human being. We see the result, but even the revelation does not let us inside Zakalwe.

So yeah, not my favourite book. It's not terrible, but I prefer books where the author is less jealously guarding their playground.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

Of course, this was the big story in the publishing world the last year or so. First, there was all the concern over how it was found, and whether or not Harper Lee wanted it printed. Then, of course, it was published and the shit hit the fan when it was revealed that Atticus Finch, personified to all of us by Gregory Peck as a bastion of rectitude, was a racist. People went berserk.

I tried to stay away from all the controversy while it was going on. I was aware of the freaking out over Atticus, but wasn't sure if that was minor or large in the book overall. I knew I'd read it for myself eventually, and didn't want to colour my perceptions too much. Then my book club decided that since several people had read it already, we should move the book into the September slot. (I'm going to miss the meeting for my wedding anniversary. Books versus my relationship - sorry, guys, I need the evening with my husband.)

So I read it, and maybe it's because I've only read To Kill A Mockingbird once, back in high school, and don't have indelible memories of it, but I didn't find the storyline where Atticus is a racist upsetting. I actually thought it was a strong statement, although Lee wrote this before To Kill a Mockingbird, and in some ways, a more provocative theme than that book. If To Kill A Mockingbird told us that the law sometimes fails Black people, even with a good white man on their side, Go Set A Watchman tells us that even our idols have feet of clay. And will come up with arguments and a smile to make them seem noble instead of pernicious.

But it isn't as good a book. While the first half is really quite good, it gets far too didactic in the second half, becoming an in-depth conversation on the subject, where we are repeatedly told rather than shown about life in the South at the start of desegregation. It's a lengthy treatise on states' rights, and how they're different from being racist, but then back into a lengthy discussion of the kind of racist Atticus is, which is the kind who can think Black people are getting too many rights before they're ready for them, and sit approvingly by while a white man froths at the mouth and threatens violence, but still think he's a good man because he'd want Black people to be done right by the law.

Scout's uncle at the end tries to argue that she's the bigot, more or less because this makes her angry. Atticus won't budge any more than she will, but he does it with a smile and somehow that makes her the one who is immune to reason or change. That was frustrating as hell. But her journey of disillusionment was interesting, finding out that your childhood heroes are sometimes also assholes. You may still love them, and must reconcile the difference.

If only the style didn't fall apart at the end, I would argue that this has the potential to be a powerful book, and one with a more difficult message for white folks to hear than To Kill a Mockingbird. Maybe it's good to have our heroes be complicit, and have to realize that not everyone who talks a good game means it. That maybe just making sure the law is carried out, knowing that when you're not around it won't be, isn't damn well good enough. That racism extends beyond the law, into types of decisions that have obviously hurt Calpurnia, Scout's beloved surrogate mother over her entire life and will continue to hurt her.

If only the book held together. It reads like a first novel. It's messy, becomes too didactic at the end, and is not as good a book as To Kill a Mockingbird. But in many ways it carries a more potent message, one that does not allow white people to see ourselves comfortably in Atticus Finch the way we would like.

Friday, 11 September 2015

The Known World by Edward P. Jones

To be honest, when I picked up this book and read the back cover (knowing absolutely nothing about it other than it had appeared on a list of best books of the century so far), my first reaction was "Oh, hell, no." When the first sentences of the blurb were about Black slaveowners, I don't think I'm wrong to have the reaction of "What the hell?" and "no," because that just seems like it could far too easily be a book about how "Black people were responsible for slavery too!" and Just no.

Which is not to say that there were never any Black slaveowners. But when the door feels open for someone to make a ridiculous moral equivalency, my skin crawls. But then, it won a Pulitzer. It was on this list of best books of the century so far. The author is Black, and is presumably not trying to blame Black people for slavery. So let's try it.

And it took me a while, but then I figured out what I think he was doing, and started to appreciate it more. There are so many books, mostly written by white authors, that try to write about, say Civil Rights, through the lens of a young white woman. As though we needed that conduit of whiteness to try to understand, or to even want to try to understand. (I'm looking at you, The Help. Or The Secret Life of Bees.) You decentre Black people in their own goddamn struggle, and it becomes a bestseller. Ugh.

So this, oddly, becomes a book about slavery, and the evils of slavery, while only rarely letting a white person enter the scene. It's not that white power and hegemony and racism is absent - far from it - but by having so many of your characters be Black, it keeps them out of the centre. It's also about the ways that slavery scars everyone, slave and slaveowner, (not equally, goodness knows not equally), but that it does twist and distort people. It does this while not making the book be about how slavery is bad for white people too, don't you know!

This book is about a young Black man, Henry, whose parents buy themselves and him out of slavery, and he is shown by his former owner how to skirt the letter of the law to own slaves himself. Then he dies, and his young widow, with the help of his Black overseer, must figure out how to maintain her small plantation. It's about where all these people, owner and slave alike, are, and where they will be. Jones weaves in and out of time, telling us repeatedly where these people will end up, and how that has resonance with where they are now.

Interestingly, the book is also about the softer violences of slavery, as though Jones was trying to strip away the voyeurism of brutality, and show that even without the brutal violence, slavery is a vile, grotesque act that alters everyone who comes in touch with it. Even when slave and master will end up living together after the Civil War. Even when there is affection. Even when there are no whippings, few beatings, few examples of sexual coercion. Even when. Even when none of these are present, it is horrific. And the system that must exist to prop up such acts? Well, he's got interesting things to say about that too.

There was a part about two-thirds through, where I started to think, wow, this is a little disturbing in that nothing really bad has happened in a while. Are we really getting close to an argument that slavery wasn't necessarily that bad, that sometimes it was practiced with benevolence? (We never were, but there was such a lull for a while that I started to wonder.)

At about precisely that moment, an act of such staggering violence and dehumanization occurs that it took my breath away. At that moment, it becomes apparent that lulls don't matter. That occasional "good" slaveowners don't matter. The mere fact of living under a system like the one that would bolster slavery and the legal owning of Black people means that acts of violence like these could happen anytime someone who holds power decides that the law means nothing. Or that the law means what they think it means, that it is obviously there to protect white people, and not those Black people over there, free or enslaved.

It raises, in a fashion I wish was no longer timely, the issue of who the law works for, and when, and how. How it binds those it also refuses to protect, those who it can even actively hurt. And that when it is wielded by those who relish their power, it makes any good intentions of others entirely moot. When the law is capricious about your personhood, this type of violence is inevitable.

This book is about complete, complex people in an impossible system. It distorts everyone, those wielding power, and those powerless. This is not a book with saintly slaves - they too are products of their histories, some good, some bad, some abusive, some wounded.

It all comes down to the fundamental violence of owning other human beings, something Henry never understood, but his parents did far too well.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

A Companion to Wolves by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear

This is a story of wolves and trolls and svart alfar and lots and lots of sex. Specifically, two men having sex. Well, more than two men. But all men, pretty much. For me, I thought it was really good. I've long been a proponent of sex in my fantasy and science fiction, although it is less rare in fantasy than science fiction. (I mean, come on. If we're looking at how technologies change what it is to be human, how can we exclude sex?)

This is the story of men who bond with wolves in a vaguely Norse setting, then, with their wolven brothers and sisters, fight off encroaching trolls. There's a lot of fighting, some exploring of tunnels, a lot of sex.

And really, the first thought I had was, this is a great extrapolation on Anne McCaffrey.

Bear with me. (Wolf with me?) In the Pern books, when dragons mate, their riders do as well. This is mostly shown in a heterosexual context, with the women who ride the queens generally taking the bronze riders as mates. However, there is a subtext that takes into consideration the green riders, whose dragons are female but riders are mostly male. It's never explicit, although there's one scene with the Oldtimers that makes it fairly clear that the same sort of thing happens.

So this book is what happens if you take that and make the subtext text. All the people bonded with wolves are men. Doesn't matter whether the wolves are male or female. Monette and Bear take this a step further, though. While dragon sexual urges seem to mesh perfectly well with human ones, these two authors do not try to make human and wolf sexual urges perfectly simpatico.

We see this through the eyes of Isolfr, bonded to a konigenwolf, who goes through all her first heats, including at least one mass mating. While he is mostly heterosexual by choice, he wasn't entirely unwilling to explore sex with men when under his sisterwolf's compulsion. But the mass mating, that's another story. It's difficult, it's rough, and he doesn't want it, but endures. It's thorny, and that's where this book becomes a little bit more than porn with plot. (I have no problem with porn with plot, I just love it when people bring actual issues into it.) The ways animals have sex is not the same as the way people have sex. How do you deal with a partnership that has to accommodate both?

In the middle of this is Isolfr trying to figure out how to negotiate pack politics, in the midst of the worst troll attacks in generations. (And also having to deal with a father who is distinctly threatened by the idea of his son being paired to a konigenwolf and what that implies about his sexual practices. Not necessarily his sexuality, but his practices, which are different. Although the father doesn't see the distinction, or care.)

Women are a relatively minor part of this book, being relegated mostly to the hearth. By the end of the book, Isolfr is questioning that, and I'd be interested to see where the series goes from here.   I enjoyed this, overall. It was interesting to read a book that had lots of entertaining sex, but also paired it with some more intense extrapolation on where the notion of bonding with an animal might lead someone.

Monday, 7 September 2015

The Woman Who Married A Bear - John Straley

Yet another review where I keep opening the file, sit staring at it for a while, then close it down, because I am just not sure what to write. It's another dreaded "well, it was fine" type of thing. As a mystery, it's...perfectly acceptable. It was an easy read. But I won't be rushing out to get the next in the series.

Is that enough? Okay, fine, I can at very least muster up a summary. The detective, who is suitably hard-boiled and drunk, but whose name I can't remember...let me look it up...Cecil Younger! hired by an old woman in a nursing home to look into the death of her son. He was a hunter and guide, killed. His assistant was convicted and is in jail for the crime. But the murdered man's mother doesn't think it adds up.

The detective starts to look into in a more or less desultory, drunken fashion, but then his roommate is shot with a high-powered rifle, and this turns into a classic noir trope of someone hurting your partner and you having to do something about it.

Turns out, the dead man's wife doesn't want Cecil looking into it, and his children don't want Cecil looking into it. The dead man's business partner, whose daughter's death was ruled a suicide, even after she was the only witness to the night of the murder, does want him looking into it.

People ply him with a lot of alcohol. His ex tries to convert him to Christ. He keeps drinking. The ending isn't particularly surprising, but it's not bad, either. Like I said, this is a fairly good mystery, but not a revolutionary one.

The inside cover compares him to Tony Hillerman, and I have not read any Tony Hillerman, but I have to wonder if that's lazy marketing based on the fact that Hillerman's books and this series takes place around and in Native cultures. (Cecil is quite white.) I mean, one's Navajo (I think?) and the other Tlingit, in Alaska, so they're probably not all that much alike, but it feels like something a publisher would slap on there to try to sell more books.

The Alaskan setting is interesting, with the frequent small puddle-jumper planes to get to remote areas, but it does feel like a bit more could have been done with it. Most of the action still takes place in cities, or trailer parks, or small towns. There is one trip out to a hunting camp, where the man was murdered.

So, was the man a bear? And if so, who killed him? There are answers, and they're okay. I wouldn't avoid another book by the same author, but there was nothing here that grabbed me and made me eager for another slug.

Friday, 4 September 2015

River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay

This is a weird review to write, in a way. Because if I ran into this book by just about any other author, I'd probably be falling all over myself right now. However, this by Guy Gavriel Kay, and Under Heaven was just an astounding achievement of a book, and I don't think River of Stars is quite as good. Don't get me wrong - River of Stars is very, very good. It is merely great instead of a masterpiece.

So that makes the review a little difficult. I really this book very, very much. But while I don't think I'm going to get overly nitpicky, it just doesn't feel like it quite balances on the knife's edge as much as Under Heaven. These are the perils of really loving an author. You then compare each book to every other book. (I think the only one I haven't read yet is Lord of Emperors.)

What I do really very much enjoy is the exact setting. This is a kingdom, an empire in decline, a fantasy variation of the Chinese Song Dynasty. It is set 400 years after Under Heaven. Officially, this is merely a short hiatus in the glory that was the previous dynasties, but for anyone paying attention, power has been lost, and is not going to be regained unless something changes, drastically. And even then it may be too late.

That setting, that elegiac sadness for what was and will probably not be again, is very compelling. In that world, an emperor is protected from knowing what is actually going on by his advisors. Would he have governed better had he known? Perhaps, perhaps not. A woman poet floats on the outskirts of the imperial world, an anomaly only barely tolerated. A young man becomes a bandit unexpectedly. Lives intertwine in unexpected ways.

These are people of restraint, almost all of them. (The bandit perhaps a little less so.) They know how to hide what they feel. They work behind the scenes. They watch as vagaries of fate ruin the best laid plans, those plans that should have worked. And of course, sometimes restraint fails, and that is even more interesting, laying bare those moments when what has been hidden must be shown. The contrast is amazingly well done.  But Kay layers in an extra layer here -  it's even more compelling when you want restraint to fail and it succeeds. To be able to capture that on the page is quite a feat.

That sense of quiet, of words not spoken, of what happens when form becomes more important than content, but when content cannot be denied either. These are all aspects of the book I liked very much. The characters themselves have a quiet dignity that is nonetheless shot with tension.

So, why isn't it quite as good as Under Heaven? I think perhaps because it didn't have that "of course" moment that the previous book did, that exquisitely painful moment when it became perfectly, blindingly, horribly obvious what was going to happen next, because it must. There are moments approaching it, but none quite as good.

The ending is ambiguous, and I support that choice wholeheartedly. This is one of the best books I've read this year.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

A Season in the Life of Emmanuel by Marie-Claire Blais

So, this certainly was a book. Part of the Canadian 100. Huh. It's...a little overwrought. Strange. Perhaps strangest of all was the introduction (not by the author) insisting that this book was not overwrought, that it was an accurate representation of pre-Quiet Revolution rural Quebec. She was quite insistent, taking Robertson Davies to task for a review where he apparently said that Blais had talent, but maybe she should try toning down the bombast next time.

I am inclined to agree with Robertson Davies. I also felt the need to look up Blais, as this insistence that this is the way rural Quebec really WAS by the writer of the introduction seemed a little...I don't know. It raised the question - was Blais a country girl? Or a city person writing about the country? (Born in Quebec City, went to Laval - so not exactly rural.)

The funny thing was, it immediately made me think of a passage in Fifth Business by Robertson Davies, making me wonder if that paragraph was written in reaction to this book. Looking it up, Fifth Business came out five years after A Season in the Life of Emmanuel, so it very well may have been in response.

The quote goes:

Later it was the popular thing to show villages as rotten with vice, and especially such sexual vice...incest, sodomy, bestiality, sadism, and masochism were supposed to rage behind lace curtains and in the haylofts, while a rigid piety was professed in the streets

That's pretty...accurate. This book is all about incest, rape, prostitution, and the degrading nature of rural life in Quebec. I am not sure it's anywhere near an accurate depiction of what life was like (sorry, Priscila Uppal), but the writing is strong, and the subject matter incredibly dark. This isn't realism. I can't for a second believe you're supposed to think it's realism.

This is life in the country as a steaming sexual cauldron, with circle jerks between brothers at night, predatory priests at the reformatory (although, interestingly, the most predatory is immediately defrocked and thrown out of the church), with a sister whose piety spills over into sexuality, leading her to a life as a prostitute.

Emmanuel is never more than a few months old - this book is about his brothers. What a terrible life he is born into, we're supposed to think. His mother goes back to work in the fields an hour after he's been born. His grandmother doesn't really like him. His brothers and sisters are all more obsessed with staying warm and sex than a new arrival. His father is...curiously, a cipher. We're supposed to think of him as rough and brutish, I think, but he doesn't really act like it, beyond a few statements that are never followed up.

It's...uh...a weird book. Not one of my favourites, probably because I'm not sure where all this is leading. There's not really a point down the road, or at least, one that got through to me. Life in the country is nasty, brutish, sexual, and likely to be ended by TB? Great. That's...interesting?